Sunday, December 9, 2012

Giving Up On Perfect

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 9:18-27.   This series was based on A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

This is a famous painting by Norman Rockwell, and it has been used to represent the sort of perfect holiday gathering. Grandma and grandpa serving the turkey with the entire family gathered around.  It, along with much else that Rockwell had to paint, have become a symbol of a sort of lost time in America, except for the fact that these times never really existed.  Rockwell himself said that he didn’t paint what was, but instead what he hoped to be.  But still, we have sanitized, idealized and idolized this image, just as we have done with Rockwell’s other paintings of the holidays, that this is what things are supposed to look like, these are what we are to strive for, and if we don’t make it look like this then we are missing something, because surely others are having these types of holidays aren’t they?  And so we strive to have that perfect Christmas, and we strive and we strive and we strive, and yet we never quite get there, it’s always that allusive thing that’s just beyond our grasp, and so we simply say, “well next year, this is what we will do differently in order to make it perfect,” and yet next year is never perfect either.  We try and live into this perfect picture, this perfect world, this perfect ideal, but not only can it never be, but it never ever was either.  And we’ve done the same thing with our story of the nativity as well, in order to sentimentalize it, we have removed the reality from it, and made it out to be this perfect scene.

If you were here on Christmas eve last year, I asked you to picture any nativity set you’ve ever had or ever seen, and just like the one we are assembling here, where Mary looks peaceful and serene, not at all tired after having just walked 80 plus miles and then given birth to a baby, and Joseph looks on adoringly.  Even our Christmas hymns sanitize it all.  In Away in a Manger, we sing “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”  So let me get this straight, a newborn is woken up suddenly by cows mooing, but he doesn’t cry?  That’s unlike any infant I’ve ever been around.  I understand that Jesus is special, but am I really supposed to believe he didn’t cry when a cow woke him up from his nap?

Growing up my favorite songs were two Bing Crosby classics, Do You Hear What I Hear? and The Little Drummer Boy, but it’s the second of those that is really at the heart of ridiculousness.  What person, even a young first time mother, is going to let anyone play a drum around a baby, especially one that is not yet crying, and what about the ox and lamb who are keeping time, or the other barnyard animals, as we all know there is a certain odiferousness that comes along with them, and flies and everything else, but that is not what we think of when we picture the nativity.  We have created an image in our minds and in our art of perfection that cannot be achieved, that we hold up and imagine every year at Christmas.

Last week we heard the annunciation made to Mary that she has “found favor with God” and that she will conceive and bear a son.  A girl, maybe no older than 13 or 14, is told that she is to become pregnant outside of marriage, without having relations with her betrothed.  This is not a blessing, this is something which can and often did result in the death penalty, and she’s supposed to be happy about this?  And then there’s Joseph, who finds out that Mary is pregnant and he is supposed to stay with her, even though the child is not his, and he is supposed to be happy about it.  This is one of those times that we might say it’s not a blessing but a curse, or maybe with friends like God, who needs enemies?  Maybe you’ve had similar thoughts at some point in your life.  Now maybe they were truly happy, but I imagine instead a lot of turmoil and worry and consternation and alarm and anxiety and fear and apprehension.  I don’t imagine that they just simply sat back and thanked God for everything that was happening and wondered how they could be so blessed and important.

And then just at the time that Jesus is to be born, Mary and Joseph have to leave their home and travel back to Bethlehem. Just at the time that Mary needs the women in her life to support her during the birth of her child, including her cousin Elizabeth who has already given birth to the baby who will become John the Baptist, she is left all alone.  And they reach Bethlehem, but there was no room in the inn, and so Mary gives birth.  We are actually not told in scripture where the birth takes place, we tend to think of it as being in a barn, or maybe a cave, but we are not told.  It’s just as likely that she gave birth in the street, all that we do know is that she laid the baby in a manger, which is a feeding trough.  And then Mary and Joseph are visited by a bunch of shepherds, who are not seen as being a respectable group of people, in fact they, like women, could not testify in court because they were not considered trustworthy, and let’s be honest, they’ve been out in the fields, and have probably been there for a long time, and so they has to be a certain odor that comes with them.  And so there are Mary and Joseph and the baby, surrounded by the mud and the muck of the street, and the stench and effluvia of the animals, and the shepherds, and maybe someone pounding on their drum.

