Simeon And Anna Are Still Out There

 

Who is looking for consolation?

For isolation, for transformation, for reparation, for integration,

 

conflagration…

for one last exploration

 

into the ruins?   I believe it’s me.  

 

I cannot imagine that twig-fingered tree

of a man, the one planted by streams and

growing moss on his northern face.

 

I cannot really picture Simeon reaching for the child who

allegedly thaws the blood in my frozen heart. 

 

Yet, staggering between two pillars of memory

and mischief, between two pages, between

two parents and two jetties on the shore

He takes

from those trembling

 

brown arms a flailing conscious mind, and

all that we are told,

when we’re preparing to leave,

will console.

 

Simeon and Anna are still out there; the widow

showed up and shrieked

not four verses ago.   Out there,

where opinions foment and harden

into plastic, where stocks soar and plummet

at target practice, where we pump for gas.

 

God, she trains the silent gaps

in conversation.   “This child,” she cries, as if teaching us

how to grow old.   This child is a dangling

participle in that run-on covenant of a sentence.  Count the present-

tense verbs.  

 

Did we identify them all?  

Are there more to come?  

1.    A False Closeness Only Makes Things Worse

One of the few traditions that my family of origin had, when I was growing up, revolved around the Christmas Tree.   Each year it came down from the attic in a cardboard box.   And each year it had to be assembled according to the color coated branches.   The color coated branches, of course, were just twisty wires, wrapped in green slivers of pointy plastic.   And the trunk, into which we inserted these wire stems, was just an ordinary wooden pole, about three inches in diameter.   Anyway, to a child and to a family, weaned upon false trees, I at least found something therapeutic and almost ceremonial about making the very centerpiece of our celebration.   Our tree wasn’t merely decorated.   We made it.   From its metallic root system to its celestially starred apex, we constructed it.   And when New Year’s Day came by, we could de-construct it during the half-time show of the Rose Bowl.  

 

Well, I don’t know whether it’s the memory of that family bonding or what, but the first chapter of John’s Gospel has messed with my mind.  My mind has been messed with, and I no longer know exactly where the branches of the story are supposed to go.  It’s my own fault, I know.   I could have stayed with the angels and the shepherds.  I could have pondered more on Mary.   I could have revisited the guestroom in Bethlehem.   But, you see, this fourth gospel has re-arranged the box in which those things have been packed.   And when I open up what John says about Jesus not being known by the world and not being accepted by his own people, I find myself wondering about the nature of being close.   Are we truly close?  

2.   A Word From God Will Brighten and Warm

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe in closeness.  Some of the most memorable experiences of my life and perhaps your life have been close-up and personal experiences.   They’re not the legendary fifteen minutes of fame.   They’re not brushes with greatness.   They’re moments that electrify the air, and that no one will know but you and few others.  But still, there’s closeness and then there’s closeness.   There’s the closeness shared by Adolf Hitler and Ava Brawn, who crafted a book marker to commemorate their love and the eternal reign of the Third Reich.   And then there’s a closeness which sounds like this:

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.   But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

 

My point is that, for all the imagery of light and darkness, verses 10—13 are the pivot point in the whole passage.   A Word from God sent into the world will brighten and a word sent from God into the world will warm those who gather around it.   And yet, to get to that place in the world, you and I have to encounter what Jesus encountered.  

 

“Dear God,” writes the principal character in Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple.   Celie begins each entry of her journal in this identical way until,

Dear God.  Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples.  Dear Everything.  Dear God…  Thank you for bringing my sister Nettie and our children home. (p. 249)

 

It’s a wonderful moment, but it wouldn’t have meant nearly as much without the years and years of feeling rejected and cast aside by those who should have been her closest relatives.

3.   To Believe Is To Get Cozy With The Cosmic Christ

“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him, but to all who received him, who believed in his name…” 

 

About one hundred years ago, the aptly named evangelist, Billy Sunday, preached several messages at the corner of Second and McClellan.  He came to Spokane at the request of local businessmen, who had become concerned about the rowdy behavior of some downtown patrons.   Apparently the intoxicated loggers didn’t mix well with the sober citizens of this up and coming metropolis.   And so Sunday came to the rescue: 

Many a boy and girl trained in their home by their mother to abhor cards have been ruined by going to board in some good-for-nothing, no account, beer-drinking, card-playing, dancing Presbyterian family (Spokesman Review, Dec. 21, D8). 

 

Now the reason that I quote Billy Sunday is to illustrate the veneer that overlays much of the gospel story.   In North America, we don’t realize it, of course.   But if we ever stripped off the thick coating of provincial morality with which we’ve varnished Christ, we might be surprised.   According to John—

“the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth and we have seen his glory.   The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

 

So why do we insist on trying to improve on the glory with layers of polyurethane?   Why do we shellac the message of grace and truth with warnings against beer drinking, card playing and dancing?   I’m just asking because I think as long as Christ is domesticated, as long as he’s tamed and trimmed and color coated and assembled from a package, we’re missing the cozy cosmic essence that remains mysteriously woven into the fabric of the cosmos.  

4.   Dare To Embrace The Impossible

Think of it this way.   The Christmas message is not about making the citizens of Spokane cozier with one another.   We’re not talking about reinforcing the status quo of our local economy.   We’re talking about all of us becoming cozy with the cosmic Christ Jesus and daring to embrace this impossible person.

 

“Under his pillow lay the New Testament.”   Near the end of his novel, Crime and Punishment , Fyador Dostoevsky focuses upon a repentant man in a prison cell. 

Under his pillow lay the New Testament.  He took it up mechanically.  The book belonged to Sonia.   At first he was afraid that she would worry him about religion, would talk about the gospel and pester him with books.   But to his great surprise she had not once approached the subject and had not even offered him the Testament.   He had asked her for it himself not long before his illness and she brought him the book without a word.  Till now he had not opened it.   He did not open it now, but one thought passed through his mind.  ‘Can her convictions not be mine now?’ (p. 462)

 

I bring this up, not to entice you with Russian literature, but to explore the question of Raskolnikov.   His question is my question, and I hope it’s yours too.   Can her convictions—her beliefs—her dreams—her aspirations—not be mine now?   In other words, can we reach out for what seems so far away and believe that it’s close?   Can we embrace, not merely those who are related to us by blood or by marriage or by common interest, but also those who seem now to be our impossible brothers and sisters?   

 

 

 

5.   Be Significant To Someone at Latah Valley

Yesterday, I met with my impossible brother Chuck Gulick at the Sacred Heart hospital.   He escorted me and his IV down the hall to his room, where he noted that the plastic crucifix stared at him morning till night.   He said, “It’s like.   Wow, we did that to him.”   I said, “Yeah, we turned him into plastic.”   And, then, after we talked about the cancer and prayed about health and families, I remembered that one year ago I did not even know that Chuck existed.   One year ago, the things going on his body and mind meant nothing to me.   Tonight, however, they mean everything.

 

Merry Christmas everybody!   On a night like tonight, a disoriented young woman held the Holy One of Israel in her trembling, brown arms.   And on a night like tonight, the Sovereign Lord of the Universe had his umbilical cord severed.   He came down.   He came down.   All the way down.

 

Amen.

WHERE THE TREASURE WORDS ARE

December 22, 2008

1.    Imitate The Shepherds Who Are Given A Sign

They’re not accustomed to the news.   The shepherds of Luke’s gospel are not accustomed to making the news, being the recipients of the news or even casually watching the news.   Regarding the upcoming switch in television transmission signals, from analog to digital, they are totally oblivious.   And yet, in spite of being utterly, as far out of the loop, as you could possibly get, it is to the ones described by Thomas Merton as “the remnant of the desert dwellers, the nomads, the true Israel,” (Raids On The Unspeakable, p. 69) that the most potent good news is delivered and to whom a sign is given.   Now why do you suppose that is?

 

Why is it that the birth announcement of Jesus comes, not to the members of Mary and Joseph’s immediate family, who may be right upstairs, but instead to the guys who make their living by watching sheep?    Why are these outsiders given the inside scoop?   Why is a Savior intended for the whole world and for all the people first proclaimed, via angelic blitzkrieg, to those who have no biblical training whatsoever?    

 

Well, my answer this morning may surprise you, but I’m thinking that it has to do with words, and with the way that shepherds use words.   To a shepherd, you see, a word is always tethered to a thing.   A word’s significance is therefore based on how tangible it is.   A rod and a staff are tangible tools of the trade.   During a cold winter’s night the wool on a sheep’s body provides tangible warmth.   If a wolf or a hyena finds their way into a flock, the threat these predators pose is bloody and tangible.  

And so, when shepherds hear the good news of great joy, they don’t just think nice thoughts; they automatically try to attach those lofty ideas to something real and something tangible.    The angelic host, of course, knows this about shepherds—which is why to them is given a sign, and the sign indeed is something which they are able to go and to see in Bethlehem:   “a child, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  

 

2.   Go Looking For What or Who Has Been Signified

Now, I relate to you all this, not only because I think that we should imitate the shepherds and automatically attach words like love and hope to tangible things in our experience, but because I think we need to look harder than ever for the birth of Jesus Christ.   This is the weirdest thing.   After two thousand years of church history and just plain old history, the notion of God becoming a small vulnerable child seems ordinary.   It seems quaint.   It seems like a fairy tale that we dust off every twelve months, and then re-shelve again come January.   What I propose then is that you and I go looking for what or who has been signified.   We shouldn’t just let the sign be proclaimed and stay at work in the fields around Bethlehem.   We should go the places where we see the angels’ words have been tethered to real-life relationships.    And my bias, of course, is that at Latah Valley we have such a place.   We have a place where the birth of Jesus becomes like a rod and a staff.  We have a place where words guide us.   We have a place where words provide the warmth of wool in the winter.  And we have a place that resembles the thrill felt by both sheep and shepherd upon escaping from a vicious attack.

3.   Repeat The Words

Repeat these words after me:   The most important thing in my life is the love of God that I experience in the life of Jesus Christ, and about which I have heard in the Bible.   Now, come and see.   Watch for indications that what I say is true.   Look for demonstrations that I feel loved by God and that I want to make that love real for others.  

 

Brennan Manning reports on “an old woman (who) lay seriously ill in a hospital.”

Her closest friend read Isaiah 25:6—9 aloud to her.  Wanting the comfort and support of faith, the sick woman asked her friend to hold her hand.  On the other side of the bed, her husband, who considered himself a deeply religiously man and who prided himself for his boldness in having a “Honk, if you love Jesus” bumpersticker on his car, reached out to take her other hand.  His wife withdrew it, saying with deep sadness, “Herbert, you are not a believer.  Your cruelty and callousness throughout the forty years of our marriage tells me that your faith is an illusion” (Abba’s Child, p. 139).

 

4.   Practice Treasuring Them

Verse 19 in today’s passage is fascinating for a variety of reasons.  One is that, although Mary has received her own angelic message, earlier in chapter one, here in chapter two, another human being, a shepherd has confirmed what she alone had heard at the conception of her baby.   The other compelling dynamic, however, hinges on the verb, to treasure.   Mary treasures words.   She doesn’t just treasure her new-born child itself.   She treasures the meaning of the child in the context of the story she has been taught all her life.   And when I think of treasure I think of valuable items which must be hidden away for safekeeping; they can’t be on display all the time.   And they’re definitely not for sale.  

So, is that what Mary does?   Does she bury these words of the shepherds in her memory because she fears them being cheapened?   Does she conceal them because to bring them out too readily would be to fritter them away?

  

“Isn’t that funny?” said the seminary student, breaking away from a theological conversation.   “I just remembered something.”

 

“What, what did you remember?”

 

“It’s just this image of my father, holding me.   We’re sitting in the back of a darkened church, and he’s hugging me.   I’m about four or five years old, and I remember looking up to the front of the church and hearing my mother sing.    God, where did that come from?”

 

 

“What’s that smell?”   A small child sniffed around his mother’s neck.   She had just gone up to the table to receive the bread and the wine.

 

“You smell different,” said the boy.   “I like that smell.   What is it?”

 

“That’s Jesus,” said the parent, not realizing that in connecting that smell with that name, her boy would never be the same. 

 

 

I say, it’s a treasure.   And rather than talking about things like that incessantly, why not go looking forward—into the future—for the relationships and for the possibilities of relationship to which those  treasure words point.  

 

5.   Latah Valley Lives Off What We’ve Been Told

 

In the comedic film, Bridget Jones’ Diary, a person that Bridget initially finds dull and pretentious confesses that he likes her just the way she is.   That phrase sticks in her head, and when she sees Mark again, she identifies him instinctively, ‘You like me just the way I am.’  

It’s kind of a funny moment.   But it’s complicated because, near the end of the story, when Mark returns to sweep Bridget off her feet, he happens to glance at a recent entry in her diary.   The diary says that she “hates him.”   But, by all appearances, that’s not true at all.   She really, most ardently, desperately, loves him.   And he in fact loves her just the way she is.   And so, when Mark goes out into the snowy streets, it’s not to leave Bridget alone again; it’s to buy her a new diary.

 

Now, the reason that I mention this film is merely to illustrate how things are at Latah Valley.   At Latah Valley we live off of the words which have been treasured by Mary, the words told to her by the shepherds and the words to be confirmed as Jesus grows older and ventures out.   We live off of what we’ve been told and therefore no matter whatever else we read or see or experience, everything must be interpreted through that message.  

 

 

Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors, just as we are…  

 

Amen.

 

 

 

A Room Under The Radar

December 15, 2008

1.   Whatever Happens To The Bureaucracy?

Whatever happens to the bureaucracy?  The U.S. Census Bureau has published its most recent results, and the Spokane region has some notable claims to fame.   For one thing, compared to the rest of the United States with 28.4 percent, the number of houses in Spokane with seven or more rooms registers a whopping 38.7 percent.    This statistical information has been drawn from polling that took place in 2005, 2006 and 2007, which, of course, suggests a lag time.   It takes time, at least a year, for the census people to make contact, ask how many rooms you have, wait for you to count them, and then collate the data.   It takes time.  But, after all, that’s what bureaucracies do.   That, as a matter of recorded history, is what they are known for—even from the days of Emperor Augustus. 

 

But, you see, we’re interested this morning in a room that Augustus may have missed.   We’re focused on that place where deified rulers and chief bureaucrats don’t go.   It’s the place that’s beneath their dignity and by which they can’t be bothered.   It’s the stable out back.  It’s the feeding trough in the basement.   Or it may be the scary edge of our life together.  “In the room people come and go, talking of Michelangelo…”   That’s how T.S. Eliot names our spacious aversion to the truth.   You and I actually use the number of rooms in our houses, or the religious rooms in our world as a means of avoiding something that God most ardently wants us to face.   What is it?  Whatever it is, the bureaucrats among us forget to ask.

2.   Being Crowded Out Isn’t All Bad

Tony Campolo once dropped off some college students in the middle of southeast Philadelphia.   He gave each one ten dollars and simply told them to share the good news of Jesus Christ.   One of the students stood on the street corner for hours until he heard the cries of a baby from the window of an upstairs apartment.   With fear and trembling he entered the run-down building, walked up the smelly flight of stairs and knocked on the door.   “Who is it?” roared an agitated woman’s voice.  The student started to answer when she opened the door enough to let out a few vapors of cigarette smoke and the putrid stench of soiled diapers.   As soon as the name of Jesus escaped his lips, the woman told him to get the hell out.   But, you see, that’s what gave him the idea.   He then walked down the street, bought a carton of cigarettes, a box of disposable diapers and some baby formula.   He took the items back to the apartment and knocked again.   When she opened the door, he thrust in the bag of groceries.   She smiled, let the nice young man in, and even offered him one of her cigarettes, to which he replied, “I don’t smoke…”

 

You see, I wonder if Luke’s Gospel isn’t doing for us what Tony Campolo does for that college student.   He’s dropping us off in a part of town where just saying the name “Jesus” doesn’t work.   He’s stranding us in a place where the usual guest rooms are occupied, where we feel crowded out… But being crowded out isn’t all bad.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them…

3.   The Occupancy Capacity of the Manger Is Huge

You see, I don’t know whether I should tell you this or not, but the Son of God is not born in a very religious place, or even a very prominent place.   So it’s odd, don’t you think, that we go searching for him in cathedrals, where seating is limited.   It’s backwards, don’t you think, for us to designate certain facilities as Jewish synagogues, Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques and Hindu shrines and then to limit our awareness of God’s presence to what happens there.  Shirley Guthrie, the author of Christian Doctrine, writes,

“The stories of the birth of Jesus… tell us that it is into the real world of flesh-and-blood human beings that God comes…  Christmas is the story of a radical invasion of God into the kind of real world where we live all year long—a world where there is political unrest and injustice, poverty, hatred, jealousy and both the fear and the longing that things could be different” (p. 235). 

