Saturday, December 24, 2016

Embracing Tenderness

Let me take you back to August.  I am sitting in my car in the parking lot of a grocery store.  I have taken a phone call and am doing a lot of listening as a person I have never met is telling me about the life of his son who I don’t know, but will officiate at his burial in a few days.  It is hot outside, a typical boiling summer day in Hampton Roads.  I am grateful for my car’s air-conditioned as the call continues for well past twenty-five minutes. 

Across from me a family has left the store and is now getting into their car, an SUV.  I observe two brothers, one about 8, the other 3.  The younger brother is at the age where he wants to do things for himself.  On this hot afternoon, he wants to open the car door without assistance and climb up into his seat without help.  The older brother stands immediately behind him.  He is attentive, but does not interfere.  The three-year-old opens the door and grabs hold of car’s frame to hoist himself up.  But he has not opened the door far enough and it swings back and closes on his hand – not hard, but enough to hurt.  The little boy screams out in pain and begins to cry.  A woman emerges from the other side of the SUV.  She has been loading bags of groceries into the car and I have not seen her until now.  She is too old to be the mother of the boys.  I judge her to be their grandmother.

Immediately I put myself in the grandmother’s shoes.  It is hot.  She must be tired.  My guess is she wrestles with a frustration that comes from being responsible for raising her child’s children.  What is she going to do, I wonder.  Will she explode in anger at the older boy for allowing this to happen?  Will she scold the younger boy for attempting things beyond his abilities?  Will she snatch him up, drop him down in his seat, buckle his belt, slam the door, and mutter to herself about her miserable life?  And what about the older brother?  What will he do?  If he gets in trouble will he retaliate on his little brother?  Or, will he just jump into the car and try to avoid what is about to happen?

What I have described so far unfolds in over no more than 15 seconds.  The entire episode will conclude in less than a minute, moving in a direction I do not foresee.  On this hot day, standing on the asphalt blacktop, after a stressful and expensive visit to the grocery store, as her frozen goods begin to thaw, the grandmother meets the three year old, opens her arms, lifts him up, and embraces him with a hug suggesting nothing else in the world matters more to her than this child’s comfort.  It is as if time itself is standing still.  When the boy is ready, the grandmother puts him down and he begins again the task of opening the door and getting himself into his seat.  The older brother stands by.  There is not a single trace of anger, resentment, or contempt on his face or in his body language.  He is more ready this time to stop the door if it closes, but he allows his younger brother to do things for himself.  On this second attempt all things go well.  Once the groceries are loaded, the grandmother gets behind the wheel of the car and drives away.

It is a truly unremarkable event except that it radiates with the breath-taking tenderness woven by a loving God into the fabric of all creation.  It is a moment revealing in a tiny way the magnitude and majesty of the Incarnation where God takes all of humanity into an embrace to heal us and to renew us.  It is emblematic of who we are to be for one another: caring, encouraging, compassionate, selfless, agents of healing, fostering growth. 

The French chemist Louis Pasteur once said, “When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments; tenderness for what he is, and respect for what he may become.”  You and I, together we bring these same sentiments to this holy night as we gather again in the Bethlehem stable.  We marvel that God would come into this world as One so vulnerable and pure.  We imagine what this child will grow up to do and to be, how he will become the Savior of the world and the Lord of our lives.  But before he can become the Light of the world he must know the tenderness of his parents’ love.  It is an essential ingredient of who he becomes.

Tonight we bring to this tender scene the harsh reality of our dark world.  We hold close the cries of the children of Aleppo, the suffering and loss of those run down at a Christmas market in Berlin, and the image of an ambassador assassinated at an art show meant to foster communication between two countries attempting to forge a better path with one another.  Many of us this night are apprehensive about the state our world is and are fearful of where it is heading.  If you extrapolate forward the way things are, it seems reasonable to be concerned.

Over the last few weeks, several of you have asked me where we can turn for hope.  What message of peace and reassurance does the Christian faith offer to us in these dark and uncertain times? 

I think about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth.  Mary and Joseph live in an occupied land.  The far off Roman emperor has forced all people to be enrolled in a census for the purpose of even more onerous taxation.  Joseph must travel to Bethlehem in order to be counted in his hometown.  His fiancée, in the late stages of her first pregnancy, must accompany him.  There are no accommodations available once they arrive, so they shelter in an animal stall.  This is where their baby is born. 

Herod, the governor of the region, who is a paranoid megalomaniac, learns of the birth and its connection to an ancient prophecy.  Threatened, he seeks to eliminate the child by slaughtering all the children in the region.  Joseph gathers his family and flees to Egypt for safety.  Jesus begins his life as a political refugee.  

Change a detail here or there and these events read like anything you will find happening in our world today.  This is just one more child who will be raised in harsh and dangerous conditions.  But here is the amazing thing best described by the gospel writer John: this little baby is the Light of the world and “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”  It is a wonderful image.  The smallest candle or oil lamp, when placed in a dark room makes the room no longer dark.  The Light of Christ, emanating from the manger, is more powerful than all the evil and hatred and violence surrounding him.

If you were to ask me what has been the most powerful, life-changing, world-shaping event I witnessed in 2016, do you know what my answer would be?  It is not the stunning results of our presidential election.  It is not the horrible effect of senseless acts of terrorism and violence.  And it certainly is not be the comings and goings of various athletes and celebrities.  No, none of these.  Here is my answer: “I saw a grandmother hug her crying grandson in a store parking lot and the boy was comforted and renewed.”

Tonight we celebrate the promise and the hope of the power of every tender and compassionate act of love.  It is the power of God at work in this world.  Yes, human sin can and does challenge God’s love, but it cannot prevail against it. 

The philosopher William James observed “there is an organic affinity between joyousness and tenderness.”  Tonight, we are invited to enter into the joy of Christ’s birth by embracing its tenderness as a mark of who we are and how we live.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Joseph Creates a Future

A high school English teacher moves to the blackboard at the beginning of class and writes these words in chalk, “A woman without her man is nothing”.  “Today’s assignment,” the teacher announces, “is to give this statement correct punctuation.”  All the young men in the class write, “A woman, with her man, is nothing.”  The young women, on the other hand, have a different take: “A woman: without her, man is nothing!”

John Gray’s 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus has sold more than 50 million copies.  Although roundly criticized as being stereotypical in its approach to gender descriptions, the book has helped men and women understand each other better.  Gray contends men and women approach life in such different ways it is as if we are from different planets.  Each gender, he says, is acclimated to its own planet’s society and customs, which is completely foreign to the other gender.

One example of our differences is how each gender typically responds to stress.  Men, when faced with difficult problems or situations, tend to become non-communicative so they can work out how best to respond.  Gray calls this “retreating to the cave.”  Women, responding in an entirely different manner, become communicative so others can help them work through their options and opportunities.  For women, often the solution is not as important as the opportunity to express emotions and to receive empathy.  Again, Gray’s approach has been criticized for relying on stereotypes, but behind many stereotypes often there is an element of truth.

Most of what we know about the birth of Jesus is drawn from the Gospel’s of Matthew and Luke.  While we tend to fold together the elements of each version, the two gospels present two distinct and very different stories.  Luke is focused on Mary.  An angel tells her she will bear the Son of God.  She responds by singing the Magnificat.  True to Gray’s thinking about stressful situations, Mary travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  They greet one another and there is more singing.  Luke tells us about the census and the journey to Bethlehem.  He tells us about the birth in a stable and the visiting shepherds.  It is a rich, lush story full of wonder and joy.

Matthew describes Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective.  True to Gray’s thinking, when he learns his fiancée is pregnant Joseph retreats to himself to figure out how to respond.  He could have Mary stoned to death, but decides to keep the matter quiet and between them.  He will give her a simple writ of divorce and be done with it.  An angel speaks to him in a dream and gives him a new direction.  He takes Mary as his wife.  In classic Mars style, the text simply says, “Mary bore a son, and Joseph named him Jesus.”  Lean and to the point, just the way a man would tell it.

Matthew uses one very telling word to describe Joseph.  He says Joseph is a “righteous” man.  It means he is a good person, moral, and (in the extreme) it can even indicate he is without sin.  It is not easy, I think, for a good and moral person to tolerate the failings of those closest to him.  We expect our spouse and our siblings and our children to live up to the moral and ethical code we expect of ourselves.  Joseph must have been deeply disappointed when he discovered Mary was with child.  Her version of how it happened must have seemed laughable to him. 

He has, at best, two options.  As we noted, he can make the matter public and demand she be executed by stoning.  This would be the path of righteous indignation.  Or, he can opt for the more merciful path of divorce.  It will free him of Mary and responsibility for an unborn child that is not his.  She will have to return to her family and hope her father will take her back under his care. 

Have you ever received an email with a sentence or saying automatically fixed to the end?  A colleague sent me an email this week and at the end he inserted this quote from John Schaar:

The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created--created first in the mind and will, created next in activity.  The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.  The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.

I think Schaar is right about the present and the future and about our role and responsibility in moving forward.  And I think Joseph’s story illustrates exactly what Schaar describes.  Before he goes to sleep and encounters an angel in his dream, Joseph is very much pondering the future by weighing the merits of the different paths available to him in the present.  But after the angel speaks to him Joseph begins to consider the possibility of a future only he can create.  Remaining engaged to his pregnant fiancée is not an option given to him by his culture, but it is the decision he embraces.  He makes his way forward into the future in a new way.  The path is made one step at a time by taking one step after another.

It seems to me, for one reason or another, I have been preaching the same message in my sermon for the last several weeks.  The kingdom of heaven is not something God does for you, rather it is something God does through you.  Either you are a willing and active participant or nothing happens. 

Mary provides the ultimate illustration of this.  The kingdom of heaven literally begins insider her body and comes into this world through her womb.  Joseph, for his part, embraces the possibility God wants to do something through him.  He faces what most likely is the most critical and difficult decision of his life and decides to make a new path and create a future in partnership with God’s Spirit.

We are just two weeks away from entering the 375th year of our parish’s existence.  We will observe and celebrate this momentous occasion in different forms and fashions.  No one is forcing us to do it.  We can sit back and do little or nothing.  We choose to create our future by using the occasion to remember, to reflect, and to give thanks.  I believe God will act in and through our celebrating in ways we can scarcely imagine, but would not happen if we did nothing at all.

I always love concluding the reading of Morning Prayer by reciting these words from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus: “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”  God’s power, working through us, can do amazing things indeed, but only if we are willing to allow it to happen.  The kingdom of heaven is not something God does for you, but something God does through you.  It is something God creates in partnership with you.  Either you will create the future with God’s Spirit moving through you, or you will not.  Either the kingdom of heaven will be born through you, as it was through Mary, or the world will remain a cold and lonely and lifeless place.  Either you will work with God to protect what is good and precious and vulnerable, as God worked through Joseph, or what the world needs most will be lost.  Either your heart will be open to God and it will become a place for the kingdom of heaven to be imagined and then created, or the world will drift along visionless and dark.

“Just as the candle is host to the flame, so too may you burn with the power and the glory of God’s Spirit.”