Beyond Words, Christmas Day (III) – December 25, 2018


[RCL]: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

Words fail.

Stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Feel the wind rising off the canyon walls. See the light dappling in the crevices of the great chasm. Then try to describe this in words. For those who have stood there for themselves, your experience will bring back their own. But tell of feelings felt so deeply on the edge of the Grand Canyon to someone who has never been outside the confines of the cornfields of Iowa and words alone will fall flat.

A mother holds her newborn baby, seeing for the first time the child that has been growing in her womb. Those perfect hands touch her own. She counts and recounts the ten tiny toes—flesh of her flesh. We only have the power to evoke the faintest shadow of the vast ocean of emotions felt by the Virgin Mary as she held Jesus. Yes, words are powerful and can be life-changing, but some moments in life are beyond the power of language to contain.

One can craft tasty sentences that amuse, arouse, or anger. Yet language falls short of the breadth of human experience. Wittgenstein studied language deeply as an important philosopher of the last century and he found that words are not up to a task so simple as describing the aroma of a cup of coffee. He noted that if we can’t describe a cup of coffee, how much more difficult is it to portray God with words.

Yet portraying God with words is the task of scripture. Inspired by God, the Bible’s authors gave us moving passages of great depth of meaning, knowing that God is still beyond words. With soaring language, John’s Gospel begins with a poetic passage placing Jesus in eternal context:

“In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”

On this Christmas Day, John takes us back to the beginning: the “In the beginning” of the Book of Genesis. He reminds us that the story of Jesus started before the world began, when the spirit of God hovered over the waters in creation as chaos swirled into order. There before the story of humanity was Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God creating the world.

John uses poetry to point to the triune God beyond all language. In doing so, John uses words laden with meaning. He calls Jesus the “Logos,” a word from Greek philosophy, which meant much more than the basic unit of a sentence. Logos is the idea or concept behind the words of language. The Logos is the eternal pattern, the perfect ideal the word tries to express. So, the word “square” means a shape equal on all sides. Even if we can never draw a perfect square, the word square still refers to that perfection. Jesus is that perfect Word, that Logos.

John also tells us that this perfect Word dwelled among us using a word that literally means “pitched a tent in our midst.” For Jews, this would naturally bring to mind the idea of the tent where God’s glory dwelt with Israel during the Exodus from Egypt. This was the same glory of God that dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. The poetic words, “God pitched his tent among us,” say that in the same way that the very glory of God present to the Hebrews in the Exodus and the Jews of the first century in the Temple is present in Jesus. In dwelling among us, however, Jesus is out among the people, rather than contained within the Temple.

In this poetic way, John pointed to so much more than he said. For the Temple was the nexus—the meeting place—of God and humanity on earth. Jesus becomes that place of connection between God and humanity. In Jesus, the glory of God became visible on earth.

This prologue then sets us up for all that follows. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and he accepts her, showing her the loving care others did not, we see the heart of God lived out on earth. Again and again, in John’s Gospel, we see signs that point to Jesus being God among us. In his life, as well as in his teaching, Jesus reveals more about God than we could learn otherwise.

I could go on showing these connections, but John’s Gospel does it so well in two verses. In verse 18, which is just beyond our reading for today, John writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Then at the end of chapter 20, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

While all the words in the world could not contain the Word made human in Jesus, the words John chose are written so that we might believe and have life. John knew God’s own glory had pitched his tent among us in a stable in Bethlehem. Then God gave the Holy Spirit as a first gift to those who come to believe. The Jesus who was the Word made flesh would always be present with those who heard John’s Gospel. This is why Christians have always emphasized reading scripture, as the words convey God’s own heart.

In sharing The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus Centered Life, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has offered this church patterns which have nourished Christians for centuries. Captured in the words Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest, are practices proven to move one over time toward a life more like Jesus. Learn is reflecting on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings. There are many ways to live into this practice and each makes the eternal Word Jesus more present through the words of the Bible.

The same Holy Spirit who inspired John’s Gospel inspires you as you read and reflect on scripture. It is that inspiration for the reader as well as the author that makes the Bible more than words on a page.

The God whose presence dwelt in fullness in Jesus of Nazareth is also fully present in your heart and here in our worship in both Word and Sacrament. Jesus was present in our readings and as we come forward to receive the Eucharist, our triune God present in creation is here with you.

If you have never stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, my words would fail to convey that experience. You may never be that mother first laying eyes on the child that has been forming inside her, so my words could fail to explain the depth of feeling. Words fail to convey the presence of God in your life, but God’s presence is every bit as real, and even more vital, than all those experiences in your life that are beyond words.

While words can and will fail, Jesus, the eternal Word of God, never fails. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia and a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. Frank blogs on church development topics at loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (III).

O Come All Ye Faithful, Bored and Irritated, Christmas Day (II) – December 25, 2018


[RCL]: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Why are we here today?

That’s actually a more complex question than we might think. Many of us are here out of habit and/or tradition. We’re here either because we come to this church every Sunday and Christmas Day is part of the deal, or we’re here because we simply always go to church on Christmas and Easter.

We might be here because our parents made us come, or we might be here for the sake of the children or grandchildren. We might be here to sing favorite carols and see the greenery and just generally feel festive. Every one of those reasons is a fine and good reason to be in church today.

But there might just be another reason working in the background, whether we realize it or not.

Think about the people who were at the first Christmas. Mary was there because she literally had no other choice. Biology took over at that point and she was obviously present at the birth of her child. Joseph was there because he loved his fiancée and wanted to do right by her and take care of her. The sheep and camels were there because their stable had been invaded by this couple who could find no room at the inn. And the shepherds were there probably out of curiosity, to find out if their vision of the angelic host was real or just a result of being oxygen deprived in the thin air way up on the hillsides with their sheep.

And the fact that they were in Bethlehem was not on purpose either. Mary and Joseph would probably have wanted to have the baby at home in Nazareth where they had friends and family to help them. They were only in Bethlehem because they had to go there for the census ordered by the emperor. Perhaps it was an equally strange mix of seemingly meaningless circumstances that brought you here today.

The old Christmas hymn, Adeste Fideles, calls all of us to this moment. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” We hope to feel joyful and triumphant on Christmas. Mary likely felt joyful and triumphant after just going through labor with no family or friends to help her and successfully delivering a healthy baby boy.

But it’s okay if you’re not feeling joyful and triumphant. O come, all ye faithful, bored and irritated. O come, all ye faithful, exhausted and worried. O come, all ye faithful, cynical and angry. O come, all ye faithful, heartbroken and grieving.

Simply come, all ye faithful, no matter what you’re feeling.

No doubt Joseph and the shepherds had mixed feelings as they entered the stable. But once they gazed on the face of the Christ Child, the Baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, everything changed. Whatever reason had brought them to this moment no longer mattered, and all of their complex, self-directed emotions faded to simple awe. When they saw him, their hearts cried out to do only one thing: fall to their knees and adore him.

What does it mean to adore someone?

It’s a term that we use lightly all the time to express admiration and love for someone: “Oh, I just adore her, she’s wonderful.”

The term “adore” is actually used very sparingly in the Bible. There are a variety of words used in relationship to worship: praise, glorify, rejoice. But adoration only happens in circumstances when people feel their smallness and imperfection in the face of the greatness and perfection of God. But rather than the people feeling bad about how small and imperfect they are, they are instead completely taken outside of themselves and enraptured and lost in the love and wonder of God.

Most of us probably do an okay amount of praising God, and we sure do a whole lot of petitioning God, asking God to fulfill our wishes and plans. But how often do we adore God? How often do we let go of our own agendas completely because we can’t help it, because we are so overwhelmed by the goodness and love of God streaming over and through us? Maybe not often enough.

There’s something in us that resists adoration. With praise and petition and even rejoicing and glorifying, we’re still in control. We’re generating action toward God based on our evaluation of God’s goodness and what we want to get out of it.

But to adore God is something else. Adoration means we are brought to our knees by the grace we’re experiencing, and it’s no longer about us. For once, we have forgotten our needs and our wants, and simply bask in how very good God is.

But if we find it hard to adore God in God’s majesty and greatness, it seems even less likely that we will want to go to our knees in a dusty, dirty stable for a newborn baby in a manger. There’s nothing awe-inspiring about a helpless baby. What has a baby done to impress me? What can a baby do to answer my prayers?

But even as we’re thinking these thoughts, we suddenly do stumble to our knees. God could have come to earth in any giant, majestic, theatrical way God wanted to. God could have shown up with lights painted across the sky and trumpets and fireworks and earthquakes. But God came as a child. God sent God’s beloved and only son as the most vulnerable and fragile creature imaginable: a human baby.

And that is what strikes us dumb and finally, finally takes our focus off ourselves and our needs. The raw power and depth of love that God must have for us to send Jesus to us this way when something terrible could so easily have happened is humbling. Think about how astronomically high the rate of infant mortality was in those days. Cold, exposure, infection, injury—a thousand things could have gone wrong in the first hours, not to mention the days and weeks and months to come, days and weeks and months in which Jesus had nothing to protect him, no modern medicine, no safe shelter, nothing but love.

The courage of that love, to come to earth as a fragile human baby and risk it all for us in this obscure and humble place—suddenly there is nothing we want to do more than go to our knees at the manger and adore him. The fragile courage of this small child awakens a similar fragile courage within us, to kneel down and open ourselves completely to this love, to let go, to adore.

Jesus had no protection from the many dangers that could harm him as a human baby, and he has no protection from the coldness of our cynicism and indifference. But the love and promise that he radiates emit a light brighter than the star shining overhead, a light that can melt the cold shield of ice we have wrapped around our hearts to protect ourselves from the intensity of pain and joy that comes with loving.

So we the faithful have come as we were called. Joyful and triumphant, bored and irritated, cynical and angry, exhausted and worried, or grieving and heartbroken, we have come.

Maybe we expected to drift off into daydreams during church, or ask God for something special in our stockings, or simply relax and have a good time with friends and family, and all of those things are fine to do. Maybe we came here worrying that we would have to hide the fact that we are afraid that we are the only ones that sometimes can neither see nor feel the magic of Christmas.

But as we approach the manger and see that God has had the courage to risk it all for us, out of the sheer depth and passion of God’s love for us, let us answer that courage with a courage of our own. Let us answer with the courage to let go of our agendas and our needs, kneeling at the manger and gazing into the face of love, fragile in form but stronger than steel in intent.

O come, all ye faithful. O come, let us adore him. 

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com). Find more of her work at her website Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (II).

Christmas Is a Choice, Christmas Day (I) – December 25, 2018


[RCL]: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Christmas is not an event. Christmas is not a holiday. Christmas is not a church service.

Christmas is not a set of familiar carols or decorations of red and green or a jolly man in a red suit with eight tiny reindeer. Christmas is not an occasion or a party or a festival. It is not a piece of history or time off work or a gathering with family.

All of these things are connected to Christmas, but fundamentally, Christmas is not an event.

Christmas is a choice.

Mary didn’t have a choice about being on the road when she went into labor. Joseph had to register for the census and that meant traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Joseph didn’t have a choice about the fact that this child was not biologically his own. It was a done deal by the time he found out about it. Neither of them had a choice about the fact that Jesus would be born in a stable. There was no room at the inn, so it was either the barn or a ditch by the side of the road.

They were made vulnerable by their circumstances: vulnerable to gossip about Jesus’ parentage, vulnerable to physical pain and danger in Mary’s case, vulnerable to a feeling of failing to provide for his family in Joseph’s case.

The shepherds didn’t have a choice about being out in the fields with their sheep in the dark and the cold. The sheep needed tending and guarding, and the sheep were the shepherds’ livelihood, their means of economic survival. The shepherds were vulnerable to the weather and the terrain. They also didn’t have a choice about the visiting angels. The heavenly host descended on them out of nowhere, and suddenly Glorias were filling the air. They were terrified, and had no defense against their fear.

As you think about your life this year, where do you feel like you didn’t have a choice? It’s likely that many things come to mind. You don’t have a choice about the Alzheimer’s or dementia that has taken over not just the life of your spouse or parent, but your life as well. You don’t have a choice about the heart attack or cancer that took away a loved one all too soon. You don’t have a choice about the job you hate or the job you lost or the job you can’t get. You don’t have a choice about your own struggles with food or relationships or sleep or alcohol, the fight to make good choices that you seem to lose over and over.

And so, we come to Christmas. And Christmas is all about God giving us a choice.

God places the power in our hands. God comes into the raging inferno of our insane world and says to us, “Do you want me? Will you allow me to be born among you? Will you accept this tiny infant as your savior and your friend and your hope?”

And we’re free to say no. Because underneath that choice is another choice, and that is the true choice of Christmas.

We have to choose to be vulnerable to joy. Vulnerable to joy? That doesn’t seem to be much of a choice. Who doesn’t want to experience joy?

