Since we don’t have a service on Epiphany, my sermon for this Sunday turns to the sages following the star (Matthew 2:1-12). Here is what I found on the road with them. The song that follows is “May I Suggest” by Susan Werner–one of my favorites.
Ginger and I moved to Boston about thirty years ago, before smart phones and GPS devices. Boston is notorious for not having street signs. People who live there give directions by landmarks, often a Dunkin’ Donuts or a local liquor store chain called Kappy’s Liquors. In fact, we decided good directions always began with, “You know where Kappy’s Liquors is, right?”
I learned another thing about getting directions in Boston that I thought of reading this passage. Rarely were the directions for how to get somewhere the same as the directions of how to get back. The proliferation of one way streets and then just craziness of a city that just kept adding on to itself meant most of the time we, like the wise ones, had to go home a different way than we had come.
This past week, I spent a couple of days in Stonington, Connecticut on a personal retreat—a Christmas gift from Ginger and my mother-in-law Rachel. The time was rich and restful and meaningful, but I mention it this morning because of what it felt like to drive those small roads lined with stone walls, trying to find the Airbnb where I was staying. My iPhone narrated my travels, telling me where to turn. I was aware, as I made turns down roads I hardly even knew were there, that without the app on my phone I would have gotten lost–or, at least, I would have had to ask for directions. And, when I went to pick up my pizza one night, Siri took me back to my cabin by a different route.
As we tell the story of the travelers from the east–the magi, the sages, the wanderers, the astrologers–I am mindful that they set out following a star. We don’t know where they started from, but the implication seems to be they had come a long way in hopes of finding someone important. The gospels say nothing about them being kings (or male, for that matter), but perhaps we have inferred that over the years because they felt comfortable going to the palace to ask Herod for directions when they got to Jerusalem.
Actually, the gospel doesn’t tell us why the sages felt compelled to go to Herod instead of trusting that the star would lead them. I have heard explanations–that they were following political pleasantries, or they thought one king would know about other royal births–but none of that is in the text. Their visit appears to be the impetus for Herod to decide to massacre the Judean children to thwart any challenge to his power because he didn’t appear to know anything about the birth, though that was not what the travelers intended to set in motion. With the help of his scholars, Herod pointed them towards Bethlehem and the travelers went back to following the star and, perhaps, asking around town until they found the child. They offered their gifts and prepared to go home the way they came until, Matthew says, they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, which helped them see they couldn’t trust him. So, they went home by another way.
That sentence sounds so simple, doesn’t it? They went home by another way. But we don’t have any indication that the star made the return trip. Nor do we have any sense that these people were necessarily well-traveled. They just knew to go home, or at least head east, without stopping by Herod’s house. They couldn’t just retrace their steps.
As we move from 2020 to 2021, I think it’s fair to say we are glad to leave last year behind. We spent the best part of it wandering in uncharted territory because of the pandemic. As we begin the new year, with the promise of the vaccine and the hope that the pandemic will wind down, we are talking more and more about life getting back to normal. I have a list of things I miss doing: eating in restaurants, hanging out with friends, singing hymns in church, going to concerts and plays, shaking hands, passing the peace, hugging. But, even as I offer that list I want to say I hope we don’t go back to the way things were.
For all that was difficult and tragic about 2020, I hope it gives us to act like the wise ones and go home by another way. Rather than reconstructing the life we knew before COVID-19, we have a chance to tear down things that need to be torn down, to leave behind behaviors that divide and discourage us, on both personal and societal levels, and to do the work to find a better way to live together.
More than once, or perhaps a hundred times, I have heard people refer to these days as “unprecedented times,” which is another way of saying we don’t have good directions on how to get out of here–and we certainly don’t have a star to guide us. The pandemic and the political division in our country have left us feeling lost. But, like the folks in Boston have Kappy’s Liquors, we have some landmarks of faith to help us find our way. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, giving them directions on how to find their way to each other; he called them the fruits of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those are pretty good signposts for us as well.
Gathering around the Communion table, even though we can’t see each other, is another landmark of faith. We come to the table to re-member ourselves—to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name. It is not the same when we are sitting in different rooms, but its still another way to find one another.
The road ahead of us is a journey towards each other, and it is a road different from the ones we are used to traveling. We can’t get there overnight, any more than the magi made it across the desert in a day or two. But the journey starts now—not when the pandemic is over. We need to be working on finding new ways to each other even as the roads we know are blocked with obstacles. Oleta Adams wrote a song in the 90s called “Get Here.” The first verse said,
you can reach me by railway, you can reach me by trailway
you can reach me on an airplane, you can reach me with your mind
you can reach me by caravan, cross the desert like an Arab man
I don’t care how you get here, just get here if you can
Let’s do whatever we can. Call. Write. Zoom. Bake. Walk. Share. Pray. Let’s find a way to one another, even though it’s not the path we are used to. Amen.
Since we didn’t get to have a Christmas Eve service, I chose to preach on Luke 2:1-7 for the first Sunday of Christmas. If you are watching the video, the reason I am singing acapella is I cut my finger on one of my sharp knives while I was putting them up and ended up with seven stitches in my left index finger. I didn’t do any permanent damage, but I couldn’t play guitar tonight.
When I was growing up, our Christmas decorations were only up for two weeks. My birthday is December 12th and my mother was determined that it would not get lost in Christmas, so she didn’t pull out the decorations until December 13–and then a Christmas bomb went off in our house; it was decorated top to bottom. My father, for reasons that were never explained, wanted all the decorations to come down the day after Christmas, so that’s what we did. By mid-afternoon on Boxing Day everything was put away.
As I began to celebrate Christmas as an adult, and also as I learned about Advent and the seasons of the liturgical year, which were not a part of my upbringing, I learned that Christmas was just getting started on December 25th, not ending. We are in Christmastide, a time when we can rest and think about what it means that God became human in Jesus. With that in mind, I want to go back to the first verses of Luke 2, which we traditionally read as a part of a Christmas Eve service and hear again the story of Jesus’ birth.
In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. (Common Bible)
I particularly chose this translation from The Common Bible because of the last sentence. Did you catch it? There’s no inn, but a room. It says there was no place for them in the guest room, which is actually a more accurate translation of the Greek word katalyma. Mary and Joseph weren’t trying to find a hotel room and just ended up in a barn behind some Bethlehem bed and breakfast. They had gone to Joseph’s hometown to register for a census demanded by the Roman emperor, which meant he had relatives there. Judean homes had rooms where people stayed, and they had a room—in the house–for their animals, probably sheep or goats. Because the guest room was full—I’m guessing because everyone was in town for the census—Jesus was born in the feeding trough in the back room, surrounded by family.
What happens to us when the story we thought we knew turns out to be something else?
With that question in mind, I want to tell you another story about my father.
Right before Ginger, my wife, and I got married, we were with my parents in Texas and my grandmother, who was actually my father’s stepmother, but the only paternal grandmother I ever knew. All my life I had been told my father’s mother, Bertha, died in childbirth. The grandmother I knew, Marie, came that day with a box of scrapbooks and newspaper clippings none of us had seen before. I was thirty-three at the time; my dad was sixty-one. One of the clippings was Bertha’s obituary. She died a month after he was born. I could see by the look on my father’ s face that he had never heard that information before. Instead of his parents having to choose between whether he or his mother lived, for a month of his life she got to hold him and care for him. His birth was not the cause of her death.
I’ll ask my question again: what happens to us when the story we thought we knew turns out to be something else?
Perhaps it causes us to look at the whole story again.
In these seven verses that we have heard so many times, half of them are spent talking about the forced registration by the Roman government. Rome wanted a head count. Jesus was born under the thumb of empire. Joseph had to go to his family home to register, and Mary, his pregnant fiancée, went with him. Let that sink in for a minute. Mary was so far along in her pregnancy that she went into labor, it seems, not long after the family introductions and by the time they find a place for her to give birth, Jesus was born in a manger. The one we call Christ came into the world in the middle of political oppression, family scandal, and people scrambling to make a place for him. While the known world was bending to the rule of the Roman emperor, God changed the world through an insignificant couple in a back room in Bethlehem.
I was talking with someone about all of this over the past couple of weeks, and they said, “I love all of that, but how would we work that into the Christmas pageant?” I get that. At my wife’s church in Guilford, the tradition has been that the littlest kids are the animals and they can come dressed as any animal they want. Our nativity often includes lions, tigers, dinosaurs, and Eeyore. At the same time, I think what would it do to us–to our faith, our sense of ourselves as the people of God–if we told it with fresh understanding?
The question moves me from pageants to pandemic: what happens to us when the story we thought we knew turns out to be something else?
