Running Down the Dirt Road to Us: A Christmas Sermon
My friend Chris is one of the best dads I know. He is a doctor but he always finds time to take his boys on scouting expeditions. His Facebook page is chock full of his two boys, always doing some activity or other, with the same smile on their faces. Those boys are well loved.
Last summer, Chris sent his oldest Mark, to a camp in Missouri. Chris lives in Texas, so this was the first time that Mark would have been away from home, far away from home. Mark had just finished fourth grade. Well, Mark was miserable. He sent a letter home every day. "I want to stick it out," he wrote, "But, dad, I just can't wait for you to come and get me." The camp was just two weeks long but it felt like an eternity.
Chris planned to fly to Missouri, rent a car and drive his boy home. He was so afraid of his airplane being delayed that he flew a whole day early, arriving on Thursday. He was supposed to pick up Mark on Friday evening at 5. He stayed in a hotel and drove around aimlessly all Friday morning. He ate lunch at some diner in the small town near the camp and then drove out arriving about 3 pm. There was a rope across the entrance to the dirt road that led to the camp. A sign on the rope read, "Parents are not allowed to pick up their children before 5 p.m. Please stay behind the rope."
Other parents had already gathered, looking anxious and tired at the same time. They exchanged pleasantries, how old is your kid, is this his first year at camp, etc. All the questions were perfunctory because none of the parents were listening to each other. They all had their eyes glued to the dirt road.
By about 4:30, the parents had grown in number. Chris realized that some of them had inched their way to the rope, so as be the first ones to make their way down the dirt road to their kids. Chris subtly moved himself in place. A woman behind him looked a bit overwhelmed by the crowd, but he didn't offer her his spot by the rope.
At 5, two counselors came out. They had enough sense not to step in front of the rope and get trampled by the stampede of desperate parents. Instead, they just stood at either end of the rope, untied it from the poles and let it fall to the ground.
And the parents were off. Chris said he started running like a maniac, all the way down that road. He was not in the greatest shape and got a large stitch in his side. He would do whatever it took to see his kid.
God feels the same. God will do whatever it takes to see his children, to take us home. Gods desire leaves us in the dust. Chris took a plane, rented a car and stayed in a hotel. God gave up the glory of the cosmos to become a tiny child. Theologians like Saint Paul called this kenosis, the self-emptying of God. God had to bind the Divine self to earth, become finite, small, contained. God went from the infinity of heaven to the dirt of a tiny stable in the Middle East.
I often wonder why God was born in Bethelehem. Why did God chose to come to us in a dirty place where the animals slept, in a land where the ruler was willing to kill children just to make himself feel more secure? Why did God chose a land so violent? Mary and Joseph were so alone. Scholars have realized that not only was there no innkeeper in the gospel story, but the word for inn really means guest room. All we have is this one sentence in the gospel of Luke, "There was no room in the inn" but a better translation is "there was no room in the guest room." Joseph would have been knocking on the doors of people's homes, not of inns. And some of these people would have been his relatives since he was descended from the line of David. These people rejected a woman in labor and someone from their own family! Bethlehem was not a fairy tale. The evening of Christ's birth was beautiful because God made it so, but never forget for a moment that Jesus was born in the dirt, in a dangerous and violent world.
My next door neighbor in Kansas had a son who was diagnosed with leukemia. His treatments were terrible and he was just four. His dad looked like hell warmed over. I remember seeing him in the yard and asking how things were. "Kate, I can't make it better for him," he said. "That is the hardest part. I can only stay with him, hold him, just be there. But I can't fix it. He must fight this cancer himself to live."
I think of Chris, running down that dirt road to see his son. I think of my neighbor holding his suffering child. We cannot fix the pain that our children have to endure, but we can be there for them, in the midst of it all, we can be there.
That is what Christmas is all about. It is about the gift of presence. Not presents. Presence. Being there with someone when things are hard and life seems almost unbearable. Have you ever noticed that if you try to fix your friends problems or give them advice that you really don't help them at all? God knows that we must struggle to find our way on this earth, that if God were to just fix the worlds problems, that we would learn nothing at all. Jesus came to save us just by being with us. God became a helpless child just to be with us.
And if God was born in Bethlehem, then God is with us whenever we struggle. God is here with my neighbor and his four-year-old boy as he fights for his life. God is in Peshawar, Pakistan when children are killed in a school. Jesus is right there beside a baby girl who is abandoned in China just because she is a girl. Jesus is there and when the world seems so awful that we cannot make sense of it. God says, here I am. I am willing to run down that dirt road into the mess of this world just to hold you. Merry Christmas.
Posted by The Very Rev. Kate Mooreheadat 12:27 PM
Monday, December 22, 2014
When I was four, I had my first role in the Christmas pageant. I was not even baptized yet and someone decided that I should carry a teddy bear down the center aisle and put in in the manger beside the baby Jesus. My mom was really nervous that I would not be able to make it up the aisle. She thought I might chicken out or just start crying or something. But instead, I grabbed that teddy bear by the leg, dragged him up the center aisle, and proceeded to dump that bear in the manger. I then marched, with determination and all seriousness, back to my seat.
Only in years later did I get to play Gabriel and announce to Mary that she would have a child.
This year, we have some new developments, like two female Wise Men and someone gave us pig costumes so we have lots of pigs along with the sheep. But I believe that each child will never forget their part in the story. Just as I have never forgotten being in the Christmas pageant.
Why do we do the same thing every year? Why do we reinact the event of Christ's birth and let children be the players? Why do we tell the same story over and over and over again?
Carl used to work at Belk before he was ordained. One day, a young man came in to buy a cross. He pointed to a crucifix under the glass and said, "I would like to try that one, the one with the little man on it."
The little man?? The little man? Could it be possible that we now live in a world where people don't even know who Jesus was? Now he is just the little man?
St Ignatius was a Spanish knight who lived in the early 1500's. He was critically wounded in battle and almost died. When he was recovering, Ignatius had to lie still but his mind could wander. Ignatius had an active and vivid imagination. But he began to notice that when he daydreamed about being a saint, he felt better. When he daydreamed about winning wars or making money or finding romance, he just found that the end result was that he felt more lonely. So Ignatius began to imagine the best things of all, that he could be part of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
He imagined what it would be like to be a shepherd on that holy night when Jesus was born. Was it cold? What did it look like when the angels appeared in sky and sang glory to God in the Highest? Did their wings cover the skies? Did they blend with the moonlight? Was it terrifying? Could the sheep see it too?
Lying in bed, Ignatius discovered a profound kind of prayer. He discovered that by daydreaming, by putting yourself inside the story, you can find yourself there. And you can see things more clearly.
Why do we reinact the pageant every year? Because children are born with both an innate sense of the spiritual and with healthy imaginations. And why should we not encourage them to imagine that they too were there on that holy night? Why should they not imagine this? Doesn't God want them there? Isn't that exactly where they should be?
And also, a child will never forget who Jesus is if he or she acts out the story of Jesus' birth. That child will never refer to Christ hanging on a cross as "that little man," if they remember that God was born in human form.
Much of what the Bible demands can be simply put in one word: Remember. Remember God and what God has done for you. It's when we forget that our hearts wander and we are lost.
Time and again, Moses begged the people to Remember. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. Remember the Sabbath day. The great danger for the people of God, even before Jesus came, was amnesia, the danger of forgetting who they were. It is like a woman with amnesia who has lived a long and happy life and who loves her husband above all others. But when she begins to wander away from home, he finally has to move her into assisted living facility. Over time, to his shock and grief, he watches his wife. She forgets who she is and becomes more and more emotionally attached to a man who lives in her unit. As she forgets, her heart wanders.
And so we as a people are called to fix our love on God and remember who we are and who God is. And we remember by inviting our children to live into the story of Jesus' birth, to BE the angels and the shepherds and the camels and the innkeeper...and we pray that as they dream and play, they remember who they are and what God did for us in sending us Jesus.
When Martin Luther, the great church reformer of the 1500's, was under attack or began to doubt his work, he would mutter to himself, "Remember, Martin Luther, you are baptized!" He would blurt this out at the oddest times, to get himself grounded again, to focus on what was really important.
And all throughout our lives, when we are on the verge of despair, let us repeat the same... Remember, that you are baptized...Remember the holy child. Come to the manger once more and remember who you are!
Imagination is a great form of prayer. Imagine what it was like on that holy night when God became a human being. Imagine if you too were there, sitting in the shadows in that tiny space with animals and dirt and a poor homeless couple, worn out and cold. Imagine that you could see the face of that baby. And for just a moment, glimpse the inconceivable fact that God would limit Himself to such a degree, to become helpless, just to be with us. Sit in that tiny space on that cold night. Be there with him. That is what Ignatius did. That is what we are inviting our children to do.
- The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead