Ken Burton: Christmastide, 2001

Ken Burton 

Christmastide, 2001

This Sunday occupies a unique place in more than one calendar.

In our liturgical calendar, it is the only Sunday in Christmastide. Last Sunday was the final Sunday in Advent. Next Sunday will be the first in Epiphany. Since we do not share the sermonic word as part of our Seekers Christmas celebration, today is the only opportunity we have to speak of the rebirth of hope and the reappearance of light in our lives and in the world that is the essence of Christmas.

Yesterday at the men’s breakfast, David Lloyd reminded me that, in the medieval liturgical calendar, this Sunday was the Feast of Fools , The Feast of Fools was a time for the world to be turned upside down, when clergy ate sausages at the altar, the censer was filled with vile incense made from filthy old shoe soles, the litany included screeches and nonsense syllables, and hymns were sung from upside down hymnals. After the service, the clergy ran through town making indecent gestures. (The Feast of Fools did not include reorganizing chairs!) I will leave it to you and to Celebration Circle decide whether we are better off in 2001 without this particular feast day!

In the secular calendar, it is the last Sunday of 2001, a year which, in a very different sense, our national life has been turned upside down. We are engaged in the final corporate act of worship for our community at the end of a year that, for many of us, has been among the most difficult and painful in our experience. A foreign force has intentionally killed thousands of Americans and destroyed civilian and military assets on the mainland of the United States for the first time since the War of 1812, excluding the Pancho Villa raid in New Mexico. Our national response has been to go to war for the first time against an entity that is not a nation-state but a loose international alliance of "cells" . That leaves me, as a Steward of Seekers Church, committed to “ending all wars, public and private” in a morally and spiritually vexing position, on this, the last Sunday of 2001.

At Seekers, we remain in our almost-but-not-yet condition, with regard to Carroll Street. Here there is some parallel between our situation and Jesus’ teaching about the realm of God. Jesus taught that God’s realm was both present reality and future promise. Through Jesus’ life, we get glimpses of it, and yet it was and is a matter for the future, awaiting a fuller expression later. Therefore, it is with Seekers and Carroll Street. We have clear title to the building. We have done some of the demolition work ourselves, and we have plans and contracts in place to complete the renovation. Yet still to come, we will occupy the building, make it our headquarters and our home, and, most important, learn what it means to be the Body of Christ in Takoma/Takoma Park. Like Carroll Street, God’s realm and rule have already begun to be manifest in Seekers Church. Moreover, on this, the last Sunday of 2001, we look forward to its fuller embodiment next August in Takoma, God willing!

My life this year has included my engagement to Jane, the marriage of Johanna (my only daughter), and two periods, including the present time, when I have been without work or income. I have labored with my resistance to being a grandfather, a role into which I was thrust without input or consent from me. I continue to work with the meaning and function of call in my life. And I have watched while Jane struggled both with the cycles of bipolar disorder and the reality of American air power used against the country where, in the Sixties, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer. My year has also seen the end of a long and productive period of individual psychotherapy, and now my return, on the last Sunday of 2001, to this pulpit after an absence of more than four years.

Well, this is starting to sound like a “year in review” sermon; that is not my intention. What I do want to do is to highlight the pivotal time and place where we stand. The United States is not the same nation, nor Seekers Church the same Christian community, nor Ken Burton the same person that each was a year ago. This statement is more than a year-end cliché. It is a lived reality at the end of 2001.

What, then, is to be said against this backdrop by the people who affirm that Jesus of Nazareth, the babe of Bethlehem, is also the Risen Christ at work within us and within this changing, challenging and sometimes frightening world?

One consequence of our service schedule here at Seekers is that we do not read the lections for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. They are the same in every year of the lectionary cycle. For Christmas Eve, they include the affirmation from Isaiah 9 that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” The New Testament lection for Christmas Day is from the first chapter of John’s Gospel and includes the stunning affirmation that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The message of Christmas is primarily one of comfort and of hope, of light shining in darkness and darkness not overcoming it. It is not about the mindless denial of the reality of darkness. September 11 really did happen. The dead and missing in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in Somerset County, Pennsylvania really are gone. Each of the losses and sufferings and frustrations in our personal, family and community life are all too real. Indeed, as we move forward through the liturgical year, we will be challenged once again to explore the meaning for our lives of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. But today, at this moment, we can say with the prophet of Isaiah 63 that

“It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them.
In his love and pity,
he himself redeemed them,
lifted them up and carried them
throughout the days of old.”

(New Jerusalem Bible, Isaiah 63: 9b)

I must add, not only “throughout the days of old” but also in this day and this hour on all of our calendars and in each of the communities of which we are apart. The light does shine in the darkness, and the darkness does not, will not overcome it. We are the people who have walked in darkness. We are the people who have seen a great light.

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