Heirs To The Spirit, Heirs To Freedom

December 28, 2014
Luke 2:22-40; Galatians 4:4-7; Psalm 148

Good morning. Happy Christmas! ¡Feliz Navidad! Joyeaux Noël! Fröhe Weihnachten! Selamat Hari Natal! I would like to take about 30 seconds and have everyone greet those around them in the spirit of the season.

If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the little slideshows floating around, showing off your friends’ 2014 in review. Facebook asked me if I wanted to share my own. I shouted “No!” at the screen when it first appeared. First, it’s just not me; second, unlike most people who are posting these slideshows, I did not have a great 2014.

Almost a year ago, on 31 December 2013, I came out as bisexual as publically as I could on social media and my blog after slowly coming out to many friends and a few family members over the previous five years. A great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I breathed a sigh of relief, and while I knew things wouldn’t always be rainbows, sunshine, and bunnies, I had hope 2014 would be a good year. I was finally free to be myself, I could be open about being with my boyfriend, I had my health, I had the support of many friends, I had security with my two jobs. Things weren’t perfect, but they were definitely looking up.

But 2014 had other plans. I’m certain many of you here today feel the same way I do about 2014. Forgive me in advance, but I could probably sum up 2014 in one word, what my mother calls “the Mennonite swear word”.

In March we saw Boko Haram in Nigeria kidnap hundreds of girls, many of them belonging to the Nigerian Church of the Brethren; most are still missing, and Boko Haram continues to terrorize the region and decimate the Nigerian Brethren. One plane vanished into the Indian Ocean, while another was shot down over Ukraine. Tens of thousands of children continue to live in limbo along the southern U.S. border; they try to escape the violence of their own homes, only to be met with hostility and more violence in a land thought to be a place of refuge. LGBTQ people saw increased persecution in Russia and Uganda, while Iraqi and Syrian Christians were systematically wiped out and driven from their homes. Ebola returned this summer to wreak havoc in multiple countries in West Africa, prompting worldwide panic while thousands died. Many parts of Gaza were reduced to rubble in the name of fear. August saw Michael Brown killed by a police officer in Ferguson; John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Antonio Martin, and others quickly became victims of police brutality before the end of the year. Law enforcement has yet to be held accountable for systemic racism and violence, and the second half of 2014 made this painfully clear and public. December brought the publishing of the Senate’s “Torture Report”, confirming what many feared our country was doing for over a decade. The tenth anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami happened on Friday. Another plane disappeared in Southeast Asia yesterday.

In our own congregation, many of us suffered loss of parents, grandparents, other relatives, and friends. We even lost one of our own, Harold Confer, this year. We have had difficulties at work, lost jobs, seen broken relationships, illness and disease, and more. I myself saw the quick breakdown of a year-plus long relationship, a diagnosis that gave my maternal grandfather a year or so to live, and much depression over all that has happened in our world in the last year.

2014 has not been a kind year.

In the Luke passage this morning, we see Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be presented, according to Jewish law. This young couple, certainly tired after much journeying and the birth of Jesus right after they arrive, were here to do their civic and religious duties. Despite all that had been told to them beforehand, they must’ve still seen themselves as ordinary and unimportant. They are just trying to make their own ways in a very cruel world without causing too much trouble.

Herod the Great was King of Judea, appointed and propped up by the Roman Empire. Herod had a terrible reputation, especially with his lavish spending and questionable adherence to his family’s adopted Judaism. There was much unrest amongst the people he ruled, especially among the Jews. Herod knew he was unpopular, and his mania and fear led him to build up a massive police presence around himself and in his kingdom. Protests were prohibited and opponents rounded up by force. His bodyguard numbered 2,000 soldiers.

We can already see parallels of police violence, separated by 2,000 years. We can see the oppression of the other, like that of LGBTQ people in many parts of the world today. We see religious violence, ignorance, and prejudice, like that demonstrated against Muslims in the West or Christians in Syria, Iraq, and Vietnam. Soon, Herod was to hear his reign may be threatened by the birth of a new king, and he targets a demographic purely out of fear, like young black men are targeted in this nation. The world Jesus was born into was not unlike ours, and his parents certainly must have felt helpless to change the status quo.

We may feel just as helpless. I hear the names Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Antonio Martin, and so many others, and I can’t help but think about names like Sam and DeGaulle. I hear the names Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, Tarika Wilson, Renisha McBride, and so many others, and I can’t help but think about names like Ella and Keziah. Black lives matter. Lives in our congregation matter. All lives matter.

“And the child’s mother and father were amazed at what was being said about him.” Mary is shocked when Simeon said, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many is Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce you own soul too.” Holy smokes, how do you expect a teenager, a woman in that time, to react to such words? She had been humiliated, a societal outcast because of her pregnancy. As a woman, she is basically property, and is only allowed in a small section of the temple in Jerusalem; she had to go through purification rituals before entering even that part. And then to top it all off, Anna the prophetess comes with her own words of blessing, praise, and redemption. Certainly not what Mary and Joseph were expecting when they woke up that morning.

On Christmas Day, I went to see the film Selma, which focuses on the months leading up to the Bloody Sunday events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. during that difficult time. This is a powerful film, an absolutely powerful film, that shows the women and men who were influential in Selma. There is a showing at 1:00 p.m. in Chinatown, so I understand if you need to leave early.

But seriously, we see the humanity of those struggling for freedom against an oppressive system, the diversity of those involved. Appearances from great black leaders and workers appear throughout the film, including Diane Nash, John Lewis, Mahalia Jackson, Annie Lee Cooper, Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin, and of course, Coretta Scott King. This film eerily echoes today in a way not imagined six months ago.

As I reread the Luke passage for today, I was caught by the story of Simeon. Simeon was a righteous man who had been told by the Holy Spirit he would see the Messiah before death. “[M]y eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” In some ways, Simeon reminds me of Cager Lee, who features in Selma. In the film, he is 82 and his grandson, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper after they violently broke up a protest one night. In the film, Jackson tells his grandfather that before this was all over, he would be able to vote. Jackson’s death was a catalyst for the march from Selma to Montgomery, and [SPOILER ALERT] at the end of the film, you learn Cager Lee, at the age of 84, was the first of his family to vote, fulfilling Jackson’s prophecy. Simeon and Cager are both blessed with a sense of freedom before death.

In Galatians 4, we are told “heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law.” Jesus’ birth has set us free and so we “are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God”.

Black lives, Native lives, Latino lives, Asian lives, LGBTQ lives, children’s lives, women’s lives. Lives of slavery, in the past and still today. The promise of freedom through Jesus’ birth and becoming heirs of God is good news, but it may not feel like it in the despair of evil that is happening in the world. We may still feel like slaves. We may still be slaves. But as our Anabaptist forbearers told us, we may be in this world, but we are not of it, and Galatians reminds us of this. Our lives matter, and Christmas shows the world the importance of life.

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple. What they were doing was the same as innumerable other parents had done and would do. But Simeon and Anna knew this was no ordinary child, and they were no longer living in an ordinary time. God sent the Spirit of thy Son into their hearts.

From that day forward, they did what the psalmist told them to do. “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise God in the heights! Praise God, all thy angels; praise God, all thy host!”

We are no longer slaves, but heirs of God. Let us remember that in the midst of all that has happened in 2014. Christmas, the birth of Jesus reminds us of the shalom of the extraordinary in the chaos of the ordinary. We don’t know what 2015 holds for us, yet we must “[P]raise the name of the Lord, for thy name alone is exalted; thy glory is above earth and heaven. Thou has raised up a horn for thy people, praise for all thy faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to thou. Praise the Lord!”

So say we all.