Hope Like Simeon and Anna

Scripture: Luke 2:21-40

The end of the year is usually a time of taking stock.  We look back on the year that has passed and we decide whether it’s been a good year or a bad one, or kind of a mixed bag; we think about the important things that have happened, that have changed our lives for better or for worse; we remember what’s happened in the world around us, the shootings and the Nazi rallies and the political drama and the celebrity deaths; and of course we decide what it is that we are going to change about ourselves in the new year.

Over the past couple years I’ve noticed a trend, which is increasingly to want to say good riddance to the old year which has not lived up to our expectations in any number of ways.  Maybe this isn’t a trend at all – maybe it’s just human nature, and we are tired, and when it feels like we are drawing to the end of one thing and something new is about to begin, we are just anxious to get on with it, for a sense of newness.  But somehow it seems like the despair and longing for a clean slate grows stronger every year, and on Facebook I see people posting good riddance to 2017 and everything it brought with it – as if 2018 will magically be different.  And maybe it will.

Since this does seem to be a very human thing, let’s start here.  It’s December 31, the last day of 2017; tomorrow is a new page on a new calendar.  What parts of 2017, personal or global, are you looking forward to leaving behind?  (They can be realistic or not.)

It’s in this context of despair and the longing for new beginnings that I’d like to introduce you to a man named Simeon.

Simeon was a man who believed in a promise that God had made.  It was, first of all, a promise that God had made to Israel, and by extension, to the world: that Israel would be restored, that it would be liberated from the oppressive grip of the Roman Empire, that God’s people would once again be free to live as God’s people, ruled by a king from the line of David, experiencing God’s blessings and in turn being a blessing to the world.  But it was, second of all, a promise God had made to Simeon, because the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would live to see the Messiah, the one who would accomplish this restoration.

Simeon was, presumably, an old man, who had been waiting for the fulfillment of this promise for a long time.  (Luke doesn’t really tell us that – I’m just filling in the gaps.  What we know is that Simeon has been waiting, with expectation.)  And, presumably, the years have come and gone, and that promise has remained unfulfilled.  Each Rosh Hashanah Simeon has reason to bid good riddance to the year that has gone by, that has seemingly only brought more hardship and more oppression and still no one to save God’s people from any of it.  And each year Simeon holds out hope, rooted in faith and prayer, that this year might be different from the last.

And while we’re at it I’d like to introduce you to a woman named Anna, who was, in fact, very old.  Luke often likes to have male and female counterparts in his stories, and Anna is Simeon’s female counterpart.  She, too, is faithful and devout, staying in the Temple courtyard night and day fasting and praying to God.  Her prayers, too, Luke leads us to believe, have to do with the “redemption of Jerusalem.”  And Anna, the widow, waits; and the years come and the years go, and Jerusalem is no closer to being redeemed, and sometimes redemption seems a lot farther away than it ever has been, but each year, Anna holds out hope rooted in faith and prayer that this year might be different from the last.

And then one year it is.

The Holy Spirit leads Simeon to the Temple that day, where he happens upon a young family, a mother and father and a small several-week-old baby.

There are two things that might be happening here, in accordance with Jewish custom.  The first is the ritual cleansing of Mary.  When a mother gave birth, she was considered unclean for seven days and then in a state of purification for another 33 days (for a boy) or 66 days (for a girl.)  After those 40 or 73 days, she went to the Temple to make an offering of a young lamb and a turtledove or a pigeon – or, in the case of poor families, two turtledoves or two pigeons.  (Which does Jesus’ mother offer?)  Already, there, we know something about his family.

The second is the redemption of a firstborn son.  In remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, in which all firstborn Egyptian sons were killed, Israelites were supposed to dedicate their own firstborn sons to God’s service – or, usually, pay a certain amount to redeem them.  Luke mentions this law, but doesn’t say anything more about it – maybe, as some commentaries suggest, because Jesus was not in fact redeemed from God’s service.

Either way, as the Holy Family approaches the Temple to fulfill their obligation as good Jews, Simeon approaches them.  And he knows, as takes newborn Jesus in his arms (I do have note that he didn’t ask first) that the promise he has been waiting all these years to see fulfilled – is.

All those years of waiting, all those years of increasing hardship and despair instead of restoration and liberation, and Simeon never gave up hope that God was at work, that God was indeed going to make good on God’s promise, that God was indeed making all things new.

 

Question: What promises, from God or otherwise, are you waiting to see fulfilled this year?  What are you holding out hope for – on a personal or global scale?

 

When Simeon holds the baby Jesus, he praises God and says these words that sound almost like a hymn.  They are sometimes called the Nunc Dimittis, which is the first two words in Latin: Now you can dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”  All the waiting is over; the hope and purpose of Simeon’s life has been completed.

