December 25, 2011
Scripture: John 1:1-14
Born of God
Rev. Leanne S. Walt preaching
The last time I was in church on Christmas Day was three years ago. I was serving as a ministerial intern at a congregation on the North Shore and the Senior Minister there decided to hold a worship service on Christmas morning, even though it didn’t fall on a Sunday. I remember the uproar when he presented this idea to the deacons: “No one will come,” they warned. “People should be with their families,” they reminded the pastor. And, worst of all, “We’ll have just attended a service the night before! That’s two services in just twenty-four hours!” They astutely pointed out.
“I will be here on Christmas morning,” the pastor calmly stated. “You can join me if you wish to and are able.”
The deacons were correct in their prediction. That first non-Sunday Christmas Day service attracted a startlingly low number of worshippers, especially for a congregation of more than 500 members. There were ten of us all together, musicians, ministers, student interns, and lay people combined. But, we listened to the preached Word and we sang together and prayed together and we gave thanks together. It was a beautiful morning, and one that I didn’t wish I had spent sleeping in or around the Christmas tree opening presents.
In some respects, I understand where the deacons were coming from. After all, it may seem as if the high point of this holy holiday has already been reached, culminating in last night’s reading of the nativity and singing of Silent Night by the delicate light of candles. Yet, it is precisely when all of the pomp and circumstance of Christmas is finished, when our shopping is complete, the tree put up and lights assembled, the gifts wrapped, cookies baked, and dinner prepared; then after the tree is taken down and lights disassembled, the gifts unwrapped, cookies distributed, and dinner eaten, when the real work of Christmas begins. As theologian and preacher Howard Thurman famously noted, it is,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
That the work of Christmas begins.
Gathering on this holy morning despite of and amidst the busyness of this day grounds us in the real work of Christmas:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To teach the nations,
To bring Christ to all,
To make music in the heart.
Faithful people of God, tried and true, on this Christmas morning would you join me in prayer…
* * * *
Surely you have experienced Christmases when there was someone missing at the table. I know for some of you it will be this year, whether you’ve lost a loved one to age, illness, or death or perhaps have a child deployed overseas. And, maybe if it was your nagging in-laws who were snowed in at home one year, it wasn’t such a sad occasion to be missing them around the Christmas table. Nowadays it seems that with our ever-expanding family, there is always someone missing at every holiday gathering.
My grandmother used to tell me the story of one such Christmas before I was born. It was 1977 and she was living alone in West Palm Beach, Florida. She was scheduled for cataract surgery several weeks before Christmas and was planning to fly to Boston to be with her daughters. There was a little kink in this plan when, during what is nowadays a routine surgery, the doctors mistakenly detached both of her retinas. When she awoke from the surgery, she remained in the dark. She was blind. Needless to say, she didn’t make it to the Christmas dinner table in Boston that year.
Instead, she spent that Christmas Eve at home on the couch. Around midnight, she turned on the television to hear the sounds of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Halleluiah Chorus. As she listened, she noticed that she could begin – ever so slightly - to make out the faces of the people in the choir. In her cloudy and heavily blurred vision, each beautiful face appeared soft and angelic. Their words rang in her heart:
The kingdom of this world,
is become the kingdom of our Lord,
and of his Christ and of his Christ.
And He shall reign for ever and ever.
Over a period of time that followed, she regained partial sight in her right eye.
Now, I don’t know if this story is "true" in the conventional sense of the word, like the story she used to tell me about how she could read the color of people’s auras when they walked into a room or how she taught herself to play the trumpet while balanced on her head in some crazy yoga position. But for my grandmother, this is how she remembered the story of the moment she regained her sight. On Christmas Eve 1977, when she was walking in the darkness God sent her a great light. Perhaps this is how she needed to remember the moment she regained her sight.
After all, as the storyteller Valerie Tuston, who was just here several weeks ago explained, the truth of a great story transcends what is true and meaningful to the storyteller and the audience. A great story tells us something about what is “truly true.”
In some ways, you could say that the prologue to John’s gospel tells us what’s truly true about the Christmas story.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all the people (John 1:1-4).
What’s truly true about the great story of mystery and intrigue that we journeyed through at last night’s service, the message the angel Gabriel delivers to Mary, Mary and Joseph’s journey (on foot!) from Nazareth to Bethlehem when she is nine months pregnant (which, I can assure you, I appreciate far more today than I did a year ago), the birth of the King of Israel in a lowly manger because there is no room at the inn, the angelic pronouncement to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night that unto them is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, and the visitation of the Shepherds by way of a single guiding star shining in the night sky ~ is the incarnation of God in the world in form of Jesus Christ.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14).
