Keeping Precious What We Can’t Understand, Old First Sermon 12.30.18

Keeping Precious What We Can’t Understand, Old First Sermon 12.30.18

(Luke 2:41-52)

Poor Mary.

Incredible things just keep happening to her.

Things that don’t make sense,  so the young woman cannot possibly understand.

There were all those strange things at this birth — starting with her being pregnant in the first place!

And Elizabeth’s pregnancy too.

Then there was birth in a stable. And angels. And Shepherds. And the Magi. And Simeon and Anna in the Temple.

Mary just kept taking it all in, perceiving what she couldn’t interpret, much less compute.

Over and over again, the Bible notes she noticed, but didn’t understand. Still the story is clear — it leaves Mary holding these unknowns in her heart, pondering them.

But today, the story jumps ahead, in that weird way the Bible can control time. On Tuesday, it was Jesus’ birth, and now he’s already 12. (The Bible doesn’t offer much about his childhood.) .

In this story, Mary’s almost teenager gets lost. She and Joesph trek back to Jerusalem to find him. The find Jesus in the Temple talking with the rabbis. They ask him what’s going on. And, he, well — not age inappropriately — Jesus comes back with what, even over the millenium and through the pages of Scripture, sounds an awful lot like a smart answer.

“Where else would you have expected me to be?”

And, a different kind of parent from many of us, Mary’s reaction: …she adds the strangeness of this interaction and her son’s responses   to all that she is pondering in her heart.

I have long wondered, 1stt, how this story got remembered, much less included in the first place, and 2) I have  suspected that this retelling of the story maybe include a bit of positive spin or gloss. Not just the Bible making her sound like some super parent, but also impressing us with her patient ability to live well with her questions, even when they include those from her uppity preteen. .

Kind of like the Rilke that is our quote at the beginning of the order of service this Sunday:

Be patient toward all the is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything.

Sure. It’s wonderful when we can live patiently, expectantly, trustingly with all our open questions, even the hard or pressing ones. . Good when we can, as the poet says, live EVERYTHING, even the unsolved riddles and plaguing mysteries.

Wouldn’t we all like to find a new and more comfortable co-existence with the burning questions we wish we knew answers to, some trick whereby we could go on well without the answers we feel we need in order to really live?

But, well, sometimes, it’s not so easy. Not easy to be like Mary, to just keep finding room in your heart for and storing away all the mysteries.

And some of that which is unresolved, well, it’s not always the most welcomed resident, not an easy neighbor to get along with.  

Many times, pondering isn’t so much deep and rich …as it is painful. Or frightening. At the least frustrating.

Mary pauses to wonder. Mary holds all her questions thoroughly in her heart.

I went back and reread all the episodes where Mary is unclear, confused or cannot understand what is happening.

And I find it rather fascinating, even challenging   how Luke ascribes these various “contemplative” verbs to Mary’s experience in his narrative.

Mary is a thoughtful person. Nothing that is happening is getting past her attention.

I think that might be her real skill, noticing that which is beyond her understanding.   I suspect many of us simply fail to notice much of what it is that we cannot understand.

But Mary takes it all in, and even when she can’t figure it out, she still treasures it.

As such, her pondering, her treasuring, her keeping all of the words, considering all of these strange happenings… can tell us something, something very important about our own responses and reactions when it comes to major faith events.

I suspect most of us miss much, if not most of the faith signs and messages that pass by us. And even when we don’t, when we somehow notice them, do we capture then and then store them away, count them precious, and wait on them?

Or rather, frustrated that we can’t quite crack them, shown up by our inability to interpret or comprehend, do we sweep them under the rug, shrug them off and let them go?

What if, instead, we aimed to be more “Marian,” become more like Mary, repositories for that which we can’t quite figure out.

(Mark S., with your love of Mary, this really turned out to be a good sermon for you to be the lector for…)

I know, it’s sort of at odds with our rationalist tradition. We so often only value what we can understand, explain, master, assign.

But I have been thinking a lot lately about the most important life lessons I have learned.   They haven’t come from those “aha moments” or with clear articulations. Rather they are more akin to slowly forming intuitions.  

More like inchoate feelings emerging mysteriously from the existential  fog, slowly, irregularly, over time, or on their own time, without my control, Or my ability to command them.   …more like reading a novel whose wisdom doesn’t come to me so much in an encapsulating quote as it evolves into an impressionist picture,    more like a poem than prose, or an emotional attitude that develops empirically, but not consciously, an attitude or perspective towards life and the world even though you know you cannot quite explain it.

What I am trying to say is that maybe Mary is on to something.

And maybe it’s not such a surprise that the pastor trusts in the gleanings of faith. That I trust in the incremental or about-face recalibrations that such gleanings leave behind.

