“Love’s Labour” - December 23, 2012 by Robin Wardlaw
Readings: (Micah 5:2–5; Luke 1:47–55); Psalm 80:1–7; Hebrews 10:5–10; Luke 1:39–55
Christmas draws near now. The feast of Christ. Advent draws to a close. Over the weeks, we have thought about what apocalypse really means–the revealing of that which was hidden. We have stopped to listen to John the Baptist calling for humility and a new beginning for the whole nation. We have explored the joyous nature of the waiting for love to rule, and the joyful qualities of that rule of love, when it breaks in to our world.
Now the focus is on Love itself. By now, most people have heard how fluky it is that is there is substance to the universe, matter, stars, planets, never mind life itself. A very slight irregularity in the rapid expansion of everything in the first few moments of what we call the universe meant that, eventually, things clumped together instead of dispersing in a vast fog of infinitely tiny particles of energy and matter. Amazing. We now suspect there have been, or are, other universes. Perhaps some of them went different ways. No clumping, no stars.
Then the chances of there being plants that could assemble chemicals, water and sunshine, and rise above the surface of the dirt, or creeping things that could evolve into flying things, to perch on plants and trees seem very, very slight. And here we are, creatures who can discover distant origins, investigate the workings of the brain itself, and rise to heights of self-expression and self-awareness.
We have that never ending tension within us as a species, between competing with each other, and cooperating. Its in our nature to share, apparently. Babies of ape families keep food to themselves. Human babies have an intrinsic tendency to share, even food. After many thousands of years of might is right in the larger human civilizations, it looks like we are capable of figuring out different ways of being together, better ways. We are testing different kinds of society to find those that allow for individual creativity while still ensuring that vulnerable people are not left out, left behind. This testing takes a long time, and it is not painless. The new challenge is to do this discovery, experimentation while going easy on the planet, still the only one we’ve got.
This is the long view of Love’s labour. A process of moving from the elemental to the complicated, from the unreflective to worshipful, from dog eat dog to gracious. It is possible to be very optimistic about the next hundred years, or thousand, based on all the innovations, all the breakthroughs happening day by day. It is possible to be very pessimistic, based on all the setbacks, all the roadblocks, all the breathtaking misuses of recently-acquired knowledge or techniques. The path forward is not a smooth one.
Here in church we think hard about where it’s all going. How Love is doing in the grand scheme of things. We remember those who have worked and struggled for a kin-dom to come on earth as it has in Love’s dream. We join with them in that holy labour. In this season, we reflect on another kind of labour, too, one that all mothers go through, all babies. The labour that brought forth one person who somehow embodied Love. It may not have happened that way the Gospels say. It probably didn’t. The Gospels are interested in building up a foundation that can explain how Love was so strongly present in this Jesus person from Nowheresville. Shepherds, angels, magi? Maybe.
A woman in labour? Definitely. Some woman, somewhere. Was this child conceived in love, or some other way? We’ll never know for sure. From our vantage point, looking back at how Love has flourished because of this one person, the story doesn’t depend on miracles at birth. We’ll go on singing all the carols, and repeating the story in Christmas pageants for a long time, I suspect. But our faith is not born in a guest room in Bethlehem. It is born in a guest room in Jerusalem, an upper room, about thirty years later, where a wise and determined teacher reinterprets the freedom meal, the liberation dinner, the Passover. Luke uses the same word in Greek for those two rooms, kataluma.
Is love’s labour lost suddenly after that transformed and transforming meal? The feast is barely over before the teacher is up on trumped up charges before the authorities. A day later, a body is broken like a loaf of bread and blood is dripping like wine from an overturned cup into the dry soil of the killing place. Nice try, Love. A for effort. A mother’s heart is broken, a movement shattered. And then Love shows its resilience. In Jerusalem, for instance, in the weeks that followed. In the American South and other places, where former slaves did not take the law into their own hands, but tried to move peacefully from slavery into citizenship. In Connecticut, where people whose children have been murdered extend sympathy to the family of the dead killer. All over Canada, where those whose treaties have been breached and dishonoured insist they will get change and justice through non-violent means. In your own life, where you have resisted the temptation to exact an eye for an eye.
Love labours in you and me. You know the struggle to do the loving thing. Sometimes it is a struggle even to know what is the loving thing to do, never mind do it. Love labours in places such as this, where people commit themselves to community, even when that can be so trying, so complicated, so heartbreaking.
This congregation is like a plant, starting with very basic ingredients to put up something that reaches for the sky. We are like a couple blessed with a child, nervous and excited about what that means to the world. In Advent, we celebrate potential. That’s Latin for the power to be. All the elements for changing the world are right here. The same way they were when all the other Christs entered the world. The Spirit doesn’t have to succeed every time. Love’s labour is not lost just because one attempt goes awry, or two, or most of them. Think of how powerful it is when the circumstances are just right.
There were other Marys and Elizabeths with amazing children plugged in to the story of liberation for their peers. Lots of them. Little girls and boys who were filled with what we call divinity. This time it worked. We’re still trying to figure out the full meaning of the first advent, the coming of the Christ in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. Then there’s the bigger job of aligning ourselves with the second advent, the one that is constantly erupting around us, giving us the challenge of recognizing redeeming love when we see it. Or hear it. Or feel it.