Time After Time
Rev. Nancy Rockwell
The Congregational Church in Exeter, UCC
2 January 2005
The news of the Asian tsunami began to arrive the day after Christmas. Snug in my warm house as the snow settled in last Sunday night, I watched the first few TV pictures and the beginning of staggering numbers that would rise each day this week, and are in fact, still rising. Numbers of persons swept away, numbers of persons bereft of families, numbers of persons homeless, numbers in the hospital, numbers of dollars it will take to rebuild these places. The next day, here in Exeter, only a few miles from the ocean and with the temperature hovering at zero, I listened shivering in my car to news of epidemics of tropical diseases among the tsunami survivors, and the fact that, only a mile from the shoreline, it was as if nothing at all had happened.
On Wednesday, traveling to Florida to see my mother, I walked past a mountain of undelivered luggage at the Philadelphia airport, looking much like a part of the refuse on Indonesian shores, and read newspapers carrying pictures of wailing Asians, injured children, wrecked hotels.
I live in the western world, where justice, which is, after all, only one of the fruits of faith, has been taken for over 400 years to be the foundation for society and the lens through which everything that happens is examined. We have, in these centuries developed a reflex in our minds, in that we react automatically to public events and private life with the questions, Was it fair? Was it just? Who is responsible here? Who is to blame? In centuries before the rise of the west other questions were foremost in the public mind, many of which seem foolish to us now. But in our fixation on justice we have, to our sorrow, learned two things: that, even when millions of dollars are spent on an elaborately constructed fairness process called a trial, justice often eludes everyone involved; and that, despite our efforts, we do not even know what true justice is.
What does it mean, in the midst of this, to talk about a child born to save us, who sleeps in heavenly peace? What does it mean to speak of God with us, in times like these?
My Aunt, who is 95, and who had polio when she was 11 and has lived all these years with a withered leg and suffered the fate of thousands of daily judgments about her differentness, makes it a point to pooh-pooh righteousness when it comes up in conversation, which, in a family with a lot of clergy, it often does. ?Oh pshaw!? she will say, using a word favored by her generation. She says this because she has had a wonderful, and mostly unconventional, life. She says this because most of what came to her in life was not what anyone imagined or expected, and none of it ever had anything to do with whether she was a good person or not. Polio was not her punishment, it was her circumstance. With it came a legion of unusual opportunities, and because of it many usual opportunities disappeared.
We have reached the point in our Christmas story when the Child must flee, when Mary and Joseph are on the lam with only an angel?s cryptic words to guide them, and hard on their heels the soldiers of Herod are bringing terror down on the sleeping people of Bethlehem, are bringing sudden death to numberless children, a man-made tsunami we still remember 2000 years later. Part of this birth story is great danger and grave injustice.
The point at which the tsunami and the Slaughter of the Innocents intersects is the level of our deep fear. Yes, we have always known that we will die. But in the wake of events like these, our sense of being safe in the world recedes with the waves of destruction. And in come, like so many tropical diseases to eat away at our spirit, a plague of doubts in the goodness of God, the cynic?s harrumph, the secularists? derision: What is the point of Christ?s birth if this does not change, if this kind of terror can still smite us?
It has always been tempting to read the Christmas story without Herod?s nasty bits, to separate the heavenly from the horrible, to have heavenly peace without life?s crushing load. But the point of God-with-us is to make us one, as God is one, so that we are no longer the successful and the failed, the drowned and saved, the loved and the despised, the lost and found. Christmas, like ll our stories, is a manifestation of the presence of God in the midst of difficult events, showing how nothing can separate us from the love of God, who is born among the homeless, is for two years a refugee child, and grows into a man whose spirit will not give way to a cynical withdrawal of hope, goodwill, and love from anyone. God comes among us as Christ the Lover, and we know from St. Paul?s great love hymn exactly what love is: patient and kind, not jealous or boastful or arrogant or rude, not rejoicing in the wrong (which is the cynic?s forte, isn?t it?) but rejoicing always in the right (oh, how difficult that is for us, the doubters, who want to counter every right things with a but, and point out something that is wrong with the picture!) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things ? love never ends, says Paul. And what survivor of that nameless wall of water does not need this assurance now?
Jesus, according to Luke, when confronted by some questioners who held up a massacre that had riveted public attention as an obstacle to the faith he was proclaiming, replied by saying, Do you think that I don?t know about what happened? This event is not an opportunity for passing judgment, instead it is an opportunity for love to be shown. Which is what Christmas is, too. God taking the opportunity to respond to all the corruption and pain in the world by showing love in this child, and inviting everyone to show love to the child. And that?s what Easter is, too, and all the stories in between.
The tectonic plates are the foundation of the world, for billions of years they have held up every living thing and made all of evolution possible by giving life a stage. In their huge work they endure pressure so massive we cannot imagine it, but surely we know from the aches in our own bodies the need that those plates have, now and then, to change their position, to release their stress. And when they do, circumstances occur which have nothing to do with our righteousness, though they can affect us devastatingly. But in these circumstances arises an opportunity for love to be shown. We, who cling to our things for safety rather than to love, have trouble knowing the importance of this, that the meaning and the purposes of the great tectonic plates, and our own times, and even our species, may be unknown to us, but still, love can permeate their shadows and light our lives.
I want to read you a poem by Mary Oliver:
(Shadows ? by Mary Oliver)