Sunday, December 12, 2004

Are You Ready for Christmas?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 1: 18-25

Be prepared! Otherwise, you just may miss something coming your way. In a form you did not expect.

A teenager came down from the garret with an old book, and headed for the trash. What have you found? It’s just an old book. Really—from where? Oh it was up that trunk. Just an old Bible. Anyone’s name on it? No nothing special, just oh some old German name. Can you read it? Oh, yes, its, gut …gut …Guttenberg.

This Advent, again, Matthew our teacher lures us into the mystery of faith by speaking of a Lover, a Beloved, and Love, as Augustine did later, speaking of Amans, Amatus, and Amor. GOD IS LOVE. The pulsing, driving, heart-changing career of this mystery continues to gladden struggling human faces, even as we distort its form. Carols in the shopping mall… Hymns appropriated for television… a Santa in the manger… drunkenness on Christmas Eve…a season of buying and selling drowning out quiet prayers… Still, still. The world of fear suspects the brooding presence of a God of love. And as any oriental King may tell you, love is for the wise. I ask you: are you ready for Christmas?

1. Are You Ready to Follow Love through the Thickets of Separation?Hear good news. Love is stronger than separation. Love will guide us through the thickets of separation. In August we bade farewell to may of our college students. Some will now return. They will have had some practical experience with separation.

Margie, my sister, has told a fine and humorous story, about an initial separation, a part of that journey to adulthood. The path to the second identity is never easy. A nine year old has determined to run away from home. He packs his suitcase, and carefully prepares his peanut butter sandwich. After dinner he ceremoniously leaves home, to take his seat under the corner lamppost. His parents nervously watch from the living room. The family tomcat purrs and paces across the floor. At nine o’clock he eats his sandwich. Then at ten his mom and dad hear that most blessed of night sounds, the latch of the front door. In he comes. Like Harry Truman returning with Bess to Missouri, he “takes his grip up the front stairs”. Then he comes to sit, weary from travel, in the front room. The cat brushes his legs. Now that he has been away, things are different. His father watches from over the edge of the newspaper. Then, to break the ice, the well traveled boy coughs, and says, “Yes, it is good to home again… By the way, I see you still have the same old cat”.

Home from their adventures they will come. Perhaps they will have a question in and for the church. Is there anything there for me? Which, for you, means: will you be present, available for them? They have lived with a potent mixture of energy, freedom, youth, inexperience, foolishness and rebellion--enough to produce some theological education. They are writing daily the chapters of a biography titled, “My first big mistake”; “How to tell if you have been used”; “A little learning is a dangerous thing”. Maybe that is why we love our young people so much. They are just like us. Only moreso.

I carry some memory of early waves of returning students. Those in the early sixties, crew cuts and blue suits, Lettermen jackets and records, standing courteously when women entered the room. And struggling with the thickets of vocation: will my life be lived for myself or for others? Those in the late sixties, no ties, no jackets, longer hair, Beatles albums, still standing at the right times, though a half-beat off. And struggling with the thickets of sexuality: how do we love each other without using each other? Those in the early seventies, just a few years later, but a world apart. Now the men had long hair and the women had crew cuts, Rolling Stones albums and nobody stood for anything or anybody. And struggling through the thickets of justice: with whose blood, and how much of it, will the future be purchased? Some mixture of all three struggles come home with our children this year.

Are you ready? To bear witness, some how, to Love that outdoes sin and separation? Are you ready for Christmas?

2. Are You Ready to Accept Love’s Acceptance in Loss?

We should listen, perhaps to our most veteran Christians. Voices from home and nursing home and hospital.

“My hands lie heavy on my lap, vein rigged and spotted. Once they were like white birds in graceful flight over the piano keys, stirring savory pots of food, gentling a crying infant. Agile, useful—never still. Now they too are reaching out…”

“My memory teases me, confuses me. I am in the kitchen to take my pills, and then I am transformed, in an instant, and once again, I am a bride at the altar, dressed in white, full of fear and hope. And I have lost my pills…”

“My ears keep me from sleeping. At night I hear sounds, muffled under the pillow of darkness. A window shade taps on and off. A tree rustles against the glass pane. A floorboard creaks. The furnace growls. And I am wide awake. It is 2am…”

You are a people of salt and light. You face defeat with grace and death with dignity. Every week of the year. You know, from Scripture and Gospel, that life has brutal limits, of which death is one. Nature takes us gradually, a little hand here, a little mind there, a little ear… Love clasps the inactive hand. Love commands the drifting mind. Love lends the ear its 2am lullaby. When we pray, we feel that someone is present (repeat).

Susan, my sister, told me this week of a humorous moment, with a man, not a member of the church, whose family had called in the hour of transition. She went to pray and come to know the gentleman. She wanted to come to know something of his life. Who was he? What were his dreams? What did he carry of regret? He awoke and asked in a weak voice for a pencil. She was so pleased that he was apparently intent on writing down something about his life. But they could find no pencil: not in the room, not in pockets or purses, not down the hall. At last a nurse came by with a long, yellow number two. He fingered the pencil greedily, then, rather than writing anything, used the long implement to scratch his upper back! Oh, he said, that feels so good…

Yet the pencil and bedside recalled a similar and far more poignant tale, from the pen of one of our age’s great preachers, Fred Craddock (I owe Bill Ritter the recollection of this story, which I have known and forgotten and now know again): Although Craddock became a preacher, his father had no use for the church. Every so often the minister would come by and talk. Dad would say, “All you want is another pledge and another member”. In the fall, the minister would come for a meal with the year’s evangelist. After dinner, the two would talk with old Craddock. But he would say the same, “All you want is another pledge and another member”. Fred’s mother would retreat to the kitchen and wash dishes and ring hands and cry.

