According to Luke’s gospel, it was all pretty spectacular. It doesn’t start out that way. Mary’s contractions begin before there is a suitable place for her baby to be born. She ends up birthing in some kind of an animal shed with Joseph as her midwife. Animal sheds don’t make great birthing rooms, and Joseph, maybe not the best midwife. And a feeding trough—not the kind of place you want to lay your newborn down. The story doesn’t start out spectacularly. But then, all heaven breaks loose with angels singing out in the fields and shepherds getting the birth announcement that God’s Messiah has arrived to bring peace on earth. The shepherds run off to Bethlehem, find this baby, and tell his exhausted parents all about their great angelic awakening. Then singing their own praise song, they go back to tend their flocks by night. And Mary is left to treasure and wonder and ponder what in the world is going on.
What next? Eight days after all these weird and wonder-full events, Mary swaddles her newborn to her body, and this little family travels five and a half miles to the Jerusalem temple for Jesus’ naming and circumcision, and for the rite of purification following birth. Like every other good Jewish couple, Mary and Joseph just do the next thing. They don’t come bursting into the Temple to tell the priests that the baby they bring is special, miraculously conceived, sung by the angels, God’s promised Messiah. Without thinking it over, by default, they just keep the laws and traditions of their faith.
Now you may doubt the details in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ Holy Spirit conception in Mary’s womb, and his cradle in a feeding trough, and the joyous outburst of angels to unsuspecting shepherds. Many do. But what is beyond doubt in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth story immediately followed by Mary and Joseph keeping the religious traditions, is that there will always be tension between the new thing that the Spirit of God is doing and our religious traditions.
Luke does not think that religious traditions and organized religion are bad things. Luke understands that if communities of people are going to open themselves together to the Spirit of God and give themselves over to God’s desires for them and for the world, there will be traditions. There will be regular practices of worship and service and fellowship and prayer, there will be truthful conversations and confession and assurance of God’s love, there will be people set apart to lead and organize the ministries and mission of the church, there will be committees and by-laws and meetings. Lots of meetings! But the whole organized religious thing goes off the rails when the community ceases to be open to the real presence and movement of God’s Spirit, and when the default position is to cling to traditions, beliefs, and practices that inhibit the ongoing, surprising, challenging ways that God is laboring to bring forth the new creation. God will never fit in our boxes. God is re-cycling our boxes.
This past week I visited with one of our long-time members who is home-bound. After a lovely, meandering conversation about his long, rich life, he asked, “Why didn’t the Church do the George Washington Dinner this year? This is a long tradition. We used to fill Bethany Hall for that dinner.” I’ve been waiting for someone to ask that!
I explained “well, there is a lot going on at the Church. We are using our energy to minister with the economically poor, and to help women who have experienced domestic violence get back on their feet, and to offer hospitality to groups who are supporting each other in recovery from addiction, and to welcome those struggling with mental illness, and to work for racial equality and justice, and to stand with and for LGBTQ persons who have been hurt and marginalized.” I could have gone on about how the Spirit is moving at Old Dutch, but I stopped and said “Given all of these commitments, we didn’t choose to give our energy to doing the George Washington Dinner. After a brief pause he said, “Well, I think the Church is finally doing what it should have been doing all along.”
This is the story that Luke is telling. What the Spirit of God is doing here and now will mess with our treasured, default traditions. We are always discerning. Always examining our ways of being and doing. Always asking— are we giving our energy, our time, our gifts, our money to the ministry that God is calling us to? The day will not come when we stop asking these questions. And we will never do away with the risk of responding to the Spirit. We will get it right and we will miss the mark. And the Spirit will be with us and she will keep doing what she does to bring life and light to us and to more and more people.
What I love about Luke’s way of telling Jesus’ story is that he shows us how things go when we stay open to the Spirit and just do the next thing, even though it feels rote, and mundane and unspectacular. Mary and Joseph move from the amazing testimony of some strange shepherds right off to the Temple to fulfill their religious duties. Their journey is up and down. From amazing to predictable, then back to amazing, as a Spirit-filled old man named Simeon arrives at the Temple just as they do, and takes their tiny son into his arms and pours out his praise to God for what will come of this baby’s life. You are never too old to dream God’s dreams and see God’s vision. In Jesus, Simeon and Anna foresee God pouring out saving love and light, not only on the Jewish people, but on Gentiles too. And they foresee that this outpouring will stir things up. Hearts and souls will be pierced in the struggle to discern God’s movement. Eight-day old Jesus is brought to be circumcised as tradition requires, but his life and ministry and the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles will call into question the need for circumcision and the need for Gentiles to follow Jewish purity laws. This community will be torn apart as they try to navigate the tension between the new thing the Spirit is doing and their loyalty to certain religious traditions.
What is true for the Church as a whole is also true for each of our lives. Each of us live in the tension between what the Spirit is doing and wants to do with us and our own default ways of responding to what happens in our lives. We have certain dispositions, patterns of responding we learned growing up, or adopted as adults. Some of these are good and some not so good. Think about it. What is your default position when someone gets on your last nerve, or when you feel anxious and afraid, or when you feel unseen and unheard? What is your default when someone hurts you, or criticizes you, or asks you to do something you don’t care to do?
As the calendar year turns to 2018, these are the questions we are invited to ponder anew. And we ponder these questions from within the story that God is telling about us. The words of assurance this morning from Galatians 4 tell us that story. We are not orphans. We are not left to struggle it out on our own. We are loved and claimed by God. We are given the Spirit of Jesus. Our not so helpful default ways of responding to life are taken up by the Spirit who labors to birth in us the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control.
And our life together as a community is shaped by our individual lives. Our growth in the Spirit is collective and individual. It happens through our worship, our fellowship, our service. It happens through our opening of ourselves to God, and neighbors, to strangers and friends, to new experiences that stretch and pierce our hearts. It isn’t all spectacular. Some of it is completely mundane. It is up and down. Sometimes amazing and sometimes simply a matter of doing the next thing. But the Spirit is in the mix. Always, always in the mix. Holding onto to us, laboring in us, so that we can let ourselves go into the next thing, the new thing that the Spirit is doing to birth more abundant life and love in each of us, and in our community, and through us in the world.