Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Not What She Was Expecting! (Advent Sermon 12/19/2010)

Not What She Was Expecting!

Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 19, 2010

Hymns:  “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”; “Deck the Hall”; “Prayer to Holy Wisdom” [tune:  Once in Royal David’s City]; special music: “Coventry Carol”; “Away in a Manger.”

Who’s Been Naughty and Nice: An Exchange of Appreciation

Last Saturday I finished my meeting in Boston and checked my flight status to come home.  Flight cancelled!  Rerouted for Sunday morning, and I would get to Sacramento after church.  Why had I booked a flight that went through Minneapolis!?!  The best that airline could get me for Saturday was a flight into San Francisco, about 100 miles away from my car, Sacramento’s airport parking lot.

So I bought a one-way ticket on Southwest airlines, which gave me a long layover in Denver.  Walking from gate to gate, I saw Santa Claus.  “Come get your picture taken with Santa,” I heard a marketing person call out…to me!  I steered clear of the scene and watched, thinking it was for kids.  “You’re next,” they said.  I stood next to Santa’s big chair, shook his white-gloved hand and grinned for the camera.  The payoff included a $20 airline discount, and an emailed copy of the picture.  But first they walked me through some new photo manipulation software and asked me to take a survey about it.  They showed me how you can take the smile from one picture of yourself and put it on another one if your smile and the rest of you are not all captured at once in a way that meets your expectations.  The survey asked:  “How likely are you to use this Microsoft version of [whatever]?”  I said, “Not likely.”  Not likely even to remember its name. Sorry to disappoint them.

It was a slow night for Santa, so before I left, I gave Santa Claus a minister’s report.  You know: the naughty and nice list.  I started with nice people in the church, so Santa would think I am nice.  I named the greeters and ushers, the musicians, the Book Store volunteers, the cooks, the babies in the nursery, the Sunday School teachers.  Who else do you think I included?  Name some out loud.  [Elicit names of people for a time.]  Yes, I mentioned all those and more.  Raise your hand if you did something good this past year, just one nice thing.  Okay, on the count of three, call our your names all at the same time.  1-2-3 Go!  Yes, I told Santa all your names.  I had so many people to praise from this church.  Now he was ready to hear the NAUGHTY list!  Unfortunately, my flight was announced, and I had to leave.  And that was that.

Sermon:  Not What She Was Expecting!

Here’s a story about the legendary Muslim preacher, teacher and trickster Nasreddin, a Sufi who lived in the Middle Ages. He is claimed by the peoples of three countries: Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.  One day Mullah Nasreddin was invited to deliver a sermon. When he got into the pulpit, he asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “No.”  He announced, “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about!” He left.

The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time, when he asked “Do you know what I am going to say?”, [GUESS WHAT the people said?] They replied “Yes.”  So Nasreddin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time!”  He left.

Now folks were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and invited the Mullah to speak the following week. Once again he asked: “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now, however, the people were prepared.  Half of them answered “Yes” while the other half replied “No.” So Nasreddin said “Let the half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t,” and he left.

This is a story about expectations.  Nasreddin wanted to know what they expected of him.  AND he didn’t want to fulfill their expectations.

Almost nobody has been a stranger to having our expectations disappointed.  Most have known frustration, rejection, failure, lack of follow-through, and the heartbreak of loss.  With the passage of time, we may learn that we had incorrect assumptions or that there was a failure of communication about what we expected of others or what others expected of us.  And with time, we get some healing.  In big ways and small, we have experienced the shock of unmet expectations.

This month, these days, are times of waiting and expectation.  People who study the weather, and those who celebrate earth-based spiritual traditions, mark this Tuesday as the Winter Solstice.  I’ve been waiting…for the days to start getting longer!  It will take some time to have enough extra daylight to notice it, but I get a new burst of hope at the Solstice.   In the calendar of the Christian tradition, today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, a season of waiting, reflection, hope and expectation.  The waiting-time of Advent ends on Christmas, and Advent songs look forward to that:  “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “People look east; Love the guest is on the way.”

The Virgin Mary’s waiting time ended on Christmas too.  She was waiting and expectant.  Literally, she was expecting.  The end of her waiting time—that is, the birth of Jesus— is what gave Christmas to the world in the first place.

