Advent 4

“What a Friend,” Bob Ryder

Luke 2:1-20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

As we begin, take a moment with me calling to mind someone who’s changed your life for the better, and on purpose.  It could be someone from your past or present.  In particular, see if you can think of someone you admire for their values or principles as much as you appreciate their attention.  Who has been part of your story who’s both a good person to the community in general and a good friend to you in particular – someone who makes their little corner of the world a better place, and who happens to really care about you personally?  Take a moment and see who comes to mind.

I’ve had a few folks in my life who fit that bill.  One who comes easily to mind is a woman named Evelyn Zimmerman – a lay pastor in the church where I grew up.  If the name sounds familiar it’s because I’ve mentioned her a time or two before.  This woman was possessed of striking kindness, common sense, intelligence, confidence and friendliness, all of which combined to help people feel worthy, comfortable with themselves, secure, optimistic about their prospects even when life seemed dingy as it sometimes can for anyone.  Evelyn was part of my life as I was stumbling around trying to navigate the doldrums of being 16 years old. My family was coming apart, I was drowning in hormones, and I was way behind the curve learning the social skills and self-control anyone needs to make their way along.  In the midst of that family addiction / adolescent quagmire, Evelyn really cared about me, really took an interest in me.  She could empathize with my confusions and frustrations, she could reassure me and counsel me, and – importantly – she could call me on my BS, getting through to me in a way maybe no one else could at the time.  Evelyn’s friendship made a world of difference to me at a time when I needed that kind of support more desperately than I even realized, and now the more I understand what she did for me the more I’m grateful for her.  She changed my life for the better, and very much so on purpose.  I was blessed to know her.  I don’t assume she was a perfect person.  I don’t suppose we’d necessarily agree about everything if we knew each other as adults.  I seem to recall she was politically and religiously conservative – but she exuded a kindness that would have made such differences unimportant, and that kindness inspired me to strive against challenges in my path and pursue my potential in a way I really might not have done otherwise.  She helped me feel like I was worthwhile at a time when that was difficult to believe about myself.

Here’s a scene from a movie that came out about 20 years ago called “Hope Floats.”  A little boy has just come home from his grandmother’s funeral.  Travis has been living with his grandmother these past several months after his mother left him to go to California to try and become an actress.  Now he has to hope that his aunt will take him in, no certain prospect.  As he’s trying to cope with the shock and worry of his situation, a familiar neighbor comes along and strikes up this conversation…

That’s one of my favorite movie scenes all time.  That’s the kind of friendship that sees you through.  Who came to mind for you when I asked about someone who made your life better on purpose?  (responses)

The idea for this reflection came to me a few weeks ago when I saw this figurine on a shelf in our office.  It’s a caricature of Jesus called the “Buddy Christ.” The concept is from the 1999 film “Dogma” by Kevin Smith.   Here’s the scene where it’s introduced…

Intentional sacrilege notwithstanding, there are a couple of reasons I like this little figurine and why I find it a good muse for a reflection the day before Christmas.  First, I like it at least partly because of the irreverence. I find it useful.  I’m pretty certain part of Kevin Smith’s intent when he made the movie was to mock religion.  I don’t say he necessarily meant to mock Jesus, mind you – the joke seems intended at the expense of those who thoughtlessly claim to be his followers.  And why not?  There are plenty of reasons some of Jesus’ followers deserve mocking.  But that’s not what I mean about liking the irreverence of it.  What I do like is the way it prods us to consider our assumptions about who he was and why he’s remembered in such adoring and glowing terms.  Whatever our convictions or doubts about Jesus Christ, they can always benefit from being challenged and examined, and in my view Christianity has suffered for most of its history from interpretations about Jesus far removed from the likely experience and intentions of the flesh and blood Jesus of Nazareth.  Far from an ethereal saintly scapegoat, Jesus was for sure a walking, talking, thinking, hungry, sweating, prone to headaches and blisters, sometimes-angry-sometimes-laughing-sometimes-crying human being, every bit as real and gravity bound as the person sitting closest to you in this room. To realize that he would have told jokes and lost his patience and spoken in vernacular and caught colds and enjoyed the company of friends and felt exasperation at political corruption… to realize those aspects of his humanity invites us to take him more seriously than we otherwise might. So, what was it about the extraordinary life of an earthly peasant class 1st century Jew that inspired the stories of a miraculous birth we cherish each Christmas? When this guy was born angels visited shepherds. Foreign scholars traveled by starlight to pay homage. What was it about Jesus’ that caused his contemporaries to regard his nativity as universal good news? Whatever the parody intentions behind this “Buddy Christ” from the film, something about it cuts through rote credos about an otherworldly visitor and intrigues me to speculate more deeply about the reality of the historical figure, and try to import from his time to mine the sacred connection those who knew him first experienced.

Not long after Susan and I began working here, I had a conversation with Betty Rademacher that helped me a lot. We were both part of a book group reading “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and I was taken with the idea that Jesus’ life was characterized by struggling with his own identity. The author of the book, Nikos Kazantzakis, portrays a reluctant and uncertain messiah finding his way as he comes to terms with the sacrificial mandate of his destiny. Betty noted her differing take on the subject, saying, “I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing.” And she went on to share what she found compelling from the work of Marcus Borg in his book “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” I’ve long since come to agree with Betty that Jesus most assuredly knew what he was about. According to Dr. Borg, the historical Jesus had 3 important features that made him compelling, and for which he was noted and remembered well before Paul reinterpreted his life through the lens of Christianity. Briefly, those three characteristics are as follows…

  •   He was a Movement Founder – Jesus was an extraordinarily charismatic person. He had that indefinable ability to capture people’s imagination with his words and actions. He inspired people to change their way of living according to an alternative social vision of mutuality and restorative justice. His practice of sharing meals with social pariahs was edgy and provocative to the establishment, and carried the risk of making him a target by those who benefitted from the political status quo. For a modern example, think of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr.
  •   He was a Wisdom Teacher – Jesus was a religious sage. He was exceptionally talented at distilling large themes of scripture into lessons that could be explored in short stories or even one or two sentence sayings. Like his skills as a movement founder, this too made Jesus edgy and provocative. His teachings challenged conventional wisdom. He was more than a match for learned scribes and Pharisees who were custodians of the religious status quo, which kept the poor and oppressed in their place. For a modern example, think of someone with skills for perspective and rhetoric like – say – Jon Stewart.
  •   He was a Spirit Person – This might be the aspect of Jesus’ life that was at once most impactful in his time and most foreign to our modern experience. Suffice to say for our purposes that Jesus was profoundly in touch with his spirituality, able to access that sacred dimension of reality most of us can barely catch a glimpse of on our best day. He had an amazing capacity for cultivating connection, for sharing on a visceral level another person’s joy and longing. And he could appreciate the sacred nature of that mutual experience in a way that made it accessible to others.  His spirituality was contagious, if you will. Sharing his attention had a way of helping a person feel worthy, comfortable with themselves, secure, optimistic about their prospects even when life seemed dingy, as it can sometimes for anyone.

I am scientifically minded, but I don’t think it’s out of the question that the effects of Jesus’ ministry – his leadership, his wisdom, his compassion – that the effects of those gifts might transcend space and time and remain available to us even now. When I consider who Jesus actually was, I get why we still sing hymns about the manger and the magi, the star and the shepherds. As when I recall my friend Evelyn, the more I live and mature, the more I understand what Jesus was about and the more I’m grateful for it, the more I’m changed by it. In the midst of a world as deeply cynical and jaded and bought and sold by rich and powerful as ever it has been, and still Jesus’ life and ministry and friendship inform me, and inspire me once again to celebrate his birth as an occasion of inestimable and eternal value, even 2000 years later and counting. So, hear this message which is as relevant and true today as it was for the shepherds in the fields keeping watch o’er their flocks by night. “Fear not. Fear not. Fear NOT: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Amen!