Living Water, Born Among Us

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, December 23, 2018, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, my “Christmas Sermon,” at First Church of Christ, Simsbury.

Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:46-55

In the Christmas letter that I mailed to church members last week, I invited you to not over think the meaning of Christmas, but to simply inhabit, perform, and live into, all the beloved stories and traditions of this season.

That said, this fourth Sunday of Advent, once called Christmas Sunday here at First Church, provides one of the only opportunities I have to reflect on the meaning of the Christmas story from the pulpit. I will do this by telling another story, this one from my trip to Uganda.

Some of you know that First Church sent a small mission team to Uganda this summer in support of a clinic we helped found there, the Faith Mulira Health Care Center in Masooli. The Nile 5, as we came to call our group, were enriched beyond measure by our time at the clinic. The clinic is doing remarkable work, and accompanying staff on their outreach, including visiting patients in their homes, was especially moving and memorable.

We had determined ahead of time that we were not interested in doing any touristy stuff, no safaris, no sightseeing. We had work to do, and this work was interesting and enriching in itself. But as our week approached its end, the clinic staff encouraged us to visit “The Source of the Nile” in Jinja, several hours away.

The only hitch, and it was a significant one, was that Nile 5 team member, Karen Callahan was scheduled to meet a colleague at the clinic on the assigned day, so she would be unable to go with us. As Nile 5, we had developed a Three Musketeers ethos, all for one, and one for all, and hated to leave Karen behind.

But Karen insisted that we not pass up the opportunity, so we climbed into our big safari van with our driver Johnson behind the wheel, and off we went. We consoled ourselves about leaving Karen behind with the belief that this “Source of the Nile,” would likely be much ado about nothing. To tell you the truth, when I first heard “Source of the Nile,” I thought it sounded like an Indiana Jones movie, and when I realized that it was an actual place, I imagined a tacky, tourist trap.

Several hours later, we were crossing a bridge over the River Nile. This is when it began to hit me. The River Nile. THE NILE!

The longest river in the world, the Nile is 4,258 miles long, flowing north from Uganda, and passing through eleven countries, to Egypt. It takes water 3 months to travel from the beginning to the Mediterranean Sea.

Just setting eyes on this ancient and storied river was awe inspiring.

Several miles further down the road we passed a painted wooden sign indicating that we had arrived at “The Source of the Nile.” Indiana Jones was nowhere in sight, and as I expected, the Source of the Nile didn’t look like much. There was a plaque explaining that this was indeed the beginning of the Nile River, and a dirt path wound down past a few vendors selling crafts and souvenirs to the river below. At riverside, there were long, brightly painted, wooden boats pulled up along the bank, but not much to explain what we were looking at or what we were expected to do.

We were soon approached by a man who offered us a boat ride. After quieting my initial fear of somehow getting ripped off, we agreed, donned life jackets, and off we went into the Nile River! It was beautiful! Lush vegetation carpeted the river banks, and exotic birds filled the air. And, after a short boat ride, I’ll be darned if we didn’t arrive at The Source of the Nile! There really is a spot where this great river begins its journey. The Nile exits Lake Victoria which supplies a portion of its water. But also, right at that juncture with Lake Victoria, there is a fountainhead of an underwater spring that has been feeding millions of gallons of water into the Nile for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years! The boat docked on a small rocky island in the middle of the river, and right there, you could see the spot where the Nile churns and eddies and swirls as water gushes up from deep below the surface.

I don’t have words to adequately communicate the impact this made on me.

It was as if I stood at the source of creation, as if I was present, “In the beginning…” with the Creator.

God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so… Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so.  And God saw that it was good.

All of this was present at the Source of the Nile. And it was good.

The waters of the Nile have sustained every manner of fruit, grain, and vegetable, supported millions of lives, and fueled the growth of civilizations.

Literally and figuratively, the Source of the Nile is the Fount of every blessing of which we sing.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus meets a woman at a well and speaks to her of living water that will never leave one thirsty. Jesus says, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Surely, I thought, this must be that spring of water of which Jesus speaks. I cupped this live giving water in my hands and let it run through my fingers.

Nile 5, minus one, was soon heading back to Masooli, each of us touched in a unique and powerful way by our experience at the Source of the Nile. As we approached the clinic, we began to again feel badly that Karen had not been present to share in our sacred encounter at the Nile. We agreed that we wouldn’t go on and on about our experience in her presence. We would hate to make her feel badly about missing this brush with the divine.

Having quieted our excitement about the Source of the Nile, we entered the clinic and were surprised not to see the usual hustle and bustle in the waiting room. And Karen was nowhere to be seen. Gordon Brown at the at the front desk informed us that everyone, the entire clinic staff, Karen included, was in the back attending to a woman giving birth.

In this humble setting, a nativity scene was unfolding just beyond our sight. Mother Monique-ah was surrounded by angels – the doctor, nurses, and midwife, a shepherd – the custodian, Jane, and three wise women – daughter of the founder, Irene, Clinic Director, Roselyn, and our own Karen Callahan. All witnessing the birth of one created in the image of God.

