Death Defying Acts
The Gospel Reading:
NRS Luke 1:46 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Throughout this season of Advent, along with our traditional biblical stories, we’ve been looking at Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. As we know, Scrooge is a miserly, grumpy man who, through the course of the story, is transformed into a man of joy and generosity. It is the final spirit he encounters, the Ghost of Christmas Future, who “closes the deal,” so to speak, on Scrooge’s transformation. The spirit shows Scrooge the future that awaits him and the focus of that future is Scrooge’s death. Scrooge does not relish his journey into the future; yet what impacts him most is the influence his death has on others.
It is a far cry from how the story began… with a man who wished nothing more than to be left alone. Those were in fact the precise words Scrooge spoke to the gentlemen who came to his office to collect a donation for the poor. “I wish to be left alone,” pronounced Scrooge as he sent them on their way empty handed.
Choosing to be “left alone;” living “alone” is a life that defies any vulnerability or obligation toward others; living “alone” is a life that defies any vulnerability or obligation toward God.
Perhaps no biblical figure ever more radically embraced her vulnerability than Mary, the mother of Jesus. When first the angel appears to her and announces the miraculous news to Mary (a young virgin) that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” Mary embraces her vulnerability, saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[i]
By the time that Mary arrives at the home of her elderly relative Elizabeth who is experiencing her own miraculous pregnancy, Mary’s awe and wonder have turned into full-blown joy and praise. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary cries out, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary describes herself as a lowly servant of the Lord and, in doing so she follows an important Old Testament tradition. Both the stories and the teaching of the Old Testament reveal that lowliness, humility, and vulnerability are the only way to be in right relationship with God and with others. And that is God’s great desire for us. Above all else, the story of our faith is that God desires NOT for us to be “left alone,” but to live our lives in right (or righteous) relationship with God and with one another; lives of humility, vulnerability and servanthood. Without those right relationships, we are living – rather merely existing – in a state of death.
At the beginning of our sacred story, in the Genesis, the man’s and woman’s first sin is a sin of pride and arrogance.[ii] It is not about a piece of fruit on a forbidden tree. The woman is hooked by the serpent’s tempting promise that, in eating it, she will become “like God.” That’s an offer neither she nor the man can refuse. It is an effort to extricate themselves from any vulnerability or obligation to the God who set boundaries they now rail against. Their right relationship with God is shattered by their unwillingness to be humble and vulnerable and obedient.
Driven from the garden, the man and woman soon bear children: two sons, Cain and Abel. When Abel’s offering to God is accepted and Cain’s is not, Cain carries out the ultimate act of defiance and dominance; he murders his brother.[iii] And so, man’s right relationship with his fellow man is also shattered by an unwillingness to be humble and vulnerable and obedient.
Those early Genesis stories reveal the brokenness and suffering that comes to our world when we are unwilling to be humble and vulnerable before God and one another.
It may surprise you to know that Advent, like Lent, is considered to a penitential season; a time of preparation that calls us to prayerfully consider the direction of our lives as we prepare to celebrate our Savior’s birth. Just as Scrooge repents of his self-serving behavior by embracing his obligation to the weak and vulnerable who surround him (most of all Tiny Tim), we too are challenged to remember that, with the coming of the Christ Child, the world has been turned upside down: the weak become strong and the strong become weak; the hungry get to feast and the “fat cats” are driven away empty handed.
Mary’s declaration that God elevates the humble and lays low the proud and arrogant is hardly new or original. The word used to describe her humble or lowly posture before God goes beyond outward behavior; it involves the willing and purposeful subjection of one’s mind to God’s will and judgment; it is a reorienting of one’s life. Mary offers up her entire self to God when she embraces the message of the angel. She affirms her willingness to be the one through whom God’s ultimate work of salvation and deliverance will enter into the world.
As Methodists, we pay little attention to icons: those paintings on wood of biblical characters or scenes that tell the story of our faith through pictures rather than words. One of the most popular icons is the theotokos, an artistic rendering of Mary as the bearer of God; that’s what the word means: theo (God) and tokos (bearer or birther). Now, some icons of the theotokos paint the infant Jesus within the mid-section of Mary. In other words, one can look upon those icons and see the baby Jesus within the womb of Mary, the one who willingly said, “Let it be… according to your Word.” The presence of God overshadows Mary and gestates within her womb until that presence of God is birthed into our world; brought forth as a vulnerable baby boy.
