As a Little Child. Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

Luke 2:41-52

41 Now every year the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

The two large stained glass windows in our sanctuary on either side of the room have become for me a symbol of what we have inherited from the Christian Church of the past. For one, there is incredible beauty in them. The dedication, the faith, that went into them is amazing. They are a gift to us not only from the particular glass artists but the people who built this congregation and its building and the generations of Christian artists before them. We follow in an astounding tradition of faithful men and women who proclaimed the glory of God through word and music and visual art. I am so grateful for such saints.

At the same time, like the legacy of the church of the past, there are pieces of these windows that make me uncomfortable. Above all, I’m rather embarrassed by how European the figures look. These windows, along with much of Western art, portray Jesus and his contemporaries as looking much more like they lived in Germany or England or Denmark than in Palestine. And the lack of diversity among the crowd does not reflect the church of today or, in fact, of any time in history. We’re slowly learning, as the church, to correct the mistakes of our artistic representations. We’re also working, again slowly, to dismantle the institutional racism that has also sadly marked the church, a church that has too often been exclusive and fearful of difference.

One other argument I’d make with this window in particular is that its depiction of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple does not look like many 12-year-olds I know. He’s standing there holding forth among the priests of the temple, commanding their undivided attention and respect. It’s one thing for Jesus to be precocious, but this boy does not seem to me to be very human.

I find that to be a problem because the Gospel writer takes great care to explain that Jesus was really human. He was born like we were, and he grew up just as we do. Now, we don’t hear much about his growing up years. This is the only childhood story of Jesus that we have in the Bible. Luke jumps from his infancy to this visit to Jerusalem all in one chapter. And in the next chapter, Jesus is thirty-years-old at his baptism. This short passage from Luke 2 is our only glimpse into what life was like for the child messiah. But it is enough to remind us of the real, human childhood of Christ.

There are some other non-biblical texts about a young Jesus. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is the most famous of them. It describes a magical, wonder-working child who was learning how to use his powers for good and not for evil. It contains fascinating stories of a mischievous Jesus, but there again he doesn’t seem very human. Those verses seem less a description of real incarnation than a superhero origin story, where a spiritual force gets somehow trapped inside a child’s body.

I think stories such as those reflect the discomfort that church has often had in imagining that God could be truly present in something as ordinary—as human—as childhood. People of faith throughout the centuries have wrestled with the idea that the eternal and perfect God could coexist with a childhood life of change and development and vulnerability. Can God grow?

Maybe we have similar difficulty with the story of Jesus lost in the temple. We imagine Jesus stumping all of the great teachers of Jerusalem with his questions and dazzling them with his own insight. Then when Mary and Joseph finally find him after their desperate search, he responds calmly, “why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I would be here?”  He might not appear to act much like a real child.

But remember that he didn’t stay in the temple. He went home and was obedient to his parents. Because while he may have been precocious, he was still a child. In Jerusalem, he was curious. He asked questions in the temple. He listened to what others had to say. He explored the city and big ideas to the point of losing track of time and forgetting to join his family on their trip home. And he also needed guidance from parents to help him grow. His parents shared with him the religious faith and teachings of previous generations. They brought him to the temple, they participated in the festivals, they shared the scriptures. And at the same time, Jesus asked questions and challenged some of those traditions. In doing so, he grew not only in years but in faith, not only in knowledge but in wisdom. Jesus was a real child like so many others.

So perhaps today, just two days after our celebration of Christmas and remembering that God is with us in our world and in our lives, it is good for us to remember that God is present in our learning and growing, too. One of our Christmas Carols, Once in Royal David’s City, proclaims:

Jesus is our childhood’s pattern,

 Day by day like us he grew.

I’ve spent enough time with confirmation students to know that 12-year-olds can ask profound questions. It’s not so surprising to me that a young person would a) be interested in discussing matters of faith and b) impress religious teachers with what they have to say. As I’m preparing for a confirmation retreat in a few weeks, this passage reminds me to plan for at least as much time for the ideas and questions that they bring as the material that I want to teach. Both are necessary. And God is present in both.

This is good news not only for young people but for adults as well. God is present in the growing. God is present in our own learning and questioning and challenging of the traditions of the church. We can acknowledge that the church has sometimes erred in how it seeks to live out God’s intentions while still remaining solidly in the Christian community and tradition. We can admit that we have more growing to do, more wisdom to gain. Yet we still can boldly proclaim that God is present with us, here an now.

Maybe that’s a message proclaimed by this other stained glass window. Jesus there receives the children and says that if any of us want to experience the commonwealth of God, we ought to become just like a child. We need to maintain an openness to growing and learning and changing. Like Jesus, it might do us good sometimes to get lost in wonder and our questions and our curiosity about God and God’s world. We must never lose a child’s awareness or the courage to ask, “why is this so?” We’re also given the gift of childlike trust in God’s future.

So then, maybe this passage about the twelve-year-old Jesus is not just describing a phase that he later grew out of. Perhaps God is uniquely revealed in this childlike wonder and openness that can mark a whole lifetime.

I was reminded this week of a quotation by writer Madeline L’Engle from her memoir, A Circle of Quiet.  She writes of herself:

I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be… This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide… Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don’t ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and be fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.

God did not become human so that we could deny our humanness but become more fully human, more fully who we are. If God could be present in something so common and ordinary as childhood development and growth, then God could certainly be present among other things we consider ordinary. God can be present in a South Minneapolis church—in Christmas worship, lighting candles and singing carols; in bread broken and wine poured; in the prayers of our hearts and the work of our hands and feet. God is still made incarnate in a church seeking new wisdom and learning to live more fully into God’s dream. God is with us.

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Christmas Sermon: When There Is No Room

Christ was born that we may have love.

Christ was born that we may have light.

Christ was born that we may have peace.

Christ was born that we may have joy.

Love, light, peace, and joy. I pray that these may be yours this Christmas and throughout the year.

I don’t know about you, but for me it is easier tonight to remember Christ’s love, light, peace, and joy than it is at other times of the year. On a night like tonight we have so many symbols and reminders of what Christ brings–candles, hymns, children’s beautiful voices, this amazing Gospel story that again fills us with wonder, depictions of the nativity surrounded by animals and straw–these all serve to remind us of what the birth of Christ child means for our world.

At this time of year, many of us decorate our homes with such reminders. My family and I decorated our home. We have a lighted tree and advent candles and not one but two nativity scenes. One is made from olive wood that originates from somewhere near Bethlehem, and it is placed neatly on the mantle over the fireplace in our living room, with just a few green pine branches spread around it. The figures all face toward the center where Mary and Joseph sit with the baby Jesus lying in the manger.

The other nativity set in our home is a plastic one manufactured by Fisher Price and sits—most of the time—on the floor by our Christmas tree. Depending on the mood of our two young children, the figures may be facing the center or spread around the room. Standing up on top of the stable might be the angel figure, as intended, or alternatively a shepherd, or even the baby Jesus himself. And some days I discover that nativity set filled not only with the usual biblical characters but also Lego people and Disney princesses and possibly a Star Wars character or two. I think Chewbacca might be at the manger right now.

There’s no question that neither of these nativity scenes bears much resemblance to what it was like on the night Jesus was born. But I’ve started to look at that second one—the messy, chaotic, busy one—as a messenger of sorts of an important spiritual lesson of Christmas. Whatever that night was like, it was not very peaceful, either before or after the birth. When we read the Nativity story from Luke’s Gospel, we hear quite clearly that Mary laid the baby Jesus in a manger because there was no place for him the inn. Now, in my imagination, I have often pictured the desk clerk at Bethlehem’s version of a Radisson Hotel saying, “Sorry, all filled up,” forcing the Holy Family to go on a sort of camping trip out back. The cattle are gently lowing, the sheep graze in the distance, and a dazzling array of stars lights up the clear sky. Not a bad way to spend a night, really.

But when the Gospel of Luke says “inn,” it actually means something like a guest room. Most houses, though small, had a place where guests could stay. And the manger was probably located not outside but in the lower level of the house where animals and people alike walked through and went about their very busy day. It wasn’t a quiet camping scene but a loud and frantic and crowded house. People were spilling out of every room. As a poem in our Advent worship a week ago pointed out, there is a “bitter shame common among the poor of having no privacy.” Certainly, for Mary and Joseph and the newborn baby Jesus, there was no privacy, no quiet, no peace. After their long, unexpected, and involuntary migration far from home, they found that there was barely any room at all.

What kind of a world could not make room for the birth of Jesus?

That’s the question I’ve started asking myself every time I look at our children’s messy nativity scene at the base of the Christmas tree. What kind of world could not make room for Jesus?

It’s the question that was on my mind one day when, thumbing through a magazine, I saw a photo of about 25 Syrian refugees piled onto a small inflatable raft, paddling across the Aegean Sea. It seemed to me they could barely move, crowded together as they were. And still these families had embarked on a long journey, not knowing whether they would find a welcome at the end of it but going nonetheless because what they were leaving behind was simply unlivable. Here is the world, it occurred to me, which cannot make room for Jesus. Here is the world which still has very little space for the incarnation of God.

Across the world and in our own neighborhoods it so often seems that there just isn’t room. The earth is too full, our own lives are too full for such things as love, light, peace, and joy.

But then tonight we hear that Christ was born into a busy and crowded house where there was such little room. Tonight we are reminded of an astonishing promise: even when it doesn’t seem like there’s room—especially when it doesn’t seem like there’s room—God will be with us. God will be with you. This is how great God’s love is for this earth and all its inhabitants.

Rejoicing in that promise, perhaps we will be inspired to make a little more room for the things that the birth of Christ promises:

For love…for neighbors and strangers and for all of creation

For the light of hope…that protests against cynicism and fear and despair

For peace…between people and between nations

And for the joy of recognizing how meaningful and valued life is

Christ is not born only when there is love, light, peace, and joy but when they are needed. This is how much God loves this world. Thanks be to God that Christ has come to us tonight.

Blessed Are You. A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent

Luke 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,  where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit  and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

As powerful as Mary’s story and Mary’s song are, there’s much that I want to know about the events not told in the Gospel story today. Perhaps I should be more comfortable with the mystery of it all and simply receive the passage as it comes to us rather than trying to fill in the spaces. Perhaps my questioning reflects a desire to grasp and control the story instead of allowing it to do its work on me. But I still want to know why Mary would travel to the hill country to see her cousin Elizabeth, why she decided to leave Joseph and her community at this time, and most of all, why she went with haste. Was it her choice to get away for a while, or had the decision been made for her? Was she, in fact, forced to leave town in order to save herself and her family from the shame of an untimely pregnancy?

I can’t finally answer these questions, of course, just as one can never presume what another person might be experiencing in any circumstance. A pregnancy is an especially complicated time, often filled with joy and excitement and worry and wondering. Many women have gone through it, but I doubt that any two women have experienced it in exactly the same way. Mary and Elizabeth would have had very different experiences—Mary being so young, and Elizabeth being so old. Maybe there was shame for both of them, maybe there was great fear, certainly there was similar astonishment over the whole thing.

Whatever the two women might have been feeling about the events taking place in their lives, another astonishing thing happened when Mary approached Elizabeth’s house. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, overflowed with joy and blessing: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” she said. And in response, Mary sang out her song of joy: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Two women, in a precarious position out in the hill country of Judea, blessed one another through their presence and words and singing together. And we, like generations before us, are also blessed.

More than all of my questions about this passage, it is the power of blessing others that has struck me this week of final preparations for Christmas. When peace and joy seem lacking in our world, we would do well to follow the example of Mary and Elizabeth and bless one another. Amazing things can happen when we allow God’s grace to overflow as they did.

Peter Marty wrote about blessing in his column last month The Lutheran magazine. He was prompted to reflect on the topic after an experience at his son’s wedding. He said that thirty minutes before the ceremony, the officiating rabbi invited the whole family into a dining hall outside the chapel. He announced that every person of the wedding party, each family member and friend, was going to whisper a private blessing the two getting married. And that’s what happened. Each person followed in turn, whispering words of love to the couple before giving them a kiss on the cheek—one after another. What a gift that must have been.

I have to confess that if I were an attendant in the wedding, I would feel at least a little uncomfortable being asked to bless on the spot. Even with some time to prepare, giving a blessing to another person is not something most of us are particularly accustomed to doing. But maybe we need a little more practice.

Several years ago, I visited St. Meinrad Benedictine Monastery in southern Indiana. It’s a beautiful site, founded nearly 200 years ago, and it’s now home to a theological school and a community of about 100 monks. One of those brothers, one who lived and prayed at that place for decades, gave me a tour that day. He knew the campus better than anyone, I imagine, and he didn’t just tell me about the various rooms but as he slowly shuffled through the halls he also shared personal stories about the artists who had worked there and whom he had known. “See that sculpture,” he asked? “That face was modeled after one of my friends who died a couple of years ago.” Along the way, he talked about trips he had taken all around the world and even a visit he had with Mother Teresa.