Based on the wondrous and awe-inspiring story tied to Jesus’ birth, we often think of the incarnation as occurring on Christmas morning, when God took the oh-so human form of a tiny baby wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a lowly manger. However, John’s gospel reminds us that the incarnation not only occurs in the person of Jesus, but in the light that Jesus brought into the world – the light that lives on and illuminates the world long after he has gone from it.
For some, this light is elusive and intangible but for others, like my grandmother, who have seen this light, it is as real and as close as their own breath. It is what is truly true about the Christmas story. Ancient philosopher and theologian Augustine interpreted this light in John’s prologue as a natural light, but Luther later rejects this and interprets it as the light of grace. I tend to agree with Luther in this. What is truly true in the Christmas story is the light of grace brought into the world through God-made-flesh among us. However it comes, however it manages to find us; in the love surrounding us at the Christmas dinner table, in a kind gesture from a friend, in a daily kiss goodbye, in the reversal of a devastating diagnosis, in looking into the eyes of the lowly, in giving of ourselves in service to those in need. However it comes, the light of grace seeps in to guide those who are walking in the darkness, grasping and grappling to find the light.
At times we are recipients of this light of grace, but at all times and in all places we are called to be its bearers. So we gather on Christmas Eve to relive the story, we sing, and we light our candles to stand as faithful witness to what’s truly true in this world – the light of grace, the light of Christ.
And now, on this great, divine, holy morning the real work of Christmas begins, to bring the light of grace, the light of Christ into the world:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To teach the nations,
To bring Christ to all,
To make music in the heart.
 Thurman, Howard, “The Work of Christmas”
 “Christ’s Titles of Honor; His coming: His Incarnation; and the Revelation of His Glory,” a sermon by Martin Luther from his Church Postil, 1521-1522, from The Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. I:171-223
December 18, 2011
Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
How Can It Be?
Rev. Leanne S. Walt preaching
There were no questions asked. There was no decision to be made. There was no choice set before her. The announcement came to Aimee Mullins early in her life, when she was not more than one year old. The decree went out from her doctors that this baby girl would need to have both of her legs amputated below the knee. For, although God had formed all of the delicate, innermost parts of her body and God had knit this child together in her mother’s womb, as the Psalmist writes, God had left out her fibula bones. “How can this be?” her parents asked, if not out loud, then surely within the silence of their hearts. But there was no decision to be made. There was no choice set before this infant child.
Aimee spent her childhood trying to make her difference invisible, trying to fit into normal in an effort to ease others’ discomfort with her disability. She says it was on the Jersey Shore where she first learned to run really fast, sprinting from her towel into the water as quickly as possible so as to minimize the amount of time the other beachgoers could catch a glimpse of her glaringly white and fake-looking prosthetic legs.
Her transformation came on Easter Sunday when she was in high school. She was so excited to wear a sleeveless safari dress that she had bought to wear for this special occasion, the first thing she had ever bought that wasn’t on sale. She had saved her paper route money for months to invest in this beautiful safari print dress that was, in the early 90s the pinnacle of teenage style, I’m sure. She put on the dress that morning and feeling utterly glamorous and sophisticated, she walked downstairs where her father was waiting to take her and her brothers to church. Her father took one look at her and said, “You have to change.”
“Why? What do you mean? This is my fabulous new safari print dress.”
“You can see the knee joint in your leg when you walk,” he told her, “It’s not appropriate.”
But Aimee refused to change. For the first time in her life, she defied her father. She refused to hide something about herself that was true. She refused to be embarrassed about something so that other people could feel more comfortable. And, her refusal got her very, very grounded.
This was a turning point for Aimee and several years later when she was a student at Georgetown University, she started to realize how she had been limiting herself just as much as others had been, she started to realize that she did have a choice after all. She started reaching out to engineers, wax museum designers, prosthetic Hollywood makeup artists, and sculptors in order to design and form prosthetic legs that would allow her to run track and field. She made the decision that she wanted to be the fastest woman in the world on prosthetic legs.
Through her work with these engineers and artists, Aimee received woven carbon fiber prosthetic legs that gave her cheetah-like speed and with those legs she ran track and field at Georgetown against others who had sets of legs that naturally attached to their bodies and with those legs she set three world records in the 1996 Paralympics.
In most artistic representations of the famous and revered scene of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel is kneeling at the feet of Mary, who is usually seated on some lavish throne and adorned in a spectacular blue cloak. In many of these images, Mary has a book in her hand or on her lap, as if when the angel came she was deeply engrossed in her studies. The angel is kneeling and extends an olive branch her way, awaiting Mary’s answer to his pronouncement that she is to become the mother of God. The time in between Gabriel’s appearance and Mary’s “yes” seems to stand still, as if the fate of the world hangs in the very space between this human and celestial creature.
