Thursday, December 24, 2009

this will be a sign for you (luke 2)

A friend posted a “Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larsen on his office door. In it a somewhat nerdy-looking guy is entering the Midvale School for the Gifted. He’s carrying a book under one arm and leaning with his other arm, with all his weight, against the door, straining, trying to push open the door. On the door there is a sign in great big letters that explains his problem. It reads, “PULL.”

That’s most of us. We’re not too good at reading the signs. The signs are the coincidences, the messages, the circumstances, the interruptions, the events and encounters that fill our agendas, planned and unplanned. What do they mean?

I don’t look for signs as often as I should, but sometimes they appear. I am walking out of worship in the fall and meet someone in the congregation from out of town. She knows my mother, who lives four hundred miles away. They are in the same exercise group. I am listening to the anthem early in Advent, it is a beautiful piece and there is a viola accompaniment. Our older daughter played the viola for years and the sound took me back to our living room, and she is a teenager again, the deep rich sounds floating through the house.

I go to see our younger daughter play volleyball this fall, they are competing against a small college in north Georgia. I remember that my great-grandfather was once the chaplain there. I write the present chaplain when I return home. Has she heard his name? She tells me about a scholarship named after my great-grandmother; just that last week they awarded it to a student. Since last Christmas, I have gotten on Face book, I know, you may think I am either crazy or creepy, but one of the connections is a guy named Albert. We played little league baseball together. Albert was the catcher and I was the pitcher. Both of us went pro in something other than sports. He offers to scan a picture of our team and send it to me!

Yesterday morning, it is early, I am walking into the YMCA to exercise and I see a friend, he is Jewish, his daughter played sports with ours, he is a part of our interfaith Bible Study with the Temple, he is walking out, we talk very briefly, and then he says, as he is walking away, “Merry Christmas!” Remarkable things happen in our lives and sometimes we are conscious, awake, paying attention. What do they mean? “Listen to your life”, Frederick Buechner writes, “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him.”

Pay attention, watch, listen. This was the recurring theme of Advent: The prophets getting our attention, John the Baptist in the desert getting our attention, the angels getting our attention. This is the way, this is the path. All of Advent is a sign that says, “coming soon”.

Now we come to the moment. Our story, this evening, has to do with the sign. The Shepherds are out in the fields, keeping watch over the flock by night. And then there is a vision, the glory of the Lord, a brilliant flash of light across the sky, and they are terrified. And then angelic speech: do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy for all people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you. You will find the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Our problem with this story is that we know it so well. Tom Long, who teaches preaching at Emory, says that preaching through Advent and Christmas is like the task of the stewardess who explains what to do in case of an accident, just before lift-off. You can look around and sense that no one is listening or watching---everyone staring into the Blackberry, grabbing something in a purse, or getting started on nap. Why? They have heard this before, they know it, or so they think…and I must admit that since last Christmas Eve, and Dave Sanderson’s experience of the miracle on the Hudson, I do pay attention, I listen.

The shepherds see the flashing of light. It means something. What does it mean? This will be a sign for you. And then there is the chorus….Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those he favors. It is the sign that I want to focus on….simple, humble, ordinary…: just another baby born to a poor teenage mother. My mind is more often attuned to see the big picture, the macro perspective, but I know that this is not all to the good. There is virtue in paying attention to the small things. If the devil is in the details, it must also be true that the angels are in the details.

This season I read a wonderful novel, Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr Ives’ Christmas. Edward Ives was of Puerto Rican ancestry, he was adopted as a small boy, he had an aptitude for drawing, he grew up and met his future wife in Art classes, he became a commercial artist. His wife gives birth to a son and a daughter. One afternoon, as he is walking on Madison and Forty-First Street in Manhattan, he has a full-blown mystical vision---the sidewalks under him lift, the buildings waver, the skyscrapers bow to him, he feels euphoric, the world’s goodness spins around him.

It was, he would explain to a total stranger on the subway, “a vision of God’s presence in the world. And it makes me feel joy.” Mr. Ives is a devoutly religious man. He loves taking communion, loves going into churches and listening to choirs practicing, looking at the symbols. And so later it begins to unsettle him: “If I had a vision, why did it not seem Christian?” He doesn’t tell anyone else about his vision…most of us do not. People will think we are crazy.

Later his son decides to become a Catholic priest. The next Christmas his son is senselessly murdered on a street corner. He looks for miracles in the church, in his devotional practice, but does not find them there. He looks for a sign, and he wonders about the signs he has been given. Yet he continues on some kind of search. At some point the question becomes whether he can or should forgive the man who killed his son.

If only he had a sign. If only we had a sign. Maybe the world is filled with them. Mostly they pass us by, like mile markers, but sometimes we slow down, or something slows us down, something gets our attention. Waiting in the barber shop, listening to guys talk about Tiger Woods. What does all of that mean? It’s like the Proverb, “pride goes before a fall.” Or watching the Ken Burns series on our National Parks. It’s like the prophecy of Isaiah, “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory”. Or sitting in a movie theater, and in the story a big teenager is walking down the street in the rain, an affluent couple in their SUV pass by, but then, they turn around, and it is like Moses and the burning bush.

They change his life, he changes their lives; they could have missed it, the gifts in this seemingly troubled boy, the prejudices in their seemingly moral and even religious community. We all have our blind sides that keep us from seeing the sign. Jesus said a lot about signs in the gospels. Our spiritual blindness, our hardness of heart, our deafness to the Voice.

The Christmas gospel is always asking us: Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? This will be a sign for you.

Nicholas Kristof is one of my favorite journalists. He writes for the New York Times, most eloquently about global poverty. He recently gave this advice for saving the world. He said, to get the world’s attention you can’t talk about overwhelming statistics, we can’t grasp them anyway, and we don’t know what to do with them. You focus on one girl who has been the victim of sexual trafficking, on one man whose life is threatened because he does not have access to health care. God wants to change the world, and so God does not come with a grand theory of everything, or as the most powerful ruler. Christmas narrows our focus and shifts our attention to an out of the way village, Bethlehem.

To you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Martin Luther, the great reformer of the church, preaching on this very text five hundred years ago, sensed the clarity: “The gospel does not simply say Christ is born, but to you he is born. Neither does it say I bring glad tidings, but to you I bring glad tidings of great joy…This will be a sign for you.

And so the greatest gift is love and the sign is the Christ-child. It is supernatural, in that it flows from heaven to earth, and yet it is human in that God chooses to reveal himself to us, God is almost hidden in plain sight. In one of my favorite novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather writes:

“Where there is great love, there are always miracles. One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are…I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always”.

Of course, this is the mystery of Christmas, of Christianity, of life. We are loved. Finally, Mr. Ives forgives, in a simple and straightforward way, and he is the sign.

For a number of years I served as a minister in a large church in another city. Like Providence, we had a number of Christmas Eve services, and 1500-2000 people would flow through the sanctuary on this evening. For the first three years, I would be in the office a couple of days later, covering end-of-the-year work and recovering from the season and a particular person, a woman would come to see me. Throughout the remainder of the year I knew her to be a steady and gracious member of the church. But this meeting was always different. She would ask to see me, and, almost as if she were following a script, she would launch into what I can only describe as a rant about two things, both related to Christmas Eve: the bread crumbs on the sanctuary carpet, and the candle wax on the sanctuary pews.

I listened, I commiserated, I nodded. At the same time I wondered, “how could she miss it, how could she miss the meaning of it?” It did take me some time---three to four years---to come to understand that there was more going on here than crumbs and wax. I would learn that she was the daughter of an alcoholic parent. Christmas was always difficult for her. The signs were hidden from her sight, and this was mostly not her fault. We figured that out together. We would see each other, the same time next year and following, to have a different conversation.

Sometimes we push so hard. We just need to pull. So brothers and sisters, listen to your life. In every waking moment, God is still speaking, God is still showing up. All of life is a sacrament, every bush is a burning bush, all ground is holy ground. The crumbs are the bread of life, the candle is the light of the world. A child is a gift. That scar, that grief, that imperfection is the sign of the cross.

Let us pray: Give us eyes to see you. Give us minds to know you. Give us hearts to love you. Give us hands to serve you; in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources: Jeremy Troxler, “Coming Soon”, Nicholas Kristof, “Advice for Saving the World”, Outside, 12/09. Frederick Buechner, Now and Then. Dean Nelson, God Hides in Plain Sight. Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Oscar Hijuelos, Mr. Ives’ Christmas.


Post a Comment

<< Home