Here’s the thing that impresses me about Simeon, though: Jesus is just a baby.  And at this point, 40 days into his earthly life, Jesus hasn’t redeemed or restored a thing – at least not visibly in any way, and certainly not in the way Simeon was expecting.  Jesus hasn’t freed Israel from Roman rule.  Jesus hasn’t taken his place on the Davidic throne.  At this point, 40 days into his earthly life, Jesus is still spending most of his time eating, sleeping, and pooping.  And somehow this is enough for Simeon to say “Now, God, you can let me go, because my eyes have seen your salvation.”

And then Anna joins in, and she too sees this tiny baby and hears Simeon’s testimony and she, too, praises God and goes off to tell “everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” that this is something they should know about; that their waiting, too, has not been in vain.

And Jesus hasn’t done anything yet.

What kind of faith is that, that makes it enough to just see this baby and believe that God’s promise has come to pass?  That makes it so much enough that Simeon can say he’s seen what he came here to see?  That Anna can go and tell others?  It’s enough because, seeing him, they know now that the rest is unfolding; that it won’t be long now until God’s promise of liberation and restoration comes to fruition.  They don’t need to see it all.  Seeing one piece of it, remembering and receiving confirmation that God is still at work, is enough.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but 2018 is probably not going to be the year that we see all of God’s promises fulfilled in their ultimate sense.  I could be wrong, of course; maybe Jesus really is getting ready to come back and bring peace and renew creation, and sometimes I hope so.  But he didn’t last year, or the year before that.

But God has not left us without signs that God is at work.  And even if we don’t get to see the whole promise fulfilled, maybe we can see part of it.  Maybe we can see steps toward peace in the world around us.  Maybe we can see the arc of history bending ever so slightly toward justice as events play out on the political and social stage in the US.  Maybe we can see some small movement toward reconciliation and wholeness in our own lives – even if we’re not quite there yet.

 

Question: What is giving you hope that God is at work as we transition into this new year?

 

Luke concludes this part of the story: “When Mary and Joseph had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.”  The story, and God’s promise, continues to unfold.

May these things be reason for us to praise God as we flip to that new page on the calendar, to begin the new year in faithful hope, and to say, “My eyes have seen your salvation,” even while we’re still waiting.

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Christmas Eve: The Risk of Incarnation

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

As I was driving to church and listening to the radio the other day, they were interviewing a pop culture expert about Hallmark Christmas movies.  These are the cheesy, low-budget Christmas movies that tell the stories of people who fall in love on Christmas when one of them rescues a cat; people who fall in love on Christmas even though one of them is royalty; people who fall in love on Christmas even though one of them is a ghost (I think that was actually Lifetime, but you get the idea.)  When Hallmark premiered its new movie “The Christmas Train” last month, about people who fall in love on Christmas on a train, apparently more people tuned in to watch that than any other major network at the time.  Hallmark, according to this expert on the radio, does about 30 of these new movies each year, for about $2 million dollars a pop, or in other words, not very much, and every year millions of people tune in for cheesy, escapist, predictable, feel-good Christmas goodness.[1]

I, too, love a cheesy, predictable, feel-good Christmas movie now and then, so no judgment there – I did, in fact, make Jon watch A Christmas Prince with me this week. But I wonder if sometimes this longing for escapism even invades our telling of the original Christmas story, the one we tell in church.  It was a magical, miraculous, silent night, and the fact that Jesus was born among barnyard animals to parents who had been through some relationship drama only serves to make it all the more rustic and charming.

And to tell you the truth I often feel pulled to indulge in that kind of holy escapism too.

But I’m not sure that quite gets what Christmas is all about.

Christmas, if you think about it, is the opposite of escapist, because Christmas is when God enters the world we all want to escape from: a world where inns are full and emperors impose taxes on subjugated peoples and kings come after babies who they fear might grow up to usurp their power and regular old people are going about their lives fearing the worst and looking out for number one.  Instead of avoiding all the hard and messy stuff of human life, God came to be part of it.  If we listen closely, it’s not really that warm and fuzzy of a story.

In my last year of seminary I took a class on Religion and HIV/AIDS, and for our final project one of the things we could do was to volunteer with an organization that worked with HIV+ people and write a paper reflecting on that experience.  The organization that I ended up volunteering with was a group that ran a needle exchange program – they set up shop on a street corner in a rough Atlanta neighborhood and allowed drug addicts to come trade in their used needles for clean ones to reduce the spread of HIV and other diseases.

Now, you all here might have some differing opinions on the ethics of needle exchange, and the truth is I didn’t even really know what my opinion was.  I could see both sides: the side that said addicts were going to get their fix one way or the other, and we should try to keep them as safe as possible; and the side that said this was just condoning or abetting bad behavior.  Part of why I went was to see if I could figure it out, though I’m not sure I did.  I didn’t hand out needles, by the way; I handed out day-old donated bagels at the next table over.  I also got to learn about the other less-controversial programs the organization ran, like counseling and mentoring and job training, things that might help someone get off the streets and escape the grip of addiction.

