December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

Missing Jesus?

Luke 2: 1-20

Right before Thanksgiving, a town about 20 miles from where I live, was getting ready to put up its annual Christmas Village display.  For 65 years, the town has been doing this. Christmas Village has lots of lights and Santa with reindeer.  It also has a life-sized manger scene. 

But when the workers began unpacking the manger scene, they discovered that the baby Jesus was missing.  At first they thought he had simply been misplaced, so they searched all the town storage areas but without success.  No baby Jesus.  He had apparently been stolen.

The stolen Baby made the news throughout Connecticut, and people came forward to offer replacement baby Jesuses or give money to buy a new one.  One woman had a porcelain figure that was about 18 inches long and just the right fit.  Baby Jesus was restored to the manger, and all was well.

I’ve been thinking about this missing Jesus ever since I heard the story.  It seems to me that the baby goes missing a lot these days.  We have more Christmas than we ever had, but somehow the baby seems to have gotten lost. 

The malls start with holiday decorations and sales right after Halloween.  Thanksgiving is no longer just for family gatherings and grateful feasting; it has turned into an occasion for shopping.  We are more and more consumed with Christmas and less and less attentive to the one at the center of it.  We have lost the baby Jesus. 

But we are not the only generation for whom this is true.  Back at the beginning, back in Bethlehem, a whole lot of those people missed the baby, too. 

Think about how God announced the coming of Christ into the world.  It was to a bunch of poor shepherds – unwashed, uneducated, unimportant.  They were the ones who heard the angel, they were the ones who went to see.  They were the ones charged with telling the news. 

But they had no power, no influence, no social standing.  Who would listen to them?  Why were they the ones entrusted with the news, the glad tidings of great joy?  Well, maybe the angels had announced God’s gift to a lot of folks that night.  Maybe the angels came to the priests and the professors, the rulers and rich.  Maybe the angels tried to get the attention of the mayor and the minister in that little town, or the shopkeeper or the doctor. 

But a lot of folks are busy, and it seems that the more important the people are, the busier they are, with lots to do, lots to worry about.  Maybe all the important people missed the message from the angels because they had too much on their minds, because they were too busy.  They certainly missed the baby Jesus. 

And the innkeeper, with the full house.  You can hardly blame him, can you?  What could he do?  There was just no room for even one more, let alone a man and a woman in labor.  But he might not have completely missed Jesus.  Maybe he was the one who directed that young couple to the stable.  The story is silent on the details but maybe he came back that night to see the baby.  Then again, maybe he just turned them away and let them fend for themselves.  Missing Jesus is an easy thing to do.

And there is another part of the story that we’ll read in a few weeks, the part about the wise men.  They came from far away, determined not to miss this baby. But they went to the wrong place.  They were looking for Jesus in a palace, among the kings and princes.  As the old song says:  They were looking for Love in all the wrong places.  They went to King Herod but there was no baby to be found there.  They almost missed him.  It was only when the angels directed them to an out-of-the-way place that they found the child and worshipped him and returned on their way home having found just what they were looking for.

So it is not just in our times when people are at risk of missing Jesus.  And just like the people in the little Connecticut town where Jesus went missing, we have a calling when that happens.  Those people offered their own Jesus to the town.  Have you ever thought about how you might do that? 

Deitrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was imprisoned in a concentration camp in World War II and eventually killed there.  In some of the writings he left behind, he has this to say:

“A Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself. . . ..  The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s heart is sure.” (Life Together)

When you cannot find the Christ in your life, when Jesus has gone missing, then you need others around you who can share the Jesus they know.  And in a world where so many have no Christ at all, then you may be the only way they ever experience the presence of Jesus.   Be ready to offer Christ where it seems Christ has been lost.

I’ve seen a lot of people doing that in these past ten days.  In the face of unspeakable horror in another Connecticut town, friends and strangers have come together to mourn, to offer comfort, to be strong for those who are destroyed by grief and loss. 

It will never be possible to understand how so many little children and the grown-ups protecting them could be killed.  But God understands the heartbreak, God the Father who also lost a child, an only son, to violence.  And God in Christ is with us in all the dark and terrible places, coming through a touch and a tear, prayers and vigils, and a renewed commitment to peace.  God is not missing, Christ is not missing, because so many people have offered the Christ within them to those in need.

