"How Routines Can Change Meaning"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 12/19/1999

Luke 1:47-55; Luke 1:39-45


     The many themes of Christmas have been verbally explored by thousands of people for thousands of years. We might even wonder to ourselves if there are any new ideas that remain unexplored. The answer is "probably not," at least with respect to the Scriptural references and their contribution to the heritage of our faith. Christmas is a season of routine themes that have been established for hundreds of years.

     Each year, our Christmas trees, manger scenes, and Boy Scout wreaths transform our homes. Each year our television screens expose us to the advertising blitz of such seasonable products as Chia Pets and Salad Shooters. Even The Washington Post changes its face. Rather than create a separate advertisement supplement like other department stores, the Hecht Company takes over the coveted A Section of the newspaper, relegating news events to the margins.

     But now and again, something occurs in the lives of a number of people that moves them well beyond the routines. Recently someone "broke into" one of our United Methodist Churches in Northern Virginia and left over $10,000 worth of toys. The church was given instructions to find a home for them. Church officials claim that no one knows who the mysterious donor was, but a local "Toys R Us" looks fairly suspicious.

     During one particular night last week in Harlem, someone mysteriously slipped $100 bills into the mailboxes of strangers. Entire neighborhoods awakened to the discovery. So far, no one has come forward to claim responsibility.

     What happens to us when something or someone causes us to rise above the routines of life? What has the power to transform an everyday occurrence into a unique experience that may alter the spirit by which we live? This morning we are going to examine this phenomenon.

     Recently Lois and I visited a long time friend of ours whose husband died not too long ago. What marks her as being different from many others is her awareness that her husband's life did not end when he left his body. In fact, she believes that his presence will remain with her until she is ready to move into other settings and relationships that will buffer her from and heal her sense of loss.

     To the uninitiated, such thinking is engaging in denial. After all when loved ones die, they are gone. We know the routines associated with death. We have a visitation and a memorial service. Eventually the casket is placed underground. Once our friends and family members resume their familiar living patterns, we continue working through a grieving and healing process. That is the routine, but there is an additional possibility. That possibility is that our loved one has not left us.

     As Lois and I sat in her living room, our friend told us about two experiences. Because of their unique timing, however, both of them have been extremely instrumental during her process of healing. Her husband died at 5:15 p.m. What made that time extraordinary was that a clock in her son's house stopped at that precise moment.

     One week later the clock started by itself and has kept perfect time ever since. She said, "That was him. He was saying, 'Okay, I have given all of you one week to grieve and now it is time for everyone to get back into living as usual. I am fine and I want you to understand that.'" As she was telling that story, she was laughing because she said, "That is something he would do."

     Then she relayed a second incident. She said, "The other morning I was getting ready for my day and I was telling him how unhappy I was with the timing of his leaving. We had lots of things we had yet to do. While I was complaining to him, the lights that surround my dressing table suddenly blinked on and off. The incident made me laugh as I continued to scold him for his departure. I guess the blinking lights was his way of telling me that he felt the same way."

     What has the power to take a routine experience and transform it into life-altering drama? Could such an awareness of her husband's presence have come had she understood that all that was left of him was buried in the cemetery? Would she have felt the freedom to communicate with him without also having a faith that reminded her that such a possibility existed?

     We are learning that we interpret life's events through a process that combines our faith, our beliefs, our expectations, our hopes and dreams. When we develop and fine-tune these attributes, we may never have to live another day that we consider boring or filled with emptiness. The power to interpret what we experience comes from our faith-awareness. It is like seeing through a pair of glasses for the first time. Today, Luke provided us with a snapshot of Elizabeth's ability to do this.

     In our Scripture lesson, Mary had decided to spend three months with her cousin Elizabeth who lived in the hill country of Judea. Obviously, the story surrounding Mary's pregnancy had already spread to everyone in Zechariah's household. We know this because of Elizabeth's response.

     Listen closely to the interpretation that Elizabeth gave to an occurrence many pregnant women experience. The key verses read as follows, "Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and said in a loud voice, 'You are the most blessed of all women, and blessed is the child you will bear! Why should this great thing happen to me, that my Lord's mother comes to visit me? For as soon as I heard your greeting, the baby within me jumped with gladness.'"

     Close to their due dates, many women feel their babies kicking and moving around in the womb. In this case, not only did the baby move, but Elizabeth assigned meaning to that movement, ". . . the baby within me jumped with gladness." Elizabeth's words revealed everything she brought to the experience of Mary's coming to live with her.

     What we believe about this process does not matter. The truth stands that what we bring to our life experiences can either bore us with routine or transform us. We can either see everyday occurrences or sense the awareness of God's presence. This is how the routines connected with Advent or with the death of a spouse can be dramatically transformed.

     The experience of Advent takes on a specific meaning for us because of our faith-awareness. For example, to a merchant who reveres sales' receipts, this is the season when people bury their logic as they spend their money. The more merchandise people buy, the more he smiles.

     To the person who has no belief in God there is a different experience. She may say "I love the colors, the sights and sounds. There is a very generous spirit everywhere. I, too, put money in the Salvation Army kettles. The trouble I have is with the religious beliefs that seemingly drive this once-a-year 'goodwill-to-all' frenzy."

     As for us, we are replaying through our observances, our singing of carols, and our exchanging of gifts, the ancient traditions surrounding the moment when God's love was revealed in a form humanity had never before anticipated. It is our faith-awareness that makes Advent and Christmas come alive for us. This faith-awareness has the power to change the way we experience everything.

     We may recall the time during Jesus' ministry when a throng of people crowded around him as he walked through their town. Jesus suddenly stopped and asked the crowd, "Who touched me?" The disciples were surprised by his question. One of them said, "Master, there are many people around you. How can you ask, 'Who touched me?'" A woman came forward who had been suffering with a physical condition for years. She knelt down before him and said, "It is I who touched the hem of your garment." Jesus said, "Your faith has healed you."

     There is nothing that can sharpen our vision any better than a refined point of view. Once there was a group of boys playing pick-up basketball in the driveway. During one of the rebounds, an elbow dislodged a contact lens of one of the players. The boys stopped their play as they began to look on the pavement for the lens.

     Since this was the home court of the one who lost the lens, the young man went into his house to tell his mother. In no time she came outside to help the boys find it. After 15-minutes, she found it. She moistened her index finger and lifted it from the pavement. The boys applauded her efforts.

     One of her son's friends said, "Mrs. Brown, we already looked in that area. How did you see it?" She said, "My vision may have been a bit sharper than yours. You were looking for a small, curved piece of clear plastic. I was looking for $250." What we bring to an experience will often determine what we see.

     Elizabeth said, "As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby within me jumped with gladness." Elizabeth's entire predisposition and perception were governed by her faith in what had taken place in Mary's life. Elizabeth did not need explanations. She felt privileged that Mary had come to spend three months with her. Besides, many people in Mary's home town would not understand the pregnancy of an unmarried woman, nor would they have enthusiastically embraced a story suggesting that somehow God was responsible.

     Throughout our lives, we must remember what God did in Bethlehem. God came in a form that communicated, "I love you." When we have this understanding, nothing else really matters. We have to grasp this truth on a very personal level, the only place where healing of our experiences can happen.

     Think of it! History was dramatically affected by common people, a carpenter and a young girl, who started an extraordinary family. Life was not easy for that family. The possibilities are great that Joseph died prematurely, leaving Mary with more than a half-dozen children to rear.

     Many times Mary may have cried while she prayed, "Oh God, I do not understand. Please heal my inability to see clearly." During certain periods of her life, Mary may have lost her faith and felt alone, particularly when later she found herself standing at the foot of a cross where her son hung dying. Yet Jesus would grow up to teach that God comes for such sheep who feel lost and alone. This is the message of Christmas. Such an interpretation can easily be missed because we think we see something else.

     Years ago Lois and I were Christmas shopping in the District's Woodward & Lothrop store. Being a typical bored male, I sat on a table near the women's clothing section where I had lost sight of Lois. Two women were passing me at the same time that I decided to hop off the table. The one woman panicked and screamed. Lots of people looked in our direction as she grew increasingly embarrassed. She said, "I saw you sitting there but I thought you were a mannequin. Then you moved."

     We have to remember as we look into that manger, that we are not merely looking at a baby. We are looking at how God was communicating through another form. When we follow him through our faith-awareness, Jesus will lead us out of our world and into his.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Our days have passed so quickly, O God, and we find ourselves seated in our church for the final days of our walk through Advent. We count every moment a blessing if our walk has helped us think more creatively, if our walk has helped our loving thoughts to seek expression, and if our walk has helped us recognize all the other angels in the flesh who are helping our world to become a brighter and more peaceful place to live. For here in this world, indeed, we are never apart from other beings of light.

     Thank you, God, for your faithfulness to us. Thank you for giving us Bethlehem, a scene that has helped many of us to understand how you reveal your nature. So often we want to focus on the issues that affected the lives of Mary and Joseph. We, too, are impacted by taxes, by trips that do not fit our schedules, by the number of places that have no room for us, and by the numbers of people who appear insensitive to our needs. You have taught us to turn aside from such images in order to see where you have given birth to love packaged in a form that could lead us and inspire us to develop lives that serve as a healing presence to others.

     Awaken us to turn aside from thoughts that do not serve us. Enable us to direct our attention to the gifts of hope, peace, love and joy that we can give away. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray. . .