Everywhere we turn, we hear about how divided we are as a nation. During the confirmation hearings for judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, we learned how in years past the Senate often supported candidates for the Supreme Court regardless of who nominated them. The late Justice Antonin Scalia—a champion for the conservative side—received a vote of 98-0 in the Senate. His good friend and progressive icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed by a vote of 96-3. Justice-elect Brown was confirmed on a “bipartisan” vote of 53-47. Newscasters describe states as “red,” “blue,” or “purple” depending on our voting records. Racial disparities have become increasingly prominent in the wake of George Floyd’s murder nearly two years ago, as well as the sharp disparity of the impact of Covid-19 among wealthy and poor communities in our nation. Hate crimes have risen in our country recently, and in particular crimes based on ethnic, religious, and sexual identity. Friends, we are divided, and collectively we despise each other.
Nearly every year around Palm Sunday, I encounter rumblings about the structure of the liturgy. In particular, it’s about the gospel readings. We begin the morning taking palms and blessing them and hearing about the triumphal entry of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. A ruler with any clout, of course, would be riding in a chariot. The people lay their garments and palm branches before him, and they begin shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” For the grumblers, this part is fine. In fact, this is the preferred gospel of the day; it is “Palm Sunday” after all.
If you were alive in the late 80s, you likely recall the slogan on the backs of cars that emerged during that time. No, not the “Baby On Board” placards and all of their various caution sign iterations, but the bumper stickers with the phrase, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” It summed up in an instant the desire of the driver: to accumulate as much stuff as they could. It defined the capitalistic American good life, to achieve financial success so you could buy all that your heart desired and then some. Excess was the point, and, of course, keeping up with the Joneses and the Smiths and the McGillicuddys. If you had enough gadgets, your life would be meaningful. Besides achieving “winner” status when you died, you also left all that stuff for your kids to sort through and dispose of.
This past fall I listened to the audiobook of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. Set in the near future, the novel begins with a catastrophic heatwave centered in India due to the impact of climate change. Millions die as the power goes out and there is no place for anyone to cool off, with even lakes reaching temperatures of over 100°. Told from the perspectives of over a dozen characters, we follow the global race to combat the impact of the global warming, especially harsh on those who live in developing countries. The Ministry for the Future is a UN created entity established after the Paris Climate Accord focused on creating policies and implementing changes in the best interests of the humans who will live after us even while that means imposing strict guidelines now. It’s a sweeping epic that is perilously close to non-fiction, and it should be a wake up call for us when it comes to the environmental crisis.
Word about Jesus has spread so much that large crowds now gather to hear him teach. Luke tells us that there are so many of them there along the Lake of Gennesaret, that they are pushing Jesus closer and closer to the water. Finally, he gets into one of the boats docked there, the one belonging to Simon Peter, and he asked him to put it out a bit into the water. Peter obliges, and Jesus continues to teach the crowd from the boat.
Jesus is at his hometown preaching in the local synagogue. These are the people who remember him when he was just a kid, running around the neighborhood and playing soccer on the local pitch. But now he’s back as an up and coming rabbi. Word had also gotten around about the healings he had done in neighboring villages. You can feel their anticipation as Jesus took the scroll from the Prophet Isaiah and began reading from it. We didn’t hear that part today—it was last week’s gospel lesson—so I want to remind you of what he read.
The narrative of the book of Nehemiah focuses on the return of the Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem in order to rebuild their city and to fully restore their worship of the living God. They found the fortress in ruins, and had an extensive amount of work to do. But the ones who returned had faced hardship before. They had lived in exile, under the tyranny of a king who didn’t understand them or their history. They needed to learn a new language, how to cook with new foods. They didn’t have the anchor of the temple for their faith. They only had their memories.
At the beginning of our year long Confirmation program, I ask confirmands and their mentors to think about their baptisms. With rare exception, none of them were old enough to recall any details of that day. They’ll have seen the pictures, of course. They might know if they slept through it all, our screamed their heads off. They likely know who was there—beloved relatives and godparents. I ask them to think about how they might tell the story of their baptisms if they were reporting it. And then we hear some of those stories. Like the gowns that have been passed down, or how they got baptized with a sibling, or how it took place at the Easter Vigil or on All Saints’ Day.
Melissa and I collect nativity scenes that we pull out each Advent. There’s the one I inherited from my parents with a handmade stable and hand-painted tall figurines. My aunt and uncle gave it to my parents over 40 years ago now. Melissa has one from the region of Provence in France with small figurines called “santons” which include local villagers along with the shepherds and magi as they come to worship the newborn king. We have a set originally crafted in Mexico that we found in a second hand shop in Quebec City. And there’s the one I bought in Tanzania after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro made primarily from sticks and corn husks. In addition to the ones with figurines, we have smaller items depicting scenes from the Christmas story, including this small one created from wooden puzzle pieces that Noah will put up on the screen. We got it from a fair trade shop in Boston.
In the traditional stories of the Nativity, Matthew and Luke give vivid description of Jesus’ birth. We are told how Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem, and there was no room for them in the Inn. We hear of angels coming to sing to the shepherds with God’s glory shining bright, and the shepherds finding the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. We learn of the star that appeared in the night sky signifying Jesus’ birth and how the magi traveled great distances over the course of two years all the way to Bethlehem to worship the young king. In these narratives, images of light play important roles.