Before I begin the sermon
I want to say a word about a special event
taking place today across the country.
It is called, “The National Vigil for Gun Violence Victims
and National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath;”
and because our bishop, Tom Ely,
is a member of “Bishops United Against Gun Violence”
he has urged each congregation in Vermont
to participate in the vigil.
So I want to say two things about his request.
The first is, that we will dedicate the organ interlude
that takes place immediately after the sermon,
to a moment of prayer and meditation
especially for victims of gun violence –
which includes hundreds of thousands of people
if we consider those in war –
and their family members and friends,
which add millions of others.
It is a massive group we are invited to pray for.
But I want to add to that list,
those who are perpetrators of gun violence –
for whatever darkness is in their heart and mind
evoking such hostile and deadly force.
And asking that we pray for perpetrators
as well as victims and family members and their friends,
leads me to the second thing I want to say.
Any Sunday worship dedicated to a public issue
makes me highly uncomfortable
because it also tends to politicize
prayer and worship.
I feel uncomfortable doing this to worship
even for those issues and concerns
with which I feel passionate agreement.
Every important concern right now in our society,
from gun control to abortion rights
to civil rights for anyone and everyone,
is highly politicized and being used
as a voting wedge issue.
It seems to me
that if we really want to address important and divisive public issues
as a community of faith,
it would be better to do it
in direct conversation with one another
than in a setting like worship
which is a forum that does not allow
for much give-and-take.
So my fear is,
that having a prayer vigil on Sunday morning
about something that is a cultural wedge issue –
because gun control is the driving force behind
this national day of prayer –
turns prayer into a device for scolding.
This may be just my peculiarity
and it could be that everyone else feels just fine
about praying together around a divisive issue
in a setting like worship
where we can’t really talk about it;
if so, I apologize for limiting the vigil
to a moment of wordless prayer and meditation.
So just know that the organ interlude today
is dedicated to prayer for those who have suffered
as the result of gun violence.
There are many to pray for
and much to pray about;
and even more importantly,
much for us to talk about with one another
as we strive to live together
in a diversity of beliefs
and a plurality of values
and our many differences
in creed, culture, and experience.
Now the sermon.
My mom died in 1998 at the age of 83.
She was adopted as an infant
and it was the source of so much shame for her
that she kept is a secret from her children.
We didn’t know her birth name
until she died when our father told us.
We didn’t know anything about her birth family
until recently when two of my sisters
relentlessly followed the trail right to the rabbit’s warren.
I get sad for my mom
when I think about the shame she held,
consistent with her time and culture
that feared particular kinds social differences,
thrived on conformity,
and dreaded standing out in a crowd.
But my mom couldn’t help standing out.
She grew up in rural Michigan
and was driving at the age of twelve
because her dad was a country doctor
and her mom refused to drive.
So early on my grandfather taught her to drive
so she could take him over dirt and gravel roads
and drop him off at homes
where he would spend the night delivering a child
or sitting up with a sick person through dark hours.
She skipped two grades in school
and graduated from high school just two months after
her sixteenth birthday.
She was different.
My mom was terribly introverted
yet she had a brilliant mind that required venting
just about everything
she knew and thought and believed.
She did not vent those thoughts with grace either.
She was socially awkward and odd,
a first-rate character if you know what I mean.
When I was growing up,
particularly in adolescence,
I was mortified by my mom’s missing filter.
I was embarrassed by her
and couldn’t figure out why my friends loved her.
Looking back now
I think it is because she treated them like adults;
because she didn’t really know how to calibrate
differences between people.
She was oddly different
and yet she did not treat anyone else differently
because she did not know how.
Now I see it for what it was but then I hated it.
The Christmas story is like my mom:
adopted, brutally honest, and
socially awkward without its filter.
So let us gather around that manger scene
and look deeply into the Christmas moment.
Knowing what I know about holding a newborn infant,
it is not difficult to imagine Mary pondering
the strange and ironic circumstances of her son’s birth.
But let’s color in some of the other details
that would have influenced her pondering.
In those days
infant mortality was nearly 60%.
for peasants who made it out of childhood,
was about thirty years.
The brutality of poverty limits pondering –
that is one of its cruelest things about poverty.
Poverty urges concentration on the moment
more than fostering a wide-open wonderment.
Then as now, poverty meant
horrendous vulnerability to arbitrary violence,
and near constant uncertainty about the next day.
The poverty in which Joseph and Mary lived
was a life-defining deprivation
of food, shelter, clothing, and basic human rights
on a scale that you and I can only imagine
in our darkest moments.
So let’s place all of that
in the darkness surrounding the manger.
Mary and Joseph,
beyond their brief moment of pondering,
were surely anxious and frantic,
dirty and hungry,
and desperately wondering
how they were going to keep this baby from dying,
as perhaps previous offspring
or those of other family members had.
I point to this painful and awkward reality
at the center of our Christmas story
because we have otherwise constructed
an astoundingly romantic scene
of the birth of Jesus
and it truly distorts the entire life of the Messiah.
I will not mention any of this
on Christmas Eve.
I am my mother’s son
but I am a slightly improved model –
but only slightly.
All of us here right now are the home crowd –
we can talk like family and friends here,
by which I mean openly.
In a couple of weeks
we will share this space with visitors
and C & E worshippers
who come for the romance of it all.
It would be exceptionally inhospitable
for me to talk like this with them.
They do not have the context
or the immunity created
by weekly exposure
to the rigors of our spiritual narrative.
So while I endeavor to make a meaningful contribution
to Christmas Eve,
it will not be at the level of frankness and openness
from which we are pondering today.
Sometimes it really changes things to back up
and gain a little perspective,
so let’s do it today.
Let’s go global
and see Jesus and the Christmas story
in the context of several great world religions.
Moses was an abandoned slave child
that was raised in Pharaoh’s household
but as an adult, rejected that privilege
and at God’s command,
led a slave rebellion.
Buddha was a prince
raised in utter opulence
but upon seeing the extremely brutal poverty
that defined the world on the other side
of his walled and gated family compound,
he abandoned privilege to become a mendicant.
Mohammad was of modest means
but surrounded by generous benefactors who raised him,
and he himself became a very savvy
and successful businessman.
But what defined his adult life were the rejection
of personal affluence
and the embrace of simplicity and generosity.
Jesus was born in stark and dire poverty,
desperately poor and vulnerable,
and a mere miscreant to the oppressive empire
that ruled his world.
Jesus never traveled very far from where he was born,
never produced anything that survived him,
and died ignobly without seeing old age.
We should recognize a common theme here;
a golden thread
that runs through the spiritual wisdom of the world.
If we pull that thread
it should make us wonder if maybe,
we are looking for God in all the wrong places.
It should give us pause
to wonder if we are seeking affirmation
from empty sources.
When we step back and look at this unvarnished pattern
it ought to weaken our confidence
in the things we think give us comfort and security?
But we also know, deep in our bones,
that we are human beings
and we like stuff.
We like to make nice, big, soft nests
to snuggle in and enjoy.
We like comfort, security, and pleasure.
If it is in our nature
we need not feel guilty about it;
we need not feel ashamed
if indeed that is who we are.
But the question is,
can we do better than be creatures who like stuff
and spend their lives collecting stuff
and making stuff
and creating stockpiles and garbage piles of stuff?
Just as we know deep in our bones
that we are creatures that like stuff,
we also know deep down inside
that if we do not do better
then we are going to kill ourselves:
Maybe not personally
We know that unless we change…
Now that is not a new message.
It’s a message that God keeps sending us
over and over and over and over again –
even before we had the capacity to destroy ourselves
on a massive, global scale.
God keeps sending us that message
via those who have lived painfully
on the other side of affluence.
It is an ancient message
sent to kings
and emperors of the ancient world
upon the lips of prophets.
It is a message sent to the ancient world,
the medieval world,
the modern world,
and now the post-modern world.
It is a message sent to every culture
and to the captains of every society.
It is a message about the hazard of living for stuff
at the expense of truly important things
and preserve life
rather than draining and killing life.
That is what the Christmas story is about
when all the mythological and romantic elements
are peeled away to reveal the fruit.
When we peel it away it is kind of like my mom:
embarrassing and socially awkward at the moment
but amazingly smart and wise in retrospect.
God has delivered to us a message
over and over and over and over again.
It is a message that Moses
echo like a broken record:
We’ve got issues with stuff.
There is nothing wrong with us for liking stuff,
or wanting stuff,
it is very natural.
But building our lives and our world around stuff?
That will kill us…all of us.
So the message is getting old, very old.
The question, then as now,
is whether we are going to change one of these days;
if we are going to actually change how we do things.
The Christmas story,
like Jesus who is at the center of it,
is that kind of a baby:
a baby with a face only a mother could love.
God, who is at the center of all our important stories,
is that kind of a child;
one that looks up at us with a fat face
and who we are left to ponder.
Now, just as Mary and Joseph
couldn’t fix their poverty in the moment
as they pondered it,
we cannot fix our many problems in this moment.
But we can ponder them.
We can keep the tensions between our sacred stories
and our unholy existence
front and center
so that it agitates us.
We need our sacred stories to agitate us
rather than lull us to sleep like a lullaby.
So you and I,
the home crowd,
have this story to ponder
underneath the romantic, cultural Christmas,
so that we stay agitated
and little by little
Okay, that is enough of that.
Next week is the pageant and after that Christmas Eve
and going forward we will agitate less
and hold the softness more.
I invite us all into prayer and meditation
for those who have and are suffering from gun violence.