The birth of Christ places before us a new possibility.
We can live in a new way.
“Christ is alive and goes before us, to show and share what love can do. This is a day of new beginnings. Our God is making all things new”.
You can continue to live in the old way.
Or you can live a different life, beginning today.
Paul’s Christmas Gospel
Paul of Tarsus rarely is mentioned at Christmas. He introduces himself this morning, to the Romans and to us, in our first lesson. He never saw Jesus and knew almost nothing of the birth. Or of birth. Of Christmas, he says only: “born of a woman, born under the law”. (Gal. 4: 4 When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons) A human birth, still in the dark shadow of religion.
Paul is our earliest, best witness to the primitive Christian church. Yet he says nothing about any of the things we take for granted in this season: Mary, Joseph, manger, Bethlehem, shepherds, Kings, Herod, Rachel weeping.
In fact, I have ruminated a little about how Paul might have approached our reading from Matthew 1: 18-25, composed some thirty years after Paul’s own (legendary) death in the Roman coliseum. How would the celibate rabbi have thought about Mary and a complicated birth? How would the patriarchal first century Jew have thought about the authority vested in women? How would Paul have interpreted Mary’s calling, vocation, blessing and authority?
More basically, more biologically, how would a man like Paul have connected, if at all, with the multiple nursery scenes found in the first three gospels?
You will admit, if pressed, that there are few things more bemusing than listening to men talk about child birth. All the gospels and almost 2000 years of Christmas sermons fall beneath this judgment. What do we know about it?
How can men–how could Paul–possibly fathom the pain, change, and transformation of childbirth? Especially when this birth is not just birth but–Incarnation?
Paul has had a hard ride for the past 50 years. In an age of civil rights, his common first century passive acceptance of slavery in Philemon has not gone unnoticed. In age of revolution in the status and role of women, his direction to the Corinthians—albeit truly a matter of order not gender—that women should not speak in public has not gone unnoticed. In an age of gradual acceptance of gay rights, his flat rejection of homosexuality in Romans 1 has not gone unnoticed. In an age of fuller acquaintance with the abuses of power, his later command to the Roman church to be subject to governing authorities has not gone unnoticed. In an age of democracy, dialogue and vote, his apostolic, authoritarian claim to have the Mind of Christ has not gone unnoticed. In short, Paul has been persona non grata for 50 years. From one angle he is seen as a confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, authoritarian, hierarchical, Tory crank.
Which brings us to Christmas 2013 and the stunning news that Paul, more than all, “gets it”! Hear his self-introduction from Romans today and behold: Paul understands the Gentle Christmas Gospel. Better than virtually any other piece of the New Testament Paul names the Christmas Gospel with utter precision in another of his letters, his earliest, 1 Thessalonians 2:7
I bring this up on Christmas Sunday to spank out a claim on you. If Paul can “get it”, if Paul can receive the grace of Christmas, there is hope for everybody. Even me, even you. Especially for you this morning if you feel at some distance from the Christmas traditions, the old stories, the church’s habits and patterns. Especially if you feel, that is, a little on the outside. Especially if all this imagery—shepherds, kings, Mary, Herod, the Baptist—does not appeal to you, and you feel a bit on the outside. Actually, in the main, Christmas is all about God’s love for the outside.
In the earliest piece of our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, as he describes his happy relationship with one of his first churches, Paul offers us a glimpse of the gospel. It is Christmas testimony that we can live in a new way!
This Paul, this same confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, hierarchical Tory crank, has been given the grace to live in a new way, and to show others the same.
The spirit of the Risen Christ has changed Paul. From Pharisee to freedom fighter. From inquisitor to preacher. From religion to faith. From law to gospel. He was been given the “wings of the morning”. There is no other way to interpret his self-designation, a Christmas nametag if ever there was one, here in 1 Thessalonians.
