Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Authority in Healing

Mark 1: 21-28
I suppose all of us have demons that disturb us from time to time in our lives.  They are things that hurt then haunt us, they are things that weaken our souls and batter us down beyond our normal selves.  Demons set out to destroy and thwart our attempts at healthy, soul-filed living.  Such was the case of Cecile[i], a woman I met at the VA Hospital. Cecile is not her real name and the particulars are not exact, I’ve changed them.  But her story is true.

She had been admitted for intestinal problems but was getting ready to be discharged.  The room was very heavy so I stood for a while in silence after I introduced myself as the chaplain.  She began to weep.  ‘Tell me about your tears’, I asked.  Big welts of tears began to stream down her face.  ‘I was only 18 when I went into the army, Gulf War.’  She stopped for a moment.  ‘But I’m 40 now and my people just don’t understand me’.  Cecile was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Schizophrenia.  ‘They say I need to be over this by now, and they don’t accept me, they’ve abandoned me’…..her voice trailed off and then she again said, ‘I was only 18’.

Cecile was haunted by her past and by her mental illnesses.  Few today would say that she had demons like they would have back in Jesus’ day.   She was not possessed as we might conjure up those iconic images of demonic possession and spinning heads.  Her demons were not of the supernatural sort.  She was troubled by her past, her Gulf War experiences, images that she just could not let go of in her mind’s eye.  She was bothered by the voices that kept her awake some nights as she lived with mental illness.  I wish I had had a ‘miracle elixir’ that I could have given her to make it all go away.  But I didn’t.  She just knew her Lord would take care of her.  We both knew that she was right; her healing can only come from the Lord.

The Gospel of Mark is filled with stories of Jesus’ healing people and we are just at the beginning of his ministry.  He called his disciples from their fishing boats and their livelihoods to follow him and from there they went to a town on the north side of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum. 

The Gospel of Mark, first chapter.

They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”

And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Let’s unpack these eight verses of scripture.  It’s a two-for, you get two stories for the price of one.  The first story is about Jesus coming into the synagogue on the Sabbath and preaching. Sabbath was and still is a day especially marked in the week in which to rest from your work, to pray and to study.  It’s no surprise that we find Jesus in the synagogue.  It must have been some fantastic sermon, some amazing explication of Mosaic Law because the people who were at synagogue that day were amazed with what he had to say.  He had some sort of authority when he spoke that the others did not. 

And then, unnoticed, a man with an unclean spirit, a man possessed with demons was there among them.  Here’s where the second story begins.  The demons, not the people, not the man, but the demons recognize Jesus.  The demons are the ones to recognize Jesus as the Holy One of God, not the physical Jesus or the son of Joseph the local carpenter.  The demons speak, they challenge Jesus, and they know full well that they have met their adversary.  But Jesus admonishes them, he nips the demonic activity in the bud right there.  Silence!  Come out of this man!  And the unclean spirit left.  Sadly, we hear nothing more of the man.    

Things settle down as they do.  The gathered crowd was amazed; we are back to the first story.  They are curious and ask, is this a new teaching?  A new pedagogy?  Jesus taught with words and with his actions.  The torah teaching together with an example of healing gave Jesus an authority that the other teachers and rabbi’s that day did not have.  Therein lies the miracle.  We always learn better with an example, a sermon illustration if you will.  They saw Jesus in a completely different light because they witnessed his teaching and his exorcism.  Sometimes the demons among us move us to a different place in our lives or a different level of dependence and understanding upon Jesus, Holy One of God.  And in that new place we see that God’s works are amazing.

The Psalm that Juliana read earlier, Psalm 111 is a Psalm of praise for God’s wonderful actions.  The Psalms are oozing with human emotion from anger and mistrust to glorious praise. It is fitting that this Psalm is coupled with our story of healing because God’s works and miracles are to be praised.  This Psalm praises God for the all of life.  When healing happens, when knowledge comes we should give God all of the glory and praise.  Not because God needs it necessarily but because we are the one who are in need of being grateful.  It helps us to give up that which inhibits us, to rely less on ourselves.  We are not the creators, only God is.  We are not the healers, only God is.

