Wrecking Church, Christmas Eve – 2015

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

The late bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, The Right Rev. Thomas Shaw, posted a series of videos on YouTube called “A Monk in the Midst.” He was a brother of the Society of St. John the Evangelist as well as being an Episcopal bishop. He spoke in one of these videos about an encounter he had with a man named Fred and his six-year-old son Sam about what they were going to do on Christmas. The father explained that they would get up and open their presents on Christmas morning and then go to church. The son replied, “Church?! On Christmas? We’re going to go to church on Christmas?” Fred patiently explained, “Of course, that’s what Christmas is all about. It’s about Jesus’ birth and God coming to us.” Sam said, “I know, I know, I know! But Christmas! Church wrecks everything!” The church wrecks everything. Yes, yes it does and tonight we come here to encounter not only the church that wrecks everything, but also the child who was born to wreck everything.

It may sound a bit odd in the face of our culture’s approach to Christmas and even disquieting in an age where terrorism dominates the news cycle. But we dare not forget the scandal of both the cradle and the cross and be lulled by the culture’s attempts to sentimentalize Christmas. We all do it and to be honest, it even happens in the church.

Think for a moment about how our own hymnody conspires to tame this feast day into something more palatable and … dare we even say … nice. Consider the opening of the beloved carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” Lovely words from Phillips Brooks but if we think about the tumultuous history of the Middle East, imaging Bethlehem as peaceful more expresses a longing than an historical reality. And what about Away In A Manger telling us, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?” No crying? Any nurse or doctor would call that a zero on the Apgar score and would start resuscitation attempts immediately. Seriously, these images may just be conspiring to sentimentalize the scandal of Christmas.

What about those emotional expectations of the holidays? You know, those happy family get-togethers that often don’t turn out so great or the longing for an estranged relationship to magically get better and be resolved in some kind of Christmas miracle. Of course, there’s the cultural pressure to over consume. Whether it’s going overboard with buying presents and dreading the credit card bill in January or over-eating and drinking and dreading what the scale will tell you in January. Between sentimentality, emotional burdens, and unrealistic cultural expectations, perhaps we need this child of God to wreck what we’ve made of Christmas.

The reality is we come together this night to pay honor to the one who came to wreck all of that, the one who came to wreck everything! This child’s birth was the plan of a subversive God who snuck into the back door of history on a mission to wreck everything. Coming as one of us – vulnerable, poor, and powerless – he came to upend the world as we have constructed it.

He came to wreck our selfishness and narcissism, so that we might be able to love God and others and to receive that love in return. He came to wreck our fear of death, so that we might be able to live more fully and freely in this life. He came to wreck the political systems which choose who is in and who is out, so that all of God’s children would be included in the kingdom. He came to break down our tendency of tribalism pitting one group against another. Oh yes, we still organize ourselves into tribes; we just call them political parties, ethnic groups, or faith traditions now. He came to break down our economy of values to build a different one based on valuing the eternal rather than things that pass away. He came to break down our ideas of family to embrace a wider vision of God’s family, which includes all people, not just the ones like us. Yes, he came to wreck every structure we try to build which puts us first at the expense of everyone else. As he would later tell his followers, he came not to be served but to serve. And he calls us to follow in his path.

This is no small thing. For 2000 plus years, people have come together to mark the birth of Christ as God’s subversive way of dwelling among us and wrecking everything for the sake of bringing about something greater than we could ask for or imagine. To mark a vision of the kingdom of God unfolding right here in our midst regardless of our fears or of the conflict we may be experiencing. May this holy child, this holy one man wrecking crew, disrupt your life this season so that he might plant the grace of God in your heart and you may come to know Christ’s love. 

Download the sermon for Christmas Eve C.

Written by The Reverend Anjel Scarborough
The Reverend Anjel Scarborough is the rector of Grace Church, Brunswick MD. She is wife, mother, iconographer, writer and retreat leader.

The time has come, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2014

December 24, 2014

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

Mary’s time had come. After the long journey, the road to Bethlehem, and the days of worry before that – what would Joseph say when he found out she was pregnant? How did this happen anyway? But Joseph had stood by her, and now the time had finally come, in a strange city, with no family there to help, and the barn would have to do. There was no room in the inn, but how could they have afforded that anyway? Money was hard to come by. The baby at last was coming, and Mary was terrified.

And the shepherds, too, were terrified. Like Mary and Joseph, they weren’t sleeping inside that night: They were out in the fields, and it was cold. And suddenly this Angel of the Lord was confronting them, and this glory of the Lord was nearly blinding them, and this multitude from heaven was declaring peace on earth. There hadn’t been peace for a long time; how was this baby lying in a manger going to bring peace now? It didn’t make sense.

We have heard this story before, and we are probably not terrified tonight, as Mary and the shepherds were. But maybe we should be. Because if Christmas really comes, the way we say we want it to, things will have to change. The world will be reborn. The Kingdom of God will come on earth, as in heaven.

Still, like Mary, we have been waiting, and praying, and hoping for this night. When the Angel Gabriel told her she would bear God’s Son into the world, Mary’s response was, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary agreed to do this, despite the strange and unusual circumstances. She knew people would think the wrong thing and look down on her. She knew that Joseph might not understand. Even knowing how hard this would be, she said yes.

We also have a choice. We are not here merely to remember what happened so long ago on a cold night in Bethlehem. Like Mary, God is asking us: Will you bear Christ into the world? Will you carry Jesus in your heart?

Our road is different from Mary’s, but it is challenging in its own way. A new baby always changes things. Your life is no longer your own. If you agree to let Jesus be born again tonight, your life will change, maybe in ways you don’t expect. So be careful how you answer.

The Christmas story can so easily be lost under a sentimental blanket of snow, with cows gently lowing and stars brightly shining. This is true with the carols we sing, too. They are so familiar that we sometimes miss the real meaning.

For example: “It came upon the midnight clear.” The really interesting stuff in this carol happens in verse 3. This is true of most Christmas carols, actually: The real theology happens two or three verses in. Here’s the third verse of “It came upon a midnight clear”:

“Yet, with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”

And here’s the second verse of “In the bleak mid-winter”:

“Our God – heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.”

Christina Rosetti, who wrote this carol, is making a bold theological claim in this verse. When God comes – if God comes – heaven and earth will “flee away.” Heaven and earth as we know them now – everything we know, everything we see – will simply stop. Vanish. And then what? What comes next? Well, what comes next – what happens when God comes – is what Rossetti wants us to think about.

Perhaps the best example of Christmas carol theology is “O little town of Bethlehem.” The first couple of verses are sweet, almost cloying – all those “Christmas angels” and “silent stars.” But Phillips Brooks, the famous 19th-century preacher who wrote this carol, knew what he was doing. He has given us a perfect sermon in miniature. Here is the last line:

“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

The carol has gotten rather serious by this fifth verse. “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today” – not so sweet, is it? It may be what we need – it may even be what we want, what we are praying for – but it doesn’t sound easy.

“Cast out our sin” brings to mind some lines from the Magnificat, the Song that Mary sings after she hears from Gabriel that she is pregnant:

“[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”

There’s some resonance between God’s tearing our sin from us and casting it out, as in the carol, and God casting down the mighty from their thrones, sending the rich away, empty. Being sent away empty isn’t a punishment, you see – its a blessing. If we allow God to cast out our sin – if we allow God to empty us out – then we will be blessed indeed, just as Mary was.

And what is it, exactly, that we need to be rid of this year? What is the sin that needs casting out, the thing that’s getting in the way of God being born in us? Our desire to be important? To have all the right things? To have more than we need?

What is it that occupies your heart this Christmas? Maybe it’s sadness, frustration, anger? The feeling that you’re not good enough or smart enough or kind enough? Or maybe you’re lonely or afraid?

Whatever is in there, God wants to be in your heart, too. And if you let God in, even just a little bit: Watch out! Cast out our sin and enter in. He has sent the rich away, empty.

It is only after we have been emptied – of all the ridiculous things, all the needless stuff that gets in the way of God’s love – only when we are emptied of these worries, these desires, are we ready to be filled with the love of God. Only when we are empty can Christ be born in us. Only when we are empty will Christmas come. We can sing the carols and put out the crèche, but unless we are willing to be emptied out, there won’t be any place for God to live.

This is the inside work, the thing that must happen inside our hearts, in order for the outside work to move forward. And the outside work is the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Heaven and earth shall flee away, you see, when he comes to reign. We are being asked to bear God into the world, just as Mary did. And just like Mary, we know that this is not going to be easy, and it’s going to change everything. Are we brave enough to do this, knowing that if God’s kingdom really comes, our lives change forever? Are we willing to be cast down, emptied out, so that God may be raised up?

This labor, this bringing about the Kingdom of God, will not be easy. But this is Christmas; the time has come, and our call is to bear Jesus into the world, just as Mary bore him so long ago.

We are called to put flesh on the values of God’s kingdom, to put hands and feet and brains and shoulders to work for peace and justice and love.

Come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel. Be born in us today.

Merry Christmas.

Amen.

 

— The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

Making room, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2013

December 24, 2013 

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

Christmas is an occasion that brings families together. Surely there is at least someone here tonight wondering how he is going to be able to sleep on that fold-out couch that awaits him. That bar across the back starts to get really uncomfortable sometime in the middle of the night. And someone else is wondering how she’ll fair on the floor whether in an air mattress or in a sleeping bag. That’s what it likes when families gather, the house overflows with people, and we make room.

In the Palestine of Herod the Great, families also looked out for their own. And extended families could get quite extended in some circumstances. This is what makes Mary and Joseph’s dilemma such a problem, as Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary, “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

What were they doing in a stable with no bed for their baby but a manger, which is a polite word for a feed box? Where was their family? Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home. If Joseph had to go to Bethlehem, so would have his brother and sisters, father and mother, and his cousins, too, at least whichever of those family members were still alive. Each of them would have had to have found room in Bethlehem, and once they found room, they would have been obligated by duty to make room for Joseph and his very new, so obviously pregnant wife, Mary.

