Sermon: The God of the Center

(I preached this sermon on August 15, 2010–the Feast of St. Mary, the Mother of Our Lord–at Wicker Park Lutheran Church in Chicago)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

On Friday the great film critic and now equally great blogger Roger Ebert offered some thoughts on the probably terminal illness of Christopher Hitchens. You may know of Hitchens; he is, among many other things, a very vocal and militant atheist writer.

Reflecting on the approach of death, and the question of God, Ebert writes:

I was asked at lunch today who or what I worshipped. The question was asked sincerely, and in the same spirit I responded that I worshipped whatever there might be outside knowledge. I worship the void. The mystery. And the ability of our human minds to perceive an unanswerable mystery. To reduce such a thing to simplistic names”–I imagine here he has in mind God, YHWH, Allah, Christ, and the rest–”is an insult to it, and to our intelligence.

I should say before I go on that I love Roger Ebert and don’t mean to bag on him. You could do a lot worse than to read everything he writes. And he’s more than entitled to his opinion. He has spent more time on the edge of the final unknown than most of us will. His words are eloquent and the sentiment is common. It is even, in a way, noble. Lots and lots of people look for God–forgive my use of a simplistic name–at the edge of life. We look for God at the edge of consciousness, at the edge of scientific knowledge, at the moment of death. The idea being, perhaps, that we get by just fine with our knowledge and experience most of the time. How many of us pray for a safe trip on the Metra or give thanks for the regular arrival of our paychecks? We don’t need to consider God until the point where these things fail us. There–at the edge of life–we encounter the sublime mystery that us simplistic types are tempted to call God.

This is a very different claim about God than we hear in the famous song of the Blessed Virgin Mary in today’s Gospel. Mary’s God is at the center of life, not at the edge of it. Mary’s God is magnified by her very soul, by her mind. She does not place God in a void at the outer limits of her mind’s journey. She unabashedly accepts that God has done great things, not just in general but for her. Her God is not an unanswerable mystery, but a God who inspires fear and grants mercy. God sets the proud wandering the their own futile thoughts; breaks the thrones of the mighty, feeds the hungry, spurns the rich, and makes and remembers promises to the people of Israel.

This God is known by many names, perhaps all of them simplistic, but Mary blesses God’s proper Name as holy. There is nothing in Mary’s witness of faith that reduces the mystery of God. Rather she celebrates it, magnifies it, worships it.

And this is not, we must assume, because Mary was a foolish little girl. She knew well that the world’s thrones are still occupied, that the hungry and lowly suffer while the rich typically have what they need. Yet Mary’s God is not at the margin, watching and waiting for our awe, intervening now and then. Her God is at the center of life, and at this moment the center of life is her. Jesus is growing in her womb, conceived in mystery. She has heard the awful charge from the angel to bear this wondrous child despite her own fears and her own frailty–she was just a girl and the pregnancy was potentially scandalous, after all. The mystery was not out there past the limit of her knowledge; it was what she knew, what she felt every day as it quickened and took flesh within her. And in doing that, God truly is thwarting the mighty and lifting up the lowly. God indeed is scattering the thoughts of those too proud to find God in such a humble place, who take God’s silence for God’s absence, who make God in their own majestic, glorious, noble image.

This is the God not of the void or of the beyond, but the God of the center, the God of Jesus Christ. God is not distant but near. God is not where we give up. God is where we start–in our homes, our work, our knowledge, here in our gifts of bread and wine. God is also where we end–in wonder, in fear, in the void, at the hour of our death. And God is present in between, as we are born, as we struggle, as we serve, and as we learn and change.

I can’t say for sure, but I highly doubt that Mary ever got beyond knowledge of the world. Even by the standards of the day she probably knew rather little about how the world works. She lived and died in a world where what we might call the “unknown” or the mystery or the void occupied a lot more real estate than it does today. And that’s no knock against Mary. For her, surely God was still in the sunset and in the change of seasons. God’s hand was on the rising and falling of nations and kingdoms. But most particularly, God was in and with and through her, God who would see the world through our own dim eyes and walk the earth with our own feeble bones, and redeem the world with his own human body. And not only that, but Mary was bearing all of us, too, who bear Christ’s name and who are being formed into his image in the world. Truly this is a mystery–and I mean absolutely no insult to it or to you–but it is the very real and present mystery by which we live and die, and see the lowly lifted up, and by which we magnify and rejoice in our God. Amen.

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