Sunday, December 24, 2000

Christmas Presence (2)

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2:1-20

Christmas is a time for stories because we begin again, at this time, to make the saving connection between our one story and the eternal story of Jesus Christ, our Christmas Presence.

When we were little, Jan and I lived out in the west, together under the Big Sky, though we were not to meet for another 15 years. She was a toddler while her dad read Paul Tillich for a PhD dissertation in Denver, at the Illiff School of Theology. He went there, after a degree in electrical engineering, on the strength of a Life magazine article titled, "They're training a new kind of preacher in Denver." At the same time, I was a toddler in the desert sands of Las Vegas while my dad was a chaplain at the Nellis Air Force Base. He went there, after undergraduate pre-medical study and divinity school in Boston. They were leaders. One the captain of the football team, the other the President of the senior class. They came of age when leaders who wanted to make a difference headed away from engineering and medicine, and toward the ministry. This was 45 years ago.

Paul Tillich is probably the last and only name of a modern theologian that more than 10% of our nation could recognize. Maybe 5%. His was the last great theological attempt, in simple language, to connect the story of life with the story of Christ, and to do so in a way that would work, as Luke says, "for all the people". I laughed last week when I read again his forward to the 1957 volume: "I hope to receive much valuable criticism of the substance of my thought, as I did with the first volume…But I cannot accept criticism as valuable which merely insinuates that I have surrendered the substance of the Christian message because I have used a terminology which consciously deviates from the biblical or ecclesiastical language. Without such deviation, I would not have deemed it worthwhile to develop a theological system for our period."

As Jan, at age 3 and 4, fingered the bulbs and lights of a tree in the parsonage of Onega, Kansas, her dad read Tillich, on the train home from Denver. He read, I know he must have, how Tillich translated the old words about faith to words more current and true. They are still true, and hearing them tonight can mean your lasting health, your eternal salvation. Said he, we receive the Christmas Presence in three modes. By participation. By acceptance. By transformation.

First, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story by causing you to participate in his story. This is the whole substance of Christmas, the reason for the season, and the reason you are here tonight, participating tonight. It is the reason the choir frets over carols, the altar guild arranges flowers, the ushers urge you to be careful with candles, the preacher offers a 10 minute homily, and in the beauty, the silence, the majesty of this nave, the most beautiful in American Methodism, you participate. Christ has surrounded your hurt and desire, with his healing and love.

Second, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story, somewhere along the tough road of life, by whispering to you: "you are accepted." If only you will accept the fact that deep in the heart of the universe, call it the Ground of all Being if you must, there is a happy acceptance of just who you are, the real you, the authentic only you, your one story. God loves you. God accepts you. You have things you regret. Welcome to the human race. God accepts all that. You are not perfect. Welcome to the human race. God accepts that too. You are prone to error and certain to die. Welcome to the human race. God accepts your error and mortality. Because: God accepts you. Someday you are going to feel, believe, trust, know, understand and ACCEPT your acceptance by God. May it be tonight. You are in the region, first trodden by shepherds and lowly folk, near Bethlehem of Judea, when the news broke: God accepts, God loves.

Third, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story, over time, by transforming your life from one of self-centered striving, to one of centered selfhood, that frees others and loves others and gives to others. You will be surprised how steadily this transformation develops, which has occurred in potential by virtue of your simple participation tonight, and whose power is felt in your own acceptance, and your accepting your acceptance, and may that be tonight, too.

There is something new, loose in the universe, a Christmas Presence which saves us by causing us to participate, by freeing us to accept, by changing us into loving people.

And maybe, after he assembled the tricycle at Christmas in the mid-50's, Jan's dad made a sermon note: joy of participation! Joy of acceptance! Joy of transformation! Peace, good will to all.

That same night, a few hundred miles to the southwest, the midnight communion service on the Air Force base was ending. After the last candles were dosed, a humbler, perhaps truer, quiet ritual of Christmas Presence began. It was the determined habit of the provost marshal on that base to spend Christmas Eve and the wee hours of Christmas morning visiting those lonely airmen who walked the perimeter guard, around Nellis Air Force base. This particular night was a crisp, starlit Christmas Eve, but very cold out in the desert. Robert Redford's Desert Bloom beautifully depicts the location. The provost marshal asked the chaplain to go along. They took with them in the VW van canisters of coffee and cocoa and cookies baked by the major's wife. Through the night they drove, all around that base, a site then for nuclear testing during those early cold war years.

They visited 18 posts. At each the routine was the same. The major offered the refreshments to the men (only men then) and then shouldered the man's weapon and walked off into the desert to take the man's turn at walking the half mile along the perimeter. The provost marshal walked each man's post, while the chaplain talked to the airmen.

