December 28, 2014: Christmas I
Lessons & Carols
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Merry Christmas! This morning we celebrate the coming of Christmas by reading together some of the central stories in our salvation history. And by salvation history, I mean, the history of our life with God. These are some of the defining stories in our life with God; stories that show us how God works; stories that show us what God expects of us; stories that show us what we can expect from God. And there is a fair amount of leeway in the rubric regarding which stories tell THE story. Which confirms, of course, that there is no one story that sums up our salvation history, but rather a whole album of family snapshots, all of which add a bit of information and color to the overall narrative. The primary liturgical limitation regarding this morning’s readings has to do more with the number of stories than the particular stories themselves.
And so thinking that we would have the time and attention for no more than a few slices of our life with God, last week I set about the rich and wonderful task of selecting what I thought were the top seedings, the best group of stories to tell our story. And I settled on the six we heard this morning. Believe me, there were many more that just barely missed the cut! But when I had to boil it down to what I consider to be the most telling lessons on this first Sunday in the season of the Incarnation, it was all about the way God calls us, we humanity, to work with God as agents and co-creators of this world…..the stories that answer the question, who are we and what are we for? Who are we, and why were we created in the first place? For what are we responsible? And these stories start the ball rolling.
It starts with God’s love for humanity, a love so deep that God etched God’s own image on our hearts. But it did not take humanity long, with our selfishness and our greed and our lack of concern for each other, to break God’s heart. And in almost no time at all, God was so sorry and so grieved to have created us, that God resorted to a divine do-over, flooding the entire earth to wipe away all trace of the wickedness that had spread through the human race like wildfire But first, God made one ridiculously irrational call to an unsuspecting chap named Noah, whom God instructed to build an ark to preserves a remnant of God’s good work and that would ultimately salvage the whole of God’s own creation. And as it turned out, God was sorry to have reacted with such devastating anger, and so God offered a sign in the rainbow of God’s steadfast promise never to do that again.
And then, not three chapters later in the Book of Genesis, God posits another steep request to another ordinary guy. And with that call comes another massive godly promise, a promise to all humanity from that time forth. This is the story of Abraham, who, with his co-creators Hagar and Sarah, is called to plant seeds that will multiply and bless every generation of descendants forevermore.
And then there is Mary – there is no more audacious and inclusive call in our scripture than God’s request of Mary and Joseph; it is a call that would change the prospects of human kind forever more. A call that would be lived out in the flesh of our Saviour Jesus – born in the stench of a stable with not an advantage to his name – God’s own flesh and blood working in and through this world without a shred of political , economic, or social status, power or position whatsoever. The perfect example of what God had intended of humanity, of all of us, from the very beginning when God etched God’s imagine on the human heart.
And to herald this coming of God’s own flesh, the New Creation, the story of the star – the Epiphany – the sign in the sky for all to see – that the new Genesis is indeed beginning; the calling from the sky that speaks to us to follow those who have been called before us – those who have honored God’s image, etched on their hearts, and followed God’s call: Noah, Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Mary and Joseph, and Jesus – each and every one of them created in God’s likeness and called by God’s creative wisdom to God’s wonderful work…. As are we.
These are the stories of the way God works in our world….the way God calls human beings to complete God’s work in the world….the way God calls God’s prophets. At the Parish of St. Paul, our Advent theme has been embracing our prophetic call. Following the lead of our brother John the Baptizer, we have challenged ourselves, and each other, to raise our prophetic voices. To take heart and find the courage to join John, a voice crying in the wilderness for peace and justice and freedom; for an end to oppression and domination and fragmentation and fear of anything other than God’s inclusive love. Advent is a season tailor made for prophets. The Incarnation is nothing if not God’s own self embracing and answering God’s own prophetic call.
The Hebrew word translated as prophet in the Bible is naviim, and it has a double meaning. It can mean one who is called, but it can also mean one who is calling. This is an important duo-definition to keep in mind. Because it means that the prophetic voice is not simply a commentator on the state or eventuality of affairs, but rather a part of the action as well; not just a town crier, but a catalyst for change. A prophet is one who is both called, and too, is calling others.
In our scripture, prophecy is not tantamount to clairvoyance. It is not about predicting the future or seeing or interpreting magical, mystical things. Generally speaking the job descriptions in the Hebrew Bible are thus: priests are responsible for instruction and teaching on the Torah; sages & wise ones are responsible for giving counsel and advice; and prophets are the keepers of The Word, God’s Word. The prophets are responsible for making the Word of God come alive for the people of God. That sounds familiar. Because isn’t that what we do here? I think that is in the top tier of job descriptions for communities of faith. …..making the Word of God come alive for the people of God … So here we are, pews full of prophets.
And I don’t know about you, but when I think of my job as a prophet, two questions come rushing to mind. First, how do I know when it is God calling? What is the caller ID for God? How do I know that what I feel called to do is not…..just me calling, or folks who expect things of me calling? And I think we don’t have to look any further than this morning’s readings for our answer. When God is calling, it is for the good of all of creation. God only calls prophets to serve…..everyone. There is no such thing as a prophetic call to serve the interests of one group of portion of creation at the expense of any other. God always calls us to serve all of creation; the whole of all that belongs to God. Justice is for the good of all creation. Peace is for the good of all creation. Kindness is for the good of all creation. Music is for the good of all creation. Art is for the good of all creation. Healing is for the good of all creation. Feeding is for the good of all of creation. We could go on listing what each and every one of us is called by God to do. And every single calling would be for the good of all of creation. If you are called to something that applies to the good of all of God’s creation, you can be sure that call is direct from God, and particularly to you. If, however, your call does not serve all of creation….hang up! It’s more than likely spam.
And question number two that swirls in my head is that even if I’m pretty sure that the call is from God, how do I know that my small voice crying in the wilderness is speaking according to God’s Word? How do I know that what I have to say is what God has to say? I know far too many folks who say they speak for God, but their words don’t jive with that claim…at least from where I sit. So how do we know that what we say is…..”right.”
And all I can offer is the wisdom of the great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel who writes in his classic book The Prophets: “The prophet is a person, not a microphone….The prophet’s task is to convey a divine view, yet as a person the prophet is a point of view. The prophet speaks from the perspective of God as perceived from the perspective of his/her own situation.” (pg xii, The Prophets II) Prophets are people. Therefore, prophets cannot possibly be certain that they, that we, are always right. Prophets are not purely objective, they do not speak from a sterile and absolute position. Prophets have a personal point of view, even if they, we, do speak for God’s Word. Prophets are flesh and blood, heart and soul, human beings who have all of the human conditions stuffed under their skin. As did Noah, Abraham, Mary, Moses…..and Jesus who was, after all, fully human. Men and women of all ages and at all stages of life. The thing they have in common with each other and with us is that they have been called by God to serve all of God’s people in their own particular way. This is the way God works – through ordinary human beings created in God’s likeness and loved by God for all time.
And so, I think we do not know for sure that what we say is “right.” All we know what feels right to us, when we reflect God’s likeness on our hearts. But we are flesh and blood. We are not privy to God’s full intention, and we are fallible…..which is not a bad thing, it’s just a way-that-it-is thing. And so as prophets, we need to keep our hearts and minds always open to the possibility that God’s Word might be more than we know. That is the job of a prophet, as well, to listen and adjust as needed.
Oh yes, and there’s one more thing. None of these prophets lived into their callings on their own. All of them had help…..partners, siblings, family, a community, disciples……all had some form of support. Prophets, like sacraments, do not, can not operate alone. Some assembly is required.
And so at the start of this new year of the Incarnation, I ask us to think about how God is calling us, and how we are calling others to God’s prophetic work in the world. Who are the prophets in your life with God? And how are you a prophet for others. How are you writing your own chapter in this narrative that we call our salvation history. Because the same hand that sponsored the story of Abraham and Sarah sponsors your story. So how is it going to go? And how will it change all of creation for the good? It is in our hands, with God’s help, of course.
I would like to close with a prayer by my favorite prophetic Australian cartoonist/prayer master, Michael Leunig. This is a prayer that I imagine was written for the prophets among us:
God bless those who explore in the cause of wisdom and understanding;
Whose search takes them far from what is familiar and comfortable
and leads them into danger or terrifying loneliness.
Let us try to understand their sometimes strange or difficult ways;
Their confronting or unusual language;
The uncommon life of their emotions,
for they have been affected and shaped and changed by their struggle at the frontiers of a wild darkness,
just as we may be affected,
shaped and changed by the insights they bring back to us.
Bless them with strength and peace.
© December, 2014, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw