When I last posted on December 8, it was not my intent to wait eleven days before I wrote again. The last couple of weeks have been a symphony of emotions from my sixty-fifth birthday to a health scare for one of our chosen family. I tried to get here, but it seems like I needed the quiet, even though it meant not keeping my Advent promises.
Today, I am here because I preached, so I have something to post. The sermon is from Luke 2:1-7 and is called “An Inconvenient Time.”
I will do my best to get here tomorrow.
Last weekend, as many of you know, I was away because I was celebrating my sixty-fifth birthday. Ginger, my wife, took me to Durham, North Carolina, where we lived before we moved to Connecticut to spend the weekend surrounded by friends and loved ones. As we were preparing to leave town on Friday, we got word that our friend Jay–who is chosen family–was going into the hospital in Boston because they couldn’t control his heart rate.
When I say he is chosen family, I mean he has spent pretty much every Thanksgiving and Christmas with us for the last thirty years. He had planned to come to Durham as well before his heart began acting up. It felt strange for us to be getting on a plane going south as he was headed to Mass General Hospital.
Saturday night, we had a big dinner party at COPA, one of my favorite restaurants in Durham. I was surrounded by people whom I love deeply. It was such a night of joy. And in the middle of it, my phone rang. Jay was calling to say they we’re going to put him in an induced coma for three or four days. As Jay put it, they needed to quiet his brain so they could quiet his heart. The medical explanation made sense, but the thought of them putting him under sedation on Saturday night and not waking him until Tuesday morning scared me. It scared us all.
There in the middle of the restaurant, I felt love and joy and fear and sadness all at the same time.
But then, life rarely gives us one feeling at a time. Even in the Christmas story. I know the passage I read jumps ahead a bit, as far as Advent is concerned, but these verses about Jesus’ birth coming in the middle of everything else have been meaningful this week.
After we got home from Durham, I drove to Boston on Tuesday night and stayed at Jay’s place, took care of Ollie, his dog, and helped Jay get home from the hospital Friday evening. They were able to quiet both his mind and his heart. The story of what lies ahead has yet to be written, but the crisis has passed, just as the official celebration of my birth has passed as well. Yet, I continue to age daily, and Jay’s heart keeps beating—and everything that is a part of life keeps coming at us, all at once.
The verses for this morning spoke to me because of the picture that Luke paints–the setting he creates for Jesus’ birth. We talked a couple of weeks ago about how Luke introduced John the Baptist by listing all the people in positions of power before he got to the prophet on the edge of town. Luke starts the account of Jesus’ birth in the same way, naming the emperor and the governor, and underlining their power by describing how they could demand for all the world to be registered—to be counted for a census—and make people travel to do it.
It didn’t matter that Mary was days away from delivering her child. It didn’t matter that it was ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They had to go to Joseph’s ancestral home to be counted, and so they did. Then comes the part of the story we all know well. When they got to town, they couldn’t not find standard lodging, so Mary gave birth to her baby in a barn and used a feed trough for a crib.
No matter how long the journey, or how inconsiderate the demands of those in power, or how inconvenient the circumstances, Love still came into the world.
The world changed because Jesus was born. God poured God’s self into human form. Divine Love became incarnate in the person of Jesus, who grew into a man who lived out that love so fiercely that the same political powers listed at the top of Luke’s first two chapters had him executed. Love is not always welcomed by those who crave control.
The world changed, yes, but most of the circumstances around Jesus did not. Life was just as full of pain and grief and hope and fear and joy as it had been. Mary was ninety miles from home with a baby and a man she had not yet married. But she held the child they named Emmanuel–God with us.
God with us—no matter what is going on.
The big stained-glass word for all of this is Incarnation–made into flesh. It’s the fancy way to say God came in human form. One writer I read said at its root the word means “with meat,” as if to say God wanted to make sure we understood that love was not an idea. For love to be real, you have to have some skin in the game.
As I have carried the story of Mary making her way to the manger this week, I have been mindful of how I have seen love incarnated in my own life. Those gathered around the tables at my birthday gatherings have incarnated God’s love to me in so many ways through job changes, address changes, the deaths of my parents, two knee replacements, as well as countless shared meals and dreams. They didn’t have to come to dinner. They came to show me that they loved me.
My driving up to Boston on Tuesday was the best way Ginger and I knew to incarnate love for Jay as they worked to quiet his heart and his mind. I didn’t have to go, but why would I miss the chance to say I love you?
When Mary climbed on the donkey to make her way to Bethlehem, I imagine her thinking the census could not have come at a more inconvenient time. I imagine they spent their days on the road wondering if the child would be born on the side of the highway. But even if they had stayed in Nazareth, there would have never been a day that was convenient for the baby to be born.
Perhaps we could also say there is never a convenient time to incarnate love.
The first Sunday in Advent, I quoted the mystic Meister Eckhardt, who said:
What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.
God is always needing to be born into the mess that is our lives. God is always needing to be born in the midst of inconvenience and struggle, in the middle of our questions and fears and dreams– right where we are. Life is not either-or. I’m not sure it’s even as simple as both-and. If we could go around the room and tell our stories this morning, we would remind ourselves that we carry all our feelings at once; we hold grief and joy and hope and sorrow all together. No matter what the circumstance, no matter what the occasion, God is always needing to be born, which is another way of saying God is calling us to incarnate love to one another: to offer one another something—someone–we can hold on to.
As we prepare to celebrate our second COVID Christmas, the wear and tear of the long road of the pandemic is taking its toll. We are all tired and exhausted. Just when we think that maybe things are getting better, the case numbers go up again, or someone close to us gets the virus. We are also feeling the social and economic impact of two years of distance and difficulty, along with the shared grief of over 800,000 deaths. And COVID is not the whole story. Each one of us carries what is going on in our families, at our jobs, here at our church.
This is the world—our world—where God needs to be born, where Love needs to be incarnated, made flesh by our choices of words and actions. Let us quiet our minds and our hearts in this inconvenient time and do all we can to make sure those around us know that Love is stronger than any circumstance. Amen.
Love incarnate and skin in the game. Yes. Thanks, Milton.
Incredible insights, beautifully expressed and applied.
I can’t believe you’re 65!
Milton, I read this having lived ‘the mess” for the last three weeks. First with a cancer scare (I’m clear now), then with bills & house repairs, and parallel to that, awaiting the birth of our son’s second child, which was imminent. We won’t mention the state of the world! Your words remind me that we navigate all this, giving and seeking love, through every day. Yesterday, I met & held our grandson for the first time and my heart was full.