Mary Pondered

Luke 2:1-20

It never fails. Really. People say that the only things you can count on in this world are death and taxes – but that’s just not true.

You can also count on people showing up for Christmas Eve worship.

Now before you get your stockings in a twist, I am not talking about people who show up just for Christmas Eve services. I have no complaint about that at all. No, what I am saying is that there is something about gathering on Christmas Eve that is attractive to people.

Maybe it is the candlelight, and we are all moths drawn to the flame.

Maybe it is the songs – both carols and solos – that we are all waiting to hear.

Perhaps it is just being together, as a family and as a community of faith that drives us to want to be here on Christmas Eve.

I can assure you of this, if I had to pick one worship service to attend every year – if for some reason I could only go to one service of worship – it would be this one.

So, believe me…I am incredibly happy that every single person is here tonight and was thrilled with everyone that I got to see at the earlier service as well.

Yet there is something about worshiping at 11 pm on Christmas Eve that just works for me. (Some think that it is because my family has a tradition of going to Waffle House® in between the early and late services that motivates me. But trust me, it is more than that. Really.)

I think it has something to do with wanting to recreate the experience of that first holy night so long ago. Yes, in a very truthful way we moved our main Christmas worship to Christmas eve a century or so ago because we wanted to give Christmas Day to families and friends. But at the same time, I think we wanted to try and recreate a holy night. We hope for some sort of star to shine bright for us or for the words of an angel to ring in our ears. Or maybe it is because during this hour when our energy is really starting to run low, we know that we are open to experiencing God in some new and powerful way.

So, we come. Expectant as the shepherds, we come.

And maybe that is the real reason you can always count on people to come to Christmas Eve services: they know that they have been invited not just by a church, but by the Creator of the Universe.

Shepherds were invited to the birth of Jesus and shepherds were about as low on the totem pole of human creation that existed at the time. So why can’t we show up to celebrate as well, regardless of how we see ourselves or others see us. I think that is perfectly good theology. The Creator does want you here.

Angels were there as well, and if you don’t feel like one of the ruffians that shepherds were in those days, perhaps you feel at least a little closer to the angels – not angelic – but at least someone willing to serve God as you can, following Jesus, doing your best. So why shouldn’t you feel invited by the Creator? I think that is perfectly good theology as well. The Creator does want you here.

Even preachers have a precedent for attendance from the first Nativity – well, at least according to some. Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem, and we all know that a donkey is just another name for a, well, you know. So even preachers, or anyone we think a little less of in this world because of their obstinance or difference in opinion from us, have a standing invite to this service. I think that is perfectly good theology. The Creator does want me and you to be here.

But maybe we are here tonight because we know just how important this night is in the scheme of things. We realize that on this night long ago God chose to become Human, which started the move towards the cross and the resurrection. Those set loose the power for everything to be reversed for us so that we humans could be filled with the presence of God. Some would call it the circle of life…I like to think of it as the circle of re-birth. We celebrate a birth because we know that somehow this helps leads to our rebirth.

So, because we know how important this night is, we want to be here. We want to say we added something to our celebration of holly and Hallmark, presents and matching pajamas, lights and libations.

So, we go where people have always gone.

Church. On Christmas Eve.

I think a lot of us do show up because we think we know what this is all about. We think we understand the babe in the manger as Lord of Creation. We think we understand the shepherds, the angels, the guy who married a woman already pregnant, and we think we even understand Mary. We think we get all these things.

It is God’s coming to earth – of course I am going to be here to celebrate that! Easy – peasy – God is among us, let’s worship and have good cheer! Our world certainly needs that.

But right there at that moment is where we all rub up against this story in the wrong way. We are told in such a way that you cannot make sense saying that you “understand it all.” One of the last verses we heard in that story was, “But Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Folks, I have done my fair share of pondering – which means simply that we think about things that are puzzling to us – and some of you may even claim that I do far too much of my pondering out loud, from the pulpit. The truth is, pondering requires less than full understanding. If you fully understand, there is no need to ponder.

And Mary pondered. The one who knew more about what was going on that night than any other human or animal or angel present found herself surrounded with a baby given by God, a husband who loved her when he could have left her for dead, a birth in a strange town and a strange place, a bunch of lower class shepherds showing up to ogle her first born, talk of angel proclamations – something which with she had personal experience.

All these things – and Mary pondered them.

I believe that the greatest thing the church offers as we come together to worship on Christmas Eve is the opportunity to experience mystery! We can’t completely explain being fully human/fully divine. We can’t truly describe virgin birth, angelic hosts, shepherds who become proclaimers. We can’t explain new stars in the sky and anything else about this holy night.

However, we can invite you to the mystery of it all. We can aid in experiencing the mystery that goes beyond all mysteries. God and humanity created in One. You cannot explain that. But you can ponder the mystery of it.

And if you can ponder it, then perhaps you will decide to also follow that mystery. You can follow like the shepherds did. You can follow the mystery you ponder of the God/Human along whatever path you are walking.

Just don’t try to own the explanation of it.

Let it own you…so you too can have the peace that this holy night brings.

Amen.

Prayer

On the sidewalk, he talked to many people

                But they were not to be seen.

As he approached me, I wondered,

                Does my “here” exist for him?

But he spoke to me as to those other –

so I am real,

I guess.

And the King of Austria introduced himself

To me

And me to his own cloud of witnesses.

People who were there for him if not for anyone else.

He talked to me and to them in turns.

                Seeking help and advice and counsel from us all.

At times I could not keep up, but as time went on

                It was no longer strange, or weird, or uncomfortable

                Instead, it was what it was:

Prayer.

                I’ve been asked to explain it, teach it even.

                                But had I ever really lived like someone whose whole life was prayer?

                I held the door open a little longer than usual as he/they left

                Just to be certain they all went with him.

                But when the curtain, the door closed

                                Between us

                                It might just have been that

                                                One or two

                                Stuck around

                Just waiting for me to pray.

An Incarnational Moment

Because there is one loaf, we , who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ. (United Methodist Hymnal, Word and Table Service 1, page 13)

Some of my favorite memories from my teenage years were those where I spent an entire day and night reading a book. My clearest memories of these nights involve books written by Stephen King. Once I started them, I was compelled to get to the end even if it meant spending a sleepless night and garnering my parents wrath the next day. There was either something so scary that it had to be resolved or my imagination was so taken by the narrative that I had to finish in order to rest. Either way, I would give in to the compulsion to read.

There are a lot of things on my “to do” list for today. I had hoped to finish and record my Sunday sermon this afternoon. (Not going to happen.) I still have some work to do to prepare for a Zoom Bible Study this evening. (Will definitely happen somehow.) We are recording parts of the Sunday service today so I can edit them tomorrow. (That’s scheduled…so it should happen.) And yes, I still have hopes of doing some recorded mid-week meditation for the people of First Church. (This one is still unknown.)

Some may say that I don’t know how to prioritize, and that may be the case. However, over the past couple of weeks I have had so many conversations about Communion and the “Pandemic Virtual Church Time” we are now immersed in, and I have read some thought provoking articles about the topic, that I find myself compelled to put some words down as well. Priorities or not, I’m at a point of compulsion here.

If you didn’t watch the video that I posted last week of a conversation Rev. Jennifer Williams and I had, I would recommend it as background for this. She’s an incredibly insightful pastor. I also cannot recommend enough a blog post by Rev. Hannah Bonner found here. Rev. Bonner references several other pieces that have been done about the subject of Holy Communion in this time, and if you like, read those as well. She treats them fairly from my perspective. She also gives a much deeper sense to the social justice aspects of Holy Communion than I have experience in giving.

An observation that I have taken from both the conversations and the reading is that parts of the Church have, from time to time, taken respites or fasts from celebrating Holy Communion. Sometimes for a season of discernment. Sometimes from the necessity of having someone available to serve. And sometimes, like right now, when we cannot possibly partake of the Sacrament in person without risking the spread of a disease. Granted, the disagreements about what Communion means – and whether you should even capitalize it – are as varied as the regularity it is celebrated, even within the same denomination.

One thing I can say for certain about the Sacrament – it must be a mystery because we sure as hell can’t figure it out.

Yet, despite the mystery and the problems we have right now with snow in May, murder hornets, COVID19, and the general failure of nerve among our national leaders, I am, as the pastor of a real community of faith wrestling to figure out how to lead as the one who presides over the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

With all the wrestling I have been doing in heart and mind, I finally came to the place where I have found peace about what I am going to do. During worship – both while we remain apart and until we can safely partake of the Sacrament again – I am going to set the Table with both bread and juice. It will be there as a reminder to us of the moment in which we live. It is not a moment where I believe we are “giving up” or “fasting” or “hoarding” (for those who are performing virtual communion). For me, it is a token of the Incarnational Moment for the community of faith to be the Body of Christ, broken and shared.

When I had this thought of it being an incarnational moment, I thought, “Cool! I’ve come up with something new!”

Alas.

I was beaten to this centuries ago by none other than my own favorite crazy Dane, Soren Kierkegaard. Although he is not speaking about Communion, per se, the idea of an incarnational moment seems to have originated with him as he wrestled with some of the Pauline letters. He writes:

The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited, whereby time constantly intersects eternity and eternity constantly pervades time.

and

A moment as such is unique. To be sure, it is short and temporal, as the moment is; it is passing, as the moment is, past, as the moment is in the next moment, and yet it is decisive, and yet it is filled with the eternal. A moment such as this must have a special name. Let us call it: the fullness of time. (Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, ed. Reider Thomte and Albert B. Anderson (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 89ff)

I believe that we as a Body have arrived at an Incarnational Moment – where past, present, and future have come together – so that in that confrontation with the elements we are allowed the honor to live out the brokeness of both loaf and body because we cannot partake of the Sacrament that embodies them for us. In the absence of the Sacrament, we are confronted even more plainly with becoming that Sacrament. We need to be confronted by the broken loaf and be that incarnate body for the world as we safely find ways to both be the church and someday(?) gather in someway(?) to celebrate that which we have been living out. But only in the fullness of time. (And right here, I call on us to define that “world” as my colleague Rev. Bonner does with a full understanding of who is not at the Table with us.)

Well, that compulsion is done. It’s not the most scholarly assessment, but hey, that’s not my way. I’ve put some thoughts out there, folks, and you are welcome to comment. I’m just on the journey home and would love to have your company.

 

Holy Disruptions

Reader…the following is a sermon manuscript that has had an interesting life. It started as a few notes for a Good Friday video devotion and then became a hopeful blog post for Holy Saturday (I hate that name), until finally becoming a sermon. If you can’t find all the pieces in this post, I will be shocked. I don’t like the messiness of posting a manuscript because the oral art of preaching transforms even sentence structures. But I share it with you anyway. (If a good editor wants to make some notes on it and send it back to me, no offense will be taken!)

Based on Matthew 28:1-10

At the beginning of the COVID19 outbreak, I had high hopes that I would find a lot of time that I could devote to writing and maybe even making my blog “alive” again. But alas, the learning curve on technology that I have had to master over the past few weeks, the new ways I have had to learn to adapt as pastor, husband, father, brother, son, and friend during this time just seemed to eat away what little creativity I had left. I started this in several forms, several times and failed.

But it kept building up this past Holy Week and I have to share it on Easter Sunday.

Matt was my best friend in first grade and for the first half of our second year of school. We were in the same class but first met during the walk home from school. Matt lived closer to Barrackville (there is no “s” in that, folks) Elementary, but it was on the same route I took home, so we would often walk together and talk. It wasn’t long till the friendship spilled over into school and recess. Our friendship would grow deeper because of the time after school. Occasionally, we would pass by his house, walk half-way to mine, and stop at a little “Mom and Pop” store to get some candy. Then we would go our separate ways.

Eventually, my mom and dad gave me permission to stop at his house and play after school. And we did the things first grade boys would do – climb trees, play games, and make stuff up to do, and, oh yeah, break things. Imagination and creativity in our 6 and 7 year old selves wasn’t limited by what other people might think of what we created or thought, or even by how much the other laughed at some silly creation, it was only limited by the time we had and the materials that we had at hand.

Boxes became spaceships and racecars.

Clouds could be anything.

We even took the time, perhaps in the summer between first and second grade, to come up with an entire new monetary system which we called “Funny Money”. We made billions and billions of “Bucks” on that idea. The only problem was that no one else would accept it as legal tender. We always had hope that it would catch on some day, but just didn’t know how to manipulate the system to make that happen. Our parents would not even buy in.

Somewhere near Thanksgiving of that second grade year, my Dad let us know that the temporary job that he had been working in Beckley was soon to become permanent. We would move over the Christmas holiday.

I went to Matt’s house for the last time on the day school let out for Christmas break. We made sure we had each other’s phone numbers, addresses, and exactly half of the Funny Money each. We promised to stay in touch with one another. There weren’t any tears, because, first of all, we were boys and we didn’t do that sort of stuff. But deeper still was the overriding belief that this was just some little interruption to our friendship. We’d be back at it in no time.

My family moved what was at that time six hours away. You can do that drive in half the time now that I-79 is complete and the bridge over the “Big Ditch” (I’ll explain why I call the New River Gorge that some other time.) are complete and Route 19 is basically a four lane highway now. But in 1972, the trip took six hours.

I remember talking to Matt one time after that. It was a phone call. I can’t even remember what we said.

And, of course, I don’t have any Funny Money. Not even sure what I spent the last of it on. Probably used as a bookmark and eventually threw it away. It may be buried in a box somewhere near the house in Mt. Hope where I grew up. I might have used it to paper some creation or another. Maybe I burned it all. I just don’t know.

Something has been churning in my head for a while now. I’ve talked about it with a few trusted friends. I’ve tried to give voice to the words in a video recording that I could share, but somewhere in the midst of talking, my thoughts got jumbled from the notes I had made. So, I tried to use my blogging muscle, but even that got distracted. In the end – it is this, a sermon for Easter. The story of my short friendship with Matt and the way he and I both looked at my family moving away from Barackville as an “interruption” to our friendship is just a way that I’m able to imagine what I want to say.

COVID19 is not an interruption to our lives. It is a disruption of life itself. Or, at least, it could be. I feel quite certain that there will be powers at work to try and get everything back to just the way it used to be, but in my heart of hearts, I both think and hope that they will fail miserably. I hope we come out of this thing not just shaking off the dust and going back to making Funny Money or whatever it is that we do but instead we step out into a world made new by the disruption of some respiratory virus that is so novel that it makes everything novel.

An interruption is a phone call from some sales person during dinner. I might be irritated a bit, but it doesn’t spoil a good meal. A disruption is a phone call from the hospital telling you that “You need to come now. Your son was in an accident.” Life isn’t the same, the world isn’t the same after a disruption.

And COVID19? This little bug has disrupted everybody. Think about it. Even the President of the United States, who was never very fond of the press, has spent extended periods of time with them every single day. Think about it. There was a time when if you heard two people in a grocery store, one of them passing gas and the other one coughing, you’d have kept your distance from the former rather than the latter. Think about it. I walked outside about a week ago and I could smell the aroma of baking bread coming from the Heiner’s bakery that is over a mile away. (Go ahead, Southsiders…give it a try. It’s wonderful!)

Think about it. This is no mere interruption. This is a disruption.

Forgive me, but I have to remanence again. This time, I’m not going quite so far back.

When I was in seminary, I actually took a course on Preaching. Yeah, they offer those there and despite what my congregations are subjected to on a regular basis, I took one and passed. I didn’t get an “A” but I didn’t fail either. But, I did come close.

