United Church of Jaffrey
To hear this sermon as preached from the back of a pickup truck in the parking lot of UCJ, please press play below…
I gave a sermon, a while back — it was probably over a year ago — back in the before times, when we were still in the sanctuary — (can you remember that far back?)…
Anyway, I can’t really remember the sermon, but I do remember that after the service was over, Dotty Bacon came up to me and remarked that the sermon was unusual.
“Oh really?” I said. “Why?”
“Well,” she said, “usually you tell a story. I kept waiting for you to tell a story, but you didn’t. This sermon was all about the scripture.”
Huh! She was right!
As I tell this story, I realize that I have been here, at UCJ, long enough now that the stories I tell in my sermons can be about things that we both experienced — you and I.
Which is a nice feeling.
Here’s another story from a more recent time.
I can’t tell you exactly which Sunday it was, but it was recent, because I remember how the sunlight was coming through the autumn trees over in the far side of the parking lot, and how this beautiful sight made me think about Cynthia Hamilton’s favorite hymn, when morning gilds the sky. I had given my sermon, and as I surveyed my improbable surroundings, I could hear some birds making off-hand comments in the treetops, and I could even hear, now and then, the rustle of a leaf or twig skittering across the slate roof of the church, riding gravity back down to our beloved earth.
I was feeling a kind of glow.
I’d managed, mysteriously, to accomplish, yet again, the odd and rather peculiar act of saying something about a divine fellow who lived long ago, in such a way that made a bunch of people I really love stop and go…
and I just felt good.
I knew in that moment that there was exactly nowhere else in the world that I wanted to be, then standing in the bed of a truck, in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in the shadow of the great mountain, together with all of you. Being here, and being who I am supposed to be, came together with a sudden bright clarity. It had the feeling of a kind of destiny — that I was meant to be here, and that by being here, with you, I was being the best version of myself I could imagine.
Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, had a word for this feeling. He called this Eudaimonia — a word, that is variously translated into English as “happiness” “fulfillment” or “blessedness.”
These translations, as nice sounding as they are, don’t do justice to what Aristotle meant to communicate with the word. To really appreciate Eudaimonia one must understand the central place this idea occupies in Aristotle’s understanding of ethics and virtue.
Every thing has a specific function — an end — a purpose that gives it meaning. A can opener, for example, is intended to open cans. The moment a can opener opens a can it fulfills its designated purpose achieving Eudaimonia — its highest good.
The same principle applied to humans, Aristotle thought — only humans are little more complex than can openers, so our destined purpose may be more difficult to discern. Aristotle suggested that it was up to each of us — indeed it is our moral duty — to do the necessary work to discover what purpose — what can each of us is meant to open. Were you meant to
paint a landscape?
engineer a suspension bridge?
Dance a tango?
Cultivate winter squash?
Perform a triple bypass surgery?
Write a book of poems?
Raise a family?
Cycle across Scandanavia?,
Care for the sick?
Play a Chopin etude?
Bake a pie?
Drive an elder to their doctor’s appointment?
It’s up to you to find out what your particular Eudaimonia is. When we find it, you will know it.
When you find it, it fills you up…
It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that it is on this, the third Sunday of Advent, when we have just completed the lighting of the candle of Joy, that we also happen to read and hear the lesson that we have just read and heard, from the gospel of Luke.
Because this reading isn’t just any old reading…
This reading is a very important and much celebrated passage in our religious tradition.
This reading, in fact, is among a handful of gospel readings that are so important to our tradition that they are known, not only by their chapter and verse numbers, but also by their own special name. Other examples of passages like this are
the “beatitudes” and
Each of these passages, we should be aware, is important not only for its theological and symbolic significance, but also for its role as a crucial moment in the life of the messiah.
This passage also celebrates an important moment — but, to be precise, it is not an important moment in the life of the messiah.
It’s an important moment in the life of the messiah’s mother. A young Jewish woman by the name of Mary.
This passage is called the “Magnificat.”
The word “Magnificat” sounds very much like our words “magnificent” and “magnify.” And indeed, the Latin verb, magnificat means “to magnify.”
The passage gets its name, then from the Latin version of the first line:
Magníficat ánima mea Dóminum.
Which can be translated as:
“My soul magnifies the Lord”
“My soul magnifies the Lord,”
I admit to you, though, that my first association with the word “magnify”, is not a religious one. As famous as this passage is, my first association with the word “magnify” is the glass disc like object on a stick that old Sherlock Holmes carries around, as he scrutinizes the scene of the crime looking for clues…
The magnifying glass.
But we are not concerned, this morning, with using this idea of magnification to find clues of nefarious activities.
Magnification — the idea of increasing the size of our experience — is this morning, a theological idea — an idea that has to do with God — or our experience of God.
I believe that when Mary declared that her soul magnified the LORD, she was experiencing a kind of Eudaimonia.
As she became aware of herself as a mother to be, she became aware of a deep fulfillment of purpose.
I must hasten, here, to say that I do not mean by this, that a woman’s purpose can only be as a bearer of children…
Certainly there are women whose Eudaimonia is not about being a mother.
Perhaps it can be said that when Mary accepted her role as a mother
she accepted a part in a larger narrative — a magnified narrative — one that would change the world.
Her words, in today’s reading, seem to be filled with an awareness of this magnified narrative.
She knows that the legacy of her act will stretch from generation to generation.
She knows that through her, God’s intention will scatter the proud and bring down the powerful from their thrones,
Through her, the lowly will be lifted up
the hungry will be filled with good things.
and through her, God will help Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
As a mother, Mary is now an agent of justice, a player in a story that
bends the arc of the moral universe toward Justice.
Through her act of love — her role as a mother — she grows in faith.