2020 has been a year none of us expected. It has been a year of grief that has made us see our story in ways we have not before. My mother-in-law who is in her eighties has remarked more than once that she didn’t expect to spend her last years this way. The story of this congregation, like most any congregation, has been one of gathering together, which is still months away from happening. What happens to us when the story we trusted changes?
Let’s go back to the Greek word I mentioned–katalyma. The only other places it shows up in the New Testament are in Luke 22 and Mark 14: it is the word used for the upper room where Jesus and his disciples shared the meal on the night before Jesus was executed by the same Roman government who had forced his family to register for the census.
The word is a common word without great theological significance, other than to say it was the room that was so full on the first night of his life that he had to be born in the manger and it was the room where he gathered with those who loved him on the last night of his life. To say that there was no inn, but a room, for me, is say little details may not bring big answers, but they offer us new understanding. I heard an author speak one time and talk about how his life had hinged on “an important slight change.” Perhaps the change in translation from an inn to a guest room is the important slight change that offers us room to wonder as we wander through these days.
Our story is that we can’t wait for 2020 to be over. We have felt like we are at the mercy of the pandemic and unable to do much about the political turmoil that has plagued us as well. The story that 2021 appears to offer–at least what we can see of its beginning–is more of the same: pandemic, political division, and physical distance. The story that begins our Christian year is that Jesus was born in the middle of a mess and lived his life in the middle of a mess and kept saying over and over that the point was to love one another no matter what. And love is best communicated in important slight changes.
I think it was about fifteen years ago, maybe more, that Ginger asked me to write a story for our Christmas Eve service at North Community Church in Marshfield, Massachusetts. That story, A Faraway Christmas, has shown up off and on since–several times on this blog.
This year, because of COVID and because I am the remote interim for a church in Durham, Connecticut, I decided to rewrite the story. Here is This Faraway Christmas, both video and text.
This Faraway Christmas
Since we’re scattered about on this Silent Night,
and we can’t be together to pass candlelight,
It’s hard to find Christmas–to get in the spirit
2020 had promise, but, oh, what a year it
has been: full of sadness, of violence and virus—
how can Christmas encourage, unite, and inspire us?
If we tell the old stories, will they sadden and stress us,
if we say what we miss, won’t that just depress us?
I don’t know–maybe so–but it seems worth a try
to do more than just sit by ourselves and, well, cry,
so I’ll tell you a story, even if it’s recorded
and hope that my effort will somehow be rewarded.
“Twas a Faraway Christmas in a Long Ago Town
of no great importance and no real renown,
filled with people who seemed fairly normal to me,
who worked and who played and seemed happy and free.
They had puppies and children, ate bread and ice cream,
they went shopping and swimming, they slept and they dreamed;
they laughed and did laundry, they danced and they dined,
and they strung Christmas lights on the big Scottish Pine
that grew in the square in the middle of town,
and when Christmas was over, they took the lights down.
They read the newspaper, the dads told bad jokes,
and some of the children put cards in the spokes
of their bicycle tires, so they made quite a din
till it came time for parents to call the kids in.
Yet for all of the things that kept people together—
that great small town feeling, the Christmas Card weather—
for all of the hope one was likely to hear,
the hearts of so many were held captive by fear.
Others always felt tired, some were down or depressed,
;nd then some–put quite simply–their lives were a mess.
Some felt pressure from not having paid all the bills,
some were keeping dark secrets that were making them ill;
some felt guilty and thought they were headed for hell,
but the town seemed so perfect, who could they tell?
So everyone kept all their feelings inside,
and wished they had someone in whom to confide,
to say, “Life is lousy,” or “I’ve made a mistake,”
or “Sometimes I’m so sad I don’t want to awake,”
or “I miss my Grandma,” or “I loved my cat,”
or “I never, no never get my turn at bat.”
Everyone kept it in, hardly ever spoke up
until one Christmas Eve, when an old man named Buck
came to turn on the lights on the tree in the square
and found no one, not anyone, I mean no one was there.
He stared up at the tree and the lights shining bright,
and alone on the square he talked back to the night,
“It’s Christmas,” he said, “when I should feel warm,
but I don’t think that this year I can conform.
It’s been hardly two months since my friend passed away;
how can I smile when he’s not here to say,
’Merry Christmas’?” And right then he burst into tears,
and all of the sadness from all of his years
Came out of his eyes and ran down his cheeks,
And he thought he would sit there and just weep for weeks.
His wailing was heard by someone walking by,
“Hi,” my name is Jenn–and I don’t mean to pry . . .”
Buck looked up at the voice and the kindness he heard
Somehow she had helped with just two or three words.
“I’m Buck,” he replied, “and I’m tired and mad,
but I think most of all I just feel really sad.”
She wasn’t quite ready for the truth that he told,
but it helped her feel brave standing there in the cold.
“Thanksgiving was lonely, my birthday was, too.
I guess I could say that I feel just like you.”
So they poured out their hearts, like a sister and brother,
then someone else joined, and then came another,
with a story to tell and feelings to free,
and they all sat and cried ‘neath the big Christmas Tree.
Can you imagine how many tears fell,
after all of the years that no one would tell
how it hurt just to live, how they felt terrified
of saying out loud what they carried inside.
How long does it take to clean out your heart,
to get it all out, to make a new start?
They cried until daybreak, till the first rays of dawn
broke over the tree tops and spread ‘cross the lawn,
in the new morning light Buck could see ‘cross the square;
he smiled up at Jenn ‘cause the whole town was out there.
They had come through the night, first one, then another
to sit down together like sister and brother,
to pour out their hearts for the first time in years,
and let out their feelings, their sadness, there tears.
Jenn started a carol, the one she knew best,
about joy to the world, and it burst from her chest.
The others joined in, not because they weren’t sad,
but because they’d admitted the feelings they had;
everyone sang along, both the sad and the scared,
Because true friends are found when true feelings are shared.
Perhaps it’s not fair to tell you this story
since we’re all kind of trapped in a strange purgatory;
the holiday’s here and we can’t be together
around a big tree in some Christmas card weather;
we can’t raise our voices and sing Silent Night,
or turn to each other to pass candlelight,
but our world is no different: we’re frightened and sad,
we feel helpless and hopeless, and certainly mad,
but none of those words is the last on this Night
that we wait for the Child, that we pray for the Light,
that we hope for the best, even stuck in our homes,
and we try to remember that we’re not alone.
The virus and violence will not define us,
and our grief and our sadness will not resign us;
we’ll find ways to say that we love one another,
though we must keep our distance and our faces are covered.
The walls that we’re in cannot keep us apart
if we speak truth in love and we open our hearts.
We are all full of feelings, these are difficult times,
but let’s see past the sorrow and look for the lines
that connect everyone, even if we can’t touch;
let’s look for new ways to say “I love you much.”
Our hopes for this year may have turned to dismay,
but that doesn’t mean Christmas is so faraway.
On the eve of the winter solstice and the cosmic illusion of the “Christmas Star” that Jupiter and Saturn will provide this week, I went back to a poem I wrote a couple of years ago that found new life this year, thanks to my friend, composer Taylor Scott Davis, who used an adaptation of the text in an amazing choral piece that was premiered two weeks ago by VOCES8. It also makes an appearance in my book The Color of Together.
Tonight, it is here once more.
come sit in the dark with me
and look at that moon that
is so at home in the night
let us reach deep into the
pockets of our souls for
scraps of hope and wonder
come gaze at the firefly
stars flinging their light
lay back on the blanket of
dead leaves and sleeping soil
oh, that we had a ladder to
make a consolation of ourselves
a constellation of ourselves
come sing our favorite song
softly into this silent night that
welcomes the first day of winter
the one about being together
come sit in the dark with me
I’ve missed a couple of days in my Advent journal. With Ginger’s help, I stepped away from everything to catch my breath and a sense of myself. I’m back tonight with my sermon for tomorrow.
Earlier in Advent I was a part of a Zoom workshop with poet Pádraig Ó Tuama entitled “A Poet Reads the Gospels.” He began by saying, when we read familiar gospel stories, we become used to what we think is there rather than reading the story. We need to arrest our desire for a single message, he said, because they are plural. Today we come to the story we read pretty much every year on the last Sunday of Advent. We know Gabriel is coming with news for Mary. Let us listen for more thaN what we are expecting.
Luke 1:26-38 (Phillips) Then, six months after Zacharias’ vision, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a Galilean town, Nazareth by name, to a young woman who was engaged to a man called Joseph. The girl’s name was Mary. The angel entered her room and said, “Greetings to you, Mary, O favoured one!—the Lord be with you!”
