Sermon preached December 21, 2014
Text: Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55
Paul McCartney, “Wonderful Christmas Time”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9BZDpni56Y
Paul McCartney, “Ever Present Past”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoGA4U6J02s
Paul McCartney sings about how quickly time goes, but the title of his song hints that the past stays with us, the things we did as a kid. In that sense he echoes the famous line of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun, 80, voice of character Gavin Stevens).
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. We carry the “whens” of the past into our “now” - - - now and when - - - just as thoughts of the future lure us forward, having an impact on the present – now and when, our Advent theme.
The past is “massively present” in the phrase of theologian Gordon Jackson, who goes on to write, “the past is not deterministic, but it is determining; that is, it is a vast flow of reality to which every present experiencing moment does conform in effective or powerful ways” (Creating Something of Beauty, 27). A couple of weeks ago, Pat Miller introduced some of us to Judith Viorst’s book Necessary Losses. In that book Viorst writes, “our past, with all its clamorous wishes and terrors and passions, inhabits our present” (17).
The past is massively present, and we cannot change it. What we can do, however, in the present, is create something new around it. When I was a boy, I had a basic set of Lego toys. This was before the Lego toys got as fancy and complex as they currently are. My Legos had a couple of gray square pieces that could serve as a base for building. Then I had a few blocks of different sizes that I could use in different ways. There were limits to what I could build, given the materials I had, but I could still use those materials in more or less creative ways. Of course, one could always add some new blocks. That’s what working with our past, our whens, is like. We cannot change some of the blocks, but we can re-arrange them in different ways and we can add to our set of blocks in the present.
So let me suggest three things we can do with our past whens in our present nows that open us up to creativity, and that has something to say about the God of Jesus Christ. My sermon was not simply inspired by Paul McCartney and Pat Miller, but by the gospel reading.
In the Gospel reading, the story of Mary links past and present, not just Mary’s past, but a longer, wider and deeper story. References are made to Abraham, to Jacob and to David. Something is happening now that fits into that longer story of God’s relationship with these important figures from the Bible. She sings a song which celebrates God’s grace and mercy “from generation to generation.” God is one who shows strength with God’s arm, who scatters the proud – letting them get caught up in the thoughts of their hearts. God is one who brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. God fills the hungry with good things but the rich have to fend for themselves.
Mary’s soul rejoices in the present because she remembers the grace of God in the past, in the long story of the past. We are invited to do the same. We keep telling these old stories from the Bible because we believe they are also a part of our story, a part of our long and broad past. And the story of the Bible, from beginning to end, is a story about grace, about creativity, about covenant, about love.
In our own stories, there will be times where we remember that we have not always lived up to who God would have us be. We have turned away from others. We may have hurt others. I can still remember things I said years ago that were not well said, and they hurt, and I regret them. I can’t change them. I can’t change the times when I did not live up to God’s creativity, covenant and love. But then there are the stories of Abraham, who lied about Sarah being his wife, and Jacob who stole his brothers birthright, and David who slept with another man’s wife and had that man sent into the most dangerous part of battle. And what is God’s response – grace. Remembering the long story of the past, we can be more creative in putting together the past in the present.
In remembering the past, remember moments of grace. These need not be wonderful, thrilling moments. Sometimes grace is just getting through a hard day. One grace from this week’s Ruby’s Pantry was just that, we made it. The truck broke down and arrived at 5:30 instead of 3:30. I was not feeling particularly good, and I ran a fever all day Friday. Part of the grace of the evening was just making it through. We all have days where grace comes in the form of just making through the day.
But grace can, and often is more. We should remember not only grace in our personal stories but in our cultural stories. We need to remember the picture of the white police officer hugging a twelve-year old African-American boy who had been holding a sign that said “free hugs” at Portland protest over a grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. (http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/29/living/ferguson-protest-hug/). We need to remember the story coming from Australia. As a gunman held people hostage in a cafe in Sydney, thousands of messages of support have been posted online for Muslims in Australia who are afraid of an Islamophobic backlash. The spark was a Facebook post by a woman , who said she'd seen a woman she presumed was Muslim silently removing her hijab while sitting next to her on the train: "I ran after her at the train station. I said 'put it back on. I'll walk with u'. She started to cry and hugged me for about a minute - then walked off alone'. It started a whole #illridewithyou social media movement. (http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-30479306)
So here’s a moment of grace for me. Earlier this month I was traveling to make an evening presentation about the Minnesota United Methodist Church effort called “Reach, Renew, Rejoice.” The presentation was to be made in a church outside of St. Cloud, so I figured I would pick up a meal on the way. I stopped for some fine dining at the McDonald’s in Mora, disappointed that they were no longer serving the McRib. While I was sitting there, I saw a woman, her husband, and two children come into the restaurant. She looked familiar. She looked like a woman who had attended the church for a year or so a few years back. Interestingly, this woman had called me earlier this fall to talk about some concerns in her life. You know the rest of the story – it was this woman at the Mora McDonalds. We talked, we hugged, there was a tear in her eye.
I need to remember such moments of grace, moments like meeting my wife Julie for the first time. I was with another girl that night. I need to remember moments of grace, like the birth of each of my children. When I mentioned birth stories a couple of weeks ago, it allowed me to think again about the birth of David - six weeks early and with health issues, Beth who arrived on a Sunday morning and I missed worship that day - the SPRC chairperson gave my sermon, and Sarah born at Baylor hospital in Dallas six years after Beth.
To make the most of the past in the present, remember the long, broad past. remember moments of grace, and remember that grace is also the power to create anew. I admire the wisdom of Jack Kornfield. Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 25). While I would argue none of our pasts is without grace, we should never paper over how utterly terrifying the past is for some. Some of us carry deep wounds from the past – things we have done, things done to us. We cannot change the past, but grace is the power to take the Lego blocks of the past and build them into something with a certain beauty. One of the stories that I have always been amazed at is the story of Betty and Gene Halvorson of this congregation, both now deceased. Betty and Gene lost three sons on a single night, three sons washed into the treacherous waters of Lake Superior. I can’t imagine the pain, the heartache, perhaps the self-blame. Betty and Gene were among the most gracious and caring people I ever knew. Every time they came into this church, a chapel reminded them of their tremendous loss, yet they were always here. They took hurt and pain and tragedy and created something beautiful.
We cannot change the past. It is ever present. We can remember that God, in grace, was with us in that past. We can, in God’s grace take that past and create something more beautiful, knowing that God also invites us into a future that is more just, more compassionate, more caring, more peaceful, more beautiful, and more loving. Now and when, but then every so often, something happens that amazes, that changes everything. God’s grace enters our world stunningly and profoundly – but that’s Wednesday’s story. Amen.