Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas for Grace Church, Newton, and Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts
I put my trust in you
“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” (Luke 1:38)
Friends, I want to tell an Advent story1 that took place fifteen years ago. In 2005, two massive hurricanes, strengthened by the unusually warm waters of the Gulf, slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi. Millions of Americans were forced from their homes; within hours, most of one city lay in ruins. Soon after Katrina, some members of the wonderful church I served, Grace Church in Amherst, began organizing a service trip to Mississippi. I was planning to go, but then I received an invitation to join a delegation of interfaith religious leaders at the upcoming United Nations’ climate change conference in Montreal.
The trips overlapped, and I couldn’t take both. I decided to head to Montreal, since I wanted to urge world leaders to address global warming before it was too late. So, for several days in Advent I met with representatives of the World Council of Churches; I listened to speeches, wrote editorials, and marched with seven thousand people through the city streets. It was the most vigorous celebration of Advent I’d ever experienced, for the signs and banners sounded the urgent themes of the season: Now is the time to wake from sleep. Now is the time to clean up our act, to sort out our lives, to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
That exuberant march was one of the gifts I received that Advent, a glimpse of the growing worldwide movement that draws upon humanity’s deepest reserves of hope. The other gift came as a surprise, when I was alone in my hotel. By then I was steeped in the stark reality of climate change. I had studied the aerial photographs of Mount Kilimanjaro without snow; listened to climate reports from the Arctic to Argentina; heard survivors of Katrina describe the vulnerability of the poor. As for my government, it seemed unable to take the issue seriously.
After a restless night, I woke up gasping with sorrow and anger, needing badly to pray. I pulled a chair to the window and let my anguish spill out before God – grief for what is irreparably lost, rage at the inertia that kills with such abandon. I felt helpless. Dear Lord, what can I do? What can anyone do? Then I heard something.
I put my trust in you.
Startled, I opened my eyes and looked around. Who said that? I often say those words to God, but now the message seemed addressed to me. Its meaning was: Fear not. Keep going. I am with you.
How bizarre. Was there some mistake? I had a choice: to accept or reject that assurance, to believe it or blow it off. What I heard came as a complete surprise, just as God’s message to Mary was surely a surprise: you will conceive by the Holy Spirit; your son will be the savior of the world.
Absurd! Yet God’s hope for the future hung on Mary’s willingness to consent. Maybe it hangs on our willingness, too. Who knows how many messages God delivers daily to the countless faithful of every religion, and of none? Trust the good, wherever you find it. Trust the truth. Trust love. Trust yourself. Let my life be born in you. Who knows what power will be released in us when we dare to believe those unseen encounters that offer a word of love?
Here on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we know that climate change is intensifying, causing wetter, stronger and more destructive storms. We know that we endured a historic hurricane season in the Atlantic this year, with an unprecedented number of named storms and with Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota crashing one after another into Nicaragua and Honduras. We know that record concentrations of greenhouse gasses are filling the atmosphere and that 2020 is on track to be the hottest year on record. We know that we also face a host of other challenges, including protecting our democracy, establishing racial and economic justice, and solving the pandemic.
But we know this, too: There is a love that wants to be born within us and among us, a love that knows no bounds. Right here, in the midst of our lives exactly as they are, Christ longs to be born again, perhaps at a deeper level than ever before. Christ yearns to make a home in you, in me, and in us all. The birth of that divine love is what will give us the strength and courage to meet whatever comes with creativity and clarity and kindness.
Still, when love draws near, we may feel an urge to hold back. We may hesitate, wondering: “What will happen if I give myself fully to that love? What will I do? Who will I become?” We may say to ourselves, “Really, I do want God to come into my life, but let’s not get carried away! I’m kind of used to being who I am. There’s something to be said for staying in control. It’s risky to let go. I'm not sure. Let me get back to you.”
Can you feel the pull between attraction and fear, between trust and hesitation? Like every love song, the love song between God and the soul is about longing and resistance, about desire and holding back. If we could put words to it, the conversation might go something like this. Here is a poem (“Covenant”) by Margaret Halaska, a Franciscan nun:
knocks at my door
seeking a home for his son:
Rent is cheap, I say.
I don’t want to rent, I want to buy, says God.
I’m not sure I want to sell,
but you might come in to look around.
I think I will, says God.
I might let you have a room or two.
I like it, says God. I’ll take the two.
You might decide to give me more some day.
I can wait, says God.
I’d like to give you more,
but it’s a bit difficult. I need some space for me.
I know, says God, but I’ll wait. I like what I see.
Hmm, maybe I can let you have another room.
I really don’t need that much.
Thanks, says God. I’ll take it. I like what I see.
I’d like to give you the whole house
but I’m not sure --
Think on it, says God. I wouldn’t put you out.
Your house would be mine and my son would live in it.
You’d have more space than you’d ever had before.
I don’t understand at all.
I know, says God, but I can’t tell you about that.
You’ll have to discover it for yourself.
That can only happen if you let him have the whole house.
A bit risky, I say.
Yes, says God, but try me.
I’m not sure -
I’ll let you know.
I can wait, says God. I like what I see.
You’ll notice that God does not force or compel, because that is not the language of love. God simply waits and longs and asks to draw close. When we dare to say Yes, Christ is born again. Two thousand years ago God entered human history and became one of us, one with us. God came then, and God comes now, because God longs to join us on our journey, in our daily life and relationships, in our pain and worry and hope. In these turbulent times, when so much hangs in the balance, will we consent to God’s birth within us? Like Mary, will we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”?
I invite you to close your eyes and to join me in praying to the Holy Spirit: “Come. Come into my life, just as it is, and help me find my way to You. Help me step through my fear, my anxiety, my worry, my need to be in control. Help me find You in my ordinary, everyday living. I trust You more than I trust myself, and I thank you for your trust in me.” Amen.
- For a longer version of this story, see Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Joy of Heaven, to Earth Come Down: Meditations for Advent and Christmas (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement, 2012, 2013), 54-60.