December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve

The Hidden Jesus

In the neighborhoods around my house, most people don’t go all out with the Christmas decorations.  Along my street many of the houses have a wreath and maybe some candles in the windows, or a few strings of white lights wrapped around the evergreen shrubs.  With the snow on the branches and the lights sparkling, it is always quite beautiful.  And very tasteful and elegant – not much in the way of reindeer balancing on pitched roofs or windows outlined in multi-colored running lights. People don’t drive down our street to look at over-the-top Christmas decorations!

There is one house on my street, though, that did not get the memo!  The little front yard is crammed with just about every plastic figure you can imagine.  There is a seesaw with two penguins on it, going up and down, next to a little polar bear. There is an inflatable snow globe with things going around inside.  There are reindeer and a sleigh.  There is an illuminated plastic nativity scene, with a giant blow-up Santa and a snowman looming over Mary and Joseph and the Baby, and the wise men bear their gifts lined up by the sidewalk, next to a row of lighted candy canes.

Some people, I suppose, might find this display on the tacky side.  And some people might think it is inappropriate to plop the baby Jesus down in the midst of the penguins and the elves and the Santa Claus.  (And what do penguins have to do with Christmas anyway?  Don’t they live at the South Pole?)  And the baby who should be at the heart of it all is almost hidden, barely noticeable, surrounded as he is by all those other figures and decorations that have nothing to do with the story of Christmas – at least the one recorded in the Bible.

I’ve decided, though, that this display is just right.  After all, that is just how Jesus came to us.  He was plopped down into the world with all kinds of inappropriate things going on around him.  Most of what was happening in and around Bethlehem had nothing to do with God’s reign – it was all about Caesar’s reign. And there was nothing tasteful and elegant about his birth.  He was conceived outside of wedlock; he was born in a stable full of mess and manure; he was visited by the poorest of the poor, the shepherds. 

Jesus was just one of many, another child born in a difficult situation to a young woman, a child destined to grow up and live a life of poverty.  Who in the world would pay attention to a poor baby, born of poor parents, in a poor country?  There was no reason this birth should have been noticed at all, let alone become a story told over and over again in times and places very far removed from that stable, including here.

It makes me wonder:  Why would God choose to be revealed in such a hidden way?  Wouldn’t it be better if God were easier to recognize?  After all, we wouldn’t be likely to miss God if God came to us as a voice from a burning bush, would we?  Or as God did to the people standing on the banks of the Red Sea waiting for the waters to part?  Or in fire and smoke and sacred words on a holy mountain?  But even those people, God’s chosen ones, often missed God’s presence.  Even in the promised land, they continued to wait and hope for God to be revealed, for God to come and rescue them again, to give them safety and freedom.  They understood through the prophets that God would send a savior, the Messiah. In a time of war and upheaval, the saving word of God that came through Isaiah to the people must have seemed strange news:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” 

They were hoping for a mighty army, and instead they got a baby.  They were hoping for military victory and instead they were promised peace, a peace that would need the same kind of care and tending that a newborn needs. 

And all that was long ago, and where is that promise of peace now?  If this Child has been born – and we do believe that -- then why isn’t there endless peace now?  Why is the world still filled with injustice?  Where is righteousness?  Where is the child who will save us?

One year and ten days ago near where I live in Connecticut, twenty boys and girls and seven women were murdered by a young man – almost a child himself and certainly a lost and troubled soul.  In the aftermath of this tragedy, it has sometimes been hard to understand where God is, to know the presence of the savior.  It has seemed sometimes that evil and destruction might win out.  But then God speaks in the words of the mother of Ana Grace, one of the children who was killed, and she recalls setting up a table with candles to light for those who died that day, and she says: 

"Do we have a table with 26 candles (one for each of the children and teachers), or do we have a table with 28?  We put 28, because at the end of the day, it's a gesture of the compassion that we need to move forward."

And so the mother of a murdered child lights a candle for the murderer and his mother.  And suddenly, in words that are both simple and stunning, the hidden Jesus is revealed.  God is present.  And the power of peace overcomes everything else. The families of the women and children who were killed at Sandy Hook have asked that people honor the memory of their precious ones by paying it forward – by doing something kind and compassionate and generous and loving for someone else.  It is a lesson that we have to learn over and over again, this lesson in compassion.  It is a lesson that the memories of those precious children of Newtown teach us. It is a lesson that the precious child of Bethlehem teaches us:  “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Last year, we had a huge snow after Christmas – more than four feet in some places.  The Christmas display in my neighbor’s yard was buried under the white stuff.  Only the top of the big Santa and the crowns of the wise men were visible.  As the weather softened in the weeks after the snow, bits and pieces of other figures emerged.  But the Baby, low and small, was the last to be uncovered.   It took a big thaw to reveal the hidden Jesus who had been there all along.  I think that is a kind of parable for us.  There is a hidden Jesus always present, but the storms of life have piled up so much stuff that we no longer notice him.  There is a hidden Jesus in us, but we have to thaw out our frozen hearts, let our busyness and sinfulness and distraction melt away, in order for him to be revealed. He is here all along. And the way of life he intends for us – the time of endless peace and justice and righteousness – is present now, also waiting to be revealed. He himself reminded us this when he said: "The kingdom of heaven is within you."

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus – with bright lights and candy canes or elegant wreaths and candles, with gifts for those we love or random acts of kindness for total strangers, with treasured manger scenes or plastic ones displayed in the yard.  And may our celebrations continue through the days and weeks and years to come, so we come to reveal with our own lives the hidden Jesus who is in our midst.  Let us be reminded that Christ is still present in our less-than-perfect world, amidst the tacky displays of our lives, in the places where we least expect it.  Christ is present!

© Martha C. Highsmith

August 23, 2013

The Economy... up close and personal

Yesterday on the radio, there was a report about the current state of the economy (when is there not???).  According to the story, “more than 330,000 people filed new claims for unemployment insurance benefits last week,” and that is good news, because these numbers are at pre-recession levels.  There is actually a technical term for this phenomenon:  froth. Apparently economists build into their projections and prognostications a certain amount of joblessness.  We have now achieved “normal froth.”

In my on-line dictionary, one of the definitions of froth is triviality. And I think of my friend who was just laid off, and I know that for that family, there is nothing normal or trivial about unemployment.  And I realize that we hear these terms and the numbers that go with them and forget that every number is a person, a real person, struggling in the day-to-day, out of work, and for some, out of hope. 

If I multiply  my friend’s grief by 330,000, it is almost overwhelming.  I think when we/I am confronted with huge calamities, I cannot take them in and so I ignore them.  But today, I am thinking about 330,000 tragedies, all playing out in someone’s life.   And there is nothing trivial about that….

June 25, 2013

Blueberry Pie!

Off the Bush

Last year, my sister gave me three blueberry bushes for my birthday. I planted, watered, fertilized and covered with bird netting.  The bushes bloomed and the fruit formed, and as soon the berries were almost ready to pick, the squirrels reached in through the netting and ate them!  I got a total of four blueberries.  I don't mind sharing, but I felt I should have at least gotten an equal amount.

This year, my friend built a an arched canopy to hold the netting and I anchored it at the bottom.  In this little tent, the berries have ripened. Yesterday, I stood in the yard and ate a handful for breakfast. And tonight, I picked a cup before the rain started and made a little galette for my supper.


On the Plate

June 17, 2013

The Desert Shall Rejoice!

I have spent a few days in Phoenix, Arizona.  I was there to officiate at the baptisms of my newest relatives (baby first cousins twice removed).  Phoenix is a desert valley surrounded by mountains, in a landscape dotted with imported palm trees and native saguaro cactus.  It was hot – 110 degrees – and very, very dry.  I left Connecticut in the midst of cool temperatures, torrential rains, and widespread flooding.  The contrast could not have been greater.

To offer the blessing over the water in baptism in a dry place is to know how precious the gift of water really is. It is easy to take it for granted when it is so plentiful.  I think it is the same way with the love of our family – easy to take it for granted because it is so overflowing.  This week, though, we did not need a drought of love to know what a rare and precious bond we have.  We were together with memories and celebration and babies and catching up and laughing and crying and eating cake and talking. 

It was blessing, pure blessing, like sweet rain in the desert, poured out on all of us.  Little Lindsey hugged her mama and added her sweet tears to the celebration; all-grown-up-almost-seven-year-old Ian poured the water and then later on swam like a fish in the pool; and baby Brennie sat up and showered his wobbly smiles on all of us.  And it was a gift of God, as precious as a spring of water in a dry place.   

April 15, 2013

Buying a car

Today I bought a car.  And it took more time, more paperwork, more checking, and more signatures than if I had bought a gun.....

March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday

This has been my “day of preparation.”  I have written my part of our Easter reflections.  I have washed my white robe and hung it carefully to avoid wrinkles.  I have made the asparagus tarts for brunch tomorrow after church.  I have washed the gold cloth for the Table. I have washed and dried the new communion set that we will use tomorrow for the first time.  I have cut pussy willow branches from my yard and put them in a vase with yellow tulips.  I have put out my fancy Easter eggs in the willow basket trimmed with dried moss.  Everything is ready.  And I am waiting with an anticipation that is at once anxious and joyful for tomorrow.  

March 11, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Lent

The Presbyterian Brother

This story from the gospel of Luke is one of the best known of Jesus’ parables.  We call it the parable of the prodigal son.  The younger brother demands his inheritance, leaves home, wastes everything, falls on unbelievably hard times, and then returns, hoping to beg his father for a position as a servant.  The father is so glad to see him that he brings out the best clothes for him to put on, which he will need because the father is throwing a great party to celebrate.  The lost is found, the son is back home, and all’s well that ends well, right?  Not exactly.

We kind of forget the second half of the parable, which isn’t about the prodigal son at all.  Remember that the story begins like this:  “There was a man who had two sons.”  The story is as much as about the elder son as the younger one – the elder son, presbuteros in Greek, the same word that gives us Presbyterian.