Church, if we say we are Christians, no matter how smart or scientific or rational we are (and ours is a rationalist tradition — with this square sanctuary and clear glass windows letting all the light in!) ,

…no matter how smart or scientific or rational we are, if we want to be Christians, isn’t there something more, something beyond us and out our control and more than our thinking that we are to look out for and look to, listen for and learn from and move forward on?

Or at least respect, even if we can’t quite get our arms around it?

Has anyone ever asked you why you believe? This question comes to pastors all the time. But I have heard others asked to. Often the question leaves people at a loss for words. How to answer that?

Some of us may have crafted answers (that’s the Pastors’ trick usually, a well-crafted story that masquerades as an answer..) but, I wonder, if even the best responses can really explain …or are they pointing beyond an answer to our still as yet unanswered questions.

Maybe our unanswered questions are the reason we believe.   Something that isn’t ours, not what we have come up with, but rather, some questions that has been given to us, and some answers that might yet come to us,   but what  we can’t quite articulate or even name, but that which resides in our heart still unopened, but forming us, informing our lives nonetheless. .  

At the least, I’m inviting you, right here in the middle of Christmastide, to some serious questioning and deep wondering.

Mary — at least as she’s written in Luke — invites us into such a contemplative space, a place in our hearts and in our world where we do not need to obtain all the answers, Where we don’t have to feel bad about or guilty for what we don’t know. But a place where we can find room cleared away   to ponder God’s place in and purpose for our lives.

Mary summons us to sit and wonder. Mary asks us to keep her company.

A couple of years ago, about this time of year, I suggested, we might try keeping track of our thanksgivings, because as it’s been said, Christians should be — among other things — a thankful people. (I still think that.)

Adam and  Bobbie too took the suggestion  to heart and for the next year, they practiced intentional thanksgiving, sharing often what or who they were thankful for. They are both out of town this morning, but when we see them, we should ask them how becoming more aware of their gratitude or more grateful changed him.

I wonder what would happen if we began consciously logging the things we notice but can’t explain. Not for any instrumental purpose, it’s not like we’re suddenly going to crack the code and break the case!

Instead, if we are following Mary, they get saved because they can’t be understood. Such a spiritual practice might make us better at the least at noticing things that happen but we don’t understand.

Perhaps, like Mary, we would be richer for living with the awareness of all that is beyond us. I bet we’d end up more humble.

Mary as an essential model of discipleship — she was willing to live in a suspended state of reflection. Why is that important, you ask? Because none of what God is ever up to can be easy to get or at once understand.

Think about that: None of what God is ever up to can be easy to get or at once understood.

As we go into a New Year, we are offered a tradition of resolutions, often little more self-improvement commitments that turn out to be as ineffective as short-lived.

I am suggesting something else, something different  for this New Year: set aside space for ‘Marian pondering,’ a place in your life for contemplation.

If there doesn’t seem to be much appreciation for real thinking these days, there’s probably even less for waiting reflectively. Delayed reward is not a modern cultural strong point in our face-paced world. Silence is too often missing or interrupted …with the noise of thoughtless words and meaningless chatter. …with sentiments and attitudes that have not had due time to steep much less mature. …with viewpoints and beliefs that have too swiftly jumped to conclusions and that empwered assumptions to take over and rule the day.

We are quick to respond, quick to answer, quick to judge, quick to correct, quick to interrupt without adequate respect or thoughtfulness about our intrustions. Without appropriate interpretation of what has been and where things might be going.

What might happen if we gave ourselves the gift of place for our own ponderings? The gift of space where no response is expected. The gift of time that is not pragmatically productive, but demands only meditation and musing?

I don’t know about you, but I really like my invitation (– I hate when that happens preaching, it’s even worse when the preacher says something that gets him verklempt and the congregation can hear it in the voice and has to wait for him to get himself together to go on! — !

This time I’m not that bad, but I do like the idea of giving oneself an opportunity, permission to hold on to even cherish our perceptions without so much worry what all they might mean…;

Could I give you permission to notice, but not to arrive at an answer. And can I suggest a prohibition from settling for someone else’s answers, even the church’s answers, no need to get to any doctrinal, dogmatic, or creedal answers,

But rather to keep these things in your heart, because they are that precious.

Wonder, ponder, wander, linger,

Let Mary’s example lead us or hold us in place in another way of being Christians long before, maybe even AFTER all the conclusions.

Not Christians who think they have all the ANSWERS, but Christians who have loved to cherish the QUESTIONS themselves and those who have those questions as sacred.

Lord knows, it’s hard to contemplate when you have a newborn baby. But if Mary could, you can too. Grab a few minutes here or there. Sit in church when Jesus isn’t looking. Stand by the manger for a minute while he sleeps. Pick up something that reminds you of the Christ child, or your most pressing mystery,   and hold on to it. Wondering.

No great revelations needed. Just keeping some company and humility with Mary.