Contemplative Life

Luke 2:1-20, 41-52

We are all so busy, aren’t we? I wrote this sermon in a café. And as I watched people coming and going, I just kept thinking, “everybody is so busy.” There were people having lunch meetings, there were others with their laptops out working, even the people who were alone had their phones out texting or checking emails. The noise of talking in the café continued to rise above the noise of more and more people, the music and the sound of the espresso machine. I saw only one woman who ate quietly focusing solely on her meal pondering life.

And it is not better at home with the television on, the phone ringing, kids playing electronic games, parents are yelling for the kids to get busy with homework, the dogs barking, and the sounds outside of cars and trucks, weed eaters and leaf blowers  Even in our cars, the music is loud or we are talking on the phone. Life is so busy.

Busy has become the norm and if we do find some down time, we feel guilty because we aren’t working. With the aid of our phones, laptops and other devices, we are never quiet, we are never alone, we are never still.

If the Immaculate Conception happened in 2013, Mary would not have the time or the quiet to ponder anything in her heart.

But it is not as if there was nothing going on in Judea. “All the world” was to be registered – everyone had to travel to their hometowns for the census.  A lot of people were on the move. Traffic was bad, people were complaining about how long it was taking to travel with all the traffic and the mess in the roads from all the donkeys. This birth event was happening in the midst of important real world stuff.

In relation to the political might of Rome, Mary was powerless. She was a Palestinian pregnant woman. But as we have discovered these past few weeks through Luke’s portrayal of her, when we are dealing with Mary, nothing is as it seems. This is God’s servant whose significance actually surpasses the Roman rulers, whose significance surpasses even the ancient patriarchs of the faith. She stands above the company of the great leaders of God’s people.

In the midst of this important government stuff, Mary has a baby. She gave birth, swaddled her first-born son and laid him in a manger. In the shadow of the great Caesar’s attempt to manipulate the whole world, the birth of Mary’s baby signals the beginning of God’s presence in the world, Emmanuel, God with us.

While the baby lies in the manger, Luke moves us from the stable to the fields to meet the shepherds. The shepherds were the first to receive the birth announcement, not the elite of society, not the government officials.

 

Shepherds, who lived outside the boundaries of polite society, who would not be considered trustworthy sources for important news, were the first to hear, the first to see, and then, the first to tell of Jesus’ birth. Years later, Paul told the church at Corinth, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are (1.26-28). Paul was pointing to Jesus, of course, but also to the lowly shepherds and to Mary.

Then Luke escorts us back from the fields to the stable with the animals, and with Joseph and Mary. Mary is at the center of the attention and action. Mary is in the middle of the noise – shepherds talking, animals braying and mooing and the noise on the streets and in the town of the world going on around them. But Mary simply and silently weighs all the things that have happened, all the words that have been said. She has had quite a time — an angel, a prophecy, a visit with Elizabeth, traveling to Bethlehem, birth in a stable, an audience of shepherds and everyone else who happened by. Mary treasured it all and silently pondered it in her heart. She was still in the midst of life’s noise.

In Luke’s next scene, Jesus was twelve, almost a teenager, and his parents take him to Jerusalem for the Passover. They traveled with neighbors and family and on the way home they realized that Jesus was not with their group. The stopped, turned around and returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him, mother and son had a rather awkward conversation but Jesus joined his parents, left the temple, and returned to Nazareth where he grew and matured.

And Mary “treasured these things in her heart.” Through Mary’s contemplation, Luke ties the temple story to the birth story. Through these phrases, Luke points to Mary. This is the last time we see or hear of Joseph. Luke creates a beautiful image of Mary watching her son as he grows up, all the while reflecting, pondering, knitting, narrating, hoping to make sense of all the things she sees and hears, as the past gives way to the future. She pondered – symballein, in Greek, bringing different ideas together and looking for the deeper meaning. Jesus is growing in maturity physically and in his relationship with God and Mary is growing in maturity physically and in her relationship with God. Full understanding of all that she has seen and heard is not yet possible but Mary collects words and images and holds them in her heart. Mary’s journey to the cross began with a divine call.