 

I had to laugh recently when Bill O’Reilly on the Fox Network spoke out against the State of Washington and Governor Gregoire.   Apparently neither he nor many other religious people appreciate how elected officials have handled the situation in which an atheist group has placed its own winter solstice display next to the nativity symbol at the capitol building.   Applications from other organizations are now being considered, including one for a sign that reads, “Santa Claus Will Take You To Hell,” and another dedicated to the “Flying Spaghetti Monster.”   The irony with all this hoopla, of course, is that Jesus would not want to be seen anywhere near the capital building.   In fact, given the occupancy capacity of the manger, he probably would feel more comfortable in the chilly house that a group of ragamuffin men have been renovating in Latah Valley.  

4.   Check Out The Accommodations Under The Radar

Some place off the beaten trail.   Some obscure hole in the wall.   That’s the point.   If we’re looking for the true light that is coming into the world (as John 1:9 describes it), we can’t worry about the latest census.  We can’t worry about seven or more rooms.  All that really matters are the accommodations under the radar of the powers and principalities.   Check them out.   Why not spend the next few days, the days we have left, searching for vacancies?  “Mack sat there in silence, the emptiness of the place invading his soul.”   This is how William Young, the author of The Shack, relates the search of his main character, Mackenzie Allen Philips.

His jumble of unanswered questions and far-flung accusations settled to the floor with him, and then slowly drained into a pit of desolation…  

Clouds parted outside, and a sunbeam suddenly spilled into the room, piercing the center of his despair.   But… what about Nan?  And what about Josh or Kate or Tyler and Jon?   As much as he longed to stop the ache in his heart, he knew he could not add to their hurt…

He looked up into the open rafters.  “I’m done, God,” he whispered.  “I can’t do this anymore.  I’m tired of trying to find you in all this.”   And with that, he walked out the door.  Mack determined that this was the last time he would go looking for God.  If God wanted him, God would have to come find him (p. 79—80).  

 

You see, what’s fascinating about this book is not the way that William Young will go on to portray God.   But it’s the room in the remote, dilapidated shack in which that revelation occurs.   It’s the icon of our most acute pain, the culmination of everything that’s dark.   If God cannot find us there, if Jesus of Nazareth cannot be born there, well, then the atheists at the state capitol are right.   Religion is a shame.   And we should just spend the winter trying to get along as best we can.   On the other hand, if God does find us…

5.   Latah Valley Has Just Enough Space

What then?  

 

My contention, and my most hopeful prayer, is that Latah Valley has just enough space for God to find us.   Not the kind of room in which we try to be quaint worshippers and try to do our religious duty.   But the kind of room in which we are permitted to catch on fire like these candles.

 

R.S. Thomas writes an interesting poem called The Chapel.   He writes it about the past, but if we listen carefully we can sense the room there is for something new.   Listen:

A little aside from the main road
becalmed in a last-century greyness
there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal
to the tourist to stop his car
and visit it. The traffic goes by
and the river goes by, and quick shadows
of clouds too, and the chapel settles
a little deeper into the grass
 
But here once on an evening like this,
in the darkness that was about
his hearers, a preacher caught fire,
and burned steadily before them
with a strange light so that they saw
the splendour of the barren mountains
about them and sang their amens
fiercely, narrow but saved
in a way that men are not now.

 

So, my simple question, after reading that poem is this:  Am I the only one to catch fire here today?   I think there’s room for you too.  I think there’s room for us.   Amen. 

FAMILY SPEECHES GONE WILD

December 8, 2008

1.   You Didn’t Get Anything You Wanted

I recently saw an episode of The Office, where employees had been encouraged to bring their children to work.  The regional manager of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company in Scranton, PA is Michael and Michael, as a way of entertaining the kids, breaks out this video of himself as a young boy.   There he is on the screen in a bow tie and a plaid jacket.   He is being interviewed by a puppet on a program like Captain Kangeroo.   The puppet then asks the boy what he wants to do when he grows up, and Michael says that he’d like to get married and have a hundred kids so that he’d always have friends who had to be his friends forever.   The adult Michael, showing this clip, then becomes suddenly embarrassed.   Picking up on this awkward moment, the children who had been brought to the office, then press him.   One of them wonders if he ever got married; he says no.  Another one asks if he has any children of his own; he says no.   And finally, as if to add insult to injury, a third child makes this tragic observation:  “You didn’t get anything you wanted.”

