Sunday, December 26, 2010

Peace for All.... It's Christmas

I collect Nativity sets – though I did not set out to do so. It just kind of happened.

I have one from Honduras, a sweet set, very petite, with figures about 3” high. My daughter gave it to me when she spent a year working with Honduran Episcopalians setting up micro-financed co-operatives.

Another is from Mexico – from the Veracruz region. The brown figures are trimmed in pink – the angel’s wings are pink; the Kings wear pink headdresses; even baby Jesus is wrapped in pink swaddling cloth.

One is from Bethlehem, carved in olive wood – When I visited Palestinian refugee camps there, I met Christians who made their living carving olive wood doves and Nativities, praying for peace as they carved.

Another set is from Ecuador. That one is the largest, and the faces of the figures are a wonderful kind of earthy rich red brown. Joseph sits by the manger playing what looks like an accordion.

A friend has santons from France. Santons are traditional nativity figures, dressed in clothing of the middle ages – but it’s not just the wise men and shepherds gathered around the Holy Family; so are the notables of the village, the mayor and the parish priest; and the craftsmen, like the baker, the butcher, the cheese vendor. There might be a winegrower, a fisherman, a basket weaver and a potter. There are musicians and dancers who dance with joined hands. And joining the ox and ass, are sheepdogs with bells under their necks, sheep, goats, rabbits, pigeons on the roof. And don’t forget the ravi. This is a man or woman throwing up their arms in delight, either a simpleton or a very happy person!

When my son worked in Xalapa, we visited him one Christmas and saw Nativities that took up entire hillsides, large figures of all varieties and conditions of people and animals coming to see the Baby Jesus. They carried gifts, like chickens, to the Holy Family. And it wasn’t just the hillsides and parks – post offices, stories, government buildings – all had cleared large areas of space for Nativities, it was a culture that wanted very much to bring to life the wonder of the Christ Child’s birth and to honor that birth with all the materials they had at hand.

I love seeing the Christmas story depicted through the eyes of those of different cultures, with the characters appearing in a way that challenge and stir my imagination. An American artist, Jan Richardson, drew my attention to the artist Garcia Moia, a Nicaraguan artist whose painting Gift of the Magi depicts a Nicaraguan scene in which the wise men offer an armadillo, a rabbit, and what looks like an iguana!

It’s what I loved about the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth with life sized depictions of Mary and the baby Jesus from all over the world. From Japan, there is a stunning Mary in a pearl studded kimono, and the Baby Jesus swathed in oriental robes. From Nigeria, Mary looks particularly energetic and stunning and her baby boy is about to leap from her arms.

We all know that our culture is not the only one – we know this – and yet it is helpful to experience the very familiar stories of our faith – and what more familiar story is there than the birth of the baby Jesus in a manger – to experience this through different eyes and to really and truly honor and respect and wonder over what is Other – what is Familiar and yet Not Familiar.

One of the gifts that we have as children of God is an unbroken communion with those who are not familiar to us because they lived so long ago – and yet their voices echo over the centuries to us who live now among ipods and ipads and nuclear weapons. Hear the beautiful reflection of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk of the early 12 century.

“Let your goodness Lord appear to us, that we, made in your image, may conform ourselves to it. In our own strength we cannot imitate your majesty, power, and wonder nor is it fitting for us to try. But your mercy reaches from the heavens through the clouds to the earth below. You have come to us as a small child, but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of eternal love. Caress us with your tiny hands, embrace us with your tiny arms and pierce our hearts with your soft, sweet cries.”

As God, under the vulnerable cover of human flesh and blood comes among us, whether in ways familiar or strange, let us be always ready to welcome his coming. He may come as a newcomer, bearing the good news of her great joy in finding a church that is “everything she could have wanted in a church.” He may come in desperate need of hospitality, as did the homeless men who spent the night here last Sunday, or the impoverished children and their families for whom you have so generously provided bedding, and clothing and toys. Or he may come as you have, each of you, tonight, offering the gift that only you can offer – your heart.

May we, with the angels and shepherds, sing of the glory of the Christ Child and bend our Godly will and works towards peace on earth for all peoples.

Resources: The Advent Door, Jan Richardson

Answering John .... 3rd Sunday of Advent

Last Sunday, after church, Jane Barker went to the hospital with what turned out to be pneumonia with complications. With her daughter Beverly, her son Andy and her granddaughter Caroline by her side, she passed away peacefully early Friday morning. The memorial service for her will be this Tuesday, at 11 a.m.

Jane had been unable to come to church for about the past six months – so the church went to her. She was a vital member of the knitting group – and when she could no longer attend their gatherings, that group went to her.

Whenever I visited, there was some new book by her side that she was reading – and I was usually surprised by the titles – any of you with young women in your lives will recognize the Twilight series! She enjoyed all kinds of music – from Bruce Springsteen to Bach.

One time, on a Wednesday morning Eucharist, she and I were the only ones that made it that morning – so we shared Eucharist together – the whole service. It was one of the most intimate and joyous occasions of Eucharist – when I said, The _____ of God for the People of God – there we were – the two of us - people of God - and I knew in my bones, what the communion of saints meant – a blood knowing, a soul knowing, and Jane, with her eyes sparkling and a smile on her face, knew it as well. In the months to come, all we needed to do was to hold hands and that knowing was present all over again.

I will miss her. And I know that I am not the only one who will.

In the relatively short time that she was here, she made deep friendships and became a vital part of this church – not because she sat on committees or did a lot – in her day, she had been a very active participant in her large church in Florida, but in her elderly years, the ones she shared with Good Shepherd, and let me tell you, she made it clear that she LOVED Good Shepherd - she was a vital part of this church simply because of who she was - because she was so affirming, so generous with her encouragement and her expressions of gladness to see you, so full of faith … and so / well / Joyous.

I’m sure there must have been moments, especially in the last few months, when that was not the case, when the people who cared for her day in and day out saw discouragement and despair at the confinement she so disliked. She must have known some discouragement over this, over her loss of the ability to knit, or to read, but the truth at the center of her life was that, in the wilderness of great age and infirmity and diminished abilities, she allowed the Grace of God to carry her into Joy, allowed the Grace of God to tend so deeply to her soul and her spirit that she bloomed into a thousand blossoms.

That Grace of God that Jane knew is the same Grace of God that Isaiah so poetically calls upon. They will rejoice, he says! Isaiah doesn’t say when the wilderness will blossom and the dry land run with water – he only says where that will happen – and he says that clearly and repeatedly. Isaiah locates God’s promise within the wilderness –within every human grief, every human lack and loneliness, and every earthly desolation.

For Isaiah’s people, wilderness had many meanings. It is a place that you ran to when you were in trouble – and it was a place of freedom. Deadly animals lived in the wilderness. Water was hard to find and crops did not grow there. It smacked of danger. Wilderness for Isaiah’s people was a wide place where it was easy to get lost. (Genesis 16, 21; Exodus 3, 13). (Deuteronomy 8:15). (Exodus 15, 17), (Exodus 14:3). (Deuteronomy 1:19). (Num 32; Psalm 107:4).

Wilderness was also the place where God’s people learned to trust their God. In the wilderness, God carried them, and fed them, and gave them water. In the wilderness God found his people and guarded them and cared for them and lifted them up.
(Deut 1:31), (Exodus 16), (Exodus 17) (Deuteronomy 32).

This is the wilderness that sings – that shouts with joy and blossoms like the crocuses in spring. This dry land, this desert, this wilderness will shout with joy because it will bloom with shoots of new growth that bud and bear fruit.

Do you believe this happens? Did happen? Will happen ever? John did. Even from the beginning in Elizabeth’s womb – remember how Elizabeth said to Mary – my child leapt in my womb because he recognized the One who is Coming whom you carry in your womb!” And many years later, when the grown up Jesus came to the grown up John at the River Jordan, John recognized him - You are the One who is Coming – sent by God. I am not worthy even to tie your sandals – you are the Mighty One of God.

And to prepare people for this Mighty One of God, John preached fire and brimstone from the wilderness – "prepare for the Coming One – he will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire" – but finally his preaching got him into hot water and he found himself in the real wilderness of Herod’s prison, in the wilderness of a small cell with only one way out – his head on a platter.

And quite understandably, John began to wonder – Are you the Coming One? These works, these relatively minor miracles? Really? Is this what God has in mind? Where are the fires of Justice? Where is the Brimstone of Righteousness? Where is Salvation? From prison? From Rome? From oppression?

Let’s be honest. Who among us has not wondered something of the same thing. Really? Is this the salvation God has in mind? Where is it? I’m having trouble finding work. After months and months of resumes. 

Really? Is this the leaping joy thing that God has in mind? I don’t really have the joy joy joy down in my heart. I don’t really know the peace that passes understanding down in my heart. Sometimes I do. But definitely not all the time. And heavens to betsy – the world is really in a tailspin. Where are the shoots of new growth that will bud and bear fruit. Maybe you don’t think these things. Maybe you don’t. And if you don’t – blessings, all blessings upon you. But I do. I understand John’s question. Are you the Coming One? Are you the Savior of the World? And if you are - What does that mean? It’s a common enough observation that the world really does not appear to be a whole lot better off than it was 2000 years ago.

It is so ironic and poetic and poignant that Jesus does not really ever answer John. He affirms John – he recognizes John and lifts him up as greater than all the prophets who came before him. But then he simply sends word to John that there’s this blind man who could not see, who now sees. And there is a lame girl who could not walk, but now she’s cavorting about. And that person who was as good as dead, is now awake and alive. And the ones who cringe and beg by the roadside are having the good news of God’s love and liberation preached to them. All these images come from the prophet of way back when, Isaiah. And Jesus sends word about the real deeds that bring those old words to life –back to John in his dark, dank prison cell. The wilderness isn’t being torched – it’s blooming.

But it’s in small ways. In individual lives. Rome is still Rome. Prison is still prison. The hungry are still, for the most part, hungry. And 99% of the lame are still lame. It’s Not anything like what John had in mind for the Mighty One of God. But Jesus – from his birth onward, he just does not conform to expectation. His truth is the truth that the miracles – the works of God in Christ – are all around us.

I am one of them…..and, like John, it has taken me an amazingly long time to comprehend that God really and truly does work in small, insignificant lives. I was laid low, crippled, hobbled, and left for dead by a divorce that I had not seen coming – and while I am not singing arias from the rooftops – I am more than alive, by the Grace of God, more fully and resiliently alive in Christ – than ever before. Is this miraculous? Well, for me it is. Is it world changing? No. The wars go on. The economy is in tatters. The poor are getting poorer.

But it is Jesus’ answer to John. The wilderness blooms close at hand, so close at hand it is so easy to overlook. God is at work in the delicious delight of the tartness of the mustard against the ham and cheese of your sandwich. God is at work in the smile your secretary gave you when you came in last Monday morning. God is at work in the hand your child casually laid on your shoulder last night. God is at work in the shy thank you of the family to whom you delivered a mattress so they would have a place to sleep off the floor. God is at work in the gentle hand squeeze of a dear Christian nearing death.

Will Jesus come in any way different than he arrived the first time? I don’t know. But given everything that I do know – from scripture and from real life – I would say that we would do well to listen to the answer John received – and to look close around us for the places in the wilderness where the lame begin to leap, even when the leaps are hesitant and awkward because they are so new.

Sources: Working Preacher; Anathea Portier-Young, Assistant Professor, Old Testament, Duke Divinity