A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved
First Sunday in Christmas/B • December 27, 2020
When I was growing up, basket weaving was my father’s favorite example of something totally useless. I’d take a course in art and he’d ask, “So, what are you studying these days, basket weaving?” Only later did I learn from historians that baskets and basket weaving in fact were critical to ancient communities. Baskets were the basic dry storage container, the Tupperware of their time. Weaving baskets is a complex, community project. Some gather reeds and slim sticks, some soak them while skilled weavers combine them into something useful for the community, something others will fill with beans and corn and food to get them through the winter. Learning about baskets made me realize how much we depend on on our community. Today’s gospel reading is all about community. It was in a community that Jesus was recognized.
The first Christians never saw Jesus alone. Mark doesn’t have a story of his birth, neither does John. Our Christmas story is woven together from a few verses of Luke and a few more in Matthew. Early Christians didn’t look to what we call the Christmas story, they looked to their scripture, what we sometimes call the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, and they saw him as part of God’s continuing coming to the community.
Early on, a tradition that put Jesus in the picture with Abraham, Moses and Elijah developed; it’s the story of the transfiguration and we read it every year. Most importantly, as we read recently, God promised David eternal presence and the early Christians saw Jesus as the continuation of this promise. It wasn’t Jesus alone; it was Jesus as part of a long line of God coming into lives, historical lives. It was a new explosion of the same God, the God who formed a community through Abraham and Sarah, saved it through Moses, established it through David and then announced forgiveness and recall through the prophets.
Today’s gospel reading is the story of the community present in Jesus’ time recognizing him. You’ve seen this, though you may not recognize it. Every community has a moment, a ritual, by which a new person is recognized and welcomed into the community. We do it as a nation with the process of becoming a citizen. We do it in here when someone owns the church covenant and becomes a member. Most importantly, we do it through baptism. In our tradition, when a child is born, it’s common for the parents and family to bring the child to church where the minister of the church on behalf of the community welcomes the child to the community of all Christians and especially that congregation and the congregation promises to support the child.
Now we know that not everyone does it this way. Baptism has always had a dual identity. Part of it is the involuntary thing God is doing in choosing a child; part of it is the choice we make to choose God. So Christians have emphasized different aspects. But it’s interesting that even so, most have found a way to recognize there are two moments that need a ritual, need a public blessing. One is at the beginning of life. In our tradition, in most Western traditions, we do this by baptizing a child. In some traditions, they introduce and recognize the child. In those traditions, baptism often takes place when the child is 12 or 13. In our tradition, we also know that’s an important time and we have a service where the young person confirms the baptismal vows, the choices, previously made for them.
But what matters isn’t so the specifics of the ritual but the meaning of the moment. You see that same meaning here. Mary and Joseph have brought their child to Jerusalem. We aren’t told exactly how old he is. But the purpose is clear: it’s presentation, a ritual to certify him as a member of the people of God, a Jewish person, part of the Jewish community. But they don’t do this alone. The event has book ends in the reaction of people who are part of the community.
Think of Simeon. We’re not told his role but it seems to be official. Perhaps he’s a rabbi; perhaps he’s a Deacon. He’s looking forward to “the consolation of Israel”—that is for a clear sign of the presence of God. When Jesus is brought and the service is performed, , we’re told that he embraced Jesus, literally “took him into his arms.” He sees in Jesus the continuation of the presence of God and it’s the Holy Spirit that has guided him to this encounter. He’s not an uncle, he’s not a friend of the family, he’s a part of the large community in which Jesus will live and preach and work. And he sees Jesus as a sign of God’s presence.
At the other end of the story, we have Anna, an 84 year old widow who practically lives in the temple, devoting herself to prayer and worship. Jesus becomes for her a reason to praise god and to encourage those looking for hope and redemption.
Jesus is not alone and neither are you. We live in a vast network of communities and if we fail to see them, it’s our lack of vision, not their lack of presence. We are all coming through a difficult time and a great part of the difficulty is the loneliness so many feel. I wonder how many didn’t feel like Christmas came because no one came to visit. It’s one thing to realize Santa really is not coming down your chimney, another to not have family members or friends come by, not see anyone, not touch anyone. I honestly believe it’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of right wing terrorist groups like the Proud Boys and others. They feed on the loneliness, they feed on feeling left out of community.
But there is a way to reconnect with a sense of community and you can do it as part of your prayer life. We are good at giving thanks for things; we need to pay more attention to giving thanks for people. A. J. Jacobs is a writer who set out to do this by giving thanks for everyone involved in his morning cup of coffee. He started to consciously thank people for some of his food. Jacobs made a point of getting the names of people. He thanked Chung, the barista, and Ed, the coffee taster who selects the coffee, and named and contacted many, many others, all to say thank you. He went on to thank the trucker who brought the coffee to the store. But then there was also the people who built the truck and carved the highway out on which the truck drove. There were the people who bought large sacks of coffee beans and roasted them, there were the people who packaged it. There were the people who grew the coffee of course. He called his project, “Thanks a thousand,’ because he ended up thanking over a thousand people.
We try to do something like this at our home and we have for a long time. On Christmas, for example, we had roast chicken for dinner. So when Jacquelyn prayed over the meal, she thanked the farmer who raised the chicken and the chicken for giving its life for our dinner. We do this normally; I’ve noticed it sometimes throws guests a little. That’s ok; perhaps it makes them think.
You can try this, you can do this, and it will lift you up. Pick something simple: Jacobs picked coffee, we do it with dinner. Think of the network of people who worked to bring it to you, the community that is upholding your life. It makes you pay attention; it makes you grateful.
Mary Oliver expressed this same feeling of attentive gratitude in her poem, “Invitation”
by Mary Oliver
Oh do you have time
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,-https://wordsfortheyear.com/2017/08/28/invitation-by-mary-oliver/
do not walk by
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.
Jesus is not alone, neither are we. We are called together as a church community because that’s how God works. It’s significant that when Jesus did set out to preach and heal, he didn’t just preach, he didn’t just heal, he first created a community of disciples. A church is not a building, it’s not a club, it’s an expression of what Jesus was doing when he created that community, a new community of his followers. When we are at out best, we are, as the scripture says, a crown of beauty. When we are a community of Christians, we are an inspiration, as Jesus inspired Anna.
This week, I hope you will think of the community and give thanks. This week, I hope you will be a reason for someone else to praise God, I hope we all will. For we are meant indeed to be the crown of beauty by which God is seen present in this place, in this community.