Sermon for Sunday, December 16, 2012

Luke 1:5-7, 24-25, 39-45, 57-66

Divine Encounters: Meeting God In Physical Embodiment (Elizabeth)”

Today is the third of a 7-sermon series entitled “Divine Encounters” looking at the diverse ways the persons of the Christmas Story met God.

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

There is no podcast for this sermon, however there IS a video cast.  You can find it at:

Jacopo Pontormo: The Visitation (1532)

Jacopo Pontormo: The Visitation (1532)

So this is how Elizabeth might have felt!  I honestly don’t know how you women do it!  I’ve been eating nothing but pumpernickel and pickles for weeks, and my mood swings have been so dramatic they’ve announced I’m the new ride at Cedar Point for Spring 2013!  This creature within me has been doing inter-uterine calisthenics, was chosen to star in “Dancing With The Organs,” and has just completed home run number 20 in the Womb World Series!!!

Now, I honestly don’t know exactly how old Elizabeth was when she realized that she was pregnant, for scripture only says that she and her husband were “getting along in years,” but I’m guessing that even in biblical times 50 was the 1st century 80!  I know exactly why they say she lay in seclusion for five months because she probably was prepared to devour whole anyone who came into her path to tell her how “wonderful” this experience surely was!

What does it mean for us to encounter God in pregnancy and other physical ways?  If they say “every baby is a gift from God!” do they really understand what that means?  How it is as exhaustingly painful as it is exquisitely beautiful?  Her cousin Mary was much younger, but the experience of pregnancy had to have been much the same.  One moment you are thrilled with the wonder of new life forming within your very body, and the next moment you’re retching and feeling like a used dishrag.  Could this, truly, be a legitimate way to meet God?

Pregnancy lends itself most easily to the idea of encountering God because, quite literally, there comes a moment when you are face to face with a brand new creation of God’s own doing.  I can only imagine that when little Edison was born both Hannah and Michael believed they had seen God face-to-face.  (Remember that moment when he’s 16, okay Mike and Hannah?)

But does God make the divine presence known in other physical ways?  What about those bodily manifestations that do not end up in a lovely baby at the end?  How many of us have been ill, or injured, or have a physical difference in ability that some see as a liability or a burden?  Can we say God comes to us in those physical expressions?

Portrait Of Zechariah And Elizabeth, James Tissot

Portrait Of Zechariah And Elizabeth, James Tissot

Of course I have made it patently clear that a healthy theology has no place for a god who inflicts pain, heartache, or sorrow in order to prove a point, test us, or help us to grow.  That’s a masochistic monster.  But, I have made it clear that we do have a God who is intimately present in our pain, deeply involved in our suffering, and who crafted a world in which possibility is always present.  That’s a suffering servant kind of God who we meet most unambiguously in Jesus Christ.

Having said that, I recall quite vividly when my partner, Craig, was working as a chaplain in several facilities for persons with HIV/AIDS in the mid 1990’s in New York City, an agonizingly different era and location in the epidemic than here today.  But what I remember most is that time and time again Craig would come home in utter awe at the clients he met who would say unequivocally that their illness led them to new life, and for many of them to a powerfully deeper relationship with God.  Not all, nor even most, but some absolutely!

What if sometimes our most real encounters with God come in the midst of our illnesses, our wounds, our aging, our physical limitations, or even our death?  Can we, for just a moment, get past the frustrations, the exhaustion, or even our egos, just long enough to become aware of exactly how close God is to us in the experience?

And if we can fathom such bodily encounters as these, then surely we can be open to God’s presence being made known to us in other physical ways.  Athletes often say that they experience something that can only be described as holy when they are in the midst of their sport.  I certainly know that when I am jogging around Edgewater Park I feel touched by the divine in ways I know nowhere else.  I cannot tell you how many times a particular mental block in my sermon writing was overcome by working out at the Y or going for a run in the park.  It is as if a stopped drain in my soul suddenly became unclogged and the water of God’s Spirit began to flow freely.

Or, if we can be a bit daring, many people find God in the midst of having sex.  If someone like the 16th century Spanish nun and mystic, St. Theresa of Avila, could find herself in the “devotion of ecstasy or rapture,” as she called it and as was beautifully rendered by the sculptor Bernini in “The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa” found in Rome, then perhaps one could turn this around and find God in the ecstasy and rapture of sensuality and sexuality?  Would this not open up a world of experience that is all-too-often banished from having anything to do with God or the divine?

I believe with all my heart that we can encounter God in physical ways, in our very bodies, unlike we can in any other way.  Our bodies are with us all the time, and therefore should be readily used instruments of spirituality.  As I said in my Communion meditation on World AIDS Day it is no accident that Jesus used the very physical images of body, blood, and breath as the means by which he called upon us to remember him, immortalized in the Last Supper and Pentecost.  Our bodies are a wondrously frustrating combination of potential and limitation, and in exploring both of these, and all that is in between, we can learn a lot about God.

Sisters and brothers, in this season of Advent leading up to the celebration of Christmas, we not only remember but make real in so many ways the incarnation of God into human life in the form of a body, a baby, born in Bethlehem to two bodies known as Mary and Joseph.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we might take time during this season to imagine the many ways we might encounter God more fully.  For Zechariah, it was in the ritual of worship.  For Mary, it was a mystical encounter.  And for Elizabeth, it may have had many dimensions but certainly, most certainly, she met God face to face in her body.  And her life was changed forevermore.