Learning to Hold the Child

 

The gospel according to Luke, the second chapter:

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

When I visit new parents in the hospital or in their homes, they almost always ask me if I’d like to hold their beloved newborn. My answer is “yes,” of course. But I admit that I have some fear and trepidation every time they lift the child and place her in my arms. My apprehension arises out of an acute awareness that the baby I’m about to hold is, at least in that moment, the most important thing in the whole world.

I wonder if Mary, Joseph, and the field hands had similar feelings. Angels has warned them that this baby was above average, that this tiny thing had the power to save the world. Knowing what they knew, then, I wonder if Mary was tempted, like many of the mothers I know, to bubble wrap baby Jesus. I wonder if Joseph, like many new parents, held the baby with those awkwardly scrunched shoulders and tight arms. I wonder if the shepherds, when Jesus was lifted from the manger and placed against their scratchy tunics, had the sense they would have done almost anything to keep him from all harm his whole life long.

My mother tells a story of her first months of motherhood. She was home alone with my eldest brother, Bjorn. She bundled him up, and walked out to the end of the driveway to the mailbox. Just as she was reaching to open the mailbox, she slipped, Bjorn lurched, and before she knew it, he had fallen out of her arms onto the gravel road. My mother wept for the rest of day, believing herself to be the worst caregiver that had ever walked the earth. If she could have put him in an impenetrable snowsuit for the rest of his life, I’m certain she would have.

The business of love is hard. It makes us want to protect, at all costs, the objects of our affections, whether they be our children, our spouses, our parents, or our friends. But as much as we’d like to bubble wrap those we love, C. S. Lewis writes that “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything; and your heart will certainly be wrung; and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…it will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable…”[i]

In the story of the incarnation, God takes on the vulnerable, risky business of love. God opens her heart up to being wronged, even broken. In a rural town with rural people, God chooses to take on flesh for the sake of the whole world. This isn’t a bubble-wrapped baby or an impenetrable king. This is love incarnate. And all of us—Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, you and I—are tasked with learning how to hold such love when it’s placed in our arms.

Peter Marty, a pastor in Davenport, Iowa, writes about his wife Susan’s traumatic brain injury a few years ago. After Susan collapsed on the kitchen floor, she was rushed to the local hospital where scans revealed a massive brain hemorrhage. She was airlifted to the University of Iowa Hospital. She was in the intensive care unit there for fifty days, not a day of which she remembers.

Peter Marty says those days taught him some powerful lessons about nonpossesive living. He writes that “[one bishop] in the Russian Orthodox Church, says that if you hold on to something too tightly, you risk limiting the beauty of what your clinging to. You will also lose the use of your hands to that object…[As I watched Susan during some of her toughest days,] I thought to myself that if we are not permitted to possess some of the best things in life—grace and love, for example—why is it that we grip our favorite relationships so tightly?”

Marty says that before his wife’s aneurysm, he knew that life was a gift to be shared, not a possession to safeguard. But after they survived such an ordeal, he knew much more about nonpossesive love. They had learned to hold each other loosely.[ii]

I think the world’s current state of affairs can lead us into two unhelpful directions. On the one hand, we are tempted to give our hearts to no one, to say the problems are too great, to choose unbreakability and impenetrability for the sake of our own safety and comfort. On the other hand, we can cling ever so tightly to that which we love, and, in the process, risk limiting the beauty of whatever it is we are clinging to.

When Paul and I lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we had a walking path we took almost every night. At the end of the workday it was wonderful to have two miles where didn’t make a single decision. There were no disagreements about turning right or left; heading this way or that way. We always took the same path.

That path always took us down Center Avenue and past a house that took their statues and yard art very seriously. There were saints, and butterflies, and grazing deer galore. It was well-kept. It was perfect. My favorite statue of them all was the Madonna and Child that was positioned near the edge of the lot. It was about waist-high. Mary was dressed in a flowing blue robe. The baby Jesus was round and wonderful. And if passersby looked closely, they saw that the statue was chained to the nearby pine tree.

I used to remark to Paul as we walked by, “No one is going to steal their Mary, their Christ child!”

Duke theologian Christina Cleveland writes that “more often than man of us would like to admit, powerful Christians have held captive the truth of the incarnation.” Cleveland says, “This season, in a year which we need Christ’s liberating power more than ever, let’s release the truth of the incarnation. Let’s speak the truth. Let’s write songs of liberation. Let’s step outside our individualistic cocoons so we can stand in generous, cross-cultural solidarity with people who have stories, joys, and pains that are nothing like our own. Let’s fight against the systems of oppression and for the poor, the captive, and the sick.”

Rather than chaining Christ to our pine tree, let’s allow him to lead us into incarnate love.

This past week, I sat with two of Holy Trinity’s ninety-year-olds and read the gospel passage we just heard. When I finished reading, one of them said, “I choose to believe it’s true—that God really became one of us.” I said, “Yes, I do, too.” We gather and sing and pray today because we believe that God chose the way of vulnerability, that God chose the way that would inevitably lead to a broken heart, that God chose the way of liberating love.

All of this through a tiny baby who has just be placed in our arms.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves.

[ii] Marty, Peter. “Holding Each Other Loosely: After My Wife’s Brain Aneurysm.” Christian Century, August 2015.

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The Face of Christ. Jay’s Christmas Eve sermon

The birth of Jesus, according to Luke, the 2nd chapter.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

There are many worship experiences that stand out in my memory, including past Christmas Eves in this very room. But I’d like to share one service in particular that I’ve thought a lot about this year. Unlike tonight, there were only a few dozen worshippers in that service, and we gathered together in a tight circle, some sitting on chairs and most sitting directly on the wooden floor. Ranging in age from 12 to 60, each one of us held a lit candle in one hand to illuminate the pages of the worship book in the other hand. Though we did sing “Silent Night” to close worship, it wasn’t a Christmas Eve service. It was July at Camp Christikon in Montana, where I had traveled with nine amazing Holy Trinity students and two equally amazing adult leaders. We worshiped together many times during that trip, but on that evening we closed the day with a service of compline, using worn copies of an old green hymnal called the Lutheran Book of Worship.

At one point, the camp director and leader of the service paused a moment and commented that he believed there was nothing quite as beautiful as the human face lit by candlelight. “Look around at one another,” he said. We did. And after a bit of silence, he said, “Perhaps you will see the very face of Christ.” And we did.

Where do you see the face of Christ? It may be in any number of people—in friends and strangers, people in need and with blessings to share, loved ones and enemies. Perhaps the simplest way of saying it is that Christ may be seen in the people who come into your life in any given moment.

Christ is present among us. It’s a simple idea, but like many spiritual truths it is at once ordinary and rich with meaning, with the potential for a lifetime of contemplation. The living Christ is not confined to a book or to churches and other holy places but is found in the everyday world, right where we live each day.

I think the reason I have thought of that service at camp so often since July is because this message is so easy to forget. We rarely have the time to pause and look and be reminded of Christ’s presence among us. Especially at Christmas time, when many of us come to worship nearly exhausted by the preparations of meals and presents and programs and parties, there is little time, it seems, to contemplate spiritual matters. And not only that, but we may bring with us into our Christmas worship various burdens. Grief, sorrow, weariness, worries. We have many things occupying our attention.

Poet Claudia Rankine describes an incident on a crowded and busy subway train. A man rushes through and bumps into a boy, knocking him to the ground. In our fast-paced world of hurry, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. But when he keeps on moving as if nothing had happened, the boy’s mother grabs his arms and asks him to acknowledge it. “Look at the boy and apologize,” she says. It is another occasion when a person in a rush did not see another human being who was right in front of him. Perhaps, Rankine supposes, he has “never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.” The boy is an “other” to him—another race, another class, another world apart. Why take the time to acknowledge such a boy? But then, the mother says, “The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of bodyguards…like newly found uncles and brothers.”

The mother and her son were not alone, though at first they might have felt it. There were others to accompany them, to stand up for them, to acknowledge the value of their lives, to see them even as family. If you had been there on that subway perhaps you would have seen the very face of Christ.

The Gospel story of Christmas reminds me of two truths this year. First, I’m reminded that life for God’s people has always been in motion. Before the birth of Jesus, Mary travels to see her cousin for support during an unexpected pregnancy. Then she and Joseph are interrupted in their preparations by a worldwide census and forced to make the trip to Bethlehem. Angels suddenly appear to shepherds who then run with haste to find the baby. Later, a star calls magi to the road as well. In all of this, there is little time for stillness and quiet contemplation.

But the second truth of Christmas is that it is in the midst of chaos and confusion and just plain busyness that God chooses to be revealed, that God comes near to us. We are not alone. We never will be because nothing can separate us from God’s love. Our lives are valued that much. When the Gospel tells us that Mary pondered all these things in her heart, I don’t think it was after life calmed down—I don’t think it ever really did for her. Instead, it was in the midst of such things that she recognized God’s presence for her and for the whole world.

God is present in our world today as well, and this why we sing joyful hymns of praise tonight. When we look around during our singing of “Silent Night” tonight, with candlelit faces, it is a little easier to remember that Christ is present among us, that God is present in us and in our neighbor. It is true. But the story of the first Christmas pushes us to recognize the presence of Christ not only in the still and peaceful moments but also in the moments of unrest…in the times of turbulence and change and uncertainty. We can look for the face of Christ in the real pain, sorrow, and rejection of our human experience. We can find Christ in one another, in lives and perspectives that are very different from our own. We can find Christ in our own lives, no matter how far we feel from perfect or from God. Because God was born in this world, we can find Christ in all of creation, especially its longing to be healed.

Christ is born in Bethlehem and among us today. Maybe we don’t always recognize Christ’s presence, but the good news for us is that Christ comes nonetheless, ready or not, with persistent love.

Madeleine L’Engle writes of this love in her poem, “First Coming:”

God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace.

God came when the Heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.

God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.

God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait

Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame God came, and God’s Light would not go out…

We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,

For to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

 

 

 

 

God of Interruptions. Jay’s sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 There must have been a lot of sleepless nights—for Mary and Joseph, I mean. Most of our focus this time of year is on the night of the birth, and we know how difficult that was, traveling to Bethlehem, getting turned away from every inn. But what about all the nights leading up to that one? The fourth Sunday of Advent this year reminds us that it was a pregnancy fraught with worry from the very beginning.

The other Christmas Gospel writer, Luke, tells it mostly from Mary’s point-of-view. After the angel’s announcement of the child to be born, Mary goes to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. She needs advice and some courage. Perhaps she just needed to get away from the shaming glare of her neighbors, too, as rumors about her and her pregnancy circulated.

Matthew tells it differently. Matthew gives us Joseph’s perspective, primarily. It begins, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

“Found to be with child” we can understand, though it might make us wonder about how the news came to light. The second part about the Holy Spirit may provoke even more questions. Clearly, there wouldn’t have been any evidence available to Joseph or anyone else that it happened through divine intervention. Joseph had to assume it was the result of natural human biology. It was a scandal, a shock to Joseph, leaving him with what must have been the most difficult decision he would ever have to make. How many days, I wonder, did it take him to make up his mind? How many sleepless nights?

I imagine that most of us here know the feeling of staring at the ceiling and working a problem over again and again. I heard a therapist say that no problem gets resolved in the middle of the night. The middle of the night exacerbates our problems, and we don’t bring our best reasoning at that hour, so you’re better off getting up and doing something else. Leave the worries for the morning.

Maybe Joseph tried his best to do that, but he couldn’t avoid it for long. Being betrothed, or engaged, in that time of place was a contractual agreement that was just as binding as marriage. It just meant that they didn’t live together yet, but they were nonetheless a family unit. Joseph had to do something. The official rule in such a situation was that there should be punishment, even stoning, both for the mother and the father, if he was known. Joseph had to assume there was a father, so he must have felt the pain of betrayal that anyone in his situation would feel and paced his room in anger late into the night. Maybe he lay awake wondering who the other guy was. Maybe he wondered if Mary really loved him or if he would be a good father to this child and that the three of them would be happy.

Whatever the reasons, we’re told Joseph chose not to publicly accuse Mary. Instead, he made up his mind to quietly divorce her. “Dismiss her” is what it says in our Bibles, but again, their betrothal was a legal contract that required a legal certificate of dissolution. If Joseph gave her one, then she would be able to marry another. His responsibility and connection to her would be over, and she would be free to start a new life.

Joseph settled on his plan. He made up his mind. And then he was able to get some sleep.

And that’s when a third option came to him. Maybe it was because he was asleep that night, with a mind at rest, that God’s messenger got the idea through to him. In any case, the angel interrupted Joseph’s plan, righteous though it seemed to be. “Don’t be afraid, Joseph. You and Mary will have this child together. And you will name him Jesus, one who saves.”

A seminary teacher of mine, Paul Sponheim, used to say that we may most often meet God in the interruptions. In one of his books he says that it is in the moments that are not routine and seem to get in the way of what we think we know where God is often most present for transformation. An interruption may encourage you to think differently; it may open up new possibilities.

Here was an interruption like no other, and I don’t mean just getting woken up by an angel. A baby will always interrupt life as you know it, but a baby whose birth is surrounded by controversy and shame will drastically change one’s course of life. Through a dream, Joseph was able to recognize that God was present in the new dilemma which occupied his thoughts, and it changed everything. 

What do you do when meeting God in an interruption? Professor Sponheim has a suggestion:  “consider silence.”  Don’t start trying to make sense of it, in other words. When you’re brought up short by God in an interruption, keep silent. And if not silence, well, then try laughter. That could be an appropriate response, too, because joy can interrupt us as much as awe. The point is there needs to be a change: “silence for the infernally chatty among us. Laughter for the deadly serious,” Sponheim writes. In any case, an interruption has a way of shaking us up and getting us to listen to God in a whole new way. It is a pretty powerful thing when we can be interrupted enough to get us to listen.

I doubt that many of us have been awakened by angels, but could there be a message from God in the midst of other interruptions of life? Maybe God doesn’t cause the interruptions, but could God be present in them to get us thinking beyond our own plans, good and righteous as they might be, into a new way of thinking or living? Perhaps God is present in the interruptions most of all to help us imagine new possibilities.

On this last week before Christmas we are reminded that Jesus was born into the real world with all of its complexity. He lived his whole life with people in impossible situations who faced difficult decisions. He sought out people who knew shame and what it’s like to be ostracized from their communities. This is who Jesus was, and it was true from the beginning.

The pageants and artwork and carols of Christmas are all an important part of the season, but we can’t let them sentimentalize the story of Christ’s birth. Christmas is not just about God’s feelings toward humanity. It is, as John Nunes has put it, “a story of restorative love investing itself at the level of flesh.” This is a love that meets you where you are and jumps down into the pit with you when you’re there. This is the kind of love that is so powerful it can transform you and disrupt your life. It’s the kind of love that is real and tangible and now. God is truly with us now and always.