Welcomes You

Sermon for Episcopal Preaching Excellence - 25th Anniversary

Roslyn Conference Center, VA
Thursday, May 30, 2013

Creator, we give you thanks for all you are and all you bring to us for our visit within your creation.  In Jesus, you place the Gospel in the center of this sacred circle through which all of creation is related.  You show us the way to live a generous and compassionate life.  Give us your strength to live together with respect and commitment as we grow in your spirit, for you are God, now and forever.[1]

That gathering prayer comes from A Disciple’s Prayer Book, which includes Prayer Book resources developed and adapted by Native Episcopalians.  It insists that the gospel is at the center of all we are and do.  It also notes that we are visitors in God’s creation.

This feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is both a celebration of the incarnate Word growing within Mary, and the recognition of that good news by Elizabeth and the child who will be cousin John, forerunner and prophet of the Word among us.  There is a whole lot of visiting going on here.

That word visit doesn’t just mean stopping by for a beer.  Its roots are in Latin words for seeing, observing, or noticing – that’s where video comes from.  In early English (13th century) a visit meant coming to comfort or benefit somebody, often with the sense that the visitor was a heavenly one.  In the same era, visitation meant primarily what a bishop or hierarch did in inspecting a church or abbey, or what a doctor might do in coming to examine a patient.  The connotation of a social call – having tea – doesn’t roll around for another 400 years.

Mary has had a visitation in the gospel scene just before the one we heard.  That heavenly messenger offers comfort, in the ancient sense of strength, and she is examined as to her willingness to make a home for the incarnate Word.  Then she goes to visit Elizabeth and nascent cousin John, who recognize the visitation as a heavenly encounter at many levels – and so does Mary.

There are at least two other verbal echoes of this sense of visitation in the Bible – one in Wisdom where the writer speaks of the righteous who have died, and are now at peace, in spite of what others sense as destruction or loss.  God has tried them… and accepted them, and “in the time of their visitation they will shine forth and run like sparks through the stubble.” [2]  Here visitation is a life-giving encounter between human soul and godly reality.  Visitation gives evidence of the living God.

The other is also in the Gospel of Luke, in the midst of the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem.  As Jesus approaches the city, he starts to weep and lament, “if only you’d recognized the things that make for peace!  But now they’re hidden from your eyes…” and disaster is coming, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”[3]  Then Jesus pays a visit to the Temple and starts to clean house.

There is another echo in the scene when three heavenly visitors pay a call on Abraham by the oaks of Mamre to tell him that Sarah will have a child[4] – a child called laughter!

Visitation is above all about recognizing the presence of the holy in our midst – sometimes quite literally, as in Mary’s belly.  It’s about seeing with the eyes of the heart, and perhaps even hearing with the ear of the heart, as Benedict would have it.  Indeed, St. Ephrem insisted that Mary conceived through her ear, receiving the Word brought by that angelic visitor.[5]  Visitation means letting the word of God dwell in you richly, as Colossians puts it.  Visitation brings the incarnate Word to light and life.

Where and when is your visitation? 

Last week I was in Beirut, and Bishop Dawani (Diocese of Jerusalem[6]) took me to see one of the diocesan institutions.  St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Center, or Beit Mery, as it’s called in Arabic (the “house of Mary), is a day and boarding school for mentally challenged young people.  It’s just over the mountain ridge behind Beirut, set on a hillside looking across a beautiful valley.  It serves about 50 students, many with Down’s syndrome and a growing number with autism, from about age 6 well into their 30s. 

When we arrived, the students were finishing lunch.  It was barbecue day, shared at picnic tables on a terrace open to the breeze.  There was lots of good-humored banter and laughter, and after lunch was over, a musical performance.  The girls’ choir was dressed in albs, and one of them was a very short young woman wearing a blue cape like Mary’s.  They sang together and in alternating parts, with the more capable singers encouraging the others.  Then four of the young men answered with a rollicking performance of a current popular song that encourages the corrupt and power-hungry local politicians to leave town – complete with dramatic actions and jumping up and down from their chairs.  This produced spontaneous dancing, quickly joined by others.  Song, dance, laughter – and JOY – abounded.  I kept thinking, this is what Isaiah was talking about: 

            On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich

            food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-

            aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud

            that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will

            swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears

            from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the

            earth, for the LORD has spoken. [7]    

That was indeed the festal banquet without tears or shadow, and God’s people rejoicing in peace. 

As we were leaving, I heard a bit more about the story of the shy young woman dressed as Mary.  She first came to the school a number of years ago, and the director and staff told her parents what they could likely expect as a result of her disability.  They took her away, and her father spent thousands of dollars and many years on treatment to try to change her.  Finally they brought her back to St. Luke’s, where she is filled with joy and purpose.  She accompanies a much younger child on the bus to and from school each day, as a guide and mentor – and she is a pretty good excuse for a diminutive St. Mary.

A whole lot of visiting going on – or as Iris Dement puts it, “a whole lot of heaven shining in this river of tears.”[8]

Where has the Word visited you lately?

Are you becoming a visitor within God’s radiant creation?