December 17, 2017, No Room in the Shell – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000056
There is a poem written by a 19th-century poet and theologian, T.E. Brown, called “Indwelling” that goes like this:
If thou could’st empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, “This is not dead,”
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou are all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes He says, “This is enow
Unto itself – ’twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.”
The poet compares a human being, us, to a little hollow sea shell on the beach. When God comes along and finds the shell, abandoned and empty, he immediately sees an opportunity. There is room for life within. And he makes himself at home, filling the little shell with his own life and self. But there are those, the poet says, who are so self-sufficient, so full of their own plans and ambitions and small successes that God finds no room left for himself. “Twere better let it be,/ It is so small and full, there is no room for me.”
We are brought up to be self-sufficient. It is a mark of our worth as useful, admirable people, and especially useful, admirable Americans, to “do it ourselves” whatever “it” might be. We are often embarrassed to ask for help. And we often look down on those who need help. There are huge stigmas attached to being a welfare family, or to being a “special needs” student. Recently, a family who had lost everything they owned in a tragic accident sent someone to our thrift store to receive the free clothing and goods we had offered them because they were embarrassed to come in themselves. Self-sufficiency is a mark of our real manhood or womanhood. To be needy is a shameful thing.
We are also trained from childhood in self-promotion. In grade school we amass our little awards for spelling and math and good citizenship and speed and strength, so that by the time we get into high school we’re ready to begin putting together a resume of all our achievements and qualifications that makes us look our very best – if possible, even better than our very best. It’s all about packaging ourselves from birth to death: trying to prove ourselves acceptable and worthy, to get the scholarship, to get the grades, to get the degree, to get the job, to get the promotion, to get the retirement plan.
But what is entirely foreign to our way of thinking is that our God does not come to us measuring our achievements and productivity. Remember what John wrote, his best-known verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever had an above-average GPA, a spotless reputation, and a really good work ethic should not die, but have everlasting life”? Well, he didn’t put it quite like that.
Because the truth is, God didn’t come to be impressed by us, and he didn’t come to whip us into shape. He came as a servant. He came because he recognized our desperate need, our poverty, our inability to do anything to rescue ourselves from ourselves. He isn’t watching to see if we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, because he knows perfectly well we don’t even have any boots.
When Jesus came back to his hometown he opened up the Scriptures to the book of Isaiah and read the words we read this morning: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.” He read those words and then he rolled the scroll back up (because the Bible was written on scrolls back then), and he handed it to the acolyte, and he sat down, and he said, “This is it. Today, these very words I read to you have come true.”
And what that means for us, his people, is that he has come to this world he loves in our greatest need – in our hunger, in our poverty, in our emptiness, in our nakedness, in our brokenheartedness, in our blindness. In the collect for today we asked God for help as we are hindered by our sins. And there is no doubt that mankind is sorely hindered by a vast multitude of sins. But sometimes I think that we are equally hindered, or maybe we are even more hindered, by what we consider our successes and strengths. Sometimes we are afraid and ashamed to admit that we are people in desperate need. But like the empty seashell on the beach, it is when God finds us in our need that he is best pleased, because we have left him room to do what he came to do, to fill us with himself.
When you go down the Bible list of men and women that God has chosen as his “heroes of the faith” the main thing you might notice is that he never seems to go for the A-listers. God never picks the biggest and the best, not by our standards. Moses was a middle-aged fugitive from justice with a speech impediment, when God picked him out of the lineup to save his people from the greatest superpower in the ancient world. David was the kid brother whose job it was to bring his soldier-brothers lunch – when he wasn’t minding the sheep – when God chose him to be the king of Israel’s Golden Age. Gideon was a coward, pure and simple, Rahab was a prostitute, and Samson was a womanizing brute – and not the brightest candle in the bracket, if you know what I mean. Moving to the New Testament, Paul was a myopic, overzealous egghead when God knocked him off his high horse, and Peter was a fisherman who never once looked before he leapt. But what God found in these and in all saints is just this – room – for himself.
This was never more true than it was the day the angel Gabriel showed up in Mary’s kitchen right in the middle of her daily chores – and I can say that pretty safely because for a Jewish peasant girl in those days most waking hours would have been chore time. The angel appeared to Mary, and what he said made absolutely no sense to her. “Greetings, highly favored one!” he said. “The Lord is with you!” What was he talking about? Me, highly favored by God? Most people are terrified when the come face to face with an angel, but Mary was so troubled by those words that she even forgot to be afraid.
What could he possibly mean by calling her “highly favored” or by saying that the Lord was with her? Her humility and bewilderment were perfectly and entirely genuine – where holy men or priests or scholars of the law might have hoped or dreamed of attaining God’s special favor, Mary had no expectations for herself at all, except to be a faithful and capable wife and mother as her mother had been, and her mother’s mother, as far back as the generations go. In her humility, Mary was an empty shell, all ready for God to fill her with his very self on that day, in the most literal way possible. In her poverty, she contained the most precious treasure the world has ever known. In the frailty of her human body, she nourished and held the One who created and sustains everything that exists. God’s power was made perfect in her weakness.
But sometimes we are very much less like the humble virgin in her kitchen in Nazareth, and very much more like the bustling inn of Bethlehem, working so hard to carry on with business and keep up our standards and turn a nice profit that we really don’t have any space or time or energy left when the quiet knock comes at the door in search of a room. We are ashamed to admit our poverty. We aren’t willing to confess our blindness. We are afraid to acknowledge our brokenheartedness. We have been held captive by our anxious efforts for so long we hardly notice our chains anymore. And so we are in danger of turning away the One who would fill our emptiness and heal our hurts and turn our darkness into light.
It’s hard enough to remember, in the midst of the demands of the holiday season, that the purpose of Advent is to prepare ourselves, to prepare our hearts and our minds and our lives, for the coming of Jesus. But when we do remember, all too often we feel like God and the world are keeping track on some kind of Naughty and Nice list to see if we are doing it good enough. Are we reading our Advent devotional and lighting our candles? Are we being generous enough with our charitable donations? Have we picked the perfect gifts for all the special people in our lives? Does our house look sufficiently festive, inside and out? And oh my gosh, have we mailed out all the Christmas cards? And if not, is it too late?
But the only gift we need to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child is our need, our brokenheartedness, our blindness, our burdens and chains. It is as if we have been invited to the grandest of birthday parties, and all we have been asked to bring is an empty box. Because it is when we admit our emptiness and unworthiness and helplessness that He finds room to fill us with himself. Then we can sing with Mary: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
He has lifted up the lowly…and filled the hungry with good things…”