by Rev. Scott Summerville
My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. God looks on the lowliness of his servant henceforth all ages will call me blessed. The Almighty works marvels for me. Holy is God’s name! There is mercy from age to age, on those who fear God, God puts forth his arm in strength scattering the proud-hearted; casts the mighty from their thrones, raising the lowly, fills the starving with good things, sending the rich away empty. God protects Israel, his servant, remembering his mercy, the mercy promised to our forbears, for Abraham and his heirs for ever.
We have come to that “I can’t believe it” time of year. “I can’t believe another year has passed.” “I can’t believe it is Christmas already.” And in our family reunions, “I can’t believe how much you have grown!”
In the Christian liturgical calendar the new year actually begins with the first Sunday of advent, falling in late November or early December. In 2016 the liturgical year ended on November 26; the new year has already begun.
The word that rings out in this season of Advent is the word “peace.” This is a time of settling, letting go of the passing time, and treasuring moments of peace.
There are unique feelings that come with this time of year: the sweetness and delight of the children’s Christmas pageant, the way the carols of Christmas resonate deep in our souls and in our memories, the familiar tastes of holiday food and the smell of Christmas trees evoking many Christmases past.
This also can be a time when grief resurfaces, and we know that for some this season of celebration comes with sharp pangs of loss.
Next Sunday, after the children’s Christmas pageant, many of us will go Christmas caroling. What we encounter will be very different from the joy and sweetness of seeing the children act out the Christmas story. We will step from that happy time into a realm of anxiety and pain, sickness and disability, as we visit home to home, and especially as we sing to patients in the hospital wards. We hope that those we visit will experience some moments of peace. We hope that people will forget for a moment their confinement or their illness, their fears or their pain.
If you only knew of Christmas through Christmas cards and holiday songs, you might think that the Christmas story is a charming, quiet, peaceful story. In fact the actual story of Christmas is not at all a quiet or charming or peaceful.
It is the story of a very young woman – a girl we should say – unwed and pregnant. Her fiancé, an older man, has to deal with the social stigma of her pregnancy in a very traditional culture. Both of them have to contend with the oppression and degradation of being a colonized people. Their nation is occupied and ruled harshly by a foreign power. That oppression faces them right from the start, as they are forced to make a dangerous journey while Mary is pregnant in order to meet the dictates of the Roman census. At the birth of her child, there is violence all around. Mary, Joseph, and their baby barely escape from the hand of King Herod who plots to take Jesus’ life. They become refugees, barely escaping Judea, to protect the life of the child.
And this woman − this young woman Mary − we tend to picture her in stillness, frozen in time, gently cradling her baby, but she is described in the Gospel of Luke as an active assertive woman. When she is pregnant with Jesus she composes a song – a fierce song about food for the hungry, justice for the poor, and a challenge to the powerful:
The Lord has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
put down the mighty from their thrones,and exalted those of low degree;
filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich the empty away.
Mary is not a quiet young woman.
Later, when Jesus has grown to adulthood and is about the commence his ministry, the person who proclaims his coming is John the Baptist – he was not a quiet person either. He died a violent death, because he would not keep his voice down – he offended the King. Jesus’ coming is announced by a prophet who dies the death of a prophet. Jesus himself will follow in the same path. He will not be quiet. He will speak his mind to those in power regardless of the consequences.
As we approach Christmas, we long for the nectar, the sweetness of simple loving connections, familiar songs, things that warm the heart. So it should be. Grab all the sweetness in life you can get. But the story we will tell at Christmas is no gentle tale: it is a story of courage in the face of oppression and injustice.
My years in ministry have taught me a great deal about courage. I have learned that courage is everywhere and is expressed in many ways, some dramatic, but most often courage is unseen.
There is courage written into the history of our congregation.
In the cemetery the oldest gravestone, placed there more than two centuries ago, is a small stone marking a child’s grave. Next to it is the gravestone of his mother who died the same year; and also the gravestone of the father who lived another thirty years. There is much sorrow and a lot of courage written in those stones. It is the courage to bear what people have to bear and cannot change.
All around us we see such courage. Many of you have it yourselves. The courage to suffer and to endure. The courage to suffer and yet to love and give and serve God.
In the gravestones, in plaques mounted on the sanctuary wall, and in stained-glass are memories of those who suffered and died in war, offering themselves for the sake of freedom. Those who lost their lives were young, so young.
Then there is that special kind of courage that the prophet has – the courage the John the Baptist had – the courage Jesus had – to be face-to-face with those who wield power and to speak the truth without blinking. This is a rare kind of courage. It is not something we all have. It is not something that most people have.
A bronze plaque on one of the pews in this sanctuary was placed there in memory of a woman named Kitty Rowe. She is certainly a part of the history of this congregation, though there are fewer of us now who knew her than there once were. She died in 2004. Hard to believe it’s been that long. She shared with us a story from her personal history, a story of the prophetic courage of her mother and father.
Kitty’s father was a Methodist clergyman in Tennessee. In the 1930s and 40s before the national civil rights movement took its full form, people like her parents were among the prophets of their day; they faced the fury of racism personally and head-on. As a white man and woman, as a pastor and pastor’s wife in a segregated society, Kitty’s parents did a radical thing. They took the simple and unthinkable step of opening their parsonage to people of all skin colors and stations of life. African Americans entered the parsonage of their church by the front door and were entertained in the parlor.
This was an affront to the sensibilities of most of the whites in their community, for “colored folk” always enter through the back door and enter only to serve white people. Not so in the home where Kitty’s parents served. Everyone came in the front door. What’s more, they invited all people to sit in any of the pews of their church. They practiced an open and inclusive church when it was a radical and dangerous thing to do. As astounding as it is to think that this could have happened in the United States of America, the fact is that her parents risked their lives. Kitty said, “I do believe that they came close to killing my father, and that, if he had not been the preacher, they would have killed him.” Somewhere in the sanctuary there is that small brass plaque in memory of Kitty. It is a window into a rich past, into the story of her parents who were prophets in their time – prophets in this nation in a time not so long ago.
In our own time we need prophetic voices to speak up on behalf of those who face discrimination and prejudice. It is deeply alarming to see the increasing expressions of bigotry against Muslims, Jews, Mexicans and other minorities. Those who monitor these things: the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other human rights groups are sounding warning. The recent violent attack on a Muslim woman, who happened to be a New York City police officer off-duty, is a troubling sign.
In the Asbury Church neighborhood plans for an Islamic community to renovate and occupy a large old property that was long in disuse have been challenged. The matter remains unresolved and is in litigation. Representatives of our congregation were present when St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is on the opposite corner from the property in question, hosted members of the Islamic community to welcome them to the neighborhood. This is an area where we need to involve ourselves in a supportive way that expresses our inclusive principles as United Methodists.
Not everyone is born to be a prophet. Most of us do not have that brash courage of a prophet. But each of us can do the next brave thing we need to do – or we can decide not to do it.
Each of us can do the next brave thing we need to do.
Each of us can take a stand. It doesn’t have to be a world changing Nobel Peace Prize winning act. All it needs to be is a simple act of courage, a decision to live in truth in the moment, a willingness to draw courage and inspiration from Jesus and from the prophets who have gone before us, and to live our lives as we know they should be lived. Each of us can do the next brave thing – or not.
So drink in the quietness and the peace of these days ahead, as much as you can and for as long as you can, and if you can find that place of stillness, use it to rest up to live your life with courage and high purpose, to face your fears, to be inspired by the courage of a girl from Galilee, and to follow the prophet from Galilee to whom she gave birth in Bethlehem of Judea.