“So – Now What?”
Chilmark Community Church
December 27, 2015
Re. Vicky Hanjian
Quite few years ago now, Armen and I spent a wondrous Christmas in Toronto when our grandchildren were 2 and 4 years old. Most of the activity around the holiday centered on their church’s celebration of Christmas.
On the Sunday morning before Christmas, we walked the 12 or so blocks on the downtown city streets of Toronto and went to Trinity-St.Pauls UCC with Ellie holding our hands and swinging between us. On that particular Sunday morning, the church’s large gymnasium was converted into the market square in Bethlehem. There were stalls and booths around the perimeter of the square offering homemade breads and hand sculpted oil lamps. In the center of the square several women were weaving on portable looms. In a back corner young girls were having their hands painted by a henna artist. There were street dancers with drums and tambourines and a beggar lay on a mat near the entrance of the square. The air was fragrant with the aroma of a spicy lentil stew and freshly baked afghanistani bread from the church kitchen.
At some point, some shepherds drifted in – asking if anyone knew where a special baby was to be born. A flustered midwife ran through the square looking for clean cloths and hot water. There were strangely dressed foreigners also inquiring about the whereabouts of a newborn baby. The crowd of Christmas shoppers milled around the square, largely ignoring the drama that was being played out in their midst. Then a young girl – maybe 10 or 11 years old – came running into the room shouting A BABY IS BEING BORN! A BABY IS BEING BORN! COME AND SEE!! People finally began to pay attention and we followed the girl through the winding hallways of the church into the sanctuary where Mary and Joseph and the newborn child were in place in front of the altar. We sang the familiar carols and prayed prayers of thanksgiving for this most wonderful birth. Our journey to Bethlehem had been made more real by the drama.
My granddaughter’s eyes were wide with wonder at the unfolding story and she was quite disappointed when the service was over. As we walked out into the grayness of a Toronto December afternoon, Ellie looked up at me and asked “Grandma, now what are we going to do?”
Her question lent itself well to a sermon title for the Sunday after Christmas – – although I have to confess her question probably had more to do with whether or not we could stop at Tim Horton’s on the way home for hot chocolate and a doughnut than it did with any lofty theology about the meaning of the birth of the Christ child. Still, the timing of her question was uncanny as we walked out into the downtown buzz of traffic on Bloor Street on the Sunday before Christmas.
We have celebrated the magnificent birth. So – now what?
On Tuesday evening of that week, we again made our way back to the big stone church on Bloor Street, this time with our daughter-in-law, Mary – to help wash dishes and clean up after the weekly dinner offered to people who live on the streets of Toronto. I was humbled by the range of conditions I observed as people came in for a hot meal, perhaps a night on a foam mattress in the same room that had only a few days earlier been a market square in Bethlehem. I was deeply moved by the difference in the crowd this time – the vacant faces of many who should have been in sheltered, assisted living situations; the gaunt faces of others who clearly did not have enough to eat, the adult woman who clutched a teddy bear under her arm and wandered around talking to herself, the tentative politeness of the heavily bearded man who asked if he could have seconds on the pea soup.
This too is Bethlehem.
Once again, we walked out of the church into the cold Canadian night and Ellie’s question echoed in my ears: “Grandma – now what are we going to do?”
Inevitably, Christmas Eve arrived right on time. Mary and I took Ellie to worship at the 7PM service. We listened to the sounds of Christmas….the wind, the rain, the chirp of the cricket that kept Joseph awake, the groaning of a camel who refused to travel any further, the braying of a donkey settling in for the night. We sang again the familiar carols and celebrated communion – hearing the sound of the bread being broken – -the sound of wine being poured –and then – once again we were back out on the darkened city streets, walking home – – this time Ellie asking “Why is that man sleeping on the street?”
Her innocent 4-year old voice haunts the adults around her. Her questions force us to pay attention to the disconnect between the warmth and joy and light of the sanctuary and the dark, unrelenting reality of the city streets.
Luke’s gospel moves us in an amazingly quick way from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to an event that happens when Jesus is 12 years old. The scene is Jerusalem – different city – different time – but people are still searching for Jesus. This time it is his parents – frantic because they have lost track of him in the holiday crowds at Passover. When they find him he is sitting calmly in the midst of the elders – – asking them questions. His parents scold him for making them worry. Jesus has pesky questions for them too. “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my father’s house? – – being about my father’s business?” I can imagine his parents asking “Now what do we do?”
Ahhh! The questions of children! How they haunt us! How they challenge us to come up with answers that will satisfy their longing to know why the world doesn’t always make sense. For 2000 years, Christians have celebrated the birth of Loving Compassion into the world, and still we are confronted by the innocent question of a child – -“Why is that man sleeping on the street?”
I wonder some times with Mary and Joseph, “Where is Jesus?” ‘How did we get separated from him?” “Why is he stressing us this way?” And then, all of a sudden, there he is in the midst of the crowd challenging those around him with pertinent questions….. and they wonder – as parents so often do – – “Now what?”
Jesus questions still come to us – but now they are often in the form of a bearded man asking for more pea soup, or a woman clutching a teddy bear and talking to herself, or an anonymous soul curled up in a dirty sleeping bag on the sidewalk on Bloor Street.
City streets are amazing places. The gospel springs to life there. We cannot avoid the Living Christ amidst the sounds of traffic and the smells of exhaust fumes and the sight of so much human diversity.
Isaiah was a man of great hope and the city of Jerusalem was on his mind. His words are both a prophecy and a challenge for the city – – a call to greatness: “Arise! Shine! For your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the face of the earth, and thick darkness (will cover) the peoples; BUT, the Lord will rise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Isaiah challenged Jerusalem with a grand vision for her future. His words are a call and a challenge and a vision of hope for us too on this 1st Sunday after Christmas. There is great possibility for great goodness to emerge out of the all the confusion, out of political mis-adventures and war, out of economic and social injustice. And that greater good will happen because it is the Divine Intention that it should – – that we will move toward the light of a future filled with compassion and justice.
For us, it all begins in Bethlehem. Somehow each year we find our way there through all the milling around and confusion and doubt that life offers us. In the midst of war and terrorist threat, economic pressures, ambiguity about laws that would protect us while at the same time infringing on our privacy, political mis-adventures at the highest levels – – somehow, in the midst of all that, we find our way to Bethlehem and we find rest and peace and hope.
But Jesus does not stay in Bethlehem and neither can we. Being a Follower of the Way means being on the move. The road away from Bethlehem eventually leads to Jerusalem – to a more challenging Jesus and to our response to what we have witnessed at the manger. The road away from Bethlehem carries us into the work of becoming the peace and hope and light for the world that Isaiah talks about. We walk the road out of Bethlehem holding the hand of a child who asks “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house –attending to my Father’s business?” or, perhaps, holding the hand of a child who asks “Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk?”
In a few more minutes, we will leave this sanctuary of warmth and peace and light – – this Bethlehem of sorts – – and head out for whatever new Jerusalem awaits us. Perhaps it would be well if we paused on the steps before heading out to our cars – just long enough to ask the question “So – – now what?”
And if there is enough silence within us, we may hear the ancient challenge resonate within us to find whatever ways we can to do justice, love mercy, and walk hand in hand with the One who lives and walks among us right here in Chilmark and in our island community. Every new birth challenges us by disrupting and changing our lives. May we join hands and walk together into whatever newness awaits as this year ends and a new year begins. Perhaps we will find that a questioning child is leading the way. AMEN