The hymn, the praise song that Mary sings – the words I recited this morning – proclaim this child’s mission even before his birth. They are strikingly similar to the words that Jesus will speak in his inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus proclaims that the Spirit of the Lord rests upon him and that, because of that, he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to restore sight to the blind, to free the oppressed. And those words which Jesus speaks are found in the prophet Isaiah.
You see, as I’ve already noted, God’s desire since the dawn of time is that we might live in right relationship with him and with one another and those righteous relationships are violated and broken when there is oppression and inequality and injustice in our world. When oppression and injustice fracture our human relationships, they also fracture our relationship with God. Conversely, those relationships are birthed and nourished and made to grow when we practice humility, vulnerability, and service. Friends, we should not confuse holiday cheer with the sincere joy that Mary exemplifies. To experience true joy, we must be willing to say, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
But friends, before we say those words, we’d best understand what they will require of us for the coming of Jesus was akin to a revolution. It shook the earth to its foundations. It turned everything upside down so that those on top suddenly found themselves at the bottom of the pile.
Advent, as I’ve already said, is a penitential season; it is a season “invented” by the church, so to speak, so that we might properly prepare ourselves for God’s coming, just as parents prepare for the birth of their child. Expectant mothers feel the life that grows within them and will, eventually, burst forth into the world. But, with the coming of Jesus, you gentlemen are not left out of the experience for each of us – regardless of gender – are offered the opportunity to invite God’s Spirit to dwell within us; we too may discover that the Most High has overshadowed us. Can you imagine, God’s Spirit gestating within you and waiting to joyously break forth into the world in redemptive and righteous ways.
A story is told of a 4th wise man, Artaban.[iv] Like his comrades, he watched the stars in expectation of the birth of a mighty king. Should that birth be signaled by the heavens, then Artaban’s sojourners would wait 10 days for his arrival and, together, they would journey to find the king.
One night there it was: a brilliant star, an unmistakable sign. Artaban traded nearly all his earthly belongings to purchase rare gems as gifts for the newborn king: a sapphire, a ruby, a pearl. He traveled by night and day and had nearly reached his rendezvous point when suddenly one night his horse stopped short in the road. Squinting through the darkness, Artaban saw a man by the side of the road, weak and injured. He went to him. He cradled him in his arms and cared for him, dressing his wounds. After a couple days, when the stranger’s strength returned, he said to Artaban: “I have nothing to give you except to say that I am a Jew and our prophets have said the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem.” Artaban knew that he must now journey alone, for his friends would have left without him. Short of supplies, he reluctantly traded his sapphire for the necessary provisions to continue his journey, alone, to the village of Bethlehem.
He arrived, learning that his fellow magi had already been there and had departed just a couple of days prior. He entered a home where a young mother was cradling her young child. Suddenly there was a great commotion; shouts and screams where heard. The soldiers of Herod had entered the village and were putting to death all the little children. The woman with her boy helplessly backed into the darkest corner of her humble home. But Artaban stood in the doorway. When the soldiers reached the threshold, Artaban pulled the ruby from his pocket. He said, “There are no children in this home. I am alone here; yet I have waited to give this rare jewel to the captain who might leave me in peace.” The captain snatched the ruby from his hand, saying to his soldiers: “March on; there are no children in this place.”
The woman, still holding tight to her little one, thanked Artaban and prayed God’s blessing upon him.
From Bethlehem, Artaban knew not where to travel; but he continued to journey from town to town, year after year seeking to find and worship the King of the Jews who’d been born in Bethlehem. He did not find him; but he found many in need of help. He fed the hungry, he clothed the naked, he ministered to the sick, he comforted the captive.
Nearly three decades later, he entered the city of Jerusalem on a day when there was much excitement and crowds in the streets. Artaban heard people saying that that very day they would be crucifying a man who was said to be the true King of the Jews. Overjoyed, Artaban thought, “Perhaps I can offer my precious pearl in ransom for his life.” Just then he saw a young girl being drug through the streets by soldiers. She struggled to break free and cried out to Artaban as she passed him, “I’ve been sold into slavery; please, save me.” Artaban drew the pearl from his pocket: his final treasure to offer the king. His hand outstretched to the soldier he said, “Here is her ransom; set her free.” Just then, the sky drew dark and an earthquake rocked the city. Just above him, a piece of stone from the temple cracked and fell and struck Artaban on his head. Falling to the ground, he was mortally wounded; but he could be heard mumbling something: “No, my King. When did I see you hungry and feed you? When did I see you thirsty and give you drink? When did I see you sick or in prison and visit you? More than thirty years I have sought to look upon and worship you, my King…”
Artaban’s lips no longer moved, but the young girl was sure she heard a faint, distant voice say, “In as much as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
[i] Luke 1:38
[ii] See Genesis, chapter 3
[iii] See Genesis, chapter 4
[iv] This story is taken from Stories for the Journey: A Sourcebook for Christian Storytellers by William R. White. Augsburg Publishing; 1988; pp. 110-114.
Look Upon Me
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-16
There is a TV commercial for a medication to treat Psoriasis. It begins with headshots of people. We hear them say, “See Me” as the words appear on the screen superimposed over their faces. Four people, male and female, of varying ethnicity, say, “See me,” “see me,” “don’t stare at me,” “see me.”[i]
As human creatures we long to be seen; not objectified; not viewed in a condescending fashion; we simply want to be seen as people worthy of compassion and kindness.
This year, during the Advent and Christmas season, along with biblical stories, we are also looking at the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. Though not categorized as a “religious book,” Dickens’ story has many themes and elements that connect to our sacred story of the birth of Jesus. Last Sunday, I spoke about Scrooge being visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past.
Today we look at the Spirit of Christmas Present and we are compelled to consider that there is something more; something of greater value to be seen than holiday gift wrap, colored lights, bright ribbons and newspaper ads for 20% off.
The Spirit introduces himself to Scrooge saying, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. Look upon me!”[ii] Scrooge does look; but he does not initially see what is hidden within the folds of the Spirit’s robe.
Retired Methodist Bishop, Will Willimon, writes of our Christmas charity: “everyone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged generosity… We love Christmas because… Christmas brings out the best in us.”[iii] In other words, our celebration of Christmas does a good job of making us feel good about ourselves. It is easy to drop our change in those red kettles and go merrily on our way.
But Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus does nothing to indulge our desire to feel good. Some of you are already aware that we have spliced and comingled the gospel stories by placing shepherds and magi side by side in our nativity scenes. But the Gospel of the Crèche is not the Gospel of Matthew for in Matthew’s version of the story, it is not the shepherds and magi that go together; it is the magi and Herod; the worship and the slaughter; the mystery and the madness; the devotion and the destruction. According to Matthew, the magi and Herod’s slaughter of the infants are one seamless story; they belong, sadly, together.
According to Matthew, the message of Jesus’ birth is delivered via a star to some very unlikely recipients: magi. They are foreigners (likely of Babylonian or Persian descent) who study the stars. It is their careful looking that will allow them to see the Savior of the nations.
In ancient times, it was believed that the birth, or death, of a mighty leader would be “heralded” by some sort of unusual astrological phenomenon. So when this very distinctive star is observed by the magi, they want to follow it, believing it heralds the birth of a mighty ruler. We can infer from the story that, at some point, the star’s appearance or position was no longer clear and so these magi, uncertain of their next step, assume that this new ruler would be found in a palace. They go to Jerusalem, to the palace of Herod, King of the Jews and the inquiry they make leaves Herod and those around him quite unsettled.
A friend of mine had an interesting experience a few years back. She was working in a medical office that had a lot of drama and a lot of employee turnover. One day at lunch with some friends, one pointed out a job listing in the local paper. My friend read it and said, “That sounds like my job.” There were some nervous chuckles. Sure enough, at the end of the day, my friend got the pink slip.
Herod is none too happy about the magi’s inquiry as to the birthplace of this “king of the Jews.” There’s only one position open for that job and he has no intention of retiring anytime soon. Herod inquires of the religious authorities as to the possible birthplace of this child. Pouring over scripture, their best guess is Bethlehem. So Herod hatches a plot. He lies to the magi; he requests that, once they find this child, would they please return and give him a full report so he can go and worship the child as well. But, Herod’s intention is to dispatch these magi on a reconnaissance mission to seek out the enemy so Herod might go out and destroy him.
The magi go on their way with the star once again guiding their steps to the home of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. Once there, the magi kneel before this little child just as one would appropriately kneel before a mighty ruler. They pay him homage; they assume a posture of service and submission. Then, they honor him by offering gifts.
Now somewhere between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, these magi had a dream and these guys are great at dream analysis; I mean; analyzing dreams and stars, well that was their job. The dream advised they NOT return to Herod.
