I Take Offense

Advent 3C

Matthew 11: 1-15
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them :Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who take no offense at me.”

This is my most precious Christmas tree ornament. I have hung it on whatever Christmas tree I call mine for the last 47 years. I know, it doesn’t look all that precious. It’s plastic and one has to scratch one’s head to figure out what, if anything, it has to do with Christmas. Trust me, it has everything to do with Christmas.

When I was six my family had recently moved and my father’s new income was meager against my medical bills and the costs of the move. Barbie had just learned to bend her arms and legs, and every girl wanted “the new Barbie.” Every other girl already owned the old inflexible Barbie. I had neither. I knew that the new Barbie cost $13.95 and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it. That was a lot of money.

Schools back then had Christmas gift exchanges. After having my own children, I understand my mother was eager to see me come home that last day before Christmas vacation, eager to ask “So how was the Christmas party?” I held myself together all through the end of the school day and my walk home from school. I couldn’t wait to walk through the door….and close it. My mother was putting up the Christmas tree when I got there. I burst into tears when the inevitable question came. I had not even removed all the wrapping on my exchange gift when I shoved it into my mother’s hands. Barbie Doll purses. Barbie Doll purses for the Barbie I did not hope to own. My dear Mama, who was usually just doing the best she could in Parenting 101, got this one exactly right. Without missing a beat she opened the packaging and grabbed an ornament hanger and put it on the tree.

Let’s be clear, this story doesn’t have a magical ending where a Barbie doll materializes under the Christmas tree that year. I knew my parents didn’t have that kind of money, and I wasn’t under any illusions. I got my first “real Barbie” at age 41 when I told this story for the first time in a sermon. This isn’t a story about a Barbie doll. It’s a story about disappointment for which no easy remedy can be found. It’s a story about another parent and child who could not imagine that every girl in class would not have a Barbie doll. It’s a story about my mother, who understood disappointment and had enough of it herself. She could transform that moment in the blink of an eye because she had enough experience with disappointment to recognize it when she saw it and had transformed it before. She could transform that moment because she was on daily speaking terms with Hope. I’m not talking about the garden variety of wishful thinking that most people call Hope because it puts on a pretty dress. That couldn’t transform a maggot into a fly. This is the kind of Hope one gets on a first name basis with because one has lived for any time at all with the news that someone you love or are will die and has no hope. This is the kind of Hope one sees staring down the figurative barrel of a loaded gun. Maybe that’s figurative. Maybe that’s not.

I hang my Disappointment on the Christmas tree every year.

John the Baptist was disappointed. Jesus had not arrived with a winnowing fork in his hand, sifting out wheat from chaff and laying on the fuel for the Lake of Fire into which he was supposed to throw all the evildoers and the brood of vipers. John’s butt was in prison, where Herod would take him out now and then for some entertainment and intellectual stimulation. JB was disappointed that Jesus did not arrive with his Superhero cape flapping in the breeze and bail him out with all the rest of the do-betters and the brood of vipers. JB was disappointed in Jesus.

We know a lot about disappointment in this country right now because it is on every side. There is plenty of disappointment in which to swim or drown coming from both sides of the aisles–both on Capital Hill and in our churches. Some are disappointed in health care reform because we need it so badly for ourselves and our loved ones. Some are disappointed by healthcare reform because they said it wouldn’t work, and some of those give in to the temptation to gloat when it didn’t kick off in a stellarly successful manner. To me, that is like hoping for crop failure–because those farms put the food on my table too. Some remain steadfast and firm in disappointment over the ELCA social statement of 2009. Some remain steadfast and firm in disappointment because their congregations are slow to wrap their arms around these changes, as well as the decision to ordain women, the new hymnal that changes the melody, words or rhythm of one’s favorite hymn, the decision to call That Pastor over This Pastor, over the discovery that the Pastor they called to fix it all wasn’t able to fix a thing and there’s not a tow truck in sight. For some there is disappointment that people are not standing in line to come to church the way “We” do church (in whichever way that is.) For some there is disappointment in adult children who have chosen no church of their own, no baptism or Sunday School or confirmation for their children like we did for them.

A visit from Santa is not going to transform this disappointment.

Instead, Christ crawls out of the manger. You know, the one that used to be out front of the church but we finally had to bring inside because every year someone stole the baby Jesus and the police kept recovering it from where someone had left it as a prank? I can hear the calls from the police station: The baby Jesus is sitting over there at The Pilot Inn Bar and it’s closing time. Come and claim your baby Jesus, he’s down here at the emergency room where some nutcase went off her meds and thinks he’s her baby. Could you send someone over to the High School and see if this is your baby Jesus we just found at the Home team field goal? Pastor, could you come over to the court house lawn? We think your baby Jesus might be missing because someone just dumped all the baby Jesuses in town here in a pile. We have a doll here at the Harvester House that one of our residents might have taken from your Nativity Scene believing it to be Jesus. Can you come over and identify it for us?

Christ crawls out of the manger and up into the lap of that mother in some starving nation, that mother whose child cries without tears, without comfort, because there is no food and there is nothing that mother can do about it, except hold the Child and rock. Christ crawls out of the manger and joins the lines: the line for food at the dinner for the hungry, the line for a room at the homeless shelter, the line at Social Security waiting for benefits that will not come without a fight, the unemployment line, the line one stands in while preparing the speech explaining how life got so messed up that you have to stand in this line hoping to qualify for help. Christ crawls out of the manger and into places no child should be seen in: streetcorners where children are sold, in the demilitarized zones of the world where nations point nuclear weapons and biological weapons and God only Knows What at each other in readiness to defend or destroy (depends on which side your rhetoric lands) in the middle of gunfire in our schools, in our neighborhoods, heck, in our homes. Christ crawls out of the manger and checks in at the nearest rehab center where hope for a different life is rampant and certainty that it’s impossible lives in the bottom of every broken soul. Christ crawls out of the manger and checks himself in at the mental hospital, where he’s a helpful hallucination to some and the internalized Judge and Terror of every toxic preacher, parent and church out there for others. Christ crawls out of the manger and up into the lap of an old man who can’t remember ever holding a baby before, who cries like a baby when they tell him it’s time to go to his room and go to bed, who cries like an old woman when his family leaves and he can’t leave with them.

Christ crawls out of the manger and into every corner of disappointment in this world. Go tell John what you see. Go tell John that I understand how disappointed he must be, but his Hope was too small. He only wanted to punish the evil doers and the brood of vipers. I’m transforming them into people who don’t need to brood with the vipers. I’m transforming the hungry by feeding them the bread of life. I’m transforming the well fed by inviting them to feed the hungry. And get this: you think, in your disappointment, that you might as well curl up and die? Well, I’m raising you from the dead too. Wait. Does this offend you? God, yes. I am so ready to take offense at the injustices done against me. God, yes. I take offense getting lumped into the same crowd with all the undeserving, unwashed, cognitively impaired, minimum wage earning dead beats, and then it really gets me when I’m asked to stand in line with and behind them. Go tell John what your eyes see and your ears hear. And if you can find blessing being with that Christ child on the loose doing these things, with people he ought not being doing them with, in places no child belongs…well then, you are blessed.

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About Pastor Betsy Williams

I am a mom. And a wife. And a Friend. And a homeowner. And a dog ...uh....owner? Actually make that two dogs. Two kids. One husband. I'm an ELCA Lutheran pastor of a beautiful downtown church. I am the third senior pastor in a century, so my 10-12 years here may feel like an interim to some of the folks here. Recently I have had no spare time. In my spare time in the future, my imagination inhabits a novel I am writing, The Funeral Preacher. My primary blog is a personal reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary...mostly: "Not All Who Wander are Lost." A few years ago I was on a team of writers who produced a little book for Augsburg Fortress in the Washed and Welcome series called "Living the Promises." It's 101 ideas for helping parents and godparents nurture their children in the faith of their baptism. I am developing another blog, more about worship at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Newark, Ohio and including a summary of the past week's preaching. Otherwise, I imagine myself to be a musician, liturgical artist, cook in a five star restaurant where the patrons keep ordering chicken nuggets, but never a bottle washer. I know how to delegate and share.
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