We all were assigned passages to preach on that appear in the Lectionary. I lucked out and got the gospel lesson for Easter that just so happens to be the same passage that comes up this year in the Lectionary, Matthew’s account of the women coming to the tomb. That had to be the luckiest draw in preaching that anyone could get in seminary – the equivalent to winning the lottery. I mean, come on! Preaching on the Resurrection? Piece of cake.

Well, I found a way to screw it up. Somewhere in the midst of my sermon in front of classmates and professor, I started referring to the “miracle of the Resurrection” and made repeated mentions of it throughout the sermon. I noticed the first time I said the phrase that my professor shifted in his seat and I thought, well, that got his attention.

Oh, it did.

When I got my sermon manuscript back, it was marked with a big ugly letter grade that rhymes with the letters “C and B” but has a much harder sound at the beginning, and underneath it in very legible writing, that really didn’t need the double underlining to draw attention to it, were the words, “The Resurrection of Jesus IS NO MERE MIRACLE! IT IS AN ESCHATOLOGICAL EVENT THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING!!” (Now, I could tell you what eschatological means. I do know. I even knew it then. But I’m gonna have more fun imagining you at home Googling it. E-S-C-H-A-T-O-L-O-G-I-C-A-L) The fact of the matter is that my professor was absolutely right. The Resurrection wasn’t about some miraculous event. It. Did. Change. Everything.

Or at least it is supposed to change everything. The problem is that we have to realize that it changed everything and like good little humans, we can choose not to do so.

The resurrection is a disruption – not an interruption. It reverses the power of death. It sets us free from the bondage of law. It changes everything – past, present, and future. (That’s a hint for those of you who both didn’t know the meaning of eschatological and were not willing to Google it because you knew I thought it would be funny.)

COVID19 is also a disruption. Not on the level of the Resurrection, mind you, but it is an incredible opportunity for us as individuals, communities of faith, families, nations, and yes, even the whole world, to accept that things have changed and allow God to introduce new life into these mortal bodies and mortally built systems that we describe as “normal.”

As I wrote earlier, I have been working this out in my brain for a little while. I thought I would write it out on Good Friday, because, the way I see it now, we are still too close to the event of COVID19 to know exactly what will change and what won’t. Lots and lots of people will predict. Lots and lots of people will be wrong. It’s sort of like standing and staring at the Cross of Jesus knowing that this is bad, but the best thing to do is run and hide. Good disciple.

But I finished this out yesterday on the day known as “Holy Saturday” – a name that is further proof that Christianity is woefully disconnected from our culture. A better name might be “Woah! This is the most different Saturday ever!!!” Because, it is the most different Saturday ever. The Son of God is dead and in a tomb. If we thought things were bad on Friday, then the unknowing of this time is even worse.

And that is where I think we are right now as Homo Sapiens. We are at that Saturday mark following a major disrupter of history.

So, what comes on Sunday? What is Easter going to be?

I don’t know for this event. We can let God recreate us and everything we hold onto, or we can blink, stretch, and go back to normal. I don’t want to do that. I want to use this time as a jumping off point into whatever new thing it is that God would allow to happen. I don’t want rescued from this virus. I want resurrected! I want the church resurrected – not just with ‘new people’ but with a whole new way of being church! We are figuring it out now when we have to, why can’t we figure it out in the not so distant post-COVID19 world as well?

We’ve done one heck of a good job fighting back against a “novel” virus. The real question is “Can we fight for a ‘novel’ world in a post-virus age?”

The women came to the tomb, felt the earth quake, saw soldier fall stupid with fear, and then had a angel say to them – “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said.”

Sometime in the future, we are going to walk out of this social isolation, feel the earth quake, see people around acting strange out of fear, and maybe, just maybe, if we have the faith and grab hard onto the hope that Resurrection offers, we will hear an angel say to us, “Don’t be afraid. I know you are looking for normal that got locked up during this pandemic. Normal is not here. Normal is being recreated by Resurrection people like you, just as Jesus said.”

P.S. – Matt, if by some chance you happen to read this…sorry about the Funny Money. We really should have been bright enough to figure out cyber currency instead. And Dr. Lischer. Thanks. I know better now.