I don’t usually post my sermons on this blog, but this week is different. On Friday, December 14, our lives were changed by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which is only fifteen miles from our church. So I am posting my sermon here for those who were not able to attend. It originally was inspired by a skit from skitguys.com, but it took a decidedly different turn. I ask for everyone’s continued prayers for all the families who lost loved ones, for the children who survived the trauma, and for all our teachers and school personnel returning to classrooms full of frightened children this week.
“A Messy Messiah”
Rev. Cindy Maddox
December 16, 2012
It seems that my week was divided into two segments: before and after. Before I heard the news of the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and after. I’m guessing your week has felt the same.
I started working on my sermon on Thursday, and on Friday morning I was halfway done with it when the first reports started coming in. Obviously, I dropped everything to sit by the television, to wait to wrap my arms around my daughter, and then to plan the community prayer service for Friday night.
During the day yesterday I helped my sister-in-law move her furniture out of the home she had shared with her husband of twenty-four years, and then hung out for a while just so that she could hold the baby and feel his warm joy. He, of course, had no idea how much comfort he was bringing.
I returned to my sermon last night, knowing it was halfway done but not knowing if I could use any of it. What might I have written before the news that could still be appropriate after our world has changed?
But after re-reading it, I decided not to start over. Instead, I am going to preach in two halves—the before and after, the Friday morning and the Saturday night. Here is the before. . . .
When I was a kid, I liked to visit my Grandma and Grandpa Maddox. Grandma was funny and silly. For those of you old enough to remember the show, she was a bit like Edith Bunker. She scooted around the house in her slippers, flapping her apron. She was a bird, flitting here and there, always on the move. If she was a bird, Grandpa was a dog—an old farm dog that worked hard but moved slow. If a cow kicked him, he would kick it back.
I didn’t always know how to respond to Grandpa’s gruffness, but I liked to visit because his world was so different from mine. For example, our car was just like our house—clean. Very, very clean. But Grandpa’s truck had old ropes on the floor and dirty gloves on the seat. The stick shift always had a smear of mud on it—at least I thought it was mud—and the whole thing smelled like horses. I didn’t know why the inside of the cab smelled like horses, but it did.
One time, when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, Grandpa took me with him to one of his other farms. I didn’t know he had more than the one, so I was excited to go. Well, Grandpa had work to do, and a small city girl was of no help to him. So he gave me a “job” to do–something that I thought was important, but that really wasn’t a job. He put me in front of this large metal gate that was propped up against the opening to the barn, and he told me to stand there and make sure the horses didn’t get out. Well, I took my job seriously, and I was nervous because I did not want to be responsible for losing any of Grandpa’s horses.
All was fine until one of them got a little antsy and came bounding toward the gate. That horse was big, and I was small, and I took one look at him coming toward me, and I forgot all about the gate between us—and my job.
I back-pedaled . . . fast . . . right into a cow patty.
Did I mention I was wearing little white leather sandals? Suddenly the dirty life on the farm was not so fun. Suddenly I longed for my clean car and my clean house and my mother’s almost freakishly clean kitchen. Even long after my sandal and foot had both been cleaned, I could still smell the manure.
Years later, when I was in high school or college, my grandparents built a new home on yet another farm. My grandmother was very proud of her new house: three bedrooms, two and a half baths (one with Jacuzzi tub), game room with pool table, mud room, canning room, three-season porch, a family room, living room, formal dining room, and an eat-in kitchen with every gadget she could think of (including a trash compactor which is where she stored the potato chips.) She even had a fountain in the entryway because she heard that was classy. It was a fountain of a fish, which she embellished with plastic flowers.
My grandfather was proud of his house because it was a showplace. It proved to the world that this old country farmer with a 7th grade education had done mighty fine for himself, thank you very much. But his true pride and joy was the barn. It was a nice barn, two levels, with this fancy system for delivering hay, plus skylights and nice big stalls for the horses, and although the barn sat in a field with probably a hundred head of cattle, it was set up so that no cow could ever set hoof in it and get it dirty. That barn was clean and nice and even, dare I say it, beautiful.
I sometimes wonder if this is the kind of barn we imagine when we hear the Christmas story. The Christmas greeting cards and artistic renderings never show the mess. The hay is clean. The swaddling clothes are white and spotless. If an animal or two are present, they also are clean—and serene.
This is not the kind of barn people in Bethlehem had two thousand years ago. There would have been no separate stalls, no clean floors, no fancy anything. There would have been mud and manure and animals walking wherever they wanted, and lots of noise and smells and filth. It’s hard for some of us to imagine walking through such a place, let alone giving birth there. We don’t want to get our white leather sandals dirty, much less our newborn babies.
Now to be intellectually honest, the story doesn’t actually say that Jesus was born in a barn. The story says there was no room for the couple in the main part of the house, and that Jesus was placed in a manger, a feeding trough; so naturally tradition has put those together to say he was born in a stable or barn.
Usually I’m a stickler for correct interpretation and historical accuracy, but even I find myself getting sentimental when it comes to the Christmas story. I like the idea that Jesus was born in a barn. To me, it’s consistent with angels appearing to shepherds and a God who came incognito. It’s consistent with a Messiah who would break the rules and a Christ who would eat with outcasts. Was a barn a fitting place for God’s Child, a king, to be born? Of course not. That’s the point.
I like the story of Jesus being born in a barn because sometimes I act like I was born in a barn, too. I often am not clean and shiny and bright. Sometimes I am dirty and messy and stinky. And I don’t mean my white sandals; I mean me. Sometimes my attitudes stink. Sometimes my soul is dirty from desires gone amuck. Sometimes even after I get cleaned up, I can still smell the mistake. Sometimes I see something coming at me, and I back-pedal, and I step in it big-time.
I need to know that Jesus won’t turn his back on me. I need to know that the Messiah won’t be bothered by a little mess. I need to know that when my life doesn’t feel like “silent night, holy night” that God is still with me. A messy Messiah. That’s what I need. Because sometimes I am messy. Because sometimes life is messy.
And then the news came, and I was reminded of exactly how messy life can be . . . how horrible, how heinous, how atrocious life can be. And oh, how much we need a messy Messiah. When tragedy strikes, we need a Messiah who has faced tragedy. When blood is shed, we need a Christ whose blood was spilled. When we cry out with no answers, we need a Messiah who also cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We live in a messy world, a sometimes tragic world, where crazy people do horrific things for incomprehensible reasons. And innocents die.
This is not new. The Bible tells the story of a similar time we call the slaughter of the innocents. According to the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod, after learning from the magi about the birth of a new king, ordered that all male children under the age of two be killed, in order to eliminate any competition for the throne. We don’t know if this actually happened, but we do know that there have always been mad men who do mad things. And, whether factual or not, the story is part of the birth narrative of Jesus. While in Luke, angels sing “Peace on earth, good will to all,” in Matthew, mothers and fathers weep over the death of their children.
“Peace on earth,” the angels sang. But it wasn’t a declaration, that peace already was. It wasn’t even a proclamation, that peace had come in Christ. It was anticipation. It was hope. It was prayer. Peace on earth. Peace in our communities. Peace in our hearts.
Not a declaration. Not a proclamation. But anticipation.
We anticipate the day . . . we hope for the day . . . we fervently pray for the day when all children are safe in their schools, when teachers are not human shields for their students, when the answer isn’t more lock-down drills for first-graders. We pray for the day when violence loses, when fear is defeated, when terror is no more.
We pray for the day. But that day is not here yet. Today we grieve. Today we mourn. Today we remember the twenty-eight lives lost. And today we commit ourselves to working for that peace on earth the angels sang . . .
not in declaration, not in proclamation, but in anticipation.
Our scripture lessons today are all about joy. From the prophet Zephaniah: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” From Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
“To say the least, it feels out of character, even inappropriate, to encourage such joy-filled, upbeat celebrating when our hearts are so full of sadness at the unspeakable horror of the murder of so many innocents. How can we say [these words], knowing what we know?”
One minister I read yesterday said this about preachers: “We stand in a long line of proclaimers who have spoken jarring words that bring hope in the midst of despair, rejoicing in the midst of sorrow, and life in the midst of death. We will have the audacity to proclaim what is at the center not only of these texts, but at the center of the Christian faith. That God’s love is not negated or overshadowed by tragedy, senseless violence, or the inexplicable horror that one human being might inflict on another.”
But, you see, it’s not just we ministers that proclaim such things. We as Christians proclaim such things. “At the center of our faith is the truth that God is especially near in these times and these places. These are the times and places when the comfort and hope of God’s coming speaks so forcefully. God did not offer God’s love from the distance of a heavenly throne, but came to dwell among us, as a baby. God’s love was demonstrated most forcefully in the midst of the unspeakable violence and cruelty of a crucifixion. And God’s penchant for life was demonstrated most profoundly in Christ’s resurrection, reminding us that while death is real and often horrible, it is never the last word.”
Death does not have the last word. Violence does not get the last word. It feels like it today, but this is an illusion.
My email to you last night had the subject line, “About tomorrow, in light of yesterday.” That’s where we stand right now. We are uncertain about tomorrow because of yesterday. We are unsure about the future because of the past. Yet we know that God is with us, yesterday and today and forever.
We live in a messy world. Jesus came to get messy—to be part of us, part of our woundedness and part of our healing, part of our brokenness and part of our wholeness.
Jesus came to get messy. And I am so glad. Because we need some company in our mess today.