Sunday, December 30, 2012

Hopes and Fears

Hopes and Fears
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 30, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 2:25-35 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29     “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30     for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32     a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” [1]  

I realize that this sermon may be a little darker than most Christmas sermons, but maybe it is because I spent Christmas Eve night sick as can be, or maybe it is because as I was writing this last night I had beside me a very sick two year old girl, who at one point in the wee hours of the morning looked up at me in between dry heaves, in tears, asked me to "fix her." Or maybe it is because our world is harsh and bleak, and full of fear and full of hope somehow at the same time.
After this sermon we are going to sing together the old Christmas Carol and Hymn, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Just as I've been preaching through Advent based on lines from Carols, I wanted to continue with it on this the first Sunday of the Christmas season. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was written by an Episcopalian preacher from Boston named Phillip Brooks in 1868. He had visited the Holy Land, three years earlier during Christmas, traveling to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and was struck by the peace and beauty of being so close to the actual spot where Christ was born. He was deeply moved by the experience, so three years later when seeking to find a way to preach anew the Christmas message, he decided that he would write an ode to the town where Christ was born. Then he liked what he had written so much that he had his organist, a man named Lewis, write a tune to it, jokingly telling him that he would name the tune  St. Lewis after him. You'll see that St. Louis is the title because the tune and the words matched so classically and perfectly, and millions since then have been moved by their collaboration.
The line that I want to look at is the last of the first verse, and is "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Hope and Fear met in Bethlehem. Hope and Fear. All at once? Have you ever noticed or thought about this line? It stuck out to me this time, I think, mostly because this advent and Christmas season, I've been more aware of the paradoxes of our faith. All through advent we have been pushed to the limits, noticing how our world seems to fall short of the Christmas ideals, that we are still very much waiting, and now Christmas has come, and we find ourselves still searching for answers, just like we were at the beginning of the Advent season. The miracle of Christmas we find is just as paradoxical as advent is.
It seems to fill us with more questions than it does answers. Just to recap, during advent we started by asking the question, "whom is it that we seek at Christmas," now we ask, have we found definitively whatever and whoever that was? The following week, we looked at Mary's struggle, and how her ordeal was a sign unto her that she was favored, that the idea of being favored and living a life of ease aren't necessarily the same, instead the message culminated in the idea that "to be called is to be favored and to be favored is to be loved, and to be loved is to never be abandoned." Difficult. Then the following week we were called to experience Joy, but found it difficult in the wake of the Elementary School Shooting in Connecticut, called to experience joy, here on Earth, though in the middle of great pain loss and questions. Then last week we looked at Joseph, and how this poor carpenter, by doing the opposite of what most would do, the opposite of the sinful precedent set by Adam, he makes possible the coming of Christ at Christmas, and in the same way provides a Christ-like example of love, but again that example is difficult. Last week's sermon echoed with another pithy phrase, that "faith is doing the difficult thing as if it were easy." Christmas is a time of regular people doing amazing things, alongside God, putting on flesh, humbling himself, and doing ordinary things, like being born, breathing oxygen, being loved by mother and father, surviving harsh realities, all part of our world, our existence, our everyday, all ordinary for us, the dichotomy is truly extraordinary, the impossible becomes possible, and the paradox is what we see as the reality, or at least the paradox becomes how we can sink our teeth into the reality, trying in some way to grasp and understand, all that puzzles us.
Paradox is a great word. It is a word fraught with poetry and thus perfect for people trying to describe the indescribable and trying to define the indefinable. I decided to look paradox up in the dictionary to find the words to get at exactly what it means. The dictionary defined paradox as  "a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a truth," for instance the truth that both our "hopes" and our "fears" can be "met" in one ancient city, then, 1868 years later, and for us in 2012 heading into 2013, literally "all the years." Hope and fear seem to be divergent concepts, opposites even. Sure you can say they are rooted in the other, like you wouldn't need to hope if you didn't already have fear, but O Little Town of Bethlehem, doesn't say one comes out of the other, but that they are both met, come together, seemingly as equals. How does that work? You may think, well, some people's hopes are met, and other's fears are met. . . those who believe can hope and those who fail to do so will fear. I've heard that type of thinking versed in church before, but is it that simple?
Let's look at our Gospel passage for this morning, known as the Song of Simeon, one of the four such songs, or poetic statements that open the Gospel of Luke. Simeon has just voiced how he was promised to see the Christ, the Messiah before he died, and so he is, and he proclaims that the child will bring "Salvation" to all peoples, "revelation to Gentiles," and "glory to Israel," but then he goes and tells Mary, addressing her, "“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Again does this sound like salvation, falling, rising, opposed, swords piercing souls, and all, it may but at least it is not simple, easy to comprehend, sellable salvation. Here you have another echo of the "O Little Town of Bethlehem" paradox, with "the falling and the rising." It may be easy again to assume that it means that there will be some kind of dividing, that some will rise and others will fall, but it doesn't really say that, it seems to say that the many will be doing both the rising and the falling. . . Does that make us uncomfortable? Does that confuse us? Does that complicate things? Are you reading to rise and fall, or would you be more comfortable with one or the other? Why do we feel the need to explain away the paradox? Is there something in us that makes us uncomfortable with things being outside of our complete grasp? It's much like a chord progression that is left unresolved, we anticipate and feel uncomfortable until it resolves itself. We want that resolution, we want that tied up nice ending, we want the happily ever after, but instead we get the messy paradoxes of relationship. . . Christmas asks can we handle it?
Here is what I mean. . . Christmas doesn't represent the coming of the savior and thus the end of the story, rather it represents the beginning of a new relationship with God, a new revelation of God, and in such a new understanding of God, and that understanding opens up a whole new world of possibilities, and therefore throws out our simple clean tightly gift wrapped ideas of the truth. Although many people would rather the story be over and the truth be easy, Christmas doesn't work like that.
We don't get a conquering hero and a replacement for Rome, instead we get a truth that Rome hadn't imagined, and if anyone thought that they had the world figured out it was the Romans. Knowledge is power, and can be wielded. The Romans took the knowledge of the world up to that point. They took all of the knowledge from the experiences of all the empires that came before them, and they thought that they had it all figured out, and Christmas comes right in the middle of the height of their power. Last week I used the Auden Christmas Oratorio to help get at the character of Joseph, I'd like to use it again to get at the idea of what the Romans thought they knew. Those that came to the Advent study have heard this section of the poem before. Sorry that it is long, but I think it really is indicting to us and our perceptions that we have it all figured out, just like the Romans did. The basic idea is that the Romans had created their Pax Romana because they had conquered "the Seven Kingdoms" and these kingdoms are not countries, but issues that had defeated humans in the past. Each Kingdom is represented in its own stanza:

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The First was the Kingdom of Abstract Idea:
Last night it was Tom, Dick and Harry; tonight it is S's With P’s;
Instead of inflexions and accents
There are prepositions and word-order;
Instead of aboriginal objects excluding each other
There are specimens reiterating a type;
Instead of wood-nymphs and river-demons,
There is one unconditioned ground of Being.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Second was the Kingdom of Natural Cause:
Last night it was Sixes and Sevens; tonight it is One and Two;
Instead of saying, "Strange are the whims of the Strong,"
We say, "Harsh is the Law but it is certain";
Instead of building temples, we build laboratories;
Instead of offering sacrifices, we perform experiments;
Instead of reciting prayers, we note pointer-readings;
Our lives are no longer erratic but efficient.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar; He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Third was the Kingdom of Infinite Number:
Last night it was Rule-of -Thumb, tonight it is To-a-T;
Instead of Quite-a-lot, there is Exactly-so-many;
Instead of Only-a-few, there is Just-these;
Instead of saying, "You must wait until I have counted,"
We say, "Here you are. You will find this answer correct";
Instead of a nodding acquaintance with a few integers
The Transcendentals are our personal friends.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Fourth was the Kingdom of Credit Exchange:
Last night it was Tit-for-Tat, tonight it is C.O.D.;
When we have a surplus, we need not meet someone with a deficit;
When we have a deficit, we need not meet someone with a surplus;
Instead of heavy treasures, there are paper symbols of value;
Instead of Pay at Once, there is Pay when you can;
Instead of My Neighbour, there is Our Customers;
Instead of Country Fair, there is World Market
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar; He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Fifth was the Kingdom of Inorganic Giants:
Last night it was Heave-Ho, tonight it is Whee-Spree;
When we want anything, They make it;
When we dislike anything, They change it;
When we want to go anywhere, They carry us;
When the Barbarian invades us, They raise immovable shields;
When we invade the Barbarian, They brandish irresistible swords;
Fate is no longer a fiat of Matter, but a freedom of Mind
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Sixth was the Kingdom of Organic Dwarfs:
Last night it was Ouch-Ouch, tonight it is Yum-Yum;
When diseases waylay us, They strike them dead;
When worries intrude on us, They throw them out;
When pain accosts us, They save us from embarrassment;
When we feel like sheep, They make us lions;
When we feel like geldings, They make us stallions;
Spirit is no longer under Flesh, but on top.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.  

Great is Caesar: He has conquered Seven Kingdoms.
The Seventh was the Kingdom of Popular Soul:
Last night it was Order-Order, tonight it is Hear-Hear;
When he says, You are happy, we laugh;
When he says, You are wretched, we cry;
When he says, It is true, everyone believes it;
When he says, It is false, no one believes it;
When he says, This is good, this is loved;
When he says, That is bad, that is hated.
Great is Caesar: God must be with Him.

 Did you hear all of them? It is okay if you didn't, but some may have rung true in your ears. When you have the world figured out then you can conquer it, and the Romans did, at least for a while, but they didn't truly have it all figured out because they were blind to the truth of Christmas, even after the Roman Empire became Christianized by Constantine, they thought they could conquer Christian faith too in the same way by force, by adopting it, figuring it all out, simplifying it into rituals, practices, and simple truths. Simple do this and you'll be saved type scenarios. We Christians even protestants are still reeling from much of their simplifying and selling of the message. We Americans are much like those Romans. We have so much figured out. We have solved many of the mysteries of the universe, we've travelled to the moon, we can alter our circumstances, and it seems that we can protect ourselves from all scenarios that come.

Great is America, God must be with us. . .

You hear on the news all the time, the question, is the United States a Christian nation? Usually they are talking about whether mention of God is appropriate on money or in the Pledge of Allegiance, or whether the tree in town square should be called a Christmas Tree or a Holiday tree. I'm less concerned about those trappings because Rome, by the end, had those trappings too, as I said since they had conquered Christianity and had it figured out. I'd rather that we embody the humility of Christ than the name of Christianity. I'd rather us act as if we were still searching for answers, realizing that we have less figured out than we think we do.
I hope that this Christmas reminds us again of the mystery of the incarnation of God, the power of the paradox, and the challenge of the boundlessness of love. That we welcome both our hopes and our fears to the table in our Christmas remembrances. That we see the hope that is inherent in the displayed power and love of God entering our world and becoming one of us, but also the fear that our world is now changed, and that everything we thought we knew for certain is now different, is now expanded, is now living beyond the artificial barriers we built to create our own safety, that beyond those barriers are simply the open arms of true salvation that comes when we take the faithful leap into their loving embrace. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 2:25-35). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.