Yet, these colorful, bold, and extravagant images make it easy to forget that the girl there in the picture is from a small village in Nazareth and has little experience of the world - with angels or men. And although historic memory and artistic rendering clothe her in blue, the most costly of all pigments in the ancient world, made from lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone signifying wealth and royalty, Mary quite assuredly was not wearing blue when Gabriel arrived. A poor girl from Nazareth, Mary would have been wearing brown, white, or black linen cloth, the color of the dry Palestinian landscape.
These artists have taken the liberty of painting the illusion of privilege and choice into the Annunciation when in reality there was no question asked. There was no choice set before Mary. Gabriel never asked this sheltered peasant girl if she would like to become the mother of God. He announced to her that she will conceive in her womb and bear a son, and that she will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and he will be the King of Israel forever. 
“How can this be?” Mary asks the angel.
To some extent, perhaps, we too, live our lives with the illusion of privilege and choice that images of the Annunciation convey, setting goals and laying out plans for ourselves, imagining that we are in control of our own destiny. While in the process of planning for our destiny, both the horrible and wonderful transpire. Unexpected announcements break into our lives, angels unawares, bearing news of job loss, sudden illness, early retirement, unplanned pregnancy, and amputated limbs. “How could this be?” We cry out to God, angry that we have had no say these matters.
And, yet, if we look to Mary at such times, we realize that held within these holy and unforeseen annunciations of our lives is a choice. Although Gabriel does not pose an explicit question to her, Mary does have a say in the matter – whether to embrace this new life forming inside of her or to protect herself against it. When God reached out to her, she answered in the affirmative, with a sort of hopeful abandon; she said yes to the journey of bearing God in the world. She possessed a crazy willingness to follow when she didn’t at all know the way.
Despite how out of control we may feel at times, we, too, have a choice in the matters of our lives. We can decide to become angry and bitter with our situation or we can decide to be active and willing participants in a plan that we didn’t choose, giving ourselves up to God in hopeful abandon.
It is at these times we pray as my grandmother has taught me, for the serenity or sometimes even the sanity:
to accept the things we cannot change;
courage to change the things we can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Several years ago, Aimee Mullins was at a street fair in Times Square, NYC when she felt a tug on the back of her shirt. She turned around in the vast sea of people that only Times Square can accommodate and she recognized the 7 year old girl standing there, whom she had met at a speaking engagement a year prior. She remembered that this little girl had been born with a brittle bone disease that made her left leg 7 centimeters shorter than her right. She wore a brace and orthopedic shoes, which got her by but she wanted to be able to do more with her body.
After hearing Aimee share her story, she went home and googled “prosthetic legs” (as 6 year olds can now do) and she discovered hundreds of options for her new leg causing her to make the startling pronouncement to her parents and to her doctors that she wanted to get rid of her bad leg and wear a prosthetic.
Six months later, on this busy summer day in Times Square, time stood still as Aimee observed this little girl in all of her glory – glowing and unmistakably proud - adorned in red sequined Mary Jane shoes and showing off a bright pink left leg that she had hand picked.
As medieval theologian Meister Eckhart suggested, perhaps we are all meant to be mothers of God, allowing God to transform us from virgins who are unable to bear God in the world into creative agents for whom with God, “nothing is impossible.”
 Stories based on a segment of Moth Radio Hour 404 with Aimee Mullins: www.prx.org
 Dupre, Judith Full of Grace: Mary in art, faith, and life (82)
 Taylor, Barbara Brown, from The Minister’s Annual Manual For Preaching and Worship Planning 2011-2012 (St. Cloud, MN: Logos Productions Inc. 2011) 181
 Meditations with Meister Eckhart, Matthew Fox, ed. and trans. (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company, Inc. 1983) 74, 81
December 11, 2011
Scripture: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Who Are You?
Rev. Leanne S. Walt preaching
I’ll never know the name of the woman who made it. It came to me by way of bus route 217, Quincy Center via Beale Street. A woman I know rides this route to work and back each day and has for fifteen years. It’s not a lonely ride, she has told me. She has a riding buddy, a friend whom she met some years back on bus 217 through an impromptu conversation shared over a pair of knitting needles and a ball of yarn. They have a lot in common, my friend and her riding buddy, they’re both in their mid-70s, they ride the same bus to work everyday, and they share a mutual love for knitting. They have a lot in common, my friend and her riding buddy, except that her riding buddy is blind.
When this woman who I know called me last week to tell me that she had heard the news of my expecting through her church in Wollaston, she told me that her riding buddy had knit my baby a blanket.
It came to me wrapped in a colorful gift bag, pinks and greens and blues and whites. When I reached inside and pulled out the blanket the intricate and careful handiwork of a knitting master was revealed. The touch and feel and concentration required for a person with no sight to create something so detailed and beautiful is inconceivable to me.
I’ll never know the name of the woman who made it. She wishes to remain anonymous to me. My friend assures me that her riding buddy finds joy in knitting and joy in giving her creations away, particularly at the occasion of new life being brought into the world.
I wondered if I could ever toil over something so carefully for so many hours and create something so magnificent and not demand to be recognized for my labor, for my effort, for my skill, for my gift.
* * * *
Several Christmas’ ago, my parents neighbor gave them a copy of a beautiful book entitled Churches, by a relative of theirs named Judith Dupré. The book is quite large and its cover opens right down the middle, as do the doors of most churches. Inside are breathtaking images and descriptions of hundreds of the world’s greatest architectural creations, from the Pantheon in Rome to Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square.
As I began flipping through the pages of this book, I noticed that the names of most of the architects and builders of these prodigious works are not known. Page after page I read, Builder: unknown, Builder: unknown. The Gothic cathedrals of Europe took hundreds of years to build and yet, in large part the hands and minds responsible for their magnificent existence are not known. For the men who devoted their lives to climbing scaffolding and laying stone at what would be the site of Reims Cathedral, Notre-Dame, Westminster Abbey, or the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, they would not live to see the completion of their own life’s work and their names would not be credited as having contributed to its creation. For them, it was enough to know that perhaps their grandchildren or even their grandchildren’s children might one day walk into and worship God in the awe-inspiring structure that their mind envisioned and hands constructed.
In the book, Judith Dupré recalls a legend that one of the builders of a great cathedral was carving a tiny bird inside a beam that would eventually be covered up by a roof and someone came along and asked him, “Why are you spending so much time building something that no one will ever see?”
And he responded, “Because God sees.”
* * * *
“Who are you?” is the question that the priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask John the Baptist when they hear his testimony of the coming of Christ.
Instead of answering in the affirmative, John responds, “I am not the Messiah.”
Still confused, these men ask him, “Who, then, are you Elijah?”
“I am not.” John answers.
They continue to question him, “Are you the prophet?”
“Who are you?” They ask him again.
John skirts their question and begins reciting a verse from the book of Isaiah,
“I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness,
Make straight the way of the Lord.”
These religious authorities want him to say who he is, but all he will say is who he is not, all he will do is quote some long ago prophet, all he will do is tell of the one who is coming far greater than he, all he will do is point to Jesus.
From 1921 until his death in 1968, Karl Barth kept a copy of Matthias Grunewald’s painting “The Crucifixion” hanging above his desk where he produced some of the greatest theological writings of the twentieth century, including Church Dogmatics and The Epistle to the Romans. In fact, to this day, a reproduction of Grunewald’s medieval masterpiece is kept over Barth’s desk where it is displayed on the main floor of the Barbour Library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
The painting portrays a dark scene at the center of which is Jesus on the cross, his head, wrapped in a crown of thorns droops low, his bleeding hands and feet nailed to the cross. To the right of Jesus is his mother Mary, and with her Mary Magdalene. To his left is John the Baptist with a long brown beard and wrapped in red cloth. Of all that is depicted in this image, Barth’s interest was always with the figure of John. John whose arm, bent at the elbow, protrudes from his cloak and whose index finger is distinctly pointing toward the bleeding wound on Jesus’ side.
In Church Dogmatics Barth writes, “Could anyone point away from himself more impressively and completely?” (p.112). For Barth, this image was the visual expression of his faith and theology, a constant reminder that our life and our work is not in and of itself righteous, worthy, or credible. Our labors, our efforts, our skills, our gifts should be used to point toward God rather than to inflate our own sense of pride or self-importance. John exemplified such witness to Christ, devoting his life to pointing toward Christ.
As the gospel story goes, John the Baptist was arrested just as Jesus was beginning his ministry and ultimately beheaded so that his head could be served on a platter before King Herod’s wife. John the Baptist gave his life to building something that he would never see completed. Taking no credit for himself in the construction of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but offering all the glory to Jesus.
Of all the lessons we can learn from John in this season of advent where he is so readily visible in the scriptures, how to serve as such a witness to Christ on this earth may be among the greatest. Utterly selfless, humble, and sincere.
For all of those times you’ve felt unappreciated, invisible, taken for granted - for those things that you have done for which you will never be thanked, for those of your works that will never be credited to you, for those creations made by your hands that will never bare your name - whether they be simple gestures of kindness toward a friend, care toward a child or grandchild, fixing something broken in this old, sacred building, knitting a prayer shawl, or giving a gift to a child in need at Christmas, rest assured that God has seen. And, rest assured that God revels in the fact that you have not done these things for the sake of your own glory or satisfaction but as witness to God’s kingdom on earth.
 Dupré, Judith, Churches (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001) 32-33
 Davidson, James E., “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” in Panorama, vol. XLV, no.3 , Spring 2006