Imagine her situation:  She is of the lowest possible rank and condition in ancient Palestine:  a teenage girl from a poor family at a time when children, females and poor people have no rights.  She is a Jew living under the military occupation of the Roman Empire.  Fortunately, she is engaged to a man who is a carpenter—good skills to have.  Before the marriage, though, she learns that she is pregnant.  The Angel Gabriel gives her the news, and explains that the baby will be the child not of Joseph, but of Almighty God.  Furthermore, she learns that he will be a teacher, a prophet, a leader for his people and for the world.

Whatever a poor Jewish girl living under military rule could think her life might look like, surely this fate is not what she was expecting.  Nor is her fiance expecting this news.  Given the strict culture there, Joseph could shame her in public for being pregnant, but he plans only to send her away quietly, because he’s a nice guy.

Angel Gabriel comes to the rescue:  “Don’t worry, Joseph, this baby will be the child of the Holy Spirit.  If you parent him, care for him, raise him, you will be doing a great service to your people and the whole wide world.”

Mary says yes, and Joseph says yes, to an unexpected role, yes to a future whose challenges are not yet clear.  When the baby comes due, they are out of town and on the road:  again, not what they expected.  The only place they can find to stay is a stable in Bethlehem, so Mary gives birth with the help of a few local women and some cows, goats, donkeys and other livestock.  I’m not sure what help the animals provide, but they are what she’s got.  Surely not what she expected.

Unfortunately, word gets out that Jesus is a special child, a Jewish messiah, a king-to-be. The Romans’ local ruler, Herod, is not happy about the competition, so he sends soldiers out to take the lives of all young male children.  Angel Gabriel does not protect these innocents, but he does help Joseph, Mary and the baby flee to Egypt.  As ordinary peasants in ancient Palestine, this adventure is not what they expected.

Other than all this drama, the Bible gives no details about the day-to-day struggles and stress that Mary might go through while caring for a baby–or the stress of any parent of any new child.

Two thousand years after Mary, a different woman found herself in the unexpected position of expecting.  In a book she entitled Operating Instructions, California author Anne Lamott writes about her experience as the recovering-alcoholic single mother of an infant.  It’s a funny book, and those who have cared for infants surely would nod their heads at wacky depictions of the new parent’s range of emotions. Lamott expresses her sense of inadequacy, of being overwhelmed and exhausted.  The colicky baby doesn’t sleep, but cries for three and four hours at a time.  His feedings, gas pains, poop, and pee rule her days and nights.  To one like me who’s not had a child, Lamott’s record of the baby’s first year is downright frightening!

Yet Anne Lamott is blessed by the help, care and attention of a circle of loyal friends, relatives, and the people from her church.  They’re all devoted to the child and to her.  In the ancient story of Mary, lots of people gather around.  Shepherds come to look and worship, leaving their own flocks untended.  Sorcerers, kings, astrologers—the ones known as the wise men—come from far away, guided by a star, and on bended knee they display the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  In the Bible, these gifts are literary symbols of the future life of this child, necessary to the story.  But for a new parent of a new baby, they are of no help at all.  No diapers, not a bag or two of groceries, not a covered dish for supper.  No crib or stroller or a mobile to hang above the baby bed, and no baby bed either.  Some cash would be nice too.

Lamott had not expected to get pregnant, but when she found out that she was going to be a single parent, she said “Yes,” not knowing what to expect.  Amid all the struggles, she was moved by the help from so many people and surprised by how much devotion she could feel toward another human being.  She writes about being filled with love, joy and faith just from looking at the baby as he sleept.  It was, she writes, “the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.  He was like moonlight.”

Lamott wrote the book to make sense of her experiences of the baby’s first year. She’s been a much-loved writer of novels and books about spirituality and her quirky and liberal form of Christian faith.  Last week she was inducted into our state’s Hall of Fame at the California Museum.  As a recovering alcoholic, her successful and blessed life is a world away from anything she could have expected 20 or 30 years ago.  If she wants to feel good about how things have turned out, however, she should not compare herself to the Virgin Mary, who’s a saint, a real saint.  For hundreds of years, icons and statues have held Mary in high esteem.  She’s a woman to worship, the female face of God.  She’s a mother-figure to ask for help, whatever gender, age, or stage of life a person is in.  She is known ‘round the world as the face of compassion for her baby, and for her son as a grown-up radical rabbi, and for the sufferings of the whole human family.  Not a role that she expected.

The stories of these two women tell me this:  We cannot be sure how our lives will evolve and change, cannot know what events, upsets, blessings or surprises lie in our future, or even in the next day.  We don’t know how we would rise to meet those challenges and experiences until they happen.  We can’t know how life will change, or what will emerge from our heart when it does.  Yet we can be sure that there is more beneath our surface than we are able to name and see right now.  There is more courage, wisdom and peace in us than we imagine.  That, for me, is a source of hope.

But practical questions remain for us in moments of pain over the unmet expectations in our lives.  In the face of failure or loss, how do we move forward?  When we fall flat on our backsides after the rug is yanked from under us, how do we begin?  Or, how can we trust the future when we’re holding on so hard to our expectations that our breathing is tight and shallow?  When our sense of possibility is weighted down, when we have no good idea coming to mind, how do we respond?

Two things that help me…  are sitting still and going for a walk.  Of course, these are opposite activities, but they both help me.

In sitting still, I return to the breath, and notice the presence of my body and how it feels.  This helps me begin to find the spirit that sustains me, and feel the ground that holds me up.  I can let myself experience my feelings of disappointment, but I need not run from them.  I breathe, maybe I cry, maybe pray.

Each of us can show kindness to our own feelings, just as we can show kindness toward another’s feelings without taking them on as an all-day burden.  Of course, sitting still with uncertainty, pain or anxiety can be hard, but we can start small, with brief times and then go longer.  It makes a difference.

Going for a walk helps me too.  It gives me time to reflect, to think through the nature of my expectations and the reason for my pain.  It gives me space to think of new possibilities.  As the seasons come and go, when walking regularly I notice that the structure of a neighborhood or the look of a local park stays the same over the year.  Yet there are subtle changes every month, every week, every day.  The scenes around me show that life changes, but the basic structure of life continues.  So it is with us:  our life changes, but our basic human identity continues.  These are my examples, of course, not my prescriptions.

Some folks go hiking as a solitary activity: I don’t go alone; I worry I’ll get lost.  Some go biking or swimming.  After such exertion they come away with a new outlook on the day, a fresh look at life.  Some seek out the help of a counselor, mentor, friend, spiritual director, or life coach.  Some find reassurance in books of wisdom or advice, some in art, music, and various crafts.

One of my colleagues in a recent sermon recommended this:  Watch your own life as if were a movie or a play.   Step up to the balcony and watch it from a distance.  Watch it unfold like a story.  Consider a wider, deeper, longer perspective on life.

In the story I told of Nasreddin, the Sufi preacher flouted the expectations of his congregation:   “The half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t!” Is this just wacky, or is there wisdom in it?  Perhaps Nasreddin wants them to turn to one another, and speak together.  Maybe he wants them to learn how to practice dialogue, and value it.  He wants them to listen to one another, and bear witness to one another.  Maybe he’s had enough of everybody sitting at his feet, waiting on his every word, and he wants them to look inside for the wisdom they can call upon.  He wants them to look to one another for the wisdom that they can share as a community.

The reason I think we are all here in this place, at worship services and other programs here, is that we seek help and support from a community.  We bear witness to our lives here, and others are witnesses to our lives, and the changes in life.

We make ourselves available for fellowship and friendship with others.

Of course, among our disappointments, among the unmet expectations of life are unwelcome afflictions:  pain and sickness, injuries, and loss of the mental or physical abilities we used to rely on every day.  In one another’s company we bear witness to these changes as well.  As expectations fall by the wayside, and new chapters open in our lives, we bear witness to the spirit that endures in each one of us.

Whether we get an unexpected sorrow, a pleasant surprise, or an intriguing hint of something newly emerging in our lives, we can be there for one another.  People here pretty much look like the same kind of individuals from week to week–and we are the same.  Yet we are changing too.

Those who come to know us will notice our changes and our growth. They can help us discern the newness emerging from our lives, from our spirits.  If we pay attention, we can watch ourselves, and one another, as we grow in spirit.

As new chapters open in our lives, we watch and wait, and we bear witness to the spirit that endures in each one of us.

As we watch and wait,  may the spirit grow in us and among us.  So may it be.  Blessed be.  Amen.

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