You hold a baby in your arms and rock her or him,
and their fat little face
looks up into yours.
You look into that sweet face…and wonder.
You wonder about what she will be
when she grows up.
You wonder about what he will think of you
when he grows up.
You wonder about what the world will be like
when he or she is older
and you are dead and gone.
We can’t help but wonder.
But then, when we take that child to preschool
or Head start, or kindergarten,
or Middle School, or even to their first day of High School –
or worse, when we have to leave that child at college –
we really wonder.
We wonder if others will love him or her,
if they will be kind to that child.
We wonder if other people will understand them,
care about them
as much as they should be understood, appreciated
and cared for?
Will the world be afraid of them,
will they lose their way among those in the world?
We wonder and fear and hope.
I wonder about my mom.
She died in 1998 at the age of 82.
I think about what her mom and dad
must have wondered.
You see, my mom was adopted at birth.
It was a secret back then,
and the fact that she was adopted
filled her with so much shame
it was kept from her own children,
my brother and sisters and me.
We didn’t know she was adopted
until a couple of my adult sisters figured it out.
We didn’t know her birth name until she died,
when our dad finally told us.
To think about that makes me sad,
but such shame was consistent with a time and a culture
that feared difference…lack of conformity…standing out…
sex and sexuality.
I wonder about what her parents wondered:
Her birth parents and her adopted ones?
When they looked into her fat, round face,
what did they wonder?
My mom was brilliant,
and also very different.
She grew up in rural Michigan
driving at the age of 12 because her dad
was a country doctor,
and her mom would not drive.
So, my mom, not yet a teen,
drove her dad on rural gravel roads
and dropped him off at homes
where he would spend the night
delivering a child
or sitting with a sick person through dark hours.
(Imagine that kind of medical care – half pastoral, half medical, and totally personal).
She skipped two grades in school
and graduated from high school
only 2 months before turning 16.
She was different.
Terribly introverted, I would say, and yet
her brilliant mind compelled her to vent
what she knew
and believed – often not well filtered.
My mom was socially awkward and odd,
what people might call a first-rate character.
Mostly, when I was growing up,
I was embarrassed by her
even though my friends like her.
To my chagrin, they loved to talk to my mom
because she treated them like adults –
she, who did not know how to calibrate
any difference between people.
She was oddly different
but did not treat anyone else with difference.
Looking back on it,
it was probably because she did not know how
to treat people differently.
I see it now for what it was
but at the time I hated it.
I never wondered about it.
It takes a lot of time and distance
for children to wonder about their parents,
to wonder about them the way their parents
wonder about us, their children.
In the brutally honest gospel stories,
Jesus and his mother
don’t get along.
They have a raw, painful relationship.
Mary, it says in Luke’s birth narrative,
ponders in her heart
all that the shepherds and angels tell her.
Maybe she did, but as an adult child,
her son, Jesus,
keeps Mary at a distance.
It is only in Church mythology, not Scripture,
that there is any kind of special relationship
between Mary and Jesus.
In the few references to his mother
that appear in the Gospels,
he calls her, “Woman” –
as in, “Woman, what have you to do with me?”
We like to look back at that birth
through the eyes of everything we imagine
we know about Jesus,
and we like to wonder about his birth
and his mother
and his childhood,
because we see and hear him as a man
who changed the course of history –
who in fact, whether we know it or not,
acknowledge it or not,
change your life and mine.
As a result of his laterimportance,
we look back through the wrong end of the telescope
and see Jesus through all the mythology and stories,
and we imagine
that Mary and Joseph would wonder
as his birth, all about his future.
We imagine the holy family,
on the holy night with shepherds and wise men,
would wonder about his greatness;
about all the things he would come to do.
But we would not wonder that if we looked
through the proper end of the telescope
knowing what we know now.
Instead, we know that infant mortality was nearly 60%
in those days,
among those people, in that place.
We know that his life expectancy, at best, was 30
in those days,
among those people, in that place.
We know that poverty
and focuses life on the moment, here and now.
We might imagine that there was
a whole lot of wondering going on
as Mary and Joseph stared into the face of that infant.
But in fact, there would have been
a whole lot of desperation going on.
There was no food security;
there was horrendous vulnerability
to arbitrary violence;
there was radical uncertainty
about tomorrow or the next day;
in short, there was deprivation
of food, shelter, clothing
and basic human rights
on a scale you and I can barely imagine
even in our darkest moments.
So, I truly doubt that Mary and Joseph
could afford to wonder.
I truly doubt that Mary and Joseph
were anything but afraid.
I truly doubt that Mary and Joseph
were thinking beyond how cold,
and dirty, and hungry they were,
and instead, were focused on
how they were going to keep that baby alive.
Okay, I bring it up because at the center
of the Christmas story
we have constructed
an astoundingly romantic scene at the birth of Jesus.
So romanticized in fact,
it distorts the entire life of Jesus.
Now notice please, I do not say such things
on Christmas Eve.
I am my mother’s son,
but I have a slightly improved filter – only slightly.
But 3 Advent is fair game.
Here is why I bring it up.
Moses was an abandoned slave child
raised in Pharaoh’s household
and as an adult, rejected his privilege
and at God’s command
led a slave rebellion.
The young Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama,
was a prince raised in utter opulence who,
upon observing the extreme brutality of poverty
on the other side of his walled and gated community,
abandoned his privilege
and became a mendicant.
Mohammad was of very modest means
but benefited from being surrounded by benefactors,
and he himself became a savvy and successful
businessman that nonetheless
rejected personal affluence
and embraced simplicity
Jesus was born in stark and utter poverty,
desperately poor and vulnerable
and considered a miscreant
by the oppressive empire surrounding him.
He never traveled very far,
nor accomplished very much,
and indeed, did not live very long.
We should recognize a theme here:
a golden thread
running through the spiritual wisdom of the world –
not just our own.
Staring into these stories
it might cause us to wonder
if we are looking for God in all the wrong places?
Are we seeking affirmation from empty sources?
Are we relying on comfort and security
from sources that cannot truly give it?
Sure we are, that’s what we do.
We are human beings and we likestuff.
We like to make a nice big soft nest
to snuggle in and enjoy.
We like comfort,
we like security,
and we like pleasure.
We need not feel guilty about it,
or ashamed of it.
That is who we are.
But the question is, can we do better than that?
We know, somewhere deep inside us anyway,
that if we do not better,
then we are going to kill ourselves.
Maybe not you or me personally:
Unless we change we’re dead.
It is not a new message;
God keeps sending it, for crying out loud,
via those who have lived painfully
on the other side of affluence.
It is an ancient message,
sent to the kings and queens of the ancient world
on the lips of prophets.
It is a message sent to the ancient world,
the medieval world,
the modern world, and now,
the post-modern world.
It is a message sent to every culture
and to the captains of every society.
It is a message about the hazard of living for stuff
at the expense of the truly important things
that generate and preserve Life.
It is a message about the kingdom of stuff
draining and killing Life.
That is what the Christmas Story is really about
when all the mythological and romantic elements
are peeled away to reveal the fruit.
The Christmas story is kind of like my mom that way,
embarrassing and socially awkward at the moment
but amazingly smart and wise in retrospect.
God has delivered to us a message
over and over and over and over again.
It is a message that Moses
and Jesus echo like a broken record:
We’ve got issues with stuff.
There is nothing wrong with us for liking stuff
or wanting it,
it is very natural.
But building our lives and our world around stuff,
basing our economy on it,
that will kill us – all of us.
The message is getting old, very old.
The question is whether we are going to hear it
and one of these days,
if we are going to change our behavior.
The Christmas story, like Jesus who is at the center of it,
is that kind of a baby –
a baby with a face only a mother could love.
God, who is at the center of all our important stories,
is that kind of a child,
looking up at us with a fat face
into which we are left to ponder.
So, as we close in on Christmas 2018
I invite us to ponder it –
this embarrassing and awkward Christmas child of ours.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
we can ogle and smile and feel the joy,
but for the last two weeks of Advent
I invite us to ponder in our hearts
the challenge God has issued to us in this story
about our allegiance to the kingdom of stuff
when God offers us
a much different kind of kingdom.