Two songs are sung on Bethlehem's highway this morning. The first is Elizabeth's song of love for Mary. The second is Mary's song of love for God. On the highway to Bethlehem, love is spoken and love is sung for the Savior of the World.
Each Sunday afternoon I talk with my parents by phone. We catch up on the week's activities, family and health reports, and usually a host of little things. Last week they informed me that my Aunt Bobbie will turn 90 years old soon. Unbelievable! She was always so young.
Although "Aunt Bobbie" is not my blood relative, she was a shining light in my life as a young boy. She was there to heap on praise and ask "why" I was doing certain things (sometimes questionable things). When my parents traveled around the world in 1961, Aunt Bobbie and Uncle Bud (now deceased), took my brother and sister into their home for three months while I went to live with my maternal grandparents in Canton, Ohio.
No Christmas was complete without a trip to Aunt Bobbie's where we would have exotic Christmas cookies and play games for hours. I spent many summer days at Aunt Bobbie and Uncle Bud's home in Avalon, New Jersey. Three to ten years younger than the Kratz kids, I was always delighted to be invited. I grew up on the Jersey shore loving my weeks at the beach with Aunt Bobbie and Uncle Bud. She always had a smile and a hug ready for me.
One Sunday in church, I noticed Aunt Bobbie was sleeping during the sermon. When I asked about it, she responded, "I wasn't sleeping, I was meditating on the beautiful words of the sermon." She meditated often during the sermons. I still think she was sleeping. But, now as a pastor, I'll accept that she was meditating.
Each one of us needs the love of an "Aunt Bobbie" in our lives. We need an "auntie" to turn to and to talk to when times are tough. We need a listening ear and someone who adores us. We all need people who love us unconditionally.
In Luke's gospel, Mary has "Aunt Lizzy." Elizabeth is called a cousin, but she is much older and wiser and lives some distance from Nazareth. When an angel reveals to Mary that she is carrying the Messiah of the world, he also speaks of "Old Lizzie's" pregnancy. So, Mary goes to stay with Aunt Lizzie rather than face the scorn of Nazareth and possible death by stoning - an act which is permissible in the case of pregnancy outside of marriage.
With Elizabeth, Mary is able to be honest and know she is unconditionally loved. While the Angel Gabriel draws attention to the greatness of the child Mary is carrying, it is Elizabeth who sings of Mary's maternity: "Blessed are you among women!" Elizabeth loves Mary with everything that is in her. She adores Mary. In Zechariah's and Elizabeth's house, Mary is surrounded by a loving couple who give birth to John the Baptist - Jesus' cousin. They model a loving family for her.
In Elizabeth, unconditional love is spoken and lived out. Blessed be "Aunt" Elizabeth!
Surrounded by such love, Mary sings her song of praise for God's grace and goodness toward her. Even more, she sings of God who blesses the poor and oppressed and hungry. God brings down the proud and rich oppressors and exalts all who have been disenfranchised, disregarded, and dismissed. God's justice will reign on earth. She sings all of this in the past tense!
In her singing, liberation and love are already accomplished. Her song is for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - for Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel - for every son and daughter of Israel who thought God had forgotten the promise to be with them forever. Mary trusts the power of God to accomplish justice. She sings ahead of time, believing that God will make it all turn out right.
Like Mary, I believe we are people who sing ahead of time. We see the possibilities of God coming to pass and live into them - in song and in living our faith. "Singing Ahead of Time" is exactly what more than 1,000 volunteers have been doing for weeks in preparation for Christmas Day's, Bethlehem on Broad St. Today, The Columbus Dispatch got into the act in an excellent piece by Dennis Fiely. With photos of our members Martha Huey and Dorothy Cromartie, and our good friend, Pearlie Rogers (among others) and interviews with coordinators, Sondra Kessler, Arlene Reynolds, and Mary Ann Goetz, Otto Edwards and others, this story sings Mary's song loud and clear. Under Arlene's direction, (who started to lead this mission when she was 58 years old), Central Ohio's Christians, Jews and people of other faiths and no faith have been serving Christmas for 21 years at First Congregational Church!
Because of the human "Angels of the Lord," because of the multitude of Angel Gabriels (and Gabrielles) of this congregation and this city who have been "singing ahead of time," Christmas is never a past tense reality. It is already accomplished! Tomorrow, the delivery of a newborn King means the delivery of Christmas for Rebecca Hunt, a 20-year-old mother with a 16-month-old daughter. Rebecca says, "If it weren't for this (meaning BOBS), we wouldn't be having Christmas dinner." Bill Lewis, a 52-year-old state employee who has suffered two heart attacks and a bout with pneumonia says, "I fell behind on my rent and other bills. This will help me catch up. It's the first time I've had to ask for anything. I've always been a person who gives during the holidays. But, I don't feel embarrassed." Bill and Rebecca will be joined by 1,300 guests tomorrow served by over 1,000 angels who have been singing ahead of time about God's love for the poor and tomorrow will live it!
We are the people of Nativity. In her December 18th article in Newsweek magazines, Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Chair of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College tells of her people - the Jewish people - also people of the nativity. In her piece, "Nativity of the Jews," Dr. Heschel recognizes the joy and delight surrounding the birth of Jesus for the Holy Family. It is a joy that each Jewish family has at the birth of their firstborn (and all the others!). But, she tells of the parting of the ways between Christians and Jews coming around all the faith claims made in this particular birth. She points out that nativity for the Jews is never about THE ONE. It is always about "the collective." She writes:
The nativity saga of the Jews . . . is more complex, more demanding, broader. It is about all of us, and the work we must take on, rather than the story of the birth of the Messiah who would take the sins of the world on himself. From our birth in Exodus, we learn that God did not simply call us into being but continually has expectations of us. We were brought into being as a people with a collective conscience. Thousands flee from slavery in Egypt, pass through the parted waters of the sea, are nourished by God's manna and receive the Torah. And from generation to generation, the journey goes on as we await our Messiah.
From the story of the nativity of the Jews, we learn that life is inherently arduous, but also sacred; our task is to repair and perfect God's creation. What challenges do Christians undertake from the Gospel's Nativity stories? Perhaps Christian faith in Jesus will be understood as the faith of Jesus, so the Jewish values of education and social responsibility that his parents inculcated in him will be renewed for Christians in their celebration of his birth. (Newsweek, December 18, 2006, "Nativity of the Jews," p. 59).
While I agree with Dr. Heschel's assessment of the Jewish Nativity, we must invite her to First Church and so she might experience our Nativity story some time. We are living the Christian faith of Jesus, not merely the Christian faith in Jesus. As we know, the Christian faith OF JESUS includes all people!
We are renewing the nativity story in our story of faith. Like the foundation of Dr. Heschel's Jewish faith, ours is built on the rock of a collective consciousness. Each of us sees and lives out our place in repairing and perfecting God's creation. If you are not seeing and living out such a vision, then "come to Bethlehem (on Broad Street) and see him whose birth the angels sing, come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord, the newborn king." He is already among us - turning the world upside down.
Listen to Mary's song - sung to Aunt Lizzie. Sing ahead of time for the birth that is coming. Magnify the Lord! Let your spirits rejoice in God's savior of the World. Remember, God is looking with favor on you and all generations will call you blessed. For the mighty one has done great things for you all generations will call you holy. Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church