A SERMON FOR ADVENT FOUR 2013
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
Hang in there. We're almost there. Despite all the stress of travel, of family reunions, of endless office parties, of trips to the mall, the mindless shopping, and the running up of credit card bills – the real war on Christmas - we'll find once again… in the quiet of Tuesday night and the peace of Wednesday morning the joy of what it's all about…that annual reminder that God is with us.
This year's reminder comes to us from Matthew, probably the most Jewish of the Gospel writers. It is notable on a number of scores.
First, given his own Jewishness and that of his intended audience, Matthew begins with an exhausting genealogy designed to prove Jesus' Jewish bona fides. Plowing through forty-two generations from Abraham to "Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah," he seeks to document that Jesus is that shoot from the stump of Jesse, that sign from heaven, that Son of David Isaiah and all the prophets anticipated.
The fact that Jesus' claim to the lineage and mantle of David is gained through Joseph might explain a second characteristic of Matthew's Gospel – the prominence of Joseph in his telling of the Christmas story. Whereas, for example, Luke's angel breaks the news to Mary, Matthew's angel explains things to Joseph – difficult news in worldly terms for both to swallow. But Joseph, like Mary, obeys and proceeds to protect Mary's worldly reputation. In so honoring Joseph, Matthew honors every husband and father and, in Joseph, holds up their roles as protector and provider. He also points us to a model of compassion we might all adopt in caring for young women facing ostracism because of an unexpected pregnancy. The Holy Family is holy in ways that speak to our daily lives.
A third characteristic of Matthew's Gospel is the way in which it relates how God sometimes speaks to us in dreams – something I firmly believe. My spiritual director, a Jungian, also believes in dreams and recommends writing them down first thing in the morning while they're still fresh, so that we might reflect on their meaning and discern what God might be saying to us. On my blog this past Monday you'll find one such effort to do just that.
A final aspect of Matthew's Gospel that I find especially appealing is its straightforward style. Matthew doesn't beat around the bush. He tells the story with a matter-of-fact clarity. How else could you describe the opening line of his telling of the Christmas story: "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way"?
It's a story that is played out again and again, over and over, every year. In this sense, it has about it the flavor of Groundhog Day…you know, the Bill Murray movie. But it's not like that – frozen in time, never changing. For each year, with each retelling, each re-reading, we learn something new about ourselves, our world, and the God who is with us.
That name – Emmanuel – used by both Isaiah and Matthew - seven hundred years apart – says it all. It means not that God was with us in one place, at one time, but rather that God is with us here and now, always and everywhere. I've talked about this before – our Christian concept of time, of God's eternal time, Xairos. Father Bart Gage, an Episcopal priest puts it this way:
Basically there are two kinds of time: Xairos and Chronos. Xairos is eternal time, the time that is part of God's essential being in which He works out His will and in which all things have meaning.
Chronos is the time on the clock and on the work calendar. How we understand xairos partly determines how we live out chronos.
"Christianity," he continues, "is time set in xairos. It is set within the context of God's working out His revelation and His reconciliation of us to Him. Christianity continues the Hebrew understanding of history. That is to say that history is seen as linear and going somewhere," not as circular as in Hinduism and Buddhism.
In its ancient Greek meaning, Kairos also has another meaning – the right or opportune moment. It is the ever-present breakthrough moment in God's time that must be seized in the midst of moral crisis to act in history as God demands. Such was the moment of Christ's birth and such is its continuing demand. That moment is never-ending, its demand always there confronting us, goading us. The German theologian Paul Tillich described Kairos in this way…it is, he said
a Greek word for a very special time fraught with decisive consequences for good or evil when momentous things are happening, new possibilities arise, more degrees of freedom emerge, and the
opportunity to seize the moment appears. A time for renewal and nonviolent action when the forces of light rise up against the forces of darkness.
Such moments came in South Africa while Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the battle for sanctions raged in this country and in Europe and, again, in Central America in the wake of Oscar Romero's murder and our complicity. Thus it was that calls for Kairos action were issued by Christian leaders in South Africa in 1985 and in Central America in 1988. And, albeit slowly, our church responded.
More recently – in December 2009 – after four decades of occupation and the bloody second Intifada – the Christians of Palestine issued their call for Kairos action – "a cry," they wrote, "from within the suffering in our country under the Israeli occupation"…a "cry of hope in the absence of all hope" determined by a conclusion, they wrote, that "we have reached a dead end in the tragedy of the Palestinian people." To the question "Why now?" they respond":
The decision-makers content themselves with managing the crisis rather than committing themselves to the serious task of finding a way to resolve it. The hearts of the faithful are filled with pain and
with questioning: What is the international community doing? What are the political leaders in Palestine, in Israel and in the Arab world doing? What is the Church doing? The problem is not just
a political one. It is a policy in which human beings are destroyed, and this must be of concern to the Church.
"Why now?" you ask again. Because, four years on, our decision-makers in Washington and Jerusalem continue to busy themselves with "managing the crisis rather than committing themselves to the serious task of finding a way to resolve it"… while, all the while, Israeli settlements continue to go up around Bethlehem, Palestinian homes are demolished in Jerusalem, and, in Gaza, children wade through stinking, freezing sewage. Because, four years on, our Church, our Episcopal Church, continues to see no evil, hear no evil. It has responded - at General Convention last year and Diocesan Convention in October - with a blind eye and a deaf ear…while, all the while, the pain and questioning of our Christian sisters and brothers in Palestine only deepens.
"Why now?" you ask again. Why bother us in Advent on the very eve of Christmas? Why intrude on our Christmas joy? Because this is all about Christmas. Because it's hard to be joyful knowing that there is today little joy in Bethlehem as Christmas again approaches. Oh, thousands of pilgrims will once again descend on Bethlehem, crowding into Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, spectators during prayers and liturgies they hardly understand, immune to the pain – and hope – behind the prayers. Some may stop at Beit Sahour to pray at the Shepherds' Field, oblivious in the dark to the Wall that now runs through it. And, in the first hours of Christmas morning, they will board their buses to return to their warm beds in their Jerusalem hotels, leaving behind the Palestinians they never really met. And among the Palestinian Christians, who, unlike those Western pilgrims, cannot enter Jerusalem, the pain and questioning only deepens.
Such is the reality of Christmas today in the place it all happened two- thousand-one-hundred-and-thirteen years ago. Were he to describe the situation today, I have no doubt Matthew would do so with the same straightforward clarity he did this morning. Were Mary and Joseph on the road this morning somewhere between Nazareth and Bethlehem, I have no doubt he would begin as he did first time around: "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way."
He might relate how Joseph and Mary had to avoid the Israeli-only roads that slice through Samaria and perhaps how an angel warned Joseph in a dream about the temporary checkpoint thrown up that night on the dusty Arabs-only road near Nablus. He might describe the welcome respite that the Holy Family found in Taybeh, that entirely Christian village between Nablus and Ramallah, where the inhabitants press olives, make porcelain doves of peace, and pray in ancient churches. In an aside, he might tell us that the ancient name of the village was Ephraim – the Ephraim of our Psalm this morning, the Ephraim where Jesus would seek sanctuary during the last days of his ministry. He might relate how Mary and Joseph sat and ate some falafel at a roadside stand in Ramallah and enjoyed the company of their kinfolk – the descendants of Christian refugees from the Galilee who founded the city. He might tell us about the ugliness of the wall they encountered at Jerusalem and the delays they faced at the Qalandiya checkpoint. He might describe the even longer delays they encountered at the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He might talk about the babies born and others who have died in ambulances at such checkpoints, because, lacking proper permits, they were denied access to a hospital on the other side. He might even speculate how Jesus might have been born beside the road at this last checkpoint.
No, Jesus was not born in the dirt beside a checkpoint. No, these were not the incidents the Holy family encountered on their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But, if Jesus were born again this Wednesday in Bethlehem, it would be after the sort of journey I've just described. It would not be at all far-fetched to tell the story I've just told and say: "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way."
A few weeks back, at the start of Advent, I passed out these little cards depicting Mary and Joseph near that last checkpoint, staring up at a 30-ft. high wall, a star shining over Bethlehem on the other side. The art - by Banksy – is striking. So maybe you saved it. Perhaps you'd even like more for friends. I've left a stack in the narthex.
More likely, however, you tossed them without reading the message on the back. So let me help. The message is brief. It begins: "The people of Bethlehem are asking for our help." Noting that nearly all the agricultural land has been confiscated by Israel, that the wall and settlements are drawing ever closer to the heart of town, and that only three gates to the outside world – all controlled by the Israeli Army – remain, it quotes retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to wit: "It is unconscionable that Bethlehem should be allowed to die slowly from strangulation."
And Bethlehem is indeed dying. Its Christians especially are fleeing in droves, their percentage of the population, which was 85% in 1948, is now down to 40%. As our little card says, "the oldest Christian community in the world will soon have little left of its Christian history but the cold stones of empty churches." And so it will, if the world ignores their plight and does nothing.
But I have faith and hope that we will – do something. To do something, however, we must first stop ignoring the suffering people we can't miss if we just look. We must see our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land and listen to their stories. I hope, therefore, you will keep them in your mind and heart and prayers this Christmas. I hope, too, you will make an effort to learn about their situation. You know how to google, don't you. You put your words together…and you type – Palestinian, Christian, Bethlehem, Holy Land.
And, next Sunday, I hope you'll stay after our lessons and carols for an hour-long movie in which you will meet Palestine's Christians, experience their history and current situation, and hear their stories. You will learn that they are not the "cold stones of empty churches." They are, rather, the living stones who continue to witness to our faith where it all began that Christmas night two-thousand-one- hundred- and-thirteen years ago.