And Mary neither accepts nor obeys because God has given her well-worked-out plan with full communication of the meaning plotted and crystal clear. She had no idea what God was getting her into. Research has shown that human beings can undergo tremendous physical, emotional and mental suffering when they can see the point, the purpose. But Mary did not have a clear understanding of the purpose. She did have words from the angel, from Elizabeth, from the Emperor Augustus, from the Inn Keeper, and from the Shepherds and she kept those words and pondered in her heart. What she did have were images that became the pictures of her life and the life of Christ and those things Mary kept and treasured in her heart. She discerned the meaning of her life and the life of her son – not knowing what would become of it all for her or for the world but confident, all the while, in the character of God.

Discernment is an important word to anyone called into ordained ministry. It is rare that the call falls on excited and expectant hearts. The call is usually a surprise and not the life the man or woman had in mind. Stephanie, a student at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, contacted me three weeks ago via email. She is an Environmental Science major who is feeling a call into ministry. How can Environmental Science possibly prepare her for ministry? A few clicks on Google, she found the Green Chalice website, saw my picture and email. I am the creation care minister for the Christian Church (Disicples of Christ). As part of her discernment, Stephanie wants to do a summer internship here at Providence trying to see how a degree in Environmental Science might intersect with preaching, teaching and pastoral care.

Discernment is a period where we try to understand our situation and discover the deeper meaning of our lives. Discernment is time, silence and space to see, discover, catch sight of and recognize God in our past, in our present situation and in our future. Finding God in our lives requires quiet and stillness. It is very hard to find God when we are talking, texting, emailing, writing, watching television, or attending meetings.

And discernment is not only for those of us called into ordained ministry, discernment should be a constant faith practice for all of us.  Thomas Merton called this a life of contemplation. Contemplation is a word that Thomas Merton spent much of his life exploring.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, he wrote, “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life.  It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.  It is spiritual wonder.  It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.  It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant source.  Contemplation is above all, awareness of the reality of that source.  It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and beyond simple faith…It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts…”

Contemplation is the act of treasuring things in our hearts – of sitting in silence and trying to catch a glimpse of God in the messiness of our lives. Contemplation is a necessary part of being made new in Christ, in becoming whole in ourselves, in accepting the power of the Holy Spirit into our hearts, in connecting deeply in all things with God.

A singer named Plumb talks about contemplation in her new song called “Need You Now.” She wrote the song as a teenager when she suffered from severe anxiety and then pulled it out and dusted it off this past year when she and her husband separated. In the song she says, “Everybody’s got a story to tell, Everybody’s got a hurt to be healed. I want to believe there’s beauty here. I’m trying to hear that still small voice. I’m trying to hear above the noise.” Like the woman silently eating lunch alone in the middle of a loud and busy café, like Mary pondering things silently in her heart in the midst of a loud and busy time, we are called to be still and silent in the middle of our noisy lives.

In writing his gospel, Luke’s purpose was not to just give us the powerful story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. His purpose was for us to know him and how to live IN Christ. Women are more prominent in Luke than the other gospels and they are shown in exemplary light as model disciples. But no one provides a better model than Mary: obedient, faithful, trusting, accepting of Grace, humble, discerning and contemplative.

All of us have experienced deep pain. All of us have been blessed in many ways. And whether it is the blessing of a new baby or the pain of deep grief – God is present and moving. God’s still small voice is speaking, God’s gentle spirit is leading. But if we are not still, if we are not quiet, if we do not give space and time in our lives – we will not hear or see or feel God.

In our Lenten journey, we are getting close to the cross. In less than two weeks it will be Good Friday. Our Lenten journey is nearing the end and Mary is beckoning us to the quiet places of our lives to sit with God and ponder things in our hearts. Mary is reminding us to spend time with God listening for God’s still, small voice.

Make time and space in your life for God, be silent and still even if the world around is noisy or chaotic. Discern and contemplate the ways God has moved in your pain, in your joy, in your past and in your present. And contemplate where God is calling you to go in the future.

Be still and know that I am God.—–Be still