Sermon preached on December 28, 2008
Scripture Readings: Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40
I hope you have all had a wonderful Christmas and that the remaining days of 2008 have enough joy and hope to carry you into the new year with energy. I hope you enjoyed singing some of the songs we have sung together. Thanks for your help with that.
As I have been preparing for today, my mind was shifting to other songs. There is a part of me that simply thinks in musical terms. If you could plug my brain into a computer to see some of its contents, there would be a significant section that looked a little like an 80 gig iPod register. Today’s sermon had me thinking about songs like: Time Has Come Today , The Chambers Brothers; Time After Time, Cyndi Lauper; If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time, Willie Nelson; Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is, Chicago; Time Passages, Al Stewart; Time, Pink Floyd. You don’t have to be attuned to subtlety or schooled in nuance to know where I am headed today – time.
More specifically, I want to reflect on the idea of timing, because it is a prominent theme in our Scriptures for this morning. Timing – and timing matters.
Two businessmen friends went to the local bank on their lunch hour. While they were waiting in line, two other men came into the bank to rob it. They locked the doors, moved all the customers along one wall and began collecting their watches, jewelry, wallets and handbags. Standing in the line, one businessman felt his friend stuff something into his pocket. The man asked, “What are you doing? What is this?” to which the other replied, “Remember that $100 I owe you…” Timing matters.
Not long ago in Green Bay a 31 year-old woman named Wendy Brown was arrested and charged with identity theft. She enrolled in high school pretending to be her 15 year-old daughter (who actually lives in Nevada). One reason she gave for going back to high school was to fulfill her life-long dream of being a cheerleader. It worked for awhile. She attended practices and made the cheerleading squad even though some noticed that she looked a little older than the other girls. (Funny Times, December 2008, 17). Timing matters.
Timing matters in all kinds of ways. Last Monday, I was in a car accident. I was traveling south on Lake Avenue to go and visit two of our shut-ins at the Franciscan Health Center on Park Point. One lane was closed on the Lift Bridge as I was crossing, and cars ahead of me, going over on that one lane, were stopped. I applied my brakes and felt just how icy it was. I slid and stopped just as I touched the car in front of me – no damage to either vehicle, but the truck coming from behind had no such luck. It hit my van and did some significant damage to the back bumper. Thankfully no one was hurt, though I did fall on the ice as I went to look at the damage. It was glare ice.
Car accidents are never fun to deal with, but on top of everything else it all felt surreal. This was just two days after I found out my father has inoperable liver cancer and only weeks to live. When I got home that night I told my son it almost felt like I was in some kind of movie – father dying, car accident. Of course, in a movie I would be single and a beautiful woman would come along and help me get through all this. I quickly told my son it was a good thing I already had a beautiful woman in my life! Timing matters.
Our Scriptures are, in many ways, about timing. Galatians 4:4-5 is Paul’s Christmas story. Good thing we have more than that on which to base Christmas songs and pageants! “When the fullness of time had come, God sent God’s son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” In the fullness of time – Paul had a sense that with Jesus a new time had begun, and he was writing to a group of Gentile Christians to remind them how wonderful this new time was. It was a time when all people might know that they were children of God.
The language Paul uses is not terribly revolutionary to us, but it certainly was in his day and time. Paul was telling Gentiles that they could come to know God without following the law, the way Paul’s own people had known God. This was a revolutionary concept to the Jewish people of Paul’s day. Even more revolutionary is Paul’s assertion that we can all be children of God, that we can all call God “Father.” In that day, there was a person officially proclaimed to be son of god – that person was the emperor. In that day, as well, paternity often limited destiny. Your father’s identity and background was made all the difference. Paul undermines both systems of stratification and division. You are children of God. This is not an exclusive title for the emperor. God is your father, you need not be limited by the status of your biological father. Timing is everything, and Paul thought this was a wonderful time in so many ways.
Timing mattered to Simeon and Anna too. Simeon had been looking forward to the redeeming of Israel, now under Roman rule. Simeon witnesses a different kind of liberation beginning with the child Jesus, a liberation that would include the Gentiles – there’s that wonderful inclusiveness again. Anna, too, held such expectations, even in her older years – of course 84 today is not what it was then – I hear 84 is the new 70. Both these characters in Luke’s larger Christmas story are beneficiaries of being a part of a special time.
Both these texts have lessons for us about the importance of timing in our own lives, lessons that may serve us well as this year comes to an end and a new one begins.
The first lesson may be that we don’t always control the timing of events in our lives and so patience, openness and receptivity are often needed. That we don’t control everything about our lives is not an easy lesson to learn, and it is only one side of a larger truth. It must always be held in balance with the idea that we are often more powerful than we imagine. We should not simply give in to all the circumstances of our lives, yet we do not control all those circumstances either. None of us chooses when, where and to whom we will be born. We don’t control all of the economic and political realities in our world, though we have something to say about some of them. We cannot change the fact that we age. At some point it is no longer appropriate to pursue the dream of being a high school cheerleader. God’s purposes for our lives are always responsive to the circumstances of our lives – so patience and openness and receptivity are important so that our action in the world will be timely.
The spiritual teacher Jack Kornfield writes in his book, A Path With a Heart: Each stage of our life holds the seeds for our spiritual growth. Our spiritual life matures when we consciously accept the life tasks appropriate for us (174). Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr writes, “Christianity teaches you a process of humility waiting, ego surrender, patience and trust, much more than giving you prefabricated content to defend or prove” (Hope Against Darkness, 158-159). Timing matters and the timing that matters most in our lives is to be attuned to who we are, where we are, and where God is in the midst of our lives.
Irwin Kula is a rabbi, an eighth-generation rabbi. He tells a story about his life and teaches us something about timing, about patience, about openness and receptivity. Joy and sorrow, good and evil, greatness and triviality, hope and anxiety, the ideal and the actual: The ability to live with these seeming contradictions and the ambivalence and tension they create is what gives rise to wisdom…. The first time I felt this in my bones was a few minutes after my younger daughter, Talia, was born…. As we walked to the hospital a few blocks away, doing her Lamaze breathing, the streets of Manhattan were transformed; every street light shone more brightly; every car sweeping by seemed to move in slow motion…. It felt like a dream as Dana held our new baby just minutes after she emerged. Tears flowed down our cheeks. We felt joy and gratitude mixed with exhaustion and the final release of Dana’s pain; blood and body fluids were everywhere, and there was that perfect child. Then I had a thought that knocked the wind out of me. Just about one year earlier Dana had suffered a miscarriage. If she hadn’t, Talia would not be in this world. In that moment I was filled with both sadness and peace. I felt the terror of that memory and the gratitude of this moment at the same time…. It wasn’t that the birth of Talia made the miscarriage okay or that “it happened for a reason…. It was the realization that chaos and coherence are indistinguishable and awe-full. (Yearnings, 45-46).
Simeon and Anna must have wondered at times, what they were waiting for, wondered if God would ever touch their lives in a way they were hoping for. Their patience and openness led to their being witness to a wonderful work of God in the world. And they were there just at the right time.
A second lesson from these texts is that there is never a time in our lives when we can’t serve God, when we cannot further God’s purposes in the world. We are never too old or too young to be a part of God’s work of loving the world, of extending justice and compassion and beauty and peace.
A riot was raging through La Mesa prison in Tijuana, Mexico. Twenty-five hundred fed-up prisoners, packed into a compound built for six hundred, angrily hurled broken bottles at police, who fired back with machine guns. Then, as the peak of pandemonium, came a startling sight: A tiny, five-foot-two, sixty-three-year-old woman in an immaculate nun’s habit calmly strolled into the battle, hands outstretched in a simple gesture of peace. Ignoring the shower of bullets and flying bottles, she stood quietly and ordered everyone to stop. Incredibly, they did.
The diminutive nun, Sister Antonia, was once a woman named Mary Clarke. Mary grew up in Beverly Hills where he father owned a successful office supply company. Clarke grew up during the heyday of Hollywood – big stars, lavish musical productions – and during World War II. After high school, Mary was married and raised seven children in a fine Granada Hills home. But twenty-five years later the marriage ended in a divorce. With her children grown, and on her own, Mary sought to help those less fortunate. The suffering of others had always affected her deeply and now she sought to help in new ways. In the mid-60s she began traveling across the Mexican border with a Catholic priest to take medicines and supplies to the poor. Once she and the priest got lost and wound up at La Mesa by mistake. She was moved by what she saw, and began spending nights there sleeping on a bunk in the women’s section, learning Spanish, assisting inmates and their families in any way she could. In 1977, Mary Clarke became Sister Antonia, and La Mesa prison became her permanent home. She was 50 years old. In 1997, at age 70, Sister Antonia turned her work into a religious community, The Servants of the Eleventh Hour. (Everyday Greatness, 10-13, and on-line material)
Simeon, Anna, Sister Antonia remind us that there is never a time in our lives when we cannot further God’s purposes of love, justice, peace, compassion and beauty.
Finally, these stories remind us that timing is important and that NOW is always the time to renew our faith, hope and love so that our lives reflect the light of Christ, whose birth we continue celebrating. One of the best reminders of this I know of is the short poem/meditation by Howard Thurman called “The Work of Christmas.”
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner,
To teach the nations,
To bring Christ to all,
To make music in the heart.
May it be so with us. While timing may not be everything, it matters, AND NOW is always the time. Again, Merry Christmas, and may we all join together in the work of Christmas, open to the world and God’s presence there. Amen.