Roses in the Snow

Passage: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19; Mark 6:14-29
Date: December 20, 2009
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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Roses in the Snow

The Rev. Laurie Vischer
December 20, 2009, the Fourth Sunday of Advent       
In college, I spent the second semester of my junior year at a school in Sweden.  It was a good experience, but difficult. It was complicated for me, by the death of my best friend, in a car accident, just a few months before.  I arrived in Mullsjo, a small, tidy village in early January. The snowdrifts were tall, cold white walls around most everything.  The daylight was dim and scarce.  I was terribly lonely.  The combination of my grief, my homesickness and the darkness led me into depression, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

I also remember  the beginning of the thaw in April.  Wearing bulky winter clothes. The smell of wet wool, the numb chill of my toes in soggy boots.  I was trudging down the path around a lake, when I noticed something bright and colorful  in the snow.  I knelt closer to see: it was a tiny purple flower, in full blossom, partially uncovered in the snow.  I thought: it’s been there, but I just couldn’t see it!  When I saw the flower,  I could almost smell spring.  That blossom in the snow reminded me of hope and joy.  I didn’t actually feel hopeful, but at last, I could remember it.

The brightness of that blossom in the snow always comes to mind when we sing carols about Mary, the mother of Jesus.
“It came a flow’ret bright, amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night.”

Tomorrow is  the official winter solstice, the darkest day of the year.   And in this midwinter, some of us may be having difficulty  really seeing Christmas.  As we sing joyous Christmas carols, we are at the same time, haunted by problems that seem too big: climate change;  engagement in not one, but two, long wars;  homelessness;   struggles by our nation’s leaders to improve the economy, provide jobs and health car; the many who struggle with mental illness.   A recent article in the Oregonian suggested that as a state, we are more gloomy than ever.                                 

Maybe it isn’t the big world issues that get us down, but simply loneliness or insolation.  Or maybe the expectations that we have in this season.   We  may even experience Christmas as a list of demands to which we must be obedient: decorating,  providing gifts, sending cards, baking.  And on top of all of that, there is the expectation that we should be having fun!   All these things can be a source of joy.   But if we’re  doing them because someone (including ourselves) is expecting it, we may be resentful.  Slavish obedience to tradition can make us crabby.   Bah humbug!
This year, instead of handwriting Christmas cards, I’ve sent out email cards with photos and music.  One interesting difference between the paper mailing and email, is that I’ve gotten rapid, direct response back from many people.  The message of the card, along with the family photos said that I wished the receiver “Peace and Joy”.  One response was:  “Thanks.  But I have neither peace nor joy.”
Sometimes we can’t see the hope. Where do you  find Christmas?
(It came a flow’ret bright, amid the cold or winter, when half spent was the night.)
Did you notice from Luke’s Gospel, that as soon as the Angel departed from Mary, the first thing she did  to quickly travel to her cousin, Elizabeth?  The scripture doesn’t describe Mary’s state of mind, but we can fill in the blanks: (  wonder, joy, curiosity, terror.) What IS in the scripture is the reaction of Elizabeth and baby John, in -utero.  At the sound of Mary’s greeting, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps.  A leap of joy.  A leap of recognition.  This friendship of two women vibrates with joy, expectancy and power.  Mary sings her song of gladness.  And in her words, words which echo Hannah, from the Hebrew scriptures, Mary sings a vision of joy and justice.
Mary sings of the whole new order of things that God is creating all around us, one in which the hungry are filled with good things and the rich, who have unwisely filled up on so much that does not satisfy, are emptied so that they can have their real hungers met at last. Centuries later, in our cold and shadowed world, the song makes brightly  visible the dream God has for us still.

Writer Sarah Wheatley says that “We become hopeful when somebody tells the truth.  Truly connecting with another human being gives us joy.  The circumstances that create this connection don’t matter.  Even those who work side by side in the worst natural disaster or crisis recall that experience as memorable.  They are surprised to feel joy in the midst of tragedy, but they always do.. . . The cure for despair is not hope.  It’s discovering what we want to do about something we care about.”

In my experience, I’ve found that  relationship is where we are most likely to recognize God.  The friendship between Mary and Elizabeth reminds us that community is the way that we keep our hearts open to one another.  It is a place for “truth-speaking.”  Community is the place where we grow our faith in God and help one another listen for how God is still speaking in our lives; it's the place where we wait together for the promises of God to unfold in our lives.

The tender image of a delicate rose blooming in the cold of winter reminds us that human friendship begins in fragility.    In the conversation begun with the stranger.  In the bid for connection between partners.  In the tentative reaching out to a new friend.
God comes to us in the vulnerable form of an infant.   Whereas God the Creator can seem distant and unreachable, Jesus has nothing more to persuade us with than his love.  We are Christ’s not because of creating or making  us, but simply because Christ’s only power is love, and this love, without any weapons, is stronger than death itself.
I wonder: how many Marys and Elizabeths are sitting in the pews today?  How many Zechariahs and Josephs, waiting for an opportunity to connect more deeply with the people around them? How many of us are long to connect our stories with God’s story?Does it make a difference that we  listen for God's word in community rather than alone?

(It came a flow’ret bright amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night.)

One of the gifts of 2009 for me has been the opportunity to minister with the prayer team, the musicians and worship team to lead the monthly Taize service of healing and wholeness.  Every third Saturday of the month, this group of committed volunteers sets out candles and books, they gather to sing and play music and pray.  The number of people who attend the service is usually small, but the power of the gathered community is strong.

I can’t explain what happens, but praying together in a group is more potent than praying alone.  Last night at the healing service, during the time of silent prayer, I felt something in my own heart healing.  The harshness with which I was judging myself began to soften, and I had a deep sense of God holding me in love and laughter.  I believe it was because of the people gathered together, in the light of Christ, that I was able to feel that joy and forgiveness.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote of Advent:  “This is an irrational season, when Love blooms bright and wild,   Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child.”
The beginning can be as simple as starting a conversation.  Building community begins with opening oneself  to another, and then really caring about what that person has to share. 

The Dishman Community Center, where I swim five days a week is a place where I find community.  Years ago, a friendly beginning to a conversation with a stranger has led to deep friendship with a man whose son is in prison.  We share books, concerns, hopes and daily tidbits.  I look at the world a bit differently, as a result of our friendship. 
Community is the way that we keep our hearts open to one another.  Community is where we help one another listen for how God is still speaking in our lives; it's the place where we wait together for the promises of God to unfold in our lives. Community is the way that we watch over one another, honor one another's experience, affirm one another's gifts, and hold each other up when we need it. It means that relationship  is the path we take to righting the wrongs of the world, to repairing the damage that's been done, to dreaming of a better way for all of God's children to live.   Everyday we have a choice: We can reach out to others in conversation and listening.  We can choose, every day, to reach out in friendship.  With Mary and Elizabeth in our hearts, with the invitation to community before us, I close with this poem by Ben Okri, of Nigeria:
    Mental Fight,
What will we choose?
Will we allow ourselves to descend
Into universal chaos and darkness?
A world without hope, without wholeness
Without moorings, without light. . .

Or will we allow ourselves merely to drift
Into an era of more of the same
An era drained of significance, without shame,
without wonder or excitement,
Just the same low-grade entertainment. . .

In which we drift
In which we drift along
Too bored and too passive to care
About what strange realities rear
their heads in our days and nights,
Till we awake too late to the death of our rights.
Too late to do anything
Too late for thinking
About what we have allowed
to take over our lives. . .
    Or might we choose to make
This time a waking-up event
A moment of world empowerment?
To pledge in private, to be more aware
More playful, more tolerant, and more fair
More responsible, more wild, more loving
Awake to our unsuspected powers, more amazing.
    We rise or fall by the choice we make
It all depends on the road we take
And the choice and the road each depend
On the light that we have, the light we bend. . .
    Lo, how a rose e’re blooming from tender stem hath sprung, of Jesse’s lineage coming as those of old have sung; it came a flow’ret  bright, amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night.