As Cecile was sitting there she said to me, ‘Psalm 91, where it says that God will deliver me…that gives me strength, I believe that. He [sic] does deliver me.’ She continues to weep.  ‘I know that I’ll be ok, I’ll be ok, I’m fine.  I just want to know, why me? How long?  Why don’t they understand?  Why are they so mean?  I would never think of being mean to my children. But I’ll be ok.  I know that God will take care of me.’  In this knowledge and belief Cecile began to calm down and feel some peace.

I realized that she was a living Psalm sitting there right in front of me and she was crying her Psalm of lament and singing her Psalm of confidence and praise over and over again.  This Living Psalm’s cadence waxed and waned like the moon in her phases.  Her deepest and purest questions, filled with emotion, gave way to her compelling refrain of God’s deliverance from the vicissitudes of her life.  Anguish turned to heartfelt joy because of her deliverer.  Her faith and witness was amazing to me and gave me strength.

When we feel that we are overcome in our lives with the demons of modern day living turn to your faith, it’s meant to hold you together.  Jesus, the holy one of God waits to heal you.  He yearns to help you out of the dark corners and into the light of day.  He desires to tame the frenzied spirit once and for all.  Be at peace in this knowledge that Jesus is our all and all.


[i] Cecile was not her real name and the particulars of the story have been altered to protect her privacy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dropping Nets

Mark 1: 14-20
None of us really like life-altering change, but whether we like it or not, change happens in our lives.  Sometimes it happens unexpectedly and sometimes with fair warning.  But when it does we can ‘go with the flow’ and adjust and embrace it or we can fight it tooth and nail.  The fishermen in our Gospel today embraced it fully and in doing so began a whole new life.

Hear now the gospel of Mark the first chapter…

After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee and told the good news that comes from God. He said, "The time has come! God's kingdom will soon be here.  Turn back to God and believe the good news!"

 As Jesus was walking along the shore of Lake Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew. They were fishermen and were casting their nets into the lake. Jesus said to them, "Come with me! I will teach you how to bring in people instead of fish." Right then the two brothers dropped their nets and went with him.

 Jesus walked on and soon saw James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were in a boat, mending their nets. At once Jesus asked them to come with him. They left their father in the boat with the hired workers and went with him.

Few of us probably remember fully the era of silent films.  If some of you do you were probably just babes in arms with a goo-goo and gah-gah vocabulary that can hardly be classified as intelligible speech.  When a friend asked if I wanted to go to the movies last week and see ‘The Artist’ I jumped at the chance because I don’t know much about this bygone era but black and white photography always is seductively artistic to me.  For those of you who have not heard about this movie, it is a silent movie but not an authentic one, a love story and a movie about silent movies.

George Valentin, is a well known silent screen actor.  But times were changing as the large motion picture studios were transitioning from silent films to talkies.  George had a real hard time with it as he watched his career drain down the tubes because he was too proud to give up his silent film acting career to a more advanced form of acting with sound.  He was either too proud or too stubborn or too afraid to let go of the old and embrace the new.

From what I understand it was not only this fictional character’s issue but there were many silent film actors who could not, would not make the change from silent films to the talkies.  It would be hard to just drop what you were doing, what you knew so well and start something new.  The old ways worked just fine, no need to try another way of thinking and doing.  I sort of feel like that with my ‘fat back’ tv as my kids would say.  I know that I would enjoy a whole new world of television viewing if I bought a flat screen HDTV.  But another part of says, why bother, this one works just fine for my limited television watching.

We are creatures of habit and like to cling to what we know.  Who knows why, stability, comfort, maybe even fear of the unknown.  One thing is for sure though, we cannot add something new or different into our lives unless we let go of something old.

That’s what we see with the very first disciples who were called into service by Jesus.  The book of Mark begins abruptly.  No sweet lyllabyes, no manger scene just a locust eating, camel hair clad man named John.  Funny how he is remembered more for his lack of fashion sensibilities rather than the way in which he prepared people for the coming of the Messiah.

Then we see Jesus, whisked away into the desert wilderness to be tempted by ha-satan, satan.  After overcoming evil and temptation he emerges victorious with a new vision of what the Kingdom of God is like, what it entails.  Repent, turn your life around, right now, the kingdom of God is here and you all are a part of it.  This is his message and he needs others to help him spread this good news.