Well, it’s more complicated than that. Despair and cynicism and even hatred are actually the paths of least resistance. When something offends us or frightens us, the easiest response is to lash out in anger and vicious self-defense. And with the difficult situations in our lives compounded by the conflicts in our society, our walls are very, very high right now. We will not be caught defenseless. We will not be left unaware. We will not be caught off guard, made to look foolish, victims of a surprise attack. Our fear almost makes us seek out darkness everywhere we go, if only to justify the walls we’ve built around our hearts.

And how does God answer our minds and hearts and communities bristling with self-defense so aggressive that it actually seems to be offense?

God gives Godself to us in the most vulnerable form possible: a fragile human baby.

And how could we respond with anything but joy?

Joy is surprisingly difficult to let ourselves feel fully. We hedge our joy. We celebrate and give thanks, but in the back of our minds, there is the knowledge that this goodness could be lost in a moment, that it will probably all turn bad in the future, that even this light does not erase the darkness in our lives. We hedge our joy, unwilling to let go those last shreds of defended self-consciousness, the final walls that protect us from being utterly vulnerable, able to be hurt.

That is why true joy requires vulnerability. We have to set down our weapons, take off our armor, lay aside our power and control, in order to even see the infant Christ in each other, much less kneel and adore him. It is a terrifying prospect.

But the choice of Christmas that we make is in answer to the choice that God made, the choice to come to us fragile, undefended, vulnerable, utterly reliant on us humans for his survival in the world. And God took joy in giving Godself to us in this way. So if we can take the same risk that God did, we can feel the same joy God feels. Light meets light, joy touches joy, and the darkness itself bows in awe at the radiance that shines out of the fragile infant Christ.

And what happens when we do take off the armor? What happens when we stop trying to be right all the time, safe all the time, in control all the time? What happens when we let the light radiating from that small face in the manger penetrate our hearts?

Oh, it is so beautiful. You may laugh. You may cry. You may laugh through your tears and cry in your laughter. Joy is deeper than happiness or celebration or giddy exuberance. Joy is a force that knocks down all the walls around our hearts and levels us with the goodness, the grace, the unearned and unending love and healing that is our newly arrived Jesus.

Joy remakes us, tears down our cynical and fearful identities and gives birth to a self that is trusting, patient, believing, knowing that all will be well and all manner of things will be well. Joy is the reward of the long nurtured faith that got us here. Joy is a quiet and lasting foundation that endures while the currents of happiness and grief wash back and forth over the surface of our hearts.

Joy is the first breath the resurrected Christ takes in the tomb on Easter morning. It is the breath behind the healing words he speaks to you when you clutch at the hem of his robe. It is the quiet, sweet breaths of the sleeping baby in the manger as we look on, feeling our hearts overflow. The joy of Christ becomes our own breath, and if we surrender this far to grace, we could no more choose not to live in him than we could choose not to breathe.

That is what awaits us behind the choice of Christmas. That is what being vulnerable to joy feels like. That is what joy can do to us if we let it—if we have the courage to let go into the miracle.

It’s all up to us. What choice will you make?

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com). Find more of her work at her website Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (I).

The Work of Christmas, Christmas Day (III) – December 25, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

Note: There are three approved lectionary readings for Christmas Day. Find sermons based on other readings here.

This is John’s Christmas. This is incarnation. No shepherds, no angels, no crèche, no Magi. John’s story is so utterly unlike the familiar crèche or pageant. How on earth could one make this, John’s story of the incarnation, into a pageant? It begins before time itself!

Note the opening words: “In the beginning…” The first to hear or read John’s Gospel had heard these words before. We all have. The entire Bible begins with these words, “In the beginning, God created…” Jesus’ origins are cosmic – at the very root of the universe, “all that is, seen and unseen.” And we now know that fully 95% of the created universe is unseen: dark matter and dark energy. Only 5% is anything at all like us, and animals and rocks and trees and stars and planets. God’s creation is mostly unseen.

John puts Jesus, the Word, the logos, present before anything was made. Before God said the word, “Light!” and there was light! God speaks and things come into being. Before God speaks, however, there was the “Word.” In Greek that is logos – word.

But for Jews and Gentiles alike in the first century, this word logos meant more than what we think when we say “word.” For at least six centuries before Christ came into the world, logos had currency among philosophers, and meant something like the principle of reason that rules the universe. Logos could also describe the Hebrew idea of wisdom – hokma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek. According to the rabbis, wisdom was responsible for creation. So universal is this Word, this logos, that it is in everything that has been created. There is nothing “made that was made” that is not made through this Word. This is why we promise in our Baptism to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Christ as logos is in all persons and in all things. Thus, our need to care for the Earth and everyone and everything therein.

The Word, says John, is life. And this life is light – the light of the world. This light is a beacon that shines and cuts through all darkness – and darkness does not overcome this light. That is, there is evil, not just in people but in all the created order. Our redemption in and by the Word – the logos – is a vital part of a larger project – the redemption of the entire universe of God’s creation.

Yet, we who come from this Word, this logos, do not readily recognize him. He comes to those of us who claim his name as our own – Christian – and yet we know him not. This continues to be a problem. Just look around us. Two thousand years of claiming his name as our own, and just how brilliantly does the world around us reflect this life-giving light? In a world of ongoing brutalities – torture, killings, mass shootings, capital murder as retribution, bombings, not to mention hunger, loneliness, hatred, bigotry, poverty, and rejection of strangers. We are promised that all who do receive him, accept him, follow him, are given power – power to become “children of God.” We say we receive, accept, and follow Jesus the Word, but is this at all reflected in all that we do or say? Or, in all that is done or said on our behalf by others who claim to know, receive, accept, and follow this Word?

It makes it all the more remarkable that this Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood. The text literally says he “tabernacled among us.” That is, he pitched his tent; this Word, this logos, set up shop right in our midst despite our not knowing him. We are meant, of course, to recall that other time in our tradition’s past when God tabernacled among us in the tent of meeting in the wilderness – that place where “the glory of the Lord filled the tent.” Again, we behold his glory!

For John, this is Christmas. The Word of God comes and pitches his tent to sojourn with us, giving us another chance to know, accept, and follow him. We behold his glory. He adopts us as his own.

A story is told about some Navy SEALs sent to free a group of hostages in one of the corners of the world. As they storm into the hiding place, they find the hostages huddled on the floor in a corner of the room. The SEALs tell them they are there to take them home. Get up and follow us. No one moves. They are so damaged by the experience of their captivity that they do not believe these are really people sent to set them free. So, one of these SEALs does something: he takes off his helmet, puts down his gun, gets down on the floor, softens his face, and huddles up next to the captives, putting his arms around a few of them. No guards would do this. He whispers, “We are like you. We are here to be with you and to rescue you. Let us take you home. Will you follow us?” One by one, the prisoners get up and are eventually taken to safety on an aircraft carrier and brought home.

