Little by little over these past weeks, I’ve been carrying away everything I brought into my office during the past five years. This morning there are just a few personal things left: My prayerbook. My laptop. My plastic Jesus that a vendor at our yard sale gave me for free a few years back. When I asked how much they wanted for him, she said it didn’t seem right to sell Jesus to a priest at a church. Fair enough.
And I still have the sign on the wall that says, This is the life.
I’ve left it up to the end on purpose, because even though it might seem sort of lighthearted, that phrase is the reason for everything that I’ve been and done here over the past five years.
I found it while I was on vacation in the Land O’Lakes region in Ontario. My great aunt used to spend her summers there, in a house on an island in a beautiful lake. She and my dad were close, and he visited her there many times.
Back in the 1930s, she was the leader of a community that founded a little Anglican church on the shore of that lake, Bob’s Lake. It’s a simple church that still stands, as beloved to its people as Good Shepherd Church is to us. It’s called the Church of St. Andrew the Fisherman.
“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are those who are excluded and reviled and defamed.”
They don’t sound much like blessings to me. If anything, I might be tempted to call them curses, or even maybe woes. But Jesus has his own list of woes: Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are well-fed. Woe to you who are happy and laughing and are spoken well of.
That’s backwards, right? It isn’t the first time that expectations for how things ought to be will be turned upside-down in Luke’s Gospel, starting with that prayer of praise that Mary spoke in Elizabeth’s presence,[i]that prayer about how the hungry will be filled, and the rich will be not so rich. This isn’t the prosperity gospel, for sure. Everything is sort of backwards in Luke.
And that wasn’t the common thinking at the time of Jesus. The common thinking was that material success in life was a sign of God’s favor. And we still have prosperity preachers, those preachers who will tell you that good health and wealth will be yours if only you have faith and live right—and maybe send them a contribution. But that certainly isn’t what Jesus is saying.
But if that isn’t what he’s saying, if that isn’t it, then what exactly does it mean to be blessed?
It’s a story told in two parts, this Gospel account of the first sermon Jesus preached back in his hometown of Nazareth. Last week, we heard the part where he promised liberation from all the things that hold people back from living full and free human lives.
And then in today’s continuation of the story, he suddenly starts to criticize the people in the synagogue, and in response they’re “filled with rage.” They’re so angry they drive him to the edge of town, where they would have pushed him over the edge of a cliff except that he somehow manages to vanish into the crowd and walk away.
I think it’s difficult—at least I hope it’s difficult—for a modern congregation to understand the emotion behind that murderous outburst toward the preacher. But maybe that’s how it always is with rage: It’s irrational, beyond understanding.
So we might be tempted to look at the story and feel a bit superior to the people in the synagogue that day. It’s hard to imagine us treating any guest preacher that way.
Back in the 1970s, the local priest in a community of farmers and fishermen in the Solentiname Islands of Nicaragua did a Bible study every week instead of a sermon. He was there to keep things on track, but he let the people of Solentiname speak for themselves.
These were simple people—some of them couldn’t read—but they took to heart the teaching of the man from Galilee who did most of his own preaching to very simple people two thousand years ago.
The priest was a man named Ernesto Cardinal, a poet who later served as minister of culture in Nicaragua, and he was so impressed by these discussions that he began to take notes on them, and later to record and transcribe them, and he turned them into a book called The Gospel in Solentiname.
It’s a very moving book. These people heard the Gospel message, and they got it. When they listened to the verses that we ourselves heard today, they knew Jesus was speaking to them when he said,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
I wonder if in years to come, what happened that day in Cana of Galilee became the stuff of family stories to be told over and over again. I wonder if that unnamed couple entertained their children with imitations of the expression on the steward’s face when he tasted the excellent wine that, for some reason, had been saved until well into the wedding celebration. Or whether the couple spoke to themselves and to others about what an honor it was that Jesus himself had come to their wedding and performed his first miracle there to save the day for them. It would have been a social disaster to run out of wine at the wedding. Very embarrassing to the bridegroom and to his family, and probably even worse for the servants who were responsible for making sure that there was enough wine to go around.
We don’t know. We don’t know how many people knew, at the time, that there had been a miracle. The servants who had poured the water and then ladled out the wine, they did know. The steward didn’t know, but word must have spread, and we hear that after this miracle of abundance—a hundred and twenty or a hundred and eighty gallons of excellent wine—after this, the word spread, and the disciples did believe.
We had a thing that happened at my own wedding forty years ago in New Hope which did become the stuff of a family story, which is why I thought of that. Our disaster, or potential disaster, happened when the caterer didn’t show up.
I was only three weeks old when I was baptized, so naturally I don’t remember the event. It’s not surprising, although when you think about it, it’s kind of strange to have no real recollection of something so momentous, something that really set a course for my life. I have the pictures, I have a certificate, and that’s about it. But I look back on it and I know that a lot of my identity was formed in that moment, and you can see that in all of the details of that day.
There’s a picture of me with my godparents. My godmother was my mother’s cousin. My mother was an only child, and so this cousin was the closest thing she had to a sister. My godmother had had a baby who was two months older than I am, and he was my buddy in the early years of our lives.
My godfather was my father’s uncle. He was someone who was known in our family for his humility and also for his personal holiness. He was very devout. He was really a good guy, and since my dad’s dad had died when he was a little boy, I think he was sort of a father figure to my father also.
Every year at Christmas we stand at the creche in awe and wonder and poder again what it means to say that we believe that God came into our world as an ordinary, helpless, human baby.
It has so many ramifications. You should never run out of ideas for Christmas sermons. It harkens back to that most beloved of Bible verses, John 3:16: “God so loved the world … “ God sent Jesus, God sent the Son into the world. It speaks of a love that is so enormous that it can’t be contained. It overflows into Creation, and it overflows into this great act of love in Jesus.
It says to us that all of creation is holy. That the earth is holy. That it’s a sacrament of the presence of God. It says that God is with us in the most profound way, that we’re never alone, that God is with us in our joys and in our sorrows. And I talked last night about Mary theotokos—the idea of Mary as the Christ-bearer. This morning I did bring the Christmas card from the diocese. I’ll let you pass this around.
Way back when I was a young newspaper reporter, I worked for an editor who just loved human interest stories. Those are the ones that show the human face behind the headlines. They’re stories about real people the readers can identify with. A good human interest story helps us to understand the world we live in and very often it can also help us to understand something about ourselves and the kind of people we want to be.
People love a good human interest story, and the story told in the Christmas gospels is one of the best human interest stories ever told. No matter how many times we hear it, it still has the power to fill us with hope and expectation. It’s a story about a family making it through a tough situation. It’s a story about love. And it’s a story about a baby—and who doesn’t love a baby? One part of why we love it is that it promises to satisfy some of our deepest human longings: Those longings for peace and love, for the beauty and promise of new life, and ultimately for the redeeming of all human brokenness. It’s a wonderful story partly because of the way it fills us with hope.
And the Christmas story has the power to pull us right in to a personally. It calls us to remember all the times that we’ve heard it before, to remember where we were and how we felt and who we heard it with. And those memories often make us feel both glad and sad.