Monday, December 29, 2008

Holding Promises, sermon edition

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Rembrandt, 1627/28

(This sermon contains portions of a blog entry from 2005 that came in handy for writing a sermon two days after Christmas. During the preaching of the sermon, I sang the hymn that is quoted in italics.)

Luke 2: 22-40
******** Congregational Church, ******** CT
December 28, 2008

One of my pet-peeves is the saying "Children are our future". Bah, humbug! Ever since I gave birth to the first of two, I have known with all my heart, soul, mind, and especially body that children are our right now, this minute, can't wait any longer. Forget that Hallmark nonsense about today being a gift: that's why they call it the present. Usually, having children is nothing like a Hallmark card. If it were, they'd sell them ripped and torn, scrawled in crayon, with greasy fingerprints all over them, and when you opened it, an explosion of dirty laundry and the sound of milk bubbles being blown through a straw would greet you.

I can remember with great clarity when it was I knew I was a mother. You would think it might have been when I found out I was pregnant or the moment when I heard the cry of my firstborn. I was too much in joy and in love to be in reality, that wonderful mixture of light and darkness. No, it was after all the visitors had left, after my husband and I had settled into the double bed in our room at the hospital’s birth center with our daughter, after the three of us had fallen asleep. In the wee hours of the morning Andrea awoke crying, demanding attention. I came out of sleep in a post-birth fog, groggily realizing that a baby was crying: my baby! No nurse came to my rescue. My mother was asleep in the next room. My husband blissfully slept on. I went straight into mother-mode, finding a diaper and wipes, laying her on the changing table, unwrapping her swaddling blanket, and cooing to her. It was then that I knew I was a mother.

Before she was born, I was a pastor, a wife, a daughter, a friend. After, I was, and will be forever more, a mother. Her birth is one of the major pivots upon which my life turns. Both she and my younger daughter literally changed my life and how I live it. How much more so do our lives turn at the birth of Jesus? Before he was birthed into our lives, what we were we? What difference has the birth of Jesus made in our daily living? What changes have we made to adjust to this small, dependent ‘God with us’?

Author Caryll Houselander wrote, “By his own will Christ was dependent on Mary during Advent: he was absolutely helpless; he could go now where but where she chose to take him; he could not speak; her breathing was his breath; his heart beat in the beating of her heart. …Today Christ is dependent on us. This dependence of Christ lays a great trust upon us. … [We] must carry him in our hearts wherever he wants to go, and there are many places to which he may never go unless we take him.” We celebrate Christmas every year, not as a birthday party for one who really doesn’t need it, but as a very insistent reminder of this baby who needs us if he is to grow into this wisdom and strength.

Born in the night, Mary’s Child, a long way from your home;
Coming in need, Mary’s Child, born in a borrowed room.

The beauty of the Christmas story is that the One who set this universe and you and me in motion revealed the power of love in a vulnerable little baby (and thus every baby)--right now, this minute, can't wait any longer. We hope and pray that our children will take care of us when we are older, but we know the truth is that they saved us from the moment we knew they were on their way to us. And they save us each day of our lives. They save us from being self-absorbed, greedy, depressed, angry, and lonely. If nothing else, the Christmas story reminds us of this as we attend a birth in a mean and lowly place.

Clear shining light, Mary’s Child, your face lights up our way;
Light of the world, Mary’s Child, dawn on our shadowed day.

Christmas is a salvation story as much as Easter. In fact, the stories of Christmas come from the Easter story, from resurrection witnesses trying to make sense of who this Jesus was. If we are to understand Christmas and its meaning for us, we must read the Christmas story through the lens of death and resurrection.

As we read this morning toward the end of the birth story in the gospel of Luke, a priest named Simeon holds the baby Jesus in his arms and proclaims that he is now ready to die for he has seen the salvation of his people, the promise of God. Jesus hasn't done a thing but be born, yet he has saved this old man from despair that he may die in peace. Simeon also tells Mary that a sword would pierce her soul, flashing forward to the future we already know. Yet I would bet that Mary already knew about that sword the moment she looked into her son’s eyes, the moment any of us first looked into our children’s eyes.

Truth of our life, Mary’s Child, you tell us God is good;
Prove it is true, Mary’s Child, go to your cross of wood.

Early in my ministry I had a long talk with a Unitarian pastor about how the crucifixion was not a case of divine child abuse. I still believe that because I do not believe God sent Jesus to live on earth only to die like a criminal. I do not believe that God required the blood of his son to expiate our sins so that we might be forgiven. The whole of Jesus’ life illustrated in stark detail that relationship, justice for the poor, compassion for the stranger and healing for the despairing were God’s priorities, and it is through these that we are saved. These elements are present even at Jesus’ birth in the witness of the shepherds, the innkeeper’s hospitality in the stable, the rejoicing of Simeon and Anna in the temple, and Mary and Joseph keeping their faith tradition to pass on to their infant son.

If we are saved by Jesus’ death, it is that we see how the world behaves in the face of such unbridled, unlimited love, that innocence does not guarantee rights in the hands of the powerful, that love is more powerful than death, that life is not life if we have not love. The Christmas story, like the Easter story, is the story of love; not just any love but God’s love: love that keeps its promises. And ultimately it is this love that saves us from ourselves, from leaving a world to our children that is worse off than when we came into it.

The birth story of Jesus has the power to remind us of all the children who need saving right now, this minute, can't wait any longer: children being conscripted into armies; children orphaned by AIDS, war, floods, earthquakes, and the tsunami four years ago this past Friday; children sold into slavery and prostitution; children who need nutrition, health care, education, a home or a legal marriage for their same-sex parents. In short, children remind us that we are all worthy of love, simply because we draw breath.

What we don't realize is that the sword that pierced Mary’s soul will drive home its dual edge of pain and love into our souls as well. Our world needs to have its soul pierced, to see that we still practice child abuse of the worst kind—the kind we choose to be blind to.

We are our children's future. We are holding the promises we made to them when they were born. In our eyes they see their future. We are the ones who create policy, social structure, decide what is truly valuable and what is just dust in the wind. The trouble is, we spend more of our energy chasing after that wind than on what is right in front of us, right now, this minute, can't wait any longer. God is watching us but through the eyes, ears, hearts and minds of our children and they are taking copious notes.

Yes, there is great joy at Christmas, for God has kept a wonderful promise, but there is also a mandate from this poor, lonely manger. We are to keep our promises to the children of this world, preserving the world for our children, that we would also experience God’s salvation for us. And for this, we need Jesus—right now, this minute, can’t wait any longer—just as he is: tiny and helpless, ready to go wherever we might take him.

Hope of the world, Mary’s Child, you’re coming soon to reign;
King of the earth, Mary’s Child, walk in our streets again.




1. “Born in the Night, Mary’s Child”, Geoffrey Ainger, © 1964 Stainer & Bell, Ltd., printed in The New Century Hymnal, © 1995 The Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, OH.

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