Sermon: Being a Gift to the World

“The Annunciation” by Henry Ossawa Tanner

This is the last sermon in our Advent series, “Rhythms of Rest.”

Luke 1:26-55 (excerpts)

There’s a painting of this Scripture we just heard that I particularly love. It’s called “The Annunciation,” which is the name for when Gabriel comes to Mary and announces that she will give birth to Jesus. It was painted by the African-American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1898. It shows a very ordinary looking Mary, sitting on her bed. Her blankets look like they were flung off in a flurry of confusion and haste, implying that Mary had been awakened in the middle of the night from her sleep. While the disarray speaks to the shock of the angel’s appearance — who is depicted here as an intense, golden pillar of light — Mary’s face doesn’t show fear.  Instead, she looks directly at the angel, curious, perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the intense glory of the angel, but engaged. She is ready, open, receptive.

The angel speaks to her. I invite you to take in what Scripture scholar John Dominic Crossan says about angels: “Think of angels as ultimate meaning radiantly personified.” The angel says: “Greetings, favored one.” The Greek word for “favored” comes from the root word charisma, which in Greek means “graced.” So, Mary is the graced one, but an even better way to say this is that Mary is highly favored because she is receptive to God’s grace.

Mary has often been lifted up in various Christian traditions — especially Catholicism — as a model of discipleship. So, we might well ask, since Mary is receptive to God’s grace, what does it mean to be receptive to God’s grace? So, grace. Grace is a freely given, unearned gift from God. It’s a gift given just because the Giver wanted to give it, because the Giver loves us, values us. It isn’t based on anything we did or said or produced or made happen or achieved. Grace is the opposite of that kind of effort, that kind of exertion on our part. 

And: receptivity. What state of being are we in when we are receptive, open, ready to receive?  I tend to be most receptive when I am centered more in my being than in my doing, when I am centered more in my body than in my head. When I’m in my head — I’m making plans or worrying about the future or strategizing about how to meet all the demands of my life (many of which, it must be said, are self-inflicted) or just getting it all done because once I get it all done, then I can rest. But I can tend to get stuck there. It’s like I get caught in this “production mode,” and I just keep pushing myself to produce, and I start ignoring signals from my body that I’m tired, or that my eyes hurt or that my shoulders are starting to tense. That maybe I just need to stop doing and be for awhile. That I need to drop from my head into my body. (What one writer called the longest journey any Christian ever takes — he was referring specifically here to white, Western Christians.)

What I should do in such moments is rest. I work from home, so that means I should leave my office, go into the next room and lay down on my bed, with my cat and dog. When I allow myself this rest, when I allow myself to just lie there be and not try to solve anything or do anything, I can sometimes feel welling up in my chest gratitude for this cat and this dog and this warm bed and this beautiful quilt that I bought at an MCC Relief Sale, and the memories of bidding on that quilt with Beth and Twyla and Diego and Patrick and Sylvanna cheering me on and all those lovely Mennonite people, my people, who come together to bake pies and piece comforters and make tamales and organize this event to raise money for people they will never meet, in countries far distant from their own. That cat and that dog and that bed and that quilt and those people and their charitable hearts — these grace my life. And in such moments, I become the favored one. I become the one receptive to grace.

I notice that many of us have this experience at our annual silent retreat, where we all allow ourselves to rest more and do less and just be. Many of you say that you, too, can become overcome by the gifts and graces of your life, to the point of tears.  To quote a hymn, in such a place of quiet rest, we become near to the heart of God. We become receptive to God’s grace. We realize that we, too, are  the “highly favored ones.”

I believe Oren Sofer — who I mentioned in my first sermon of Advent — is referring to this dynamic in his blog post entitled “Radical Rest.” He writes: ”If we are to heal this planet and our human society that is actively destroyed it like a cancer, we must reclaim our capacity to rest. We must begin to learn again how to sense our limits. We must call forth the courage to cut against the grain, to finally say ‘No,’ and honor our limits. My Jewish ancestors understood the importance of stopping and ritualized this deep need for sacred rest in the Sabbath.

“For there is no action without rest, no healing or renewal without stopping. When I am tired beyond words, I try to allow myself to surrender to that feeling. Sometimes it feels as if I’ll never get up again, that if I let go, the energy will never return. Yet without fail, when I open my heart to the heavy weight of exhaustion, there is a tenderness that comes to hold it all. It seeps to the surface like ground water welling up, bringing a gentle, steady love to hold the weariness and anger, the hurt and grief.”  This is grace.

Gaze again on Mary’s face.  Look at her openness, her receptivity to grace. See how that receptivity allowed her to receive the gift that is about to be offered to  her, the gift that is going to be brought into the world through her. From across the centuries, Mary is teaching us how to bear the gift of the divine into the world through our bodies. She is saying: 

“Quiet yourself. Listen to what your body needs, to its deep need for rest, for darkness. Maybe go to sleep. Be held in the tenderness of your bed.  And when the messenger of grace comes, receive the gift they offer. Say yes. Say: ‘Here am I.’ And then, go out into the world and sing your song. Sing the song that arises in you, as a response to this gift. That’s the song the world needs to hear. That’s the divine gift you bear into the world.”

I think this is the true meaning of responsibility. Response-ability. The ability to respond to Divine grace. Pat said it so well last Sunday in Education Hour: “Instead of thinking about what responsibility I have to the world, I try to reframe it was ‘How do I respond to the gift of life I’ve been given?’” This response-ability is not a burden placed upon us. It is a response to grace. It is a song welling up from within us, like groundwater. It is a song the world needs to hear, a song you sing through just being who you are and through what you do. It is the divine gift you bear into the world.

The poet Rumi says it so much better than me. So I will end with his poem, “Each Note.”

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.

Each note is a need coming through one of us,

a passion, a longing-pain.

Remember the lips

where the wind-breath originated,

and let your note be clear.

Don’t try to end it.

Be your note.

I’ll show you how it’s enough.

Go up on the roof at night

in this city of the soul.

Let everyone climb on their roofs

and sing their notes!

Sing loud..!