We greet you this morning from the banks of the River Charles. We send a Christmas greeting across the country and beyond, a word of hope.
In this season of travel and transformation, travel with me for a few minutes toward a religious transformation, a second birth. Others, across the land, are traveling in this season of transformation. We greet send them our greetings as well.
To David and Sara Beth and their families in Connecticut.
To Jay and his family who are traveling to Galveston.
To John and his family who are busy with the struggles and rhythms of mourning.
To Ray fixing the bulbs on a Christmas tree out in the big sky country.
To James and Mary who are lonely in the hour of change.
To John and his extended family in Newton.
To Roy listening with care in Rhode Island.
To Patrick and Barbara, Darell and MaryAnna, Paula and Rick, preparing for Christmas.
To Ellie and all children on the shores of Lake Michigan.
To Sam clearing the snow from his driveway.
To Mark visiting relatives in Central Texas.
To children who have come home for Christmas.
A Merry Christmas to you all. Although we cannot see you, we can see you. I see you.
Listening for the Gospel
It is our privilege week by week in music and liturgy and word to reach out across the country and beyond, bringing a word of hope. Ours is a light voice, in a way, a veritable whisper from the east coast, a reminder of, an evocation of a particular kind of life and love. Ours is a light national voice. For many decades, by grace and gift, our voice has entered your home and others. Thanks for the invitation.
Perhaps this morning you are preparing a Sunday meal. You are rustling the pantry for potatoes to peel and to cook. Here you are with the radio adjusted. You have remembered to adjust the dial, and just in time. A familiar introit has called us to prayer. There are hymns, hymns sung, and you hear them particularly well when, as sometimes he does, the choir master has us sing a-capella. The kitchen preparation and peeling continue. You recognize again a Kyrie, a sung sorrow, crucial to being human today. Mercy, have mercy. Some courageous soul has lead a psalm. Anthem, hymn, reading, prayer. And a story so well known that it is unknown. A story of birth. Let us move along side you as you work at the counter. Let us listen as you listen, word by word and note by note. Let there be no separation between what is said and what is heard. Let the snow filter fully down this morning, snow upon snow. Let the message of the day be yours and ours. Together.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ, the birth of the Christ took place in this way…
Since, for you and me, this morning is an ordinary Sunday morning, in pulpit or potato peelings, which remembers a most extraordinary occurrence, perhaps we could begin to follow the story, if there is any way to follow the story, by narrating the connection of these two, the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Jesus’ birth is like all births, in that physical sense utterly predictable. Yet ask yourself where in life you have felt closer to miracle than at the moment of birth. An ordinary extraordinary. Today the birth is narrated inside the story of an engagement. Women and men find one another, generation to generation. Yet this connection comes, to Joseph’s astonishment, with a carried blessing. Mary is found to be with child. Extraordinary though ordinary. A problem identified is a problem solved. So Joseph plans to erase the engagement, when the time is right, and in a gentle way, a prudent way. But his prudence is confounded in a dream. Ordinary prudence, extraordinary dream. He remembers his dream. Do you remember yours? Sit quietly a moment when you wake up. See if there is a panoply of wonder that you have brought from the arms of Morpheus. Whether or not the mind is an idol factory, as unhappy Calvin thought, the mind certainly is a story factory, able without provocation and without consciousness to spin a tale, all night long. In the dream, no odd thing a dream, there is a name given, an extraordinary name, a saving name. Jesus. He saves his people from their sin. In any case, here is an account of a husband and wife and child. So it goes. But no! The simple tale confirms a plan set from the beginning of the beginnings of beginning. Up Joseph, up! He wakes. He does. He takes. Yet…he knows her not. Behold an ancient narrative, swinging our way again this season on the hinges of ordinary experience and extraordinary expectation.
It is a weekly thing to write and preach a sermon, or to prepare and serve a meal, and you and I, in pulpit and among potatoes, we have more than something in common. Yet the telling of Christmas, from the very first, was about more than one birth, more than one kind of birth. The gospel writer is trying to say what cannot readily be said, to connect the sense of the extraordinary with the experience of the ordinary. There were many births in first century Palestine. To this one birth there came attached a second birth. His birth, somehow, is our own.
Charles Wesley caught the marrow of the message in a phrase: “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth”. For the Wesleys both, it was the incarnation of Christ, his birth and life and word made flesh, which rooted and grounded their reverence. The English carols we most love, both those Charles wrote, and those that influenced him and were influenced by him, bring their disciplined obedience to a fever pitch.
Our lessons today bring harmonic support to the intersection of the ordinary with the extraordinary. Isaiah offers a warning, a prophetic utterance in the midst of political chaos. The Psalmist expresses a desire to see the face of God shining on God’s people. Paul enters his conversation with the Romans, declaring his service to the Christ whose birth we now celebrate. Whether in prophecy or in song or in address, the voices of today’s Scriptures also lift up the antinomies of earthly heaven and heavenly earth.
What does the Scripture mean by the birth of the Christ, and what especially does this mean for us, for our second birth, as the hymn has it?
Are we able to enter again into our mother’s womb, either in figure or in truth? But this is the question Nicodemus raised, to no avail. We cannot return to an earlier condition, nor to an earlier conception of an earlier condition. The second birth clearly is not a physical or conceptual return, or recapitulation.
Are we to assume a second naivete, at the heart of the Wesleyan second birth. Paul Ricouer, and others using other terms, have recalled to us the mature, midlife importance of such a second birth. But this individual experience and expression finds no foothold in today’s lesson. Our lesson, Matthew’s individual account of nativity, is told to honor the importance of a root in religious tradition. In the case of Matthew, this tradition is prophetic Judaism, as interpreted in late first century Koine Greek, perhaps by a Jewish Christian, but possibly also by a Gentile who knew and appreciated Judaism.
The Scripture clearly connects the meaning of the birth with the meaning of the name of the newborn, ‘one who will save his people from their sins’. Paul may speak of the Christ as the Lord of a new creation. Mark may affirm the Christ as hidden and crucified. John may herald the Christ at his coming as one with God, revealing God. But Matthew early and late acclaims the atonement wrought in Christ, the healing from past error, the steady saving removal to higher ground. He will save his people from their sins. This is a great hope, the hope of freedom, deliverance from what has hurt in the past. When such saving liberation occurs, there is a kind of second birth, a new lease on life, a new life. More particularly, in Matthew the second birth is a new lease on life for an older religion.
A Second Look at Religion
Something somehow has brought you to the kitchen on a Sunday morning. Here you are. Increasingly, given the pulpit from which I now preach, I am curious about the faithful lives of those who once came to church. I think about the many ways in which women and men are hurt in or by the life of the church. Given my vocation and my commitments, it can be somewhat difficult and painful so to meditate. I think of people who have had their children mistreated, or worse, by religious leaders. This would make one lastingly distrustful of the grammar of faith. Or, in another light, I think of those who themselves have been crushed, or worse, in the inevitable clashes of mind and heart in any real community, including the church. Looking from yet another angle, I think of those who have found their very humanity challenged, or worse, in the glacially slow growth to change in religious community. I think of those who have born the hurt of pastoral malfeasance. Many more there are, to look yet again at those who once went to church, who simply waited and waited for a true word, a courageous word, an honest word, and heard none. They grew old waiting for a real sermon, or at least a sermon they thought was a real sermon. I think of those who were given a small, tidy, false image of God, which lasted until the first large, messy, real experience of life. I think of those whose prayers were not answered, not even in the negative. And I think of those who simply could not any longer endure the ugliness, the willful lack of attention to glory and wonder and beauty. There are as many stories as there are empty pews in New England churches. Some of the stories I know. Others of the stories I can imagine. Still others of the stories I expect to hear.
Yet, here is a Christmas word. You are still listening, if you are listening. I am still preaching, for a few more minutes. And we are together, amid ordinary peelings and regular pulpit, to one side, and a sense of the Extraordinary on the other. Week by week, from the Marsh pulpit, I am reaching out to those who were born, once. People listen. Sometimes they respond. For all the sorrow, there is still, on your part, and on mine, and on others’, a listening ear, a willingness to tune in, a hard to articulate longing, a reaching toward…Another. What is that listening? What is that willingness? What is that longing?
One form of the second birth is here. One form. I could speak another day about a second naivete, a second birth of wonder, love and praise. But today, given this passage and given this congregation, virtual and actual, I muse with you about a second nativity, a second birth. The birth of a second sort of life, following after all the carnage of the first religious experience. A second religious birth, a second connection, a second opening. You would not listen if there were not some meager eagerness to wake up to…Another. Generosity, compassion, forgiveness—these are the hallmarks and doorways into that second birth. You have the heart to give something to others, generously to give something without expecting any personal return. You have the spirit to be present with someone whose own spirit is sore, spiritually to walk with a fellow human being. You have the soul to forgive a past fault, whether it was thirty days or thirty years ago, mercifully to move on, and say so, and mean it. Your generosity, your compassion, your forgiveness—at least your longing for and leaning toward and listening to them—these are the natal cries of a second birth. You may be ready to practice religion, your real religion, again. Draw your lines before you set out. Determine, by list, what you will most desire. Determine, by list, what you will not accept. I desire rich music, strong preaching, evident kindness. I will not accept personal abuse, pedophilia, gay bashing. Draw your lines. Then set out.
Of course we invite you here. You know us. Our work protects the possibility of healthy non-fundamentalist ministry, in the next two generations. Non-fundamentalist ministry refers to that perspective on life and those habits of work enjoyed by those who love the Scripture, who honor the tradition, who admire the reason, and who respect actual experience. Rudolph Bultmann, John Wesley, Charles Darwin, and Howard Thurman come to mind: Bultmann on demythologization, Wesley on ordination, or Darwin on evolution, or Thurman on presence.
The sermon is almost done. How are you doing in the kitchen with the potatoes? It is a big world. Life is long. There is more to life than meets the eye. About this time of year, every year, we sing a carol about the birth of Christ, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. Perhaps this year, the carol will be yours, sung from the heart.
On Wednesday, I walked late to the University Christmas party here at Boston University. I entered the packed hall to various greetings and smiles. Greetings a tad to various and more than the usual smiles. Had I seen the ten sleds decorated for competition? No I had not. More greetings, more smiles, a few little moments of happy laughter. I began to feel followed. In fact, I was. My friend drew me through the crowd. Then, with a woosh of surprise, the throng parted and there before me was Marsh Chapel. I mean a four foot sled decorated with Marsh Chapel made of marshmallows and ginger bread and licorice and chocolate. Those present today may see the decorated sled in the narthex. A group of administrators from the Metropolitan college had built it. They gathered in kitchens. Singing Christmas tunes they baked and cooked. They sampled the chapel as it came out of the oven. You could tell they loved doing so together. It was an emotional moment for me to see the true affection they have for their chapel, their chapel, and its architectural, symbolic, historical, physical and spiritual centrality in this college community of 40,000. They gathered. They sang. They worked. They ate. They found meaning. In baking the church, they came home to church, in their own way. You could call it a second birth, a new rebirth of basic religious rhythms. For all the sorrow, there is still, on your part, and on mine, and on others’, a listening ear, a willingness to tune in, a hard to articulate longing, a reaching toward…Another.
In the new year, you may be given a second birth, a new start on a real religious life. Howard Thurman would not be surprised:
When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among brothers and sisters
To make music in the heart.