Wednesday, December 26, 2012

God's Answer: Christmas

[Sermon from Christmas Eve]
If you were here on Sunday, then you know this sermon is sort of Part 2 to what I began that morning.  But don’t worry – you don’t have to have heard Part 1 for Part 2 to make sense.  Part 1 was about the question, How can we get ready to celebrate Christmas after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut?  Part 2 is about a harder question:  Where is God this Christmas if something so awful can happen?
On Christmas Eve, we like to hear stories.  I’ve often written stories for sermons on Christmas Eve.  There’s something about this night, a chord of memory long-played from childhood, that makes us want to gather around the fire with a mug of hot chocolate (or something stronger), basking in the warmth of the love of family and the love of God.  I can still see my family gathered around our living room on Christmas Eve when I was a child, and I can feel the warmth of the fire toasting my back as I sat on the hearth – the spot for the youngest in our household because the older people got the chairs.  We talked, and sipped whatever our mugs held, and got ready to head off for midnight mass to welcome God’s love into the world once again.
That was my Christmas Eve from childhood.  This Christmas Eve, things feel different.  This isn’t a sipping-cocoa-‘round-the-fire sort of Christmas Eve – not with our nation and our own hearts still aching from the shooting in Newtown.  This is a Christmas Eve when sentimentality feels even cheaper than usual.  This is a Christmas Eve when we can only imagine how the people of Newtown must be reeling, trying to figure out how they’re supposed to celebrate the birth of the Christ child only 10 days after losing so many children of their own.
In fact, this is a Christmas Eve when some of us might have come to church trying to figure out a few things about God, too.  If you’ve come here tonight with serious questions on your heart, know that you’re not alone.  If you’ve come here tonight even with something of a chip on your shoulder, know that you’re in good company.  I imagine there are many people, even folks of long-standing faith, who’d like to ask some serious questions of God tonight.  At the top of the list might be, “Where were you in Newtown?”  Or maybe, “How can such awful things happen to such innocent people?”  Or maybe, “Why didn’t you do something?”
On a night when those questions hang in our hearts, I guess I do want to tell a couple of stories after all.  First is the story of one of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary.  Of course, all the adults who died at the school that day are rightfully remembered as heroes, giving their lives for the children they served.  But one woman’s story particularly strikes me this night – Anne Marie Murphy. 
Ms. Murphy was a teacher’s aide at Sandy Hook, assigned to help special-needs kids in a first-grade class.  Ms. Murphy was a wife and mother of four, a strong Christian who loved to paint and who was planning a big celebration with her extended family over Christmas.  That morning, she was with working with Dylan Hockley, a 6-year-old who struggled with autism.  When the gunman burst into the classroom, Dylan Hockley was hit, along with the teacher, Vicki Soto, and several other children in that class.  What stands out to me about Ms. Murphy, the teacher’s aide, is where her body was found.  She had apparently been nearby Dylan because she had pulled him close, using her own body to try to shield him from the gunfire.  In that act, she lost her own life.1,2,3 
Why do I tell you such a sad story on this holy night?  Because, in a deep sense, it’s the Christmas story.  It’s the Christian story. 
In our culture, the Christmas story tends to come across like the images on our Christmas cards – a loving couple cast in soft light; cuddly lambs around a manger; a baby glowing in divine light, wrapped in blankets and resting comfortably on clean, warm straw. 
Now, none of us has video from that night 2,000 years ago, but I think the scene probably didn’t look quite like that.  Two thousand years ago, this child was born to impoverished, unmarried peasants.  They’d been forced to travel on foot the 70 miles from their home in Nazareth to the father’s hometown of Bethlehem because government authorities commanded it.  It wouldn’t have been easy in any case, but it was all the harder because the young woman was about to deliver their child.  When they arrived, the only place they could find to stay was in a cave, sleeping with the animals that were kept there.  And if you’ve ever mucked out a stall, you know how clean that cave most likely wasn’t.  This couple’s situation wasn’t all that remarkable.  Thousands of peasants would have been affected by the Roman government’s census, and most of them would have been enduring similar hardships.
But the difference, of course, was the child.  This wasn’t just another peasant baby, as likely to die as to live in its first few hours and days.  This peasant baby was the Son of God.  Now, you’ve heard that said so many times before that it may not mean much to hear it again tonight.  But let me say it again:  That was the Son of God lying in the muck of that stable. 
Messengers from heaven came to other peasants that night, sheep herders outside town, and told them a Savior had been born – the anointed ruler, the Lord, the true king who would reveal the Roman Emperor as the imposter he was.  But this divine king was lying in a feed trough, and his parents were just hoping they’d find something to eat that night.
To the sheep herders, the message must have been literally unbelievable.  It didn’t make sense.  How could it be “glad tidings of great joy” (Luke 1:10) that another peasant baby had come into a dark, uncaring world?  He certainly couldn’t have seemed like a savior.  He looked like he was the one who needed saving. 
Thirty years or so later, he’d look very much to be in need of saving once again.  He’d be beaten and killed by the worldly authorities he’d come to challenge.  And on that dark Friday, people gathered around would ask, where was God?  Why didn’t God come to save this young man who who’d worked miracles and who called out to his Father from the cross?
On the floor in Newtown, Connecticut, a teacher’s aide lay shot and killed by a madman.  And again we ask, Where was God?  Why didn’t God come and save the children at Sandy Hook Elementary and the teachers and staff who protected them?
This is the mystery of Christmas: In Jesus, God was lying there in the dirty straw.  In Jesus, God was being beaten by the Romans.  In Jesus, God was dying on the cross.  And at Sandy Hook Elementary, Jesus was shielding a 6-year-old, trying to save a beloved child from the power of sin and death.
The mystery of Christmas is that God saves us from sin and death by stepping directly into the line of fire.  God loves us, and all of creation, so deeply that God saves the world from the inside out.  As a baby, vulnerable to everything, God chose to enter into our experience and make it God’s own.  The pain we know, God knows.  The fear we face, God faced.  The death we seek to avoid at all costs, God chose.  Like the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary, God saw us in need and decided to act, no matter the cost. 
But what transforms this from simply a story of noble suffering to the story of salvation is the fact that for this baby born in the dirty straw, death was not the end.  Jesus’ death toppled death from its throne.  Enduring it, he defeated it – and gave to us that victory, as well.
Anne Marie Murphy knew that truth.  She staked her life on it.  For Christians, death is not the end because God chose to defeat sin and death from the inside out, stepping directly into it to lift us out of it. 
In our own small ways, we, too, know that we’re called to walk the path of Anne Marie Murphy.  We probably won’t find ourselves called to shield a child from a bullet.  But we most certainly will find ourselves called to love people extravagantly in a thousand smaller ways.  We may not lay down our lives, but we can hold out our hands.  We can give when the world might take.  We can cry with someone who mourns.  We can offer a coat to someone shivering in the cold.  We can commit ourselves to honor this truth: that all children deserve the chance to learn free from violence, free from hunger, free from systems that bind them in despair.  As Anne Marie Murphy chose to act as Christ, so must we.  God loves us enough to defeat sin and death from the inside out.  Now, Jesus asks us to return the favor.
At the end of the order of service, you’ll find a poem.4  It wasn’t written in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, but it might as well have been.  On this holy night, let me leave you with this: 
When the song of the angels is still,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their sheep,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoners,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
                           – Howard Thurman
1.   Cleary, Tom. “Dylan Hockley died in Anne Marie Murphy’s arms.”   Available at:   Accessed Dec. 20, 2012.

