Monday, December 29, 2014

A Moment of Memory & Imagination

Christmas memories.

Let me tell you a story and every word of it is completely true (wink, wink).  When I was a little boy I wanted a new bicycle for Christmas, but my mother, knowing that I had been a terrible brat and trouble maker all year, said I didn’t deserved it.  She told me I was going to need to take a long, hard look at my behavior and make some changes.  My mom told me to write a letter to Jesus, confess my sins, and petition the Savior for the bike I wanted.

Well, after I threw a temper tantrum and got sent to my room, I settled down and sat down to write a letter.

Dear Jesus,
  I’ve been a good boy this year and would appreciate a new bicycle.
  Your friend,

Now I knew that Jesus knew this wasn’t true, so I ripped up the letter and gave it another try.

Dear Jesus,
  I’ve tried to be a good boy and I really want a new bike.
  Yours truly,

Again, I realized this wasn’t true, so I crumpled up the letter, threw it in the trash can, went running out of the house, and headed straight to our neighborhood church.  I knelt down in a pew and told Jesus all the bad things I’d had done.  Finally, after an hour of unloading my burdened soul, I stood up to leave.  Just then I happened to notice the crèche figures in a nearby display.  I walked over and took in the beautiful sight.  Impulsively I grabbed the figure of Mary and ran out the door.

When I got back to my room, I sat down and wrote a final letter:

  I’ve got your mother.  If you ever want to see her again, you’d better get me a new a bike for Christmas.
  You know who!

Christmas memories.  This story is true.  Tonight, as every Christmas Eve, my mind drifts back to this day in 1995 when I was serving a church in a small town in Iowa.  The doorbell rang at the Rectory, which was located on the parish grounds.  It was early afternoon on a day when the temperatures were in the teens and a biting cold wind was howling out of the north.  Before me stood a man who introduced himself as Michael Araba from the Anglican Church of Nigeria who was in America hoping to study at a The Virginia Theological Seminary.  He was having immigration problems because his visa had expired and his only hope for renewal was to be at a meeting with officials in Rochester, MN the day after Christmas.  Michael was traveling with his wife and infant daughter.  Their car, in which they had slept the two previous nights, had broken down several times and their money was exhausted.  They had no way to continue on with their journey and nowhere to turn.

Michael came to the Rectory because it was the nearest Episcopal Church and he was desperate.  I gave him $150 dollars from the discretionary fund and, because he had only a sweater, I gave him one of my coats.  His wife and child were adequately clothed so we gave them a handful of diapers and wipes, some warm blankets, food, and a few of the girls’ toys for their baby.  They said they didn’t need anything else so, after I said a prayer with them, they were on their way.  There is not a Christmas Eve that goes by that I don’t think of that visit.  It was almost like the Holy Family had come to our door. 

Do you ever wonder why so many divergent thoughts flood your mind during a worship service, especially this service on Christmas Eve?  Far from being distractions to what we are really supposed to be doing, memories like these are vital and necessary ingredients in the complex recipe that makes for meaningful worship.  Something wonderful happens as we connect our story to God’s Story.  Something powerful happens when we are able to hear the sacred stories of the people of the Bible and through God’s Spirit find a way to see how our own experience is in communion with theirs.

A Roman Catholic theologian by the name of Johann Metz once said, “Without memory, the Church would cease to exist.”  No other time of the year is as pregnant with rich memories as Christmas time.  What memories of yours are coming alive tonight?  For those of you who grew up here at St. Paul’s, I wonder what you remember and who you are thinking about.  For those of you who have moved around, as I have, I wonder what memories you bring with you from other places. 

I have specific memories of Christmas Eve at every parish where I have served.  I think what I will remember most about St. Paul’s is the view I have of the Altar Cross from where I sit as we sing the carol “Silent Night.”  From my vantage point, it is backlight by the candles that are nestled in red poinsettia.  Dark on the front when the lights are turned off, the outline of the Cross radiates with a golden glow as it is illuminated by the candles’ flames.  It is a sight I have come to cherish and will always carry with me.

Metz distinguishes between two kinds of remembering.  First he says there is nostalgia.  This kind of remembering is merely a trip down memory lane, perhaps with the wish that we could live in the past, in the good old days.  While nostalgia has its place, it is not the aim of this evening’s worship. 

In addition to this, there is something Metz calls “dangerous memories” that have the ability to provoke us into some future activity that challenges the status quo of life.  I prefer to call it “creative remembrance.”  It differs from nostalgia in that it takes the memories of the past and, as Metz suggests, calls us to some kind of action in the future.  This happens most keenly when our stories fold together with The Story.  So, for example, when our memories of family gatherings, festive celebrations, and delicious meals mesh with the story of the Inn Keeper in Bethlehem, we find ourselves breaking through the clutter of the Christmas season to reach out to those in need of friendship, hospitality, and a helping hand. 

Creative memory might encourage you to make contact with a long lost friend or to reach out to someone in order to right a wrong of long ago.  Tonight, creative memory might inspire you to deeper ministry in our community or greater engagement with our parish.  There is no telling where creative memory might take you, but make no mistake, it is a vital part of what makes worship meaningful.

My German is not so good, but the expression “gabe und aufgabe” says that worship services like ours tonight consist of both gift and task.  The gift of worship is God’s self – revealed in word, in sacrament, and in our faithful gathering as the Body of Christ.  The task of worship comes to us through creative memory.  It is what we hear God’s Spirit calling us to do.  And we hear this calling by being attentive both to this present moment and to the remembrances that come to us.

You see, if it is true that Christianity is a story that is made real to us through remembrance, it is equally true that Christianity is also a dream.  It is a dream of the future that becomes a part of the present through our imagination and hope.  In this sense, worship is a moment that invites us to look both backwards and forwards. 

We are invited to bring the future to the present; to dream of a time when our endeavors to share the rich blessings God has bestowed upon us will usher in the elimination of need and want in this world; to dream of a time when our efforts at reconciliation will become a part of the foundation of Peace on Earth; to dream of the time when we will be reunited with those we love but see no longer.  We are invited through hope to imagine the joy of such a future and to make it real (at least partly) in this present moment.

So tonight we hear again The Story of the birth of God’s only begotten Child; a story reverently recorded and faithfully handed on for two millennia.  Our remembrance makes us contemporaries of the Holy Family and invites us to journey with the shepherds to the manger.  As we go backwards, the events of that night so long ago become a part of our present experience.  Through imagination and hope we begin to dream of the future where these events realize their perfect fulfillment.  That future too becomes a part of our present experience. 

Without memory the Church would cease to be.  Without imagination the Church would be ineffectual, gathering only for the vain purpose of nostalgia.  So tonight I call on us to be people who remember and to be people who imagine.  And in so doing our worship takes on a deep, rich meaning where God draws close and becomes known in a life-filling way.