Delivered at Claremont UCC on December 24, 2014
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
SEEKERS OF MEANING
Every year at Christmas and Easter, I find myself preaching to two different audiences: all of you here at this house of prayer as well as to my unchurched friends, or those of different religions. The content of my sermon is basically the same for both, because both groups seem to be looking for answers to the same basic questions:
What do you think REALLY happened? Why does it matter TODAY?
Because Christian or not, us humans are seekers of meaning, seekers of guidance.
Our tradition roots that search at the beginning of time itself. In the book of Genesis we hear two accounts of the formation of the Earth. Two different versions are side by side, with contradictions in their details, quoting poetry even more ancient than Genesis. The structure of our story is itself an admission that we do not really know how God works, only that God is splendid and greater than we can imagine or capture in words.
Those Genesis accounts are also a testimony to our own place and role. We humans are part of a greater being, charged with caregiving, yet aware of our failure to do just that. We say that we live east of Eden now, far from God’s hopes, suffering our own self-inflicted pains.
We don’t have a very cheery sense of self, collectively. Our Bible stories, in book after book, follow a pattern of holy covenant, a desire by humans to follow that covenant, then epic failure. And repeat. I saw a version of this online that went:
God: Humans: Don’t do the thing.
Humans: Ok, we won’t do the thing.
Humans: Um, we did the thing.
Again, not very cheery, but…pretty accurate.
Pretty accurate in the depiction of our carelessness and bigotries. Pretty accurate in the reporting of our will to violence and fears of difference. And pretty accurate in the portrayal of God’s constancy and God’s creativity.
Consider all of the ways holy presence is described in scripture: walking around a garden, up on a mountain, playing with Leviathan. God speaks through dreams and burning bushes. God works through the socially despised.
When infant Moses and the other Hebrew children need to be saved, for example, where does holiness concentrate? Not through something predictable like otherworldly angels or supernatural phenomenon. No, though midwives, women who attend other women in labor– apparent nobodies.
I remember being with my sister when she was in labor. It really is labor. When a woman is giving birth to new life, she has to work really hard. It is painful and sweaty and there is no pause button.
Even if a laboring woman is medicated or having a surgical birth, her entire living is centered on that effort. Her whole body is a fulcrum of creation, demanding total focus not just by her but by those who are trying to assist in her labor.
In that critical instant when one releases another into larger creation, breath is baited, thought suspended, anticipation off the charts. Because it may not end well. Labor comes with the risk of loss as well as the hope of life.
Each of us has likely labored at some point in our lives. Engaged in a long term task or goal that has consumed our daily actions and planning, then reached a critical moment of success or loss. Maybe a degree program or a job search. Maybe the decision to heal from an addiction or endure a medical treatment.
There may have been a real loneliness in those labors: only you knew what that chemotherapy felt like, only you could do that job interview. It was a labor. It was painful and sweaty, emotionally if not physically.
SUPPORT IN OUR LABORS
A couple of months ago I was back at my seminary for a meeting. My gospels professor, Seung-Ai Yang, gave a talk. It was on the Magi in the book of Matthew. Dr. Yang explored various explanations for who they could have been, these wise men, these astronomers, these foreign kings.
Then she made a suggestion I hadn’t heard before: Whoever they were, maybe the Magi were women. Who else besides women would an ancient near eastern woman like Mary allow into her birthing room?
Mary was in the middle of nowhere, far from the usual midwives and care of family. But holiness came.
Holiness came in a form understandable to Mary, a form that allowed her to open up in her most vulnerable state. They may have appeared to be strangers from a strange land to everyone else, but to her they were sacred companions bearing gifts that celebrated her labor and strengthened her for the work yet to come.
In our labors, even in the labors that have only led to loss, holiness has been present. Not in the gold-plated majesty of our godly imaginings, but in ordinary, even marginal, forms maybe only we could recognize as sacred, full of care and resources.
If you are like Mary tonight, far from home or feeling alone in your labors, holiness IS coming to you. Accept it gladly, in any form, as you would the gold of a king. Because even though we humans keep blowing our covenant with God—and each other—God is constant and God is creative.
And in that eternal innovation, God comes as a child this night, vulnerable and with everything yet to learn. What really happened and what it means today is up to us to learn along with that child.
As the Bible shows, there is no one answer, only layers of wisdom, like the wisdom of receiving strangers as the sacred midwives of our present and future.