Shekinah – The God of Glory

A Sermon for ADVENT I by the Rev’d Canon Elizabeth Kaeton

December 2, 2001 – Church of the Redeemer, Morristown, NJ


Please pray with me (sung): In this world there’s a whole lot of trouble baby / In this world there’s a whole lot of pain / In this world there’s a whole lot of trouble but / A whole lot of ground to gain / Why take when you could be giving / Why watch as the world goes by / It’s a hard enough life to be living / Why walk when you can fly

+ In the Name of God.  Amen


What can you say, what can you do, when find yourself right smack-dab in the presence of God?  How do you respond when you find yourself the recipient of a sacred message?


Our Presiding Bishop, Frank Tracy Griswold, describes these as ‘God-moments’?  Sometimes, these can come as gentle as an “ah-ha” moment of insight – often catching you unaware and from a most unexpected source.  While I won’t deny the subtle but effective power of these kairos moments of the in-breaking of heaven on earth, the temptation is to romanticize or spiritualize them and therefore, blunt their true power.


Take, for example, this story of the visitation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), in what is recorded in the language of the institutional church as “The Annunciation.” I don’t think even Mary, long reported as “meek and mild” would have described this event in that kind of emotionally distant, almost clinically sterile terms. 


Perhaps there are no words to adequately describe such an encounter.  What can you say, what can you do, when you find yourself face-to-face with an event which will change your life?  Which has every potential to ruin your life? 


What can be said when you consider yourself young and fit and healthy, at the prime of your life, and suddenly find yourself listening to the results of your very routine annual physical examination and hear that you are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness?


What words adequately describe the intense soul-crushing pain when you hear that a long-term, committed relationship that you thought was going along okay, has long been experienced by your spouse or partner as so unsatisfactory that it is a sham and must come to an immediate end?  Indeed, you wake up one morning to find her gone?


When life seems to pull the rug out from under your feet and you find yourself in the midst of a plane crash, or a bank robbery or a fatal automobile accident, and you know that God is there, in the midst of your confusion, anxiety, suffering and pain, does “God-moment” really describe the situation?  Even though you know God has a message for you in the midst of this situation, could you really describe it as an ‘Annunciation’?


Feminist theologians have a different name for an encounter with God:  Shekinah. Author Kristin Johnson Ingram has probably given the best description of Shekinah I know, an excerpt of which was used as today’s Contemporary lesson.  Johnson explains that Shekinah (she-KI-nah or SHEK-I-nah) is a transliteration of a Hebrew word not found in the Bible but used in many of the Jewish writings to speak of God’s presence.  The term has a feminine gender and means, “that which dwells.” It is implied throughout the Bible whenever it refers to God’s nearness either in a person, object, or God’s glory. It is often used in combination with glory to speak of the presence of God’s shekinah glory. (Daughters of Sarah, Spring, 1994)


Johnson says, “I sometimes prayed to her, calling her Lady and Sister; I waited for her beside quiet pools and in the fern light depths of the woods. I listened for her in the voices of flutes and harps, sought a vision of her in moments of peace.”


Who among us has not taken refuge in the quiet stillness of monasteries and convents to wait patiently for the Lord?  How many of us have taken this very passage of scripture to our retreats, or used this passage as the centerpiece of our Advent meditations?  We imagine Mary, meek and mild, walking in the garden of her parent’s comfortable, middle class home in Nazareth, in the very cosmopolitan, multicultural region of Galilee. 


Who has not listened to a guided imagery of this encounter with the Angel Gabriel who brought Mary a message from God which was about to ruin her life:  a young woman, not yet married but engaged to an older man, a virgin to the experience of sexual intercourse, is told that she is pregnant. “Fear not!” says Gabriel to Mary, who says, “Behold! I am the handmaid of the Lord.”


Oh, come on!  I don’t think so! When you have had an encounter with the glory of God, the appropriate in-the-moment answer sounds a bit more pedestrian (and perhaps even vulgar) than the soaring poetry of the Magnificat. I don’t think I have to spell that out any more specifically for THIS crowd.


Maybe later.  Much later.  After the shock and the disbelief.  After the tears and the wailing.  After the confusion and disillusion and frustration.  And, often, long after the therapy bills have been paid.  Then, comes the acceptance.  Then, perhaps comes the insight about the lessons learned.  And maybe, even some gratitude.


We may never know the why’s and the where fore’s – not in this life anyway – but we may begin to understand the ‘what’s’ and the ‘so-what’s’ and the REAL price that has been paid.  Then, perhaps you can sing a song like the Magnificat. Or, the song by Mary Chapin Carpenter, which I consider a modern-day Magnificat: 


In this world there’s a whole lot of sorrow / In this world there’s a whole lot of shame / In this world there’s a whole lot of sorrow/ An a whole lot of ground to gain / Why spend your whole life wishing / Wanting and wondering why / It’s a long enough life to be living / Why walk when you can fly


It is a good thing we do, this very human exercise of marking and naming and hallowing time.  Today is the first day of the Season of Advent.  For a time, we will begin to engage in the process of trying to prepare ourselves for the Coming of God in our lives. 

Those of you who have had an encounter with Shekinah may begin to giggle at this.  Yes, it does seem like an exercise in futility, doesn’t it?  How can you really prepare yourself for such an encounter?  As Johnson says, “Shekinah came not as a handmaiden but as a queen, not whispering but crying out like q hoyden in the streets, bringing no consolation but urgency of motion. . . . She moved over the face of the waters at Creation and caught the blood of the crucified Christ in her chalice. . . . She hovers over a woman kneading the Communion bread who wants to be a priest, and rushes on to dance on the teeth of a Colorado teenager who is determined to speak in tongues.”


The real failing of the institutional church as it attempts to prepare us for the Advent of God is that her priests and ministers don’t tell you about Shekinah.  It’s because we, too are afraid. Some of us would rather preach “peace, peace when there is no peace” (as the prophet Micah warned) because we fear that if we preach the truth about Shekinah, you’ll be so afraid, you won’t come back. And, how will we ever get your tithe?


I have known you long enough, however, to tell you the truth without risking your pledge of time, talent and treasure to this amazing church that has claimed a place on the outer edges of respectability and standards of mediocrity which the church as institution demands.  Indeed, I’m not telling some of you anything you don’t already know about the Advent of God in your lives.  The only thing I’m doing is giving it a name: Shekinah.


Author Annie Lamont says that the difference between spirituality and religion is that people who are religious go to church because they are afraid that they will go to hell.  Spiritual people go to church because they have already been to hell. While that makes me wince, I have to admit that much of my experience in the church affirms that.  Many of you know exactly what I’m saying.


And, many of you know me well enough to know that I am preaching more to myself than I am to you.  Yes, Shekinah has come to be with me for a time, and I am scared to death.  I am in the midst of one of the most painful, frightening times of vocational discernment I’ve known – well, since the last time anyway. 


Contrary to what the institutional church would like you to think, the process of vocational discernment is not the sole property of the Commission on Ministry, or the Bishop, or even Spiritual Directors.  It isn’t about becoming a priest, or a deacon or even anything to do with the church, necessarily. It’s about discovering what it is God wants you to do with the gifts you’ve been given. It’s about being visited by angels unawares who bring you confusing, confounding messages.  It’s about dancing with demons that tempt you to cross over boundaries of respectability and cross lines of propriety.  It’s about Shekinah coming in and ruining your life – taking your entire well thought out theologies and carefully laid plans and turning them upside down.


Johnson captures my response to this madness well:  “Act like God,” you yell at raucous, fecund Shekinah. She reminds you that she is acting like God, is as a matter of fact being God. . . Because she is ageless, so are you in her presence: she doesn’t care if you are fifteen or sixty-seven. Because she is tireless, so are you when you’re full of her, writing or sculpting or singing or rocking children into the night. Because she blesses Earth, she will drive you to making bread or shearing lambs, to preaching or painting, to using your hands to bless when you are in her presence. She will swallow you alive and make you more yourself than you dreamed you could be.”


See what I mean? There is reason to be afraid in this Season of Advent, this Time of Shekinah – “that which dwells.”   And, yet, I think the message that the Angel Gabriel gave to Mary is absolutely right.  “Fear not!” is exactly the message I want to give to you, despite what I’ve told you about Shekinah. Even in the midst of this time of turbulence in my life, what has given me strength and hope is the knowledge that you are here.


Fear not, because we are not alone. Fear not, because we have each other. Fear not, because even though we don’t seem to have any time left in the day, one of us will make time for the other who is in need. Fear not, because we will walk with each other and hold each other’s hand and wipe away the tears that fall from each other’s eyes. 


Fear not, because even though the world seems to be against us, we are for each other.  Fear not, because when we are with each other and for each other, the miracle of new life takes place. Fear not, because some how, in some way, when we are with each other in community the pain will, in time, subside, the confusion will abate, and we will rediscover that we are loved and valued.


Fear not, because, once we remember that we have worth and that we are loved, eventually, a job will be found, the bills will get paid, the kids will be fed, Christmas will be filled with wonder, and God will surprise us with a most amazing gift.  A new part of our selves will emerge – an infant self, which Shekinah has breathed upon and blessed and brought to new life for a salvific miracle. {Shekinah} is not only holy but determined to make you holy, too. She urges you to eat, yes, just a little of this bread, and here, drink some of this wine {or juice}, just to wash it down, just so you’ll grow strong, just so you’ll be fit for the {Realm of God}.


If you use this passage from Luke’s gospel as part of your Advent meditation, don’t forget to include Shekinah. Wait a minute. Never mind.  Shekinah doesn’t need an invitation. She’ll come into your life the very second that your forget yourself for a moment and begin to pray, and then there she’ll be – disturbing the serenity of the convent close or speaking words through a serendipitous encounter with a stranger.


If you listen closely, you’ll hear the song she placed in Mary’s mouth.  The men who reported it didn’t quite understand Shekinah – the language she was using.  That would come later. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” he said she said.  What Shekinah sang was “Why Walk When You Can Fly.” And, that was the question to which Mary said, “Yes.”


And in this world there’s a whole lot of golden / In this world there’s a whole lot of plain / In this world you’ve a soul for a compass / And a heart for a pair of wings / There’s a star on the far horizon / Rising bright in an azure sky / For the rest of the time that you’re given / Why walk when you can fly.  +In the name of God. Amen.


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