December 24, 2019
Becoming stonecatchers – J. Barry Vaughn – Christmas Eve – Dec. 24, 2019
Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote a short story about an artist, George Smith, who, while walking on a beach in the south of France came across an old man drawing in the sand. The man is heavy set, wearing only a pair of shorts, and is mostly bald, except for a narrow fringe of white hair around his head. Sounds a little like me!
Suddenly, George realizes that the old man is the famous painter Pablo Picasso, and the drawing in the sand is a masterpiece that no one else will ever see, so George dashes to his hotel room to get his camera. When he returns to the beach, however, the tide has washed away Picasso’s masterpiece in the sand.
Bradbury’s story has always seemed to me to be a parable about human life in a universe without God. If there is no God, then our lives, our work, our deepest aspirations, are no more than a drawing in the sand, soon to be washed away by the tide.
If God is not real, then the universe is essentially meaningless. Nothing is eternal – certainly not human life. Even our greatest creations – the sculptures of Michelangelo, the paintings of Rembrandt, the symphonies of Beethoven – are all just drawings in the sand. Even our civilizations, our empires, our institutions are doomed to be washed away. Our scientific and technological achievements and our efforts to relieve human suffering are pointless. Good and bad, moral and immoral are meaningless terms.
BUT if God is real, if the psalmist was right when he said that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s kingdom (Psalm 89), then the universe has meaning, and our lives have meaning. The purpose of human life is to discover the meaning that God has woven into the fabric of the world.
So, then, how do we know? How do we know whether or not the universe is meaningful or meaningless? How do we know whether or not it is worthwhile to live a life devoted to goodness and truth or to give ourselves over to evil and lies?
The great Christian scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, seemed to believe that we can never be certain, so he proposed his famous wager. If God exists, and you live your life devoted only to selfishness and pleasure, then at the end of your life you will discover that you have made the wrong bet. But if God does not exist, and you live a life devoted to serving others, then you will lose nothing.
With respect to Pascal, I think that we can know a little more than that. We can know because God has sent us a message. God’s message is not drawn in the sand on a beach, soon to be washed away by the tide; God has sent us a message indelibly written in a human life.
God’s message to us was not written in the life of a conqueror or king; the message was not written in the discoveries of a scientist or the work of a great artist. God’s message came into the world in the most unexpected way – in the child of a poor couple who was born in a barn and placed in a feed trough, who never had children of his own, never traveled outside of his own land, and died when he was not much more than thirty years old.
The birth of Jesus was God’s way of saying, “I love you.” The love of God became incarnate in Jesus, that is to say, God’s love came to dwell in Jesus in a unique way.
Jesus was and is God’s way of saying, “I love you and nothing you do can ever make me love you less.”
God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth was God’s great YES to humankind; our crucifixion of Jesus was our great NO to God. But our NO can never overcome God’s YES.
But there was even more to God’s message than that. The Creator of the heavens and the earth, the God of sea and sky, the Almighty God who was from all eternity, took on the vulnerability of a human infant. God did not become an heir to fabulous wealth or the child of a mighty conqueror; God became the child of a poor couple – an unwed mother and a carpenter.
God became vulnerable to show us that there was nothing we could do that would alienate or estrange him from us. God endured our mocking, God endured our anger, God endured our betrayal, and God even endured our willingness to nail him to a cross.
God became vulnerable not only to show us that we could not drive away his love; he became vulnerable to give us the courage to be vulnerable to each other. God became weak and helpless to show us that we do not have to be strong and competent, that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness and God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom.
I have one more story to tell you: Not long after he finished Harvard Law School in 1985, Bryan Stevenson made the decision to move to Montgomery, Alabama, to represent death row inmates. One day as he was leaving the courthouse, Stevenson noticed a woman sitting on the stairs. He said that she “wore what my sister and I used to call a ‘church meeting hat.’” She gestured for him to come over, so he went and sat beside her.
It turned out that her grandson had been murdered fifteen years earlier. At the trial of her grandson’s killers, a woman she did not know came and sat beside her and let her lean on her shoulder. “She asked me if the boys who got sentenced were my children, and I told her no. I told her the boy they killed was my [grandson]…. I think she sat with me for almost two hours. For well over an hour, we didn’t neither one of us say a word. It felt good to finally have someone to lean on at that trial, and I’ve never forgotten that woman. I don’t know who she was, but she made a difference.” (Stevenson, Just Mercy)
She went on to tell Stevenson that “about a year later I started coming down here. I don’t really know why. I guess I just felt like maybe I could be someone, you know, that somebody hurting could lean on.”
Stevenson, who grew up attending an AME church in Delaware, told the woman that when he talked to church groups about his work, he would often talk about the story of the woman caught in adultery. When the crowd wanted to stone her, Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
“Our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused even Christians to hurl stones at people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion…. We have to be stonecatchers.”
God became incarnate in Jesus, became vulnerable in Jesus, so that he could catch the stones that people throw at others, and to show us how to be “stonecatchers,” too.
All of us have had stones thrown at us. People may have thrown stones at us because of the color of our skin, or because of our economic condition, or because we love someone of the same sex, and it is only human to want to pick up those stones and throw them right back at the people who threw them at us. More and more these days that is what we are told to do – to be angry at the people who are angry at us, to shout at the people who shout at us, to throw rocks and bricks and bottles who throw them at us.
But the message of Christmas is that God came to catch all those things that people throw at us – the anger, the harsh words, the bullets and knives and weapons. God came to be a stonecatcher, and to show us how to be stonecatchers, too.
Although the message of Christmas is written in the vulnerability of an infant born in a stable and placed in a manger, it is not a message that will be washed away with the tide and forgotten. It is more eternal than stars and galaxies and is founded on the justice of God. And although Jesus came to embrace our vulnerability and die on a cross, even the great rock of death was not mighty enough to hold him in the tomb. Jesus came to catch the stones that life throws at us and invites us to do the same for others.
Christmas… what words and images does Christmas conjure up for you?
For many of us Christmas means family. It is a time to spend time with mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters; a time of meals and feasting.
For others Christmas means music, a time to sing again the songs and carols of childhood or just to listen to your old CD of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It is a time to hear Handel’s Messiah or listen to Bing Crosby croon, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.”
For some, especially children, Christmas is about gifts. I started to say that Christmas is about a toy train set, but that definitely dates me. These days it’s more likely to be about video games, I guess.
What is your special Christmas word?
For me the word is VULNERABILITY. Vulnerability sums up for me the meaning and paradox of Christmas.
Christmas upends and inverts our expectations. In God’s presence we are profoundly vulnerable. God is almighty, eternal, omniscient, and omni-present. We are mortal, weak, finite, limited, constrained.
But when God wanted to make himself known in a profound and unmistakeable way, God did not come to us in power, did not write in fiery letters across the sky, did not blind us with flashes of lightning. Instead, God became vulnerable.
When God spoke to Mary, God did not overpower and overwhelm her, instead God asked permission to take up residence in Mary’s womb, and the universe held its breath as Mary thought about it and gave God permission.
When God was born in Bethlehem, the holy couple did not insist on being given the best room at Bethlehem’s equivalent of the Bellagio. Instead, they humbly accepted the innkeeper’s offer of the barn and the feed trough.
When the angels appeared to the shepherds, they did not invite them to attend a reception at a royal palace, they said, “Come to Bethlehem and see…” Bethlehem! Imagine that! A tiny, one camel town. If you blink, you miss it, and you’re already in Jericho.
So after Bethlehem, then what? Did Jesus grow into a mighty warrior, a great king, a wealthy potentate?