God’s Search for a Home

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here: 

In the year 1061, in Walsingham, in the East of England, a woman named Richeldis had a dream. In this dream, the Virgin Mary appeared and showed Richeldis the Holy House of Nazareth, the home where Mary lived with her parents, Joachim and Anna. This is where the Angel Gabriel came to greet her at the Annunciation. This is the place where first Jesus entered our world and became incarnate before being born in Bethlehem.

In the dream, Mary asked Richeldis to build a replica of the house there in Walsingham. A medieval poem (the Pynson Ballad) explains Mary’s reasoning: “All who are in any way distressed, or in need, let them seek me there in that little house you have made at Walsingham.  To all that seek me there shall be given succor.  And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my salutation when St Gabriel told me I should through humility become the mother of God’s Son.”

Walsingham became one of the great pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages, along with Jerusalem and Compostela in Spain. I’m partial to Walsingham because part of my family is distantly from that area. But even as I talk about Our Lady of Walsingham, that particular appearance of the Virgin Mary, I can almost hear my various ancestors arguing about her.  The Beddingfields who were priests and monks and nuns would be defending her. But the Methodist Floyds would perhaps be less enthusiastic. 

If you want to see an image of Our Lady of Walsingham, you can go to St. Thomas Church or the Church of the Resurrection.  But in some ways, the fact that Holy Trinity has no particular stature or shrine or chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary actually makes the point of today’s scriptures.  God wants to make a home with us—and that’s what the Virgin Mary points to again and again.  

In our first lesson (2 Samuel 7:1-1,16) there’s a lot of restlessness. King David is in his new house and he wants the same for his God. David wants to build a temple for God. “Here I am living in a great house of cedar, but the Lord God, Creator of the Universe, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, has to camp out in a tent.” And indeed, this is the way God has been moving around. Symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments) has moved around with the people of God with great care.

But God doesn’t want a house—not yet, anyway. God’s not ready. God says, “No David, I’ve got something else in mind.” “I’ve not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” I will make YOU a house, a dwelling to last forever.”

The word translated as tabernacle can mean several different things. It means “dwelling” and “residence.” Later, when Solomon does build a house for God, a temple, the tabernacle is a special part of that temple, in the sanctuary.

The aumbry, the little cupboard in the wall of our sanctuary is our tabernacle—it’s the place where the Holy Sacrament is reserved when we are not celebrating Holy Communion.  It’s where the sanctuary light burns to show that the Reserved Sacrament is inside.  It’s one dwelling place for God, but it’s not the only one. Even when a physical temple is built, the sense that God pitches a tent with his people is never lost.

We can see from God’s conversation with King David that God has a special place in mind. People thought then and (sometimes) now that God meant a physical place—a building, or a city, or country. But God means a person. God has a special place for Mary as a tabernacle, a dwelling place, a home from which other homes will also be born.

Karl Barth, one of the greatest Reformed theologians of the twentieth century wrote about Mary as “the moment” in our history when we were cleared of our sin, made holy by grace, and made ready to receive God’s presence, God’s Incarnation.  He wrote of Mary as that moment when God brought all these things together, for us.

And that moment is extended and reflected upon in today’s Gospel.

God chooses Mary as the new temple, the place to be born, to live and grow. This happens not so that Jesus can be a good guy, touch people for a few years, and then die a criminal’s death on the cross. Instead, God moves through the cross and brings Jesus to new life, continuing the story of salvation through the power of the cross. The cross redeems Adam and Eve. The cross raises Jesus, and redeems Mary the New Eve, and in so doing the cross creates a way for us.

Though we may cringe at the old phrase of “accepting Jesus in our heart”—it can remind us of evangelical coercion and religious bigotry—“accepting Jesus in our heart” is really what Christianity is all about. It’s about allowing God to be born in each one of us. Becoming a Christian involves allowing God to make a home in our heart, to dwell with us, to camp with us.

Not only is there a way is made for us to live eternally, but also here, in this life, we are made more. By allowing God to live in us, our hearts grow larger and more generous. As fear falls away, we grow in faith. We grow in forgiveness and acceptance and mercy. We grow in God.

The Good News of this day and this season is that God had a place for Mary. (From the beginning, through the Wisdom literature, with the prophets, in exile and in deliverance, in the Gospel, even on Calvary, and also on Easter Day.)

But the Good News is that God wants a place with us, as well.  We are not accidents. We did not “just happen.” Since the beginning of time, God has imagined you, and desired you, and loved you. God wants to be born anew in you and me and all the world, that the angels may have even more to sing about.

St. Ambrose, the 5th century bishop of Milan, in a commentary on the Gospel of Luke, urges us to

Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let her spirit be in each to rejoice in the Lord. Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith. Every soul receives the Word of God . . . [Our soul] proclaims the greatness of the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior.

Christians the world over sometimes refer to Mary as “full of grace.”  But the Blessed Virgin Mary is full of grace so that we might be too. Mary is blessed so that we might be too. Mary is made holy so that we might be holy too.

In this strange year of Christmas during Covid, most us will be celebrating a much more “homey” Christmas.  Though we will miss the caroling, the parties, the big gatherings, the packed church services—in some ways, this year invites us to be a little closer to that first Christmas.  Mary and Joseph had no real home. They didn’t know what the future would bring. They lived as refugees for a time, dependent on others, totally dependent on God.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, may we welcome God into our lives to fill the homes of our hearts, so that Christ will be born in new ways in US.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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