 

You didn’t get anything you wanted.   If there were ever a phrase that could distill all the sadness that people try to hide during the month of December, this is it.   And yet, as I listen to the speeches given by Mary in verses 46—55 and by Zechariah in verses 67—79, I have to wonder whether you and I and Michael at The Office want the wrong things.   Do we actually want the focus of Christmas to be on having the ideal family or on friends who have to be our friends?  

2.   Having The Ideal Family Is Not The Goal

Think about this.   Mary, the peasant girl and fiancée of the local carpenter, doesn’t mention her immediate relatives at all.   Moreover, if Zechariah had been saving up his words, following his own angelic encounter last week, the miracle of his recovery offers no sentimental spin.  Mary doesn’t say where she’s registered.   And Zechariah doesn’t pass out cigars.   Having the ideal family is apparently not the goal.

 

“Dear Martha,” writes Erma Bombeck to the matron saint of holiday ornamentation and frivolity: 

I’m writing this on the back of an old shopping list, pay no attention to the coffee and jelly stains.  I’m 20 minutes late getting my daughter up for school…  Burnt my arm on the curling iron when I was trying to make those cute curly fries, how DO they do that?   Still can’t find the scissors to cut out some snowflakes, tried using an old disposable razor… trashed the tablecloth.

 

Love, Erma

 

Hi Erma,

 

This perfectly delightful note is being sent on paper I made myself to tell you what I have been up to.   Since it snowed last night, I got up early and made a sled with old barn wood and a glue gun.  I hand painted it in gold leaf, got out my loom and made a blanket in peaches and mauves.   Then to make the sled complete, I made a white horse to pull it, from DNA that I had just sitting around in my craft room.   By then, it was time to start making the place mats and napkins for my 20 breakfast guests.  I’m serving the old standard Stewart twelve-course breakfast, but I’ll let you in on a little secret:   I didn’t have time to make the tables and chairs this morning, so I used the ones I had in hand…  Well, I must run.  I need to finish the buttonholes on the dress I’m wearing for breakfast.  

 

Love, Martha Stewart

 

Now, even if you and I don’t quite fall into either extreme, we have probably felt the pressure of making Christmas into a quaint ritual.   Resist it, I hear Mary saying.   Don’t believe it, Zechariah echoes.    The true goal of this holy season is to magnify, and to prophesy.

3.   Mary Doesn’t Magnify Her Maternal Aspirations

My soul magnifies the Lord…

For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden…

He has scattered the proud… and exalted those of low degree.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

And the rich he has sent empty away…

Please notice in these words of Mary the great reversals that will become more obvious a full thirty years and six months later.   It will be the mature Jesus who scatters the proud.   It will be the crucified Jesus who lifts up the lowly.  It will be the resurrected Jesus who fills the hungry and sends the rich empty away.   And so, it is while all that salvation drama and all that trauma still gestate in the womb, that Mary magnifies it.   She makes it bigger, much bigger that it currently appears.

 

In a small town in Alabama, Barbara Brown Taylor recalls a strong black woman, named Katybelle.   Katybelle functioned like a nanny in the household, padding around bare foot in her cotton skirt and colorful blouse.   One wet afternoon, she was ironing clothes when Barbara and her sisters became bored.   Katybelle then told them to get out some pencils and paper.  “First you draw a yard with some trees and pretty flowers,” said the nanny.  

“Now you draw a pretty white house in the middle of it with a red chimney and children playing in the yard…   Now you put a picket fence around it to keep the dogs out… and don’t forget the gate.”  

 

Barbara then remembers how she and her sisters were comparing their drawings, when suddenly, Katybelle said,

“You think you through?  You girls ain’t through…  Now you draw the whole sky on fire, and that pretty little house going up in flames because that’s how it’s gonna be when the end time come” (The Preaching Life, p. 19).

 

Obviously, Barbara Brown Taylor thought later, Katybelle knew something that she didn’t know.   She knew about a God who didn’t think we were finished with a happy family and a white picket fence.   And that’s what I think Mary, the mother of Jesus, tries to express.

4.   A Father Doesn’t Need To Brag

Likewise, Zechariah doesn’t need to brag about his son, John.  

“And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways… to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,  to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

 

During Pop Warner football season, I met the father of a teenager, the same age as Philip.   We were both proud of our children and the way each would catch the ball and run with speed and agility.   But once, after a game that we had lost badly, Philip and I came along side his friend, and I saw this look on the other boy’s face.   It was the forlorn gaze of a child who had been beaten down emotionally, if not physically.   And when I saw it, my words swooped upon him with praise.   I could not help but tell him how great he was, and how his moves on the field made me want to cry.   His father, strangely enough, walked about twenty yards ahead of us, and never spoke a word.  

 

You see, I’m not suggesting that families don’t play a crucial part in communicating a person’s worth.   But imagine a world where all we have  to go on is that father and that son at that football game.  

5.   Memorize Your Family Speech At Latah Valley

There has got to be more.   There has got to be more to say that you’re great because you play football, or you’re great because you’re my son or my daughter…   And at Latah Valley we’ve inviting one another, regardless of family background, into the wild speeches of Mary and Zechariah. 

 

I once served communion to an elderly stroke victim in a nursing home.   The woman’s husband came to visit her nearly every day, but with each passing day, her eyes seemed more vacant and her gaping mouth more and more dried out.   The couple had never been able to have children, so he was all she had.   The strain of this commitment, of course, had been very apparent.   He felt obligated to love this woman till death, but the solo-responsibility wore on him. Anyway, as I called to their attention some of the prayers that we say before and after communion, the frail lady shed a tear.   When I poured the grape juice over her lips, she gulped.   The husband ate and drank with me and the Elder from the congregation who had come too.  “Remember, honey,” said the man.   “Remember when we used to do this.  Remember.    Remember Jesus.”  

 

It was almost like a plea.   And I believe, in the end, she did remember.   Or maybe, it was Jesus who remembered.   Amen.

 

  

Read Luke 1

 

1.  The Duties That Define Us Do Not Define God’s Purpose

“They understood what was required of them and they willingly volunteered for their duty…”    Of the men and women born between the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and the start of World War Two in 1941, Tom Brokaw has this to say.   Doing your duty makes sense.   It makes sense in the so-called Greatest Generation, and it makes sense in the generation of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  

 

But, you see, something about Zechariah’s experience gives me pause.  Luke 1:8 says that “his section was on duty,” which means that as a priest in the tradition of Aaron and 1 Chronicles 19, Zechariah would be among those in charge of the incense offering at the temple.   From miles around Jewish pilgrims would come, and when they came to offer prayers or to offer sacrifices to the God of Israel, someone would be on duty to enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Lord.   Moreover, given the encroachment of the Roman soldiers on every street corner—given the Roman currency with the image of Caesar on every coin—this would be the one place in perhaps the entire known world where patriotic Jews could do their duty for God and country and be proud…  And—

“then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense” (v. 11). 

 

You see, it’s not the pagans or the atheists who keep Zechariah from doing his duty.  It’s the messenger of the Almighty God.   Before he gets to light the flame on the altar, he’s stopped, and before he gets to bestow the blessing for which people have traveled for days the angel makes him mute.   Why?  Why interrupt the duties that seem so important?

2.  Angels Are Always Allaying Our Fears.  Why Is That?

In the Jonathan Irving book, A Prayer For Owen Meany, Owen has been assigned the part of the baby Jesus.   Even though he’s twelve years old, his small frame allows him to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger.   He has lobbied for this role with the Sunday School Program of the Episcopalian Church.   And yet, once he’s in costume, once he finds himself beneath the hot spotlight, Owen Meany takes the story to a new level.   He spies his parents in the audience and accuses them of blasphemy for being there.   From the lips of the holy infant come screaming words like ‘Sacrilege!’ and ‘How dare you!’  Humiliated, Mr. and Mrs. Meany get up from their seats and exit the darkened room.  Everyone else sits there in a state of shock.   They had to come to the performance out of a sense of duty and obligation to their children, or their children’s children; they did not come to hear a message from God.    But that is precisely what they get.   And when the announcing angel forgets his lines, Owen is there, in the manger, to prompt him:   “Do not be afraid…”

 

Think about this.   Has it ever occurred to anyone that merely doing your duty—and watching the Christmas story go by is not enough?   Have you wondered why angels, like Gabriel, feel it so necessary to allay our fears when we insist on going through the motions—or when we cling to all the familiar roles and responsibilities that make us feel so comfortable?  

