Series: December 2023
Speaker: Rob McClellan
I was standing out in front of the church one Sunday when a woman stopped to talk. It’s not unusual for someone to walk or bike through the parking lot. Sometimes they wave; they never stop and talk. Let’s call her Ellen, not her real name. I’d say Ellen was in her early 50s, working in a high-pressure industry – I’m purposely obfuscating here—and she was clearly feeling the stress of it. She said she needed hormone treatment to help with her memory because she had to give a lot of presentations and she was having trouble keeping them straight. We chatted briefly and that was it. She went on her way. I was standing out in front of the church one Sunday when a woman stopped to talk. It’s not unusual for someone to walk or bike through the parking lot. Sometimes they wave; they never stop and talk. Let’s call her Ellen, not her real name. I’d say Ellen was in her early 50s, working in a high-pressure industry – I’m purposely obfuscating here—and she was clearly feeling the stress of it. She said she needed hormone treatment to help with her memory because she had to give a lot of presentations and she was having trouble keeping them straight. We chatted briefly and that was it. She went on her way.
Later during worship, Bethany was leading music and she sang this song called “Unconditional,” and all I could think about was how much I wish Ellen could have heard that. Of all the things she would have heard at the service that day, it wasn’t my sermon I thought would make a difference—I don’t remember what I said—just that song, “Unconditional” because of the sentiment of its title. I wondered if it might have made a difference for this woman who felt such a pressure to perform to hear about an unconditional love and acceptance, not to be earned and unable to be lost.
At Christmas, we think about what this all means, what Jesus is about. We have endured so many interpretations of the faith that can miss the point, focus on the wrong things, even do damage. We don’t need to give them more airtime. One way I have been thinking about Jesus lately is as one who had high expectations for people, but a low threshold for who deserves love and acceptance. If we say that Jesus is God incarnate, then we are saying that in Jesus we see how God shows up to the world – high expectations for our shared life, no prerequisites for who deserves love, dignity, and compassion. Jesus shows us how to show up to the world. That’s it. Don’t get lost in all the other stuff.
Remember how Jesus showed up to what was around him. Remember when Jesus encountered people who had some clear brokenness, he saw them and healed them? As Bethany pointed out last week, he often healed to make a point about the kingdom, a way of being he was trying to usher in, a way that was seeping into this world that we just needed learn to recognize and join. Remember when Jesus came to a town where there was one who was so tormented it was like he was possessed demons, he had been forced to live among the tombs, and even chains could hold him? Jesus saw him, released him from his torment, restoring him and his community to wellbeing. Do we not see people living on our streets today that could be that one, and are our communities not struggling with how to handle it? Remember how Jesus learned from a woman of another ethnicity after she challenged him? Remember when Jesus taught that the one who truly did God’s will was the person who helped his enemy, his ethnic enemy? It was the foreigner who showed godly compassion. Remember when Jessus saw what was corrupt charading as something sacred, and he listened to the anger inside him that signaled to him that this was wrong, and he flipped the tables over in the temple? Remember when he pointed out the hypocrisy of his people’s own leaders and faced them with such courage? Remember when he didn’t even let threat of harm dent his integrity? In Jesus, God shows us how to show up to the world. Don’t get lost in the other stuff.
A colleague of mine told of having lunch this past year with a judge in his congregation. He recounted an energizing conversation. At one point, he reflected on the state of the world and described sharing his own sense that folks across every kind of spectrum were “longing for a renewal of integrity and grace.” He described her response as more succinct and poetic. She simply asked, “Where are the tall trees?” the ethical leaders, the public voices for morality, “those willing to put their power and influence on the line for a common good beyond personal gain.” We who live among so many literal tall trees could take their symbolic cue.
In Christmas, we celebrate how Mary gave birth to Jesus, Son of God, but of course the invitation is also for us to show up as Mary did. Rumi, the 13th century Sufi said, “The body is like Mary and each of us has a Christ inside. Yes, God also needs to be born, birth from a hand’s loving touch, birth from a song breathing life into the world.” This is a Muslim talking about Christ. If you insist on a Christian, listen is what the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, born just 13 years before Rumi died, “We are all meant to be mothers of God…for God is always needing to be born.” It’s all about what we will deliver to the world.
A true understanding of the incarnation reminds us of our innate capacity to birth goodness. Too often we have taken humanity to be primarily wretched, and our tradition bears some of the blame for that, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Across the gamut, we have to remember and expect, as Jesus did, that humans have as much capacity to bless as they do to harm. Here’s an example: I was listening to a panel of indigenous women as part of a multi-faith response to our ecological crisis. The women recounted leaving what they called the mainstream environmental movement because it operated under the assumption humans were fundamentally bad. The only solution was to remove humans from the equation as much as possible. These women spoke about how in their tradition’s worldview, humans were fundamentally good, had a positive role to play, an additive role to the earth. What was needed was not a removal of people, but a restoration of their relationship with creation. They offered this example of chestnut trees flourishing across the eastern part of the country, providing abundant food, hundreds of years ago because of how they managed the forests. Once they were pushed off the land, these trees collapsed. Within us too is the knowledge of how to work with the world for its flourishing.
What will happen if we dare to show up to the world as the Christ shows us, trusting that we can be a blessing? Will we be crucified too, just as have others who pushed the boundaries of love and compassion, of working for justice? There’s a quote on the cover of your bulletin. “For, lo, the light from heaven shall come and dwell in thee, and by means of thee will shine over the whole world.” It’s the angel to Mary foretelling her pregnancy, and it sounds familiar enough, but you won’t find this line, this exact line, in your Bibles. It comes from a book that didn’t make it into the Bible. It’s called the Pseudo Gospel of Matthew. There are all these marvelous other stories and legends that give us fresh images of the Christ event. In this telling, as in some others, Jesus is born in a cave, and rather than the usual farm animals, a far wilder assortment of animals make an appearance. Even dragons show up! It likely means serpents, but let’s stick with dragons. They baby Jesus emerges from the womb, stands up (he’s an early walker), faces the dragons and commands them (early talker too) not to hurt anyone and they listen. That’s how Jesus shows up to the world.
It doesn’t stop there for the entire animal and plant kingdom pay him homage. “Lions and panthers adored Him likewise…Wherever Joseph and the blessed Mary went, they went before them showing them the way” the animals show them the way “bowing their heads; and showing their submission by wagging their tales, they adored him…” When Mary is frightened by the wild animals, Jesus looks at her “with a joyful countenance” and tells her they are safe. The world is safe with him. They journey together, lions and panthers, and alongside them sheep and rams, prey animals and predators, wolves, oxen and donkeys. Then on the third day of their journey, when Mary was weary from the heat, for this wouldn’t have been in winter, Jesus, again “with a joyful countenance” asks a palm tree to bend down and the palm tree bows and shares its fruit.
Yes, there will be challenge. Jesus offers this strange teaching, those who lose their life for the sake of the divine, will find it. To gain what is true, eternal, you have to be willing to lose what is false and ephemeral. At its core, the world wants to receive the love you offer, it’s desperate for tall trees and it is full of trees ready to bend toward you and share their fruit. The world is asking us to show up. It is not lost on me that on the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth, the land where he spent is life is again torn apart in violence. That we are unable to find peace among diverse peoples there is a sign of our greater brokenness everywhere. It is to the brokenness of the world that must show up with open eyes, open ears, an open mind, an open heart, and with a joyful countenance; that’s how we reflect the face of God.
We show up with that face because we live in a world where it’s increasingly easy to withdraw and only encounter those who we choose, which by the way has led to a more joyless existence where we have become only lonelier and perhaps more bitter interacting spitefully through electronic means. We have to show up as actual people because those who need compassion and love may never walk in our door. I have stood out there countless Sundays since I met Ellen, and not only has she never come in, she has never walked by again. I’ve begun to wonder if she was even real, or maybe she was an angel reminding me that there is pain and loneliness out there in need of companionship and compassion. Ellen will likely never make it in here, so we have to go out there. Jesus showed us how. That was the point.