Paul refers to himself and his way of living as “gentle as a nurse”. Gentle? Paul? Apparently so, at least now and then. And then, “nurse”. The word does not refer to white gowns, medical degrees, stethescopes, or medications. It means the other kind of nurse and nursing, the nurse-maid. We learn this, even without reference to the Greek, from the rest of the verse, a “nurse caring for her children”. The word, ηπιον, means wet nurse or nursing mother. The image so jarred an early copier that he added an extra letter to one text to “clean it up” and change the meaning. Paul is staggeringly clear, however. He describes himself as like a wet-nurse! Paul, that is, is referring to his own new way of living as a kind of nursing, as intimate, physical, personal, vulnerable, self-giving. As in, nursing a child.
I find this astounding, that one who could say of his opponents in Galatia that they should castrate themselves (surely a remnant of the old Paul) could understand himself by analogy with a mother and child in the moment of nursing. If the birth of Christ can move Paul that far, how much more can Christmas do for you and me!
A generation ago, I discovered, James Clarke had a similar insight:
Here is conversion in great might. It is easy to think of Paul as the missionary who made Europe and Asia his parish and lifted Christianity out of its Palestinian cradle; as the warrior who fought the good fight of faith and whose sword seldom rested in its scabbard; as the statesman who conceived vastly and executed daringly; as the theologian who handled the huge imponderables and grand peculiarities of the faith with ease and judgment; as the personality, powerful and decisive, who cut his signature deeply into the life of his time, and beside whom his contemporaries were but dwarfs; as the mystic who beheld the faraway hills of silence and wonder, and whose great theme was “union with Christ”. But it strains the imagination to picture him, who was so imperious, in the gentle and tender role of nursemaid. Truly there is no limit to the converting power of God in Jesus Christ. (IBD loc cit)
Yet Clarke climbs only half the mountain. Yes, it does astound our imaginations to picture Paul as a mother with a child at the breast. What is doubly astounding, however, is to realize, fully to intuit, that Paul understood himself this way! That Paul, at his most converted, could see his life in a new way, a radically new way, as different from all he had lived before as a nursemaid is different from an imperious religionist.
Paul probably did not know the account in our reading from Matthew 1 today, with its picture of Mary and Jesus, or its siblings in the other gospels. He may not have had any more idea than we do about the exact nature and detail of these birth narratives. I confess that I think he would have been somewhat surprised by their imaginative peculiarity.
But the meaning of Christmas he fully knows.
Your Christmas Gospel
And so may you, ESPECIALLY, if you are not easily or closely enthralled by magic stories, birth miracles, speaking wombs, nursery rhymes, and angel voices. Paul hears the truth of it all, and his life changes. Yours can too.
Paul may not have known the Christmas stories we do, but his pastoral life embodied the incarnate love of God in Christ, physical intimate, personal, vulnerable self-giving, gentle as a nurse-maid.
Yours can too. You can live in a new way. You can.
It is the way of the turned cheek, the offered cloak, the second mile. It is the way of love for those who are not lovely. It is the way of the love of enemies. It is the way of forbearance. It is the way of tenderhearted forgiveness. It is the way of prayer for those who persecute. It is the way of God, who is kind to God’s ungrateful and selfish children. Gentle as a nurse…
In a year of violence past, we may be ready to hear this. After Newtown. After Marathon Monday. After Syria. After a long train and strain of losses, more personal and private.
Christmas gives birth to the daily, very real possibility, starting again for you at noon, the real potential that you can live in a new way. Christmas gives birth to the life and death decision for or against Jesus, for the new path or the old.
If Paul can “get it”, all can. This is the change that God works (GOD works) in the human heart. The God who said “let light shine out of darkness…” It is the gift of faith. Faith comes by hearing. Hearing by the word of God.
We live in age of violence, even global and extreme violence. But this is Christmas. With Matthew we may marvel at the mystery of Christ. With Paul we may practice the partnership of the Gospel, living as gentle as a nurse with her children.
We can live in a new way. The world does not lack for promise, but only for a sense of promise.
First. We can live as those who look forward to a gentler world community. In a year that included Newtown and Marathon Monday, we can afford to listen to the strange language of the Bible, and of Paul. I mean all of us here this morning, liberal and conservative, hawk and dove. We can all share the horizon of hope for peace on earth, good will to all. We can look out for ways to “soften the collisions” that will come in our time. As Inman says, in the novel Cold Mountain, life is riddled with “endless contention and intractable difference”. Collisions are virtually inevitable. But they can be softened.
My guide here is the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin:
Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened. Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached: in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force—so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless. Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established.
Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable. Yet they can be minimized by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair—that alone is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, otherwise we are bound to lose our way. A little dull as a solution you will say? Yet there is some truth in this view.
Second. More than you know, disciple, you transform the culture around you with every act, every choice. I saw recently 900 people stand, without command, to honor the Hallelujah Chorus. They came to worship the Messiah, in their own secular way, the babe, the son of Mary.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.
And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
And all flesh shall see it together.
Since by one man death came, so by one man shall come the resurrection of the dead. (my favorite)
Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him!
So they receive Christ. Here is a door held. There is a criticism softened. Here is a preparation made. There is a courtesy extended. Here is a listening ear. There is a gesture of welcome.
As we follow our course let us not become coarse.
I remember a Christmas more than thiry years ago, when we lived in NYC. Lily Tomlin once produced a single actor play. One night a street person stumbled into the theater and was treated roughly. She made the paper by stopping her performance, guiding the man to center stage and quietly addressing the audience: “Let me introduce you to a fellow human being.
At our best, Marsh Chapel and this community both set a fine example of acculturated gentility. (That is a compliment, by the way. Just so you know.) It is not just what you do that counts, it is how you do it.
At our best, we can live together, watching over one another in love, and treating one another “as gently as a nursemaid”. Men and women both. I can be even more personal. The Christmas Gospel in its Pauline cast directs me as a minister. It gives me the courage to be, to be a pastoral administrator, and to be so with gentle care. Now I will admit that the phrase, “pastoral administrator” is something of an oxymoron, two words that contradict each other. Like jumbo shrimp or United Methodist. Either you are pastoral or you are administrative, tender or tough. But here is Paul, the Great Tough Apostle to the Gentiles, identifying his way of being with that of a woman, a tender mother, breast feeding her kids. That means time spent. That means some tolerance for untidiness. That means a willingness to admit imperfection, some fruitful slobbery sloppiness. That means a habit of being that is more rounded than rectangular, more organic that engineered, more maternal than mechanical. That means to worry when things aren’t perfect and not to listen when others want them immediately perfect. Life is messy. Community life is particular messy. That means a willingness to go the second and third mile, as you would for your infant. That means risking getting bitten. That means burping and wiping and holding. And especially that means a fierce focus on the future of now young life! That sounds like hard work! Manger work. Nursery work. New Creation work.
Third. Christmas too can become a season as gentle as a nurse. Someone wrote, mimicking, yes, Paul, in 1 Cor 13:
If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.
If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.
If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.
If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend myriad holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.
Love stops cooking to hug the child.
Love sets aside decorating to kiss the spouse.
Love is kind, though harried and tired.
Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has Christmas china and table linens.
Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.
Love bears, believes, hopes, endures all things, and never fails.
Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust. Even that new motorboat that someone might give you will one day retire. The gift of love will endure.
A Time to Choose
This is the spiritual change that God (and God alone) works in the human heart. “Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth”. Here are the birth pangs of the new creation.
Are you ready to live in a new way?
For their parts, the ancients were caught off guard. So the Kings meandered, the shepherds shuddered, the cattle were low and lowing. There was no ready expectation of Jesus, a poor Messiah. No, there was no prepared expectation for God touching earth in a manger. “A smoking cradle”, said Karl Barth, is all we have of Christmas. How about you? Are you ready for Christmas, for a gentle Christmas?
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel