Sing We Now of Christmas

Matthew 2: 13-23

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All in a Lifetime

Like other births, Jesus’ own occurs in the midst of trouble.   He is hardly born before another dream befalls Joseph, the poor fellow, a man drenched in dreams, and commands the Holy Family to flee to Egypt.   So the prophet had predicted.

 

Like most growth, Jesus’ own develops amid controversy.   Herod fulfills another prophesy by slaying the children of Bethlehem, who then as now are in peril every hour.  So the prophet had predicted.

 

Like much childhood, Jesus’ own transpires amid governmental wrangling, religious strife, and existential uncertainty.  His family comes to make their home in Nazareth, down at the north end of the lake, and Jesus becomes a Nazorean.  So the prophet had predicted.

 

Jesus is immersed in our full life.  Jesus is our childhood’s measure.  Day by day, like us he grew.   He was little, weak and helpless.  Tears and smiles like us he knew.  And he feeleth for our sadness.  And he shareth in our gladness.

 

The Christmas Gospel is this:  God has taken human form, entered our condition, become flesh.  For our present congregation, and especially come Christmas for our faithful radio congregants, listening from afar, we gladly announce this good news!

 

He came that we might have life and live it abundantly.   In the next century after his birth, Irenaeus was to say, in summarizing his salvation:  “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

 

The birth of Jesus penetrates all of the seasons of life.

 

Even dear, dour Ecclesiastes, who found so little to celebrate in life, at least made space, in his otherwise saturnine perspective, to honor time, the passage of time, the flow of time, and the regular return of times and seasons:

 

For everything there is a season

And a time for every purpose under heaven

 

As we pause between Christmas and the New Year (and so between past and future, youth and age, life and death, heaven and earth, this age and the age to come), perhaps we too can incarnationally celebrate the seasons of life.  Look with me out at 2014, from a theological, liturgical, and religious perspective.  Listen on radio, from afar, to the ecumenical voice of Marsh Chapel, wherein all the families of Christendom, and of the earth itself, find a real home.  For to every denomination there is a season, and a time for every perspective under heaven!  Here is what I mean.  Every theological insight is here liturgically on site.

 

To Every Denomination there is a Season

 

  1. A.   Calvinists

 

You may not think much of the Presbyterians.  They can be cold people, I know.  ‘God’s frozen people’, said one.   You may never have wanted to wade in the dark, icy water of Calvinist despair.  You may not see yourself through the lens of a Bergman film.  But there is a time and a season.  When Ash Wednesday arrives in a couple months, we are all Presbyterians.  Yes, if at no other point, on this day we do well to read Calvin.  For we are dust, and to dust we do return, as both the Bible and Ignatius of Loyola taught (more on him in a moment).  We do all sin, and do all fall short of the glory of God.  We are fully mortal and utterly prone to harm others.  In Calvin’s favorite, winning phrase, a personal delight of my own as well, we are, simply, “totally depraved”.  His follower, Jonathan Edwards, described us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, held like filthy spiders over the pits of hellfire, and spared only by God’s strong wrist, who in holding us to save us, nonetheless averts his eyes from the hideous sight.  Yikes!  That is serious Ash Wednesday stuff! Really to sense this, you need the mind of John Calvin, the voice of Jonathan Edwards, and the heart of John of Patmos.   I admit, it is not a happy creed, but it is a sober one.   As my Scottish Presbyterian relatives from my mother in law’s side might say:  “Bob, you are so often, so wrong!.” Marsh Chapel embraces Presbyterians, especially on Ash Wednesday.  As we have done other years on Atonement and M Robinson and D Bonhoeffer and J Ellul, we will preach on Calvin this March, 2014.  Buy a Presbyterian lunch early in Lent, and appreciate the gifts of their season.

 

B.   Jesuits

 

Speaking of Lent, you may be thinking about the Jesuits.  Perhaps you attended a Jesuit college, or teach in one. (I have taught in one, Lemoyne College, since 1989). Maybe you have wondered about Ignatius of Loyola, born in Pamplona, a Spaniard and a warrior, who was converted through illness to a beatific vision of Jesus, the Christ, Lord and Savior.  Believe me, in Lent we are all Jesuits.  In the season of Lenten discipline and preparation, you know, March of ice and snow and cold, we rely on some form of Jesuitical discipline.  You may not precisely use his “Spiritual Exercises”, his daily devotion of silence and prayer and vision of Jesus.  You may be sorry that he set loose the Inquisition and Index as tools of the Counter Reformation.  You may feel he carried too much eye and too much military into a faith that is primarily auditory and irenic.  In that, you would be a Lutheran, you Lutheran you.  But in Lent, we are all soldiers in the Society of Jesus, ready to drill and train and prepare and exercise and submit.  As Teresa of Avila put it, “even when we are thrown from the mud-cart of life, God is with us.” (Her voice we will need with our annual Marsh prayer brunch this Marathon Monday, April 21, 10am, here). Marsh Chapel embraces Jesuits, whether in the Vatican or on the street, especially in Lent.  Everyone is a Jesuit, come Lent.

 

C. Lutherans

 

Since, though, you brought up Luther, we must also give credit where credit is due.  Come Good Friday, when we survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, our greatest gain we count but loss, and pour contempt on all our pride.  I know that the ground at the foot of the cross is pretty level, but the view of the cross that is best is found from the perspective of the Lutherans, who stoutly recall, with Luther, crux sola nostra teologia.  Lutherans!  We love you at Marsh Chapel! The Cross alone, come Good Friday, is our teaching.   Luther’s grave is not found in Lake Wobegon, but you can see it from there.  We need to remember, especially on Good Friday, that all of our best intentions fall short.  Especially when we think we have it just right, whatever it is, we invariably have it just wrong.  It was Katie von Bora, a former nun, who in marrying Luther reminded him of his humanity and “brought out the most winsome traits” of the Reformer’s character. All our symbols, personal and familial and national and denominational, lie prostrate before the cross, all need right interpretation to avoid idolatry.  Even the cross, our own central symbol, needs that interpretation, which is why we consent to a 25 minute sermon every week, even though the Baptists would rather shout and pray.  Did we in our own strength confide, our winning would be losing!   When it comes to the Cross, “nobody does it better” than Luther.

 

D. Baptists

 

I have just mentioned the Baptists.   This, you worry, brings the camel’s nose under the tent. They are always threatening to become the sideshow that ate up the circus, you say.   You give them an inch, they will take a mile, you say.  Speaking of miles, they can seem a mile wide and an inch deep, you say. They give anarchy a bad name, you say.  But we must recognize that there is a season for everybody.  Especially the Baptists.  For in June, or late May, when the world is young again, we will celebrate Pentecost, the day of Spirit.   Every week I know you try to invite one person to join you in the joy of Marsh Chapel.  Baptists are embraced here. After 50 days after 40 days, that is 90 days from Calvin’s ashes, we pause again to remember that God is with us.  Wesley died saying, “the best of all is, God is with us!”  (Relax, I will get to the Methodists, in due time.  Remember, we are gathering some Methodists here at 10am on May 22.)   Beware your caution about Baptists.  The Baptists are not all canoe and no paddle, not all axe-murder and no sheriff, not all fire and no hose, not all hat and no cattle, God love ‘em.   Not All Spirit, whatever the Trinitarian Orthodox say.   The Baptists may seem almost Unitarians of the Third Person of the Trinity!  I tell you though, come Pentecost, that’s the day, Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through.   When that wind of God is blowing (I do not refer to your preacher sermonizing), then you need some Baptists around to shake things up a little.  Yes you do.  Rembert Weakland said that Christians are always in a little bit of trouble.    Isabella Van Wagener (Sojourner Truth) said, “That man says women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman.  Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had nothing to do with him!”  See what I mean?! You need to shout when the Spirit says shout!

E. The Orthodox

 

The Orthodox do not do a lot of shouting on Sunday.  Or on Monday.  They happily meet in Marsh Chapel every Monday evening, and there is but little hollering.  They’re not big shouters, except during their summer festivals, which happen to come, properly I think, about the time of Trinity Sunday.  The more liturgical churches, Orthodox and Episcopalian and Catholic, remember this Sunday, Trinity Sunday, better than others.  We love the Orthodox at Marsh, especially come Trinity Sunday.  This is the season when we remember that God is more than Almighty Creator (no matter what the Muslims say) and that God is more than Lordly Savior (no matter what the Holy Rollers say) and that God is more than Mysterious Spirit (no matter what the Californians say).  God is three, three, three Faces in one.  Leave it to the Orthodox to remind us.  Their wedding services last three hours.  One for each Person of the Trinity, perhaps.  When you come to June 15, go to a Greek festival and dance to the Triune God.  Go ahead.  Hug a Trinitarian in June!   A few blocks down Commonwealth, at Arlington Street, the ghost of William Ellery Channing may be angry about it, but you go ahead and love your Trinitarian neighbor as your own self.   As Constantine’s mother, Helena, may have said on her many 4th century pilgrimages to Jerusalem,  “let us remember well those who have revered God before us.”  Our national 2014 summer preaching series, on the theme, ‘The Gospel and Emerging Adulthood’—with preachers Nix, Walton, Romanik and others—will help us revere God in our time.

 

F. Roman Catholics

 

Now that we are knee deep in liturgy, let us honor the Roman Catholics.  Every third member of our Marsh community today comes out of a Roman Catholic background.  Our history, liturgy, nave, location and personality as a congregation have regularly made this move accessible to women and men of many different interests and backgrounds.  On World Communion Sunday 2014 we will all be Catholic! Especially this year and next when we look back with joy on Vatican II, and its explosion of aggiornamento—renewal.  Aggiornamento:  I love the chance to say a word in Italian. You are listening on the radio to Marsh Chapel.  With the universal church we here celebrate the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  With the universal church we here acknowledge one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.  With the universal church we here recognize the global character of the Christian communion.   It has been the Roman Catholic church, more steadily than most, that has defended the human body in our time.  It has been the Catholic church that has regularly regarded the poor and those of low estate.  It has been the Catholic church that has kept the long history of Christendom before us.  Our liturgical ties to the universal church should not be loosened by the very real doctrinal differences we have with Rome.  John Wesley preached a whole sermon on extending an olive branch, a sign of peace, to the Romans.  From our Anglican heritage, we are a moderate people.  We know the value of an olive branch.  On World Communion Sunday , come October, we shall affirm here at Marsh, one holy, catholic and apostolic church.  We remember, among so many others, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose simple deeds of service to the poorest spoke volumes to her time.

 

G. Anglicans

 

Now, I just mentioned the Anglicans.  Did you notice how the Anglican or Episcopal tradition found its way, on little cat feet, into our seasonal review?  Typical.  You will usually find an Anglican sidling up alongside you in discussion, listening and careful in discourse.  To the Episcopalian, a smile comes before a frown, a “quite so” before a “not so”.  Anglicans are like everybody else—only moreso.  They revere the variety and diversity of the communion of saints.  They agree to disagree, agreeably.  They are peaceable people, nearly Quaker in character.  Not for them the starch of Lutheran polemics, nor the bitter herbs of Calvinist dogma.  A little sherry in the afternoon, a little Handel, a little wooly conversation—jolly good!  Tallyho!  Pip-pip! Cheerio!   It is reason, rather than revelation alone, that has guided the Church of England, reason and a stiff dose of liturgy, including the veneration of Saints.  One a soldier, one a priest, one slain by a fierce wild beast.  On All Saints Day, we are all Anglicans.  (And on Halloween, too!!!).  Marsh Chapel loves Episcopalians.  They are princes of peace, these sons and daughters of George III.  They are optimistic people!  Said Queen Victoria, “we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat”.

 

H. Quakers

 

Real peace, the waiting and quiet of peace in the heart, however, are ultimately the province of our Pennsylvanian neighbors.  In Advent, you are a Quaker through and through.  Oh, you worship God.  You know that in heaven we will be greeted by St Peter, not by Benjamin Franklin; that we will walk the golden streets, not Market Street in Philadelphia; that we will hear the angelic choir not the Liberty Bell; that we are disciples first and citizens second.  Still, the city of brotherly love, only a few hours south, the American home of the spiritual descendents of George Fox, that Quaking Englishman, is the home of a radical quest for peace, a waiting for peace, a longing for peace, a season of quiet that is utterly Quaker in nature.  “I have called you Friends”, said our Lord.  I tell you, when you have truly felt the power of the Society of Friends, you will be as ready for the peace of Advent as you were prepared for the discipline of Lent by the Society of Jesus.  It is enough to make you sing like a Methodist!  The Quakers may not have been always as militarily committed as others may have liked.  In faith, they may have stepped aside when others had to step forward.  Still, it was to them that Ben Franklin turned at the end of his life, in 1792, to implore the young nation to jettison slavery, and they alone, prescient and right, stood by him.  In Advent, we all are Philadelphia Quakers, eating Cheesesteaks and twinkies and sculling on the Scuykill River.  We all await peace.  We remember Mother Ann Lee and the shaking Quakers singing, “in truth simplicity is gain, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed; to turn, turn will be our delight, til by turning, turning, we come round right.”

 

I.              The People Called Methodists

 

Do you suspect that we have saved the best for last?  For come December 2014 it will be Christmastide, again.  Sing we now of Christmas, Noel, Noel!  A song greets the dawn.  It is the singing of the birds before daybreak that heralds a new morning, and it is the singing of the church of Christ, in season and out, that heralds a new creation.  You are here to invite somebody to come to worship with you in 2014.  So you will ring the bell, sing the song, tell the tale of Christmas.  Christmas means invitation.  The birds sing while it is still dark, and the church sings while sin remains.  People do change, for the better, even when we are reluctant to notice. Emerson:  the human being is convertible. To come to Christmas, truly to come to Christmas, you must come singing.  In church, in the shower, at prayer meeting, in the choir, carolling, at youth group, by yourself.  To sing is to be a Methodist.  A singing Methodist, as our common speech declares.  All sing, but none so sweetly.  All sing, but none so vibrantly.  All sing, but none with a list of rules about how to do so pasted in the front of a hymnal, whose reproduction every generation is the church equivalent of world war 3.  All sing, but none with the theological bearing of singing with the Wesleys.  To sing the Wesley hymns is to plant one’s standard upon the field of battle and roar:  let the games begin! And what shall we sing?  Carols of course.  And which carols.  Those of the English tradition of course.  And which of these? There is but one of the first rank.    It is the doctrine of the Incarnation, more than those others from Crucifixion to Resurrection, which so marks the people called Methodist.  The primitive church told two stories of Jesus, that of his death (Holy Week and Easter) and that of his birth (Advent and Christmas).  You must sing both, not just one, or the other.  So the Wesley’s adored the Gospel of John, and “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.  So they hoped for a new creation, finished, pure and spotless.  (I love my church with all my heart, even in the teeth of all our difficulties.) So they built churches, great and beautiful, but just for appetizers to the real meal—orphanages, mission societies, colleges, universities, medical schools, hospitals, including 128 US schools and colleges, with Boston University leading the parade. So Susanna Wesley bore 20 children, 17 of whom survived, one of whom, John, died saying, “the best of all is—God is with us!”, another of whom, Charles, gave us the gospel at Christmas:

 

Hail the heaven born prince of peace

Hail the Sun of Righteousness

Light and life to all He brings

Risen with healing in his wings

Mild he lays his glory by

Born that we no more may die

Born to raise the us from the earth

Born to give us second birth

Hark the herald angels sing!

Glory to the Newborn King!

 

Can you hear this?  It begs a hearing.  If you do, I challenge you, call you to a resolution:  find a church in 2014!  Worship God once a week next year!  Join us here at Marsh Chapel!  And bring a friend with you!

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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