December 23

Simply Christmas

By Marsh Chapel

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Micah 5:2-5a

Hebrews 10:5-10

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Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

One summer we had a chance to take our granddaughter out for lunch.  Children are the landlords for the kingdom of heaven.  Children show the manner of entry into the kingdom of heaven.  Children receive the touch of the kingdom of heaven.  The little place we chose has a long history of children and summer, of burgers and ice cream.  It sits nestled into a long, lovely valley, an actively agricultural valley of corn fields and dairy barns.  We were not quite alone in the small dining room, though that designation itself seems overwrought.  The room   simply provided space for a collection of tables and chairs.  An older woman sat, back to door, enjoying her luncheon hot dog and potatoes.  After lunch, as a reward for eating all of lunch, our granddaughter had an ice cream cone.  I want to try to interrupt all the twittering texting emailing rushing half listening cacophony of our current life with the dripping joy of one two year old an one small vanilla cone.  Our older friend peered over her hot dog and potatoes and with eyes bright pronounced a silent blessing.  Everything about an ice cream cone in the summer brims with what is good.  The cold clean taste.  The texture soft and grainy.  The drip drip of melted cream falling on lips, then chin, then tiny hand, then shirt, then floor.  The dive nose first down in for more.  Sheer happy joy, for the moment,  attends such a child on such a day with such a treat.  Simplicity.

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them’

Some of the old, good things about life well before and well beyond college age can bring their refreshment, a powerful refreshment, into communities of twenty year olds.  I notice the way our students respond to children when, occasionally, there are little people on campus.  You can see the minds moving: this once was me; one day I will have children.  An education frees you from the confines of the early twenty first century by immersing you in Plato and Shakespeare and Galileo and the Russian Revolution.  In the same way, just a glimpse of the child and cone free you from the confines of life at twenty.

Sometimes, like children, in simplicity, we need to re-enter the kingdom of God. I notice how much detail my granddaughter sees that I miss.  The dog in the water.  The bird behind the tree branch.  The rabbit peeking out from under the berry bush.  The sound of the water running into the culvert.  Perhaps it is this simplicity of direction observation, dulled over decades that causes us to misstep.

M Atwood:  ‘Children begin saying ‘That’s not fair’ long before they start figuring out money…Debt, who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid, is a subject much larger than money.  It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all our exchanges with our fellow human beings’. (NYT 10/08).

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A childlike attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

Last month of a Sunday afternoon we gathered for Holy Baptism here in the chancel.  Afterward, one of the guests asked who was in the Rose Window above.  “That is the Lord Jesus Christ”, we replied.  “But he looks like the Buddha” came the response.  With some pique, it could be added.  Well.  There is a simplicity here, shared it may be, between the two.  Our latest grandchild is now being raised by a Methodist father and a Buddhist mother, and will be baptized this winter.  So the question had traction.  Granted so many differences, simply put, there are similarities, as in our time granted so much diversity, there is unity yet.  And we are going to have to learn to share the spiritual care of the globe with some other religious traditions, now and then, are we not?

Like the Buddha, we need to come down from heaven, down from our very worthy, but limiting intelligences.  Like the Buddha, we need to celebrate any birth, with Siddhartha’s birth.  Like the Buddha we need to explore the world outside the palace, to explore other spaces and times.  Like the Buddha we need to find our own forms of Siddhartha’s famous renunciation.  Like the Buddha we can benefit from the simplicity enjoined in any and every ascetic practice.  Like the Buddha, we face the challenge of Mara’s temptations, of life’s temptations.  Like the Buddha, who preached his first sermon, we find our true voice by finding our earlier voice.  Like the Buddha, we seek peace, a kind of nirvana.  Such a simple peace allows us to move, to grow, to change.  “What’s won is done, the joy is in the doing”, wrote Shakespeare.

This is why experience matters.  As D Brooks wrote not long ago:   ‘How is prudence acquired?  Through experience.  The prudent leader possesses a repertoire of events, through personal involvement or the study of history, and can apply those models to current circumstances to judge what is important and what is not, who can be persuaded and who can’t, what has worked and what has not’.

Our age needs prudence: the capacity to ‘foster public virtue through moral instruction and official ritual without coercing dissenters.’ (anonymous).

Dr. Jean Twenge, of San Diego, in her new book, iGen, identifies markers of health to aid those struggling with depression and suicide, in *face to face interaction and conversation, in *reading printed material, and in *attending religious services (SKY citation).

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

A church service like this one reminds you of your childhood.  Not your youthful past, your childhood.  You are a child of God.  Howard Thurman famously concluded his masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited, with just this thought.  To allow such kingdom sensibility to live, though, requires all the heavy thought and truth telling we can muster.

J Mang: ‘it is likely that nothing will match the reassurance of a Sunday morning spent in church.  But for an ever growing number of Americans, the conviction that the church is built on shaky philosophical grounds is more powerful than the longing for unconditional comfort’.  The two cannot finally be disjoined.  Nor can the religious longing ever easily be written out of human life: ‘whatever introduces genuine perspective is religious’ (Dewey).

A GM executive, wrote:  ‘we have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute’.

D Sorokin:  ‘The 21st century has begun with seemingly unbridgeable chasms between secularism and believers.  One step in averting such a parlous situation is to recover the notion of an Enlightenment spectrum that, by including the religious Enlightenment, complicates our understanding of belief’s critical and abiding role in modern culture’. Would you not love to master the simple art of efficacious compassion?

Proust wrote, ‘Beauty.  That beauty of which we are sometimes tempted to ask ourselves whether it is, in this world, anything more than the complementary part that is added to a fragmentary and fugitive stranger by our imagination over stimulated by regret’.

Sometimes the simple voice of conscience will rise up and touch us:  ‘I felt like I was betraying myself, like this isn’t really what I like to do, this isn’t who I am, this isn’t the experience I want to be having.’

Simplicity can be paradoxical.  Tillich: ‘God does not exist.  He is being-itself, beyond essence and existence.  Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him’ (ST 1, 205). Dag Hammarskjold:  ‘God does not die on the day we cease to believe in a personal Deity, but we die on the day our lives cease to be illumined by a radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder whose source lies beyond all reason.’

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

Here is the traveling experience, rendered with simplicity, of a Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish:

                  We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere. As if traveling is the way of the clouds.  We have buried our loved ones in the darkness of the clouds, between the roots of the trees.  And we said to our wives:  go on giving birth to people like us for hundreds of years so we can complete this journey.  To the hour of a country, to the meter of the impossible.  We travel in the carriages of the psalms, sleep in the tent of the prophets and come out of the speech of the gypsies.  We measure space with a hoopoe’s beak or sing to while away the distance and cleanse the light of the moon.  Your path is long so dream of seven women to bear this long path on your shoulders.  Shake for them palm trees so as to know their names and who’ll be the mother of the boy of Galilee.  We have a country of words.  Speak speak so I can put my road on the stone of a stone.  We have a country of words.  Speak speak so we may know the end of this travel. (‘Victims of a Map’).

The Holy Scripture assumes a multi-generational perspective, no more so than in the narratives of Advent and Christmas.  Notice that Luke pictures a conversation in the womb, Jesus and John the Baptist, Mary and Elizabeth.  Real change takes a long time, generations of time, when it comes at all.  Do you remember what you were confronted with 30 years ago, exactly a generation ago?  For some of us, almost to the hour, 30 years ago, it was the sudden announcement on a bitter snowy night, to a stunned basketball crowd in the Carrier Dome, that a plane with many of our own neighborhood students, our own Syracuse University students, and students from other regions including Boston, had crashed in Lockerbie Scotland.  The portent of that moment in 1988 eluded us, eluded all, but it was a harbinger of the struggles of the next thirty years, in one limited, little simple horror and tragedy, 182 dead.

‘They have been called upon to face up to mystery, actually the most terrible mystery of all, and facing mystery is something that everyone must do for himself.  In the face of such a disaster one must fall back on faith or find only bitter meaninglessness in the universe.  To my mind this is the greatest challenge faith offers—to believe that the hand of God has not been withdrawn from the world when such things happen’.  (Said of those who lost children in the 1958 Chicago fire, this could be said of us all.)

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child-like attention to simple things.


Bethlehem Ephratha, though thou be little, from thee shall come

One of my favorite Boston vignettes is set in the public Garden.  EB White liked to take his step-son skating on the Frog Pond, when they visited relatives in Beacon Hill.  Both step Father and Son loved Boston, and its charming garden.  One day they hiked down from their relatives apartment, took off their shoes, stuffed them under a bench, donned their skates and skated until the sun set.  This was in the depths of the depression.  When they returned to the bench, their shoes were gone.  ‘Someone needed them more than we did’ was all White would say.  Then the two hiked up Beacon Hill together.  Still in their skates.  That image of the great writer, enjoying the winter, loving the garden, enthralled with ice, kind to the needy, and hiking up Beacon Hill on the tips of his skates—that image stays with me.

The least, the little, the simple…simply Christmas.  A child like attention to simple things.

‘When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb’.

It was a Boston preacher, Phillips Brooks, no stranger to Commonwealth Avenue, who wrote the simple lines of our familiar carol:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born in us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O Come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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