Date: December 8, 2013
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
At the women’s retreat this year, we learned a little about wisdom and a lot about community, and hopefully, even some about faith. One of the things we did was to dance together a very old liturgical dance known as the “Tripudium”. Did you know that in Aramaic – the language which Jesus spoke to his contemporaries – the word rejoice is created by using the same verb which means to dance? And, did you know, that during the Middle Ages in Western Europe, Christian carols and songs were danced in stanza-chorus form?
The Tripudium was a common dance used in worship during that time. In it, dancers take three steps forward and then they take one step backward… much like the life of faith itself! And, just like the life of faith, you do not dance the Tripudium all alone. Dancers – like Christians – are linked together, so that when they are stepping forward and when they are moving back, they are s upported and encouraged by each other. [On Sunday we will watch the dance as a few of our brave women demonstrate it for us.]
The Tripudium reminds me of one of my all-time favorite benedictions, which starts out this way:
People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love people anyway. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good, anyway. If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway. The good you do today will probably be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. (From Bishop Muzorewe of Zimbabwe)
In other words, my friends – do not be afraid! Do not be afraid to love people, or to do good, or even to succeed. Do not be afraid to go out on a limb, even onto the newest shoot of a limb of hope – just like John the Baptist. Someone else reminds us:
Nobody ever went out on a limb with quite the same audacity and panache as John the Baptist. John seems to take delight in clambering out onto some of the highest and most visible limbs he can find. First, he climbs out on the limb of personality. Instead of trying to appear like a reasonable fellow with a seasonable message, John decks himself out in an odd outfit that clearly has “wild man” written all over it.
Second, John climbs out on the limb of audacity. He hikes up his hair shirt and challenges the religious authorities, taunting and jeering at the Pharisees and Sadducees on their way to his sermon.
Finally, John climbs out on the limb of proclamation – the outrageous proclamation that God is daring to act in the lives of common women and men, that God is inaugurating a new era of divine presence and purpose. And that our job is simply to get ready for it!
This morning we find ourselves “in the eye of the storm” as we prepare not only for Christmas, but also for whatever new thing God is offering us today. We are surrounded by an eerie stillness, standing on the cusp of God’s new age, preparing ourselves once again to participate in building God’s kin-dom on earth. In this eerie stillness we recognize that our denial, our excuses, and our inability to act will not suffice. We cannot stay forever protected within the eye of the storm. It is going to pass over us, leaving us to the mercy of all the fury and confusion and power and wonder of the storm itself. So we must make the most of this time to prepare for the next time.
Alyce McKenzie tells us there is a story about Martin Luther, who decided to take Scripture at its word when he read in Luke’s Gospel, Do not worry about what you are to say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say…
So Luther worked all week on his commentary on the Psalms and did not work at all on his sermon for hte Wittenberg Cathedral that coming Sunday. And when he climbed into the high pulpit and looked out over the sea of upturned faces, the Spirit did indeed speak to him. It whispered in his ear these words: “Martin, you did not prepare.”
John the Baptist doesn’t bother to whisper. He literally shouts into the wildersness, Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near! Get ready, he tells us. Turn around, he shouts at us. Change your direction, change your priorities, focus your attention on what matters the most. And do not be afraid to go out on a limb, because God is already there, waiting for us all.
You know the world lost a great man this week. The news has been full of his death, and his life. Going from political activist to revolutionary to prisoner to President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela clearly understood all about going out on a limb. There were more than enough times when it would have been reasonable for Mandela to just give up, or just give in to his own anger and frustration, resentment and bitterness. Mandela spent long years in the eerie, unreal stillness of the storm’s eye. And yet, he chose to live his own true life even in that eerie stillness. He writes in his autobiography:
I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.
Catherine Caimano captures a bit of Mandela’s essential spark in this way:
Our faith is about how Jesus Christ, born into this world as a small spot of light in the darkness, helps us to believe – and to live like we believe – that love and forgiveness and redemtpion and hope have a part in every choice we make, in every regular day on our calendar.
So in order for us to trust the eerie stillness in the eye of the Christmas storm, in order for us to oput on the joy and the transformative power of the season, we have to first take a few things off. We have to take off the fears and the pains which weigh us down, even when we try to wrap them up in festive themes for the occasion. We have to take off our feelings of isolation, and our feeble attempts to protect ourselves from intimacy which makes us vulnerable to love and loss alike. We have to take off our discomfort with teh stillness we find in the eye of the storm, remembering God’s words to the Psalmist and to us, Be still and know that I am God… Because by implication, we are not.
We are not God. When we remember that, we can even take off our need to be perfect, our striving to be what we are not, and our preoccupation with the real and imagined wounds and slights we have sustained.
We need to take it all off, and put on instead Mandela’s three-fold advice for living in the eye of the storm, and even in the middle of its very worst. Mandela suggests we should tread softly. Tread softly, and breathe peacefully. Tread softly, breathe peacefully, and laugh hysterically. And I would add, that we do it all, together. Rejoicing – dancing -living in God’s light and love. Amen.