I actually spent a long time trying to decide whether this was something I could talk about on Christmas Eve, because again, the real world might not be exactly what we came for.  But I will tell you that as I wrote my final paper for that class, I found myself wrestling with the idea of incarnation, the idea that God becomes one of us and comes to join us in the real, imperfect, broken world that we live in, and especially wrestling with what I saw as this ethical gray area.

For this group to do their work, I thought, they had to be where the people they were trying to reach were.  They had to be known and trusted, and most importantly they had to keep people well enough that they might be able to take advantage of these other programs that were offered to them, and that their lives might potentially someday be something more.  They had to show up and meet people where they were, in all of the moral ambiguity that entailed.

It made me wonder if the incarnation was itself somewhat of a divine moral gray area.  God could have kept Godself untainted by the weakness and temptation of human life and flesh – but God didn’t.  God could have been kept being God from a distance, something wholly other, who would never be in any way like us – but God didn’t.  God, in all God’s purity and righteousness, could have refused to ever get mixed up in anything that wasn’t pure and righteous, because maybe that would be condoning and abetting bad behavior.

I wonder, if God is capable of struggling, if it’s an idea God struggled with at all.

I don’t have the answer to that, but what I do know is that God didn’t stay distant, content to let us suffer the eternal consequences of our own actions.  God didn’t escape – instead, at Christmas, God entered into this rough, broken, hurting, thoroughly morally ambiguous world.

Again, it’s really not that warm and fuzzy of a story, and we probably do well to be jarred out of that image a little each Christmas season.

It is a joyful story, like the angels tell us, but it’s also a story that should challenge us.  It’s a miraculous story but it’s also a story that takes place in the real world – our world.

God does not come into our real, broken messy world just to tell us everything’s good and nothing needs to change.  That’s not how grace works.  If it was, maybe God wouldn’t have come as someone who was so victimized by the world the way it is.

Instead, God comes to show us again how to love each other and love the vulnerable and love the outcasts and love our enemies, all those things we had forgotten if we ever knew them, the very things in which our salvation lies.  But we weren’t there yet, so first God had to take what the writer Parker Palmer calls the “risk of incarnation”, to get God’s hands a little dirty and meet us where we are.

Christmas means that God is at work in the messy and broken lives of people, granting grace where a purer kind of ethic might demand that grace not be granted.  Forgiving where forgiveness might be seen as enabling.  Loving where love might be taken advantage of.  Taking God’s place among people who don’t deserve it because that’s the only way our lives might ever be something more.

It’s a joyful story because it means that the God who met our world where it was also meets us where we are, before we are good enough, before we ask, before we even recognize that we need God’s help.  But it’s also a story that should unsettle us a little, because it demands something of us – for us to risk being changed by it, risk leaving our old ideas about the world and people behind, risk sharing God’s love in the complicated world around us too.

This is a story that’s better than warm and fuzzy – it’s real, and it’s raw, and it promises us that love can break through, even in our hardened hearts and messy lives and rough neighborhoods and broken world.

 

[1] https://www.npr.org/2017/12/17/571443655/made-for-tv-christmas-movies-are-big-business-for-the-hallmark-channel

 

 

Making Room for Hope: Lessons and Carols

This Advent season we have been Making Room: making room for Jesus by preparing a space for him, literally and symbolically; making room for the stranger by asking who among us today might be the Holy Family looking for shelter; making room for the darkness by embracing God’s presence in the pain that is often part of this season; and, today, Making Room for Hope.

Maybe “hope” sounds like a strange thing to have to make room for.  Either you have it or you don’t; if you don’t have it, you probably want it, and would welcome it if you saw any reason for it.  But at the same time, in all the hopelessness of the world around us – hurricanes, fires, Nazis making a comeback, sexual assault, war and genocide in the news, the threat of nuclear war hanging over our own heads – maybe hope is, actually, something we need to make room for.  It would be easy to get lost in the hopelessness otherwise.

This morning we will get to listen to the words of the prophets as we move from Advent, our season of hope and waiting, into Christmas, and God With Us.  The prophets speak of their faith in God’s promise – the promise that hurting people will be comforted.  That God is coming; that God is on God’s way.  That God is sending someone to lead and redeem and rescue God’s people.  That there will be reason again for all creation to rejoice.

Of course, as we come in Scripture to God’s fulfillment of these promises, we are reminded that it doesn’t all unfold exactly as the prophets probably envisioned.  The someone-to-lead was not a king in the political sense of the word.  He did not directly save God’s people from the oppressive power of empire.  Comfort and joy do not come through military victory, because in fact, what we need to be saved from is even more profound from that.

