Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Christmas December 31, 2017

Based on Luke 2:22-40
It is the last day of 2017. It is almost a new year elsewhere. Some people probably insist it is still yesterday. Consciousness differs. It is also true that we started a new liturgical year just a month ago. The Jewish New Year started some months ago. The Chinese New Year is yet to come. In other words, how we mark time is mostly a social contract. Like stop signs, they do not mean anything in themselves and they only work as long as everybody goes along with the idea. Does that mean there is no such thing as “time”? Or no such thing as New Year’s Eve? If you think so, don’t try out your thesis in any public place tonight.

This reminds me of a philosophy joke about three baseball umpires and how they call balls and strikes. The first umpire says “I am a realist. I call em as they are.” The second one says, “I’m a subjectivist. I call em as I see em.” The third says “I’m with these times. I’m a post-modernist. They ain’t nothin until I call ’em.”

I often think of that joke when I consider how people deal with facts. When I meet people who respond so differently to reality than do I, my fascination runs from keen interest to utter horror. Think about it. If a full crew of committed post-modern umpires are hired to call our beloved Astro games in the next season, we all will rise up to throw the bums out. And we’ll support the use of independent means like cameras/aka witnesses and umpires/aka judges to maintain our convention of truth even if it goes against our subjective interests. We’ll reject post-modernity under the premise that there are such things as facts. Or so we’d like to think.

Yet we’ve seen how two different judges who reason under competing judicial philosophies do produce contrary judgements. Both will say they are right. Or two young lovers may encounter the same facts, but their different histories of emotional development will skew their understandings toward major conflict. Maybe one’s father will have been an abuser, and the other may have had no father figure present at all. Unable yet to see their own experiences in the broader spectrum of human experience, they insist on their own reality. Perception is their reality, after all, and they haven’t yet seen much. So conflict ensues. Conflict grows hotter the more the matter is important to both parties. Conflict is at it hottest when we believe all is up to us and our perspective, from baseball to the judiciary through personal relationships to statecraft, even finally to our relationship with God. In all these arenas we have proven again and again that we would rather be right than healthy.

If you saw, for example, the excellent documentary last week titled “The Saint and the Sultan,” you learned that, notwithstanding the pope’s own self-righteous emissary, Cardinal Pelagius, St. Francis made peace with the Egyptian Sultan Al-Maliki. Francis thereby enabled an end to the Crusades simply by practicing the gospel of peace with the Sultan’s imams and scholars. Francis did so, at great personal peril, by conversing with the Sultan and his religious leaders. Francis showed no self-interest and sought no converts. He simply sought to speak, to listen, and to speak again on the basis of what he had learned about his prayerful Muslim conversation partners.

Francis practiced what Sir John Templeton of our day called and nurtured as “humility theology.” Templeton recognized that when belief is authentic it does not hold on to itself out of ego needs. Ego, as Rick Rigsby calls it, is just an “anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity.” Humility theology, rather, simply and beautifully rests with confidence in the truth of that to which one witnesses. Humility theology is confident that God can defend God’s self, and that truth will be known as truth—if even by different names—when faiths guided by mutual respect engage each other for the benefit of the other.

I know I am speaking abstractly, and many of you may wonder if there is a point to come. The point, finally, is not at all abstract. It is deeply personal because the message of Christmas could not be more personal. Christmas marks the human becoming of Christ. This incarnation was not just a 33 year span of a pretend human among sinful humanity. It was the focus of God’s ongoing creation project to complete the humanization of humanity by en-fleshing into every human being!

Obviously, Christ is not finished.

Christ came and comes to us and takes up residence in us. He enables us with his divine power to open ourselves to him–“Behold, I stand at the door and knock!” We can thereby open our lives to peace and growing joy. Or we can go on as humanity has for so many conventional years. Rather than trust in him who is so close, we can insist on our perception of reality unengaged with others and never on behalf of others. We can hold on to the dulling delight of ego and then miss the best meant for all.

Enter Simeon and Anna. They had self-interest, sure, but not only, and they brought insight from the margins. Anna in her older age prayed at the temple day and night. She was tolerated and mostly ignored by the professional religious folk at the temple. Nurtured by her disciplined prayer life, she intuited God’s presence when the Holy Family entered. Old Simeon was similarly shaped by a long life of devotion and humility. When the Holy Spirit stirred in him, Simeon had no need to question what was real, notwithstanding what the professionals held as acceptable. Anna and Simeon were the uncalled for umpires, if you will, who spoke truth for the good of others and whose own selves were fulfilled with joy and peace in witnessing to what God had in store for all people. “Lord, now your servant may depart in peace!”

What they said then is true still. Christ is not a principle, but a person. He was born–crucified-and risen personally to you and me. Within us he has made home. And in others. In the old. The young. In those who speak and act differently, but still with grace and beauty and passion for justice and mercy. He frees from ego’s rage and guides us toward peace. Listen. Pray. See. Serve. The more you listen to and serve Christ in others, the more you will know his liveliness in you. And the better you will discern what is true. It can be so on your first day, as with the baptism now of Grace Parker Ford; as with your last day which becomes eternity, when you see God face to face.

Happy New Year! 

Duane Larson    Christ the King Lutheran Church  Houston, TX
December 31, 2017