Roots, rituals and renewal...

NOTE: Here are this week's sermon notes for the first Sunday after Christmas. They are grounded in the text Luke 2: 22-40.

One of the joys of reading stories – or playing – with small children is their insistence that we “do it again – do it again!” Sometimes this can be maddening, but mostly it is wonderful. (For a delightful and insightful blog on this, please see Katherine's insights, "Homage to Little M"

I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “do it again, daddy, do it again” when the girls were small: throw me in the lake again – play that game again – read it again, daddy, read it again. Once when Jesse was about 3 (she is now 32 and teaching in Brooklyn) I was reading one of her favorite stories but I was bone tired – just beat – so I started to skip parts which she busted me on and made me go back and read them just as they had be written. And when I’d dose off and try to summarize the action, she made me stop again and go back because she could tell me exactly – verbatim – what the story said. And when I finally made it through the story, she looked at me with total innocence and said, "Do it again, daddy, do it again!"
Children love repetition and familiarity – and I suspect that there is a part of all of us that continues to adore that which we know well and cherish: traditional Christmas carols, candle light communion, our favorite foods at the feast, the golden oldies music of our past and our favorite hit songs at a concert. So I have come to see that there is a strong connection between our historic roots and the rituals we use in our lives to bring us renewal. And that’s what I want to consider with you this morning: roots, rituals and renewal.

The gospel of Luke makes a point of emphasizing the Jewish roots of young Yeshua whom we call Jesus. Pastor Brian Stoffregen tell us that five times we are told that Mary and Joseph observed the Law (vv. 22, 23, 24, 27, 39). What's more, just before our reading, Jesus has been circumcised and after it we find that Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover – that it was their "habit" – or as Stoffregen notes "a literal reading would put this 'according to their custom or habit'... or even according to their ethical tradition.”

Why do you suppose Luke makes such a point of the Jewish roots of Jesus? Some scholars have suggested that it has to do with prejudice in the early church. Luke, you see, was written primarily for a Gentile audience and we know that there was often tension between Jewish Christians and the newer Gentile converts.

The emphasis on Christ’s Jewish roots, therefore, does two things:

+ First, it challenges any and all anti-Semitism head on: by making it clear that Jesus was a Jew right from the start, Luke is telling us that the historic lies and prejudices against Jews have no place in the community of Christ.

+ And second, these very unique cultural and religious roots remind us that in Jesus God became flesh – was incarnate – was here within and among us. Not as a lovely thought or some abstract ideal, but as a real man – a Jewish man (or at least a baby) – who had real flesh and blood, feelings and fears.

And both of these truths need reinforcing in every generation, yes? If we forget Christ’s Jewish roots, we can fall victim to our own prejudice and bias towards Jews – or really anybody that looks or worships differently than us. Remember that old line about “In the beginning, God made man in his image and ever since we have been trying to repay the favor?” Well, making God in OUR image is not the way the story goes – so let me say it again, daddy – God made US in God’s image, not the other way around.

What’s more, our story says that God became flesh and blood as a Jew and we ought never to forget that this connects us with a unique way of being in prayer, grounds us in 4000 years of history and helps us understand how real justice is to be made flesh in the world. Not that we are called to become Jews, but we must never forget out roots. And one of the truths about our roots in this place and time – our roots as a people with a unique and important history – that is, Congregationalists within the United Church of Christ – is that like our Jewish forbears we believe in a still speaking God. We believe that God continues to make God’s will known to us today in culture, in scripture and in our very lives.

That is, God’s will continues to be revealed to us because there is ever more wisdom and light to be discovered: We are not fundamentalists or literalists when it comes to the scriptures or even tradition; rather we believe that God is still speaking IF we are listening.

Now there are three other truths about our roots that warrant a comment, too, because one of the things I have discovered over the years is that people in our tradition often misrepresent and misunderstand what it means. Back in one of my previous congregations, after a new member ceremony, one of the pillars of the church – a bright and committed woman – shook the hand of a new member and said, “Welcome to the congregational church – you can believe whatever you want here!” I was horrified! I was shocked and chagrined because not only is that NOT true, it’s the last thing you want to say to a person new to the Christian faith: everything goes? No way…

So let me give you three other essential truths to our roots as people of faith and each is as important as the other.

+ First, we are Christians – not Unitarians, not Jews and not Buddhists – we are Christians. As one song puts it, "We bear the marks of Christ." And while we believe and trust that there is truth and beauty in every religious tradition – WE have committed to following the way of Jesus. And that means we DON’T believe whatever we want to but rather we wrestle with spiritual insights and discipline from within the Christian story. After all, UCC – united church of Christ – does not stand for Unitarians CONSIDERING Christ. But, rather, the United CHURCH of Christ. That’s the first truth: we follow the way and light of Jesus.

+ The second is related: we affirm the historic truths about Christ – the wisdom of the scriptures and tradition – but we also insist that every person explore their own story with Christ, too. That is, we ask people to learn their testimony – the wisdom of their own story with Jesus – as essential to their spiritual life rather than just the words of a creed. Do you know why that is important? It is called emphasizing our testimonies of faith rather than insisting on tests of faith. Do you grasp the difference? A living faith has as much to do with personal experience and individual conscience as memorization and knowing the rules of the past, yes? A living faith is alive and real and growing whereas a mechanical faith is more concerned about getting the rules and tradition right. So first, we follow Christ. Second, we celebrate our personal stories more the historic rules.

+ And third, we trust that God’s truth will be revealed to us as a congregation – and let me unpack this, too. Some traditions are organized with a priest or a rector or a bishop at the top – and all teaching and authority is passed on down from this religious leader. Not our tradition: we insist upon a “learned clergy” – trained and educated – who is charged with preaching and teaching in community. But when it comes to congregational decisions – and not all decisions ARE congregational ones – but when it comes to common decisions we have discovered that God’s will can often best be discovered together – listening and arguing – praying and studying – talking and discerning as a community.

We believe that Christ is often discovered best when we take enough time to listen and include every voice – especially those that tend to keep quiet or exist only on the periphery – before making deep and serious decisions in the church. Is that clear? Not every decision is a congregational one, ok? Calling the plumber is something our secretary can do. Choosing the hymns is something that is best NOT decided in committee.

But figuring out what renewal means – exploring how to grow and heal a broken congregation – charting new ways of being compassionate, faithful and just -those are ALL areas where you want to listen to every voice carefully. And there are just two guidelines for doing this:

+ First our congregational roots encourage us to find unity in the things that are essential, diversity in things that are not essential and charity in all things. Unity in Christ, diversity in how we meet Christ and compassion and love in everything we do together. That is first.

+ Second our tradition insists that everyone has the responsibility to both listen and challenge one another in love from time to time. Because people say stupid and even mean spirited things to one another in church from time to time and they have to be corrected or even challenged if the spirit of Christ is going to thrive. Have you ever heard – or said – something stupid or mean-spirited to another in church? Have you ever gossiped? Or complained about someone behind their back?

Well, let me be clear with you: as we enter a new year of mission and ministry together – as we wrestle with ways to make renewal, growth and spiritual vitality flesh within and among us – we’re going to need to hold on to our roots and practice them boldly. We’re going to have to challenge one another – and love and seek out charity with one another, too – because we have some really hard work to do together. We cannot be a church where the minister ministers and the congregation congregates. We cannot be a congregation that says to one another and the world do as I say but not as I do. We cannot be a church where the words of Christ fail to become flesh in our bodies.

So I am going to call us all to be very clear about our roots – they are some of the unique gifts and blessings of our tradition – for just as Christ’s parents honored and embraced them in his day, so, too for us as well. In many ways, we are being called to be like Mary and Joseph – or Simeon and Anna – people so in touch with our roots that we discern where God is calling us into renewal through our rituals. You see the rituals that are described in this morning’s text – offering a dove for the birth of a child, having a male child circumcised or sharing prayers with others in the temple – are not efficacious in and of themselves. They are neither magic nor transformative. But, with eyes to see and ears to hear our still speaking God, not only can we discover the blessings of God in our ordinary existence; we can even find our way through the harsh wilderness of the challenges before us with both grace and truth.

Mary and Joseph – like Anna and Simeon – were bathed in a unique understanding of ritual that allowed them to see that there was a blessing in every moment. In his on line exegetical notes, Brian Stoffregen quotes New Testament scholar, Alan Culpepper, as saying:

Essential to Judaism is the praise of God in all of life. The Jewish law taught that God was to be honored in one's rising up and lying down, in going out and coming in, in how one dressed and what one ate. . . The pressures of secularism and modern life have reduced the significance of ritual observances in the lives of most Christians. Busy schedules, dual-career marriages and after-school activities mean that families eat fewer meals together. Prayer before meals and family Bible study are observed in fewer homes today than just a generation ago.

For many, religious rituals are reduced to church attendance at Christmas and Easter and to socially required ceremonies at births, weddings, and funerals. The marking of both daily and special events with rituals that recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday is practically extinct. In the minds of many it is associated either with superstitions and cultic practices of the past or the peculiar excesses of religious fanatics. The result has been that God has receded from the awareness and experience of everyday life. Many assume that God is found only in certain places, in sacred buildings, in holy books, or in observances led by holy persons.

Their lives, on the other hand, move in a secular realm devoid of the presence of the holy. Daily experiences are reduced and impoverished. They have no meaning beyond themselves, no opening to transcendence. Little room for mystery remains in the everyday as it becomes increasingly subject to secularism and technology. What have we lost by removing ritual observances from our daily experience?

Culpepper concludes, however, with these words: The challenge to modern Christians, therefore, is to find effective rituals for celebrating the presence of God in the ordinary. We need to learn to greet the morning with gratitude; to celebrate the goodness of food, family, and friendship at meals; to recognize mystery in beauty; and to mark rites of passage – like a sixteenth birthday and the freedom and responsibility that come with a driver's license – as life affirming rituals because rituals are not restrictive; they celebrate the goodness and mystery of life.”

We have unique roots and some life-giving rituals, too. Part of our work in the new year will be to reclaim them. Another part of our work together will have to do with discerning whether our roots and rituals assist or distract us from the challenge of renewal. And then we will have to help one another make these words flesh. My prayer is that we each enter it like Mary and Joseph, Anna and Simeon, bathed in the spirit of charity for then, even when we get it wrong, we will grow in God's love.


Katherine E. said…
Well said! I love the way you constructed this. And of course I'm with you theologically. Thanks for posting this.
RJ said…
You are very welcome, Katherine. Thanks for helping me with the idea at the start, too.
Black Pete said…
Very well said, indeed--it is helpful to my individual journey as well. Thanks again!
RJ said…
Thanks for the encouragement, Pete. I am grateful. Blessings as the new year begins to emerge.

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