Immediately, and there is a lot of immediacy in the gospel of Mark, immediately Jesus seeks out two fishermen, Simon and Andrews.  He calls to them on the shore of the Galilee.  “Hey, follow me, and you can fish and get even better fish with me”.  And IMMEDIATELY, they drop their nets and follow him as does James and John, Zebedee’s son.

They couldn’t follow if they clung tightly to their nets.  It’s a matter of tightly clenched fists as opposed to fully open hands.  It’s a matter of acting out……mimic silently……or stepping up to the microphone to speak.

Change is an inevitable characteristic of life.  Once accepted you can begin to envision other ways of doing things, new opportunities that were not available to you before.  Jesus called out to the disciples and they followed – and we are still talking about them!  Simon Peter became the rock upon whom our church is built today.

Ours is a church in transition, globally the church is changing.  We can no longer ‘self-populate’ because our children are seeking their fortunes outside of the community that they were raised in…because they can and that’s good.  So we need to develop other ways of being the church and telling Jesus’ story of salvation.  We need to change and adapt – not that the old was bad, it was not.  Not that we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, we do not.  Parts of it just don’t relate to a changing global reality of technology and how people want to experience God’s amazing spirit. 

What are the nets the WCC clings onto tightly?  What anchors you so deeply out at sea that you cannot move about and explore the horizons of God leading you to a new destination?  This is the time to look at the nets that are gripped by your hands and see what needs to change.

I’ll be looking at three questions with you at the forums the first three weeks in February.  It’s your time to discover, dream and design.
1)          What’s your story and how do you feel about it?
2)          What do you hope for and what is your sense of the future?
3)          What kind of leadership do you need to get you there?
Simple!  By looking at these questions you will have an opportunity to envision a future to
advance the kingdom of God on earth.  You will have a chance to look honestly at yourselves, the good and not so good.  That’s what you need in order to loosen the grip upon your nets.  Part of my job is to hold up a mirror and let you look.  The other part is to love you wholly and guide you to Jesus.

George, the silent movie star finally did utter two words at the end of the film.  “Wiz Pleashur”.  At that moment you knew his fear.  But he overcame it and danced happily into his future in the talkies.  So can you.

Release your grip.
Drop your nets.
Follow Jesus.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Just Love

Come Sunday
In January of 1943 jazz artist Duke Ellington introduced a musical history of black America when he wrote “Black, Brown and Beige”.   B,B,& B, as he called it, was not simply about skin colors of the black American, it was also about a way of life.  He tried to demonstrate, through music, how far they have come through slavery times and hoping for freedom, to making a way into the mainstream of American culture and life. 

The most spiritually haunting and well known movements in Black, Brown and Beige is a song, “Come Sunday”.  Slaves, you see, looked forward to Sundays because they could rest and pray and sing and look to God for help.  ‘Come Sunday’ is really a prayer for peace and comfort, for belief in goodness even when you can’t see it, and especially a prayer of great thanksgiving for Sunday, a day to rest from the rigors and abuse of being a slave.

Here now this prayer by Duke Ellington

Oh dear Lord I´ve loved
God almighty, God up above
Please, look down and see my people through

I believe the sun and moon
Will shine up in the sky
When the day is grey
It´s just clouds passing by

He´ll give peace and comfort
To every troubled mind
Come sunday, oh come sunday
That´s the day

Often we feel weary
But he knows our every care
Go to him in secret
He will hear every prayer

The leaves in the valley
They neither toll nor spin
And flowers bloom in spring
And birds sing

Up from dawn till sunset
Man work hard all the day
Come sunday, oh come sunday
That´s the day

“Up from dawn till sunset, Man work hard all the day, Come Sunday, oh come Sunday, that´s the day.  Duke understood it all because 1943 (when this was written) was a good twenty years before the Civil Rights Movement and still there were the vestiges of slavery; prejudice, hatred, and injustice.

MLK Character
If ever a man worked from ‘dawn until sunset, hard all the day’ it was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If ever a man loved God and his fellow human beings it was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He believed that this love was not a romantic love, or some idealized love but an active, just love.  It was a sometimes rather difficult and stubborn love rooted in the spirit and gospel of Jesus Christ and enacted through the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi’s, satyagraha – truth force or truth insistence - non-violent resistance of which Gandhi himself practiced.  It is the belief that truth is found in every human being.   Truth, love and non-violence, that’s what King was about.
In his book “Where Do We Go From Here?”, King said, "justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."[i]

King used the book of Romans often in his sermons because of the practical and urgent message it contains about just living.  In King’s sermon, ‘Loving Your Enemies’, he said, “Love even for your enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world.”[ii]  Our scripture today is also from the letter of Paul to the Romans.  Paul does not romanticize love in any way either and believes that it is the basis of relationship with God and with one another.  Hear now the words of Paul to the Romans (selected verses)….

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.

 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath….“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good…..
…..Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law…Love your neighbor as yourself.

Love your neighbor as yourself – all King asked for were equal rights for the American Negro in the 1950’s, the same rights as the white American enjoyed.  Well, those rights and freedoms came at a cost to our nation, to all of us.  We lost a prophetic leader, a visionary, a spirit filled man, and extraordinary preacher and orator, a God loving, God fearing pastor when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.

Love Your Neighbor
For King…
·         To love your neighbor as yourself is to recognize that each person is made in the divine image of God and therefore is sacred. 
·         To love your neighbor as yourself is to work towards a vision of a society that is unified not because we are all the same but because we are different, have something to contribute and are valued and afforded the same rights under our United States Constitution.
·          To love your neighbor as yourself is to challenge in a non violent way the standards of a society with unjust practices and to call it to a higher level of moral understanding and living.

Love is what King sought and just love is what he worked towards.  He employed it every step of the way. 

King's non-violent resistance
Montgomery - 1955 - Rosa Parks did not just refuse to move to the back of the bus because she was being obstinate.  She refused to move because she and many others had been trained by King in the way of non-violent resistance, meeting hatred with love.  Her pre-meditated actions launched a boycott that forever remains the hallmark and beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

Birmingham - 1963 - desegregation of public places, lunch rooms, fitting rooms, drinking fountains, release of prisoners.  Those young men and women who courageously sat down at a ‘white only’ lunch counter did not do so without training.  How to resist verbal assault, how to resist being spat upon all of this was carefully thought out and rehearsed so that they could meet racism and hatred with resistance that was based in a just love. 
Washington - 1963 - The March on Washington where more than 250,000 people of all colors protested for freedom and equal rights on jobs for the black people where King delivers his "I have a Dream speech"…. At first they thought no one was showing up because the lawn of the Lincoln Memorial was empty.  No one was there because the roads where clogged with freedom buses all converging on Washington.  Bus by bus they came to give voice to unfair and unjust practices in a non violent action.

Selma - 1965 - when violence broke out and 140 blacks were hospitalized, King called upon the clergy nationwide, over 400 responded and came to Selma to march in the effort to secure voting rights.  People mobilized in non-violent, organized ways.

Constantly and consistently, to the end King followed a non-violent way of protest in the great hope and knowledge that the American Negro and all people would be benefit and be strengthened by equal rights. Non- violent resistance and vigilant efforts, a belief in a God of justice and a God of love and the gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

World house
In the end he was a tired man, “Come Sunday” could have easily been his prayer.  But he never wavered from his belief that all people were created equal, that we are all children of God.  He envisioned a “world house” where people can transcend tribe, race, class, religion, and I'd add sexual orientation, where poverty, militarism and racism is eradicated, a place where we are a people oriented society and not a material oriented society, a place where social injustice is met with non-violent resistance...this ideal of a world house never left him.  

Just Love
King had a dream and it is still alive because there is still injustice in our nation and in the world.  But it doesn't have to be that way if we seriously follow Christ.  LOVE your neighbor, even the ones you do not like!  Love them with a just love.  Do not fight violence with violence or hatred with more hatred.  It does nothing for your character or the character of our nation.  Revenge never works, it brings no deep and true satisfaction. Do the right and moral thing in every situation even if it knots your stomach.  You don’t have to like all people but you do need to remember that each one of us is loved by God.  And because of that we need to put love into action and to be vigilant in our efforts to create a just and reasonable situation for each human being who walks into your life and through our doors.  Just love. 

We need to pick up where King left off.  When you do this you will honor the memory and the ministry of this great man.  When you love your neighbor as yourself you will be fulfilling the command of Jesus Christ.  Let us all, together in our efforts take the prayer of Ellington, Come Sunday, upon our lips.  Not because we will ever know the tireless work and life of a slave but because we will have worked tirelessly towards equality and love, just love!


[i] “Where Do We Go From Here? Chao or Community” book, Martin Luther King Jr, 1967
[ii] “Loving Your Enemies” sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. from ‘Strength to Love’p. 49-50. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

More Than One Way

Matthew 2: 1-21
Now that we have GPS systems we can be fairly assured that we can get anywhere and anytime all by keying in a few letters and numbers.  It’s as simple as one-two-three, more or less.  Unless you are a first time user and you are driving the windy streets of Greenwich and it’s a crisp winter’s night.  Unless your GPS is not programmed to ‘say’ the name of the streets in advance and you are not familiar with the streets then, it is not as simple as one-two-three. 

I had programmed my new GPS to get from the parsonage down to Greenwich Reform Synagogue to hear a renowned scholar on the New Testament.  I got down there with no problem being able to negotiate the twists and turns that my little Saturn encountered.  The stars and the satellites were in alignment and it worked like a charm.  Getting there.

But then it was time to come home.  It was a midweek program and I had worked a long day, so just going out on a winter’s evening seemed from the start an exhausting adventure.  By now, at the end of the program, I was really tired and it was about 9:45 pm.  I thought I could remember the way, my internal GPS is usually pretty attuned.  But I turned on the GPS anyway just in case and because I could.  It was darker yet into the night and the moon which usually can cast some sort of light was waning its way into a new moon.

All I wanted was to be home.  But that was not to be the case at that moment.  I got horribly lost.  The GPS took me round and around and after 15 minutes I wound up back at the Synagogue. I was exasperated, frustrated, angry, fresh out of humor, tired, and disoriented.  I called upon God, several times in fact.  Try again was my answer.  As I looked down upon my nemesis the GPS, I had to trust in God that the GPS would eventually get me home.  It did, but curiously it was not the way that it got me there!  It took me another route, a much shorter route with many less turns.  Who knew that I was so close to the Merritt Parkway? 

We’ve all just wanted to be at home at times.  Home is warm and comfortable, nurturing and loving most of the time.  It’s where we learned to ride our bikes and then expanded our knowledge of the world from the footprint of our house to the jungles of the neighborhood.  Yet we knew we could go back home again with unconditional love waiting to greet us at the door.  It’s our base from where we know who we are and where we can be ourselves, let our hair down, scratch where it itches.  

We’ve all experienced that need to be back in our familiar environs but just, for some reason, cannot get there the way we used to be able to get there.  Some people even have dreams where they just cannot seem to get home no matter how hard they try.  A road closure, a detour, a GPS-handler malfunction, or maybe even a menacing King Herod prevents us from getting there by the route we came.

That was the case for the Magi when they tried, after seeing the newborn King, Jesus.  They tried to get back to their homes in the exotic east, Mesopotamia, the land of rich spices.  But the route they took to get to Bethlehem was not to be the same route that they would have to take to get home because the first one was filled with ‘lions and tigers and bears’![i]
by Marge Malwitz
Let’s go back to Matthew’s account.  The Magi saw a star in its rising just over the horizon.  And as it rose it got more luminous until it became a magnificent star, a star that outshone all the rest.  It was a star that heralded something different, it was an epiphany of God to those three gentiles who would risk a long trip with expensive gifts in hand.  The presence of God was manifest in the star letting the wise men know of Jesus’ arrival.

They arrived in Bethlehem after the star ended its journey.  Word got out of those elaborate strangers in town, people had many questions.  Herod and all of Jerusalem, which is just a stone’s throw from Bethlehem, were afraid.  And who wouldn’t be?  Dignitaries from another country inquiring about a NEW king in town?   Herod was king of the people as appointed by the Roman Imperial Empire and no one was going to dethrone him.  You see the political struggle that we find so palpable later in the Gospel is already present.  So a threatened King Herod calls for his scribes, his inside people, and asks about this so-called king and where all this might be happening.

Then, secretly, he calls for the wise men and tells them to go to Bethlehem because that’s where they would find this baby king.  Then after they pay Jesus homage, they are to let Herod know so he too could do the same.  You and I both know that secrets never work.  Herod’s intentions were not pure.  He was not a man of integrity or trust.  In fact, already then, he wanted Jesus dead. 

The magi find Jesus and worship him.  He is the epiphany of God in the presence of a baby. They present their expensive gifts and when it was time to return to the East they were warned through a dream, not to take the same route.  Heeding the dream they returned home by taking an entirely different road.  There is more than one way home.  How frustrating it must have been for them.

Herod’s exist today. There are Herod’s who prevent us from reaching our destination, Herod’s who throw a monkey wrench into our plans.  Herod’s of disease, of broken relationships, of financial shortfalls, Herod’s of institutionalized prejudice and injustice, you name it we have all stood face to face with Herod. 

These are the disappointments in life that may not be of our own liking or design and after our initial anger and shock we are forced to reorient ourselves.  When these Herod’s block our path, we are forced to seek a different way, plain and simple and our faith is called upon to go into overdrive.

In this space is where an Epiphany will happen and you will be able to see, to envision, to make a plan.  You will see that there are other roads that will take you where you need to be.  It just won’t be the road you were on.  God says through the prophet Isaiah, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19)

There are infinite, creative possibilities along this unknown route.  There are epiphanies for our taking where Christ’s light will shine FOR us and God’s urging will be upon us.  You will feel God’s presence moving you from one point to another.  But it takes time and faith in the unknown and strength for the journey ahead.

Epiphanies are everywhere in this story of the three wise men.  And God’s grace is revealed all along the way.  God is revealed in the star which lead the Magi to Jesus because Christ is the light of the world.  God is revealed in the infant Jesus so lovingly wrapped in cloth and nestled at Mary’s bosom for in this Epiphany our Redeemer has come.  God reveals in the dream God’s protective nature and God is around them, above them, below them, and with them; leading them another way home.  God is with you too, always, even when Herod stands in your way or you can’t quite understand the GPS.  You will get home, and life will begin anew.


[i] L. Frank Baum, Wizard of Oz. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Work of Christmas

Luke 2: 22-40
Poor Mary!  She just gave birth to this tiny little baby Jesus in Bethlehem, far away from her home in Nazareth, then a mere 8 days later she takes him to Jerusalem for his circumcision.  Then again, a month later she and Joseph had to be in Jerusalem for her purification.  There was no air conditioned SUV to make her travels over the rocky terrain easier, just a donkey or her own two feet.

But blessed Mary perseveres and what blessings she finds at the temple.  Two elders, Simeon and Anna who are overjoyed at seeing and touching the Messiah.  Simeon sees Jesus and takes him from Mary, maybe he lifts Jesus high into the air and then praises God.  Now Simeon can face the end of his life in peace because he has seen and held the comfort of Israel. 

And Anna.  After becoming a widow she never left the temple but stayed there and prayed and fasted.  But when she saw Jesus, that tiny infant Messiah she went out to tell everyone what she had seen and witnessed.  In other words she went out and evangelized.

Both Simeon and Anna were so moved, so overjoyed, so completely convinced that they had been in the presence of the one who saves them that they are moved to action.  Simeon, of course, believes that his life is complete, his final wish had been granted, and Anna begins to tell the good news.  Although they had no clue probably of the “Christmas” events of the month before, for them the work had begun.

Christmas Work
“Doing” Christmas is so much work, so much effort, you wonder how we ever make it to that day without lapsing into mental fatigue or delirium or a debilitating exhaustion.  Maybe you do.  We labor so arduously to be sure that the twinkling, starry magic is there at least for one night: the lights properly placed; the goodies lovingly baked; enough presents under the tree that will bring joy and delight to everyone on your list.  Now that’s work!

And then, of course the plans: who is coming for dinner; who’s going to church and what time is the service; what time will we open presents?  Work, work, work!  Christmas is work! 

The Christmas Message
Yet there is a message – we all know that.  This birth of Jesus is the light amidst the darkness of our nights because Jesus is born, the prince of peace, the organizer of justice, the healer of all infirmities, the one who bestows the ultimate dusting of compassion on each and every person who asks for it.  Pretty remarkable for a little baby, born in a stable, in the sleepy backwater town of Bethlehem. 

