Life as growth
It's not about you...
The other night I was watching a sitcom in which two of the characters are sisters. The older sister, the responsible, mature, stable one, is hosting a party to announce her pregnancy. She’s gone to great lengths to put on a marvelous party and thought out the perfect timing for the announcement. The younger sister, the impulsive immature one, shows up late, gets a little drunk, and ends an argument with her boyfriend by deciding that they should get engaged. At precisely the moment that the older sister is about to make announce her pregnancy, the younger one steals the spotlight and announces her new engagement instead. There follows a shouting match between the two, each accusing the other of trying to make everything all about them. “You make every party all about you!” “You are always stealing my moment!” It’s clear these siblings have more than a few issues to sort out, and quite clear that neither of them has much interest in anything not directly related to themselves. It is all about them.
In our story from Luke this morning, Elizabeth is on older woman who has just received the greatest news of her entire life. After watching her child bearing years go by without a single pregnancy, Elizabeth suddenly finds herself with child in her old age. It is a miracle, and it is her miracle, exactly the miracle for which she had hoped and prayed. The coming of this miracle was proclaimed beforehand to her husband Zecharaiah, the priest, by the angel Gabriel. Yet when he heard of it, Zechariah did not believe it could happen since he and Elizabeth were already so advanced in years. As a result of his disbelief, Gabriel silences Zechariah saying he will remain mute until the birth of the child. The man is silenced. The priest is silenced. This story isn’t about him, and he won’t have anything to say about it until after the climax. In Luke’s story, the men are relegated to non-speaking supporting roles. One more time, in Luke’s story of the birth of the Messiah, the Incarnation of God, and the redemption of the world, the women play the lead roles and the men are silent. In our present time, one in which we are confronting so many of the misdeeds of our men, Luke’s Christmas story is one from which men can learn a great deal. It may be that a quiet and supporting role to women is the only one God grants to men in the drama of salvation. Anyway, Elizabeth gets to enjoy her long hoped for and miraculous pregnancy, with what some women only dream of, a man who doesn’t speak but only listens.
While Elizabeth is living her own personal miracle, her young relative Mary, has also had a angel appear to her. Mary is but a teenager and she is engaged to be married to a young man named Joseph. Before their wedding, an angel appears to her and announces that she will conceive and give birth to a son who is to be the Son of the Most High and will sit on the throne of David forever. The long awaited and frequently prophesied Messiah, the Ancient One who is to redeem all of Israel, is to be Mary’s child. While thats a big pill to swallow, so is hearing that you will be pregnant for the first time, and Mary understandly focuses on that more immediate issue. “How can this be?,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?” The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will help her to conceive and thus her child will be called the Son of God. And then, as if he knows that all of this is a lot to take in, the angel casually mentions that her relative Elizabeth has also conceived in her old age ostensibly to show that nothing is impossible with God, but possibly also to let Mary know that she wasn’t in this whole miraculous pregnancy thing alone. Mary, likely confused and scared, decides to go and visit Elizabeth, to see if she is pregnant as well, to see if she knows what to make of all of this.
So just when Elizabeth is finally having her moment in the sun, when everyone is ooohhing and ahhhing over her miraculous pregnancy, her comes Mary with her own pregnancy to announce. A younger woman has arrived at her home with a story just miraculous enough to top her own, Mary is going to upstage Elizabeth during her one and only pregnancy. We might expect that Elizabeth would react poorly to Mary’s appearance, that she would view Mary as a competitor for attention, might expect the two of them to shout it out like the two sisters from the sitcom. But Luke is overturning expectations in this story. He has silenced the men, Zechariah by an angels fiat, and Joseph just without any lines. Just as God helps the men to realize this story is not about them, so too does God help Elizabeth to recognize and accept that Mary is the star of this drama.
And how does Elizabeth become aware of Mary’s pregnancy and its supreme importance? Does an angel descend to tell her? Does a man interpret it for her? No, her own body tells her. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the fetus in her womb, leaps for joy. It is only after this cue from her body that the Holy Spirit descends upon her to confirm what her body already intuitively knows, Mary is carrying the child of promise. I draw out this point, because for much of the Western Christian tradition the body has been opposed to the Spirit, the spirit being what is good and righteous, and the flesh, the body, being sinful. In many Christian contexts people, but women especially, are taught to distrust their bodies. To identify their bodies as the site of sin, as something to be overcome. Yet here, in this most important of Christian stories, it is a woman’s body which recognizes the Messiah, which intuits the presence of God. And then it is the Spirit that confirms the bodies intuition. So far as the opposition of the flesh and the spirit refers to the opposition between centering your own needs and desires above those of God and God’s creation it is a helpful conception. But so far as it leads to the denigration of our divinely created bodies it is a sinful lie. Women’s bodies are miraculous. They are the good creation of our Great God. It is from the bodies of women that all human life comes, it is from the body of a woman that our Redeemer comes, and it was the body of a woman who first recognized Him as such.
So Elizabeth confirms for Mary what the Angel had told her. Not merely that she is having a child, but that this child will be the LORD. And then Mary, overjoyed by the welcome of her sister and her affirmation, says what has become one of the most recognized portions in all of the Bible, the Magnificat. In this poem Mary begins by giving thanks to God for the great thing that God has done for her. But she quickly moves from speaking of herself to speaking more generally. God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, God has brought down the powerful from their thrones. God has lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped Israel and remembered God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. The focus quickly becomes what God is doing in the world, for Israel and for all people. Through the support of her friend Elizabeth, Mary has moved from focusing on what this pregnancy means for her, to what it means for the world. She too has come to see that the story is not about her, it is about what God is doing through her. And she doesn’t just think these things might occur, she believes so strongly in what God is doing that she speaks of them in the present tense. God HAS scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly. God HAS filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. She believes so completely that God is about to accomplish these things that she speaks of them as though they have already occurred. For if God has spoken these things than they are just as good as done. Mary, the young woman chosen by God to bear God into the world, is the very model of faith for us all. She is able to believe that God so valued her in her lowliness that God would do such an incredible thing for her. God also values us, not because of our greatness, but precisely because of our weaknesses, our lowliness. But Mary was also wise enough to see that the story wasn’t just about her, it was about what God was doing for all the earth. And with the help of Elizabeth she was able to believe in these miracles as well. As much as God loves and values us, we too are only a part of what God is doing in the world. Its not just about us. May we ever hold up Mary as an example for ourselves. May we recognize when our role is one of quiet support. May we seek out the advice of wise women. May we trust women and may we trust and value the divinely created miracle of their bodies. And may we come together to see that all of the blessings God has given us are meant to be used in bringing about the redemption of all people. Amen.
New life from Old Stumps
When I lived in California, I was able to take a couple of trips to visit the
Great Sequoia trees, in the national parks there. If you’ve never been to such a place, to what is called an old growth forest, it is hard to forget. They are called old growth forests, because the absolutely massive trees in the forest can be as many as 2,000 years old. When you stand on the forest floor you can’t even see the top of them, their branches disappear into the clouds. They are ancient, and sturdy, and huge. They look as if they have been there forever, and as though they will always be there. But that’s not true. Even a 2,000 year old life must come to an end. And these trees do die, they do fall over making a huge crashing sound and sending vibrations for miles on the forest floor. Its remarkable to think that something that big, that strong, and that old, could just one day fall down.
Jeremiah was a prophet in the city of Jerusalem at the time of its fall to the Babylonians. At the time of the Babylonian invasion, Jerusalem had been the capital city of Israel, and later Judah, for nearly 400 years. Throughout that time the people had gone from being a rag tag group of escaped slaves and nomadic tribespeople, to becoming a mighty nation, with kings and armies, palaces, and a glorious Temple. From the tiny seed of the exodus community had grown a magnificent tall and sturdy oak. Jerusalem and Judah were the people of God living in the city of God and they were sure that God would keep things going just as they were, just as they had been for the last 400 years.
Jeremiah had the unfortunate task of telling the people of Jerusalem that a change was coming. It was not to be a small change, nor was it to be a popular one. Jeremiah received the word from God, that Jerusalem would be punished for her sins, for her oppression of the poor, and her idolatry. What’s more he received the word that the punishment would come at the hands of the Babylonians, the raging empire would come and utterly destroy Jerusalem and its Temple, and would cart off the Judeans to live in exile in Babylon. The mighty oak that was once Judah and Jerusalem would be chopped down, leaving nothing but a stump where it once stood. It was Jeremiah’s task to bring this word from God to the people. Jeremiah had to bring bad news to a people who had begun to think they were immune to it, he had to tell people that their world, the world they were accustomed to was over.
Over the course of my life, the branch of the Christian Church that I serve here in the United States, mainline protestantism, has undergone a steady decline. The heyday for our denominations, for the mainline church, was the fifties and early sixties. As people returned from war and started families in record numbers, they also flocked to our churches. If you ask Mr. George he can tell you that in the 1960s we had nearly 200 kids in Sunday School here at St. Paul’s. We even had two Sunday services just to fit everyone into the sanctuary. Things were going well, and looking even better. But as the sixties progressed, the trend towards decline began. There are numerous reasons given for why, whole dissertations and books on the subject, but whatever the cause our church’s started shrinking, and closing, and becoming fewer and fewer. This happened all over the country, and it happened here at St. Paul’s too; by 2013, this church had only 6 regular worship attendees.
This long and slow process of decline has meant that I have spent my life in a denomination that is already quite aware of the crisis it is in. The work of Jeremiah in bringing attention to the coming crisis had already been done. By the time I came of age, I was already overly familiar with the doom and gloom scenarios about the future of the mainline church; I had already heard again and again that we are shrinking, we are aging, we are in serious decline. It is good to be honest and straightforward about the challenges that you are facing, its is the only way to deal with them. But after awhile, once everyone knows that there is a crisis, continuing to preach doom and gloom is a little sadistic, instead of rallying our forces to address the problem, it leaves us in despair that nothing can be done, that no change is possible. We are a dying people, in a dying denomination, we were once a mighty oak, and now we are no more than stump.
Stumps are funny things; although they remind you what once lived there, the fully grown tree, they are more than just tree grave markers. They are often not quite dead. Its been awhile since I’ve mowed the grass around the church. Daniel and John and I get together every couple of weeks on a Saturday morning and mow the lawn here at the church, and trim the edges. Typically, I get to push the mower, the job I like best. Along the sidewalk in front of the parsonage on Eleonore Street there is a stump in the grass. It is the stump of a crepe myrtle tree which our next door neighbor chopped down sometime ago. Often we think of tree stumps as being dead, they are what’s left when you kill the tree, when you chop it down. But this particular crepe myrtle stump is stubbornly holding on to life. Everytime I mow the lawn in that spot, I can see the stump before I get to it, because it has all these brand new little shoots. New twigs growing from the stump, with new little leaves. Fresh new attempts of this crepe myrtle to live again. To again become a tree, where there once was only a stump, there is the potential for a brand new tree.
After God’s word to Jeremiah came true and the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the people into exile, it was no longer necessary for him to convince them that disaster was coming; it had already come. The people are living in despair, their home, their loved ones, their whole world seemed to have been destroyed. Living as exiles in Babylon they were without hope, they were mired in despair. It is at this point that God’s word to Jeremiah changes from judgment and warning to comfort and hope. Jeremiah acknowledeges the plain truth of the situation: The House of David had been cut off, the people of Judah have been chopped down, all that remains is a stump. But this does not mean there is no hope. This does not mean that God has forgotten or abandoned God’s people. Just as brand new shoots can spring forth from a seemingly dead stump, so too will God bring forth from the stump of Judah, a shoot, a branch that will fulfill God’s promises to the people. This branch will grow to be a new, strong and sturdy tree and it will execute the justice and righteousness of God, it will save the people. Things are bad now, yes, but the days are surely coming, says Jeremiah, when God will fulfill Her promises, when the people will live in peace and security and know the righteousness of God.
When a big tee falls, when something that we have come to take for granted is taken away, it can feel like the end of the world. When people here that the church or the denomination they loved is dying, it can be overwhelming, it can be devastating. When people see their country changing in ways they don’t like, it can seem like all is lost. When we hear about the coming disaster of climate change, of whole cities being swept into the ocean, it can lead us to panic and a sense of hopelessness. But all trees eventually fall. All things eventually change. Even the tallest, sturdiest sequoia falls. The one thing that we in the Christian Church believe never changes, the one thing that is always true, the one thing that will never pass away is the Word of God in Christ Jesus. This eternal Word proclaims to us that God has acted in the past, and that God will act to save in the future as well. God saved the people from slavery in Egypt, God led the people through the wilderness, God established a kingdom in David, and God brought the exiles back to Jerusalem. This very same God caused a branch of righteousness to spring forth from the stump of Jesse in Jesus Christ who comes to us in love, salvation, justice and righteousness. Jesus Christ is the new shoot, the new branch, the new tree, bringing life from the death of the past.
It is because of God’s saving actions in the past, that we have hope that God will act again. In Jesus Christ God brought the light of the world out of the stump of Judah. Though our denomination may only be the stump of what it once was, God can still bring forth new shoots of life from it. Though our heyday of the 1960s has been chopped down, there are still living roots in the UCC and here at St. Paul’s. We continue to look for new shoots, new possibilities for sharing the gospel, new opportunities to serve our community, new chances to be instruments of God’s grace and love in our world. We must continue to tend carefully to each new shoot, each new ministry that we begin, nurturing them, allowing them to grow, and trusting in our hope that God will bring forth a new shoot of love, justice, and peace here at St. Paul’s, here in the United Church of Christ, and here in the United States. We can be so audacious as to hope in the future impact of St. Paul’s and the UCC because we base our hope in the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, the one who has acted to save in the past, and will once more come to save our lives, our church, our country, and our world. May we hold fast to this hope and may we ever be on the lookout for the new thing God is doing, the new shoot of salvation of which we are invited to be a part. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast