Tuesday, December 25, 2007
A Sermon for Christmas Eve
Well, are you all excited? Or, are you all exhausted? I suspect, if you are like me, your are a combination of the two – your excitement about the anticipation of Christmas is carrying you over the happy exhaustion of tending to last minute details of this important celebration.
I had to chuckle yesterday as two young moms came to me after church. The place was a veritable hive of activity – some were putting together the swags of pine and holly in the parish hall as others were arranging the poinsettias. These two were just a little miffed. “Did you read the NY Times article about the decorations at St. Bart’s?” one asked. “Why do we have to wait so long before our church is decorated?”
“Yeah,” agreed the other. “I mean, it’s the FOURTH Sunday in Advent. Hello?” she huffed playfully, “I mean, what’s up with THAT?”
Someone else had asked me that which is the perennial question all Episcopal priests get asked this time of year, “We haven’t sung ONE Christmas carol yet! Why not? Everybody else is doing it – the malls, other Churches . . . why can’t we?”
I want to remind you that these were adults asking me these questions. Adults who are married with children. ‘Why do we have to wait?’ ‘Everyone else is doing it.’ The excitement and anticipation of Christmas is something that sweeps us all away, no matter how old we are.
I chucked because I recognized the same questions, the same child-like demands, in myself. Everyone always explains this as ‘getting into the Spirit of Christmas’, but the true spirit of Christmas requires a spiritual maturity that is not bound by time and age. It is also decidedly counter-cultural.
The story of Christmas is not about ‘things’ and ‘now’ – it is about ‘spirit’ and ‘eternity.’ That which draws us this night to the scene portrayed for us by St. Luke is about the gift of the peace of God which passes all human understanding.
Our Advent Series this year was “Something about Mary.” We looked at the ‘theotokos’, the God-bearer, the Mother of God as a way to learn more about Jesus. We looked at what the tradition of the church has had to say over the centuries about Mary – from the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant perspectives – and found as much controversy about Mary as have always surrounded ideas about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit.
It was in our study of the scriptures, however, that we came to some startling insights and revelations. What we know about Mary – as much as we can know anything about ‘facts’ from the stories that were not eyewitness accounts written 40 – 100 years after the fact – can be reduced to a single, short paragraph.
So, what’s the point, someone asked. Perhaps some of you are asking the same question. What’s the point of this story, none of which can be proven, which gets passed as ‘fact’?
What we discovered is this: If you believe nothing else about the story of Jesus – the stories about his birth and life, the stories of the miracles he performed, what he said in his sermons and the lessons he taught to his disciples, the stories of his crucifixion, death and resurrection – despite all of these things, if you do not believe that he was the Incarnation, the human embodiment of the Love of God which took on human flesh, then you can lay no claim to being a Christian.
Now, in this very post-modern culture, that makes you, at the very least, a very odd duck. A veritable fish out of the waters of our earth. Forget about the myth or the facts of scripture. If you believe that God loves us enough to have come among us to teach us to walk the pathway toward our salvation, then you have earned a place among the misfits of a culture and society which rejects anything which can not be weighed and measured, analyzed and proven, felt and touched, seen and heard with our own eyes.
I love to tell the story about Barbara – someone I want to be like when I grow up. She was going through a particularly difficult time, and needed the services of an attorney. Her attorney happened to be a very devoutly religious man, who was rushing to end their appointment because he had to be in church. They finished their conversation as they walked to their cars. As they did, they were approached by a homeless man, standing at the gates of the parking garage, asking for ‘spare change.’
The attorney brushed the man aside, grumbling something about ‘useless drunks’ while Barbara stopped to reach into her pocket for some change. She looked into his eyes, smiled kindly and said, “Sorry, that’s all I’ve got.” The man looked deep into her eyes and said, “That’s okay. Thank you very much,” and then turned and walked away.
The attorney was astonished and said, “Why did you do that? That was foolish! He’s only going to spend it on more booze.” “How do you know that?” asked Barbara, stepping closer to look deep into his eyes with the same kind smile, as she asked a question that stopped him dead in his tracks, “How do you know that man wasn’t Jesus?”
The truth is that man was Jesus. And so was the attorney. And, so was Barbara. As Christians, we believe that in our baptism, Christ lives in us – in the fragile, frail humanity of each and every one of us.
As humans, we all have the potential for enormous good and monstrous indifference, but it is the potential to do good that beckons us to this church tonight, to gather ‘round the Western European replications of the Nativity scene in Bethlehem and tell the old, old, story and sing the familiar carols of the holy feast we call Christmas.
You may not be able to put your thought into these exact words, but if you take the time, if you hush all the noise and clamor, and examine your soul tonight, you will find that the reason you are here is because of this potential, this possibility – that you might ignore or fight off the cultural impulse for indifference and choose to do something good. Something kind. Something noble. Something, in fact, foolish and wasteful that is the embodiment, the incarnation of Love.
Okay, some of you were dragged here by a parent or a spouse or relative who said to you, “C’mon. It’s Christmas. You can go to church one night in the year. Please?” Sound familiar to anyone? You know who you are.
Even so, I want to suggest that this act of kindness and generosity, to go somewhere you don’t want to go, because you love someone is the embodiment of the Spirit of Christmas. To suspend all judgment, all your proud intellectual powers to do something as foolish and as wasteful as going to church to be with the ones you love.
I want to suggest that you, even you, want to believe the unbelievable – that our culture, our society, our world, doesn’t have the whole story, doesn’t own the truth wrapped up in fact and cool analysis.
Indeed, I want to suggest the outrageous: that you, even you, came here this night because of your potential to do something good, something kind, something noble, something foolish and wasteful that is the embodiment, the incarnation of Love.
We in this ‘ruggedly independent’ culture are hungry – starving – for a miracle. Oh, we talk of such things: the ‘miracle of modern science’. The ‘miracle of technology’. We use the word ‘miracle’ so often that, like our use of the word ‘love’, we have flattened and cheapened the truth of its meaning.
Everyone of us in this holy place on this most holy night stand as beggars at the gates of hope, asking for the spare change of a glimpse – a hint – a suggestion – of a miracle.
We all stand this night at gates of hope that have been barricaded by the stones of anger, frozen shut by the cold winds of indifference.
We wanted signs and sounds of it yesterday, but as any new parent can tell you, the birth of new life comes when it will, when we least expect it – sometimes too soon and sometimes later than was originally predicted by the wise men and women who are the servants and midwifes of the miracles of modern medicine.
Even so, these same parents will tell you that these ‘cultural miracles’ which can help save a life come too soon or prompt a life into being which has become dangerously late pales in comparison to the experience of holding a miracle in your hands and looking into its wide, wondrous eyes, all red and puffy from the difficult journey here from the beyond.
We stand this night at the gates of hope, looking to find The One who will help us choose the path that leads toward our salvation. We are not a patient lot. We want poinsettias and the smell of pine and the sound of Christmas carols in Advent. We want desperately to be ‘just like everyone else.’ To do what everyone else does. To have what everyone else has.
We are, and we are not. We are Christians. We are a decidedly foolish, counter-cultural people. We tell wild, unbelievable stories whose facts can neither be substantiated nor proven, and we tell them to our children, and our children’s children because, while we may not fully believe them we believe in them fully.
We are Christians. We listen to the song the angels sing. We look into the eyes of strangers and smile. Our hearts are open and tender with compassion for those who go hungry or are homeless and pray for the strength and the courage to find food and shelter for them.
We are Christians. While others examine facts, we look to the stars. We work for peace in a land gone mad with war and rumors of war. We struggle to examine and admit our faults. We repent and make amends. We seek forgiveness and reconciliation – with ourselves, with others, and with God.
It is exhausting and exiting work, this business of being a follower and a believer in Christ. To be Christian is to be a counter-cultural person who knows that Christmas is not just for children. Rather, Christmas is for the holy Child that lives in each one of us – that loves foolishly and dreams wildly and hopes against hope for the miracles we believe are possible because of our belief in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
On this night, we believe that a miracle has been given to us, in the birth of Jesus, whom we call The Christ. We do this because, as Christians, we know that sometimes you have to do something foolish and impossible – sometimes, you have to reach way down in order to touch a star. Amen.