December 29, 2019: Christmas I
Lessons & Carols
The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
As you know, this is my last sermon from this pulpit. And I think it is the perfect occasion on which to celebrate our time together. Because this morning we celebrate the coming of Christmas by reading together some of the central stories in our shared salvation history; the history of our life together with God. Some of the defining narratives that show us how God works with us; stories that show us what God expects of us; stories that show us what we can expect from God. Stories that remind us of the ways in which God walks with us where ever we are on our journey.
There is not a set group of stories that fit this bill. There is a fair amount of leeway in the rubric regarding which stories we choose to tell THE story. Which confirms, of course, that there is no one story that sums up the watersheds of our story. But rather we each have a whole album of our family snapshots, all of which add a bit of information and color to the overall narrative. And probably, a few of those snapshots overlap.
It all starts with Creation.
After all else was created, humanity was the crowning touch. And in my personal theology, humanity was created by God for companionship; the most holy of yearnings. God had created the rest of the world. And God looked around and thought, hmmmm, with whom can I share this glorious creation?
And human beings were born.
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.
And God’s Creation quickly turned to God’s Destruction.
But first, God made one ridiculously irrational call to an unsuspecting worker bee named Noah, whom God instructed to build an ark to preserve a remnant of God’s good work; an arc that would ultimately salvage the whole of God’s own creation from God’s own destruction.
Because 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 to all creation never to do that again.
It was the first in a long line of God’s covenants; binding commitments to be in relationship.
And then, not three chapters later in the Book of Genesis, God posited another steep request to another ordinary companion named Abraham. And with that call came another covenant, another massive promise to all humanity from that time forth. And so Abraham along with companions Hagar and Sarah were called to trust God above all, and then to plant seeds that would multiply and bless every generation of descendants forevermore.
Humanity was on the move. From companions to covenantal parties to co-creators.
And then there was Mary – there is no more audacious and inclusive call in our scripture than God’s request of Mary, and too of Joseph; it was a call that changed the prospects of human kind forever more.
And with that call, God’s commenced a New Creation. A call that is lived out in the flesh of a Saviour who was 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, no power or position whatsoever. The perfect example of what God had intended of humanity, of all of us, all along; from the very beginning when God etched God’s imagine on the human heart.
The hope that we might come into this world with nothing but love to signal our status. And so God proposed a new way
A new story heralded by a new star. An epiphany. A new way of seeing and being.
The miracle of the virgin birth in Luke was matched by the magic of the star in Matthew. Shining in the East. The mystical sign of a promise. So deep so enduring so enlightening, that we tell the story 2000 years hence.
We sometimes call Matthew’s version of this story one of the two birth narratives in our scripture. But Matthew tells more of an appearance than a birth. Luke might be all about writing a new history altogether. But Matthew is all about fulfilling the scripture that already existed….and had existed from the beginning.
Both nativity stories seem appropriate at this time and place in our own story.
Fulfilling the story like Matthew, and writing a new one like Luke. The Parish of St. Paul is on the precipice of its own new way. As am I.
Last week, on Christmas, we took stock of Luke’s story. This week, on the advent of the epiphany, we would do well to focus on Matthew.
Matthew picks up almost the entire passage from Isaiah, chapter 60: Arise, shine for your light has come… You will hear the two passages side by side next Sunday. The whole of Matthew’s passage is picked up nearly verbatim from Isaiah. But nearly is the operative word.
Matthew adds one small detail to Isaiah’s story. One detail that changes everything. Everything about who Jesus is. And everything about who we are if we want to be good disciples discerning our own journeys.
Isaiah says that the ones who will follow the light will come by camels bearing gifts. They will bring gold and frankincense….and so says Matthew as well. Except, Matthew adds to the gift list because Isaiah does not mention the myrrh. Matthew adds myrrh.
And why does Matthew add myrrh? Why lift the scripture almost exactly and then add this curious gift?
Gold is the gift for royalty. Frankincense is the hallmark of one who is to be worshiped. But myrrh is…. an embalming herb. It is what was used to anoint Jesus’ body after death.
It’s not exactly on the top ten list of perfect gifts for Christmas, especially for a new born baby. It’s the kind of gift that says that this is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill child. It’s the kind of gift that emphasizes the death at the birth; that says that the death of this child will be as significant as his birth.
Myrrh is Matthew’s equivalent of the humble manger in terms of what we can expect from this strange birth, in terms of turning the expectations of the world on their heads. The star, the shiny bright star, is the part of Matthew’s story that we tend to embrace.
But the myrrh is the punch line. The myrrh is arguably the point. The part we don’t see coming. This so-called-king is going to defeat the enemy not by star wars, but by dying; a painful and shameful death. By dying a criminal’s death. The likes of a traitor to the empire in between two thieves. This is the punch line that awaits the story that we begin to tell in the bright shining light of this star-blessed season of and after the epiphany.
It’s easy to forget. With all of the tinsel and mistletoe….all of the bright and shining wrapping paper and bows….all of the gift giving and happy holidaying….it is easy to look no further than the star in Matthew’s epiphany. The shiny, shiny star.
And so we focus on this story to help us orient ourselves. To help us clarify our own callings. And maybe especially this year, the calling to our faith community.
How is the star in the east calling us forward? Where are we headed? Where does God want us to go? How will we get there? How will we know we are following the right star?
And it would be easy to be so busy looking for that star and the coordinates of our destination that we get distracted from its purpose.
And so we fall into a bit of a misunderstanding, I think, when we worry more about where the star is taking us than the quality and the character of the gifts that we are able to deliver.
Because the part of Matthew’s story that changes everything, the part that tells us HOW Jesus will fulfill the scriptures is not the star. It’s the myrrh.
Like God’s prophets in God’s salvation story, Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Hagar and Mary worried not about where they were going, they thought primarily about what they would bring. Not about where they were called, but what they might bear in God’s name.
An ark full of creation. A covenant full of God’s promise. A child full of God’s flesh. That’s why Matthew put the most important part of his story in the gifts, not in the sky. In the light, not in the star.
This, I think, is the critical question for us. For this community as you search for a new priest. And for me as I search for a new ministry.
What radical and scandalous gifts are we willing to bear in God’s name?
Unfortunately I think, we tend to spend most of our time thinking about where we want to go. But God has already set our path via way of the gifts that we have been given. And so we are not called to choose the path, that has already been designated.
Rather, we are called to have the grace and the courage and the faith to bear the gifts we have been given. Knowing that we will bear them not for ourselves, but for God.
Likewise, I am not a folk singer, not because I wanted to do something different. I am not a folk singer because God did not endow me with the gifts I needed to be a folk singer. The gift with which God endowed me, was the love of music. And it took me almost 40 years to know how to plant that gift for God’s sake.
But once I realized that the vocational gifts with which I was endowed are the gifts of parish ministry, I headed toward the priesthood. Once I stopped trying to find the star that would lead me to a vocation as a folk singer, and concentrated on bearing the gifts that God has bestowed, the star suddenly appeared; bright and clear
The star heralds the gift. The gifts do not follow the star. The star did not appear to Mary and Joseph before Jesus was born. It appeared after the gift was delivered. The star was a herald, not a directional. Herod used it as a directional. The wise ones were sent by Herod. The star was not intended to lead the magi or anyone else to the child, but to tell the world that the gift of all gifts had been delivered.
We here at the Parish of St. Paul know about focusing on our gifts. Because that is what led us to become a sanctuary. We had exactly what was needed, even if the immigration ministry had never been on our community radar. We came to that ministry by offering our gifts of space and companionship. And once we agreed to offer what we had for the love of God, the direction became clear. And the magi came, from a dozen surrounding communities, bearing their own amazing gifts. And pretty soon we had grown a vibrant collaborative of faithful companions.
That, my friends, is how the Kindom is built. Gift by gift.
The pre-emptive warning of this message is inherent in the myrrh. If we offer the sort of gifts that God desires, it could very well cost us everything. It’s a price that not many are willing to pay. I hope that we will be the exception to the rule. You and me. Where ever we go from here.
In the meantime, we will break bread together on our knees. We will be thankful for the part of the kindom that we have built together. We will take stock of the gifts that we have been given to take with us on the next leg of our journey. And we will celebrate this season of hope by remembering our shared story.
A story that begins with God’s good creation.
A story that grounds us in God’s evolving covenants of love.
A story that assures us of God’s abiding companionship.
A story that ends with peace……and that never ends.
So let us gather our gifts and offer our Christmas presence.
I thank you from my toe bottoms for being among the greatest gifts that I have ever had the privilege of bearing. You have formed me as a priest. You have taught me how to love with my whole heart. You have been my strength and my solace. And you will go with me where ever I go from here.
Thank you. I love you.
© December 2019, The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw