Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rachel's Tears (12/29/13)

Rachel’s Tears
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 29, 2013
First Sunday After Christmas

After the astrologers had departed, a messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.  Stay there until I give you instructions.  You see, Herod is determined to hunt the child down and destroy him.”

So Joseph got up and took the child and his mother under cover of night and set out for Egypt.  There they remained until Herod’s death.  This happened in order to fulfill the prediction of the Lord spoken through the prophet:

I called my son out of Egypt.

When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged.  He then issued orders to kill all the children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding region.  This corresponded to the time (of the star) that he had learned from the astrologers.  Then the prediction spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:

In Ramah the sound of mourning
And bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled
Because they were no more.

After Herod’s death, a messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt:  “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel; those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  He heard that Archelaus was the king of Judea in the place of his father Herod; as a consequence, he was afraid to go there.  He was instructed n a dream to go to galilee.  So he went there and settled in a town called Nazareth, in order to fulfill the prediction of the prophets that he will be called a Nazorean.
Matthew 2:13-23 (Scholars’ Version)

This is the lectionary text for the first Sunday after Christmas, Year A.  It is a story, for obvious reasons, that is not emphasized at Christmas.    If it is read at all it is read once every three years on “low Sunday” where low means low attendance, the Sunday after Christmas when fewer people attend worship than usual.  

The story is referred to as the Flight to Egypt and the Slaughter of the Innocents. 

On Christmas Eve I shared some stories about the birth of Jesus from the later tradition.  One such collection is from The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior.  Today it is referred to as the Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew.  It was written around 600 CE.

The Flight to Egypt gets some attention.    Just before Herod slaughters all the male children two years and under, an angel tells Joseph in a dream to go to Egypt through the desert.

While in the desert on the journey Mary, Joseph, Jesus and family come across dragons, lions, panthers, and wolves and at the command of the infant Jesus they bow down to him and help the family on the journey.     Madeleine L’Engle has created a wonderful children’s book based on this story called Dancein the Desert.   It is a beautiful story with enchanting illustrations.  I highly recommend it. 

On the third day of the journey, Mary is fatigued.   She sees a palm tree and asks Joseph to stop and get some fruit.   Joseph quibbles with her saying that the fruit is too high and that water is more necessary.   The infant Jesus commands the tree to lower its branches to Mary so she can pick the fruit.   He commands a vein of water to be opened in the earth.    

The palm tree story also inspired the Cherry Tree Carol.   In this carol the fruit are cherries and in the carol Mary is pregnant and Joseph is angry and doubting Mary.   He says in anger, “Let the father of the child get you cherries.”  From the womb, Jesus commands the branch to lower itself to Mary.

A version of this story is in the Qur’an.   God speaks and Mary becomes pregnant. She is alone and she is afraid and when she is about to give birth she is under a palm tree.  Jesus tells her to shake the palm and get dates and provides water for her as well.   She gives birth and when she brings the child to the community, they accuse her of having a child out of wedlock, but Jesus himself speaks and sets them straight. 

Back to the Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew.   As the holy family continues the journey, Joseph still concerned for water asks Baby Jesus if it would be a good idea to leave the desert and journey along the shore so they could rest in the cities along the coast.  Jesus has a better idea.  Jesus says:

Fear not, Joseph; I will shorten the way for you, so that what you would have taken thirty days to go over, you shall accomplish in this one day.  And while they were thus speaking, behold, they looked forward, and began to see the mountains and cities of Egypt.

He teleports the family to Egypt.   One might think, he could have done that at day one.   The miracles keep on coming.  While in Egypt, they go into a temple in the city of Sotinen.  There are 355 gods in the temple and at the sight of the Blessed Mary and Jesus the idols fall down prostrate and shatter.   

The governor of the city hears that the gods have shattered and brings his army to the temple.  When he sees what has happened and sees the Blessed Mary and Jesus he adores them and commands his army and the whole city to worship Jesus or else he fears they will face destruction that Pharaoh and his army faced back in the day with Moses.   As we know, Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the sea because they didn’t believe.   And the text says:

Then all the people of that same city believed in the Lord God through Jesus Christ.

Thus the journey to Egypt ends.   The text continues:

After no long time the angel said to Joseph: Return to the land of Judah, for they are dead who sought the child's life. 

One could at this point ask an impertinent question.  If Jesus could tame dragons and wild beasts, command palm trees to obey, find water in the desert, teleport the family to Egypt, force idols to bow down and shatter, couldn’t he have stopped Herod from slaughtering the children?    That question is not even asked let alone answered.

Once we ask that question, we have entered the realm of theodicy, which is a fancy word that attempts to defend the indefensible.   Why is there suffering and evil if God is all good and all powerful?   If God or Jesus can do miracles there, why not here?   

Theodicy is an attempt to make excuses for the theory of an all powerful, all good God.    Those excuses range from God has a bigger plan, to God is teaching you a lesson, to God is punishing you, to God would have healed you, too, if you prayed more or believed in the right religion, to God is waiting for you to get your act together, and so on.  I find none of those answers satisfying.  I also find them to be insulting and harmful and dismissive of the actual experience of human beings.

On the question of theodicy, I cheat.  I bypass the whole thing.   I say there is no all powerful and all good God.   So no defense of such a being is necessary.  There is suffering, illness, and death.   It is part of life.   Our task is to make the best of it and to provide comfort along the journey to ourselves and to others.   Life is a cup of tears and a cup of joy.   We do well to know we must drink of both.

There are Herods in this world and their behavior is rightly called evil.  With courage and compassion our task is to draw from the well of goodness and do what we can to stop people from hurting others, to advocate for and to comfort victims, to seek justice on their behalf, and to take care that we do not escalate the spiral of violence and become what we hate.         

That said, there is a place for the quest of the hero.    That is Matthew’s story.   Matthew’s tale is also a legend.    The slaughter of the innocents is a fiction.  Herod was an historical figure.  He was a ruthless rascal.    But the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem did not happen.   It is a story drawn from the Exodus story when Moses escapes Pharoah’s death sentence upon the Hebrew children. Pharaoh sees the Hebrews growing in population and wants to thin them out a bit.  He has all the male children thrown into the Nile.  Moses escapes in a basket in the bulrushes. 

This is a common story.    It is a legend, too.  It is the story of the destined child that we find throughout literature.    From Moses to Jesus to Superman to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen, the hero is chosen and destined for a purpose.   In this case, as Moses grew up and saved the Hebrews from slavery, Jesus grew up and saved the people from sin.    A legend is born.  

Legends are wonderful.  Over the Christmas break we watched Bilbo Baggins take on the dark forces in The Hobbit.   Christianity is no different.  It just thinks it is.  Part of the delusion of organized religion is that each thinks its stories are unique, special, and true.   The others?  Not so much.   As I see it, while the characters change, and the plots are modified, the stories are essentially the same.   

The hero is born of humble beginnings, usually, but not always.  He or she is chosen and destined to bring freedom or justice or enlightenment.   She often resists the call, goes through a period of purging and self-discovery, struggles with weakness, finds in the weakness a hidden strength, draws from the well-spring of goodness and talent, and in the nick of time, fulfills the destiny, often at great cost to self.

What do you do with these heroic legends?    You can externalize them.  That is declare that the story is factual, and that the task is to worship the hero and make a religion about him.    It is a passive approach.  The hero does it for us.    This is a common way in which the story of Jesus Christ is presented. 

But another way to experience it, is to see the story as inspiration.   The reason the legend of the hero’s quest is common and crosses cultures is because it touches a human longing and a human need.   We might think we need a hero.  What we really need is to be a hero.   

Life is itself a hero’s quest.  We are born and thrown into the task of self-discovery.  We are taught language, meaning, place, and task.  As we grow, we question it and we wrestle with what it is we are to be doing with our lives.   Who am I?  What is my quest?   Where is the suffering, the hurt, and the evil that I need to confront?  It could be within, and likely is, and also without.   Where are Rachel’s tears?   How do I respond to those tears, my own, and those of others? 

As I look at you, I see heroes.   Everyone of you.   Each of you has a well of goodness.  Each has a weakness that can become a strength.  Each of you struggles with self-discovery, with disappointment, with loss, grief, and yet there is a task.   Some of you know it, some may not.  It isn’t necessarily the same task all of your life.   There are times we need to discern and revisit what that task is, and reinvent who we are to be.    Religion which is made up of stories, practices, and communities, is a place from which we draw inspiration.   But at the end of the day, you are the hero. 

The legend of Jesus Christ is the legend of love.   Legends are true in the most important way.    Jesus Christ who breaks the bond of sin is a story that is very true.   I define sin as the inability or the unwillingness to love, and sometimes it is hard to tell between the two, that is inability or unwillingness.  If sin is the failure to love, then breaking the bond of sin is breaking the barriers to love.    

The legend of Jesus Christ when we internalize it is our hero’s quest to love.   We give birth to love.  We die to ways of being that are not loving, and we are resurrected to love anew.   We continue the process throughout our lives, growing deeper in ways of love.     We love in the presence of grief and tears.  We love in response to evil and violence.  We love in response to death.  We love in response to joy.     It is not the only hero’s quest available to us, but it is a good one. 

I find that series of five lines regarding Rachel prominent this year for me personally.   Rachel of course is the wife of Jacob who he loved most.   If Jacob is the patriarch of Israel, in fact, his name is changed by YHWH to Israel, then Rachel is the matriarch.  The children for whom she weeps are all the descendants killed in violence and who are victims of injustice.   It is a poetic way of describing grief at its most intense.   The grief of a mother over her dying children. 

I am glad this story that we often skip over is present in the birth legends of Jesus.   For me, the loss of my own son, Zachary, a year and a half later is really only beginning to sink in and become real.  No he won’t be coming back this Christmas or next.    These five lines are real and true.   

In Ramah the sound of mourning
And bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled
Because they were no more.

There is a validation in them.    If love, known through the legend of Jesus Christ is to be true, it must not hurry over or cover over or wish away or ignore or get over or move beyond this.     It must acknowledge and know Rachel’s tears and mine.  

In a way that is hard to explain, I find comfort and meaning in the Jesus story, both the historical Jesus and in the legend of Jesus Christ.  I am not so keen on speculations regarding god, but I do have a heart for Jesus.   

I have a need for the legend of love as expressed in the story of Jesus Christ.   I feel a danger of losing the capacity for love.  I worry, I fear that my grief may harden me, make me unable to care, or in the words regarding Rachel, make me permanently inconsolable.    

There may be yet a birth, death, and rebirth ahead, a breaking of the bonds that hold back love.  I hope someday.  But that is too much to think about now.    For now, it is enough to know that Rachel’s tears are not forgotten and that the record of them are found in holy writ.     

That recognition for me makes love and hope both real and possible.   



Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Baby Jesus (Christmas Eve 2013)

Baby Jesus
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Christmas Eve 2013

The Gospel of Jesus
Jesus was a descendant of Abraham.  Jesus’ parents were named Joseph and Mary.  Jesus was born when Herod was king.  Eight days later, when the time came to circumcise him, they gave him the name Jesus.  Many in Jesus’ hometown asked, “This is the carpenter, isn’t it?  Isn’t he Mary’s son?  And who are his brothers, if not James and Judas and Simon?  And who are his sisters, if not our neighbors?   Phillip tells Nathanael, “We have found Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.  “From Nazareth?” Nathanael said to him.  “Can anything good come from that place?”

And that is all we know about the birth and family of the historical Jesus.   Those few sentences scattered throughout the gospels are all that is plausible about his parentage, family, and hometown.   

How then did we get to Christmas with virgin births, stars, angels, wise men, and December 25th?

We begin with two separate legends.   One found in Matthew and the other in Luke.   When I use the word “legend” I am not being dismissive, as if it is “only a legend,” therefore ignore it.  I am being descriptive.    Stories of miraculous births whether they are about the birth of Jesus, Moses, Augustus Caesar, or of any gods or divinely blessed mortals, are told through legend.  They are not history as we understand history.    

The ancient writers were not writing history.  They were writing mystery.   They told stories to capture the character and the meaning of the person.   When you told a story about the significance of someone’s life in the ancient world, old stories were best.   You imitated stories that were well-known and with creativity adapted them to fit the person you were celebrating.   The gospel writers were not interested in the facts about Jesus as we might be.  They were interested in the meaning of Jesus as they interpreted it. 

How did they use symbols, tropes, plots, and metaphors to tell their story and what story were they telling?   Before we ask that question, we have to ask a more basic one:  why did they need a story of Jesus (whose name by way, means savior) anyway?     

They Jews were under occupation.   When Jesus was born the occupying power was Rome.   When the gospels were created, perhaps as many as 80 to 100 years or more after his birth, Jerusalem had been burned and their temple destroyed by the Romans.  The Jews were in conflict literally and theologically with Rome.   

In Roman Imperial Theology here is how the divine powers worked.   You went to war.  You were victorious.  There was peace.    This is not unlike imperial theologies throughout history including in our own time.  God blesses the victor.    Who was the victor?  Augustus Caesar.   He was announced divine at birth.   According to legend his father was a god.   Because of his military victories and for bringing peace to Rome and quiet to the provinces, he was raised to divine status.    Coins bore the inscription that he was son of god.    He earned the title by victory in war.  

What about the Jews?  Obviously, in this theological system, they were not favored by the gods.  To the victor goes true religion.   But the Jews and the early Jewish movements that centered around Jesus did not accept Roman religion. They had a different vision of God.   The God of the Jews and of Jesus said you get peace through justice in which justice means enough for everyone.   You don’t get lasting peace through war and victory, but through non-violence and justice.    

Jesus was a Jew.  The earliest sayings and actions associated with him show him to be a wisdom teacher and social prophet.   His vision was in direct conflict with Roman theology.   Instead of war to victory to peace, his vision looked to non-violence to justice to peace. 

He articulated a vision that was already present even if at times hidden in his own tradition.   It would be a vision that would be both present and hidden again in the traditions and centuries that followed him.   His vision captured the imaginations and the hopes of those who heard him and who believed that it might be possible for everyone to have enough, to live in harmony with Earth, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and thus to live in peace.   To live metaphorically on God’s mountain where no one will hurt or destroy. 

Jesus was executed by the Romans with the assistance of local religious authorities.   But his vision did not die with him.   Stories about him were told.  Sayings were collected.   Some events remembered.   Many stories and sayings were created.  All these stories eventually made their way into theological narratives or gospels.    These narratives were not history but mystery.  They were stories of his meaning for those who told them.     

Paul was one such meaning maker.  He didn’t know the historical Jesus.  The Apostle Paul turned Jesus into a cosmic savior, a cosmic Christ, saving us from sin and even death itself.   This theology influenced the gospels.      

Two gospels in the New Testament tell of his birth.    Matthew imitated the story of the birth of Moses, also a legend.   Both Moses and Jesus are saved from ruthless leaders (Pharaoh and Herod, respectively) who slaughter innocent children in failed attempts to kill these destined heroes.    Moses grows up to lead the people from bondage in Egypt.    Jesus is like Moses.   

In Luke, the good news of the birth of Augustus and Roman Imperial Theology is turned on its head.   The language that belonged to Caesar inscribed on imperial coins and stone temples, “the savior who brings peace to the world,” is applied to Jesus whose birth announcement is given to shepherds, the bottom of the economic, social, and political ladder.    The choice is clear.   Does peace come through war and victory or through non-violence and justice?  Which god will we serve?  Which god will save us?   

Yet even within Luke and Matthew, the meaning and significance of Jesus is being shaped by other theological needs.   He is becoming more of a god than a human being and his significance is becoming more cosmic than practical.    Influenced by Paul’s theology, Jesus is the cosmic Christ who comes to die for the sins of the world.  The birth stories of Jesus both preserve his vision and move beyond it.

By the time we get to the second century, the Jesus movement has separated itself from its Jewish roots altogether.   Jesus is nearly fully god by now. He is divine and sinless, thus Mary’s virginity and her purity are emphasized.   

Tonight we will hear portions of two other legends.   The first is The Infancy Gospel of James.   It was composed in the middle of the second century.   It tells about Mary’s childhood, a birth also by the Holy Spirit.   Mary has parents, Joachim and Anna, and stories are told about them.   Joseph is an old man because it would be unseemly for Mary to have any relations with him.    We find that Mary is a teenager when she gives birth.  Jesus’s brothers and sisters become step-siblings.  They become children of Joseph born long before Jesus is born. Meanwhile Mary is well on the way to becoming a perpetual virgin.   

It is in the Infancy Gospel of James that we learn some interesting details that have become part of the tradition.   For instance, Mary rides a donkey to Bethlehem.  We also discover the tradition of Jesus being born in a cave and the magic of the silent night, when everything stops moving and becomes perfectly still at the moment of his birth.

Around the year 600, the stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood are collected into a work called The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior.  In this marvelous collection of legends, Jesus exerts divine powers from the moment he is born.    We will hear a couple of those stories tonight.  It is in this text that we learn an ox and an ass are present at the birth.   The ox and ass are in nativity scenes and featured in Christmas carols. 

On the flight to Egypt, the infant Jesus causes a palm tree to deliver fruit to his mother.   You will find a version of this story in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book.   The Cherry Tree Carol is based on this story and tells it a bit differently.   We will hear that song tonight, too. 

Also during the flight to Egypt, the first family confronts dragons, lions, and panthers.  The Baby Jesus is not afraid.  He commands them to obey and of course, they do.   He is the king of creation even at birth.

There is much debate regarding the date of his birth, December25th.    One theory is that the date is borrowed from various solstice celebrations.    But it could be that it was based on a calculation regarding Passover, the time the gospels record his execution.      Tertullian around the year 200 calculated that the crucifixion occurred on the 14th of Nisan, based on his reading of the Gospel of John.  In the Roman calendar that would be, March 25th

This same date, March 25th, was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation, or Jesus’ conception.   In other words he was believed to have been conceived on the same date that he was crucified.   Nine months following March 25th is December 25th, the date of his birth.   

This is of course all legend based on theology.  One medieval painting has the Baby Jesus coming down from heaven carrying his cross.    The theological structure is about Jesus Christ whose purpose is to die on the cross to save humanity from sin and thus offer eternal life on a new heaven and a new earth.    

We’ve come a long way from the historical Jesus. It is a challenge to discover how legends and theological traditions originate, but like Velcro balls, they pick up whatever is in their path.  

Tonight we celebrate the legends surrounding Jesus.  It is Christmas.  We embrace the magic.  We delight in the mythology.   We contemplate the theology. We pause to honor this holy night.   We open our mind and heart to the virgin, the angels, and the adoring shepherds.   We welcome Jesus Christ:  the Divine Son, Light from Light, Very God of Very God, King of Heaven and Earth.  Yes, yes.

Amidst it all, I would like to light one candle for the real person buried underneath the layers of legend and theology.   I light a candle for the vision of Jesus of Nazareth, the vision of a human being who had a hope and a conviction that there could be a lasting peace in this world, if we could be humble, wise, and courageous enough to seek justice for everyone. 

Christmas Eve Bulletin (12/24/13)

First Presbyterian Church
A Progressive Christian Community
Christmas Eve 2013

For Reflection:

When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee

And one day as they went walking, all in the garden green
There were berries and cherries as thick as may be seen

Then Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild
"Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child"

The Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he
"Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee”

Then up spoke baby Jesus, from out Mary's womb
"Bow down ye tallest tree that my mother might have some”

So bent down the tallest tree to touch Mary's hand
Said she, "Oh look now Joseph, I have cherries at command"

When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he
He married Virgin Mary, the Queen of Galilee
--Cherry Tree Carol, 15th century



*CALL TO WORSHIP   The Book About the Origin of the
Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior (Chapter 13) [i]

…the angel ordered the beast to stand, for the time when she should bring forth was at hand; and he commanded the blessed Mary to come down off the animal, and go into a recess under a cavern, in which there never was light, but always darkness, because the light of day could not reach it. And when the blessed Mary had gone into it, it began to shine with as much brightness as if it were the sixth hour of the day. The light from God so shone in the cave, that neither by day nor night was light wanting as long as the blessed Mary was there. And there she brought forth a son, and the angels surrounded Him when He was being born. And as soon as He was born, He stood upon His feet, and the angels adored Him, saying:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all people of good pleasure.”

*CAROL        It Came Upon A Midnight Clear        #123

Perhaps for a moment the typewriters will stop clicking,
the wheels stop rolling
the computers desist from computing,
and a hush will fall
over the city.

For an instant, in the stillness,
the chiming of the celestial spheres will be heard
as earth hangs poised in the crystalline darkness, and then gracefully tilts.

Let there be a season
when holiness is heard, and
the splendor of living is revealed.

Stunned to stillness by beauty
we remember who we
are and why we are here.

There are inexplicable mysteries.

We are not alone.

In the universe there moves a Wild One
whose gestures alter earth's axis
toward love.

In the immense darkness
everything spins with joy.

The cosmos enfolds us.

We are caught in a web of stars,
cradled in a swaying embrace,
rocked by the holy night,
babes of the universe.

Let this be the time
we wake to life,
like spring wakes, in
the moment of winter solstice.


SCRIPTURE                                      The Gospel of Jesus[iii]
Jesus was a descendant of Abraham.  Jesus’ parents were named Joseph and Mary.  Jesus was born when Herod was king.  Eight days later, when the time came to circumcise him, they gave him the name Jesus.  Many in Jesus’ hometown asked, “This is the carpenter, isn’t it?  Isn’t he Mary’s son?  And who are his brothers, if not James and Judas and Simon?  And who are his sisters, if not our neighbors?   Phillip tells Nathanael, “We have found Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.  “From Nazareth?” Nathanael said to him.  “Can anything good come from that place?”                                    

HOMILY                      "Baby Jesus"                                  Rev. John Shuck

SPECIAL MUSIC                                                      Heidi Faust

POETRY        This Is Christmas       Howard Thurman[iv]
The evergreen singing aloud its poem of constant renewal,
The festive mood spreading lilting magic everywhere,
The gifts of recollection calling to heart the graces of life,
The star in the sky calling to mind the wisdom of hope,
The warmth of candlelight glowing against the darkness,
The birth of a child linking past to future,
The symbol of love absorbing all violence,
This is Christmas.

SCRIPTURE  The Infancy Gospel of James 17:1-18:2[v]
Now an order came down from Augustus the Emperor that everybody in Bethlehem of Judea be counted in a census.

And Joseph wondered, “I’ll register my sons, but what am I going to do with this child?  How will I register her?  As my wife?  I’m ashamed to do that.  As my daughter?  The people of Israel will know she’s not my daughter.  This is the day of the Lord; he will do whatever he decides.”

So he saddled his donkey and had her get on it.  His son led it and Samuel brought up the rear.  As they neared the three-mile marker, Joseph turned around and saw that she was gloomy.  He said to himself, “Perhaps the baby she is carrying is causing her discomfort.”  Joseph turned around again and saw her laughing and said to her, “Mary, what’s going on with you?  One minute I see you laughing and the next minute you’re gloomy.” 

She replied, “Joseph, it’s because I imagine two people in front of me, one weeping and mourning and the other rejoicing and celebrating.”

Halfway through the trip Mary said to him, “Joseph, help me down from the donkey—the child inside me is ready to be born.”

And he helped her down and said to her, “Where will I take you to give you some privacy, since this place is out in the open?”

He found a cave nearby and took her inside.  He stationed his sons to guard her and went to look for a Hebrew midwife in the countryside around Bethlehem.

SPECIAL MUSIC                              Ali and Nora Williams

POETRY  Christmas Is Waiting To Be Born  Howard Thurman
Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes,
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell,
go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day's life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
Christmas is waiting to be born:
In you, in me, in all mankind.

SCRIPTURE  The Infancy Gospel of James  18:3-11
Now I, Joseph, was walking along and not going anywhere.  I looked up at the dome of the sky and saw it standing still, and then at the clouds and saw them stopped in amazement, and at the birds of the sky suspended in midair.  As I looked down on the ground, I saw a bowl lying there and workers reclining around it with their hands in the bowl; some were chewing and yet did not chew; some were picking up something to eat and yet did not pick it up; and some were putting food in their mouths and yet did not do so.  Instead, they were all looking upward.

I saw sheep being herded along and yet the sheep stood still; the shepherd was lifting his hand to strike them, and yet his hand remained raised.  And I observed the current of the river and saw goats with their mouths in the water and yet they were not drinking.  Then all of a sudden everything and everybody went on with what they had been doing.

CAROL          O Little Town of Bethlehem              #121

POETRY        Life Seems Unaware               Howard Thurman
Once again the smell of death rides on the winds
And fear lurks within the shadows of the mind.
One by one the moments tick away.
Days and nights are interludes
Between despairing hope and groping faith.
Of this bleak desolation, Life seems unaware:
Seeds still die and live again in answer to their kind;
Fledgling birds awake to life from prison house of shell;
Flowers bloom and blossoms fall as harbingers of fruit to
The newborn child comes even on the wings of death;
The thoughts of men are blanketed by dreams
Of tranquil days and peaceful years,
When love unfettered will keep the heart and mind
In ways of life that crown our days with light.

SCRIPTURE  The Infancy Gospel of James 19:1-16
Then I saw a woman coming down from the hill country.  She asked, ‘Where are you going, sir?’
I replied, ‘I’m looking for a Hebrew midwife.’
She inquired, ‘Are you an Israelite?’
I told her that I was.
‘And who’s the one having the baby in the cave?’ she asked.
‘My betrothed,’ I replied.
She asked me, ‘You mean she isn’t your wife?’
I told her, ‘She is Mary, who was raised in the temple of the Lord; I obtained her by lot as my wife. But she’s not really my wife; she’s pregnant by the holy spirit.’
‘Really?’ the midwife said.
‘Come and see,’ Joseph responded.

So the midwife went with him.  As they stood in front of the cave, a dark cloud overshadowed it.  The midwife said, “I’ve really been privileged, because today my eyes have seen a mystery:  salvation has come to Israel.”

Suddenly the cloud withdrew from the cave and a light appeared inside it that was so intense their eyes could not bear to look.  And a little later that light receded until an infant became visible.  He came and took the breast of his mother Mary.

CAROL          Gentle Mary Laid Her Child              #146   

POETRY        Christmas Returns      Howard Thurman
Christmas returns, as it always does,
with its assurance that life is good.
It is the time of lift to the spirit,
When the mind feels its way into the commonplace,
And senses the wonder of simple things: an evergreen tree,
Familiar carols, merry laughter.
It is the time of illumination,
When candles burn, and old dreams
Find their youth again.
It is the time of pause,
When forgotten joys come back to mind, and past
dedications renew their claim.
It is the time of harvest for the heart,
When faith reaches out to mantle all high endeavor,
And love whispers its magic word to everything that breathes.
Christmas returns, as it always does,
with its assurance that life is good.

SCRIPTURE  The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary
and the Childhood of the Savior (Chapter 14)

And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib.”  The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him.

SPECIAL MUSIC      Mary’s Boy Child      Rev. Don Steele

POETRY     Christmas Is the Season of the Heart
Howard Thurman

The Time of forgiveness for injuries past,
The Sacrament of sharing without balancing the deed,
The Moment of remembrance of graces forgotten,
The Poem of joy making light the spirit,
The Sense of renewal restoring the soul,
The Day of thanksgiving for the goodness of God.
Christmas is the season of the heart.

SCRIPTURE   The Book About the Origin of the
Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior  (Chapter 18-19)

And having come to a certain cave, and wishing to rest in it, the blessed Mary dismounted from her beast, and sat down with the child Jesus in her bosom. And there were with Joseph three boys, and with Mary a girl, going on the journey along with them.

And, lo, suddenly there came forth from the cave many dragons; and when the children saw them, they cried out in great terror. Then Jesus went down from the bosom of His mother, and stood on His feet before the dragons; and they adored Jesus, and thereafter retired.

Then was fulfilled that which was said by David the prophet, saying: “Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons; ye dragons, and all ye deeps.” 

And the young child Jesus, walking before them, commanded them to hurt no man. But Mary and Joseph were very much afraid lest the child should be hurt by the dragons. And Jesus said to them: “Do not be afraid, and do not consider me to be a little child; for I am and always have been perfect; and all the beasts of the forest must needs be tame before me.”

Lions and panthers adored Him likewise, and accompanied them in the desert. Wherever Joseph and the blessed Mary went, they went before them showing them the way, and bowing their heads; and showing their submission by wagging their tails, they adored Him with great reverence.

Now at first, when Mary saw the lions and the panthers, and various kinds of wild beasts, coming about them, she was very much afraid. But the infant Jesus looked into her face with a joyful countenance, and said: “Be not afraid, mother; for they come not to do thee harm, but they make haste to serve both thee and me.”  With these words He drove all fear from her heart.

And the lions kept walking with them, and with the oxen, and the asses, and the beasts of burden which carried their baggage, and did not hurt a single one of them, though they kept beside them; but they were tame among the sheep and the rams which they had brought with them from Judaea, and which they had with them.

They walked among wolves, and feared nothing; and no one of them was hurt by another. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet: “Wolves shall feed with lambs; the lion and the ox shall eat straw together.”

There were together two oxen drawing a wagon with provision for the journey, and the lions directed them in their path.

CAROL                      What Child Is This                 #145

POETRY  The Growing Edge                        Howard Thurman
All around us worlds are dying
and new worlds are being born;
All around us life is dying and life is being born.
The fruit ripens on the tree;
The roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth
Against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms,
green fruit.
Such is the growing edge!
 It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung,
The one more thing to try when all else has failed,
The upward reach of life when weariness
closes in upon all endeavor.
This is the basis of hope in moments of despair,
The incentive to carry on
When times are out of joint and men and women
have lost their reason, the source of confidence
When worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash.
Such is the growing edge incarnate.
Look well to the growing edge."

SCRIPTURE  The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary
and the Childhood of the Savior (Chapter 20)

And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: “Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree.”

Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast. And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: “I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm.”

And Joseph said to her: “I wonder that you say this, when you see how high the palm tree is; and that you think of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle.”

Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: “O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit.” And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed.

And after they had gathered all its fruit, it remained bent down, waiting the order to rise from Him who had commanded it to stoop. Then Jesus said to it: “Raise thyself, O palm tree, and be strong, and be the companion of my trees, which are in the paradise of my Father; and open from thy roots a vein of water which has been hid in the earth, and let the waters flow, so that we may be satisfied from thee.”

And it rose up immediately, and at its root there began to come forth a spring of water exceedingly clear and cool and sparkling. And when they saw the spring of water, they rejoiced with great joy, and were satisfied, themselves and all their cattle and their beasts. Wherefore they gave thanks to God.

CAROL          He Came Down                                  #137

OFFERTORY            Cherry Tree Carol                  Roberta Flack 

(The minister lights his candle from the Christ Candle in the Advent wreath.  The ushers light their candles from the minister’s candle, then light the candle of each worshiper nearest the aisle.  The lighted candle is never tilted but is always upright when giving light to another).

SCRIPTURE  I Will Light Candles This Christmas 
Howard Thurman

I will light candles this Christmas.
Candles of joy, despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.

CAROL                      “Silent Night”

Silent night, holy night!  All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night!  Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

Silent night, holy night!  Wondrous star, lend thy light
With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia to our king;
Christ the savior is born, Christ the savior is born.

BENEDICTION   The Work of Christmas  Howard Thurman
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

[i] Known today as “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew,” this story of Jesus’ birth and childhood was composed around 600 CE.  It was included in the medieval text, “The Golden Legend” and inspired the “Cherry Tree Carol.”
[ii] Rebecca Parker, Winter Solstice
[iii] Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus According to the Jesus Seminar (Santa Rosa:  Polebridge, 1999), p. 9.
[iv] All Howard Thurman poems are from The Mood of Christmas (Richmond,IN: Friends United Press, 2001).
[v] The Infancy Gospel of James is a mid-Second Century Gospel.