Happy Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple! Or perhaps you know it as “Candlemas.” Maybe it’s the more secular incarnation of “Groundhog Day” that you remember best. Whatever you call it, this fact remains: it’s been exactly 40 days since Christmas.
A previously unpublished letter from the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Mahatma Gandhi was unearthed and released this week. Bonhoeffer is a noted 20th century theologian who arose to prominence as a member of the “Confessing Church” in Germany that took a vocal stand against Nazi principles, and the subjugation of the national church and many German Christians by Hitler’s movement. Bonhoeffer’s writings include The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together both centered on how to fully live into Christian community, something he felt the Church was not doing at that time. He believed the Church had not embraced the call of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as exemplified by the way they lived their lives. This newly published letter to Gandhi includes those sentiments.
I love mysteries. There’s a bit of insight into the hearts of conditions of people. There’s usually a neat and tidy beginning and end of the mystery, and there’s the mental challenge to engage in as well in trying to figure out “whodunit.” Mysteries always have witnesses. The ones who saw or heard something, or who were with a suspect prior to the central incident. The sleuth tries to solve the crime based on their reports, she or he tries to use the witnesses’ testimony to gain insight.
Here’s the honest truth: the people who chose the readings for this morning expect you all to be the faithful few who interrupt the euphoria of Christmas morning and presents and all of that to come spend time at church and really celebrate the reason for the season, as the bumper sticker puts it. (Frankly, I’m not sure if those who attach such sentiments to their cars actually make it out for a Christmas morning service themselves, but I digress and would rather try to be charitable since it is in fact Christmas Day.) I mean why else would we hear not only from John’s Prologue instead of the birth narrative from Luke but also the first few verses from the book of Hebrews? From that letter we heard: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” Let’s make no bones about it, we are decidedly theological today because someone figured you all could handle that on a Christmas morn.
In fourth grade, Mrs. Brandell assigned each student in our class a state report. We could choose any state we wanted as long as it wasn’t our home state of Michigan. I chose Alaska. At the time, two of my dad’s sisters and their husbands lived in our 49th State, and I suspected my research could be greatly enhanced by reaching out to them. My Aunt Eileen came through in a big way sending me a large packet in the mail. Mixed in with brochures and maps and details on the North Pole was a photo of the Northern Lights that she or my Uncle Tom had taken. I loved it immediately, the wispy green of the light hovering over some trees, and it’s a lifelong dream of mine to see the aurora borealis in person one day.
During my first years of ministry, I buried a dad of four teenaged sons who had succumbed to cancer. He was a longtime kids’ hockey coach, and a couple dozen boys from his teams showed up to the funeral wearing their jerseys, sitting in the front three pews. I heard eulogies about his love of sports and the way he helped those boys become fine young men. He was what some would call a “man’s man”—I’m not sure if the phrase was used on that day, but it was made clear to me given his popularity and the ease he had with the other men and boys in his life. He had been loved well, and had loved others too. Burying a 40-something who had engaged deeply in life and those around him is never easy.
I love to travel. To explore new places. To imagine sites I’d like to visit and what I’ll do there. Like sitting at an outdoor cafe drinking coffee with Melissa and watching people go by. Or climbing a peak and taking in an amazing view. Or finding my way into a hushed and darkened cathedral with candles flickering as I silently pray and allow the silence to flood over me. I want those moments to be transcendent, to touch my soul and bring me peace. To encounter healing from the much too busy frantic pace of my normal life. Just the anticipation of the experience brings tremendous joy and excitement. And it grows exponentially as we get nearer and nearer to our destination.
A week ago I concluded a backpacking retreat in the Paria Canyon with an organization called Renewal in the Wilderness. Ten of us spent six days hiking the Paria River in Utah and Arizona through a slot canyon, sleeping under the stars, and reflecting on deep questions of faith posed by our two leaders. A fellow pilgrim—a Professor in Church History—began our reflection time one morning before we began hiking with a poem from Wendell Berry. She had memorized the poem and recites it at the end of each class she has taught over the years. It’s titled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”
The parable we just read about prayer that Jesus tells can come down to a single phrase: Nevertheless, she persisted. Jesus sets it up by telling us there was a judge who really didn’t care what anyone thought of him, including God. He adjudicated as he saw fit, recognizing he was the powerful one and he could do as he pleased. And he did this in some complaint by a widow, deciding against her.
It’s been nearly 140 years since Mark Twain wrote the novel, The Prince and the Pauper, about the chance encounter of two young men on the street — one the future king of England and the other the beggar son of a thief. Edward, son of Henry VIII, and Tom Canty, the boy living a life of poverty look identical and even share the same birthday. They become fast friends, and the two decide to switch places for a time to see how the other lives. While they are pretending to be each other, King Henry dies and the court officials come to make Tom king. In the end, it all works out with Edward interrupting the near coronation of Tom, but Edward is changed. He becomes more merciful realizing how the justice system of his day was rigged against the poor after spending a stint in jail. The story that Twain wrote was meant to expose the stark inequality in class that existed in his day. He hoped that people would see those differences through his story, and begin to change in the way Edward did.