Most any southerner upon crossing the Mason-Dixon line or traveling west of the Mississippi, can tell you of a time in which upon speaking they were asked the question “Where are you from?” Or someone traveling in the opposite direction has been the recipient of the south’s version- “You ain’t from round here are ya?” I once asked someone upon moving further north “what name do y’all have for us seeing as we have plenty for you?” A bit confused, they replied “what do you mean?” “Well,” I said, “you know the difference between a Yankee and Damn Yankee, right? A Yankee visits and then goes home. A damn Yankees stays. So I’m curious, what do you call us?” Out of what I can only assume was politeness, I did have on a collar after all, they said “we don’t.” But I do know I’ve heard, can any good come from the other side of the river, or that trailer park down the way, or Michigan? How ‘bout Oklahoma?
It’s been said that theology is embedded in geography. That is- the understanding of God is deeply rooted in the physical features of the earth and human activity and their relationship with one another. In terms of today’s lectionary, we are provided with the opportunity to consider how God made manifest in Jesus and in our own lives is reflected in the church and in the world.
Yearly, the Diocese of Atlanta, the Episcopal Church in Middle and North Georgia publishes a journal entitled Pathways. The most recent edition was released at the close of 2017, and opened with a letter from Bishop Robert Wright stating that “in this day and time, love is in need of love.” He dared readers to consider “that Jesus’ love can be a ringing alarm for our selfish sleep.” He continued “It seems to call out to us without condemning. Calls for us to prioritize just and fair behavior. We must ask ourselves as people of faith, what is right? Right that transcends title, station, gender, pedigree, religious tradition, age, or ethnicity.” Within the pages of Pathways unfurl the stories of those who have dared to take a moral stand, from a Supreme Court Justice, from my home parish, who made ripples throughout the state as he stood in opposition to the death penalty, to a those seeking dignity and justice for immigrants, to others whom have provided health care for the poor in the foothills of Appalachia, education to children through Freedom Schools, and answered God’s call to serve families experiencing homelessness. Their stories challenge us “to look into the individual faces of mothers, of fathers, of children and listen to their stories- the stories of fear, the stories of survival, the stories of hope, and then walk beside them on their journey.” (Rev. Thomas Haygood, https://pathways.episcopalatlanta.org) Their stories shine a light on the pathway between heaven and earth, and the responsibilities we bear as Christians.
In February of 2017, 10 pilgrims set out on a 10-day journey from Atlanta to the West Coast of Africa in search of racial healing and seeking to build bridges between the Diocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Cape Coast. Prior to their departure, Rev. John Thompson-Quartey, the Canon for Ministry, and native of Ghana, now 55 years old, was filled with immense emotion having spent the last 35 years of his adult life in the United States. He writes “There is an Akan (African) phrase: Sankofa, which translated means to “go back and get.” “I am keenly aware,” he said “of the role my ancestors played in selling off Africans to the Europeans who coordinated the transatlantic slave trade. I know that African chiefs were complicit in this dreadful historical event that has been etched in our consciences, and that troubles me greatly… I am not sure what we are all ‘going back to get.’ But I trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in building bridges of reconciliation.”
Also among the pilgrims was The Rev. Dr. Sharon Hiers, a native South Carolinian, whose ancestors were slave traders. Heirs shared that “Professionally, racial reconciliation and [her] call to the priesthood are deeply intertwined in ways” that she is “still understanding and embracing.” She believed the trip would “have a deep impact on [her call as a priest,] a Southern white privileged priest.” “I have visited many plantations,” she said, “and heard the ‘white-washed’ sweet stories of the good ole days. It’s time to hear the rest of this history, to walk on new ground, to beg forgiveness, to find hope.”
And walk they did, trekking through Kakum National Park, touring the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, and visiting the Seminary at St. Nicholas, before engaging in the sobering visit to places where Africans in shackles and chains were once shipped off across the Atlantic bound for the Americas and Europe, stood in spaces once used as holding cells for human cargo, visited Cape Coast Castle and stood in the waters of the “last bath.”