Lots of rhetoric and ink have been spilled to explain the miracle of the incarnation – how it is God becomes one of us to take us home – to redeem us as a step in redeeming a broken world and broken universe. God sees us captive to many things, unwilling to simply step away from those things that keep us in prison – often prisons of our own making. In Jesus, God takes off all his glory, gets down on the floor with us, huddles up with us – tabernacles among us, pitches his tent among us – and whispers, “It is OK. I am with you. I am one of you now. Come with me, follow me, and I will take you home.”

John tells us that the essence of Christmas does not need a crèche, does not need shepherds, does not need angels, or greens, or red bows, or piles of gifts, or carols, or turkeys and roast beefs with all the trimmings. All Christmas needs is for us to know the Word. To accept the Word. To get up and follow the Word. There is no way we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Christ, the Word, we can see his light and the logos. He will lead us home. This is incarnation. This is Christmas. It is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the work of Christmas to begin.

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.

Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations 

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day.

Nothing Changes Except Everything, Christmas Day (I)

[RCL] Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Nothing Changes Except Everything

Nothing changed. God had broken into our world with sound and beauty. Light and hope pierced the dark of gloom and nothing changed.

The prophets of old had spoken of it; “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The people who sat in darkness waited and hoped and prayed and longed for Light to dawn.

But nothing changed.

A new mother, unprepared and scared, fleeing with her intended, had said “yes”, it seemed so long ago, without knowing the full responsibility, not knowing her voice would echo through eternity. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Longing for deliverance, for a chance to recognize that her life matters in a world dominated by privilege, power and might.  In a backwater town, an afterthought on the best of days, in the middle of nowhere, amid the screaming birth pangs, animal breath and a bewildered carpenter, an unwed refugee teenager brought our salvation, Jesus the Messiah into the numb and noisy world. Into humanity’s quarreling and bickering and warring came forth God’s shimmering light. A whisper, a word so fragile to utter it could destroy it. Hope. God had done the improbable.

And yet…nothing changed.

Angels, winged messengers of fierce gentleness, clothed in light and overflowing with song, heralded the birth of the Word into the world, but the beauty of their song, the fierceness of their countenance, the light of eternity was lost on certain poor shepherds keeping their flocks by night. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Message sent. Song ended. Even the angels turned back to their heavenly duties.

Nothing changed.

Living on the borders, the edges, the margins, the unwanted outcasts who tended the sheep, the hired hands who were counted as two steps above nothing, to these the angels imparted their celestial song. The shepherds filled with fear and awe at the message of the angels, came and saw and stood for a time gazing at the world’s redemption. All of God’s self, wrapped the beauty of a baby, the Messiah, the Lord. But no matter how bright the angels, no matter how beatific the song, the sheep needed tending and life does not stop for a screaming, squirming baby named Jesus.

Nothing changed.

Dull peace sprawled boringly over the earth, filling the holy night with scent of ordinary. Not even the Romans, the purveyors of power paid any attention. It was a night like any other, unremarkable in its blatant ordinariness.

Nothing changed. Except…everything changed.

God, the Great I AM, the sculptor of the mountains, the crafter of the universe, the voice of creation, entered into our world and changed EVERYTHING!

We, unaccustomed to courage, exiles from delight, live coiled in shells of loneliness, until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight, to liberate us into life. [1]

On Christmas nothing changes, yet everything changes. Our world continues along its path, as God breaks into our humanity like a stealthy thief in the small hours of the night, leaving traces of hope and drops of courage along a weary path. We often oblivious travelers seeking the lingering presence of the divine miss the signs of God being born again and again and again in to our world.

We the followers of this helpless child, this Jesus, we are the ones challenged and called to change everything. We who would prefer a God who crashes into the world with power and authority and great might are called to the daily work of Christmas. Nothing changes because we are the ones called to be the change. God coming into our world has no meaning unless we continue the work of Christmas.

God comes into our lives, not with blazing glory but in the quiet of a stable.
God enters our world not with sound and fury but in the whimpering of a new born child;
Not with power and authority but in the helplessness of a baby; not with class or privilege but as a displaced refugee with no nation of his own.
The work of Christmas is our work. God enters and changes everything.

The work of changing and transforming our humanity is ours to fulfill. The work of welcoming the outcast living on the edges and margins; the work of bringing good news of great joy to all the world, proclaiming the transformative power of love in action is now our angelic message.

We are the ones who must love our enemies, turn the other cheek, bless those who curse us, and love without boundaries. We are the ones who must visit the prisoners, feed the homeless, and welcome the stranger. Nothing changes, except everything changes with us. God’s work of redemption is done through the work of our hands. We are the ones who must seek the traces of hope and drops of courage in a world weary by division and strife.

Now more than ever does our world need Christmas, not the pristine angels or the idyllic shepherds of movies and Christmas cards, but the real, messy, unsure and often fearful carriers of the Christmas message. Now more than ever our world needs the followers of Jesus to step out of our places of comfort and our communities of refuge to proclaim, not in words but in action God’s favor, God’s hope, God’s love.

Our world needs Christmas not just today but every day.

God has work to do in this world; it is not enough that we be just, that we be righteous, and walk with God in holiness; it is not enough that we gather and say good things about Jesus in our beautiful places of worship. God needs us. We who are worried and wearied and terrified, the broken messengers with a living message. We must go out, like the shepherds to tell of the Good News in the messy, dirty and uninviting places of this world. We must go out to serve the ones forgotten and counted as nothing, because in them we serve Christ.

God breaks into our world and nothing happens without us.

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”[2]

At Christmas nothing changes except everything.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Deon Johnson. Rev. Johnson serves as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, MI. A Liturgical Consultant, Deon specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time Deon enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.  

[1] Touched by an Angel by Maya Angelou

[2] “Now the work of Christmas begins” by Howard Thurman, African-American theologian, educator, & civil rights leader.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (I).

What We Need From Christmas, Christmas Day (II)

[RCL] Isaiah 62:6-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7)8-20; Psalm 97 

For churches across the country, the month of December is devoted to preparation—not only the kind of spiritual preparation that Advent invites; but rather, practical planning: where (and when) to hang the decorations, how to assemble the Christmas liturgies, when to organize the Christmas parties and festivities, and so on. Altar guilds and worship committees across the country are in high gear at this time of year!

And yet, beyond Christmas pageants and church bazaars (that’s daring enough for most of us!), there is a church in just about every community across the country that takes things to the next level and puts on a live Nativity scene!

You know the kind: a makeshift stable is assembled with live animals—a few sheep, a donkey or two, and maybe a camel if the committee started preparing well in advance. Someone dresses as an angel and stands on the rooftop of the makeshift stable, others dress as shepherds or wise men—which we’ll assume arrived a few weeks early. And of course, there are the central figures: Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus—usually portrayed by the youngest child in the parish. For a few nights in the lead-up to Christmas, everyone plays their part, standing as still as possible under the glare of a spotlight.

Most of us have driven by such a scene, and a few of us may have even participated in them. It’s a lovely image because it captures the scene we’ve grown up imagining and brings it to life before our very eyes. It puts us in mind of the Holy Family gathered with the shepherds on that first Christmas, rejoicing in the awesome power of God made flesh in this tiny little child. All is silent as the whole world stops to behold the birth of this child—the birth of God made flesh!

But if you pay careful attention to these scenes, you’ll notice that they are rarely as peaceful and serene as they first appear! For starters, livestock will be livestock: sheep are ornery, donkeys are stubborn, cows are lazy, and camels have a temper! The wind seldom cooperates, costumes fall apart, people fidget, and babies cry!

Despite all of our creative imaginings to the contrary, this unintentional chaos is more similar to the way things actually happened on that first Christmas than the peaceful and serene still-life that we so often imagine.

After all, if you’ve ever visited or worked on a farm, you can imagine the stench that must have accompanied Jesus’ birth; and if you’ve ever been anywhere near a hospital delivery room, you know that there’s no “meek and mild” about the miracle of childbirth! The truth is that the birth of Jesus was anything but silent or peaceful or calm. Mary was a teenager made to grow up way too quickly, Joseph was in way over his head, and the conditions in which Jesus was birthed were less than ideal, even by first-century standards.

And so, why do we dismiss what we know about Christmas: that it was surely a scene of chaos and surprise, in favor of what we imagine about Christmas: that it was a peaceful and serene ode to Jesus meek and mild?

Perhaps the answer has something to do with what we need from Christmas.

In 2016 alone, more than 13,000 Americans have died because of gun violence. Nearly 3,500 of them were children under age 18. There have been more than 300 mass shootings this year, and nearly 300 police officers have been shot and killed.[1]

We have faced the most vitriolic, negative, hate-filled, not to mention expensive, election in modern history. We’re busier than ever, we’re working harder and making less, and the cost of living just keeps going up.

And so, we imagine a peaceful and serene Christmas because that is precisely what we need. We need peace and serenity and beauty; we need a place to worship something pure—something warm and peaceful; something inspiring. We need a Christmas that brings peace and delight, rather than chaos and disorder.

But that’s the paradox of Christmas! On the one hand, we desperately want to believe that Jesus’ birth was a serene, orderly, peaceful moment in which the whole world stood still; but on the other hand, the Gospel stares us in the face and proclaims just the opposite: disruption, disorder, and chaos.

The Christmas of the Gospels reminds us that God in Christ hasn’t come into our lives to make things a little more peaceful or to inspire us to be a little more cheerful. No, God in Christ has come to change everything we thought we knew!

God in Christ hasn’t come to rehabilitate our old lives or to make them a bit more bearable; God in Christ has called us to a new life of redemption and resurrection!

God in Christ comes to us, not in the center of town or in an ornate palace, but in the place where we least expect him: in a tiny little town on the margins of society.

He is born, not in the presence of kings and princes and rulers, but in the presence of dirty shepherds and their even dirtier sheep. He is born, not of a princess or a queen, but of a poor, terrified, teenaged mother who did not ask for this!

This is the true story of Christmas!

And if we listen closely, we can hear God whispering something to us that, deep down we’ve always known but have been afraid to admit: The life we’ve so carefully crafted for ourselves; this world that we work so hard to manage and control, cannot satisfy our souls.

But the promise of God that was born on that first Christmas speaks to us still: God in Christ has come to us, not to give us more of the life we know, but to give us new life! Christmas is not the celebration of what once was a long time ago, it is the celebration of the One who was and is and is to come! It is the inauguration of God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ—it is the beginning of our salvation!

And that, dear friends, brings joy to the world indeed!

Merry Christmas!

Written by The Rev. Marshall Jolly (@MarshallJolly). Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, an ecumenical, international lectionary-based preaching commentary authored exclusively by Millennials. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.  

[1] Gun Violence Archive, http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/.

Download the Sermon for Christmas Day (II).

Here’s How Much I Love You, Christmas Day (III)

[RCL] Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14; Psalm 98

In the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” Paul Newman plays Luke, a prisoner in a Florida prison camp, who refuses to conform to prison life. In a famous scene, Luke tries to escape, but he is caught and dragged back in shackles and brought to the captain of the prison. In order to make a lesson of him, the captain berates him in front of the other prisoners. When Luke makes a wise remark, the captain lashes out at him and utters the famous line: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

It’s a great line. It’s also what makes the stuff of both great comedy and tragedy. Remember the comedy routine by Abbott and Costello called “Who’s on First?” Abbott is trying to help Costello out by telling him the names of the players on a mythical baseball team. The lineup is: “who’s on first, what’s on second, I don’t know is on third.” It’s all very funny, and it’s all based on a failure to communicate.

It is also the stuff of great tragedy. Remember the end of Romeo and Juliet? They both end up taking their own lives. And why does this happen? You’ve got it. A failure to communicate. If only Juliet could have texted Romeo rather than relying on a messenger to let him know the plan about taking the potion that made her only appear to be dead, then everything would have worked out. But, alas, it was not so, and never was there a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo. And it was all because there was a failure to communicate.

In our own lives, we know all too well the reality and pain of failing to communicate. One of the leading causes of marriages falling apart is lack of communication. People say, we just drifted apart. We don’t talk anymore. We are leading separate lives. You’ve all probably heard of “the silent treatment.” It’s one of the cruelest things human beings can do to each other. Failure to communicate can cause chasms to open up between us or it can intentionally wound others in the cruelest of ways.

In our collective lives, we also know the pain of failing to communicate. I’ve heard people say that a crowded city is paradoxically one of the loneliest places to live. People don’t know the next door neighbors. People don’t talk to each other on elevators. The difference between being part of a crowd and part of a community is the ability or the failure to communicate. If you communicate with your neighbor, you belong to a community. If you fail to communicate with your neighbor, your just part of a crowd, a lonely crowd.

On the other hand, we all know what a blessing it can be when we really communicate with someone. When we really connect with people we say things like, we had a heart-to-heart talk.

