Keawalai Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
First Sunday After Christmas
Sunday, December 26, 2010
I received a Christmas card along with a letter from a kupuna or Hawaiian elder from one of our partner churches here on Maui. She was writing in response to the pastoral letter that I sent out, on behalf of our Board of Trustees, for our Ho‘okupu Makahiki or annual appeal in early November.
Many of you know that I have been preoccupied this year with thoughts about caterpillars and the amazing transformation they must undergo to become butterflies. Butterflies appeared as ornaments on our Christmas trees. We gave those away to the children who were with us last Sunday. They appeared as gifts on my shopping list this year and they appeared on the hula dresses of the little girls who danced at our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service on Friday.
I received letters from others about their thoughts about caterpillars and butterflies. But it is the letter that I received from one of our kupuna this past week that I want to share with you this morning.
“Aloha Kahu Alika. This morning I saw a caterpillar making its way across the parking lot (next to our church) to find the right little tree with a big leaf to transform itself into a beautiful butterfly and I thought about you and the message that was in your (recent letter).”
“Nowadays I try to look out for those humble little guys slithering across the pavement to find freedom, to gift themselves to the eyes of the beholder; amidst the dangers that may hamper their feat before they even have a chance to transform (themselves). It is very early in the morning that I see them as though (they are) racing to get to the other end of the pavement. The birds and chickens are still in the trees and the cars have not come yet. But they will, very soon.”
“I bend down and pick up (one of) God’s creation to take it where it is safe . . . and it will find that leaf to transform itself into that beautiful butterfly. Isn’t that incredibly fascinating?”
“We are as the caterpillar, hurrying away from the dangers of this earth to reach God before we get swallowed up by the evils of the world. Mahalo to Ke Akua for (God’s) wonderful love and grace and . . . for reminding (us) that God’s creatures and creation makes us humble – a beautiful message of creation that goes further than science. God is love.”
What makes her thoughts compelling to me is the way in which they reflect the profound joy that comes to us from our reading from The Book of Psalms. It is about the joy that was born on Christmas day in the life of an infant that transformed all of creation.
It would seem in the days before Christmas we become overwrought with what retired Bishop Martin G. Townsend of the Diocese of Easton in Springfield, West Virginia refers to as activities that are “more theatrical than worshipful.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 152) There are Christmas plays and Christmas parties and Christmas concerts and even Christmas services on Christmas Eve that are driven by our desire to be happy.
That desire permeates our festivities at home. We find it difficult to admit to ourselves that our desire to be happy leads us to an over-indulgence in material things – of too many toys and electronic gadgets under the Christmas tree and too much food on the table.
Our hearts, Bishop Townsend points out, “are in the right place, but we do have an exalted idea of what a few dollars can buy.” We have shopped, baked and overscheduled ourselves as though our own work makes Christmas happen. (Ibid.)
We have come to believe that Christmas is about “happy, well-fed crowds and lots of stuff, rather than a child in a drafty stable chased into exile by a brutal despot.” (Op. cit., page 154) In the days following his birth we learn in our reading from The Gospel According to Luke of the horrific order by Herod to kill every child two years and younger in Bethlehem. We learn of the perilous journey Joseph and Mary must take in their flight to Egypt and of the uncertainty of their return after Herod’s death.
Whatever complaints we may have about the commercialization of Christmas, we know that our celebration of Christmas is about transformation and change; that it is about a child whose birth and life, death and resurrection transformed the world.
So it is that “the psalmist calls on all of creation in heaven and earth to sing God’s praise. Angels and hosts, sun, moon, and stars are convened as the heavenly choir. From the earth they are joined by sea monsters, fire and hail, wind and wild animals, men and women, young and old.” The psalmist seems to be summoning God’s praises from everywhere in creation except the marketplace and the temple. (Ibid.)
God’s presence becomes known to us in creation itself – “in shining stars, snow and frost, young men and women, old and young” (Psalm 148:3, 8, 12) - and in the birth of a child. The psalmist summons us, not to be happy, but to be joyful and there is a difference.
So here we are the day after Christmas. As parents, some may be weary from the busyness of the season and wonder if our children are aware that in the birth of the Christ child, God has come to be with us. In many churches attendance is low on a day such as this but for some the sparseness of folk present is welcomed. There is a yearning for a bit of quiet and solitude.
It is said that monks of the seventh century living in Ireland had a practice of “listening for the heartbeat of God.” (Listening for the Heartbeat of God, J. Philip Newell, Paulist Press, New York, 1997, page 7) Bishop Townsend points out that it is not listening to the heartbeat, but listening for it, as though it is hidden in unexpected places and unexpected moments.
Where have we heard the heartbeat of God this Christmas? Was it heard in the rustle of gift wrap or in the laughter around the dinner table? Or might it have been heard in the grief of the loss of a loved one or in a newborn baby’s cry?
In 1967 Fred Pratt Green produced the text for the hymn, “O Christ, the Healer, We Have Come.” In it he writes about the physical ailments we endure and the conflicts that we must face throughout our lives. And then he writes that despite all of this, “in our hearts we would confess that wholeness is our deepest need.”
The heartbeat of God that came into the stable at Bethlehem is in each of us reminding us of God’s transforming presence in our lives and in our world. As we listen for the heartbeat of God, Psalm 148 invites us to join all creation in proclaiming the good news of great joy for to us is born on Christmas day “in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11) Today we join with the heavenly hosts, stars, mountains, animals, kings and men and women, young and old, caterpillars and butterflies in celebrating God’s transforming presence in the birth of the Child.
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