Mary was deeply perturbed at these words and wondered what such a greeting could possibly mean. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; God loves you dearly. You are going to be the mother of a son, and you will call him Jesus. He will be great and will be known as the Son of the most high. The Lord God will give him the throne of his forefather, David, and he will be king over the people of Jacob for ever. His reign shall never end.”
Then Mary spoke to the angel, “How can this be,” she said, “I am not married!”
But the angel made this reply to her—“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the most high will abide in you. Your child will therefore be called holy—the Son of God. Your cousin Elisabeth has also conceived a son, old as she is. Indeed, this is the sixth month for her, a woman who was called barren. For no promise of God can fail to be fulfilled.”
“I belong to the Lord, body and soul,” replied Mary, “let it happen as you say.” And at this the angel left her.
May God give us fresh understanding of this passage.
One of the things that is disarming to me about the way the gospels tell the story leading up to Jesus’ birth is the sort of matter-of-fact way that people talk to angels, as well as to one another. In the verses we just read, Luke offers very little in terms of tone or emotion other than to say that Mary was perturbed, that the angel said, “Don’t be afraid,” and then Mary finished the conversation with a statement of resolve: “Let it happen as you say”–bring it on!
The whole thing rolls out in a paragraph. There has to be more to it. I mean, look at this exchange. Mary is in her house and an angel walks in and says, “Hello, Mary—or should I just call you “God’s Favorite”? And his words left Mary feeling everything from confused to disturbed to sort of freaking out.
Our translation says she was “deeply perturbed.” Whatever words we use to describe it, she had some sense that it wasn’t all figs and honey when an angel calls you a “favored one.” When Gabriel saw how his greeting had been received, he said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, God loves you dearly” and then went on to fill her in on the details of what was about to happen.
He didn’t say everything was going to work out. He did say God was in the middle of it all and more was going on that Mary could comprehend; she was going to have to trust God. So, “don’t be afraid” could apply
to an angel filling up the room
to being chosen by God (she knew the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Miriam (her namesake), Isaiah, to name a few)
to being pregnant and unmarried
to being a teenager and dealing with all of this
Mary listened, but then she did more than not being afraid. She stepped into courage: “I belong to the Lord body and soul, let it happen just as you say.” The path to courage is beyond fear; they are not opposites, they are choices.
Beyond this scene where she finds out she’s favored and pregnant, Mary had a lot of cause in her life for fear. Not long after Jesus’ birth, they had to flee into Egypt because Herod wanted to kill the child. When Jesus was twelve, they lost him for several days. And then she had to watch her grown son live a life that was a head-on collision with the Empire from the start, which she, like many, could see was not going to end well. Every chance she had, it seems, she chose courage and kept going.
She took heart–that’s what the word courage means at its roots–not because she was the Palestinian forerunner to Wonder Woman. She was, as we said, a young girl in a culture that saw little value in women. She was an unmarried pregnant woman in a society whose laws said unmarried pregnant women didn’t belong. Mostly, she was a young woman in a small town in the middle of nowhere, as far as the rest of the world was concerned.
We don’t read this story because Mary was famous. We read it because Mary was faithful, and her faithfulness calls us to the be the same, even though an angel may not fill the room: do not be afraid; God loves you dearly.”
God’s love encourages us–puts the heart in.
The season of Advent invites us to wait for something that has already happened. Jesus was born a long, long time ago. Yet the wisdom of the season is that it invites us to do more than re-tell the story; we are invited to give birth to Christ in the middle of our circumstances, which, I suppose, is another one of those things we can say each Advent and not hear what the words mean.
I have to smile at myself as I call us to give birth to Christ because I don’t know the first thing about giving birth, other than I have been told it’s painful. To imagine a life growing inside my body and then forcing its way out is frightening indeed. What I do know is that birth, literally and metaphorically, is a beginning. And it’s scary.
Look what Mary let loose when she gave birth to Jesus. What will happen if we allow ourselves to give birth to Christ in our time? In these days? That’s frightening to think about what that would actually mean, don’t you think? How will we give birth to Christ in the middle of this pandemic? How will be give birth to Christ in the midst of all of the division and rancor that marks our country these days? What will it demand of us to give birth to Christ—to incarnate the love of God—in our time? in our place? in our families?
Those are scary questions because they call us to step on faith—to trust, like Mary did, that God is with us and that we are God’s beloved. Listen, again, to her last words to Gabriel, which I can’t hear without the Beatles singing in the background:
I belong to God, body and soul. Let it be just as you said.
Like the song says, “And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer: let it be.”