A Timeless Holiday Letter

Luke 1:79

To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Luke 1:79

Tis the season of the annual Christmas letter and for some younger generations, this may be one of the few examples of a letter shared within families and close friends. Sometimes they are filled with a bit of fiction or omit key events; they seek to remember a year, remain connected and remind you of a bond.

I lament in our evolving culture, the art and practice of writing letters is dying. I know my maternal grandmother most intimately through a correspondence we began when I was in college and maintained until shortly before her death. As a depression era bride and farmer, she would not waste money on a phone call. Even her letters were frugal. Writing with an economy of words she recounted events of her life, our family and small town, revealing her beliefs and hopes. There was a pattern and a formality to these letters as she sought to remember the content and meaning of life. I was reminded of this as I studied our readings for the second Sunday in Advent.

Our second reading, Paul dictated to Timothy, while in prison followed formal conventions of Greco-Roman rhetoric and also used an economy of words. Hear the opening to a letter he crafted for a small gathering of followers in the town of Philippi about 20 years after the death of Christ.  They were challenged to remember and uphold that which truly matters in life.  Philippians 1:1-11

When John Buchanan and I were at Fourth Church, I was sometimes his 8am warm-up act, so to follow him is very intimidating.  I thought of his message all week: “Don’t make me come down there, God.” Honestly, I also heard his voice in my head “Jo, don’t make me come over there, you need to work hard, John.”  It is not because I am the newly ordained minister at KUC that I am preaching today.  My colleagues are seasoned and wise.  They know the risks of following such a preacher as Dr. Buchanan, so I drew the short straw.  And oh, by the way, I was advised it is Choral Music Sunday, be crisp.

The second Sunday in Advent draws our attention to peace.  The peace of Advent is more than an absence of violence, although as the streets of Chicago, cities in Syria and so many other nations continue to erupt in daily bloodshed, if we turn to transcendent concepts of peace, we still must face these stark realities and reduce the killings.

The higher peace of Advent calls us to reconcile authentically with adversaries and also to restore our relationship with God.   These are tall tasks.

Our two readings for this 2nd Sunday in Advent bookend the coming of Christ with a song Zachariah sings just prior to Jesus’ birth and Paul’s letter to a group of the early followers of Jesus Christ written perhaps 20 years after the death of Christ.

Our reading from Luke is actually a song Zachariah sang after his nine months of silence.  When told by an angel of the miracle he and Elizabeth received, he had rejected the notion God could move into his life and his wife’s body in such a radical way, bearing a child who became John the Baptist.  Zachariah, who had preached of God’s power, could not believe a barren and elderly woman could give birth, but after nine months of reflection recalls God’s movement through history, coming into individual lives and communities at times of trouble.  He reminds us “God spoke through the prophets from of old, that we would be saved …he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors and will give a light to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

These are not the words one might expect from an expectant father, but instead demonstrates the wisdom of one who has felt God’s presence and reminds us of the long arc of the ongoing presence of God in our lives.

Priest and scholar NT Wright writes, Zachariah’s song “vibrates equally with the personal hopes and fears of ordinary people” even as he tells the story of God at work in the sweep of history; “both the big picture and the smaller human stories,” Wright says, “matter totally” (Luke for Everyone).

Several years ago, I was privileged to gather with a group of ministers and rabbis at a roundtable with Rabbi Irving Greenberg at Chicago Sinai.  Greenberg’s work as a scholar and rabbi center on the concept of ‘Tikkun Olam,’ or humanity working as Co- Creator with God to improve the world and the Covenant we have with God as a people of faith to set an example for the moral improvement of mankind. From these lofty concepts, I have held on to his words; “God is always moving in a purposeful direction from creation to redemption.” God is always moving in a purposeful direction over time from our earliest Judeo and Christian memories through the church, our families and in our individual lives.

Paul’s letter, to a fragile group of Christians in Philippi, praises them for “sharing of the gospel from the first day (and continuing) until now,” asking them to remember the joy they experienced in hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.  When the Philippians gathered, they retold the stories of Jesus as God’s incarnate son, his healing and the unique way Jesus restored individual and communal lives. They also remembered Jesus in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, helping them transform their present and compel them into the future.

Some are surprised to hear that the highest attendance at Fourth Church was not always directly related to John – with all respect, John is a rock star preacher.  On average, the highest attendance was on the second Sunday of each month when we baptized babies.  Now some will claim it was the entourage of parents and families to witness the baptism.  But, I know from the shared stories of new members and visitors, the liturgy of baptism reminded them of being a child of God.  People would draw closer to the font, sometimes competing to sit on the aisles and to see the children welcomed into the congregation.  The liturgy and fellowship in baptism reminds everyone of God’s image implanted in us and we become part of the body of Christ, sharing in the ongoing trajectory of God in our larger world.  Perhaps we can feel God moving in our own souls.

Last Sunday and throughout the week, you have generously shared with me your experience of the ordination last week, wonderful and unique stories. From these collections, I heard you describe the ordination as not, shall we say, a spectator event.  Of course not, you were actively involved throughout the worship experience in prayer, song and the constitutional questions to participate in our shared ministry.

But, that’s not why I perceive you were active participants and not just spectators.  All week, your faces would light up as you described how you were moved. Some witnessed for the first time the ongoing growth in our universal church as the body of Christ came together to call, examine and hold us responsible in the task of ministry.  Some were surprised at the “charge” they received to commit to our shared ministry.  Some re-lived their experiences of being ordained to elder and the varied ways they serve.  Some were moved to tears from emotions that transcended words.  Some were moved by the strength of this community in both physical numbers and the reminder of Kenilworth Union’s rich history as a witness to God in the world.  Did you know Rev. Elizabeth Andrews, former Pastor for Congregational Care here at Kenilworth Union, was one of my first shepherds through the ordination process?  Her grace and wisdom guided me through the early years of discernment and examinations.  I was moved that she was able to lay-on-hands and recall her ordination twenty two years ago in this same sanctuary.  Kenilworth Union’s gifts to the universal church are numerous and cannot diminish.

Being aroused to lay-on-hands, either physically or spiritually, is participating in a long line of believers who respond to a call to be more than what we might have thought, to do things that do not result in personal gain.  Just as Zachariah spoke after a long silence with the hope of a savior to overturn oppression and restore divine relationships and Paul’s letter to the small group of followers in Philippi to uphold what really matters, we too are called to remember who we are as children of God and to seek, through word and deed, peace for ourselves with God and peace in our communities.

This Advent peace is lofty.  It is intimidating.  God knows this and gently initiates this peace by reaching out to us through the most non-threatening presence in our lives…the birth of a child.

I am reminded of the writing of Reinhold Niebuhr; “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.  No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness (The Irony of American History).”

We collectively remember and retell the Advent story in reading letters that have endured in our history.  We remember most through the songs we sing and teach our children to sing.  It gets into our bones.

Our choir’s talent is a wonderful gift from God, leading us in worship with hymns, and teaching us the life-saving stories of our faith through songs handed down through the ages.  “What Child is This” reminds us of God in our midst, sharing our flesh.  “What Child is This” reminds us a child of God saved us, subtly asking us to know we are children of God, called to be God’s own on this earth as a witness to healing and peace.