The Marsh Spirit

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Matthew 2:1-12

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Preface

 ‘And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.’ (Matthew 2: 12)

A dream like mist settles on us in the hearing of the Christmas story.   The strange world of the Bible causes us to look twice, to think twice.   Our dreams themselves become dreams, dreams squared, ‘y los suenos suenos son’, come Christmas.   For a few moments in worship, or a day in reverie, or a week in travel, for a time at the end of the year, and at the start of the year, you may be brought once again into the mystery, the uncanny actuality of our living, our being.  We are showered with a dream, a dream like mist.

Then it is not a stretch at all for us to hear of the wise men going home by another way, warned, as the Bible says, ‘in a dream’.  They are dim, shadow figures from the distant past, or from a stylized memory from an ancient past.  In a dream.  Warned in a dream, guided in a dream, carried forward in a dream.

A dream like mist settles on us in the hearing of the ancient tales at Christmas.   We are moved, if we are moved, not just by intellectual argument, but by intuitive insight.  We are moved, if we are moved, in the dream like mist of this dreamy season, not by reasoned argument alone or in the main, but by instinctual grasp, a grasp of the way in which we ourselves are grasped, even grabbed, by the Gospel.  And so, it may be, come Epiphany Sunday, that we too will bring forth personal devotion, our communal celebration, our remembered sense of justice—gold, frankincense and myrrh.

A Way Forward

Before the Christ Child we present our gold of personal devotion.  You may have an inkling of a new way in a new year.   If so, a few initial preparations are in order.  The life of faith upon which journey you are entering proceeds best in company.  There are very few free lance Christians.  You will want to worship come Sunday.  You can start of course by listening to this or another broadcast, week by week.  Hearing the lessons and the music, attending to the prayers and sermon, finding over time the way into the language, grammar and syntax of the Gospel through the weekly practice of prayer and listening, of beauty and holiness, in the company of other fellow travelers.  Worship on Sunday.  You will want to find a small group in which you may learn others’ names, and find yourself called by name.   One might be simply the small group who come before worship to sit quietly in the sanctuary in prayer.  Over time others will see and know you, and you them.  Or in an adult study group, or a traditional bible study, or a mission oriented group or something special for internationals or Methodists or Lutherans or gay people.  You could start by having coffee with a group of others following worship, downstairs.  Gather in a group.  You will want to try out the generosity of faith by giving.    Of course you can use the collection plate, please do.  But there are other ways to give that may be more fit for you.  You may read about a project or mission that calls out to you.  Give some support.  You may be invited to volunteer in a service ministry.  Give some time.  You may find yourself attracted to a nearby library or soup kitchen or day care center or tutoring program.  Give some effort.  Practice generosity.  Worship, gather, give.  Worship, gather, give.  Worship, gather, give.  Start again each Sunday.  The dreams at the heart of Christmas do help you find your way home, though in a different manner, perhaps, than the manner in which you have been living.   The life of faith upon which journey you enter now proceeds best in the company of others.  Worship, gather, give.

The Christmas Gift

Before the Christ Child we present our frankincense of communal Christmas celebration.Our spirit at Marsh Chapel is quickened by the gift of Christmas.  This school year, each first Sunday of the month, we have worked at interpreting the local spirit around us here at Marsh Chapel.  They are meant, in the long run, to be read as one catena, one lengthened sermon, knit together in sacrament and song.  There is a particular spirit of this place and community.  Incarnation, life, is a feature of this spirit, which we probe today, as in other months, Inquiry, Hymnody, Recollection, Patience.  And so,  Life.

For reasons missional, theological and spiritual it is timely for us to receive the gift of Christmas.  You as a congregation in these years have labored so.  You have opened the Chapel for Christmas Eve, even though the University is closed.  That is good.  You have added a second Christmas Eve noon service.  That is good.  You have presented your Lessons and Carols twice.  That is good.  You have offered a blue Christmas service, various festive and festival open houses, and even a daily electronic Advent devotional.  All this is so good.  You are working to make the Marsh spirit as lively at Christmas as it is already at Easter.

One reason is missional.  This is the one time of year, in a post religious culture, in which people who otherwise may have no particular religious perspective may be open to the journey of faith.  Singing a carol.  Lighting a candle.  You who already know the psalms, and have your favorite, remember the parables and identify your best one, recite the Lord’s prayer and sing the hymns of faith:  remember that others have yet to receive the first course, the first helping, the first meal of faith.  Christmas opens the door like no other season, and our doors should be fully open too.

A second reason is theological.  We need to balance Easter with Christmas.  We need to balance redemption with creation.  We need to balance resurrection with incarnation.  For our own spirit at Marsh Chapel to be whole, we need as full a nativity as we have a holy week.  Most congregations struggle in the opposite direction.   You need both stories, both wings to fly.

The early church told two stories about Jesus.  The first about his death.  The second about his life.  The first, about the cross, is the older and more fundamental.  The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight of the first, the code with which to decipher the first.

Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture.  That is the first story.  How we handle this story, later in the year, come Lent and Easter, is a perilous and serious responsibility.

The first story, the death story, the story of Jesus’ death, another season’s work, needs careful, careful handling. 

Later in the year we shall return to story one.  But at Christmas, we listen for story two, the story of Jesus’ life, the story of Jesus.

Who was Jesus?  What life did his death complete?  How does his word heal our hurt?  And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

Without the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke of Jesus’ life—his teaching, his healing, his preaching, his ministry—Christianity based only on Paul and John would have become a kind of Gnosticism, as John Ashton long ago noted (UFG, 238)

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and is told among us to interpret the first.  Christmas is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven.  Christmas in a violent world is meant to remind us, all of us, that you do not need to leave the world in order to love God. Christmas is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all.  Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had were Lent, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil and Easter monring.  And the Christmas images are the worker bees in this theological hive.

There is a further, a spiritual reason for us to fully honor Christmas, Christmastide, Epiphany and the gift of Christmas.  Christmas carries a patent universality, a birth story that readily enters the hearts and minds of people from many religious backgrounds and from no particular religious perspective.  The author of Ephesians writes that ‘through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known’.  Christmas is our handshake with the rest of the religions of the globe, and in our time, such a greeting and embrace is a daily need.  Birth narratives are familiar to Christians, but also to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, and many others, including those who stand aside from all religious traditions.

With great effort, the ancient writers joined the God of Creation with the God of Redemption.  The coming of the Savior does not limit the divine care to the story of redemption, but weaves the account of redemption into the fabric of creation.  There is more to the Gospel than the cross.  The ancient writers sense this and say it with gusto:  angels to locate Jesus on earth; shepherds to locate Jesus among the poor; kings, so on Epiphany Sunday today, to honor and empower Jesus on earth; a poor mother to locate physically the birth of Jesus in the womb of earth, and outside, and in a manger, and among the poor.

Easter may announce power but Christmas names place.  Jesus died the way he did on earth because he lived the way he did on earth.  Jesus lived the way he did so that he could die the way he did.  That is, it is not only the power of Christ, but the presence of Christ, too, which you affirm.  Not just his death, but his life, too.

The lovely decorated Christmas tree in your living room, with its natural grace adorned by symbolic beauty, is meant to connect the God of Creation with the God of Redemption.

In the Flesh

Before the Christ Child we present our shared, historic, remembered affirmation of liberty and justice—for all.  Ours is a flickering remembrance of what Isaiah did foretell, ‘nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn’.  Our region and country lost a powerful voice this week, speaking of life and incarnation and redemption in creation.  In closing I mention him, to honor his formative influence on me and others.  When I wonder about the cost of honest speech, I remember his annual veto of the death penalty in New York State.  When I question the value of self-criticism and self-doubt, I think of his true- to- self, unapologetic brooding.  When I rue the hurt of lost votes and lost programs I think of his stamina.  When I wonder what epitaph to which I should aspire, I think of his chosen phrase, ‘he tried’ and his favorite title, ‘participant’.  Other than my dad’s voice, his is one or the one I will most miss.  Mario Cuomo died New Year’s Day.

About 20 years ago, when the Carousel Mall in Syracuse NY was still new, a religious temple built, and now being rebuilt, for the gods of getting and spending and laying waste of powers, 400 people gathered in the Mall’s top floor room, to enjoy breakfast, the view, and the featured speaker, then Governor Mario Cuomo. I was given a ticket and invited to go, and when you are in the ministry, you go when and where you are invited.

He began with light banter, wondering how in the midst of state recession the local developers had found the capital to build, and teasing them about ‘looking into it’.  He was in good humor, though he had hardly a supporter in the room.  And he was humorous, glad to be present, and glad to speak. He told about meeting President Reagan for the first time.  As he crossed the room to be introduced the jolly President said, ‘You have no need to introduce this man.  I would know him anywhere.  A great American, leader, and a great Italian American.  I am proud to greet Lee Iacocca at any time’.  He told about his parents coming through Ellis Island, penniless and speaking no English (he added that his mother even then hoped her son would become governor of the state!  Ane he remembered Emma Lazarus…)  He spoke knowingly about the needs of central New York, but also had to spend time acknowledging the shortcomings that soon would bring his defeat.  He began at 8:20 and I did not look at my watch until 9:15.  I believe it is the most powerful public oration I have personally heard, and it was delivered without a single note.  As George Eliot might have said:  “ingenious, pithy and delivered without book”.  Just in terms of rhetoric, it was sheer, delightful excellence.

He has been on my mind this weekend, and his voice has been reverberating again, as many mourn his death.

He concluded that morning by talking, as he had in 1984, about Two Cities, one set on a hill, and one set far below.  Two Countries, one rich and one poor.  Two Nations, one for the many well to do, and one for all the others—the poor, the frail, the elderly, the disinherited, the minority.  Two Realities, as different as night and day. His words sound very contemporary:

In many ways we are a shining city on a hill…

But the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city’s splendor and glory.  But there’s another city; there’s another part to the shining the city; the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate…

In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can’t find it. Even worse: There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn’t show. There are ghettos where thousands of young people, without a job or an education, give their lives away to drug dealers every day. There is despair in the faces that (we) don’t see, in the places that (we) don’t visit in (our) shining city…

It was a striking kind of sermon to deliver, at the height of economic wellbeing in that part of the state, a sort of Robin Hood homily for the Sheriffs of Nottingham in the Carousel Mall.  It was a Christmas sermon, even though it occurred later in the year.  I doubt that more than a handful of those present ever did vote for him.  And in fact, he was defeated and out of office a year or so later.  Yet his prophetic, principled, out of fashion and favor voice kept before us, before us all, those whom we are sometimes inclined to neglect or forget. There are things that we just have to keep steadily before us, not forget, not avoid, and not neglect.   Who will help us to do this now?  I wonder whose voice will take the place of his?

Coda

            Gold. Incense.  Myrrh.  Devotion. Celebration.  Remembrance. A dream like mist settles on us in the hearing of the ancient tales at Christmas.   We are moved, if we are moved, not just by intellectual argument but by intuitive insight.  We are moved, if we are moved, in the dream like mist of this dreamy season, not by reasoned argument alone or in the main, but by instinctual grasp, a grasp of the way in which we ourselves are grasped, even grabbed by the Gospel.

‘And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.’ (Matthew 2: 12)

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

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