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.

Sarah’s Story

By Scott Sears

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:7b NIV)

Sarah sat in the dust and dirt that had collected in the front room of her family home drawing with her fingers in the dirt.  At times, when she didn’t like the way a picture looked, she would rub it out of existence with her heel.

“How much longer, Daddy?” she said to one of the two men standing near the doorway.  The boredom in her voice was both evident and intentional.

“Not long, little Sar,” her father said.  “Not long at all.  Keep quiet or you can go and help your mother in the kitchen.”  Sarah frowned and went back to her drawing.

Sarah had seen people coming and going for most of the past week.  Some stayed as they proved to her father and mother that they were indeed relatives.  “Some are so distantly related they might as well be Gentiles,” her mother said more than once.  Some stayed even if they weren’t related.

Many of these strangers brought food or other items to share with Sarah’s family.  That was good.  Bread, salted fish and even the rare sweet were shared among the lodgers and the family.  Some of the travelers had nothing to share and relied totally upon her family’s ability to provide.  Sarah’s father gained more energy with each new visitor, each new person lodging in their home.

Her mother, however, was tired.  Sarah saw it in her eyes. And Sarah could definitely hear it in her mother’s voice.  She also saw it in the way her mother held her stomach where Sarah’s new baby brother or sister was growing each day.  It wouldn’t be long now.  And Sarah so hoped for a little brother around the house.

Yes, Sarah enjoyed the treats she got at times and had even found herself entertained by some of the stories the travelers told, but for the most part she was bored and Sarah could tell that many of the travelers were bored with her as well.

She thought about going in and lying down on her parents mat in their room.  She knew she would be sleeping there again tonight.  Between her father’s exhausted snores waking her, and her mother’s ever growing belly taking up space on the mat, Sarah had found it was better to go to sleep early.  But Sarah really wanted to wait and see what strangers would be sharing their home this night.

Bored or not, she listened and continued to play in the dirt on the floor.  She made a star, which she kept, a bird which she erased and several very passable sheep.

“It’s only me.  Just one person!  That is all, my cousin.  I brought my own mat and I have food for myself.  I just need a place to shelter after my journey.  Even a corner in this room would be a palace compared to sleeping on the streets.”

Sarah’s father shook his head, “I hate offering such meager lodgings to my kin.  Have you checked with everyone else?”

“Every one.  No one has any room nearly as nice as your floor.”

Sarah stopped her drawing long enough to look at the floor and wondered if these works of art were what made this cold, hard floor seem nice to the stranger.  It was a floor to her.  It was a very boring place to be.  She certainly didn’t yearn for the floor like the traveler and she thought the crowded mat with her parents a much more comfortable place.

“Look!  I even have a gift to offer.”

Sarah looked up again at this possibility and saw the man reach outside the door and bring in a small, sad looking table.  Yes, it had four legs like a table should but when he sat it on the floor it wobbled back and forth.  The top of the table was not solid but had five pieces of old weathered wood across it giving it some use, although Sarah couldn’t imagine what.

“There, there, my kinsman,” her father said, “gifts are not necessary.  My home is always open to those who need a place.  I could not bear to have you part with any possession for the lousy accommodation of a corner in my front room.”

“You will let me stay, then!” the stranger laughed as he said it.  He kissed her father on both cheeks and worked his way into the room before her father could object again.  He set down his bedroll and the meager belongings he had with him and immediately knelt in prayer.

Her father shook his head and sighed and laughed.  He looked to the ceiling and said, “Hospitality.  Addonai, I bring these people into my home because you have blessed me with it.  May we all be a blessing to one another.”

Sarah watched as her father moved towards the door to close it for the night.  Her room, the roof and now the very front room were all filled with people.  She was certain there would be no more strangers this night.  Yet, as he removed the table from the path of the door, another stranger appeared.

Her father paused just long enough to make out the man’s face.  “Joseph?  Joseph of Nazareth?  I believe I recognize the face of my sister’s son.”

“It is I,” the new stranger replied, “and I have my wife, Mary, with me as well.  She is, well, with child and it is very close to her time.”

Frowning, her father sat the table down in front of the window and patted Sarah on the head.  “You: my little Sar.  I think we might make this a stool for you to look out the window and keep an eye out for more travelers.  Perhaps you can say we are full before they darken the door.  If they think a little one has taken residence in a window, they may well believe!”

Sarah wasted no time in climbing up on the table, listening to the boards creek as she did so.  She then hoisted herself into the window.  Though it was late and dark, she could see from the lights of many lamps in neighboring houses that her town of Bethlehem was bustling with activity.  For a moment, her boredom was gone.  She even noticed the young woman belonging with this new stranger standing in the shadows. Even at her young age of six, Sarah knew that Mary was closer to having her baby than Sarah’s mother.  She certainly did not want to share a mat with that woman!  But Sarah knew she needed some lodging.  She must have shelter.

“Joseph, I am so very sorry my kinsman.  My house is yours, but there is simply no place for the two of you.  My last spot on the floor has been taken.  I am so very sorry.”  Sarah’s father said with sadness.

“I see,” said Joseph.  “The peace of the Lord be with you.” And he bowed to leave.

Sarah wanted to tell her father about the very pregnant woman waiting outside.  She knew she wanted to do this even as she watched her father begin to close the door on Joseph and his wife.

But she never uttered any words to her father.  She jumped from the window ledge to the table and then all kinds of other sounds muffled the words.  Either the sound of the center board of the table breaking, or the sound of her own cries, or her father shouting her name as she fell to the floor drowned out even the thought of what she wanted to say.

Her father was there before she hit the ground and Joseph was right there beside him.  Both of them look at her, alarm on their faces and both sets of eyes scanned her from head to toe as if they were looking for some unknowable lost item.

“Your table!” Sarah said between tears.  “I broke your table!”

She buried her face in her father’s beard and her father patted her back and said, “Now, now little Sar.  Let’s be sure nothing important is broken – like you!”

Sarah’s cries died down as her father held her tighter and she was convinced that the most damaged item was the table.  She did notice the feeling of scrapes on her legs and she was aware of little pricks of pain as if something had stung her.

“A few scratches and splinters is all,” Joseph said to her father.  “If she will keep holding still while you hold her I will have the rest of them out before she knows.”

Sarah looked down toward her legs and saw that Joseph had two tiny splinters of wood on the tip of a calloused finger, while his other hand moved toward her leg.  She wanted to flinch but Joseph’s hands were quick and talented.  With caresses more than with tugging and pulling, he removed the rest of the stinging splinters even as Sarah’s tears dried in her father’s beard.

“Brave little girl you have there,” said Joseph.

“Yes.  Yes.  That’s my brave little Sar.”

“But Daddy…your table.”

“It is nothing, little one.” He said to her as he placed her on the floor.

Joseph had already moved to the remaining pieces of wood that had once been a table and began sorting them out on the floor.  The stranger who brought the table had stopped his prayer and come over to examine the damage as well and said, “It really was just cobbled together from old wood from a neighbor’s stable.  I am so very sorry of its terrible workmanship.”

“That too, is nothing,” said Sarah’s father.  “The gift was offered and received as a treasure.  We are sorry it did not last us longer.  We will remember the spirit of the giver nonetheless.”

“Old stable wood, you say?” asked Joseph.

“Yes.  It is from my neighbor’s home,” the lodger said.

Joseph pulled from his belt a little hammer and asked Sarah to come and be his helper.  He removed the nails even quicker than the splinters.  He had her hold two of the legs of the table together in an “X” on the floor.  Each set of legs was fastened together in this fashion and Joseph asked Sarah to stand them up and hold them apart from one another.  Joseph attached the slats that were the top of the table to the inner parts of each frame with the nails he had removed and a couple more that appeared from behind Sarah’s ears with a giggle.  He told Sarah to let go.

“Not perfect,” said Joseph, “but if you know anyone with a stable this old wood might make a good feeding trough, now.”

“The stable!” Sarah’s father exclaimed.  “I forgot about the stable.  Joseph…it is so very little for me to offer given your exceeding kindness, but we do have a stable that could be shelter of sorts.  And my wife has had one little one, should your Mary have need of her.  I know it is so little to offer, but, please accept what little hospitality I have left.”

“It is nothing,” remarked Joseph with a grin, “and it is everything.  We will accept what God has provided.  Thank-you, my kinsman.  And thank-you, little Sarah, for being such a fine helper.  Would you like to show Mary and me to our room?”

“Yes.” Sarah said.  And she was out the door to show Joseph and Mary their stable.  She proudly carried the manger she helped make.  She thought of how her accident had let to the manger’s creation.  She was in awe of Joseph’s hands which now held onto his wife as the traveled slowly to the stable.

She only went out to that stable one time while Mary and Joseph stayed there.  Sarah snuck out of the house early to see the family a couple of mornings after her mother had gone out in the middle of the night.  She had gone to assist Mary in the delivery of her first born son.  Mary was now asleep and so was the little baby boy.  Joseph, however, was up whittling something out of some wood he found somewhere.

“A fine bed you made, my little one.  A fine bed indeed.  Fit for a king, I would say,” Joseph said with a smile.  Sarah looked at the baby, the shattered table that became his bed and she joined Joseph in that smile.

manger

*Sarah did not see them or many of the other stranger leave.  In those very busy days, her mother’s time also came and while her mother was busy caring for her new baby brother, chores and cleaning kept Sarah more than busy.

The very next time she was in the stable was a time very near her own little brother’s second birthday.  It was also just a few days after her brother had been taken and killed by soldiers.  Sarah went to the stable this time for some time away from her mother’s cries and to find a place to shed a few tears of her own.  She found herself kneeling by the manger and holding its side only long enough to get a splinter in each palm.

She cried.  She thought of her little brother.  She imagined him now “resting with Abraham” as the grown-ups had told her.  She thought of all the other families in Bethlehem that were hurting.  She knelt by the manger and thought of the sleeping baby she had seen there and hoped and even prayed that the Lord would spare Joseph and Mary from the hurt she and her family were feeling.

After a while, when the tears were gone, she wiped her face with her hands.  She glanced down and saw that the splinters that had pierced her palms were now gone.  Somehow, she knew in that moment that the baby who used this bed was okay.  For now.  For now, he was just fine in the hands of Joseph and Mary.

Sarah walked back to her home, a place so quiet compared to those days two years before when they were overrun with strangers, but a place now filled with tears and wailing.  Sarah walked into her mother’s room and lay down beside her.  She placed her palms upon her mother’s cheeks and wiped the tears away with her own healed hands.  She whispered to her mother that the Lord would not let her cry forever.

And she didn’t.

© 2013 Scott Sears

* The following paragraphs were not included in a Christmas Eve reading of this story.

Bound

"Friar Folk" Ordination Gift
“Friar Folk” Ordination Gift

These little guys have been hanging around my desk for quite some time now.  “Word” (the little guy with the book), “Sacrament” (yeah, with the wine bottle and bread) and “Order”, (the guy in the dark brown robe and the puzzled look toward the sky) were all given to me on the occasion of my ordination by one of my sponsors, Rev. Judy Fisher.  She is even responsible for naming these Friar Folk for me and explaining that the best thing she could think of for ordering the life of the church was a whole lot of prayer.  That’s probably why I have, through the years, purchased the other two praying Friars, appropriately named “Uh-Oh” and “What-do-I-do-now, God?”

Whenever I look at any of my Friar Folk – and yes, there are more of them – I am reminded that I am connected not only to God through my ordination but to many other sisters and brothers in this “order” we call Elders.  I am bound to them by something more than mere words that I said in my vows. I am bound to them by more than just words that appear on any page.

I am bound by God to be in covenant with these brothers and sisters by the very Word of God.

Our denomination has been going through a whole lot of upheaval lately.  I could describe it in detail but that’s not necessary and it really isn’t helpful.  The fact of the matter is that those of us who are “bound” together find ourselves disagreeing with one another.  Some think one way…some think another.  Some are even willing to call the others “wrong”.  (As an aside, I do not have a Friar Folk name “Wrong” or “Right” for that matter.)

I think about my ordination often  and I think about the problems we as Elders are having with one another.  I am glad I have these three guys and their friends around to remind me that I am bound to others.  I also have a great group of Elders that I am in a Covenant Group with that are always there to remind me of the tie we have.  And yeah, sometimes it even gags us!

I don’t have all the answers to what we are facing together but this much I know…I do not have to be “right” about anything.  And you, my sister or brother, do not have to be “wrong.”

There is something bigger than what we can know, understand and figure out that holds us together.  We are bound…Thank God…we are bound to one another.