Sermon: Waiting with Open-ended Hope

Third Sunday of Advent: Dreams, Signs and Wonders

Luke 1:26-56

I was talking to one of you the other day about beloved Christmas traditions we had growing up. I mentioned the Christmas pageant the Sunday School kids from my church would do every year. I made it my mission in life to be chosen as Mary when I was in the 6th grade. Only 6th grade girls could be Mary, which gave me time to study the situation. I gradually learned that you had to have long hair to be chosen as Mary, and preferably your had to have blonde or light brown hair, which is just so wrong. I had light brown hair, which I started growing long in the 4th grade and — voila! — I was Mary in the 6th grade Christmas pageant.

That was probably the last time I wanted to be Mary. As a budding feminist, I associated Mary with a gentleness and meekness that I did not wish to emulate. She was portrayed as this sort of empty vessel with little to no will of her own. Who wanted that? When I was doing my masters in feminist liberation theology, I and my classmates would roll our eyes whenever someone mentioned Mary’s reply to the angel Gabriel, when informed that she was about to conceive the Messiah: “Here I am, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.” We saw this as the epitome of what feminist theologian Mary Daly called the “totaled woman.” 

I have to go on a tangent here: Back in 1973, an evangelical Christian woman named Marabel Morgan published a bestseller called The Total Woman. The Total Woman was a self-help book for heterosexual, married women. It taught these women, according to Wikipedia, “to cater to her man’s special quirks, whether it be in salads, sex or sports.” The book was best known for her suggestion that women greet their husband at the front door, upon his arrival home from work, wearing sexy outfits. One of the suggested ones was Saran wrap. Just Sarah wrap. Marabel wrote: ”It’s only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him.” The feminist theologian Mary Daly used the phrase “the totaled woman” to describe women who believed that they were supposed to surrender their life to some man and define themselves by his wishes and will. Mary — the mother of Jesus — seemed back in those days like just another totaled woman.

And so, I was well and rightly confused a few years later when I was meditating and the phrase “I surrender to your love, I surrender to your grace and (gasp) I surrender to your will,” appeared in my mind. It’s like the phrase just dropped into my psyche. A part of me instantly rebelled — surrender, no thank you. Surrendering to love and grace  — maybe — but “I surrender to your will?” Uh-huh. As a young girl growing up in an Amish-Mennonite community in Ohio, I had fought to have an ego, to have a will. And yet… another part of me was drawn to this prayer that had landed in my lap. My life was not going the way I had planned, and every effort to exert my own will over it was not going well. I was still miserable.

Learning to meditate was helping. It was helping me let go of my habitual, unhelpful thoughts and the emotions that trailed along behind them. It was helping me let go of my anxiety over my situation and my need to control it, to bear down on solutions to Make My Life Better. That was a kind of surrender of the ego, but it didn’t diminish me at all. It was making me happier, stronger, wiser. Reluctantly, at first, I started praying that prayer at the end of every meditation session. And, my life changed. I allowed a deeper voice, a deeper wisdom — one suppressed by the anxious schemings of my ego — to speak, and it changed my life.

Now, I have all sorts of ways to explain what happened. I can explain it psychologically, using insights from cognitive behavior therapy or mindfulness-based therapy or depth psychology. And I also can say: I allowed God or the Spirit of Life to move within me. I surrendered my own ego and its will to that greater will, and new life happened.

These days, I still renounce a view of Mary that suggests she is some sort of empty vessel for a man to fill. Instead, I see Mary as strong enough and smart enough to say yes to the invitation of a lifetime — to be a part of the transformation of the world — even when she knew what the consequences of that yes might be. She knew how unmarried, pregnant women were regarded in her society.  She knew that her betrothed, Joseph, would likely refuse to marry her and that everyone would agree with him for doing so.

Indeed, when Mary sets off for the hill country to visit her kinswomen Elizabeth, she didn’t necessarily know what reception she was going to get from her. (Insights into the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth come from here.) Elizabeth might have judged her, shamed her, even refused to let her stay at her house once she knew of her pregnancy. Yet Elizabeth — no stranger herself to the experience of being shamed and excluded — opens her arms to her, blesses her and celebrates her, treating her as more honorable than herself. Mary then launches into what New Testament scholars have called “a radical protest song.” She sings a song in defiance of the structures that keep people poor and oppressed and hungry; she sings a song in praise of the God who has promised justice to the lowly. She knows who she said yes to. She may not know exactly what she said yes to, how it would change her own life, but she trusts in the One to whom she said yes.

As Worship Committee was working with these scriptures during our planning meeting, someone said (and I don’t know who so I can’t credit this brilliant person): “We don’t have do do this work of waiting alone. There is a force greater than us. I don’t know if I will call that any of the religious title or names, but we can be open and present to that force. That is the work. The work is not sustainable if you don’t open yourself to this wider force. Otherwise, your waiting is coming out of anger and fear, and you’re running these tough emotions through your body all the time. You need something more.” This force — call it God, call it the Spirit of Life, call it what you want to call it — is what we open ourselves to as we wait.

And so, we wait with a sense of promise. We wait knowing that what we are waiting for is already happening, is already growing underneath our feet. Because we want to be attentive to this growth and cooperate with it once it becomes visible, we wait with presence and patience — not wanting to distract ourselves by fleeing the present moment but trusting that this moment is the right moment. That this place is the holy place of dreams, signs and wonders.

And we wait with open-ended hope. Says Henri Nouwen, our spiritual mentor for this season of holy waiting, “Open-ended waiting is hard for us because we tend to wait for something very concrete, for something that we wish to have. Much of our waiting is filled with wishes: I wish I had that job. I wish that the weather was better. I wish that the pain would go. We are full of wishes, and our waiting easily gets entangled in those wishes. For this reason, a lot of our waiting is not open-ended,” he explains. “Instead, our waiting is a way of controlling the future. We want the future to go in a very specific direction and if this does not happen, we are disappointed and can even slip into despair.” (All Nouwen quotes from his essay in this book.)

That’s so true. That was why I was in despair all those years ago. All my efforts to make something very specific happen in my life weren’t happening. But the hope to which we are called, Nouwen says, is something very different than this specific kind of wishing. Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary weren’t wishing; they were hoping. “Hope,” Nouwen says, “is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to (God’s) promises and not just according to our wishes… hope is always open-ended.  I (this is Nouwen speaking) have found it very important in my own life to let go of my wishes and start hoping. It was only when I was willing to let go of wishes that something really new, something beyond my own expectations could happen to me.”

So, when Mary says those words I used to roll my eyes at — “Here I am, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word” — she was saying, “‘I don’t know what this all means, but I trust that good things will happen.’ She trusted so deeply her waiting was open to all possibilities. And she did not want to control them… To wait open-endedly (in this way) is an enormously radical attitude toward life… to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings… to (give) up control over our future and (let) God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.”

I was touched by stories folks in our Worship Committee told about this kind of open-ended, uncontrolled hoping. Vanessa recalled how she was wishing after someone (hint: it wasn’t Justus, whom she didn’t know at the time), and she despaired when the relationship never came to fruition. But then she met Justus, and he was so much more than she could have ever hoped for. And her relationship with the longed-for person ended up a deep and rich friendship. One of our teachers told about how he often has students who are in a really bad place and, consequently, he knows there’s a going to be a lot of negative energy in the classroom that day. “There’s nothing I can do to alleviate their home life,” he said, “but I have the power of prayer.” So he goes into the classroom before the kids arrive and prays on the seats where those kids will be sitting. He said: “About 100% of the time I do that, the class goes great.”  I love that story because instead of rationally trying to think through classroom management techniques or other interventions, he gives up his control and allows something bigger, something deeper to move in that space.

These days, I don’t pray the “I surrender to your grace, love and will” prayer anymore. It doesn’t feel like the prayer for this season. But I am praying that I will go deeper into the Divine call for my life. It is another prayer of open-ended hope: that the Spirit of Life is moving in me, in us; that I can be present to that movement; and that that call will almost always be something beyond what I could have imagined or controlled. What is your prayer of open-ended hope this season? What is your prayer of letting go, of surrender, of trust? May we all be given that prayer for our season of waiting by the God for whom nothing is impossible. Amen.