The Rev. Sarah Buteux
December 4, 2016
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots…The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid… No more will they hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)
I like to do church at night.
I like to do weddings in the rain.
I like to drive in the fog.
And I think sometimes the worst Christmases are really the best ones.
I like to do church at night because candles shine more brightly in the “close and holy darkness.” The darker it gets the brighter they burn. And as the light draws us in it also seems to draw us closer together. Do you feel it? I do. I like to do church at night.
I like to do weddings in the rain because it brings something out in people you don’t feel on a sunny day. When the weather’s lovely and everyone is gathered in their fine clothes and fancy shoes they are often as focused on themselves as they are on the bride and groom.
But if you’ve ever been in a tent under the rain or made your way to the church through drifts of snow or gathered in a hall with a storm raging outside, than you know how storms without have the power to create solidarity within.
Braving the weather to attend the wedding stands as immediate proof that the newlyweds have a strong and loyal community around them, friends and family who would walk through water to get to them. Folks tend to crowd in a little closer when it rains, forming a hedge around the bride and groom as the couple commits to shelter one another through the storms of life. Every word spoken, every symbol shared, every vow expressed resonates more fully when you do a wedding in the rain.
A wedding with perfect weather is lovely.
A wedding in the midst of a storm is holy.
I like to drive in the fog because it’s tense and everyone joins in. You need to turn off the radio when you drive in the fog – don’t you? – the better to see. That doesn’t make sense, but it’s true.
Everyone needs to get quiet when you drive in the fog. Everyone needs to watch from the front seat and the back. You need all eyes on the road; all eyes scanning the woods to the side and all ears listening right along with the driver for any signs of life or danger.
Driving in the fog is an act of communion. You breathe together, your hearts beat together, and you begin to will with one will together that the car will make it safely all the way home.
You know as well as I do that life isn’t always easy, that the weather doesn’t always cooperate, that the way isn’t always clear. And yet it is so often in those moments when circumstances threaten to overwhelm us that the light breaks through and we show up for each other in the ways that matter most.
That’s how I remember the best/worst Christmas of my youth. I was nine. Anyone here nine? I was your age, and my grandfather was dying a slow long death from Parkinson’s. For weeks his dying was like a cloud that hung over our entire family.
I remember long car rides and lots of tears, visits to and from the homes of relatives that were mostly quiet and always sad. But what I remember for certain is that it all culminated in December. There was no advent for us that year. No decorations. No carols. No lists for Santa. All the adults were too busy caring for my grandfather and making something they referred to as, “arrangements.”
He died within a week of Christmas and we had the funeral soon after. I remember that it was cold and it was quiet and it was the first time I read scripture out loud in church. I think my mom’s heart was too broken to hang decorations after that, and for my sisters and I, well…our little hearts were too full of fear and sadness to ask.
I remember wondering if Christmas might just skip us that year but then, on Christmas Eve, my uncle Matt and my uncle Chris turned up with a tree. They went and found boxes of lights and ornaments and I’m sure we decorated the tree together and then headed off to church.
But the truth is that I remember almost nothing about that Christmas beyond that moment when they appeared in our living room. I don’t remember the presents or anything that happened the next day.
All I remember is the overwhelming feeling that we had not been forgotten, that we were not alone, that there was enough love in my family to carry us forward even when some of us were too broken to carry anything at all.
These words from Isaiah that you heard as the Advent wreath was being lit, these words were words written for a broken people, a nation divided, a people who could not agree with one another or work together and eventually lost everything.
The tiny nation of Israel divided into a northern and southern kingdom. The North fell first, betrayed by their southern kindred into the hands of the Assyrians. But Assyria fell soon after, to Babylon, and the rest of Israel fell with it.
The trunk – their King – was cut down. The branches – his sons – were thrown into the fire. The temple was destroyed, Jerusalem reduced to rubble, and the people of Israel were carried away to serve as slaves in a strange land.
These words were written for a broken people.
Israel was reduced to a stump: a dead, lifeless reminder of something that had once thrived in the world, but lived no longer. The Jesse tree, the line of King David, was wiped out. And given how tiny Israel was in the scheme of things, and how thoroughly it was laid to waste, it really should have been wiped out too. But then Babylon fell to Persia, and against all odds a remnant of God’s people returned to their land and rebuilt.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
That shouldn’t be possible. A stump is a dead thing, a decaying thing, a thing with a past not a future. But over and over in our scriptures and in our lives, we as people of faith are reminded that no earthly power – not even death – has the last word when it comes to God. When all seems lost…that’s actually when things really start to get interesting.
And dear ones, this is a great comfort to me, as I hope it might be for those of you who also feel as though the wolf is at the door. I know some of you, many of you, maybe most of you are scared right now, and with good reason.
I’m scared too. There is a part of me that’s been really down these past few weeks… but there is also a part of me that’s been roused. That same part that loves to drive in the fog, do church in the dark, and weddings in the rain, is awake now and alert and ready to see how we might draw close to one another in the days ahead and be a force of resistance, a force for good in this world come what may.
First Churches, I am ready for the rubber to hit the road and see our faith become real in a whole new way. I am ready for all those stories of impossible possibilities that we read here in church, all those stories of God’s preferential option for the unlikely, of the meek inheriting the earth and the humble confounding the proud, stories of wolves and lambs, lions and kids, I am ready for those stories to take on an even deeper resonance than before.
It is time to double down on the belief that our God can make a way where there is no way…Amen?… knowing as we do that the way God does that is always through ordinary people like you and me.
How does God make peace? I’ll tell you how God makes peace. God makes peace through people like us. God feeds the poor through people like us. God welcomes the stranger through us, makes the world safer through us.
When we show up for each other, when we turn down the noise and keep watch with each other, when we light our candles and make room for each other: that is how God makes a way where there is no way, a way for the kingdom to come.
“Small acts with great love,” as Mother Teresa used to say.
Safety pins and casseroles and uncles with trees…
Small acts with great love… that remind us we are not alone.
That’s how Jesus came the first time around.
That’s how Jesus always comes.
How many of you will travel for the holidays? And how many of you will travel with children? And what are some of the questions you anticipate you will hear when traveling with children? “Are we there yet?” “How much farther?” “How much longer?”
Dear ones, those little voices are prophetic voices, because here is the thing:
We are still a long way from the peaceable kingdom. We are still a long way from the day when the little ones and the lost ones, the different ones and vulnerable ones, will be able to lie down in peace and confidence.
But every step towards God’s holy mountain gets us a little bit closer. Every step claims a little more ground for the kingdom of God. Every act of kindness and resistance makes a difference. So commit right now to do the good you can. Commit right now to be a light, however small, a shoot, however fragile, a co-conspirator, however young or old, for the kingdom of God. Because come hell or high water our God will make a way.
Let us pray for the courage to allow God to make that way through us. Would you bow your heads with me…
O God, when the night is long and the way is dark and it seems as though all hope is lost, rouse us. Remind us that this is our time, as your people, to step up and lean in. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, and grant us faith to stand in the gap, to guard one another, to carry each other onward. May we learn new ways to stand in solidarity with those who need the hope you bring and may we become your hands and your feet in this world in order that we might make that hope come alive for all.