Then at the end of the tour, standing in the great worship space before evening prayer, he said to me, “Before I go, would you give me a blessing?” I must have looked puzzled, so he said, “I don’t think we bless one another enough, so if you don’t mind, I’d like you to bless me.” Then he bowed his bald head in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought of reminding him that I wasn’t Catholic and explaining that we Lutherans don’t do this sort of thing. I also didn’t feel qualified to offer him a blessing; he seemed like a sort of spiritual superhero to me at the time. What did I have to give him? After pausing a second, I reached out my hand and made the sign of the cross on his head. I think I said, “Almighty God bless you now and forever.” He smiled and said thank you. But still, I couldn’t help but think that he was looking for something else.

I’ve thought about that moment from time to time over the past dozen years. I’ve decided that if I had it to do over, I would give a different blessing. I would say something like, “I give thanks to God for you…for your wise, courageous, and gentle spirit. Your dedication to a life of prayer inspires me, and the time you have spent with me has blessed me. May you know just how delighted God is with you, now and always.”

Well, I don’t have it to do over. I don’t remember the monk’s name, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is no longer living. But I do have plenty of opportunity each day to bless others—family, friends, and even new acquaintances.

Peter Marty writes:

To bless another person involves more than communicating some vague expression of goodwill, though we often do that when someone sneezes. The act of blessing actually transfers a portion of our soul’s energy and vitality into the soul of another. This is what happens when parents lean over their child’s crib to sing a lullaby or pray their little one to sleep. This speaking a word of grace and power is what occurs during a Christian healing service when participants discover, through the anointing grace of a friend or pastor, that the Lord’s grasp on their life is stronger than the grip of any personal affliction besieging them.

Mary’s beautiful and powerful song, which we know as the magnificat, is a song of praise and joy even in the midst of what I can only assume was an overwhelming, fearful time. She expresses the greatness of God and gratitude for her own blessedness. God has chosen her and blessed her with astounding grace. And God’s grace is for the whole world.

In a poem about Mary, Pastor Michael Coffey writes:

You magnify us with your round looking glass

and see our microscopic lives as large

and our greatness you smoke out with focused light

These lines give me another definition of blessing: to magnify the greatness in other people, to hold up a magnifying glass so that they and others can see the gifts of God that they bear and uniquely give birth to in the world.

As a church, we can bless one another. In fact, we do bless in this way whenever we celebrate a baptism. We say to the children of God at the font that they are blessed, that each one has a unique light for shining in the world. But our blessing shouldn’t end when the water has dried. Each of us needs to hear this promise of grace repeatedly. Each of us needs blessing.

Blessing, Mary reminds us, is both for us and for the whole world. After being blessed by Elizabeth, Mary describes God’s wonderful intentions for the world, where value is not associated only with power and might, where goodness is present in places of poverty, too, and where the weak are treasured. It’s a world where blessing is discovered and publically called out even in the most surprising places. There may be fear and worry and injustice and a lack of peace in our world, but the world, Mary proclaims, is about to turn.

Mary, the mother of God, the prophet of salvation, blesses us. She helps to see the greatness of our own lives and the world around us. In the face of fear and despair, she leads us to sing with defiant hope our songs of joy. And it all began with a blessing.

 

Prophets in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

3In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight the paths of God. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

There were plenty of voices. There usually are. Even before sophisticated broadcast media, there were public figures who commanded widespread attention. Even before social media, there were people accustomed to being followed and heard, people such as the priests Annas and Caiaphas, the rulers Lysanias and Philip and Herod, the governor Pontius Pilate, and above all, Emperor Tiberius. Luke makes it clear for us that there were many voices of authority in that specific location of geography and time. But amid that cacophony of worldly powers, the word of God came to the wilderness, off-center, to a place of quiet vulnerability. It came through an unknown prophet, the son of unknown parents.

There, in the wilderness, a voice cried out: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall the salvation of God.”

This word came from nowhere—outside the spotlight, anyway. John did not possess the training or authority of the priests and prophets of the big city. His methods were suspect, certainly unusual. It doesn’t seem to be good community organizing strategy to call your followers names like, “you brood of vipers.” John had an unusual way of doing things. Maybe the hierarchy of power believed they could just ignore John; he couldn’t do too much damage out there in the wilderness.

