On one level
Christmas has been hidden
in the Miller house this year.
That is because we are moving
and we expected to be in our new home
So we packed away all our emotion-laden Christmas stuff
with everything else that was taken into storage
where we cannot retrieve it
until it is all delivered
when we finally move in.
But that has all been delayed
and so our usual Christmas decorations are in hiding.
And by emotion-laden Christmas things,
I suspect you know what I mean:
The ornaments given to celebrate the birth
of each child.
The children’s books that we always read,
the fake and cracking red apples from my mom
that only I want to hang on the tree.
That kind of stuff.
They are the outer layer of Christmas –
the wrapping that is paper thin
but still holds so many memories
that it becomes the skin of Christmas.
When it is taken it away it can hurt.
But still, all that stuff is just an outer layer.
Somewhere in storage
there is a wooden babushka doll.
It is actually a babushka Santa
with one Santa inside another
and another inside that one,
and down to a little peanut of a Santa –
which, I think, is actually missing after all these years.
is a pretty good metaphor for Christmas.
First of all, there is Santa –
something in and of itself
that has absolutely nothing to do
with the nativity of Jesus.
As I wrote in the Finger Lakes Times last week,
according to Pew Research,
96% of Americans celebrate Christmas
whether or not they feel any affinity with the nativity.
32% of Jews decorate a Christmas tree.
More than three-quarters of American Buddhists and Hindus
Meanwhile, only 46% of those who observe Christmas
see it as primarily a religious event.
So Santa represents
that big babushka of a holiday
which anyone and everyone can celebrate…just cause.
By the way, if you are sitting there
predicting that I am going to get down to the baby Jesus
as the final, small babushka,
you will be disappointed.
So, don’t get too complacent
and think you know where this is headed.
The next babushka inside the big one,
the Santa one,
Family is the centrifugal force
holding everything in place
inside the Christmas whirlwind.
It is also
one of the things that can make Christmas
a dark time for some folks.
It may be because we are not with our family for Christmas;
or we do not have strong family ties to begin with;
or maybe we just don’t have much family;
or maybe the family we do have is toxic.
A big, national party
that everyone everywhere seems to be celebrating
when the element of family is missing or painful.
But that said, for many of us, getting family together
may be the very best part of Christmas.
Jesus is okay, by if you want to know who I love most,
it is my family: our children, and their partners,
and that rascally little grandson in the back rows.
For me, as for some of you too,
Christmas would be just fine
if all it ever was,
was sitting around with family eating tacos.
Even so, there is another little babushka
inside the family one.
The smaller Christmas babushka inside family
is harder to recognize on its own or to isolate
independent of everything else.
It has something to do with a yearning.
For many of us, it is a yearning
we have learned to detach from or to numb.
I want to call it a…yearning for peace
but that sounds too abstract or corny.
Yet it is something like that –
a desire to feel harmony
and that things that were out of order
are somehow coming into sync.
It is a desire to know “the kids will be alright;”
to know the relationship between
those of us who have and those who have not
is coming into some kind of better balance.
It is a peace
we have never actually known before
and that we understand
has never actually been before
in our tortured and bloody human history.
And yet, somehow,
from somewhere or someone
an ember still glows
quietly within us
that keeps a small desire for it alive.
So I will call it a
that gets a small breath blown on it
for some of us
by the Christmas season.
Then there is another one
inside the that one.
Like the peace-babushka,
this still smaller Christmas one
lives inside us too –
and it has little to do
with the big national holiday.
It may have some tangential connection to family
but it also is a seed inside all of that bigger,
more obvious stuff.
I dare say it is a dream.
Coming from where I am coming from,
I want to call it God’s best dream for us –
God’s best dream for you, and for me.
But that may be going too far
for some folks.
So, I will just name it “dream” –
whosever dream it is
it somehow got deposited in us.
I do not mean fantasy
or make believe
I mean a real part of who we are
that has been
trying to bloom.
I can tell you for a fact,
that it has nothing to do with age
because mine still keeps taking me places
I had no idea or intention of going.
Yours too, however old you are,
can and is, still blooming.
You know, and I do too,
that we are either blooming or we are dying
and there is no reason to die
before we actually die.
the one inside you and me
that blooms slowly
and sometimes suddenly,
can get nurtured at Christmas
without us even noticing.
In my experience,
there is often a quiet moment
inside the big Christmas who-ha
that can give us an inkling of its presence
and our relationship to it.
It is usually a moment
that comes without notice,
all of a sudden,
when things get quiet inside us
even if we are surrounded by others.
The dream, remember,
is not necessarily about our identity –
or how others perceive us
or what we are known for.
The dream is something about
understanding our relationship with the world
and how we are connected to the greater web of life
and seeing our small part in it;
and it’s about understanding how
what we do
ripples the web
and strengthens it,
or makes it more vulnerable.
When we get a little vision of that,
even the smallest of inklings,
it usually points us in a direction.
The dream is that kind of feeling or vision or inkling.
When we find ourselves in the presence of ‘the dream,’
we understand we are not alone,
and we understand that we are not truly an individual,
and that what we do
really and truly matters,
even in a small but outsized way.
‘The dream’ has all that connected to it.
In my experience,
brushing into the dream
is also an experience of hope,
and THAT is the smallest little babushka of Christmas.
Hope is the hunger that nourishes us.
Hope is the one thing
a human being
cannot live without.
When we travel to our core,
or fall into it as the case may be,
hope is the thing
that leads us back out.
If we cannot fathom hope
inside where we live
then that basic, essential hunger
that pools at the center of our being
will take us places
where human beings cannot dwell
in safety or wellness.
Hope is a flame
gently, quietly flickering
in the darkness.
It need not be very big at all
because, as we know,
even the smallest flame
enlightens even the deepest darkness.
That tiniest babushka of Christmas
hidden within all the surrounding ones,
What I have just described
can also be applied to the story in Luke
with its outer events winnowing down
to its essential ah-ha!
But that babushka pattern
can be applied to you and me too,
with each element of Luke’s story
reflected in our lives.
I won’t annotate the Gospel story for you,
that is your work; and,
I cannot annotate your story,
the one that takes you down
to that dream…
with its hope.
That is your work too.
All I can do
is tell you that I know it is there –
that everything in my own experience
and the privilege I have had
to accompany others along their experiences,
affirms over and over and over again,
the presence of the dream
and a hope
at the center of Christmas…
at the center of life – yours and mine.
So my hope for you,
is that you bump into peace
and brush up against that dream
with its nascent hope,
and that both things happen for you
I went to a laboratory school.
It was kindergarten-through-high school
in the same building, and,
while a public school,
it was also operated by the teacher’s college
of the local university.
I mention it, because we did not have letter grades
until high school.
All through the first nine years of classes,
we had written evaluation that emphasized “the positive”
while allowing for comments
that identified “problematic areas.”
So, the end of the first semester of ninth grade
was a time of reckoning
when, for the first time,
there was a single letter staring up from the page.
That individual letter was very loud,
and somehow it seemed to say more
than the longest evaluation ever written
by one of our previous elementary
or middle school teachers.
I can’t swear to how many A’s I had,
but I think I had all A’s, one B, and a C.
That C was in Algebra and an absolute success story.
The B was in Spanish,
and considering my goof-off and Smart Alec behavior,
it was probably a gift.
My mom looked at my report card,
said nothing about the A’s I had received,
and told me in no uncertain terms
that the B and the C were unacceptable.
At the end of the second semester,
I had all A’s a D and an F.
That says as much about my psychology at the time
as it does hers, and was just a hint
of the problems to come.
Any of us who had a hyper-critical parent
know and recognize the problems and behaviors
planted within the garden of such relationships.
One of them is the voice of that critical parent
traveling with us over time and space,
no matter how we grow and change and flourish.
Struggling to keep that critical parent inside our head
as a small voice instead of a dominant one,
can sometimes be exhausting.
Which is also why, I sometimes read the gospel story
appointed for a given Sunday,
and say, “Ugh.”
I love Jesus,
and with all honesty,
the wisdom of Jesus is my life’s blood.
Some would be surprised to hear me say that
because I do not talk about Jesus or quote Jesus
like some Christian bobble-head.
But Jesus, along with his prophetic pals –
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and Amos –
is my chosen primary lens
through which I decipher the world.
That said, sometimes I just sigh
because the negativity gets to be too much.
Or more accurately, when I am struggling
with that critical parent inside,
the hard medicine of Jesus
feels like too much.
That is the case today
with this reading from Luke.
I could easily go on and on about the prophetic witness
Jesus lets loose with this story from Luke –
or that Luke lets loose with this story of Jesus.
But not today.
You see, when I read the gospels
I understand that you and I
are the bad guys in the story.
I think there is a lot of Christianity around
that inserts Christians as the good guys,
which makes for a very different story.
But that is so strange to me, when we know
the good guys in these gospel stories,
especially in Luke,
are “the poor, the crippled, the lame,
and the Blind.”
That is Luke’s motto for “the good guys.”
The good guys are the marginalized
not the fat cats like us.
The poorest among us here
would be judged hugely wealthy in that society.
So, in these stories,
we should know that at best,
we are the Pharisee with the lavish banquet
that invited the wrong guests.
But at worst, and more likely,
we are the imperial citizens or senators back in Rome
whose agents are forcing peasants into bankruptcy
in order to amass wealth at the edges of the empire,
or worse, crucifying them.
It is a view of ourselves that is difficult to gaze at
for extended periods of time
if we take it seriously and want to know more.
Yet, like I said,
there is a majority of Christianity in this country,
that reads these scriptures very differently.
They see themselves,
even if middle class and quite wealthy,
as the marginalized and pure at heart
amongst a threatening horde of “secular atheists”
or the fearsome and alien “Muslims,”
or the strange and perplexing godless Buddhists
and polytheistic Hindus.
They domestic Jesus
in order to bring him into their polite company.
While it often doesn’t feel good,
I prefer to keep Jesus as the zealous
social and theological prophet that he was.
Even so, sometimes, like today, it is just too much.
Without going into it in detail today,
I would also say that part of our challenge
as Christians in the 21stcentury,
is that the context of Jesus and his society
is radically different than us and our society.
That change in context
creates change in the wisdom,
and when we do not seek to understand those changes
and hear his wisdom in OUR context –
or when we over-simplify that wisdom for our context –
then we are not doing any better
than the Christians who think that they are the good guys.
That is just a little tease for the weeks ahead this fall,
when the sermons will seek to examine
the wisdom of Jesus
and how it changes from his context to ours.
But today, I have a few words
about that critical parent inside.
It is important to note
that I am talking about the critical parent “inside”
and not the actual parent in our life,
whether living or dead.
You and I know that at some point
we cross a line
after which our parents are no longer the issue.
Rather, it is how we internalized our parents
and we have some control and responsibility with that.
I know it is no longer my mom talking to me
when I beat myself up inside
for failing at something,
or when I am getting a C
and unwilling to recognize that in this case, a C is success.
Whether it is a critical parent
or critical boss
or teacher, friend, or grandparent,
their voice fades over time
and it becomes our own.
It is then the voice of OUR perfectionism
or OUR negativity
or OUR overly-critical judgments.
And we know all too well,
that if that voice becomes the dominant, lecturing voice
inside of us, it will ooze and bleed outside
and get all over those we care about and love.
So what would Jesus have to say
to a slave-driving,
haranguing voice of criticism
whose hot breath is on our neck
and leaning over our lives?
I think what Jesus would say is, “Peace.”
“Peace be with you,” he might coo into our ear.
While I doubt that Jesus
would have cared about us Romans and Pharisees
as much as he cared about “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,”
I do believe he cared about us.
If he is the personification of the love of God,
then no matter how many C’s and D’s and F’s we have
on the scorecard of life,
then we are cared for and loved.
I think the theory goes,
that if we ever finally come to realize we ARE loved,
then we will start doing better on the scorecard
when we are able.
But I do not think that Jesus
can take away the presence of that niggling voice of negativity
once it has gotten inside us.
I do not even think WE can exorcise it.
We can, however, moderate it.
We can quiet it
and make it just one of the many voices
we hear every day inside our busy heads.
“Peace” is how we do it.
That is why Jesus kept saying that
to his disciples, especially
when they were anxious and afraid.
“Peace be with you,” he would say.
Truly, when the dominating and the ugly
are loud in our hearts
and taking up too much room in our minds,
we need to stop and breathe in peace,
and to stop and exhale peace,
because it is the only thing I know that truly does the job.
When my own voice saying “peace” is not powerful enough
to quiet the big voices or sometimes the army of voices,
I can recruit Jesus in my imagination
to come along and add some strength.
I can recruit the memory of affirming elders
and I can recruit the wisdom of teachers.
There are a whole bunch of people you and I have known
that want nothing more
than to be the source of peace in our lives.
We need to let them.
We need to activate them.
We need to give them voice in our hearts and minds.
Peace be with you.
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