You know, they eventually found the figure of the baby Jesus that had been stolen.  Apparently, two teenagers did it as a prank.  The baby Jesus was broken in pieces and scattered in a wooded area.  

And in some way, that also seems like part of the Christmas story.  This baby who is born to us this night will grow up and live and teach and heal and love.  And he, too, will be seized, stolen from us, and broken. 

But that is not end of the story.  When we come to this Table, we tell the rest of it.  We hear his words: “This is my body, broken for you.”  And we know that this broken body is scattered in the world, through us. 

No matter how dark and difficult our world seems, there is good news of great joy for all people: “Unto us is born a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  Christ is not missing, the baby Jesus has not been lost.  Fear not:  he is here in our midst, Emmanuel, God with us. 

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will among all people. 

May it be so.

© Martha C. Highsmith

Second Sunday of Advent

Holy Highway Work

Luke 3: 1-6

Scripture and tradition describe Luke as a physician, but I think he was really an historian.  When Luke wrote the stories of Jesus, he carefully located them in the context of the day.  He gave the historical background that helped explain what the world was like when these events took place. 

For example, our reading today begins with a specific time and a comprehensive recitation of the ruling powers:  It was “the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee… during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” 

That was when John came, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, reminding people of the ancient words of the prophet:  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

John’s prophetic call was rooted in the midst of human history, and it still is.  It comes to us even now, in the midst of our history, in the context of our times. 

John called for preparation, a preparation for the coming of the Lord.  We know how the first coming ends – with a baby in a manger, choirs of angels and adoring shepherds, wise men traveling from afar.  And while we spend these Advent weeks preparing to celebrate that coming  of Love into the world, our preparation does not end there. 

We are also called to prepare for the coming fulfillment of all that God has promised in Christ – a time when the crooked shall be made straight, the rough places smoothed out, and a level playing field created for all.

This gospel version of preparation sets us at odds with our culture.  While the rest of the world indulges in holiday frolic, we are called to confront the sins of the world, and  -- even harder -- our own sins, to repent, to change our minds about the way we have lived. While the rest of the world dresses itself in holiday red and green, the church wears the purple of penitence.  While the rest of the world transforms the holy for commercial purposes, we are called to transform the world for God’s purposes.

And that is hard work. 

It is fitting that the prophet speaks of it as road work, building a highway, one that blasts down the mountains, and moves earth into the valleys, a road without crooks and curves and dangerous hairpin turns, a road with no potholes.  Building this holy highway is hard and challenging. 

Consider this, for example. From a report earlier this year, according the latest census data: 

The income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year to its largest margin ever…The top-earning 20 percent of Americans – those making more than $100,000 each year – received almost 50 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent made by the bottom 20 percent of earners, those who fell below the poverty line. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 2008 when the recession began, and nearly double the gap in 1968.  At the top, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, those who earn more than $180,000, added to their annual incomes last year. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower. [In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.]  The largest gaps between rich and poor were in the District of Columbia and three states: Texas, New York … and Connecticut.
(Huffington Post, September 28, 2012)

And can you hear the call of the prophet?

“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,  and the rough ways made smooth.”

And here is another thing to ponder.  Twenty years ago, an author named Jonathan Kozol wrote a book about inequality in public schools.  Listen to what one woman, an urban planner who had children the DC schools at the time, had to say:

The D.C. schools are 92% black, 4% while, 4% Hispanic, and other. There is no discussion of cross-busing with the suburbs…There is regional cooperation on a lot of other things.  We have a regional airport, a regional public-transit system, and  regional sewage-disposal system.  Not when it comes to education.  Black people, [she says,] did not understand that whites would go to such extremes to keep our children at a distance.  We never believed that it would come to this:  that they would flee our children…” If you’re black you have to understand – white people would destroy their schools before they’d let our children sit beside their children.  They would leave their homes and sell them for a song not to live with us and see our children socializing with their children.”  (Kozol, p 184-5)

Hard words, a rough situation.  And twenty years later, the D. C. public schools are 7% white, and three-quarters of the students are below the poverty line.  Where are all the children of well-to-do parents who work in Washington?  Not in the public schools -- not then, and not now.

And this is happening here, too, you know.  The goals to desegregate Connecticut schools resulting from the court case, Scheff vs. O’Neill, have never been achieved.  The law suit was filed in 1989.  Twenty-three years ago…..  And the Hartford public schools are still among the poorest and most racially isolated in the state. 

But some might ask whether white people -- in Washington DC or in suburban Connecticut– should have to sacrifice their children on an altar of racial desegregation?  Do those who advocate for integrated schools mean to say that?  I don’t think so.  I think they mean to say that no people should have to sacrifice their children– not white people or black people or people who live in the poorest city or people who live in the most affluent suburb.

And if you think this is not a religious matter, think again. 

“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,  and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

“All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  This is the promise –all flesh, all people, not just the wealthy, not just the privileged, not just the religious – all flesh. 

And in this Advent time, this time between comings, we are called to receive the promise, to proclaim the promise, and to do the hard work of responding to the promise.

As the poet and preacher J. Barrie Shepherd puts it:

Could it be perhaps conceivable that in every human wilderness, the desert of despair, the jungle of imprisonment or addiction, the arctic waste of homelessness and hunger, the scorching inferno of human hatred, warfare, prejudice, and all forms of brutality – could it be perhaps conceivable that a voice is to be heard that cries:  “Prepare the way of the Lord?”

Could it be that in our travels through the wilderness of this world, we are called to do that work, the work of preparing the way of the Lord, the work of filling every valley, bringing down every obstacle, calling out the crooked ways, and smoothing the rough places?

If we are to be gospel people, then the words of the prophet call to us:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

And if we are to be gospel people, how will our gospel story be told? 

It was the beginning of the fifth year of the administration of President Barack Obama; Dannel Malloy was governor of Connecticut, and Pedro Segarra Mayor of Hartford; when United Technologies Corporation was the largest employer in the city of Hartford and the CEO received almost $24 million in annual pay; and 30 percent of the city’s population was living below the poverty line. 

And a voice cries out, in this place, in this time, in this wilderness: 

“Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Oh God, may it be so.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

December 14, 2012

Today in Connecticut....

Some in Connecticut have suggested that we turn off our Christmas lights tonight. But I think we need to leave them on. There is so much darkness in the world, and we need to spread the light any way we can.  So keep your lights on.  Do not give in to the darkness of evil. Pray for all who have suffered loss today – parents, spouses, friends, little children.  Pray.  Hug any children you know, especially those who are your own. Do whatever you can to make the world safe for the least of these.  Do as our President says:  Bind up the broken-hearted.  Do not lose heart.  And pray.
And if you do not know how to talk to your own precious children about this, you might find some wisdom here:

September 11, 2012

September 11

Eleven years ago, I hosted a little dinner party early in September.  It was a picture-perfect evening, cool and clear.  My garden was lovely with late summer blooms and basil and tomatoes and other vegetables at their peak. I put a long table in the back yard and covered it with my antique crocheted table clothes.  I moved the dining room chairs out on the grass, and set the table with china and silver and candlesticks.  We had ham and pimento cheese sandwiches.  And my friends and I sat in the twilight and laughed and talked and it was wonderful.  I don't remember the conversation but I do remember the feeling of love and security and innocence.  And then a few days later, it seemed that all that was destroyed in the rubble of falling towers and crashing planes.

When I think about 9/11, that dinner party is my "before."  It was a time when we were blissfully naive, unaware of the tragedy that was before us.  Even as we sat under the stars, sharing food and fellowship, someone somewhere was planning an elaborate act of destruction.

I've had friends over for supper many times since then.  We still laugh and talk and share each other's joys and sorrows.  But somehow it is not quite the same.  We are not as innocent and trusting as we might have been then.  We have seen a side of human nature that is much more evil than we could have imagined that night.  But we have also seen a side of human nature that is humbling in its radical love: in people willing to lay down their lives for their friends, and for total strangers; in the tender care of the survivors; in the love and support of those who still live with loss; in the tragedy of the loss of those who could not survive the deaths of those they loved.

Today was another sparkling clear September day.  And tonight my garden is lovely, the stars are shining, and I know that love lives in the world, even in the face of terror and evil.

September 8, 2012

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Purely Religious??

James 1:17-27
Mark 7: 1-8.14-15. 21-23

The book of James has gotten a bad rap throughout history.  Martin Luther called it the “strawy epistle” meaning apparently that it lacked substance.   But if you read this little book from beginning to end, you will find careful and comprehensive instructions about how to live a truly Christian life. 

James calls on us to care for the most vulnerable, to practice hospitality, to avoid favoritism, to refrain from actions based in anger, to be generous.  James calls on us to be doers of the Word, to practice our faith, to put our beliefs into action. 
We cannot merely read or hear the Word.  That is not enough. 
That is like looking at ourselves in a mirror, and then going away with no lasting image of who we are.  It is a fleeting experience that accomplishes nothing.  But looking into the mirror of the law – the Word – and then acting on what we see there, is the path to blessing. 

BUT – there is a big caveat to all this.  Sometimes we look into the mirror of the word and only see what we want to see.  We get all caught up in appearances, in how things look, and we forget what lies beyond the surface.  We spend our efforts on the rules and regulations and miss the intention of love that lies behind them.

This is not a new problem.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ time were experts in the law.  They knew every little jot and tittle. They were the keepers of tradition. And the tradition was important, no doubt about it.  Back in the wilderness, after Moses came down with the tablets of the law, it was the tradition that shaped the children of Israel into God’s holy people.  They were set apart from the pagans around them by everyday customs – what they ate, how they dressed, what kind of relationships they could have, how they worshiped.  Those traditions were important because they put the Law, the Word, into action.  They were guidelines for how to live. 

But somewhere along the way, the tradition – not the Word – became the focus.  Being religious came to mean keeping the rules.  The rules had built up over the years, layer by layer by layer, so they almost obscured the precious shining intention of the Law that was their foundation. 

And the religious leaders took on the job of enforcing the rules, which put them in conflict with Jesus.  Jesus was a rule-breaker!  But not just for the sake of being contrary or combative.  Jesus broke the rules anywhere the rules had become instruments of exclusion. 

Take this story about the rule for hand washing before eating.  It doesn’t seem to so bad, does it?  After all, we are supposed to do the same thing, for health reasons now, of course, not religious ones.  What could be the problem with requiring people to wash their hands?

Well, think about this part of the world in the first century.  A lot of the land was desert.  Water was scarce.  Getting enough water to drink and farm with took a lot of effort.  Poor people needed to use their precious water as carefully as possible, and pouring it out on their hands before a meal was an extravagance they could not afford. 

The Pharisees and the scribes, on the other hand, were among society’s elite.  They were relatively wealthy, supported by gifts to the synagogue.  They did not have to travel miles to draw water each day.  They did not have to worry about the lack of rain when the wheat was in the field.  They did not have to ensure that the thirsty could drink.  All that was taken care of for them.  They could afford to wash their hands, to be clean before they ate.

And this simple little rule, this tradition gone astray, had the effect of creating divisions.  The rich were able to keep themselves pure, according to the rules of religion, while the poor, even those who were deeply faithful, were considered ritually unclean and declared impure.

And Jesus stepped into this division between the leaders and the people, the rich and the poor, those who thought themselves pure and those who could not keep the burdensome rules.  He reminded them what the Word, the Law, was really about.  It was not about separating people; it was not about creating second-class citizens; it was not about a practice that had become divorced from its original intention.  In fact, Jesus said, it didn’t matter at all what happened on the outside.  Purity could only come from within. And washing one’s hands was no substitute for having a clean heart.

But what does this have to do with us – if anything?  We wash our hands because that is good hygiene, not because we think it makes us holy and pure.  In our church, our denomination, we don’t have all those rules about what to eat and what to wear and how to deal with leprosy. 

Maybe not.  But perhaps we have our own version of the ancient rules. We love our church and we depend on our own laws to help us know how to act.  Heaven knows, Presbyterians love their rules, their Book of Order!  We debate doctrine ad naseum. 

But when the rules become a means of creating divisions, of sorting the faithful into this group versus that group, of declaring some of us second-class, then like the ancient Pharisees, we have become purely religious, not religiously pure.  We have forgotten what God’s word really looks like. 

A clue to how we are supposed to be together in the church lies in the origin of the word religion.  It comes from a Latin word that means to bind up again.  Pure religion ties together what has been separated.  Pure religion connects us again into a whole body.  Pure religion is about unity, not division. 

If we are to be doers of the Word, then everything we do must lead to wholeness and unity and equality.  That is the source of our strength.  A single stick can be snapped, but a bundle tied together cannot be easily broken.  Together we can withstand the pressures of the world.  Together we are strong.   Together in our diversity we are the image of God, reflected in the mirror of the Word. 

So let us be doers of the Word, the precious shining Word, that binds us all together in God’s love. 

May it be so.  Amen.

© Martha C. Highsmith