In an interview 6 months after their return, Thompson-Quartey and Heirs were asked how others could challenge themselves around the topic of race. Heirs response was to “challenge your assumptions” continuing that a big part of this for her was about learning her own history and realizing she doesn’t get to say “well, I didn’t do it.” Start questioning. And Thompson-Quartey? Well, “You have to try to understand where other people are to be understood [yourself]” he says. “I think you invite people into an honest, brave conversation with no preconceived ideas. Know that, ‘I might change my mind.’ And keep the conversation going. I think that is where we can start.” (“Go back and Get”, Pathways)
The apostle Paul believes that baptism is not solely about the individual, but rather, it is about us as a whole, united as the body of Christ working alongside our Redeemer to bring about justice and peace for the entirety of creation. While all things may be lawful, not all things are beneficial. Therefore, in obedience to the lifelong commitment God has made to us, and our own acceptance to be in this relationship, one relinquishes individual rights and freedoms for the greater and common good no matter the others geographical orientation.
The Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock tells a story of a man who was once a guest in a house with many rooms. The man is shown to his room, and weary from the day and all that he had seen drifts off to sleep. “Sometime during the night [his] sleep was interrupted by sounds from the next room. [He] did not know who was in that room, but somebody was having a bad night. The noise was not snoring, nor did it seem to be sleep talking. [He] listened more carefully; maybe it was groaning or moaning accompanied by tossing and turning. [He] thought once to knock on the door, but was afraid to do so. [He] dared not call out lest [he] add to that person’s discomfort and perhaps wake others. So [he] tolerated it till morning, catching only snatches of sleep.
At daybreak, [he] heard the person next door move about the room and then step out into the hall. [He] did the same, wanting to see who it was, and, if appropriate, express regret that the night was so restless.
It was God. [The man] was shocked; God restless and unable to sleep, the God who blesses with peace beyond understanding, the God who hushes even a whimpering child? [He] was speechless.
God said, “I’m sorry if I disturbed your sleep. I know my groaning was a disturbance, but I couldn’t get my mind off all my hurting children…” (https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2013/08/04/sermon-being-a-friend-of-jesus-by-fred-b-craddock/)
By listening and accepting the sacred call of all believers, We are not rushed into a world that is no longer cruel and heartless. We know all too well the contemptuous and corrupt things that are said and done to others simply based on where one is from, how somebody looks, or the accent with which they speak. Rather in responding to God’s call, we are faced with the challenge to offer both mercy and truth, justice and love, and usher hope into the darkness. A wise person once said, “Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.” (L.R. Knost)
Go my Dear Ones, and Shine On.
Lissa Barker gave a presentation about our global outreach this morning during Adult Education. You can download the slideshow in either Powerpoint or PDF format, or you can view the slides in your browser (click on the slides to view them full size).
One evening, not too terribly long ago, I needed to jump start my Christmas spirit. So, I curled up into the corner of the couch with a blanket and a freshly brewed cup of coffee and settled in for a few mindless hours with Netflix. I was maybe a fourth of the way into my chosen flick, when my friend Amy called. “Whatcha’ doin’?” she inquired. “Oh just watching a stupid Christmas movie.” “Is it one of those where in the end they get everything they ever wanted including the guy?” Embarrassed to have been caught watching such sappy smaltz, I replied “Yes. Plenty of unrealistic holiday angst and cheer complete with snow on Christmas Day and a ‘foot popping kiss’ in the last thirty minutes.” “Not gonna happen” she said. “I know.”
We all have our favorite Christmas movies, the ones we watch year after year – holiday staples if you will. Movies that bring friends and families together, even give us common ground for small talk with strangers. Films that inspire us, make us laugh, or bring us to tears. And sometimes, they remind us of what Christmas is all about – capturing the timeless story of hope and joy and love and the birth of a child.
These reminders make their appearance in the most obvious of ways like in a Charlie Brown Christmas or a beloved rendition of the Christmas Carol. Others can be found in the classics of White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life. Or perhaps, you find such meaning in more modern films like Love Actually or Family Stone. Yet at times, the meaning of Christmas creeps in, in the most unlikely places of all.
Enter Buddy the Elf, who traveled the seven levels of the candy cane forest, journeyed through the sea of twirly whirly gum drops, and finally sped through the Lincoln Tunnel and straight into our hearts with exclamations of “Santa, I know him!” Buddy is a man of great joy, filled with a tremendous amount of belief and wonder, which he extols to all whom he encounters. He finds joy in riding the elevator and lighting up the buttons in the shape of Christmas tree. He shows us the proper way to greet someone is to tell them your name and then ask their favorite color. But perhaps most of all, he likes to smile. “Smiling’s my favorite” he says. And he reminds us to never overlook the opportunity to show affection and give someone a hug. Buddy’s life lessons are full of genuineness, but there is one lesson in particular I find most memorable and applicable to the gospel lesson we hear today. It even ranks number three in the Code of Elves! “The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” I’ll say it once more just to make sure you heard it, “The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing out loud for all to hear.”
In a world that so often pushes past joy and excitement and focuses on the negative or the next best thing, we’ve simply shut down and let the extraordinary become ordinary. Buddy invites us to be present in the here and now and take the risk of spreading cheer. Imagine if we were able to bring Buddy’s level of wonder and amazement to our encounter with God. What would it be like were we to respond with such enthusiasm not only this Christmas morning, but throughout the entire year “Jesus, I know him!”
We see in today’s lesson various styles of processing information. The shepherd’s talk it out, and are spontaneous in their reaction. As soon as they see Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger, the shepherds make known what has been told them and all are amazed. And then upon leaving the holy family, they praise and glorify God for all they have seen and heard! They can’t contain, they just have to tell someone and immediately engage others in the conversation. Yet Mary treasures all these words and ponders them in her heart. She demonstrates the merits of feeling as well as thinking it out. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Mary in this state.
Just yesterday morning, Advent 4, we heard the reading which precedes this one in which the Angel Gabriel appears and announces an impending and miraculous birth. But Mary doesn’t freak out, she is perplexed! She’s thinking, trying to understand clearly. It’s a bit confusing to be honest. Yet she sings her fearless song-responding to her unique call with faith and trust- let it be with me as it pleases God she says. Nothing is impossible with God and “while it doesn’t mean God will do anything and everything” it does mean that today through the humble birth of Jesus all other things become possible. So yes, Mary clings to what has happened. She continues to ponder the events and the words…the angel Gabriel’s visitation, her visit with Elizabeth, the journey to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable, of the shepherds’ visit, and on and on.
Our engagement with Mary points us to the Christ child, and ultimately helps us to see with greater clarity the many dimensions possible as we engage with this new born babe. She models for us learned compassion, and an ability to listen often and listen deeply. Mary becomes a means for us to discover and more fully understand our nuanced relationship with God so that we can in turn share that message with others. Through quietly listening and observing, we are able to inwardly digest and then outwardly respond according to God’s will. Our relationship with God and our faithfulness to the teachings of his Son is a relationship which must be continually sought after and nurtured faithfully.
Theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer spent two years in prison for his vocal opposition to Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric. While there, he corresponded with family and friends, pastored to fellow prisoners, and reflected on the meaning of “Jesus Christ for today.” In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethage in 1944, Bonheoffer speaks of our relationship to God in terms of a fixed song, a cantus firmus. That is a pre-existing melody that forms the basis for a multi-voiced composition. While there are “twists in pitch and style, counterpoint and refrain,” the fixed song is “the enduring melody, not always in the forefront, but always playing somewhere within the composition.”
In essence, what Bonheoffer says is this: “God the Eternal, wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of [fixed song] to which the other voices of life resound in counterpoint. Where the [song] is clear and distinct, a counterpoint can develop as mightily as it wants. The two are undivided yet distinct…like the divine and human natures of Christ. Only this [multi-voiced composition] gives your life wholeness, and you know that no disaster can befall you as long as the [song] continues…Have confidence in the [fixed song].” (Women, Wisdom and Witness, p. 23-24)
This Christmastide, see the extraordinary in the ordinary, wonder in amazement at God and God’s marvelous works. Perhaps in so doing, we will learn to grab hold of these precious moments, ponder them in our hearts, and hold them in our hands before the memory of them flies away. Willingly and with an open heart, cling tightly to the song of God as it flows over and around us listening intently for what speaks of joy, what our souls are praying over and over, and how the light is shining in the darkness. Unto us is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord. It is in this we find our tune, and join in the chorus spreading Christmas cheer singing out loud for all to hear.
The Rev. Stephen Smith Christmas Eve 2017
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Dublin, Ohio
One of my favorite cartoonists was Doug Marlette. He was the political cartoonist for the Atlanta Constitution and then the Charlotte Observer, until his death in a car crash in 2007. Like many political cartoonists, he also created a daily comic strip. His was called Kudzu. The strip took place in By-pass Mississippi, and the main character was Kudzu DuBois, a sixteen-year-old boy with all the issues and problems that sixteen-year-old boys have. Kudzu’s best friend was a short, portly, nerdy looking boy named Nasal T. Lardbottom. And their spiritual advisor was the pastor at Bypass Baptist Church, the Rev. Will B. Dunn, a cowboy-boot sporting, tobacco chewing, and broad-brimmed hat wearing man of God.
Obviously, the comic strip had a southern feel. It did not find a home in newspapers up north, but when I was in seminary back in the 1980s it did not matter if I was reading the newspaper from Atlanta, Nashville or Chattanooga, Kudzu was always at the top of the comics page.
One December I remember a series the Kudzu strip ran. Apparently Nasal T. Lardbottom was having an attack of teenager hormones. He was found doing the “Shimmy” on top of the Card-Catalogue in the library, while listening to Van Halen music and shouting “Girls, Girls, Girls.” He was brought before the student council to determine an appropriate punishment for such lascivious behavior.
The council decreed that since he had so besmirched the reputation of Bypass High School, henceforth he would be required to wear a bag over his head with the letter “H” on it, so that decent people might shun him.
So, for the next few weeks Doug Marlette milked this story for all it was worth. There would be a panel showing Nasal sitting all by himself in the lunch room, with everyone else at the tables crowded against the far wall away from him. He would be sitting at the front of class with the teacher at the far end of the blackboard, and all the other students crowded against the back wall.
The local BBQ refused to serve him, and the Piggly Wiggly grocery store no longer redeemed his coupons, not even on double coupon day.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, Nasal seeks solace at Church. As he enters, still with the bag over his head, everyone screams and rushes out of the Church. But they gather around the windows to look in. Because everyone wants to see what the Rev. Will B. Dunn will do with this situation.
The Reverend marches up the pulpit steps and puts a bag on his head with the letter “H” printed on it and says, “Nasal, unto us a child is born.”
Great theology, and form a cartoon. No matter who we are, “unto us a child is born.”
Now I hesitated to use this story because the bad guy in it is pretty lame. Let’s face it, Nasal T. Lardbottom doing the shimmy on the card catalogue while listening to Van Halen and shouting “Girls, Girls, Girls,” is not all that bad. So, yes unto him a child is born.
There are people so much worse than Nasal, like the man who shot his supervisor at the Dublin post office yesterday and then the postmaster outside her apartment. Recently, we have heard so much about those who abuse their power to take advantage of others, from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, and so many others. There are those who try manipulating racism and fundamentalist Christianity for the sake of political power. We see violence and war perpetuated by the powerful against the lowly. We fear the onslaught of war from a madman in North Korea.
Yesterday I heard a woman from the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (also known as SNAP) say that she hoped the doors of hell would swing wide to let in the recently deceased Cardinal Bernard Law, the man who conspired to hide priestly abuse of children for years.
There is no shortage of horrible people. There are plenty of villains. Do the angels say to them, “Unto you a child is born.”
In a word, “yes.”
By coming into the world as a vulnerable, little baby, God declares God’s love for us; all of us. Even if it means that horrible people will visit their violence on that baby Jesus when he grows to be a man. Still, God bestows favor upon us. When the Angels say, Peace, good will to all whom God favors, they are not picking and choosing. God favors this one, but not that one. Rather, it is blanket statement meant for all humanity. Because God comes to all humanity, therefore all humanity are recipients of God’s favor.
What we forget is that when God declares God’s love for us, or bestows favor upon us, it is does not mean that we deserve it. And it certainly does not mean that God now excuses our bad behavior, or that our behavior has no consequences. Rather, God is saying, in essence, “let me help you with that. Let’s see what we can do to turn your life around.”
Maybe a good way to explain this comes from my experience nearly 20 years ago when I was summoned to jury duty. I wore my collar, to be honest, in hopes it would get me out of serving. But the very first day I reported to duty I was called into a courtroom to be interviewed for serving on a jury. The prosecuting attorney did not waste any time. Seeing my collar, she immediately homed in on me and said, “Reverend Smith, you’re in the forgiveness business, am I right?”
“That’s correct,” I replied.
“How will that affect your serving on a jury?” she asked.
I thought for a moment and said, “Forgiveness does not take away the consequences of our actions. Instead it helps allow the love of God to support us as we try to face those consequences and amend our lives.”
“I have no problem with this juror,” the prosecutor said. Meanwhile, the defense attorney was looking much paler.
The world is a messed-up place. It would be so much easier if we could pick and choose who the bad guys are, and who we could write off; who is deserving of God’s favor, and who should be cast into the depths of hell; who is right, and who is to be shunned for their wrong actions, their wrong beliefs. We certainly use that kind of language in our politics these days.
But God comes to us all. Unto all of us, a child is born. And God comes in hopes that some who must face the consequences of their horrible behavior may actually be changed.
God comes to us, God favors us with his presence, not because we are all that good, but because God hopes and works for our transformation. After all, without God it is a vicious circle, of hate and war, revenge, and violence.
But with God there is hope, that even those we describe as horrible, evil, our enemies, can be transformed.
If we did not believe this transformation was possible then why are we doing prison ministry?
So, whether we are Caesar Augustus in power and luxury, or the unnamed shepherds in the fields, unto us a child is born.
Whether we are people who have made poor choices which we regret harmed others, or people who tried our whole lives to live as virtuously as possible, unto us a child is born.
Whether we are the perpetrators of evil and abuse who deserve to face the consequences of our actions and amend our lives, or the victims of violence and abuse who need the healing love of God, unto us a child is born.
Peace, good will to all whom God favors. And God favors us all, for unto us a child is born.
I wonder what hopes and fears you carry with you today as we mark this third week of Advent. You may have noticed the four posters in the parish hall each noting a different theme of Advent. We started the season Staying Awake waiting in eager anticipation, then moved to being prepared for the arrival foretold, and now at the top of this week’s poster are written the words “Do not be afraid” which then further invites us to consider what it is we need to stop fearing in our lives. In general, we are familiar with the readings from Christmas. In the Gospel of Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph and tells him “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” In the Gospel of Luke, an angel first appears to Mary and says to her “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” And then, “there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night” when “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them. ‘Do not be afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.’”
But the first chapter of the Gospel of John, nestled deep in the middle of Advent, does not offer us a familiar telling of Jesus’ birth. There is no young family trekking their way to Bethlehem weary from their travels because of decreeing emperors, no grumpy innkeepers, or swaddled babies lying in unsanitary mangers. Rather John uses curious language, suggestive of holy mystery in the prologue that leads to today’s reading. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It is this new light, this new life-light, that John the Baptist bares witness to crying out from the darkened wilderness.
Do you remember being afraid of the dark? Maybe you still are. Recall with me, if you will, being tucked in, the pillow fluffed, the blankets pulled up tight. You’ve been given a final drink of water, and under threat it will not be pretty if you get up again, the light is turned out. And then it begins. The wind outside gusts and the tree branches rattle and scrape up against the window pane. The house creaks and moans as it settles in the winter cold. Your senses are heightened attuned to each noise and dancing shadow. What if there’s a nightmare in my closet, or an alligator under my bed? Did I close the garage door? Are all the windows locked? It’s natural for us to fear what we cannot see, what we don’t know, or understand. Being scared of the dark is a fear we prepare for. We plug in a fun nightlight and grab hold of a comfort item seeking to significantly reduce bedtime fears and improve sleep.
When I was very little, I had a patchwork blanket with a satin edge that I’d rub on my nose as I sucked my thumb to self-soothe. And then when I was six, I traded that blanket for a Bear. I stopped sucking my thumb, the blanket made me do it I’d said, but I still needed something to hold onto. Bear never left home for fear something would happen to him. Someone would take him, or I would lose him somewhere. So when I went to spend the night with a friend or away to camp, I would take my Glo-friend, a little skunk-bug. These various bugs were miniature versions of Playskools larger Glo-worm, a battery-operated doll that would gently light and play lullabies when squeezed. My little Glo-bug wasn’t the light. It simply absorbed the ambient light and reflected the light which had surrounded it. But, the smallest light can make us feel protected and more grounded. When we let a little light in, our vision is partially restored. In the context of our faith, we often use shadows to help us define the divine light which encircles us. For most assuredly, darkness exists and getting lost in the wilderness happens, but the light of Christ will persist and prevail gripping the remotest and loneliest of the world. (Feasting on the Word-Advent, p. 140) It has to be completely dark to see my friend’s faint glow, and it disappears over time. Yet the birth of Jesus brings true light to the world that never fades, a light that is made all the more visible by the surrounding darkness. It can be helpful to keep in mind when the darkness seems to consume and is so very scary, the darkness does not come from a different place than light, nor is not presided over by a different God. God has been with both since the beginning. As in creation, darkness fades giving way to an awareness that the graciousness of God is breaking in all around us for that is where new life begins.
But keep alert! Sometimes in our fascination we become absorbed marveling at the reflected light. We come to see in the refractions ourselves as the source of the light within us and in the world around us. Beaming in self-importance. It is then that John appears all too aware of our human limitations, but also our possibilities to guide “us back to the road of true discipleship.” (New Proclamation 2008, p. 20) “John’s role is to recognize the true light when it appears, and to call attention to it so that others may recognize it and believe- that is, recognize, trust in, and commit themselves to the light.” (Feasting on the Word, p. 71) We are not the light and we do not have the ability to save the world, or answer the world’s deepest questions or solve its most intense problems for We are not the Messiah. We are Advent witnesses. Like a Glo-friend, we share the gift of light as a witness and testimony to the light. Christ is standing among us, even when we aren’t able to see it. The Good News is that Jesus still comes, still waits for us in ways that are so much greater than we could ever imagine even in our greatest darkness. (New Proclamation 2008, p. 20)
As eager as we may be to induce the arrival of Jesus and celebrate Christmas now, the baby isn’t ready yet. We aren’t ready yet. We still have some time in the dark left to go, cause it’s not all about the baby. It’s about seeing Christ ever present here and now in our own crazy and messed up lives.
May you find some time in this Advent darkness to discover the light that will lead you home. Do not be afraid, but walk confidently as a child of the light in hopeful expectation that others may see Christ in you.