Sermon for 5pm Mass
Church of the Transfiguration, NYC
December 17, 2017 (Advent 3)
Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Magnificat; 1 Thess. 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
At the beginning of this mass we prayed “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” What exactly were we praying for?
What power does God have that we expect God to give to us? I want to suggest to you this evening that God has given us the power of prayer. This may sound rather trite. I could sit in this chapel praying all day while the world goes by with all its pressing needs, including the needs of people in great distress. And you would be right to look askance at me if I offered to pray for any of them without doing what was in my power to provide for their material needs. Or you might be skeptical if I told someone who was demanding that their rights be respected and their legitimate needs be provided that they just needed to go and pray more. The Bible itself pronounces harsh judgment on these attitudes. But consider the power of the prayer of the virgin Mary, who was overshadowed with the Holy Ghost after giving nothing more to God than the simple ‘yes’ of faith. With God literally inside of her, she pronounces this song and prayer of vision and strength. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” for the Lord has magnified me!
Prayer is how we access God’s power to help us survive, grow, and become holy. There was a woman named Corrie ten Boom who, along with her family, hid Jews in her home during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Her guests miraculously escaped when the Gestapo raided her house, but she was arrested along with her sister and father. Her father died in prison, and she and her sister were eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, a women’s camp about 50 miles from Berlin. Corrie’s sister eventually died in the camp, but she was mistakenly released, and able to tell her story. She recounts that when the two of them were first shown the crowded cots upon which they would sleep with several other prisoners, they noticed that they were infested with fleas, and that was the moment when she was most tempted to despair. But they had smuggled in a Bible, and her sister remembered the passage they had read the previous night, which happens to be our New Testament reading today: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
This might not have been the right advice for everyone in that situation, and we must remember and celebrate all of the tactics that helped people survive in places like that, or other situations of extreme cruelty, oppression, or trauma. But it worked for them. They made it a daily discipline, not to find something to be thankful for in some trite way, but to give thanks for everyone and everything in their experience. They started with what was easier to thank God for, like each other, and moved to what was harder, like the women in their crowded beds, and the fleas. Let me be clear: they were not thankful for having to share a tiny, wretched bed with too many other women and with fleas. But they were thankful for each of those women, and each of those fleas as God’s creations in their own right. Their prayers were an exercise in learning to turn their whole existence into prayer, without ceasing, they accessed God’s power to give life and dignity to the powerless. And that is what we are expressing and cultivating when we pray.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.” Jesus read these words at his home synagogue and proclaimed their fulfillment. Anointed is the meaning of the Hebrew and Aramaic word messiah. He was the anointed one because his life was a perfect communion with the one he called Father through the Holy Spirit before the worlds began. And so, whatever Jesus did or endured in the world, he transformed it by exposing it to the hidden current of generosity and justice that runs deeper in creation than any of us are able to see. But he knew about it and could always access it because he was its source.
And he did this because he wanted us to have the power that he has. And the more he initiates us into his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit, the more we do have it. The Spirit of the Lord God is also upon us, because the Lord has anointed us. “He has clothed me with the garments of salvation,” Isaiah says. That means that our communion with God is natural and particular to us as a set of clothes we’ve been wearing for a long time, perhaps days on end. The power of prayer can make us holy and draw others into the life of God. But first and foremost, it’s like those clothes. It’s how we survive the cold. And when we can, we share it with others so they can survive too.
The power of prayer is the power to transform whatever we experience. It will exalt the humble and meek and–eventually–cast the mighty from their thrones, so that they too may be truly lifted up. It fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich empty away–so that they might hunger and be filled. Through it, we too may be anointed and overshadowed by the Holy Spirit like Mary. We too may have God inside of us, and be the gateway through which God comes into the world.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.