In a Reader’s Digest story, Maureen Macay gives a lovely example of a grace she experienced while traveling in China. She writes, “Traveling by train in China, my son and I shared a sleeping compartment with a Chinese couple. They spoke no English and we knew few Chinese words, so conversation was impossible — until an hour into the trip, when the man called someone on his cell phone. After a few moments, he passed the phone to his wife who also spoke into it. Then, to my surprise, she handed me the phone. Feeling rather foolish, I said, ‘Hello’ into it. The person at the other end was the couple’s daughter, who spoke perfect English. I told her about us and our trip, and she relayed the information to her parents. How delightful that a simple phone call could teach us such a lesson about Chinese graciousness.” And the ability to communicate.

God knows about the struggle to communicate. Our Bible is the story of God’s struggle to get God’s message of love across to humanity. God tried over and over again, to reach us, but we kept turning deaf ears to God’s message of love. We ignored commandments, prophets, and sages, invitations, threats, and promises.

What is the opposite of a failure to communicate? Saying exactly the right thing.

The message of Christmas is this: God found a new way to say exactly the right thing. The letter to the Hebrews says, “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

A baby. The Son of God, the Word, co-eternal with God from before all time, became incarnate, took on flesh, real flesh, a baby’s flesh. God became one of us, and like us, came into the world as a baby. The one at whose “command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets, in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home”[1] became for us an inarticulate infant.

In the words of today’s psalm, God “sends out his commands to the earth, and his word runs very swiftly.” At Christmas, God chose to let his Word have to learn to crawl first. The one whose “Let there be light,” rang throughout the darkness and set off the spark of creation, became for us a speechless baby, limited to communicating through cooing and crying.

The one used to the praise of countless throngs of angels, singing their unending hymn, “Holy, holy, holy,” surrounded himself with new music: a mother’s “hush, sweet baby, hush,” the ahhing and oohing of shepherds leaning over a manger making baby talk to the baby, cattle lowing, the rustling of straw. God found a whole new way to communicate, a whole new way to say exactly the right thing. The Word took on a whole new language, and it turned out to be—baby talk.

What does a baby say? Actually, not much. Without the power of speech, they are, in fact, rather limited. But they do say two very important things: Here I am, and, I need you.

And God, in God’s love, as the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us as a baby, says this as well: I am here. I need you.

Shocking, isn’t it? The Word becomes flesh, a vulnerable, inarticulate baby. And we don’t say, the message is this: someday, the child will grow, which is true, and become an adult, which is true, and will walk and talk and love and live and say things and do things that will show us just how much God loves us—all of which is true. But even here, even in these days of the Christmas season, what we celebrate is not the potential for communication that a baby has—that someday God will speak through incarnate life. What we celebrate is that this baby, the Word made flesh, was already a completely formed message of love, full of grace and truth toward us. Here I am. I am with you. I am for you. I am trusting myself to you. I need you.

In Graham Greene’s novel, The Heart of the Matter, the character Scobie describes the incarnation, and the amazing risk God took in becoming human in such a vulnerable way, a pattern of openness that would continue throughout Jesus’ life and in the sacraments, as well. The narrator says, “It seemed to him for a moment cruelly unfair of God to have exposed himself in this way, a man, a wafer of bread, first in the Palestinian villages and now here in the hot port, there, everywhere, allowing man to have his will of Him. Christ had told the rich young man to sell all and follow Him, but that was an easy rational step compared with this that God had taken, to put himself at the mercy of men who hardly knew the meaning of the word. How desperately God must love, he thought with shame.”[2]

How desperately God must love. Desperately enough to find a new way to say exactly the right thing, which, even in the cries and coos of an infant, turns out to be: “Here’s how much I love you.”

Written by The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. His ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. He received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.  

[1] Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer, 370.

[2] Greene, The Heart of the Matter.

Download the Sermon for Christmas Day (III).

People of the Incarnation, Christmas Day – 2015

[RCL] Isaiah 62:6-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20; Psalm 97

 Light has sprung up for the righteous, and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted! Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, and give thanks to God’s holy name! (Psalm 97)

Christmas Day in our churches has a different kind of light than Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is all stars and brightness, angels and adoration and Glory to God in the Highest! Christmas Day is quieter. In the December morning light, we’re left with the holy family after the angels and shepherds have departed. We’re left with Mary, to treasure all that has occurred and ponder in our hearts. Everything has changed. Quite literally, the incarnation of Jesus Christ has changed everything.

In the encounter of the angels and the shepherds, we’ve witnessed a coming together of heaven and earth, joining Joseph and Mary to witness a miracle. This miracle is more than an encounter between human and divine, such as Mary experienced in the Annunciation or the shepherds experienced in the appearance of the angel. In the infant Jesus, the boundaries between heaven and earth have dissolved. By Christ’s incarnation – his life as a human being among other human beings – the divine crossed into the human realm.

Over and over again in the gospels, in the witness of the life and words of Jesus Christ, we encounter this intersection of human and divine, until his death and resurrection when the man Jesus crosses into the divine realm. Birth and death are threshold events for us as mortal beings, crossing between earthly and eternal life. But in Jesus, it’s not a question of crossing back and forth. It’s a question of being both at once, a unity of the human and the divine for all eternity. A very big idea: eternity. Yet made concrete in a newborn child. This is the miracle that we ponder with Mary on this Christmas Day.

We might ponder the reason for the miracle. Why? What is the purpose of this miracle of incarnation?

Prophets and theologians have pondered this for millennia. In today’s readings, both Isaiah and Paul speak of salvation. Isaiah proclaims, “See, your salvation comes.” Paul writes in the letter to Titus, “When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.”

What is salvation exactly? Salvation can be defined as deliverance from sin and sin’s consequences. For the ancient Hebrews, salvation was deliverance from exile in Egypt, and later from Babylon into the Promised Land. For Christians through the millennia, salvation has been embodied in Jesus Christ who brought the kingdom of God to earth and who will ultimately, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and God’s kingdom will have no end.”

Anglican theologians have pondered the incarnation too, of course. For William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, the incarnation was significant because God left heaven and entered the course of human history to be an example for human life. Temple’s social ethics and his entire worldview follow from this theological understanding of the incarnation. Temple believed and expected that because of the incarnation, social transformation is both needed and possible. That it is the church’s right and duty to call for social change and that the church must play a role in public life. The incarnation impacts our lives. Because of the incarnation we are called to build the kingdom of God on earth. We are called to love and serve those in need. Salvation here and now – salvation in history – is achieved by faith and our actions. The church has a role to play in attaining salvation. Temple wrote, “The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing social order at any time is in conflict with them. It must then pass on to Christian citizens acting in their civic capacity, the task of re-shaping the existing order in closer conformity to the principles.”