Maybe the hope we need to make room for is a hope that lets God be at work in God’s own way: trusting in God’s promises and God’s faithfulness without presuming to know exactly how things will unfold or exactly how salvation and redemption will be made real in our own lives.  Maybe what we need to make room for is a hope that proclaims that God is indeed with us, that God’s Kingdom is among us, and that God’s love will overcome all that stands in its way – even inside of us.

Scripture:

Isaiah 40:1-8

Jeremiah 23:5-6

Zechariah 9:9-10

Isaiah 35:1-7

Luke 1:26-35

Matthew 1:18-254

John 1:1-5

 

 

Making Room for the Darkness: Blue Christmas

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

I am indebted to the book Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor for the theme of this sermon, as well as thoughts on some of the positive aspects of darkness.

 

Christmas when I was 15 didn’t feel much like Christmas.  My Aunt Kay had died the previous summer – the first close relative I had ever lost, and the first time I had ever really had to grapple with the reality of death.  Christmas was the first time since her funeral in August that we were back in Philadelphia with my dad’s family.  We always spent Christmas morning at my grandmother’s house, and then in the evening went to Aunt Kay’s house just a few blocks away for a big family gathering.  We still went to Aunt Kay’s house that Christmas evening, but she wasn’t there, and the family gathering as it always did somehow seemed to throw that fact into sharp relief.  It was a smaller gathering, not as loud as usual, missing something.  To top things off, her husband, my Uncle Larry, was also sick by this point, and would die not long after.  I had never been particularly close to him, but it was still terribly clear to my 15-year-old self that everything was changing.

In many ways the holiday season is a season of light – not just outside where the streets are beautifully lit, not just on our houses and Christmas trees, but also theologically.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” we read from the prophet Isaiah; “on those that dwell in a land of deep darkness, a light has shined.”  We hear this and it speaks to hope and God’s promise of redemption and salvation.  “What came into being through the Word was life,” we read from the beginning of the Gospel of John, “and the life was the light for all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”  We read this and it speaks to the fulfillment of that promise.  We sing “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”: in him, there is no darkness at all.

Light, in our symbolic and theological language, represents hope, truth, clarity, life, everything that is good.

But this is also in many ways a season of darkness.  Outside, obviously, the days are short.  We go to work in the dark and we get home in the dark.  Today we will have just over nine hours of daylight – three of those already gone.  Wednesday night will be the longest night of the year.  But some of us may also find it dark for other reasons.  Some of us might be spending our first Christmas without a loved one.  Some of us might be grieving someone we lost long ago, but of whom we are especially reminded during the holiday season – or for whatever reason, Christmas just won’t be the same this year.  Some of us might not be able to be with loved ones this Christmas because of distance or work.  Some of us may be lonely.  Some of us might simply not be feeling it the way we once did – the decorations seem gaudy and the holiday cheer forced and we will probably die if we hear one more rendition of Baby It’s Cold Outside from some artist’s obligatory Christmas album.  And some of us may simply not have time to enjoy anything between the decorating and the shopping and the baking and the hosting and all the things that other people expect of us – or perhaps just that we expect of ourselves.

We are used to doing our best to avoid and overcome darkness, in its literal sense.  We turn on the lights at home and stick to well-lit areas when we are out – or we avoid certain places after dark altogether, perhaps especially if we are women.  We are either born or taught to be afraid of the dark.  Darkness means danger.  We can get lost in the dark.  It’s in the dark that who-knows-what could be lying in wait.  It’s in the dark that there are monsters under the bed.  It’s in the dark, at night, when all our deepest and most irrational fears come to life.

But also in its less tangible sense, we tend to do our best to avoid darkness.  When we talk about darkness in metaphorical terms, we often mean despair.  Sadness.  Fear.   If we want to get theological about it, maybe even ignorance, or separation from God.  And who would want to embrace such things?

We don’t always do a good job during this time of the year of making room for the darkness.  Easier to paste on a smile and sing Joy to the World than to embrace the fact that sometimes this season of light isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

But although I think there is something powerful about the dark and light imagery we find in the Bible and elsewhere, we also miss something when the language of fear, despair, and separation from God is the only language we use to talk about darkness – to say nothing of the unintended racial implications that kind of dualistic language may have, because language does help shape how we understand the world around us.

In the Bible, as it turns out, important things happen in the dark.

-Creation begins in the dark (Genesis 1).

-God’s promise to Abraham is made in the dark, when God tells Abraham to look up at the stars in the night sky and count the number of descendants he will have (Genesis 15).

-The Exodus, the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, takes place at night, with God going before the company of God’s people in a pillar of fire (Exodus 12-13).

-On Mount Sinai as the Israelites wander in the wilderness, God is present in the “thick darkness” that Moses enters to receive the Law (Exodus 20).

-Jesus gets up to pray while it is still dark (Mark 1).

-Nicodemus comes to speak to Jesus in the cover of darkness, and is famously told he must be born again (John 3).

-At Christmas, the angels come in the dark: first to Joseph, who receives the news about this child Mary is expecting at night in a dream, then to the shepherds who come to worship Jesus lying in a manger; and, of course, it is the night sky that leads the wise men to Jesus in Bethlehem.

-And at the end of John’s Gospel, we read: “Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.”  The resurrection, also, happens in the dark.

Maybe it’s not always clear from the religious language we use, but throughout the story of God’s people, God is present in the darkness as well as the light.

The truth is that in this life, as in God’s story, there is a time and a place for darkness just as there is for light.  And in life, too, when all we do is try to avoid and light up the darkness, we miss something.

In darkness, there can be growth.  Not only do we begin life in the darkness of the womb, not only does a seed begin life nurtured beneath the soil, but it’s when we are sleeping that our young bodies produce the hormone that makes us grow.  And even as we grow older, sleep continues to be a time for our bodies to restore and heal themselves.  Of course, we don’t know that it’s happening at the time, just as we might look back on what we might consider dark periods in our lives and find that there has, in fact, been growth and healing in those times; that we are not the people we once were, and that we are at least in some way better than we were – not necessarily better off for what has happened, but in some way at least, growth has come through it.

In darkness, there can be rest.  When our bodies need to rest, it is the light that is harsh; darkness is soft and soothing. Our circadian rhythms depend on a balance of light and dark, and when something disrupts that cycle, our health suffers.  The constant glow of screens is one culprit in this, we know – we harm ourselves by not making more room in the cycle of our days for darkness.   Our lives also go through seasons and rhythms, though much less predictably: as the writer of Ecclesiastes (ch. 3) put it: a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; …a time to seek and a time to lose. A whole and healthy life is not all light and energy and productivity and festivity.  It is good, sometimes, to allow our bodies and souls to embrace the rest, the silence, even the fear and the grief that darkness brings.

In the darkness, also, there is beauty.  During the summer I spent with a volunteer group in Lesotho, we stayed in a fairly remote village without electricity.  I spent most nights writing in my journal by candlelight, something I doubt I would have made time for had there been many other options, but one of the worst things that could happen was having to get out of bed at night to go to the bathroom.  It would mean going outside and making your way to the outhouse in the almost pitch-black night, and I was scared – scared of losing my way, scared of who or what could be hiding around the corner or in the tall grass.  But I also remember that there was nothing like looking up and seeing the Milky Way in that night sky – a sight that I doubt I will ever see in quite the same way ever in my life, because my nights are generally just not that dark.  As we know from those artists who have produced music and poetry and literature that come out of the so-called dark periods of their lives, there can beauty in the darkness, beauty that we simply wouldn’t have been able to see in the light.  There is something that binds us to others in these deep parts of our human experience.

In the darkness, when sight fails us, we learn to rely on other senses: feeling our way along a wall so as not to wake the family when we get up in the middle of the night; or listening to the sounds and smells around us which tell us new things about a place we can’t see.  We realize how dependent we have been on our sight, and how much we’ve missed along the way.

Ancient Christian mystics understood this in a spiritual way.  The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing spoke of our inability to know God except by knowing what God is not.  “If you are to experience [God] or know him at all,” this mystic wrote, “insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.”  When we stop relying on our own sight and rational knowledge, we can encounter God in new ways.  Likewise, St. John of the Cross wrote his Dark Night of the Soul about a darkness that “frees you from your own ideas about God.”  “God puts out our lights to keep us safe,” John writes, “because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going.”[1]

Maybe it is those “dark” times in our lives that help us to encounter God and ourselves in new ways.

Maybe it’s time to make some room in our lives and this season for the darkness.

To be clear, I don’t mean to say that whatever particular pain or stress you might be experiencing this season, or at other points in your life, is necessarily beautiful, or good, or part of a larger plan for your growth.  I also don’t mean to say we don’t need help getting through those times, or that they are the end of the story.  I do mean to say that even if we call those things “darkness,” we don’t need to be afraid to face them, to acknowledge them, to sit with them – we don’t need to pretend them away in the name of joy and light.  I don’t mean to say that God always ordains the hard times we face in life – but God is present with us in them.  Important, good things can happen in the dark.

I’m struck by the way the Christmas story itself is couched in fear and pain.  As Matthew tells the story, Joseph has to be told not to be afraid.  Joseph has to be told that his world, despite appearances, is not falling apart.  Because really, what makes for a bad holiday season like finding out your fiancée is pregnant with a child that is not yours?  And then facing the soul-wrenching work of having to figure out what you are going to do given this new information?  Joseph needs to be told that God is still present and working in all of this.

And sometimes so do we – to be reminded that it’s a hurting and broken world God enters into at Christmas, not a perfect one.

Soon, outside, the days will start getting longer.  Soon, the rhythms of our lives will start tending toward daylight.  The seasons of our inner lives may or may not follow accordingly, but light will come again.  A time for darkness, a time for light.  And God will be present there too.

The God who comes to be one of us asks for room to be made in the real, raw lives we live – in beauty and rest, in fear and pain, in healing and growth, in loneliness and grief.  In the darkness and the light, God is with us.

 

[1] As quoted in Learning to Walk in the Dark

 

Making Room for the Stranger: Las Posadas

Scripture: Luke 2:1-7

Las Posadas is a Mexican tradition in which neighbors go house to house during the nine nights before Christmas, acting out the journey of the Holy Family looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem.  A song is traditionally sung in call-and-response style between neighbors outside the house (in the voice of Joseph) and the neighbors inside (in the voice of the innkeeper.)  Today we will hear readings in between the verses of the song, which is an English translation of the traditional Posadas song by a man named John-Charles Duffy, and made available in a resource from the Episcopal Church called Room in the Inn.  Those on the left side of the sanctuary will sing Joseph’s part, and those on the right will sing the innkeeper’s part.  The final verse is sung by everyone.

 

1

One night long ago, a couple traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census.  She was close to nine months pregnant.  He was just trying to hold it together for the both of them.  The journey was long and arduous, but they held on to the hope of reaching Bethlehem and finding someplace to rest. But when they came to Bethlehem there was no room for them, so instead of in the simple comfort of an inn or a spare room, Mary’s baby was born in an animal stall, and a feeding trough became his first bed.

It’s easy to think that if only we had been there, it all would have gone a little differently.  We would have recognized this couple for who they were; surely we wouldn’t have turned them away.

But perhaps if we pay attention, we might realize that Mary and Joseph are still among us, still looking for room, still asking us to make space for them in our hearts and our lives and our communities and our homes.   The choice is still ours: will we invite them in, or will we turn them away?

“Behold,” says Jesus, through the words of the prophet John in Revelation 3:20, “I stand at the door and knock.  If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they will eat with me.”

 

In the name of heaven, can you give us lodging?

My dear wife’s exhausted after hours of walking.

 

This is not an inn.  I don’t take in strangers.

You might be a robber.  I can’t risk that danger.

 

2

Every night in Arlington County, around 200 people go to sleep without a place to call home.[1]  Some find beds up the hill at the Homeless Services Center; others sleep in their cars or take shelter in the woods.  If you walk by Arlington Temple at night, you may also come across some of our own neighbors who find a safe place here outside our doors, under the shelter of the skywalk.

In Arlington, the number of people experiencing homelessness has trended downward in recent years as strides have been made to care for people in more holistic ways, from housing to physical and mental health services to job counseling.[2]

Just across the river, the story is a little different.  As of a year ago, Washington DC had the highest rate of homelessness in a survey of 32 cities across the US, with a 34% increase in the number of homeless individuals in the city from 2009-2016.  An increasing cost of living and lack of affordable housing are at least partially to blame.[3]

Perhaps you’ve walked through a city park here or elsewhere and noticed an arm rail in the middle of a bench, making sure no one can stretch out and take a nap there; or you’ve seen spikes sticking up from the low windowsill of an office building, preventing anyone from seeking shelter there.  In some places across the country, lying down in public or sleeping in a vehicle is a crime.[4]  For some, there is no room in our communities.

Could these neighbors be Mary and Joseph among us?

 

Do not be so heartless.  Help us, we implore you.

God, who sees from heaven, surely will reward you.

 

I cannot assist you.  Find someone who can.

Leave now or I warn you, you will wish you had.

 

 

3

Today there are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.  About half of those come from Mexico, others from elsewhere in Latin America, still others from China, India, Korea, and many other places around the world.  They come for many reasons, often to escape poverty and violence in the countries they are from.   You may have heard their stories over the past year: those who died in the back of hot trucks trying to cross the border; those who wait indefinitely in detention centers near the border; those apprehended by ICE as they left church.

For many of the people who cross the borders of this country illegally, there is simply no feasible legal route of immigration.  They don’t have employers who will sponsor them.  They don’t have close family members who are already citizens of the US or legal permanent residents living above the poverty line.  The economic conditions of their own countries of origin do not qualify them for humanitarian protection.  And even for those who are eligible to come, the wait might be 5 years.  Or ten years.  Or even 20.[5]

Of those 11 million people, 8 million form part of the US workforce, often doing jobs that people with legal status will not.  Seven million of them have been in the country for a decade or longer, working, going to school, buying houses.[6]  At least 1 to 2 million came to this country as children with their families and have effectively never known another home.[7]  They are part of our communities, but not also not quite welcome in them.

Could these neighbors be Mary and Joseph among us?

 

We have come from Nazareth, walking all the way.

I am a poor woodworker, Joseph is my name.

 

Knowing what your name is does not change my answer.

Go and let me sleep.  Stop this useless banter.

 

 

4

According to the UN, there are today about 65 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world.  That number represents one out of every 113 people in the world.[8]  Every day, 28,300 people are forced to leave their homes due to violence and persecution.[9]

We hear their names and stories on the news: Rohingya Muslims fleeing genocide in Myanmar, spilling over the border into Bangladesh.  Syrians waiting to be resettled in Germany, Greece, or Turkey.  Somalians and Sudanese who risk the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean on their way to Europe.

Those who make it will live in camps, some in tents and makeshift shelters, some surrounded by infrastructure that has been built up over time.  In 2016, just over 189,000 refugees were resettled in new communities.  Yet even those people do not always find a warm reception in the places they now call home, and as need has increased, so has opposition across the world from people who fear terrorism, declining property values, or even the cultural takeover of a community they once knew.  In our own country, as well, opposition to resettling refugees on US soil has grown, and a lower cap placed on the number of refugees who we will receive.  For many refugees, life is lived in a kind of limbo – they can’t go home, but there is also no room for them elsewhere.

Could these neighbors be Mary and Joseph among us?

 

Please, sir, all we ask is one night of lodging.

For the Queen of Heaven – can you offer nothing?

 

I’ve heard many stories.  This beats every one.

Since when does a queen walk at night alone?

 

 

5

It’s not just in the news or on the streets or in the world around us that we encounter people asking for room in our hearts and lives.  Sometimes the “strangers” among us aren’t so strange after all.

Maybe there’s someone you know who is seeking spiritual refuge, who has been excluded from Christian community in the past due to their sexual orientation, or for asking the wrong questions, or who was more subtly snubbed for being from the wrong race or economic class.  Will they find the home they are seeking here?

Maybe there is someone who needs a friend, an elderly neighbor or someone new down the street or that person at work or at school who just doesn’t seem to fit in.  Will they find room with you?

Maybe there’s that friend or family member who is going through a lot and always seems to demand your time and a listening ear.  Will they find room with you?

Could these people – all these people who are part of our everyday lives – be Mary and Joseph among us?

“Behold,” says Jesus, through the words of the prophet John in Revelation 3:20, “I stand at the door and knock.  If any hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they will eat with me.”

 

Truly my wife Mary is a queen most blessed.

She will be the mother of the Word Made Flesh.

 

Is that you, Saint Joseph?  And the Virgin too?

I would have opened sooner if I’d recognized you. 

 

 

Final

One night long ago, a couple traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census.  They arrived in Bethlehem desperate for a place to rest, but there was no room for them.

It’s easy to think that if only we had been there, things would have gone a little differently.

And maybe it still can.

 

Enter, enter, holy pilgrims, holy pilgrims;

Welcome to my humble home.

Though it’s little I can offer, I can offer,

All I have please call your own.

Mary, Joseph and our Savior, and our Savior,

What a joy to have you here.

We are honored to receive you, to receive you;

May you stay through all the year!

 

 

 

[1] https://newsroom.arlingtonva.us/release/point-in-time-homelessness-count-up-in-arlington/

[2] https://www.arlnow.com/2016/04/06/arlingtons-homeless-population-down-64-percent-over-past-three-years/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-has-the-highest-homeless-rate-of-38-us-cities-a-new-survey-finds/2016/12/14/95487b3c-c18e-11e6-9a51-cd56ea1c2bb7_story.html?utm_term=.9d9aa3206368

[4] https://www.nlchp.org/documents/No_Safe_Place

[5] https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/why-don%E2%80%99t-they-just-get-line

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/03/06/us/politics/undocumented-illegal-immigrants.html

[7] http://www.newsweek.com/dreamers-daca-statistics-trump-deadline-657201

[8] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/06/20/482762237/refugees-displaced-people-surpass-60-million-for-first-time-unhcr-says

[9] http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html

Making Room for Jesus: The Hanging of the Greens

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

 

Introduction: Making Room for Jesus

There are lots of things that are cliché about the holiday season, and I want to say that one to say that one of them has become talking about how the season shouldn’t just be about busyness; that what we need more of is quiet time and reflection instead of just consumerism and mall traffic and endless social obligations and the pressure to create a magical experience for everyone else.

It’s cliché but there’s still plenty of truth to it.  If we who believe there is a deeper significance to the season than gift-giving and Santa and general festivity don’t choose to spend it a little differently than those for whom it is just a cultural holiday, what does that say?

But I also sometimes think about how for Mary, those nine months between the angel’s visit and the birth of Jesus probably weren’t all quiet meditative walks and holy moments of silence.  Because when a baby is on its way, there is a lot to be done.  There is a nursery to be prepared, a crib to be put together. There are hand-me-downs to sort through and diapers to stock up on and freezer meals to prepare and baby registries to create on Amazon and childbirth classes to take.

OK, that’s maybe not quite how it was in first-century Palestine, but still – when a baby is on its way, there is space to be made, both literally and figuratively.

And while lots of times when we talk about making room for Jesus in the midst of the busyness we mean quiet, reflective devotional time – and I hope you will make some of that, maybe using this Advent devotional I talked about earlier –there can also be something holy about the physical work of preparing a space: finding just the right places for the crib and changing table in the nursery; setting the table for a dinner party; moving into a new place and getting unpacked and finally adding whatever little touches make it home.  These are ways we prepare for something new that is happening or someone special who is going to be our guest.

These things can be spiritual disciplines, if we let them be.

The point, of course, is not to end up with a Pinterest-worthy tree, or the best-lit house on the block, or just another seasonal obligation to fulfill; the point is to end up with hearts that are ready to welcome Jesus, both as he is born at Christmas and in all the ways he shows up every day in people who challenge us, people who demand something of us, people determined to break down the walls we put up, people who show us mercy we didn’t want.  The point is to be able to echo Mary’s words: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”

But sometimes doing the work of preparing a space can be what we need to get our hearts and our hopes pointed in the right direction.

So that’s how we’re going to start this Advent, this season of waiting and preparation for Jesus to come into the world.  We are going to prepare our worship space for Jesus with symbols that remind us of who he is and what God is doing through him at Christmas.  We start today with a change in color: the altar, which was white last week and green for a long time before that, is now covered in purple, the color of repentance and expectation.

We’ve gotten started because it seemed unwieldy to put the tree up as a group in worship, but there is work for us to do together, and as we talk about some of the symbols that will decorate our worship space, I’m going to be calling on some volunteers to help put them in place.  I hope you’ll be ready to volunteer!  And, I hope this will just be the beginning – that the work of preparation we do with our hands will help open our hearts and make them ready to welcome Christ.

Hymn #202 People, Look East, v. 1

 

  1. The Advent Candles

Tradition says that the Advent wreath was invented by a German pastor at a mission school for the children of Hamburg, where the children would ask each day if it was Christmas yet.  Finally, the pastor constructed a wooden ring with 24 small red candles and four large white candles.  A new candle was lit each day during the season of Advent, with the white candles on Sundays, and so the children learned to wait for Christmas to arrive.[1]

Advent is a time of waiting – for the coming of the baby Jesus at Christmas, and for the second coming of Christ at a time we do not know.  To signify our waiting, we too light a candle each week until all four are lit, then we light the white Christ candle on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  The purple candles traditionally stand for hope, love, and peace, while the pink candle, lit on the third week, stands for joy.  These are the attributes that characterize our waiting, if we let God make it so; they are also what we wait for: Christ our hope and joy, the God who is Love, the Prince of Peace.

[Volunteers place Advent candles on candle holders on altar; light one purple candle]

Today we begin our waiting in the hope of the One who comes to be God With Us.

Hymn #202 People, Look East, v. 2

 

  1. The Greens

Even before Christianity came to Europe, people used evergreen branches as signs of life in the midst of a barren season.  Though the imagery might be pre-Christian, the green of pine and fir trees became a reminder to Christians of the eternal life that Jesus invites us into, life that is more powerful than the death and barrenness we see around us.[2]

The prophet Isaiah writes, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.  He will establish it and uphold it with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:6-7).   Like the green of the boughs that create them, the circular shape of these wreaths we hang remind us of the Kingdom of God which has no end.

[Volunteers place wreaths on wall by cross]

Hymn #202 People, Look East, v. 3

 

  1. The Chrismons

The tradition of the Chrismon tree began in the Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Danville, Virginia.  Instead of the ornaments you might put on your tree at home, the tree is covered with signs of Christ.[3]  If you look through these Chrismons, you might see, for example, an Alpha and Omega – Christ is our beginning and our end.  Or you might see a Chi Rho – the two Greek letters that begin the word “Christos,” and according to legend, the sign Constantine saw in the sky preceding his conversion to Christianity.  Or you might see the symbol of the Trinity, reminding us that Christ is coequal and coeternal with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

These Chrismons were created by a previous organist here, Joan Vanasdalan.

[Invite people forward to decorate the tree]

Hymn #202 People, Look East, v. 4

 

  1. Lighting the Tree

According to one History Channel special, “It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.”[4]

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we read: “What has come into being in him is life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).  Like the Advent candles, the light of the Christmas tree reminds us that Jesus is the light in our darkness.

[Plug tree in]

Hymn #202 People, Look East, v. 1

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent_wreath

[2] http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

[3] United Methodist Book of Worship

[4] http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees