Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
I like to read mystery books. As a young girl I read a lot of Nancy Drew, then moved onto Agatha Christie and Sir Conan Doyle. Now I have discovered author Laurie King who has invented a smart, athletic and very young wife for Sherlock Holmes, who sleuths alongside her famous husband.
But mystery in church – is a bit different. When we talk about mystery in the religious realm it is sometimes called mysticism and it has not always been welcome in the more institutional church. But mysticism is not unique to Christianity. Islam has Sufis, Jewish mysticism is known as Kabbalah. There are Hindu, Jain and Buddhist mystics as well.
The spirituality of mystics is based on intuition and instinctual experiences of the Divine rather than systematic theology or ecclesiology, thus it is sometimes misunderstood and easily misappropriated. To certain segments of established religions it is highly suspicious since experience is not predictable, quantifiable or controllable. I suppose mysticism is a bit like Pentecostalism – only quieter.
Mystery and mysticism need space and time. A sermon is not the ideal way to encourage that experience but this morning I will occasionally allow some time for silence, for breathing deep, for wondering – starting now –
Mystery and mysticism are not all that familiar to can-do Mennonites. We tend to focus more on what we can see, what we can work with. We talk about Jesus, the embodied one. Christ the universal, or Christa the universal – is not as present on our lips or in our hearts. We are practical. If there is a disaster we go and rebuild the house, we don’t sit around and meditate on it. If we encounter a problem we don’t understand, we form a committee to work on it and another committee to house and feed the first committee. So it is a bit of a mystery in itself that Mennonite Church USA recommends that Mennonites across the country work with the theme of mystery this advent season.
My mother, who died 15 years ago this week, was a bit of a mystic herself. She told me once that Mennonites don’t know much about mystery, certainly don’t have many hymns about mystery. One day about ten years ago, as I prepared for worship I was doing the impossible, looking for a hymn on mystery. I pulled a book about worship off the shelf to stimulate my thinking.
As I paged through the book, that had been my mother’s before she died, a piece of paper fell out. There on this notepaper, in my mother’s perfect handwriting, was a list entitled “hymns on mystery” which helpfully included hymn titles and numbers in the hymnal. All I could do was marvel and whisper a thank you to my mother. Mysterious indeed.
One of the mysteries of the advent season is that what we plan for and what we get are not quite the same thing. We plan to celebrate the coming of an infant in a placid, pastoral setting. Yet the first Sunday of advent we are given not the original coming of the child but the coming again of the Christ and it doesn’t seem that pleasant.
If we are honest about the story though, the birth – the first coming of the Christ as recorded by Matthew, was not all that idyllic:
- an unexpected (perhaps unwanted?) pregnancy
- Joseph with his strange dreams
- Herod with his wicked schemes
- Foreign Gentiles bearing strange gifts
- who assume they will see a baby whose parents they don’t know.
If the first coming was somewhat shocking for those immediately impacted, why should the next coming as recorded by Matthew being any more safe?
Today’s texts from Romans and Matthew are another small study in mystery. Romans tells us “wake up, you know what time it is” and Matthew says “stay awake because you will not know the time.” We tend to read apocalyptic texts as if this is an either/or proposition. We are ready or we are not. We are swept away or we are left behind. Taken together, these passages from Romans and Matthew seem to say yes/and – yes we have to be awake and the time will take care of itself.
How can it be, that we know the time and we do not know the time? If this was a mystery we would expect it to be solved. We would expect that there is some kind of tricky hidden answer that we are to find behind the words. And yet, perhaps we are to treat this less like a mystery to be solved and more like a mystical experience to live into, not necessarily to understand but to experience.
(I can already feel myself squirming. My mother may have been a mystic but that doesn’t mean I have to be. Where’s the committee to crack the code? Time for silence)
There is another mystery that arises from this passage from Romans while we look toward the incarnation. Paul is very explicit about the light and the dark, the flesh and the spirit. We are to give up the evil desires of the flesh, sexual urges and too much drinking. We are not to wear provocative clothing; we are to clothe ourselves with Christ. And yet, in this season approaching Christmas, we are told to look for God in the flesh, in Jesus.
How is it that the flesh of Jesus is good, will even save us, but our own desires and flesh are bad? The light is good, the dark is bad. And yet Jesus comes to us, born from a dark womb, in a darkened stable, in a dark time in history. (Thanks to Danielle Shroyer at The Hardest Question blog for her inspiring provocative questions.)
What does it mean to walk in the light as Isaiah invites, put on the armor of light as Paul instructs, making no “provision for the flesh” and yet follow in the footsteps of this Chosen One of God who walked in flesh on this earth, who experienced dark times himself? What does it mean that God became flesh and will come again? What does it mean for us to live in flesh and try to be godly?
This passage from Matthew has been set to music: “I wish we’d all been ready.” This passage and others like it are the basis for a book series with millions and millions sold, almost as many Left Behind books sold as McDonald’s hamburgers. And there are movies as well, the ones us oldsters saw as kids and now a whole new series for this generation. A lot of money (though you have to leave it behind) is made when preachers and movie moguls try to depict what it will be like in the end.
It is right there in the text: Workers in the fields, “One will be taken and one will be left;” millers grinding grain – “One will be taken and one will be left.” If we look more closely, at this story that Jesus references from Genesis, about Noah and his family, we remember that it was faithful Noah and his family that were left, the others were taken, were swept away in the flood.
What if being left behind means we get to experience this Christ? After all, we are told that Christ will return to earth. What if it is those that disappear in a strange and odd way, what if they do not see Christ? What if those who are left behind meet Christ – whenever and however that will be? And maybe it is not only once and for all. Maybe that is why we are instructed to stay awake and alert to the mystery, so that we can meet Christ/Christa again and again?
As it is written, it could be any time, any place, at work, at home, on the road. Maybe this time we will not meet Christ as a baby though I don’t doubt it can happen again that way. But perhaps this time Christ will be present to us in our own noisy, complaining toddlers or teens; or in a lonely older woman; or a recent college grad looking for work; or a middle age man immigrating to the US; or even someone who is Muslim or Jewish (as Jesus himself was.) If we believe in an incarnational faith, what if Christ/Christa can meet us anywhere?
What if we meet Christ in other ways as well? Today we will take communion and proclaim that we, this gathered group, are Christ’s body. We also say that we meet Christ here at the table, perhaps experience Christ, in the broken bread, in the cup of juice. Does that mean that Christ/Christa can meet us in something other than humans?
What if we can meet this mysterious Christ in nature, in animals, as we climb rocks or hills, as we walk through the woods or kayak upstream? In adventure as well as calm solitude? Not that God is the animal or the rock or mountain but that somehow, in a mystical way, we meet God there in that action, in that experience, in the noise and in the silence.
As we approach this darkest time of the year, may we be alert to the mysterious light that still shines, and awake to the mystery of Christ coming among us.