Twentieth-century Anglican laywoman and mystic Evelyn Underhill was also deeply committed to the theology of the incarnation. She writes about “continuing incarnation,” offering our lives as a means for achieving the kingdom, God’s work on earth, by weaving together our inner and outer lives through prayer and action.

So, what then are the implications of the incarnation for the mission of the church here and now? Let us ponder with Mary on the morning of Christ’s birth. The incarnate Christ was both God and human. As we human beings seek to become united with God through prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, let us also seek to become united with our fellow human beings through community and action in community. Salvation is achieved through faith and our actions. We are called to remember the poor and the oppressed, the weak, the weary, the prisoners, the homeless, and the displaced.

We can’t all do everything, but at least each one of us can do something about one particular agony in the world. We can take one step outside of the circle of the familiar towards knowledge and reconciliation with the unfamiliar. We can love God in Christ Jesus by loving our neighbors, crossing the street and meeting a stranger. Even better, you can take the hand of someone in your church community and cross the street together. And then join in community and offer openhearted hospitality to a stranger’s community.

As individuals and as the Church – the body of Christ – we are called to build the kingdom of Heaven on earth. The apostle Paul tells us that the kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The prophet Micah tells us that all God requires of us is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. We are called to pray, to faithfully reflect on our responsibility to God and our neighbor, and to act for justice and reconciliation. We are called to participate in Christ’s rescuing mission in the world. Let us commit to being people of the incarnation. Let us go forth into the world to love and serve with gladness and singleness of heart, looking for the opportunity to do the work of God on earth. As we leave church on this Christmas morning, let us accept the invitation to ponder a step toward bringing the kingdom of God to earth. What one particular agony in your world, community, neighborhood, or family can you do something about today?

Let us pray. Gracious God, grant that we may be travelers like Joseph and Mary, searching for a place for God to rest in love. Grant that we may be messengers like the angel of the Lord, bringing good news of great joy to all the people. Grant that we may be worshippers like the heavenly host, praising God and saying glory to God in the highest heaven. Grant that we may be believers like the shepherds, hastening to witness a miracle. Grant that we may be contemplative as Mary, pondering the meaning of the incarnation in our hearts. Grant that we may have the temerity to risk offering our lives as a means to do God’s work on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day C.

Written by Susan Butterworth
Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.  

The perfect Christmas and the real Christmas, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2014

December 25, 2014

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Crossing the minds of almost everyone around this time of year is the fantasy of the perfect Christmas. This fantasy appears in many versions, but a standard one goes something like this:

An attractive old house sits securely on its wooded parcel of land. There’s plenty of snow on the ground, and more is falling – gently, silently – through the cold, crisp air.

Inside the house, members of a large extended family are caught up in their holiday celebration. Parents host their grown children and young grandchildren, various aunts, uncles and cousins, and the occasional in-law, fiancé or friend. The entire clan is attractive, respectable, well-mannered and well-spoken. Each member is either successful in school, advancing in a career or enjoying a comfortable retirement. No one is mentally unbalanced, seriously ill, chronically unemployed or even socially inept. All have broad smiles and straight teeth.

Most extraordinary about this gathered clan is that all the members get along with each other! Despite hours of proximity, rich food and potent drink, no simmering hostilities boil to the surface. No grudges are revived, no harsh words are spoken or even muttered. The animated conversation is mixed with frequent laughter, celebrated memories, and new stories.

Many hands in the kitchen make the preparation of Christmas dinner go quickly and peaceably, and soon the table is covered with a variety of fragrant, tasty dishes. Everyone sits down and the family enjoys a splendid meal. After the dessert, the air echoes with compliments for the cooks. The entire family helps clear the table and clean up, and it’s not long before the kitchen counters are empty, and the automatic dishwasher hums contentedly.

The presents stacked beneath the tree are opened one by one, and each gift delights its recipient. It’s always the right size, color and style. Children gleefully tear off the brightly colored paper and smile gratefully at their elders. No one lashes out in envy, bursts into tears or damages one of the remarkably complicated toys. A dreamy state of tranquility overcomes the revelers as the fire in the hearth burns low. Outside, the gentle snow continues to fall.

There’s a problem with this lovely fantasy. Christmas never happens this way. Christmas Day may feature drizzle rather than snow. Someone precious may be missing from the family circle, or someone hard to tolerate may be present – a ne’er-do-well, perhaps, or an obnoxious, screaming child, or a critical, controlling adult, or an insufferable boor. As for the rest, they are down-to-earth people with less-than-perfect profiles. A little overweight, perhaps, a little eccentric, a little shy. The fact is that most of us do not qualify as the best and the brightest. We do not live the lives of which fantasies are made.

Then there are the fights – arguments or heated discussions or vigorous fellowship, depending on your family’s particular euphemism. One brother-in-law remembers how much he resents another. A grown-up daughter again feels suffocated by her elderly mother. A nephew despises the uncle who sold him the car with the cracked engine block. An argument erupts in the kitchen over the way to make turkey dressing, and raised voices defend rival orthodoxies about the matter.

It’s not that all this happens every year, but any of it could! There’s testimony to the indomitable human spirit in the way families gather again and again despite the often painful consequences. Add to this the labor, so much of which falls on the women of the household, who are expected to make everything perfect – the cookies, the decorating, the tree, the gifts, the music, the food, the cleanup.

Our fantasy of Christmas – our pursuit of an elusive perfection – leads to frustration and disappointment. When the leftovers are stored away, the tree taken down, and the trash put out, we may find ourselves wondering whether Christmas is for us. Perhaps Christmas is for the perfect – those perfect people who live in an imaginary subdivision just over the horizon.

When the fantasy of the perfect Christmas fills our heads, we can do ourselves a favor by going back to the beginning. We can look at the original Christmas and recognize that this first Christmas was far from perfect.

Forced by government bureaucracy, Joseph brings his pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the sake of the census. Not a single relative with a bedroom to spare remains in the old hometown. And there’s not a hotel room to be had for love or money. The young couple find some space out back, inside a barn filled with farm animals. A couple of local women help with the birth and chuckle over the new-born boy.

Joseph, meanwhile, tries to get his wits about him. The months since he found out about this disturbing pregnancy and nearly brought his relationship with Mary to a sudden end have been hard. The dream, demanding that he accept the child, was followed by this awkward travel to Bethlehem, and now this sleepless night in the barn.

Nor is it a perfect Christmas for Mary. The unease of pregnancy and discomfort of travel give way to the pains of labor. Once her baby is delivered, Mary soon yields to her hunger for sleep. Yet this sleep is suddenly broken by the unexpected arrival of shepherds from the hills. These ruffians approach, caps in hand, their eyes wild as they proclaim a story of angels filling the night sky with song. Joseph wonders if there’s wine on their breath. Falling to their knees, they ask to see the baby. They delight in Mary’s little one, then, as quickly as they came, go off into the night, shouting songs of praise. They are drunk, but not with the wine of this world. Their hearts overflow with heaven’s joy.

Christmas in the barn is far from perfect. The circle around the manger is made up of people with problems. But Christmas in the barn is real. The baby is born, wet upon the blankets. Hard-living shepherds hurry to meet him. The small stable becomes a wide enough place to encompass the world, a world of imperfect people like you and me. The gospel makes clear that there’s room at the manger for imperfect people.

The perfect Christmas of our fantasies is something we try to accomplish on our own. If we just bake more cookies, give more presents, smile more broadly, then it is sure to happen – or so we imagine. Yet we become frustrated time and again. We try to live up to some fictional standard, and we end up sorely disappointed.

The gospel comes to us as an awkward surprise, a Christmas gift we did not foresee. God in Christ accepts us in our incompleteness, our imperfection. God in Christ comes to us in an eminently imperfect, unmanageable way, with all the disruptions of a baby born in a barn and put to bed in an animal trough. God in Christ relates to our little, imperfect selves by becoming smaller, less powerful, more dependent than any of us who are old enough to walk and talk. The good news is that God knows our imperfection, and God loves us as we are. God does not require us to be perfect. God asks only that we become real, as real as the events in that Bethlehem stable, as real as divine love.

What we need to do is remarkably simple: put down the burden of the perfect Christmas and accept the freedom of the real Christmas.

We can gather around the manger with people who have problems, like Joseph and Mary; with hard-living people like the Bethlehem shepherds. Here imperfect people like you and me find a surprising acceptance.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s, Baden, Maryland in the Diocese of Washington and is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

 

Did you find what you were looking for?, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2013

December 25, 2013

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

“Did you find what you were looking for?” You have likely heard this phrase uttered many times over these past few weeks during Christmas shopping forays. It’s rather ubiquitous, isn’t it? “Did you find what you were looking for?”

Most of the time, you likely answered, “Yes, thank you,” or perhaps you inquired about something you had not been able to find. And in the context of purchasing something, you probably didn’t give your answer much thought beyond the immediate transaction.

But today, on this Christmas Day, let’s consider the question again: “Did you find what you were looking for?”

On this day we once again hear the old familiar story of an unwed teenage mother-to-be named Mary and her fiancé Joseph making the trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem under orders to be enrolled from their Roman overlords. The birth of Mary’s son happens, and we hear that a messenger from God appears to shepherds who get the initial report of the birth of the Messiah. The messenger gives them a sign by which they will find the baby, and a great number of the heavenly host appear to glorify God. The shepherds decide to go check this out, and they find things just as the angel had reported to them. They found what they were looking for!

We know this story, don’t we? Even if all we know of it is hearing Linus deliver its strains in King James English as a monologue in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” we know this story. We know the shepherds found what they were looking for: the baby Messiah, the Anointed One. What they perhaps did not know and could not fully comprehend in that moment over 2,000 years ago is what this child would mean for them – and for us.

While Luke tells us the events of Christ’s birth, in essence, answering the “What happened?” question, we are left with another question: “Why did it happen?” Why did God choose to come to us and live as one of us?

Part of the answer is found in the three short verses from today’s reading from the Letter to Titus:

“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy … so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

This passage is paraphrased to clarify the point of the author: The birth of Christ happened to save us.

It happened precisely because we could not save ourselves from the mess of living life on our own terms. If we could have done so, we would have, right? But human history has proved that we can’t do it in and of ourselves. So God took the initiative and set about this saving work, not because we earned it in any way, but solely because of God’s grace.

What a radical idea this is – especially in light of our capitalistic meritocracy-based culture. We did not earn this salvation – it was freely given to us by God’s grace. Grace is that unmerited, unearned love that God has for all of creation. The letter goes on to say that this grace “justifies” us, which means it makes our relationship with God right and balanced. God initiates making the relationship with us right. Make no mistake, we have the obligation to respond to this invitation and participate in a right relationship; however, we are not the initiators of that action – God is.

And the reason God makes this relationship right is so that we might become heirs, children of God, with a hope of eternal life. Eternal life is an often-misunderstood concept and often posited as “going to heaven when you die,” which turns it into some kind of celestial evacuation plan. But that isn’t what the scriptures mean by the term eternal life. Eternal life is living fully and freely in the present now, loving God and each other. This lifetime of loving presence happens right here and now and continues forever.

So when we think about the birth of Christ beyond the story of what happened and consider why it happened, it leads us back to the question, “Did you find what you were looking for?” Perhaps you haven’t considered that question in this context, but do so for just a moment.

You are here, in this church, on Christmas. Why did you come? You didn’t have to come, you know. Oh, sure, some here will give a nod to attending church on Christmas being part of your family tradition, or maybe it was to appease parents or grandparents, and some of you are accustomed to regularly attending church. But regardless of why you think you are here, ponder in your heart for a moment what you are really seeking, because perhaps something deeper brought you here. What are you really looking for?

If we are honest, we all have a deep longing – a sense of something missing in our lives. Some call this the “hole in our soul.” It is the nagging feeling that we are incomplete and lacking. We humans are consciously aware of our fragility, our finitude, our faults and our failings. It is a fearful thing to acknowledge this truth. Most of us spend our lives running away from this stark reality by attempting to fill this hole in our soul with anything that promises to fulfill or fix us.

But try as we might, we cannot fill this hole ourselves because it was placed there by God when we were breathed into existence. It was placed there for a purpose: to draw us to say “yes” to God’s free gift of love in Christ.

Christmas is the proclamation that God spoke an eternal “yes” to us by slipping through the back door of history as a helpless baby, to grow up and live with us, die for us, and be raised from the dead to prove once and for all that our fragility, finitude, faults and failings are not the last word.

Christ is still renewing, redeeming and giving life to us – all of us, no exceptions.

No matter what your life circumstances are this day, God called you here to speak a word of eternal life and love to you: a love that you didn’t have to earn or prove yourself worthy to receive. God’s movement is toward us and for us in the birth of Jesus Christ.

This love is mystical, and it is the only enduring and life-giving way to fill the hole in your soul. It comes to us through Word and Sacrament and is present through this community.

So come. Come to this Table. Come as you are. Come here today and you will find what you are looking for.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.