Monday, 29 December 2008 16:24

December 21, 2008 Sermon

“Imagine Peace in our Families”
Luke 1:26-45
Advent IV
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 21, 2008
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

This afternoon, a bunch of the younger folk in the church will go to see Doris Dunn.  Doris, or Dodie as she is known by UBCers is in her early nineties.  She has been a member of UBC for 73+ years.  She and her sister Bea Bixler lived in the Southeast and Como neighborhoods and were members of the Loyalty circle of women that found community in each other and did service projects together at UBC for decades.  She finally gave up her beloved house on 26th Avenue earlier this year.  When we would go over there to sing Christmas carols, she always had stories for the children.  They especially liked looking at her mantle with was festooned with tiny Christmas candles that she had received from her own mother.  If Antiques Roadshow could have done a feature on her mantle, it would have been really great, for she had a collection for each season.

When she moved into her new senior residence in Richfield, her grandson came over to look the place over.  He was earnest in his thorough examination of the place.  He finally declared it okay, because he found the spot on the floor on which he would sleep on Christmas Eve.  You see, it’s not Christmas for the Dunn family unless they spend it at Grandma’s house like they had done for their entire lives.

Many of us have family traditions and memories like that.  We remember the excitement, the anticipation, the too much sugar, the too little sleep, the candles, the tree, the smells of the food and the pine mingled all together.

Christmas is remembered and experienced with and among family.  And for a few precious moments, there is peace in the family.

My mother used to do something every year at our house.  It was called, “the mood.”  She would have us turn off the lights in the house and light only the Christmas tree and the candles.  We would put Christmas records on the high-fi—Andy Williams, Harry Belafonte, the Carpenters.  My mom would read us the Christmas story from the Bible but also the story of the Littlest Angel, a favorite story that she had heard read to her by her own mother at Christmas time.  It was our job, the four of us kids to be kind and gentle and sweet, just like the baby Jesus.  It was our job to help bring peace to the family.

You see, peace was not often on our minds.  My parents had four kids in a little over five years.  We were constantly at each other’s throats.  We fought and we argued and we tracked snow into the house and made demands upon our parents.  There wasn’t much money to go around, so we learned to expect modest Christmas mornings.   Our parents, for their part, self-medicated.  So the peace which we experienced was often manufactured.  It was a numbing.  It was a respite and when reality hit once again, it was sometimes fraught with confusion and accusation.  But on Christmas, we could get into the mood and somehow it could last beyond the evening after the lights were turned out.  We could remember the peace we experienced as we listened to the music, looked at the candles and imagine what it would be like to have peace in the family all the time.

There is such a pressure at Christmas time to have an idyllic family experience.   Some of us have that and that is truly wonderful.  We want and we need good memories to sustain us through the more difficult times.  But others of us have some real hard times around Christmas and that also has to do with family.  There are those of us for whom Christmas is a high-pressure microscope.  All of the family pressures and hurts are magnified and exacerbated.  Others have lost a loved one and they face Christmas with a yawning gap where that beloved one once sat.  Imagining peace in the family is about all we can do.  Experiencing it is something totally different.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the famous poem “Christmas Bells” in 1864.  Abraham Lincoln had just been reelected and he saw an end to a bitter civil war.  But the dark words of the poem relate to his own dark night of the soul.  He lost his wife in a fire and his son was very badly wounded in the Civil War.  In his despair he wrote about Christmas in 1862 “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is nor more for me.”  He also wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”  “I can make no record of these days, perhaps someday God will give me peace.”   Eventually, he came to the past verse,

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:  
God is not dead nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall rail, the right prevail
With peace on earth good will to men."  

However you spend or remember Christmas, I want you to know that this is about God welcoming you into the divine family.  God imagines peace for the human family at Christmas.  God decided to adopt all of us when Jesus was born.  If you believe the scriptures, God became flesh and dwelt among us.  God through Jesus experienced all of the range of emotions, including joy, love, hurt, anger and betrayal.  God came to us, and to top it off the family into which Jesus was born was not the most functional in the world.  This, I think is a big part of the good news of the scripture.

Mary was a young person, maybe as young at 12 years old.  She was engaged to Joseph, so the story goes. We don’t know much about their relationship. We don’t know if it was an arranged marriage. We don’t know if Mary had any say in the matter at all. In today’s scripture reading, Mary is encountered by Gabriel who doesn’t give her a choice either.  Gabriel tells her, that she has found favor with God.  Well that’s good, God likes her.  But it’s a loaded favoritism.  Gabriel also says that there is a huge task ahead.  She will conceive and bear a son who is going to be God’s son and who will reign on David’s throne for ever and ever amen.  You and your child will have a special relationship with the Holy Spirit.  “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” said Gabriel.  “God will always be with you.”

Gabriel didn’t ask Mary if she wanted this child. Gabriel only said, don’t be afraid. Ha!  Of course she was going to be afraid.  She was going to be the laughingstock of Nazareth.  Her options were to tell the people about her encounter with Gabriel or to be cagey about it and hope for the best.  Either way, she would likely be left behind by her betrothed.  She might be shunned by her family.

She may be humiliated in front of the community.   She was destined to be a single unwed mother.  Her child would have questionable parentage.  And not only that, when it came time for the to have the child, she would be on the road and would have to find lodging in an ancient homeless shelter known as a stable.

I imagine a bit of resignation in her statement “Here am I, the servant of God, let it be with me according to your word.”  In other words, I have no choice in this, like I had no choice in picking my husband, like I had no choice in selecting my state in life, like I have had no choice at all throughout my life. The only choice he gives her is how to announce it.  But how do you garner the wisdom and strength to make such an announcement.

Thank God for Auntie Elizabeth.  She knows what’s going on.  Gabriel gave her an offer she couldn’t refuse either.  They commiserate together and come up with a plan.  A plan to tell it like it is, a plan to say what this child is going to be like, a plan to tell what Mary is going to be like in her new-found life.  With Elizabeth, they experience the peaks and valleys that is part of any pregnancy, but especially because of their mutual extraordinary pregnancies.  Mary and Elizabeth together shared in the journey of pregnancy and in the responsibility of bearing the children who would set the world on its end.  For three months they stayed together—talking, laughing, crying, and conspiring the nights away.  They created sacred space, even when they were not considered clean or even acceptable, especially when they were looked on with suspicion by others.  They had both found favor with God and that was all that mattered.

They both knew a secret, you see.  God was participating in a new way through the ultimate subversion of acceptableness.  God’s own incarnation was being smuggled into the world through Mary, a would-be outcast.  This was going to be God’s presence on earth: with the outcasts.  God is one of us!  That’s what Mary and Elizabeth figured out.

But more important than that, Mary and Elizabeth discovered together what family was all about.  Mary and Elizabeth were distant relatives.  They were decades apart in age.  And yet they had intimate knowledge of each other.  They trusted each other.  They knew that if patriarchy or racism or classism or anything else was going to deny them and their offspring their rights, there would be someone to stick by each other’s side—watching the other’s back.  That is what the best of families do.

Some of our families are the families we were born with.  Others are the families that have adopted us.  Still other families are the ones that we have adopted.  These families imagine peace for us.  Our families of choice, which are often but not always the families that raised us, grant us freedom, celebrate our triumphs with us, mourn with us when we despair and imagine with us a life of peace.

The good news is that God has adopted us all into just such a family.  By the story of Jesus, we see that this kind of a family is possible.  In fact it is the main way God comes into the world.  Surprising us and rocking us out of our complacency.

God wants for us peace.  God gives us the Christmas season so we might find and experience a bit of that peace in the world today.

Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid because she has a definite future that is important.  And she also has God in her side at all times.  Think about this for your own lives.  We fear the unknown.  There is so much about our lives that is unknown.  But this much is known:  We don’t go on this journey alone.  God is always there holding us up, egging us on, picking us up when we’re down; imagining peace for our world, nation, city, family and heart.

And if you don’t believe that God is there imagining peace in your family, then all you have to do is look around you.  For the church is one clear way that God demonstrates family for you.  The church is how God does not leave you comfortless or alone or hopeless.  We are your Elizabeths.  We are here for you to accompany you on your journey.  That is good news.

As we anticipate the coming of Christmas in just a few days, consider this: who is your Elizabeth? Who hears your cries? Who is your trusted confidant? We all need that. That person or those people become family to us, whether or not they are related to us. As we imagine peace, may we do so with trusted people who are family to us.  And may we thank God, the ultimate imaginer or peace.
Longfellow’s words bear remembering.  Please excuse his 1860’s lack of inclusive language:

I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn the households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."