Sermon from December 24, 2017, Fourth Sunday of Advent: Love and Mary Sunday

A Magnifying Glass
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
December 24, 2017
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Love Sunday, Mary Sunday
Luke 1:26-55

Mary serves as a model of how we can bring Christ to birth on this hurting earth, how we can be transformed so that Christ can transform the world through us.

The 20th Century Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, writes that the perception of Mary as an exalted object of reverence can be misleading.  The reason she is highest, he says, is because she is lowest, having the humility and peace “without which we cannot be filled with God.”

Merton says that Mary’s greatest glory is that she “in no way resisted [God’s] love and [God’s] will… She was free from every taint of selfishness that might obscure God’s light in her being…. [She was] as pure as the glass of a very clean window that has no other function than to admit the light of the sun.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp167-175)

Our calling, like Mary’s, is to be increasingly empty and clear, a pane of glass through which God’s light shines with as few selfish flaws in us as possible.

It is not just any kind of glass that God needs us to be.  Mary’s response to her situation was to say, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  We are meant to be a magnifying glass for the gifts we receive from God.

The movie Pay It Forward begins

with a social studies teacher giving his sixth grade class an extra credit assignment to come up with an idea that will change the world.  Most of his students think of things like putting up posters to encourage recycling.

One student, though, invents a new rule for society.  The rule is, if someone does something big to help you, you do not pay it back, but turn and pay it forward to three other people.  The boy helps three people and before long there are news stories of a rapidly expanding pay it forward movement, with thousands doing generous acts of kindness, often for complete strangers.

This is God’s rule, too.  God wants our purpose and meaning and way of life to be that we magnify our gifts by paying them forward.

Magnifying glasses can be used to enlarge something, and also to focus sunlight so that it has intense power.  To enlarge our gifts means to nurture them so that they grow and develop, just as the Christ-child grew and developed within the nurturing body of Mary, and then to bring them to birth so that they go out to serve many others.

The world needs the church to be a place where we learn how to be more like Mary, where we learn how to identify the gifts of love and life and light we were born to share and find ways to deliver them to meet the world’s needs.  We magnify the intensity of our light by joining together here to focus on the Spirit and pool our gifts.

Gus Speth wrote in his book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability,

“Many of our deepest thinkers and many of those most familiar with the scale of the challenges we face have concluded that the transitions required can be achieved only in the context of what I will call the rise of a new consciousness. For some it is a spiritual awakening —a transformation of the human heart. For others it is a more intellectual process of coming to see the world anew and deeply embracing the emerging ethic of the environment and the old ethic of what it means to love thy neighbor as thyself. But for all it involves major cultural change and a reorientation of what society values and prizes most highly.”

The Buddhist philosopher and author Ken Wilber has written a book entitled The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions.  It lays out a path that we could take as a church to accomplish exactly what Gus is calling for, the rise of a new consciousness, a spiritual awakening, a transformation of the human heart, a new way of seeing the world and understanding what it means to love thy neighbor.

The first step on this path is to understand that there are developmental stages of spiritual and personal maturity that we can progress through to reach the ideal that Mary represents.

We live in an exciting, hopeful time in this regard—scholars and spiritual leaders from all traditions have identified these developmental stages.  They find that our perspectives on the world change as we grow.  For instance, when we are at a level of development that is literal, tribal or ethnocentric, we interpret “love thy neighbor as thyself” as meaning love those who are part of our group, while being free to oppress those who are not like us.  At a higher pluralistic level we understand that all people and all creatures are our neighbors.  At a still higher universalizing or integral or nondual level we love our neighbor as our self because we see all humanity truly is one and the same self.

As we progress through developmental stages our way of interacting with the world changes—our actions change as our perspective changes.  We grow to have the heart and mind of Christ until it is Christ living through us at Coburns or Town Meeting or Sunday worship.

Contemplative practices help us grow, like mindfulness and meditation or centering prayer.  Healthy communication practices help us grow, like listening circles where people with diverse viewpoints are assured of being met with compassion, respect and a willingness to understand if not agree with what they share.  Engaging face to face with people who are in need can help us grow, especially those who are oppressed and struggling for justice and peace or who are suffering from poverty or illness or loss.

We know of the great magnifying glasses of God’s light, people like Mary, St. Francis, or in our time Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi.  I suspect we also know people who are not famous who show the highest developmental levels of Christ-like oneness and love.

My brother George is the author of a book entitled The Seven Stages of Money Maturity.  He tells the story of a woman who attended one of his workshops in Boston.  She had grown up there but moved away and had not been back for twenty years.

The day before the workshop she visited her old neighborhood.  She went to the spot where the bus would let her off after school.  She would walk down that block every day to the corner store where she would buy a snack and say hi to the shopkeeper.  Then she would cross to the side street where she lived, and every day she would bend down to the Boston Globe newspaper dispenser on that corner across from the store and would feel in the hole where the money went.  Sometimes she would find a quarter there, and she would jump up and do a little twirling dance for joy.

On the day before George’s workshop, she walked down from the bus stop and was thrilled to see that the corner store was still there.  She walked in and was even more thrilled to see the old shopkeeper.  She got to talking with him and after a while he paused and said slowly, “I know you.”  She thought he was being polite, but he said, “I remember you quite well.  You were the little girl who got out of the bus just up the street and came in here almost every day.”

Amazed, she said, “Yes, you’re right!”

He went on, “And when you left here you would go across to that corner and check the newspaper box to see if you could find any money in it.  And every once in a while, you would find a quarter, and you would dance for joy.”  He laughed with delight as he recalled it.

The woman was utterly astounded.  “How can you remember all that?” she asked.  He said, “That’s easy.  I remember because when things were slow here in the afternoon I used to go over and put those quarters there for you to find.”

George tells this story as an example of the highest developmental stage.  We do not have to be rich or powerful to use our resources to magnify God’s light to others.  Nor do we need to do anything the world would call great in order to pass along great gifts.

The people we tend to admire most are those who had little yet did much, who were among the weak and poor and oppressed, who struggled and suffered, yet who found a way to magnify the light in the midst of dark times.

The churches that are going to emerge from today’s darkness as stronger and brighter lights are those that find ways to help people grow developmentally to be ever more Christ-like in heart and mind and action, churches that help members discern their gifts and callings and pool their light together—the way this sanctuary will shine this evening when we each hold up our candle during Silent Night.

A church that delights in sharing its gifts the way that old shopkeeper did is going to sparkle like an Advent star through a break in the clouds.  People will be lifted by its light.

We need to have patience and compassion for ourselves when our glass seems full of darkness, because that is only human.  Jesus had his moments in the darkness.  But we can pray to be like Mary in the days ahead, a magnifying glass, a candle in the darkness, small, yet with the power to transform the night.  Let us pray in silence, saying to God the life transforming words Mary said: Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word…

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