Then one day the call came. His father lay dying in northern Tennessee. So Fred went home. He found his Dad in the VA, 74 pounds, throat taken, too late, radiation burns all around. All around the room, filling the room, there were flowers. Men’s Bible Class. Women’s Society. Youth Fellowship. Children’s Class. Pastor. Evangelist Society. Church Council.

Dad saw his eyes go to the cards. He picked up a pencil and wrote on the side of a Kleenex box, this line from Shakespeare, “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”

Fred asked his dad, “Dad, what is your story”. And the speechless man took the Kleenex box and wrote out a three word confession: “I was wrong”.

We all get it wrong, to some degree. Few of us have the courage of faith to confess it so honestly. We all get it wrong about the church, too, to some degree. I know I do, now and then. Maybe you do too.

Are you ready? Are you ready to bear witness that somehow love is stronger than death? Are you ready for Christmas?

3. Are You Ready to Work in Love amid the threat of Emptiness and the Confusion of Alienation?

Hear good news. Love fills emptiness, over time. Love breaks in on doubt. Our world has its empty ways of refusing providence; but Love is just more durable than boredom, emptiness, alienation.

Be a little careful with boredom. That sense that “what has been is what will be”. That sense of weariness, of emptiness. “All the rivers run to the sea”. The thought that life is about nothing, Seinfeld as theology rather than just humor.

Paul Tillich, who taught us about separation and limitation and alienation, also said: “Boredom is rage spread thin.” Poke around a little bit under the corners of emptiness and you will find anger. Not a bad thing, anger. The Bible says be angry, but don’t die with it, don’t let the sun go down with it.

You know, what makes the world work is trust. Trust in God, in self, in spouse, in friend, in boss. When trust melts, we have to resort to proof. Where there is trust, you do not need proof. But where there is no trust, there is never enough proof. Bryant, my brother, has arisen from Midwestern, Lutheran stock. There is not much humor in Luther. Yet, in response to a mailed set of complaints, laden with chagrin, and laced with bitterness, I heard him say, as he rode of sight, “Maybe I could get a ladder and help you down off of that cross?” One cross, not ours. One savior, not us.

George Bernanos’ classic story of a country priest in post-war France tells this Advent truth. A lonely, dispirited and alcoholic pastor ears the enmity and disdain of his leading layman’s wife. Although she attends mass every week, she regards the church’s teachings with a quiet bemusement. She knows better. While her husband practices law and leads the town, and shoots quail, she leads a quiet and empty life, disturbed only occasionally by her own religious questions.

She asks her pastor about hell. “Hell is to love no longer”, he answers. She grows older and more bitter. In a series of late afternoon conversations, she batters the priest with questions and insults, until one day near Christmas she produces the source of her emptiness. And her anger. May years ago she had lost a child at birth. She opens her purse and places a silver cartridge on the table. Inside are lockets of the child’s hair. For sixty years she has carried this burden of grief and it has emptied her life.

He takes the lockets and throws them into the fire. Love overpowers emptiness, over time.

Advent is the time to get ready. We live in a preventive, preemptive, abortive, prophylactic age, one highly suspicious of the unplanned, the unpredicted, the unforeseen, and the unexpected. We prefer what we can forecast to what surprises us. We lean more on what we can count than what we can count on. All of which is to say that Advent, in particular, runs counter to our culture. This season of unplanned pregnancy, of surprising announcement, of dreams filled and fulfilled—so at odds with the material world around us.

I went to conference in June to discover that my roommate was to be John Cooke, one of our Buffalo preachers. What a surprise and delight to learn how much he and I have in common! Friends in the North, the Payne family from Asbury, those who remember his father, George, a Rochester lawyer and conference chancellor. This Advent, unexpectedly, John sent a copy of his father’s daily Journal from 11/23/64: Asbury First Methodist Church celebrated the cancellation of notes signaling the end of all indebtedness on its $1,964,699 building project begun 12 years ago. Members of the congregation, named for Francis Asbury, chose yesterday to dedicate the entire complex of sanctuary, education wing and adjoining buildings. The cancelled notes were presented to the Pastor, Dr Richard Davey, by Nelson E Sheldon, president of the Board of Trustees. Bishop Ward said, “As Methodists we have some deep-seated feelings about smoking. But the holy smoke of the kind we shared here this morning, this is the kind of fire that shows something significant….Although we have gotten people into church, we still haven’t gotten the church into people. The church must speak more than out of its concrete and steel structure. It must speak out of its people.”

Under the surface of life there resounds a lasting question. Are you ready? Sometimes the question is put so bluntly as to be inaudible. Yet that call and anticipated response still hover under the surface. Are you ready for Christmas?

The United Nations has its troubles. Like any human organization, it carries the weight of sin, death and meaninglessness. What is remarkable is that through it all, Kofi Annan and others are willing to change, willing to help us think about what a doctrine of “anticipatory self-defense” might mean, and willing to risk for a peaceful future.

In all this they remind us of Dag Hammarskjold, one who was ready enough. A Christian? At least that. One who heard the question, in its breadth of profundity, and then lived it, to his untimely death in the Congo. Bill Ritter recently reminded me of his answer:

I don’t know who, or what, put the question.
I don’t know when it was put.
I don’t even remember answering.
But at some moment I did answer “Yes”
To someone, something.
And from that hour, I was certain that existence was meaningful
And that life, my life, lived in self-surrender, had a goal.

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