From time to time Irene or Roselyn would emerge to give us an encouraging update, until finally our fifth Musketeer Karen emerged holding the most beautiful, perfect baby you have ever seen. Karen was beaming. I am not exaggerating in saying that light radiated from her and the child of God she held in her arms.

For the second time that day, we came face to face with the holy; stood in the presence of the divine.

At the same time four of us were having a profound experience of the source of life, the living water, at the Nile, Karen was having an equally profound experience of the source of life, the living water, through the birth of this child.

As if this wasn’t all astonishing enough, Karen shared that Monique-ah named her baby daughter, Karen.

There are times when life presents you with experiences that can only be understood as communicating something larger than ourselves, and this was such a time.

These two experiences are one, first of the living water of creation at the source of the Nile, followed by the living water born in baby Karen in Masooli, both profound expressions of the same life giving power of God.

The Gospel of John makes this connection between Creation and Jesus:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He (meaning Jesus) was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Jesus was life.

I was once told that poor Christian communities in Latin America greet each birth with the expressed hope, maybe this is the one, maybe this is the one that will one day lead us, save us, deliver us from our suffering. I expect those who gathered at the manger came with this same hope.

All of the life giving, life sustaining, and life saving power of the Creator was born in an infant in a manger in Bethlehem. That same life giving, life sustaining, and life saving power of the Creator was born in baby Karen in Masooli, Uganda. And that same power lives in you.

As followers of Jesus, we carry his name.

You are the one, we are the ones, the Source of Life, the Living Water. Through Jesus Christ, the power of God lives with us and within us. With Jesus, we are the ones that God has entrusted to lead, save, and deliver the world from suffering.

This is the meaning of Christmas.

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More Than a Mannequin Challenge

I preached this sermon on December 18, 2016, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, our “Christmas Sunday” at First Church, Simsbury. During the Children’s Moment that preceded the sermon the entire church participated in “The World’s Largest Nativity Mannequin Challenge.” The children came forward to fill the roles of Mary and Joseph, and shepherds and animals. I stood in the pulpit, arm outstretched, frozen in the middle of an impassioned sermon. Others also played themselves including our Bell Choir, the Ushers, and our Women’s Praise and Chancel Choirs. The rest of the congregation all posed, arms outstretched, as angels. The Nativity Mannequin Challenge can be found on the First Church Facebook Page (scroll down until you find it).

Who doesn’t love a beautiful nativity scene? Our family had a lovely old one when I was a kid, we called it a crèche. I remember the wooden manger required careful handling or its legs would collapse and baby Jesus would tumble out.

I have this tiny nativity set from Peru, the figures carved from Alabaster.

Then, there are all manner of odd nativities, dog and cat nativities, Lego nativities, a marshmallow s’mores nativity, nativities made from butter, from Spam, and from cupcakes. And new this year, a hipster nativity, with the wise men delivering their gifts from Amazon on Segway scooters, and Mary and Joseph taking a selfie!

Whether sacred or profane, we love nativity scenes. Whether children’s pageants or a Sunday morning mannequin challenge, we love nativity scenes. Like a snapshot, they capture a moment, snatch it out history, shepherds, angels, Mary, Joseph and Jesus stand frozen in time in a church chancel or on a front lawn, reduced to fit on a mantelpiece or in the palm of your hand.

Yet their very timelessness also speaks to the limitations of our beloved nativity scenes. The story of Jesus’ birth is so much more than a mannequin challenge frozen in time. God birthed God’s-self into human history. Removed from its historical context the story of Emmanuel, God with us, loses its meaning. Something preceded Jesus’ birth, and just as importantly something immediately followed his birth.

So, here the first of this morning’s readings from the gospel of Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 

This part of the story is familiar to many. The Roman emperor Cesar Augustus orders that all Jew in Judea be “registered.” The province of Judea had been put under direct Roman rule, and a distinguished soldier and Consul, Quirinius, was appointed as its Governor. The Jews initially went along with this but soon began to chaff at the loss of their autonomy, and a small number of Zealots tried to resist Rome and incite violence. So this “registration” is ostensibly a census taken in order to tax the Jews, but it is not hard to imagine that uprooting all Jews and ordering them to travel to their ancestral homes was also an effort to assert Roman power and disrupt plans for rebellion. Of course this requirement wasn’t voluntary, and we can only assume there would have been serious consequences for disobeying Rome.

Like thousands of other innocent Jews Mary and Joseph had nothing to do with resistance to or agitation against Rome, but they were required to be “registered” along with everyone else.

Imagine the disruption this would cause. Disruption and fear. Fear of Rome, of what could happen in Bethlehem, of the well-being of Mary’s baby. Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90 miles, about the distance from Simsbury to Providence, RI. Imagine the US government telling you that you needed to walk to Providence to be “registered.” Then, when you get to Providence, there is no place to stay. The weather forecast in Bethlehem for today is a high of 51, a low of 42, and raining.

So a far cry from our fun loving Nativity Mannequin Challenge, the events preceding Jesus’ birth were miserable and terrifying.

And what followed Jesus’ birth? Well this is a story that ministers rarely get to preach on. This reading comes up the Sunday after Christmas, a Sunday that is a “low” Sunday as far as church attendance. Everyone is still basking in the warm glow of Christmas so no one wants to hear a story like this, from Matthew:

Now after the Magi had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

 

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

 

As soon as the Magi depart, an angel comes to Joseph and tells him to flee to Egypt. King Herod, feeling his throne is threatened by the one “who has been born king of the Jews,” orders all male children in and around Bethlehem, age two and under, to be killed. Fleeing one who would murder their newborn child, not for anything they had done but just out of fear for what the child might become, Mary and Joseph become refugees. The Holy Family lived on the run in a strange land for anywhere from a few months to several years.

So there you have it. Our beloved Nativity scene of angels singing, shepherds quaking and cows lowing is sandwiched between two absolutely horrifying events in human history, an Empire’s forced registration of Jews, and a vicious king’s infanticide.

At this point, I should promise you that it is not my intent to ruin our happy Christmas buzz. Rather, I hope the context of Jesus’ birth will make this Christmas more meaningful for all of us.

Jesus’ birth takes its meaning from its particular historical context.

The hymn we will sing after the sermon, Star Child, begins:

Star child, earth-child, go between of God, love child, Christ child, heaven’s lightning rod.

God birthed Jesus, his love child, not in the midst of merriment, not to celebrate some victory or as a reward for an achievement. No, God offered a go between, Emmanuel, God with us, in a dark and scary time in Israel’s history. And God gave heaven’s lightning rod to a particular, ordinary couple in the midst of their fear and fatigue.

The Christmas story isn’t frozen in time like some mannequin challenge. It continues to take its meaning for us today from our context.

Like Mary and Joseph, we also live at a time when politicians talk openly of registering an entire population of faithful people, this time Muslims. Some have even proposed forcibly moving them out of fear of what a few might do. And like Mary and Joseph, today millions of refugees in Syria flee their homeland because children are being indiscriminately slaughtered by a vicious and fearful king.

And so it is today that Christ is born to ordinary people in the midst of our fear and fatigue. The hymn continues:

Street child, beat child, no place left to go, hurt child, used child no one wants to know.

 

Hope for peace child, God’s stupendous sign, down to earth child, star of stars that shine.

So this is the first thing we learn. In response to our fear and fatigue, God births God’s-self into the darkness of our world as a stupendous sign of hope. But that’s not all there is to this Christmas story. No sooner was this down to earth child born than one who feared him wanted to snuff out that star of stars that shine. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to keep that hope alive.

The Nativity draws its meaning from what precedes it and what follows. In Herod’s slaughter of the innocents we quickly learn that the birth of Jesus did not magically dispel all darkness to usher in a fear-free happily ever after. But that star child born in a manger reminds us that we need never again doubt God’s presence with us in the darkness.

The Gospel of John does not include a story of Jesus’ birth, but it does include these powerful words:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

When Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with Jesus, God’s grace and truth went with them. And so it is today. When we enjoy a Christmas pageant or enact a Nativity Mannequin Challenge in church on a Sunday morning, sure it’s fun, but it serves as a powerful reminder that we carry God’s grace and truth with us, within our very flesh, as a force for good in our lives and in the world.

So this is what we have learned so far. First, Jesus is born right smack in the middle of the darkest of dark times as a stupendous sign of hope.

Second, Herod serves as a reminder that dark forces will remain, but through Jesus’ birth we now know that God’s grace and truth live on within us, and through us a light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.

And there is a third thing we learn about this still-speaking Christmas story. When Mary and Joseph became refugees in Egypt they did so not out of fear for their own lives but to preserve the life of their Star Child. They had been entrusted, not only to give birth to the light of God, but to ensure that that star of stars not be extinguished.

And so, brothers and sisters, this is also our charge this Christmas. We have been entrusted to preserve the life of this earthly Star Child, the heavenly earth child, God’s grace and truth that lives still within humanity.

One of the ways we do this is by telling the story, not just the nice parts about angels and shepherds, but the tough parts that come before and after, about an empire that sought to register a faithful people out of fear of a few, and of the Holy family  become refugees to flee a murderous king. And God calls us to share this not just as a story of long ago, but as a story that continues to unfold today.

Because empires still seek to forcibly register faithful citizens, and refugees still flee murderous kings. This is our story. And when we tell it, Jesus will live on within and among us, teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, overturning the tables of the greedy. And when we tell this story, Emmanuel accompanies us, suffers with us, even dies with us, and will ultimately triumph over death with us. But we have to tell the story. The whole story. The ancient story and today’s story of an encroaching darkness and of God’s light.

For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

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