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Christmas 2B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Every sermon I’ve written since 2005 is on the computer through which I’m speaking to you now. Yet there was no sermon for the second Sunday of Christmas—until now. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, I was embarrassing my kids on the dance floor at the YMCA of the Rockies. I couldn’t have imagined all the changes this year would bring, including the undoing of holiday traditions for my family.

My sister forwarded a list circulating on the internet of twelve things to ponder for the New Year. Number one flatly states, “The dumbest thing I ever bought was a 2020 planner.” Number five, “This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat. It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came home & told my dog. We laughed a lot.” I could relate to that one.

Perhaps it is always true. None of us can predict the future, but it feels more-true now. In the wake of an unpredictable year, on this, the 10th Day of Christmas, just when we thought we couldn’t be surprised any more by surprises, our scriptures bring us Sophia, the power of God in the form of Woman-Wisdom who, scriptures say dwells in all creation.

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet she sings out from the appointed readings for today. At the opening of John’s gospel Jesus is identified with the Woman-Wisdom of Sophia. Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek. According to Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Jesus is Sophia incarnate.” It is a transgender moment in God’s story. The Wisdom of God took on flesh and became the Word of God. Jesus the Word is Wisdom the woman. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

You may not have heard of Sophia. Yet the Wisdom of Solomon retells the story of the Exodus as Sophia’s doing. She is the one who delivered God’s people from a nation of oppressors (10:15). She sheltered them with a cloud and guided them with a pillar of fire. The exodus from slavery was the work of Sophia, who led the people through the sea and into freedom. In Ephesians 1, Jesus incarnates Sophia’s liberation in the church: Christ is our “redemption,” our deliverance in his/her sharing with us of “wisdom” (verses 7-8). Christ is the Sophia of God, calling us into her work of liberation.

The book of Sirach, which is one of the optional readings appointed for today, instructs us that Woman-Wisdom is like the mist, covering the earth with God’s presence. She lives in the clouds, the pillars of the sky. She rides the waves of the sea. She has a tent in Jerusalem, where she lives with God’s people.
Woman-Wisdom featured prominently in the writings of the ancient desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century. They lived in a time of even greater uncertainty and upheaval than our own. They fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. They cared less about Christian doctrine and more about living the mystery of the Christian life. (A Coptic monastery from that period North of Cairo, Egypt is one of the memorable and beautiful places I’ve ever visited. (photo)

You might consider choosing from among their wisdom “sayings,” as you think about New Year resolutions this week. I find them interesting and amusing: “Never stop starting over,” (Arsenios, 5th century). “Live intentionally, not aimlessly,” (St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th century). “Pray simply, not stupidly,” Abba Macarius. “Stay put,” Mother Syncletica (4th century). “Acknowledge my brokenness,” (St. Maximos the Confessor, 7th century). “Be ruthlessly realistic,” (St. Makarios of Egypt, 5th century). “Read the obituaries,” “At the moment of our death we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life” (St. Gregory of Sinai, 13th century). (“My New Year’s Resolutions” (From the Fourth Century) Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, 12/27/20)

Poet Kathleen Norris found a natural affinity with the desert wisdom of the fourth-century monastics: Like them, Norris “made a counter-cultural choice to live in what the rest of the world considers a barren waste;” her “idea of what makes a place beautiful had to change.”

Norris left New York City for the house built by her grandparents in an isolated town on the border between North and South Dakota. After years of estrangement from Christianity, it was on the Great Plains that Norris returned to that tradition, making a spiritual home there. Dakota is, Norris writes, “my spiritual geography, the place where I’ve wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance…writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it.” The great gift of Sophia is the discovery that the place we are standing now is holy ground.

Years ago, a book by Paulo Coelho called “The Alchemist,” made the top-seller lists. In it a recurring dream troubles Santiago, a young shepherd living in Spain. He has the dream every time he sleeps under a sycamore tree that grows out of the ruins of a church. In the dream, a child tells him to seek treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. We follow Santiago through a lifetime of adventure, stops and starts, diversions, and mysterious coincidences, until finally he arrives at a certain Coptic monastery in Northern Egypt, and finally at the foot of the Pyramids. There, he doesn’t find any treasure, instead, he is beaten up by thieves who try to rob him. They let Santiago go after they realize he doesn’t have anything of value. To prove to him what a fool he is one of the thieves tells Santiago about his own worthless of dreams of treasure buried in an abandoned church in Spain where a sycamore tree grows—the very same church where Santiago’s journey began. He returns to Spain to find a chest of jewels and gold buried under the tree and returns with it to build a home in a place called Al-Fayoum, where he reunites with Fatima, whom he loved and who awaits him.

As we embark together on a new year, Sophia reminds us the fullness of the presence of God dwells with us and walks with us starting in the all-too-familiar, loneliness, and uncertainty of our pandemic lives. Like Santiago, we find the treasure of God’s wisdom buried here in the place that we are, hidden within the current moment. Yet, perhaps, it is not in the possession of wisdom but in its pursuit that we find the adventure of our lives, acquire new skills, discover hidden talents, meet new people, and finally find ourselves at home. The Woman-Wisdom of God is revealed as we commit ourselves to the pursuit of God’s dream living our faith. All things are united in Christ, things in heaven and things on Earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Heaven and earth are united here in our frail bodies to be the body of Christ for the world. In all that is to come, and in whatever is to be. God with us – comes to be born again in us and through us, and Sophia joyfully claps her hands.

Christmas Day B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Have you opened gifts yet? I got off easy this Christmas. I installed a closet clothing rod in Joe’s room before he came home.

Other years, I’ve assembled a bicycle, a free-standing basketball hoop, and an outdoor playhouse. And, of course, many things from Ikea. There’s a storage unit in our home that shall go unspecified in which one the shelves is upside down.

Why do we do it? Why do we put up with the aggravation? Because without the assembly –it’s just a bunch of junk in a box.

You and I are sort of like that too. In John’s gospel today we learned that we are made for each other.

Old-timers will remember when we went from a green hymnal to a red one. Among the many changes the new red hymnal made was to substitute the word ‘Assembly’ where the old green book used the word ‘congregation.’

Assembly is required because we cannot worship alone. We must be gathered in order to consecrate Holy Communion. In the body of Christ, the hand cannot decide to move apart from the foot. The heart cannot survive without the head. We are knit together in mystical oneness with one another and with God by our baptism into Christ.

This is what has been so painful for Christian worship in this pandemic year. Christians may be forced to by circumstances to be apart but like two magnets we feel the constant pull to be together again. Like a thunderbolt we follow the path of least resistance in order to reach common ground. We must find connection any way we can even if it is only here in virtual space.

Can cyberspace become holy ground? We have all been living that question for the past ten months, haven’t we? I think we are learning—yes—that it can, especially when we are virtually gathered, like this morning, in real time even if not in actual space. As I understand it, this is the heart of the debate about when and whether it is ever appropriate to have online communion. The jury is still out on that one. The gears of church theology and liturgical practice grind slowly which makes our tradition trustworthy. For now, I am very glad it is possible for you to be here and that we are gathered –at the same time I am mindful of those who cannot reach this space because they can’t afford a computer, or good internet, or just can’t manage the technology.
In the beautiful stained-glass window over the altar at Immanuel we read the words:
God is with Us. It’s a beautiful statement of the incarnation. But what we often miss is the ‘us.’ Over the centuries, Christians have drawn the circle of who is included in the ‘us’ smaller and smaller until it includes only baptized Christians, or only Christians of a certain denomination, or only me and my family and hang the rest.

We have made the circle of inclusion small in other ways too. We take Jesus’ words to heart. ‘Each of you, beloved, is of more value than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:31) Yet where did we get the idea that God doesn’t care about all sparrows? We treat human life as if it were the only life that matters.

Then, drawing the circle smaller still, we create, participate, and help to sustain a culture that values some human beings more than others, as though what it means to truly be a child of God is to be white.

Out in the streets this year, we heard the call to ‘say their names.’ George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Philando Castile. It goes on and on. We say their names in order to humanize them. We shout their names to say to ourselves and to everyone that all lives do not matter until black lives do. But there are many in this country that we love today who prize whiteness over the U.S. constitution, or the balance of powers, or even more than democracy itself.

People of faith, people of the Christian faith, will gather in communities around the world this morning in the tens of millions who will not question how they may be excluding people of color, or non-human life, or people of different faith traditions. Somehow, they will listen again to the familiar stories of the birth of the Christ child and will feel themselves affirmed but not convicted.

Hear again, the gospel of John: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-4) The incarnation of grace did not become flesh in the little town of Bethlehem and no place else. But what has been revealed in Christ Jesus is the spirit of life and love that is in, with, and under all of creation—now beyond the stars, in every creature, reflected in every human heart.

For the incarnation to happen, assembly is required. It can be quite daunting to look the piles of pieces we have strewn about us and try to make something out of them. It’s like trying to furnish an entire apartment with furniture from Ikea. How do we restore broken relationships? How do we begin to repair the breach in our cities and our nation? How do we bring civility back to our civic life? How do we put together the human family? How do we restore balance between human life and all life? It feels overwhelming. It truly is too big for any one of us.

Like any project, we do it best if we begin with the instructions. We’re not in this alone. There is wisdom we can draw upon. We can learn from the hard-won experience and good counsel we find in each other. Most especially, we lean upon the grace of God. We pray. We meditate. We worship—so that our hearts and minds may be centered upon God as we set out to re-assemble the world.

Over the years, poets and mystics have described the miracle of the incarnation in many ways. One of my favorites is attributed to several people but may have originated with Blaise Pascal, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Another is handed down from Angelus Silesius and recently made famous by composer Ana Hernandez: “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth then God will once again become a child on earth.” For the incarnation, assembly is required. Yet it is not so much work that we must do, so much as it is something we are drawn into participation with. Love incarnate has come as a gift for you again this Christmas. Let it affirm you. Let it convict you. Let us join our hands, hearts, and voices and say Amen!