But God has a way of making preparations in wilderness places. And what the prophet was calling for would affect all people in the cities and towns and wherever they lived. He was calling out systems that were crooked in God’s eyes, yet had become so common in his world. He was inviting people into a new community of peace, where the proud and haughty could humble themselves and the poor and beaten down could rise up and claim their value as God’s children.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” he said. “Don’t delay any longer in being about the business of justice and peace.”

John is not alone in offering this vision of a community of peace, though he must have felt that way. It is the call of the prophets of the past and can be heard in every age. And these prophetic voices often come to us from the margins. The word of God is still heard.

I want to share with you that your staff here at Holy Trinity spent some considerable time this week wondering together about the voices we are called to listen to in our time and place. Specifically, we have been talking about how we as a church congregation might be peacemakers in our city right now in a unique time of questions, frustration, and protest over matters of racial injustice. Within the context of so many speeches and opinions, which is the voice, we asked together, that we ought to listen to. Whose voice might be preparing the way of Christ this Advent?

Some of us visited the 4th Precinct protest in North Minneapolis during the 18 days of assembly there. We brought hot chocolate and food and our prayers because we believe there is a movement for justice that deserves our support. I may not know exactly where it is leading, but I believe there are voices that still need to be heard. Offering support to those voices may be part of how we will observe Advent this year.

As you may know, the protesters were cleared from that site on Plymouth Avenue, but the questions, the frustration, and yes, the protesting continues. I was not at City Hall on Thursday afternoon when the protesters moved to that location, but I watched from home on my computer monitor and heard several compelling voices. I heard a pastor I respect very much, Pastor Brian Herron, call for more accurate descriptions in the public of what went on at that 4th Precinct assembly. He said:

If you’re going to tell the story of this protest, tell the truth. What started out as a protest began to build community…We have to tell our story. People don’t know how many folks were talked out of burning and shooting and were brought into the camp, and they began to find new purpose and new meaning, and then they began to see their community differently than what they ever saw before. Nobody’s talking about all the businesses that brought food…or that people from the community and outside the community began to bring all kinds of gloves and hats and wood and scarves. There wasn’t anything violent about that place; it was a place of peace. And anybody who entered that place began to feel the peace. It was a place where people could express their grief and their anger in a safe way.

The leaders of that protest, the women and men who brought people of many races and religions and backgrounds together in order to be heard are building communities of peace. It’s an active peace. It can be disruptive, too, but there are voices that need to be heard for the sake of the peace of Jesus.

There was one night of tension at that protest, of course, when individuals from outside that community came and brought violence into a place intended for peace—yet another incidence of gun violence in our nation. The next morning was particularly heavy as the news came out that five protesters had been wounded. In that week of speeches by the mayor, the police chief, the Governor, a U.S. Representative, the head of the NAACP, pastors, and other leaders, the voice that seemed to me to most prepare the way of Christ cried out in a north Minneapolis elementary school. Lucy Laney Principal Mauri Melander addressed her students and faculty over the school intercom that morning. She fully acknowledged the violence of the night before, saying, “This morning our hearts are heavy, and we feel deeply burdened for the pain that’s happening in our community.” But then she continued:

We are thankful for you…We are going to spend this day full of thankfulness and overflowing with peace, calm, and love even in the midst of the non-peace, the non-calm, and the non-love that’s happening around us…We will support each other, and we will stand with each other, and we will lift each other up and will be thankful for each other. All. Day. Long.

In an urban elementary school, a principal’s inspiring word happened to catch the attention of the local news because it’s so clear that it, too, is a voice worth listening to. She is building a community of peace.

The Word of God, a word of active peace and persistent hope, is still heard in our world, and it is often heard in places where we might not naturally give our attention. This is the word around which the church is built and continues to exist. A London priest, Samuel Wells, says, “Jesus didn’t found the church on the so-called center—the sorted, the normal, the benevolent, and the condescending. Jesus assumed the church would always need the work of the Holy Spirit—the work or miracle of subversion, of turning the world upside down.” This is the church that we are a part of today. So we know that the Spirit can be at work among us, too.

So let’s be the church this Advent. Let’s listen for the Word of God, alive still today. Don’t wait for it to take shape in the so-called center, “normal” places in the world, or you’ll miss it. Don’t wait until everything is put together all in place in yourself, either. The renewal of Christ’s church comes from the margins, from the wilderness places.

Renewal does come. It will come. Let us pray and keep watch that it may come among us.