This was about as imperfect of a birth as you can get.  And then we are told, that sometime between the birth and the time he turns two, that Mary and Joseph must flee with Jesus and go to live as exiles in Egypt, because Herod orders the death of all male children under the age of two.  It’s a good thing the Egyptians did not have a strict anti-illegal immigrant policy.  Is that how you picture the birth of Jesus?  Is that the image you conjure in your mind of what that night, and the days that followed must have been like?  It was definitely not like a Norman Rockwell painting, and it was far from perfect.  And so how does that true image of what happened that night fit into our idea of the perfect celebration of Christmas?  And with all this in mind what does it mean to call Jesus and to understand Jesus as the messiah?

In his story, The Wise Men, Mike O’Marry recalls his second grade Christmas pageant at his catholic school.  “I  played one of the three wise men,” he says.  “I was the second wise man–the one who brought the frankincense.  I enjoyed being one of the wise men. There were bigger parts–Mary and Joseph had pretty substantial roles, and even the innkeeper and shepherds had more lines–but being a wise man was quite a distinction. You had to carry yourself with grace and dignity. You had to look wise.   That’s why I was a little confused when I learned that Mike Walston had also been designated a wise man.  Mike Walston was singled out as different, possibly ignorant, and, generally speaking, not a good person to associate with. All I knew was that the honor of being designated a wise man had been diminished by my having to share that distinction with Mike Walston. And to make matters worse, he was the head wise man. He was to present the gold.

We began rehearsals right after Thanksgiving. We three kings would stand in the wings during most of rehearsal, Mike Walston first, me behind him, and Joey Amback, the myrrh guy, behind me. When it was time for us to enter, Mike Walston, being gold, would lead the way.  Unfortunately, Mike Walston was having trouble remembering his lines. (“We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”) As we got closer to opening night, Mike Walston was still having trouble. Many of us speculated that Sister Julia would have to make a switch, and I, being frankincense and the next wise man on the totem pole, was the likely candidate to move up. So when Sister Julia asked me to stay after school the day before the performance, I was prepared: If she felt my talents were better suited to the role of head wise man, I would, with all due grace and dignity, accept the promotion and present gold to the Christ-child on opening night.  But that’s not what Sister Julia wanted. Instead, I heard these shocking words: “I want you to help Mike Walston remember his lines when we perform the play tomorrow night.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  “I want you to practice his lines with him before you go on stage,” Sister Julia continued, “and if he forgets his lines when he kneels down by the baby Jesus, I want you to kneel down beside him and whisper his lines to him so the audience doesn’t know he forgot.”  I walked home that day in a daze. This was not the way it was supposed to be. Nonetheless, the next night, I did as Sister Julia told me and Mike Walston and I went right to work on his lines: “We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”  He did it fine offstage when he was relaxed, but I was afraid that once we got on stage, he’d freeze. I was prepared though: if he froze, I’d kneel down beside him and bail him out. If nothing else, my friends would know who was the hero and who was the goat.  The play went on and then it was time for our big entrance.

Mike Walston led us across the stage toward the Star of Bethlehem and the manger. With Mary and Joseph looking on, Mike knelt in front of the baby Jesus and–didn’t say a word. He froze. I was about to kneel down to help him, but just then, he glanced up at me and smiled a big smile. Then he turned, looked at Mary, and spat out his lines: “We are the three wise men. I bring you gold.”  I was stunned. There was a fairly long pause before Joey Amback gave me a nudge. Then I remembered where I was. I knelt down next to Mike Walston, turned to Mary, and said, “And I bring you gold.”

I couldn’t believe my own words. I was the frankincense guy, but I had said, plain as day, “I bring you gold.” There was a shocked hush over the entire church basement audience–broken only by a few nervous coughs–until Joey Amback knelt next to me and said, “Yeah, I bring you gold, too.”  Then the whole audience roared. The third wise man had bailed me out. Life in the second grade would go on. I would not have to spend my remaining days standing against the fence during recess. And Mike Walston would receive kudos for his fine performance.

The lesson stuck with me. Years later, when my boss was having trouble and there was talk of replacing him, I remembered the Christmas play and lent him a hand. There’s room for compassion in this world. I know firsthand that even the wisest of wise men stumble once in a while."

It wasn’t in the perfection of that Christmas pageant that Mike O’Marry encountered the true meaning of Christmas and what it means to be a disciple, nor was it in the perfection that he encountered the grace of God.  No, God was found for Mike O’Marry, and the lessons he learned were found in the imperfections.

Who do the crowds say that I am, Jesus asks the disciples.  Jesus has just fed the five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes, so they must think he’s someone important.  And so Peter gives him some answer, but then Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?”  That is the question that all of us must answer, and Peter’s answer is “The Messiah of God.”  For Luke this proclamation of Peter is directly related to the nativity story, because Peter is the first person to make the proclamation since the angels say to the shepherds “to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the messiah, the Lord.”  But to understand the proclamation of Lordship of Jesus as Messiah, Jesus then makes clear what comes with that, and that is to pick up our cross daily and to follow him.  This is not really about the readiness to die in the time of persecution, but instead about yielding ourselves to God every single day, continually following and continually picking up our cross.  This is the ultimate mark of giving up on perfection because it is giving ourselves over entirely to God and letting God guide us and lead us, and that is bound to lead us into things that are less than perfect.

And what we discover is that it is in the mess and the muck and the stuff of life where we find God.  In fact I might even argue that God is not found in perfection, but instead in imperfection.  Jesus says I did not come to save the righteous, but sinners.  God is not found in perfection, God is found in imperfection.  God does not come in spite of the mud and the muck and the imperfect stuff of our lives, God comes because of those things, and when we treat God as a way to give us whatever we want, most importantly at this time of year some sense of perfection, then not only do we miss out on our call to discipleship but we miss out on encountering God altogether.  God is not found in perfection, God is found in imperfection, and we celebrate the birth of Jesus’, Immanuel, God with us, in the midst of all of this stuff of our lives, because the true miracle of Christmas is that in the midst of all of this stuff in our lives God shows up.  God shows up in the most unimaginable of places and is born to the most unimaginable of parents, and the good news is given to the most unimaginable of people, even us.  It is time for us to give up our search for holiday perfection because God is not found in perfection, God is with us in our imperfection, not inspite of it, but because of it.

I have spent my entire adult life searching for a Norman Rockwell Christmas
And I have never found it” says an online poem written by Paula.
“I want everything to be perfect.
I want a huge, real pine tree. Decorated with perfect lights.
Garland perfectly wrapped around and around.
Perfect Christmas ornaments hung perfectly spaced.
Perfectly wrapped presents with perfect ribbon and bows.
The smells of Christmas waft through the house.
Cinnamon, wassail, pine and cookies.
Perfectly dressed children sitting patiently under the tree waiting
to take turns unwrapping those perfectly wrapped gifts.
Then they scream and oh and ah that it is the perfect present.
"Just what I wanted"
Then the family gathers around the piano and sings Christmas Carols
while the snow falls outside. And the stars twinkle.
And the carolers sing.
And everyone is happy.
And in the oven is baking the perfect turkey.
To be served with all the perfect side dishes.
And everyone is happy.
that has never, ever happened at my house.
In fact one year my son so aptly pointed out
"Mom, we don't even own a piano."
So I am not looking anymore.
Cause my artificial tree with a string of lights that don't work is perfect.
And the presents that are unevenly wrapped and have no ribbons and bow are perfect.
And the kids that will sit under our tree, while not perfect, are happy.
And they will oh and ah and be happy with what they get.
And hopefully there won't be any snow.
And we are having ham and not turkey.
And I might try to make some wassail.
How hard can that be?

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