Oh that we were so moved by Jesus’ birth like Simeon and Anna.  It’s doubtful that any of us, on December 26 were ready to give up the ghost or to go out to Stop and Shop, without a grocery list just to tell people that Jesus had been born.

The Work of Christmas According to Howard Thurman
I’m afraid for Christians, the effort to ‘do’ Christmas Day pales in comparison to the real work of Christmas.  Because when you wake up the next day or maybe even the day after and you wade through the fallen tinsel, the balled up wrapping paper thrown under the sofa, and the zip-locked bagged leftovers in the refrigerator then the work of Christmas really begins.  That’s what we’re about.  The work of Christmas. 
The Work of Christmas According to Howard Thurman
I’m afraid for Christians, the effort to ‘do’ Christmas Day pales in comparison to the real work of Christmas.  Because when you wake up the next day or maybe even the day after and you wade through the fallen tinsel, the balled up wrapping paper thrown under the sofa, and the zip-locked bagged leftovers in the refrigerator then the work of Christmas really begins.  That’s what we’re about.  The work of Christmas. 

Author, philosopher, theologian and civil rights activist and leader Howard Thurman once said, “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers, to make music in the heart.” 

Thurman understood that to believe in Christmas and it’s message of hope for a topsy turvy world was not only to celebrate the day of Christ’s birth but, and more importantly to relive that birth with each and every day by engendering peace through compassionate living and justice.

Understanding the Christmas message is the beginning of understanding the heart of the Gospel.  Christ had come into a crazy world even then.  He was born into a world in which people were hungry, people were being taken captive into the bowels of the Roman Empire, and there were insufficient water and medical resources.  Mortality rates were high for children under the age of five.   People needed and yearned for help as do people today.  The heart of the Gospel is compassionate living and compassionate doing.  This is what Simeon and Anna understood so immediately.

Wooster Square Wanderings
Walking around Wooster Square where I used to live in downtown New Haven, opportunities arise daily to minister.  Panhandlers exist, yes.  But so do people who are down and out on their luck. 

Now you have to be careful, I knew the crime statistics for New Haven.   But I was in the Square walking Milo (my dog) and a man passed me.  He was a resident of one of the nearby shelters and was cutting through the park.  He had just gotten off of work and he was so happy!  Our eyes met and we started talking.  “Great day, isn’t it?”  he said.  “Sure is”, I said.  That opened him up; I hardly had to say anything else.   

He was happy that he had a job, even though it didn’t pay much.  He was overjoyed that he had just finished his work week and could relax.  He was extremely happy that he might be able to see his son soon, a son whom he hadn’t seen in quite a while.  He even showed me his picture all the while giving thanks to God for his good fortunes.  He acknowledged his mistakes in his past but just knew that he was on the right track once again. 

This man asked for nothing except my ears to listen to him tell his story and to witness of God’s great work in his life.  I didn’t do anything but listen and ask questions.  We walked away from one another and I knew that I had been ministered to.  That is the work of Christmas!  This man ‘made music in his heart’, as Thurman would say.  He was a modern day Anna.

It’s no mistake that Christ was born into a topsy-turvey world, it was a well intentioned act on God’s part because humanity needed to be shown another way to live and negotiate the world.  It’s no mistake that this message of hope has survived for some 2,000 years and is still efficacious because we need it now move than ever.

Come Alive
Dr. Thurman also said, “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that.  Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."

If you love to cook then volunteer at a soup kitchen or invite your cratchedy old neighbor over for a bowl of soup.  If you are great at swinging a hammer then find a Habitat house to work on or help your 90 year old aunt to fix her shutters.  If you play the flute, then next Christmas Eve walk around the corridors of Norwalk Hospital and play carols to people who are ill (I’ll excuse you from church for that!)  If you like to listen then stop on the street when approached by a stranger.  You might just hear the gospel told once again in yet another voice..  The list is endless.  

This is how the real work of Christmas gets accomplished.  It is carried out by people who have come alive with hope and have allowed the spirit of God to permeate their living. 

I love Christmas and all the work that is involved in making it a joyous occasion.  But, I for one can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and begin the real work of Christmas.  That my friends, is what we are about.  Care to join me?