So they head home by another route and when time passes and Herod realizes they’ve tricked him and given him the slip, he is enraged. He will not be made a fool of. He sends his troops to put to death any child who could, potentially, be this so called “king of the Jews.” It is a dreadful story; but, like it or not, it is a part of the story of the birth of Jesus. It was Jesus’ birth that not only elicited worship and generosity from the magi; it was Jesus’ birth that inspired Herod’s ruthless massacre.
And friends, that is how life in this world is. We may wish it otherwise, especially at Christmastime. But we gain nothing by burying our heads in the sand and pretending the evil and suffering is not there. Christmas isn’t a time to pretend that all is right with the world because it’s not. You may consider talk of sorrow and suffering offensive or disruptive in this season of joy; but the truth is that Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth has always placed joy and sorrow, rejoicing and suffering, even life and death side by side.
Still, this morning’s story is just the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, just the beginning of the story of this child who will grow to be a man who will teach his followers that he is to be seen, he is to be recognized, in every man, woman and child who suffers.
In chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, he will teach a story that we often refer to as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.[iv] It is a story of the judgment of all people at the end of time and it is not only a judgment about what we’ve done or not done; it is first and foremost a judgment about what we have seen or overlooked. Jesus, in the parable, proclaims that as we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, bring healing to the sick, and visit the condemned; we have done these very things to him. Those who have failed to act are shocked. They ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?”[v] When was it that we saw you? When was it that we saw you? Jesus replies: “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”[vi]
Catholic priest Richard Rohr says that he often begins his classes on contemplation by repeating the same sentence twice: “Most people do not see things as they are because they see things as they are.”[vii] [repeat]
Friends: if, in this holy season, we intend to truly seek and worship and offer our best to the Christ child, we must begin by seeking out and honoring and offering the best of ourselves to those who are in need.
Esteemed preacher Thomas Troeger points out something interesting in the story of the magi.[viii] He reminds us that they do not offer their gifts until after they have worshiped and paid homage to the holy child. The giving of their gifts is preceded by the offering of themselves and friends it can be no different for us. Before we give, we must see; we must look upon our Lord in “the least of these;” the hungry and naked and sick and condemned.
One of my favorite movies is “The Fisher King.” In one scene, Jack is dialoguing with a well-chair bound Vietnam Veteran who is holding out a cup to collect donations. One passerby tosses coins in his general direction. They miss the cup; falling to the floor, the veteran can’t even reach them. Jack comments, “He didn’t even look at you” and the vet replies, “He’s payin’ so he don’t have to look.”[ix]
Friends, we do have to look. It is not enough to toss in a donation here and there. We must look; we must offer our presence and attention before we offer our charity. We must see; not just a cup or a red kettle. We must look upon the person before us and see in them our Lord and Savior.
Two of the most exciting opportunities to serve here at Trinity, I think, are Family Promise and Jubilee Christmas. They directly connect us to people. We just wrapped up a week of hosting Family Promise. The meals times, especially, are a chance to sit and talk; to hear people’s stories and get to know them. Likewise, Jubilee Christmas this Saturday provides the opportunity to truly be with people. I hope as Trinity Church that, as we move into the future together, we’ll continue to identify and respond to opportunities not only to give to those in need but to truly look upon them and see them and see Jesus in them.
In Dickens’ Carol, after they have journeyed together through the night, at long last it would seem Scrooge does finally look upon the Spirit and truly see him and, when he does, he notices something tucked within the folds of his robe. The Spirit instructs Scrooge, “O Man, look down here” and Scrooge beholds two children described as “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous and miserable.” The Spirit pronounces their names: Ignorance and Want.[x]
They are Man’s children; our children and we are called, not by the Spirit of Christmas Present, but by our Savior always present with us, to recognize him in the “least of these.” We are called to see and to serve because the advent, the coming of Jesus, was God’s blessing for all and when we respond to the call of God’s Spirit, God’s blesses us, everyone.
[i] You Tube posting of the TV commercial “See Me” for Cosentyx.
[ii] Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: With a Four-Week Bible Study for Advent by Travis J. Scholl, Creative Communications for the Parish, 2004. P. 59.
[iii] Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas; Ploughe Publishing House; 2001; reading for Dec. 14.
[iv] See Matthew 25:31-46.
[v] Matthew 25:44. NRSV.
[vi] Matthew 25:45. NRSV.
[vii] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation. December 2, 2016.
[viii] Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press. 2010. P. 217.
[ix] The Fisher King (1991). Quote from the Internet Movie Data Base
[x] Charles Dickens’ a Christmas Carol: With a Four-Week Bible Study for Advent. Pp. 78-79.
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