Family Service 10:00AM
On my recent trip to Florida, I had the joy of seeing Toad the Wet Sprocket, an alternative rock band first founded in 1986. They are a personal favorite, as is the solo work of the lead vocalist and guitarist Glen Phillips. But before they can even consider the music, most folks stumble over the name, which seems nonsensical, unless you are a Monty Python fan, in which case it is still nonsensical, but exactly as it should be. The band took Toad the Wet Sprocket, the name of a made-up band in the “Rock News” sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as a temporary name and never got around to changing it.
Then there is that other classic Monty Python sketch. A mill worker, tasked with conveying a message about a malfunction, is unable to provide details about the exact nature of the malfunction when questioned. Frustrated, he answers that he did not expect a Spanish Inquisition. Immediately, the door bursts open, and in walk three cardinals of the Roman church. Cardinal Ximinez, played by Michael Palin, proclaims:
NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise…surprise and fear…fear and surprise…. Our two weapons are fear and surprise…and ruthless efficiency…. Our *three* weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency…and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope…. Our *four*…no… *Amongst* our weapons…. Amongst our weaponry…are such elements as fear, surprise…. I’ll come in again.
The sketch goes on quite a bit longer, just one more silly walk with the zany British geniuses.
“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition” has become a stock phrase for an entire generation of Brit and countless other wonks and nerds worldwide.
Nobody expected Jesus either. Or, more accurately, everybody expected Jesus, they just didn’t expect the Jesus they got.
They expected a Jesus who was a warrior king, one part Judas “the Hammer” Maccabee, one part King David, one part Prophet Elijah with flaming chariot, with some serious Moses, leader of the Resistance, thrown in.
What they got was an community organizer and agitator who focused on healthcare, serving the poor, the unclean, who preached a reformation to the Hebrew people, challenging those who thought of themselves as religious and superior, first in the cosmopolitan region around the Sea of Galilee, then in the cultural capital itself, challenging the authorities in the Temple of Herod the Great, challenging even Tiberius Caesar, the brutal Emperor.
No one expected a baby in a homeless shelter… for what was that stable but a shelter for the un-sheltered?
Holiness breaks into the world in strange places, in ways we don’t expect, for as scripture reminds us, God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thought not like ours.
This is even more true if we move, as we do move in our tradition, away from images of God as a giant human male in the sky, a false idol that hates who we hate and loves who we love. If we move, as we move in our tradition, toward a God that is beyond our words, beyond our understanding, then it should be no surprise at all that God should surprise.
Luke gives us a messiah who is un-sheltered. Matthew gives us a messiah who is a refugee, fleeing the violence of a paranoid ruler.
We risk trivializing this powerful story in the same way as Ricky Bobby, the fictional Nascar driver in “Talladega Nights” who prays to “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin’ at the air…”
“Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus” looks a whole lot like a Rohingya refugee.
The Word arrives in unexpected ways.
Where is the Word arriving today?
Will she be welcomed? Will you recognize him when you see him? Will he get past the border to a place of safety?
May we have eyes to see and ears to hear, for the Messiah, the good news, the kingdom of God, is at hand. Prepare to be surprised. Amen.
Lessons and Carols Service 8:00PM
Every preacher has only a handful of sermons, dressed up from week-to-week to match the text and the needs of the worshipping community.
Some have proposed that the same is true with story and plot, with narrative whether it is performed on stage or film or meant to be read. I suppose that is true.
This week I finished a recently published novel, the Irish author Sarah Rees Brennan’s delightful “In Other Lands.” It is the sort of novel that doesn’t easily fit into a literary category. I have always marveled at booksellers’ ability to decide which section in the bookstore gets a particular title. “In Other Lands” is fantasy in one sense. The protagonist, Elliot, crosses into another world where there are elves, dwarves, trolls, and harpies, but notably, no magic. Even in this fantasy realm, you can’t make something happen by thinking it.
In another sense, it is the standard stuff of the YA category, which stands for young adult. Elliot’s time in the Borderlands begins at adolescence, itself a time of disorientation and otherness, made more complicated by his abrasive personality, a prickly nature that is the result of his wretched home life in our world. A crucial part of the plot is teen romance, and the criss-crossing liaisons of the three best friends, though this is a thoroughly modern novel, so it is both open and affirming.
Then there is a tension between between might and mind, between war and diplomacy, for Elliot is in the diplomacy course at school while his best friends are in the military course.
But in the end, the story lands on one of those classic plot structure: what you were seeking was always right in front of you. I won’t say too much more, for some of you might be courageous enough to spend some time with Elliot.
Of course, Elliot has to cross over into other lands in order to find himself, another of those central plots, the journey. These two core plots are often inter-twined, with the journey ending in self-discovery, the “what you were seeking all along,” the unrecognized horcrux in Joanne Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, the last Jedi of the film franchise.
Our competing nativity narratives, in Luke and in Matthew, each contain a journey of discovery. The first Hebrews outside of the immediate circle of family to hear the good news of the savior’s birth are working-class shepherds in Luke’s version, for Luke’s is a gospel for those at the margins of society.
The savior does not arrive in a flaming chariot from on high. Instead, we have angels announcing that to experience the divine, the shepherds must get up and go. Go and look in a stable and you will find a baby swaddled and sleeping in a manger. The angels tell them where to look and what they will find, but the shepherds must decide for themselves, must actually act. Stay stubbornly where they are, and they will miss out on God’s new story.
In Matthew’s very different version of the nativity, astrologers from the East journey to the baby Jesus. The text does not give us a number, though the western tradition has assumed three because three gifts are mentioned, while the eastern tradition believes there were twelve, matching the traditional disciples, the number of tribes of Israel, the number of completion in Hebrew numerology.
Tradition would also read the text through the lens of Psalm 72 and decide the Magi were kings, again, not in the text. But whether there were three, twelve, or dozens, whether they were astrologers or kings, the simple fact is, they journeyed. In order to experience this holiness, the journey of God toward humans, the Magi had to journey, had to follow a star, had to make an effort and take a risk, had to turn both their hearts and their feet in the right direction.
Seek and you shall find. What you find might be unexpected, just another baby born to a displaced family, dirty, not a child of privilege at all, royal only in the eyes of the holy and new parents. But you won’t find it if you ignore the star. You just won’t see the miracle. You won’t find holiness breaking into the world if you blow off the angels. You won’t find it if you stay where you are.
God moves toward us, the story of this special night, the story of every night and every day. The question is not whether God will continue to move toward us, for God is relentless in love. The question is whether we are willing to journey toward God, to experience the divine that already surrounds us. The journey is necessary, but the choice is yours.
For unto us, a savior is born, and you shall find him… if you want to…