The Presbyterian brother, like any good first-born, has a deep sense of duty and responsibility.  He follows the rules, and he works hard.  And what happens?  That ne’er-do-well kid brother of his, that son of his father, gets the big party, the gourmet meal, with the live band and the open bar.  And the elder brother doesn’t even get so much as take-out burgers to eat with his buddies.  Where is the justice in all this?

Let’s look more closely at the story to see what it tells us about this first-born son.  Right at the beginning (verse 12), the younger son demands his inheritance from his father. In the culture of this time and place, it was an unthinkable request, a deep insult, a violation of all the rules of family and faith.  After all, you don’t inherit the family business while your father is still running it. In effect, he is asking his father to drop dead, at least from the perspective of the law.  The boy demands his share and, amazingly, the father complies. 

But it isn’t just the younger brother who gets his inheritance.  The father divides up the whole estate. The older son gets his portion, too.  The father gives it all away.  Everything he has is given to these two boys to do with as they will.  The one throws it away.  And the other clutches it so tightly that he cannot see the value of what he has.  Reading between the lines, he is obsessed with getting and having.  He leads a joy-less life. 

And the sound of the party going on, as he is dragging himself in from the fields, is just more than he can stand, especially when he finds out that it is a celebration of his brother’s homecoming.  The nerve of the old man, doing something like this!

One writer, Robert Farrar Capon, describes the scene for us (The Parables of Grace, p 142; NRSV substituted for KJV in original):

The Elder Brother. Mr. Respectability… The man with volumes and volumes of the records he has kept on himself and everyone else.  And as he comes near the house, he hears music and dancing.  ….  He gasps:  Music! Dancing! Levity! Expense! And on a working day, yet!

He calls one of the slaves to ask what is going on. He is not happy:  Why this frivolity?  What about the shipments that our customers wanted yesterday?  Who’s minding the store? 

And the slave tells him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 

He rants:  The fatted calf!  Doesn’t that old fool know I’ve been saving that for next week’s sales promotion when we show our new line of turnips?  How am I supposed to run a business when he blows the entertainment budget on that loser of a son? 

And he is so angry that he refuses to go in.  Finally, therefore, he makes a proclamation:  I will not dignify this waste with my presence.   Someone has to exercise a little responsibility around here! 

And then, for this ungrateful, jealous, bitter boy, the father leaves his guests and goes out to him and pleads with him to come to the celebration.  But he won’t. “Listen!” he says – and you can hear the hostility and disrespect in his tone – “Listen!  For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never even given me a young goat so I might celebrate with my friends.” 

And do you hear how he misses the whole point.  He isn’t working for his father at all.  The whole estate that is left belongs to him!  He is not a slave to his father; he is a slave to himself. 

He has cut himself off from his family.  He refuses to claim kinship with his brother, referring to him as that “son of yours.”  But his father won’t let him get away with any of this.  He says to him:  “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

And there the parable ends, without a real ending.  It just stops, leaving us standing in the yard with the father and the elder son, not knowing what will happen next. Will the elder son do as the younger one did, and return to his father’s embrace?  Will he acknowledge that nothing he can do will make him worthy of the father’s love?  Will he celebrate with all the other unworthy guests?  Will he be willing to eat with the sinners?  Will he put on his party clothes and go in, or will he stand in the yard by himself, clutching the rags of his respectability and trying to warm his own cold heart?

I think we can guess how Jesus wanted the story to end.  The clue is in the first and second verses of chapter 15:  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” 

This fellow, this Jesus, welcomes sinners.  And as one scholar notes, in this parable there are two kinds of sinners, two kinds of sin (Kenneth E. Bailey. Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15, pp 190-91):
“One is the sin of the law-breaker – the prodigal – and the other is the sin of the law-keeper – the elder brother.  Each sin centers on a broken relationship.  One breaks that relationship while failing to fulfill the expectations of the family and society.  The second breaks his relationship while fulfilling those same expectations.”

And where are we in this story, my Presbyterian brothers and sisters?  Where are we?  We are the ones who try so hard to do things right, to follow the rules, to be good.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  But it will not earn us God’s love. There is nothing we can do to make God love us or to make God stop loving us.  That is the scandal of grace. 

As Frederick Buechner defines it (Wishful Thinking, p 38): 

Grace is something you can never get but can only be given.  There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. …

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace.  There’s nothing you have to do.  There’s nothing you have to do.  There’s nothing you have to do.

In her poem The Wild Geese, Mary Oliver writes this: 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

We were created in love; we were created for love.  And the wide expanse of God’s love in Christ is big enough to take in the whole world – saints and sinners, wastrels and misers, prodigals and Presbyterians.

We don’t have to be perfect.  We don’t have to be good.  We only have to love as we were made to love.  And that means loving God with heart, mind, soul and body, and loving our neighbors, our brothers, our sisters, as we love ourselves.  And when we love that way, we are where we belong, next to God’s heart, and there is cause for celebration. 

So listen for the sound of music and dancing.  God is throwing a party, and we are all invited, we are all welcomed, every single one of us.  God wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thanks be to God!


Sermon preached for
First Presbyterian Church
Hartford, CT
March 10, 2013
by Martha C. Highsmith