2.   Feldman, Emily. “Newtown Teacher’s Aide Died Cradling Dying Student: Family.”   Available at:   Accessed Dec. 20, 2012. 

3.   Liu, Betty Ming, and Shelley Acoca.   “Connecticut shooting: Sandy Hook victim Anne Marie Murphy mourned by Katonah parents.”   Available at:   Accessed Dec. 20, 2012.

4.   Thurman, Howard.   “The Work of Christmas.”   In: Thurman, Howard. The Mood of Christmas and other Celebrations.   Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1973.   23.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Magnifying the Lord

[Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012]
It’s been a little more than a week now since the murders of 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut.  We’ve heard about events there we can barely fathom: an insane young man blasting his way into a school; teachers doing math problems in one moment and shielding children from bullets in the next; funeral after funeral for 6- and 7-year-olds.
Now, as the days give us some distance from the initial shock, we begin to try to place this horror in some larger context.  There are several contexts to choose from, at least based on what we hear in the media; and the common denominator seems to be identifying which of society’s failings we should blame.  Some look at the shootings and blame public policy on gun control.  Some blame inadequate mental health services.  Some blame violent movies and video games.  Our culture and our government offer plenty of failures for us to work on, but my hunch is that blame for this tragedy doesn’t reduce to any one of them.  And with so much pontificating in the media about what’s right and what’s wrong with American public policy, you certainly don’t need another talking head in the pulpit this morning.
Instead, here in church, it’s enough to try to figure out what to make of a liturgical moment that doesn’t seem to fit the world around it:  the joyful anticipation of our Savior’s birth in a time of deep and tragic grief.  I can’t begin to imagine how the people of Newtown, Connecticut, are preparing their hearts for Christmas this year.  What does the fourth Sunday of Advent have to say to us in a week of funerals for first graders?  How in the world do we celebrate Christmas this year?
Well, consider what I’m about to say as Part 1 of a possible answer.  Part 2 will come tomorrow night, at least at the 8 and 11 o’clock services.  Part 1 is about us:  How does God ask us to respond to a world where children may be murdered as they sit in their classrooms?  Then, on Christmas Eve, we’ll ask the harder question:  Where is God in a world like that?
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, our Gospel reading is about Mary’s visit to her cousin, Elizabeth.  Mary and Elizabeth are about to bring children into this world – both inexplicably, but for different reasons.  Elizabeth is old and barren; she and Zechariah have been unable to have children for decades.  At the other end of the spectrum is Mary – a girl who has no business being pregnant, given that she’s never been with a man.  Yet, in the reading just before today’s Gospel, which we heard in Lessons and Carols last week, Mary receives a visit from the angel Gabriel, who tells her that not only is she pregnant; she’s pregnant with the Son of God, the one who will reign as king and save God’s people.  “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel says (Luke 1:30).  Yeah, right. 
And yet, at the end of this astonishing announcement comes an even more astonishing reply from the unwed teenaged mother:  “Let it be with me according to your word,” she says (1:38).  Mary hears an implausible story of God’s desire to save people, to deliver them from the oppression of Roman rule, to unveil an entirely new set of ground rules, to reveal God’s own kingdom on earth – and Mary says, “Yes.”  Ridiculously, in the eyes of the world, Mary chooses to be God’s primary instrument – someone who seems an entirely inadequate beacon of hope for a world that doesn’t even deserve that much blessing.
As she and her cousin celebrate the astounding news they’ve both received, Mary lifts up a song of praise that honors both God’s foolishly hopeful plan and her ridiculous role in it.  She begins with one of the most amazing statements in all of Scripture, something we’ve heard so many times that it may not strike us as it should.  Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46).  Now, think about that a minute.  You can hear that word “magnify” in a small and poetic way, simply meaning that Mary praises or glorifies God.  But it can mean much more.  In the Greek text, the word is a form of the verb megalynō, which literally means to enlarge or to amplify (  What a thought: that Mary’s spirit, and that our spirits, might enlarge or amplify the sovereign Lord of the universe.  Who is she to think such a thing?  Who are we to do such a thing? 
Well, think for a minute about magnifying in another context – using a magnifying glass.  Remember how you played with a magnifying glass when you were a kid?  At least I did.  Used one way, the glass enlarges something small.  It lets you look at an ant crawling by and really see the head, thorax, and abdomen in detail you could never make out on your own.  It lets you see the wonder of creation with new eyes.  But little kids also know a magnifying glass can be used another way.  In the sun of a summer day, you can take your magnifying glass, hold it just the right distance from the ground, and focus the sun’s rays into a tiny point, concentrating the light so much that you can burn through a piece of paper.  Or, for that matter, you can burn to death that little ant you were studying so intently a few minutes before.  The instrument that magnifies is also the instrument that focuses light with such clarity, precision, and intensity that it can set the world on fire.
And there’s the rub.  We can set the world on fire with the power of God made manifest in ordinary people who choose to say “yes” and make love bear flesh.  Or, we can set the world on fire by twisting that power God shares with us, setting loose the demons within us that long to be gods themselves. 
What does God ask of us?  In a world where a twisted killer can steal the life from 27 innocent people in a matter of seconds, what does God ask of us?  God asks us to join Mary in magnifying the Lord. 
Through the magnifying glass of Mary’s womb, the light of God’s salvation was focused into the ultimate act of divine healing, as God’s saving nature took on flesh and bones to dwell among us.  That child would live out God’s shepherding rule, bringing divine power to earth in a kingship of saving love.  Mary chose to be the magnifying glass that set the world on fire, aflame with God’s own Spirit. 
And through the magnifying glass of other human hearts – yours and mine – we still focus the light of God’s salvation into specific saving acts.  We show God’s healing power when we turn away from “the thoughts of [our own] hearts” – when we, who think we’re powerful, come down from our thrones and lift up the lowly (Luke 1:51-52).  We set the world on fire with God’s Spirit when we “fill the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53), when we act “in remembrance of God’s mercy” promised to us across the generations (Luke 1:54-55). 
Every day, angels visit us and ask us to say, “Yes.”  Every day, we have to choose how we will use our freedom.  Every day, God asks us to help invert the worldly order, the apparent victory of death over life, of darkness over light.  Every day, God asks us to bear salvation into humanity’s corruption of God’s intent.  Every day, God asks us to scatter the darkness of human agendas and twisted priorities so that the light of God’s saving purposes can shine through.
Even though this is a world where killers sometimes have their way, we must remember that they will not win.  Neither those who spew bullets nor those who spew hate will have the last word.  In the darkness of this world, God asks us – remarkably, even us – to embody a different reality, a kingdom reality.  God asks us to fight back by choosing to focus the light of Christ, to shine it into this darkness that surrounds us, and to set the world on fire, as each and every one of us “magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46).