I had heard this story many times growing up, but I had forgotten it until this summer, when my Dad and I were talking about the North Star, a sign of promise, and our experience with the night sky.

That night was a beautiful night. The stars beckoned from horizon to horizon. And cold! You forget how cold it gets out on the desert after the sun goes down. Finally the base marshal and the chaplain came to the flight line. Well past midnight, they drove on by acres of airplanes worth millions of dollars. Jets, prop planes, all.

Along the fence, guarding these millions of dollars worth of government machinery, there stood a 19 year old airman second class. The major repeated the procedure - offering refreshment, shouldering the weapon, and walking off into the cold desert, leaving the chaplain alone with the young man.

It did not take long for the chaplain to discover that this particular 19 year old was not going to be easy to talk to. The chaplain tried everything - a joke, a question, a comment, a verse of scripture, everything he could think of to draw him out. Nothing worked. Probably the chaplain in a First Lieutenant's uniform, and being a little older, was intimidating to the boy. So, they just stood there. In the silence. In the cold. In the silent still cold. The chaplain shivered, the airman second class drank his cocoa, and there was black, dark quiet. They gazed at that remarkable sky, and shivered and sipped….

Until, at last, the boy began to talk. First a little information. Then a little more about his family. They shared some of his dreams for the future. Then a word about his mom and his dad and his younger brother and his baby sister. And there was moment of communion, I and Thou. A hand on the shoulder, a word of prayer, a moment of participation and a little acceptance, and the beginnings of transformation, out in the desert.

What a blessing that lovely starry sky, the warm beverage, the cookies, the two older men and airman second class.

Now, 45 years later, I know that what Jan's dad read in Denver is the gospel truth. I have seen it with my own eyes. The Christmas Presence changes people beginning with participation, continue into acceptance, and completing us by transforming us. Now 45 years later, I know the meaning of that Nevada story, and I know its truth. The Christmas Presence heals us, beginning with participation, continuing into acceptance, and completing us in transformation.

I just have to ask you, here in the dark: can you accept your own acceptance?

Christmas Presence (1)

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 2:1-20

You may think you have heard the Christmas Gospel before. Have you? Faith comes by hearing. When you have heard, your life is changed, transformed into a part of the New Creation which is God's invasion of this dark world, in the Presence of Jesus Christ.

Listen again, with the soul alive to God. You are saved as the one story of your life is carried off into the Great Story of Christ Jesus.

a. "In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…"

Jesus is born in the midst of a great governmental count. This was the first count, not the second, not the hand recount, just a simple little census of the whole inhabited world - at least that governed by Rome.

He is conceived in one place, Nazareth, and born in another, Bethlehem. So it is with your life. Great love may be conceived in one place, only surprisingly to be born in another. Your pet project conceived at your desk? The vice-president gave it birth in the annual report, page 9. Your desire that the church have a cosmic vision, as you conceived it 30 years ago? Some youngster gives it birth two generations later, without even a footnote. Your young conception of what married life could be? At last, doddering, you see a little of it born in a grandchild's home. Great love may be conceived here in Nazareth only to be born there in Bethlehem. Let it go. We are all just traveling around a swirl of counts and recounts anyway. Life is short. Learn early to love: yourself, others, your community, your God.

b. "And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered….there was no place for them in the inn."

Have you truly, simply, connected your heart with the saving story? I do not think we have, yet.

The Christmas Presence, Jesus in mud and straw, arrives outside. Others swing easily through life, held in a golden bubble of mirth and confidence. You stand at the holiday party, unhappy and alone, on the outs. Others are the in crowd. You are outside. Others have the cocksure, rockhard certainty of religion—JESUS, WORD, SALVATION. To you it sounds vaguely sickening, and utterly false, and you are outside the religious inn. Your family hates you, because you have had the courage to cut the Gordian knot and live outside that dysfunctional mess. You are living on the dark side of the moon in your work, outside in the cold.

You are outside. Jesus is born outside. To the manger He brings his saving presence.

Have you heard the story?

Once you do, then, gradually, you will have daily and disciplined sympathy for the outside. You will tithe, not out of duty, but for the excitement of connection by giving with others who are outside. You will be in church on Sunday, not driving to watch the Buffalo Bills or driving to the Eastern View Mall to shop, not out of duty, but for the excitement of listening for the army's advance into the outside. You will keep faith by loving those closest to you, not out of duty, but for the excitement, the glow in the dark manger, that comes with love in the cold, outsider to outsider. The person next to you in the pew is just as anxious, hurting, ashamed, and fearful as you are.