“When Zechariah saw him he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  

 

And the reason is, he’s just has his duty stripped away from him.

 

But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John…’”

3.  In the Midst of Our Roles & Responsibilities Comes A Message

 

You see, the very parts we play in life—the parts that we value the most—keep the angelic message at a safe distance.   And so, if you happen to be a priest in the tradition of Aaron, the first thing an angel might do is remove you from that role and remind you of another role—a role that you have forgotten.   If you happen to be an mother or father, who lives vicariously through her or his children, the first thing the angel might do is remind you that your child will grow up—that he might even become someone like John the Baptist—that he might live in the desert and proclaim the coming of the Messiah far away from the temple that you love so much.  

“Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so?   For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.’  The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news…’”

 

Mark Abell is a British lawyer who checked into a posh hotel in Mumbai, India.   He’s the kind of lawyer that deals with intellectual property rights.   He owns a Blackberry, and three nights ago had dinner at highly priced restaurant, where he laughed with the waitress about the gratuity.   In the morning he had plans to travel from Mumbai to Delhi.   But when coordinated terrorist attacks intruded, this dutiful icon of the workaday world barricaded himself in his 23rd floor suite and waited.   Outside he heard explosions and panicked screams.   And when, after 49 hours, the ordeal had been resolved with 160 people killed, including the waitress with whom he joked, he said this:  

You can survive for seven days without food and for three days without water, but without reliable information, you can’t get control of your environment.   

4.  Shut Up Zechariah!  Perk Up Mary!

Now, although I’ve been to India, I can’t hope to understand what Mark Abell went through this weekend.   But I do want to qualify what he says about ‘reliable information.’    My only comment is that there is no more reliable information than the uncontrollable good news which is announced by the angel—both to Zechariah in verses 13 to 19, but also to Mary, the teenage fiancée of Joseph, in verses 30 to 33.   And do you know the difference between the priest and the peasant girl in terms of their response?    Zechariah says, in verse 18, “How will I know that this is so?” while Mary, in verse 34, says, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”   There’s a subtle, but significant difference in these questions that I want to explore because it corresponds to the difference between the angel telling Zechariah to shut up and the angel telling Mary to essentially perk up.  

 

In The Mission, starring Robert De Nero and Jeremy Irons, the representative of the Pope has been sent to investigate the Jesuit mission projects in the territories of Spain and Portugal.   Rather than enslaving the natives of the South American rainforests, the Jesuits share the gospel with them and then encourage them to come out of the jungle and form communities of faith, who work the land and distribute their proceeds equally.   In the 1750’s, of course, the Portuguese see this as a threat to their economic survival, which is dependent on the slave trade.   And so, the following conversation ensues:

“What do you think is at issue here?”  

“I think the work of God is at issue here.”  

“No, the future of the Jesuit order is at issue here.”

And, you see, every time I watch that film, I’d like to push the pause button right at that very moment and tell that institutional authority-figure to shut up.   I want to tell him that he’s so fixated on preserving the roles and the responsibilities of the church that he’s missing the big picture.   I want to tell him how he’s so focused on his all-important duty that he cannot really speak for God anymore.   So, shut up.   Shut up, I tell him.   But, in the end, he doesn’t listen.   He never listens.

 

Which is why we need angels.

 

5.  To Latah Valley:   “You Will Conceive…”

Latah Valley, like every congregation that believes in the name of Jesus, has the need for angels.   We need angels because we need the messages that they deliver, messages that scroll through the Universe without the sponsorship of Walmart  or Macys, and without the spin of MSNBC, FOX or CNN, messages that come to us whether the Dow Jones rises or falls.  

 

“You will conceive,” the angel informs Mary.   And like her the snow covered land of Latah Valley’s site resembles the undulating curves of a maternity gown.   Beneath the frozen turf, I believe, there’s more than simply dormant grass seed and gofers.   There is the impending word of Christ Jesus, ready to break out upon the world and be heard again in tough economic times.

 

Amen.