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THE ANATOMY OF HOPE
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul, Minnesota
December 18, 2016
Some holidays defy expectations and become etched in family memory.
Because it was a small house, holiday meals at my parents were served in the basement on a decorated ping pong table. One particular Christmas Eve, my Uncle Clyde was making his way down the narrow basement steps, nearing the bottom, followed by my Aunt Alyce in her long dress who was carrying my special wild rice casserole. I was behind her with the lime Jell-O salad and I’m told I stepped on the hem of her dress and she stumbled and fell, knocking my Uncle Clyde over and they both landed at the bottom of the steps, unhurt and laughing. My wild rice concoction landed in a heap next to the broken dish and the story was immortalized in family history.
I should also say that this ballet was performed with background music supplied by my father. After never taking a vacation until age sixty, my parents went to Hawaii and my dad went crazy for it – so every subsequent Christmas he played a CD by a character named Don Ho – called “A Christmas Luau” – just the thing for Minnesota! My mother, who had been told by all of us not to hold up the present-opening by washing the dishes consented to using plastic plates, which she proceeded to wash to be ready for next year.
Today’s Gospel also defies expectations as well as setting the stage for Christmas. We will take a closer look at it and then consider if this is a year when we must also defy expectations.
Luke’s Gospel is mainly about Mary and contains the Magnificat, the song in which Mary glorifies God for what he has done for her, but also is a battle cry against oppression. In the 20th century was banned from public worship in many South American countries: “He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.” Certainly these words defy the meek and mild version of the Mary which we encounter in art and so much Christmas music.
Today’s Gospel, from Matthew, is more about Joseph, who defies societal expectations and does not “dismiss Mary quietly” when she is found to be pregnant. Joseph is a good, righteous and kind man but he gets no speaking role in this tale.
Matthew’s gospel was written some 80 years after the birth of Jesus to connect the dots for the Jews between the predictions of a messiah in the ancient writings such as Isaiah and the person of Jesus. The Jews expected a king who would rescue them from the oppression of the Romans. Jesus, born in the humblest of circumstances, defied these expectations.
Then there’s Nazareth, where Jesus would spend the first twelve years of his life. North of Jerusalem, in the province of Galilee, Nazareth was Podunk Central, a small village of 500 people and a size of 50 or 60 acres. Even though a physically green and beautiful place, it was considered Hicksville, boondocks, trailer park territory, whose citizens were bumpkins, fodder for ethnic jokes and pronounced Hebrew so crudely they were forbidden from reading the Torah when they traveled to the temple in Jerusalem. Hence Nathaniel’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
And about that gentle Christmas card trip with Mary posed gracefully on the donkey? No. There was no good way to get from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. You either went through Samaria – whose inhabitants hated the Jews and where bandits attacked Jewish travelers or you went through Jericho which was much farther away and more mountainous. There was no good choice. Because of the danger and the distance, Mary and Joseph must have traveled in a group. In either case, this was not a gentle Christmas card journey with pregnant Mary posed gracefully on a donkey – there is no mention of a donkey. It was a tedious, dangerous journey on foot of 80 miles – like walking from here to Mankato – but through Libya.
So much of this story defies expectations, not only for the first century Jews expecting a glorious, kingly Messiah, but also for us who may view Christmas as a pretty, sweet story with cute farm animals and a gleaming star. For Mary and Joseph, it is a story of obedience to God, of survival amidst the most perilous of circumstances, and birthing a baby in a barn.
The Benedictine writer Joan Chittiser concludes, “Christmas is about finding life where we do not expect life to be.” This story defies logic, Biblical expectations, and our own pessimism: New life is born where it was not expected to be.
For many Americans, expectations for 2017 are bleak. I admit I am scared about the lack of experience that pervades our government, the recklessness at the highest levels, the apparent disrespect for women and the most vulnerable. A seeming lack of basic decency. Nationally, these are the hardest times I can remember, even more than 911 when there was a common enemy. Michelle Obama last week stated, “We’re feeling what not having hope feels like.” I am nervous about being an American.
But fear alone is not a sustainable position long term, collectively or individually. As people of faith, we cannot dwell here. We have to defy the cultural expectation of doom that pervades the media and perhaps our own thinking. Important as they are initially, handwringing and tears can only take us so far.
Here are the signs of hope that I see:
1. Engagement: I see people more engaged with things outside of themselves than earlier, having more passionate discussions, more awareness and attention to what is going on. “We should get together and talk about this” I’ve heard dozens of times in the past weeks. I’ve been to meetings and gatherings that would not have occurred before the election. I see people volunteering in unprecedented numbers for organizations they believe in, and donating to causes they deem worthy. New life where we did not expect it to be.
2. Repentance: I see repentance of mistakes that have been made: acknowledging that whole groups of people were not listened to before the election – the Rust Belt, rural areas, people who can’t afford health insurance. As the unsophisticated bumpkins of Nazareth were dismissed by the elites in Jerusalem, progressives are owning the mistake of thinking everyone was the same: employed, college- educated, busy with the New Yorker and the Times.
3. Ownership: I see collective ownership of problems faced by marginalized groups in our society and the recognition that it may be the job for all of us to step up on a local level if government refuses to act on behalf of justice and compassion.
4. Alliances: I see alliances being formed, connection being solidified – people of different faiths who share the same basic values coming together to defend them; churches groups and clergy stepping up to stand with immigrants who risk deportation; National Guard members who go to Standing Rock to support the native people in protecting sacred land and precious resources from exploitation and then, in a breathtaking gesture, these veterans bend their knees to ask forgiveness of Indians for our country’s treatment of them. These alliances are forged out of struggle but create and strengthen enduring friendships.
5. Common values being affirmed: People owning their principles with more passion while rejecting exclusion and ridicule of women, of those with physical challenges, of those who have served their country and the parents who have sacrificed their children for it: the dignity and integrity of Hillary Clinton as she took hit after hit; her level of preparation and planning inspiring me because that’s who I am. I see hope in the pres-elect’s eventual acknowledgement of her stamina and her love for her family and for the country.
6. Everyday heroes; animals who dress up in Santa hats to please us; our little clinic in Uganda saving lives; the University of Minnesota doing what is right against the mega-machine that is collegiate athletics; Pope Francis celebrating his 80th birthday at a party with the homeless.
7. Resurrection: I see hope in the Holy Spirit at work in the world. I pulled a book at random off the shelf in the living room and opened to this statement: “Resurrection begins with absence,” It hit me between the eyes…. Resurrection begins with absence — absence of hope; absence of rationality; absence of light; absence of principles; absence of life.
The manger leads to the Cross and the Cross leads to the empty tomb — that is always the sequence and that is always our story. Struggle proceeds growth; that is the great lesson of history and of the Church and in our own lives.
But as resurrection begins with absence, it morphs quickly into defiance; defiance of hopelessness; defiance of exclusion and injustice; defiance of what does not bring life.
8. Balance: Six hundred years before Christ, the Israelites—the chosen people of God—were carried off by King Nebuchadnezzar as slaves from Jerusalem to Babylon. The enslavement lasted 70 years.
The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to them:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those exiled from Jerusalem in Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Marry and have sons and daughters…
Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which you have been carried into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams they encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name.” I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:1-14)
Christmas is not about history. You can’t fa ct-check the Gospel. It is about God coming into our lives in the most unexpected of circumstance, us, finding life where none is expected to be, millennium after millennium, year after year, day after day. This reality is the basis of hope and the promise of the God we must seek fervently in the days ahead. So we will know where we must stand.