Let's get with it: tithe, worship, help.

c. "And in that region there were shepherds…and an angel of the Lord appeared to them."

But, you complain, angels do not appear to me. I have never seen one either, and I do not expect to in this lifetime. You listen to this as if it were the children's time, Mr. Rogers in a clerical collar. But this is apocalypse. What other language would you suggest, though, by which to convey the splintering of time and the tearing of eternity? What other imagery would you propose to describe the wrenching birth stretch of the Invading Holy One, set upon taking back the creation, which had been stolen by sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness?

Look again at the paintings of the shepherds, given to us through the ages. Look again, for one, at El Greco, and his rendering of the bony cheeked, long limbed, fine fingered fear of the shepherds, who know enough to know enough.

Now there is Presence, a real and lasting and good and demanding Presence. The doxa kupiou, the glory of the Lord.

"Not everything can be said easily, except claims of absolute affirmation or denial. In time, most things can be said clearly, at least. And some of these things are so important that we should do everything we can to make them clear. Presence is one of those things. It is not a word that we should allow anyone to rule out of our vocabulary." (Ralph Harper, 120)

Blaise Pascal: "We never keep to the present…We anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does. Thus we never actually live, but only hope to live."

Pursue Presence this year, work out your salvation in fear and trembling, come alive. My God, every breath is a miracle! And you, each of you, has the makings of an angel, some more than others.

St. Augustine leans out a window, speaking to his mother, "There we talked together, she and I, in deep joy, and while we were talking of His Wisdom and panting for it, with all the effort of our heart we did for one instant touch it."

Alain-Fournier casts the net of another phrase over the same elusive moment, calling what they shared, "a secret understanding."

Cathy and Heathcliff, knowing each other so well, experience a "shared understanding, an emotion they could not have defined, an extraordinary sense of well-being, an almost intoxicating serenity, the certitude that the goal was in sight, and that they had nothing but happiness to look forward to."

John Wesley, more deeply insightful than we admit, weeping over and admiring his poor Methodists, of whom he said, "They are happy in God."

I saw one once, one of these Methodists happy in God. She was playing the organ, and I could see that "imperious radiance of sheer presence." It was falling from her fingers, and streaming from her cheeks, and resonating all around in sound. Why, I think some of you were there, as Marion Craighead played. The sermon that day explored Psalm 16. She said, later, "it is my favorite." And I perceive why it was her favorite, for it ends with an angel voice, "in Thy presence is fullness of joy." In thy presence is fullness of joy. In thy presence…

d. "Behold I bring you good news of a great joy, which will come to all the people."

Have we heard the Gospel? To all people. Including those who do not acclaim a born again experience. Including those who are political conservatives. Including those who come to church on Christmas and Easter only. Including those who enter the church for daycare but not for Sunday School. Including those who eat our dining center meals to save money. Including those who hear the Gospel only during the glorious singing here of Handel's Messiah. Including those who will not accept the insensitivities and injustices of any religious organization. Including poorly educated, barely employed, simple shepherds.

The church comes alive when it ceases to be religion and becomes instead the invasion of the New Creation, bursting into the world around and transforming the culture around into the good news of great joy, which shall be to all people.

The announcement was not made in the temple. The announcement was made in the field.

Thank goodness we have the 21st century, again to move toward what Bonhoeffer probingly called "religionless christianity", what Paul called "faith working through love", and what Asbury First can become - the heart and soul of this county.

e. "Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace…"

We have come full circle. On earth, peace. In the world of Caesar Augustus - and Bush and Gore, in the world of Quirinius - and Bill and Hillary, in the world of Bethlehem - and Rochester. Have we listened? In our world, fraught with endless contention and intractable difference. What it takes, finally, to bring peace on such an earth will take a whole Gospel to tell. By the way, that includes miracles unappreciated, messages unattended, parables unaccepted, instruction unlearned, and then, suddenly, a bloodstained cross, a hasty burial, and a cold tomb. This is the way of peace, down the path of unearned suffering.

Behold the Christmas Presence, hidden underneath His opposite. Birth amid death, joy amid poverty, divinity in straw and mud, angels serenading sheep, the all-powerful God embodied in a sucking infant, the universe's King made to sleep outdoors in the winter.

Have we heard the Gospel?

If so, we shall have no longer any single ordinary day, any single ordinary encounter, any single ordinary relationship, any single ordinary task, any single ordinary moment. All, by Jesus, are shot through with Presence.

As G.K. Chesterton said, "the world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder."

Behold the Christmas Presence!