So why were Mary and Joseph in a stable? Perhaps the family had piled into the inn and Mary and Joseph were living in the overflow section. That explanation would work, except for Mary’s pregnancy. Even an elderly uncle or an odd second cousin could have given up a bed for a woman on the verge of childbirth.

Mary and Joseph were in a stable as there was no room for them in an inn. The shepherds did not find a stable overflowing with extended family knocking themselves out to make some better arrangements for the new baby. The shepherds found a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. No mother-in-law, no aunt, no cousins and no sisters-in-law. Just a very young mother, doing for her baby what she knew to be best, with the father trying to make things a bit better, the best he could under the circumstances.

Why this happened is a mystery. We can guess, as some have, that it was because Joseph was older, and Mary was his second wife. He had no surviving relatives to make room for him and his young bride. Or we can guess with others that the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy had stretched the limits of family to the point that the Holy Family was left out when it came time to sort out sleeping arrangements back in Bethlehem.

But what we know, and know with certainty, is that Mary and Joseph were left to fend for themselves. No family had made room for them in Bethlehem. In a town packed to the rafters with fellow ancestors of King David, no one could find room for Mary and Joseph, who had every reason to feel quite alone as they laid their baby in the manger.

This scene makes Jesus’ words of the coming judgment in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew all the more poignant:

“‘I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’”

Mary and Joseph were strangers, and no one invited them in. And those who shut their doors to Joseph as he looked for room for his great-with-child wife, were shutting their doors on God incarnate. When they did not make room for that one pregnant girl, they did not make room for the maker of heaven and earth to be born among us.

Yet, the story of Christmas is a story of good news of great joy for all people, not just those surrounded by family tonight, and not just those who will celebrate by exchanging expensive gifts. Christmas is exceedingly joyful good news because in coming to a couple who were themselves lost and left out, God turned the world upside down.

For the Christmas story did not start with Mary and Joseph alone in that stable in Bethlehem. Nor did the Christmas story begin with the angel appearing to Mary, or even with the prophets who foretold of the event centuries earlier. The Christmas story began with God looking on creation, so lovingly made and so needlessly gone astray.

God’s bold and daring plan was incarnation, the Word of God becoming human. In becoming human, God sided with the oppressed and the outcasts, and showed it by coming first to poor, lowly and even despised people.

The idea of God becoming human in lowly circumstances is wondrous, for it means that God knows you and loves you even as you are, whether you spend tonight alone or trying to sleep on a fold-out couch in a house full of extended family. The miracle of Immanuel, “God with us,” is that we see that though Mary and Joseph may have been forsaken by others, they were never forgotten by God.

Jesus was raised by Mary and Joseph – people with nothing but their love of God and neighbors to recommend them for the job. They had no status, no power and no wealth. The only thing they really had to offer was love. Having nothing to offer but love is exactly what the creator of heaven and earth had in mind all along.

And we who gather tonight in the warm glow of the light of God’s love should be challenged by this vision of a world turn right-side-up by a baby in a manger. For having seen that he who the universe could not contain may be found in a stable, and in the bread and wine of communion, how much better our eyes are to be focused on seeing our Lord in the people in need all around us. And it is this vision of the world that is indeed good news of great joy for all people.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia.

God comes to us in our gritty reality, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2012

December 24, 2012

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

Christmas Eve: Is there a more magical time? In the larger culture, this is often one of the few times when family and home regularly take precedence over other concerns. People light fires in their fireplaces, fill their households with candlelight and the smell of cinnamon; families eat special meals together with the glow of memory surrounding them.

There’s some irony to the coziness of Christmas Eve in our culture, since what we celebrate is the birth of a child to a couple in challenging circumstances far from home. The outbuilding in which Jesus was born did not smell of cinnamon brooms or roasting turkey. It wasn’t decorated in lights and bows. It smelled quite frankly of animals and hay. It’s hard to imagine Mary feeling completely at ease in these circumstances, much less glowing with that supernatural light that appears on Christmas cards. The first Christmas Eve was a struggle for Mary and Joseph; they had been traveling  – and we’re not talking planes, trains or automobiles; Mary was doubtless in pain; Joseph had to be worried and frustrated that there was no place for them to be secure.

The shepherds, who have graced their share of beatific Christmas cards themselves, did not bring tiny white lambs to the crèche. Shepherds were pretty far down the ladder in status and economic standing. They were almost certainly dirty, and perhaps staved off the cold with something to drink.

Our lovely Christmas-card illusions of the first Christmas Eve detract us for the gritty reality of the story, where the extraordinary nature of this story actually lies.

God came to us in Jesus. God came among us, not in the first-century equivalent of a Lear jet or a black limousine, but to a humble couple of travelers far from home and family. Jesus’ first attendants were from the edges of polite society, not from the center. This appears to be a clear signal from the writer of the Gospel of Luke that God’s story in the life of Jesus is going to unfold in unexpected ways, far from the trappings of royalty, distant from the centers of religious authority, among the poorest and the least. And that is by God’s choice.

What are we to understand about God through this story?

The writer of the Gospel of Luke goes on to tell the story of Jesus’ life with a particular emphasis that’s consistent with this birth story; Jesus continues to deal kindly with people on the margins, and tell stories with unexpected heroes, such as the Good Samaritan. The God we see through the portrayal of Jesus in Luke is a God who reaches past the boundaries of race, class, gender and religion to touch people who are on the outside, and it starts with the story of this night.

The earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas. This observance came later, when Christians began to talk about Jesus as more than a prophet; they began to see him as divine, and therefore to think about his whole life as a message to humankind from God. They began to talk about a concept called “the Incarnation,” by which they meant that God entered human history in a human life. This made the birth of Jesus a signal event in history, an event that changed the world forever.

In Luke’s account, the conception and birth of Jesus follow the pattern of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, in which God is always acting in unexpected ways to make relationship with God’s people. Just as Sarah conceived when she was old; just as Hannah conceived when she had been barren; just as Moses was called to lead, though he felt inadequate to the task – so Mary, another person who was nobody special, became the mother of Jesus. The place and time were not ideal: they were far from home and Mary went into labor. The historical timing was difficult, too; Mary and Joseph were of the Twelve Tribes, but they lived in an occupied nation and had to answer the call of the Roman governor to be counted.

In the midst of ordinary human history, with one more oppressor occupying one more province; in the midst of ordinary human experience – a pregnant woman and her betrothed, traveling uncomfortably and surprised by a birth far from home – God’s presence is known. God comes to us in the everyday; God is not excluded from a hard day at the office, a challenging commute, a hospital room, a government office. The birth of Jesus says to us that God’s desire is to be with us in all times and places, not only when the house is clean and the children are asleep. Those who visit him in Luke’s account suggest further that this good news is for everyone, and perhaps especially for those whose lives on the margins make them most open and receptive to good news.

One of the names for Jesus in scripture is Emmanuel, “God with us.” This familiar story of a man, a woman, a baby and the unlikely companionship of angels and shepherds, claims for all time that God is indeed with us, wherever we find ourselves, however difficult the path may be. As Martin Luther points out, the angels declare that he is born “unto us,” not merely born. Ultimately, we are called by this story to understand the birth of Jesus as a gift, something precious that blesses us and binds us to the Giver in love.

Like all the best gifts, this one can change our lives, if we let it. We always have the option of merely visiting this story once a year and allowing the Christmas-card images to wash over us, enjoying the sweet story without really entering its power. But this story’s true value comes in its gritty reality, its affirmation of human experience, its narrative of God’s great love for us, known in Jesus of Nazareth.

God intends for love to grow us, change us, heal us, remake us – not merely to delight and comfort us. This story takes its true power, not from birth, but from resurrection, the continual rebirth of all that is good and true and beautiful, the conquering of the powers of darkness and death that are seen most visibly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Tonight we remember just the beginning of that story, and its sweetness can sustain us through the coming year.

Let every heart prepare him room. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment. 

Let us whisper it, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2011

December 24, 2011

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

Part of the wonder of this night is the possibility of the meeting of worlds, the coming together of time. We sing, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Though we live so long after those events in Bethlehem, tonight we find ourselves at the manger. In our mind’s eye, we imagine the holy family in the stable, the mother tired, but radiant; the breath of the animals visible in the cold night air. We hear the lowing of the cattle and the rustle of straw. But most of all, we gaze in wonder at the baby, this long-expected child.

What would we say if we were there? What would we add to Mary’s contented sighing and Joseph’s protective, “There, there”? For, as with all babies, just his existence is a gift. And as with all babies, it’s not just their infancy, but their futures we imagine and dream of and long for. But with this baby, this little one named Jesus, we have seen his future. We have glimpsed what lies ahead for him and what it means for us. So, what do we say to him as we take our place by his manger tonight?

In 1994 the Rev. Richard H. Schmidt wrote a reflection in Episcopal Life magazine entitled, “Christmas: Let Me Hold You, Dear Little Jesus.” Inspired by his image of holding the infant Christ, here are some words for our hearts’ prayer on this Christmas Eve:

Little Jesus, let us hold you now. On this holy night, when you are a newborn baby, let us cradle you in our arms. Let us hold you and keep you warm. Now, while you are small and vulnerable, let us watch over you. We want to hold you now, because many times in time to come, you will hold us.

Rest well, sweet baby. Rest your tiny hands. For though you are the King of kings, you will touch no silk, you will carry no gold. You will grasp no earthly scepter, sign no imperial decrees. You will use your hands for far more precious works: touching a leper’s wound, wiping away a widow’s tear, blessing and breaking bread, and giving it to your friends. Your hands, now so perfect, so tender, so tiny, will someday be wounded for us.

Sleep well, sweet baby. Rest your tiny eyes. For someday you will look at the world and you will see the pain and loneliness and ache that humans bear. You will look at us and see us just as we are, with all our sins and loveliness both. You will look and see the Christ within each one of us, and you will try to teach us to see it too.

Hush now, sweet baby. Rest your tiny mouth. For someday from your mouth eternity will speak. Your tongue will summon the dead to life. Your words will define grace, pronounce blessings, teach, and paint pictures with words so we too might see our eternal God the way you know God to be. Your mouth will speak forgiveness to those who wrong you, will invite us to paradise to be with you forever, will send us forth in your name to all the world. Your words will echo down through centuries, bringing meaning and hope to our lives.

Rest now, tiny child. Rest your infant feet. For someday you will walk many miles to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives. Someday you will stride out in power across billowing waves in a storm-tossed sea. Someday your feet will be anointed with oil by a woman who prepares you for death, and your feet will bear the same nail prints as your hands. Rest your feet now, for someday millions will follow in your footsteps.

And sweet little baby, with your little heart, how much love you will show. Rest now. And let us hold you on this holy night, for someday, you will hold us. Someday we will feel lost and lonely. Someday we will wonder – is this all there is? What does it mean? What am I here for?

Then you will come to us. You will not be a helpless infant then. When you come to find us, you will come as our Wonderful Counselor, our deliverer. You will tell us that you searched for us. You will call us each by name. And when you find us, you will rejoice. You will invite us to your banqueting table and nourish us with your very self. You will remind us that we belong to you; we are yours.

Little baby, let us hold you on this holy night, for someday you will hold us. Someday we will feel deep sadness and sorrow. Something will happen in our lifetimes that grieves us so deeply that we may wonder where you are. But you will come to us, then, not as a helpless baby, but as the Prince of Peace. You will remind us of the promises of God, of the strength of hope, of God’s deep loving kindness, God’s steadfast love. You will hold us close, and if we are quiet enough to hear, you will whisper to us that all will be well. All manner of things shall be well. You will tell us that you are here for us always, not just when we are empty enough to know we need you. You walk beside us, offering us your peace every day.

Sweet infant redeemer, let us hold you on this holy night, for someday you will hold us. Someday we will grow old or sick, our bodies will fail, and it will be time for us to rest from this world. Then you will come to us, not as a vulnerable baby, but as Mighty God, Everlasting Father. You will welcome us into eternal light and life. You will welcome us to a heavenly feast prepared since the beginning of time, a home and a place for us.

You will do all of these things for us at great cost to yourself. You will teach us the meaning of giving, all that we have and are, on behalf of goodness and love, no matter the cost.

But that will be someday. Tonight we adore you as a baby. We welcome you as a helpless, vulnerable babe, as the Almighty God who became a child so we could become full mature human beings; who was wrapped in swaddling cloths so we could be unraveled from the snares of death; who came on earth so we could live beneath the stars; who had no place in the inn, so you could prepare for us mansions in heaven; who became poor, so we could become rich; in whose weakness is our strength. This is the night, the wondrous night when the creatures hold our creator. This is the night of grace, when the Lord of heaven and earth stoops down, reverses roles, and allows us – the finite – to serve the infinite God.

And so, little Jesus, on this one night, let us hold you.

And let us whisper now the thanks that will be yours for all the years to come. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for loving us. We love you too.

 

— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

The work of Christmas, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2010

December 24, 2010

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

On this holy night, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who, according to Luke, was born in Bethlehem, in a stable, because the town was full of out-of-town visitors who had come to pay their taxes. But if you look around, you will see that we’ve made much more of this celebration than the observance of a simple birth story.

This time of year is profoundly fraught with multi-layered meanings; family traditions; economic success for merchants; in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice; the pause between the end of the lunar year and the longer solar year; and our year-end tendency to want to evaluate this year before embarking on another. All these things, along with a group of fictional stories like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, find their way into our consciousness, our decorations, our gift-buying habits, our parties, and into our expectations. Our culture treats Christmas with massively sentimental attention. We watch Hallmark specials on TV, we resurrect “A Christmas Carol” with its ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; and we long for our families to match these sentimental visions. We can even get sentimental over a puny little Christmas tree, like the one in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

None of this is bad. Traditions instruct us, delight us, and remind us of our values. But Christmas trees and Rudolph don’t have anything to do with the birth of a Savior. What is this story meant to tell us? If we really want to look at Christmas past, imagine the morning after Jesus is born:

The stable is full of animals. The cow is loudly asking to be milked. The straw smells like animal dung and the funk of childbirth. Stunned and exhausted new parents wake up to an entirely different reality from yesterday: there’s a baby in their lives now. They rub their eyes: were those really angels making all that noise last night? And what about those shepherds – they found us in this dim little stable because, they said, a host of angels showed them the way. The new life lying in the straw between them is somehow the cause of all the commotion. True, every baby is a miracle, but this baby – Mary and Joseph can’t stop staring at him, touching him, holding him, like any new parents – they know that God has plans for this baby, and they’re a little afraid.

We often regard this sweet scene through a Hallmark-special fuzzy lens, as though it were only about another sweet baby. But this nativity scene, the morning after the dazzling holy night, isn’t just the end of Mary’s pregnancy and the start of a new family. The baby in the manger is none other than Emmanuel, God with us. The people who walked in darkness have, indeed, seen a great light – and we’re not just talking about the shepherds and the star. The light emanating from this sleepy domestic scene is the light of God, come to be with us, come to dwell in us, come to transform us. The response of faithful people to this new reality is to learn from Jesus, to emulate Jesus, to become bringers of God’s light ourselves. We celebrate the gift that God has given to us in Jesus when we subvert oppression, especially in the life-affirming ways that Jesus employed – by teaching, healing, giving voice and vision to those who have been in darkness. The work of Christmas begins, but does not end, tonight.

One of the best-loved of all Christmas hymns is “Joy to the world.” Listen to the first verse, where we sing “the Lord is come” – very much like the memorial acclamation in the Eucharist, when we say “Christ is risen.” “The Lord is come” says that Jesus comes to us here and now, not only on that first Christmas 2,000 years ago. The universe shifted the moment that Jesus was born, shifted toward the reality of God’s presence in and with and for God’s creation. We are faced with the task as Christians of making real that revolutionary love, here and now, in the time and place we belong to. Christmas present should look different and better than Christmas past.

The other part of the first verse of “Joy to the world” that challenges us is this: “let every heart prepare him room.” How have you made room for the living Christ amid the busy shopping days and decorating and parties? The only way for us to “prepare him room” that matters to the world is when we make room for Jesus to challenge us and change us, to develop us and transform us into Christ’s own hands and feet and strength and love for this time and place. To “prepare him room” means giving up some of our attachment to having a “perfect Christmas,” one that touches all our personal buttons and fulfills every tradition and wish. To prepare him room means, perhaps, less retail and more giving; less concern about having a perfect dinner table and more feeding the hungry; less decorating and more real celebration of who Jesus is, the one who is always being born in our hearts and who desires always to be with us.

Christmas doesn’t end tomorrow. Christmas doesn’t end with Epiphany, or Lent, or Easter; Christmas is God’s continuing gift of God’s presence with us, and Christmas is our challenge to prepare room in our hearts, and in our lives.

So what about Christmas future?

As we pack up our ornaments for another year, fill the garage with boxes labeled “Christmas,” think about how your life in January and February can continue the work of Christmas. As you pull the tinsel off the tree and put away the Frosty the Snowman videos, imagine who is lost, who is hungry, who needs peace in March and April. When the shepherds are back with their flock in the box, remember their surprise and joy, and find someplace to offer the song of the angels to someone who needs it in June.

Howard Thurman puts it this way in his poem “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 brothers,
To make music in the heart.

 Merry Christmas.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

Light is Born, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2009

December 24, 2009

Psalm 89:1-29; Isaiah 59:15b-21; Philippians 2:5-11

The stars in Africa shine brightly. Like when you were a child, and there was far less light pollution than there is now. The dark of a night without moon would ignite the stars as bright sparks. The stars in Africa are those sparks.

If you look patiently, you can see the Milky Way, as a swath of faint cloud, flowing as a stream through space. The lights of the sky, the universe itself, extend forever, as an infinity pool, where horizon and sky are as one. A magical place where the temporal kisses the spatial, and there is no longer a distinction between time and space.

It is perhaps there that you will find God; it is perhaps there that you will find eternity.

Imagine yourself as a hobo traveling through space. You speed past the star Vega, and the constellation Hercules. You spiral outward through the Orion Arm of the Milky Way into its fingers, past nebulae, and into the space of galaxies.

You race infinitely faster than light toward the edge, but now the edge is obscured, only black extending to black. Galaxies distant, planets are now unimaginably behind you. Through this darkest night, even of your own soul, this darkest night, even of the soul of humanity, an even darker space, looms unimaginably in your path, a black hole, darker than the black space that surrounds it.

You can’t actually see a black hole. You perceive it. You sense it, by the absence of matter, by the absence of light and time. And as you approach it, the black hole sucks you into itself, its gravity bearing on you as chaos; you are spiraling downward into its center.

The hole swallows you eternally, as into the abyss. The violence of the black hole is unimaginable; you are alone, and there is no hope.

But light is born.

Light is always born where there is no hope, in black holes. Light as pinprick appears, a star, bare and stark against the black. You reach to apprehend the star, but inexplicably, the light from the star apprehends you!

The light captures you, and as if by magic, and you are no longer subsumed by black hole in distant space, but by some strange Einstein phenomenon, by some wrinkle in time, you find yourself here, in this world – newly alive, freshly born. Created, or is it re-created? Oxygen fills your lungs, and you cry as a newborn. You are a person drowned, but inexplicably alive!

Do you see? The Star? The distance between the farthest star and your heart is hair’s breadth, and eternity is there, in that slightest distance, both across the universe, and within your soul – for eternity is not as you had imagined.

The star as a pinprick of light into life’s deepest darkness, the edge of your universe. Time and space are of no account, at the edge of your reality, there, at that edge, you will find the Holy.

The Divine, God as Almighty. Inaccessible. Invisible. Absolute.

Even time must account to Elohim, for with this God, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is a day. Even light and dark must account to the Great “I Am,” for with this God, there is no distinction between them; for the night and the day are the same. Even distance and space must account to El Shaddai, for with this God, the edge of the universe is at the tips of your fingers.

The prophet, Isaiah, acknowledged the plight, ours and that of the human race: the people walk in darkness, and elsewhere, deep darkness enshrouds the people. A black hole without hope.

We thought we could save ourselves. They called the beginning of the twentieth century, the New Century. Optimism abounded. We found ourselves at peace, on the brink of scientific breakthroughs; there was nothing we couldn’t do. We could fly to the sky, build skyscrapers, peer into galaxies.

We awoke from that dream to the reality of two world wars, massacres in Cambodia and Rwanda, AIDS and malaria pandemics, and macabre catastrophes. It became apparent that we cannot save ourselves as we had imagined. Even now, prophets warn of a global environmental catastrophe.

Although our education and scientific knowledge can help, we are still in need of more. We are in desperate need, for the dark night is black. We are hurtling through space past galaxies and nebulae, at warp speeds, toward black holes and an uncertain end, and we are sore afraid.

We need a Savior.

The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them. … And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

You imagine the Christmas star to be about a baby, born one more time, this year, the same as last, but only a baby misses the point. This night shines as day because eternity itself, El Shaddai, the Great “I Am,” the ever gentle Elohim, transcended the barrier dividing time from space, as light and life and hope, to save us from darkness.

For unto us a Child is Born, a Son is given.

Several years ago, the earth traveled through a meteor belt of some sort, and if you cared, you could sit outside at night and watch thousands of meteors etch lines of light across the sky. Imagine sitting in your backyard, 40 degrees at four in the morning, wrapped in a blanket, huddled in absolute wonder as light after light appeared suddenly – here, there, darting to and fro. Imagine the joy of discovering light.

Do you want to know what Christmas is about?

The people who lived in darkness have discovered light.

For tonight, this night, pure love has permitted itself to be pulled into your black hole, spiraling downward, chaotically and critically until it came to rest in a manger, in a stable, among barn animals and hay, on a dark, crisp night, much like tonight, when the stars shone as in Africa.

If you looked up, that night, you could see the Milky Way, as a faint stream floating across the sky.

Christmas is about a God who still condescends to earth, and that means this: Christmas is about the human soul, for the God of pure light chose to become as us, bounded by time and space, even – now get this – to bow down to us, to save us from the death, the darkness, the fear. But more than that: God esteemed your soul as worthy.

God esteemed you as worthy. For you, a light shone in the darkness, which is why the Savior beckons you out of your Christmas stupor, and into a real faith, a true and living faith, a faith in which you touch something – someone – you have never touched before, and you see a light you have never seen before.

And suddenly there appeared the heavenly host, who began praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.

Peace to his people on earth.

Amen.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the rector of Christ Church in Sausalito, California. Originally from the Diocese of East Tennessee (serving at St. Luke’s, Cleveland), he has also served in the Diocese of Easton (St. Paul’s Church, Chestertown). Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years. Rob is the author of “The Episcopal Call to Love” (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

What’s your response going to be the next time you hear God calling?, Christmas Eve (B) – 2008

What happens when authority calls?

David, the military general, is now king, and thinks it’s time to end the military campaign. David has been able to settle down, and act like peace really has come. He’s even built himself a great palace, with pillars and beams made from those great cedars of Lebanon. So why should God’s ark still be in a tent? He’s acting with authority in that scene from 2 Samuel, and Nathan agrees with his strategy. Until Nathan has a dream that night. That dream reminds them both who is the ultimate authority and strategist, the one with a view from above. God basically says, “No thanks. I’ve been wandering around with these people from the very beginning; I’m not going to stop now. But I will build you a house, David – a dynasty that will last.”

What happens when authority calls on Mary? Her encounter with the angelic messenger starts in an odd way. The usual opening line of an angel is, “Fear not!” but this one begins with the salutation, “Greetings, favored one.” It could also be translated, “Rejoice, blessed one.” The angel might even be saying, “I salute you.” She’s startled by this unconventional opening, and it says she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” What’s going on here? This isn’t a normal encounter between angel and mortal, and it’s not a normal encounter between superior and subordinate. The angel’s not saying, “Don’t be afraid, the cavalry’s on its way,” nor is the angel saying, “Atten-hut! here are your orders.” The angel’s opening a conversation – as if between equals.

The angel’s message is about orders, but in a rather different sense than we think about them. This isn’t a military order, a command that expects immediate and almost unquestioning obedience. Military orders can be refused, if the recipient believes them to be unlawful, but the consequences are pretty unpleasant, and you can’t expect to use a defense of illegal orders and get off scot-free. There is absolutely no sense of forcible compulsion about the angel’s order.

This conversation between Gabriel and Mary is about sharing a vision, the kind of perspective a general might have. The strategy of a strategos, the general who climbs up the hill to survey the battlefield. Gabriel is offering a big picture and asking if Mary will cooperate. Sort of like the old Mission Impossible opener, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it … .” It is a choice that can be accepted or not. The strategos has other options if the answer is no.

Mary’s first response is, “Sorry, unable. The equipment’s not ready.” And Gabriel responds by saying, “Doesn’t matter. Elizabeth thought the same thing. And she’s six months into this deployment.”

Mary’s next response is remarkable. She says, “Here I am, ready to serve.” And then, what’s usually translated as, “Let it be with me according to your word,” actually starts out the same way a command does, “Let it be done.” In Latin, it’s “fiat.” She claims the authority offered her. She commands, in full cooperation with the one who has asked. She claims authority, and responds with authority.

This is a hearing, responding, and claiming, not mindlessly following orders or only because a gun’s to your head, but out of a deep conviction that this is God’s call. This is what is sometimes called submission to God – putting yourself under orders out of faithfulness to God’s larger mission.

Here is a connection that may challenge you, but it’s an important link to God’s larger mission. Mary is also revered by Muslims, who recognize her as a righteous woman, and deeply value her example of submission to the will of God. Muslims do not see her son as divine, but they do believe he was born to a virgin. The Quran actually mentions Mary more often than the New Testament does. The word Islammeans “submission to God,” and Mary is revered because she is such an important example of what that looks like. That word Islam has the same root as shalom and salaam, words usually translated as “peace.” God’s mission, the mission of the Prince of Peace, is about reconciling the world. The Christian story of that reconciling work begins with Mary.

In a very real sense, Mary is the first human being to make a Christian response. Her cooperation with that larger mission is at the root of Christianity. Faith in divine authority and claiming one’s own authority to partner with God the strategos is part of our Christian life.

We’re all people under authority. Clergy – deacons, priests, and bishops – are called “ordained” because they have taken vows to live a disciplined life, obeying the pastoral authority of others. All the baptized are under authority – at baptism we make solemn vows to give our hearts to God and live in particular ways that build up the body, both the body of our own existence and our existence in the community called the Body of Christ. Living an ordered existence is about discipline, practice, and askesis – a Greek word that means athletic training.

The ascetic practices of our faith tradition are about training for mission, God’s mission to heal this world, to build a world of peace, with justice, for all. That’s what all that prophetic language about building straight roads in the desert is about. That’s what God has in mind for David and his dynasty – to build a society where no one goes to war anymore, where there isn’t any more poverty or the violence that results, where everyone has the opportunity for meaningful work, and no one stays sick because he can’t afford medical care.

That’s what the song of Mary is about – the one she sings after the angel visits:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. The almighty has done great things for me; he has mercy on those who fear him, he has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has fed the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary’s “yes” is a choice to participate in God’s work of healing the world. It’s the same choice you and I get every day – to say “yes” to the free and open invitation to cooperate and co-create as part of the healing, redeeming work of God in Christ. It’s not about taking orders simply because they are written down, or spoken, or demanded. It is about a careful and thoughtful and whole-hearted decision to participate. It is about claiming the authority God has given us.

“Let it be with me according to your word.”

What’s your response going to be the next time you hear God calling?

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Written by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. This sermon was originally delivered at Bolling Air Force Base on Sunday, December 21, 2008.

Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2005

December 24, 2005

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

The birth of the Messiah in a lowly stable is current news. Just a year ago Newsweek devoted a December issue to the topic. It was quite good! It talked about how modern scholarship attempts to unravel what happened or didn’t some 2,000 years ago. It leaves the reader with a lot of unanswered questions, and a feeling that the investigations into the historical background for the birth narratives of Jesus might just be a blind alley.

There has always been resistance to accepting the story of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the babe in the manger. In fact, resistance has a lot to do with how anyone comes to terms with the Nativity. But did you ever wonder how it is that God’s way of working in the world is designed to minimize resistance? Had the announcement of the birth of Jesus been broadcast widely, the Roman Empire would have done everything possible to suppress the event. In fact Herod typifies the resistance. Though a Jew, he is so threatened by what he hears from the wise men, who are only asking for information about finding Jesus, that he sets out to destroy every male two years of age or less, just to be sure no usurper comes along to challenge his reign—as if God were interested in doing that.

In the science fiction stories about the Starship Voyageur, the Borg are creatures depicted assimilating every life form with which they come in contact. “Resistance is futile,” is their mantra. But in one episode one of the starship crew becomes part of the Borg and discovers that by not resisting actual liberation from them is possible. This is precisely what God chose to do.

We are all resistant to change, new ideas, even new ways of keeping house! “My mother always did it that way; don’t change it!” “This new plan by management will never work!” “We’ve never done it that way before!” Somehow we think resistance will win out over change. Sometimes it does, but rarely. At best it can delay things, even in Congress!

That is because in spite of our natural inclination to resist there is also a drive to move ahead, to open new frontiers and see things in a new light. God seems to work this way. Our God is not a God of tradition and unchanging revelation. Our God does new things.

The Birth of the Messiah had been “in the works” for a long time. In fact, the whole of Scripture up to the New Testament can be read as God’s preparation for this event, the birth of Jesus. And there was resistance. The people led by Moses were unruly, complaining, and disobedient. They preferred Egypt’s slavery to wandering in the desert. Many of the ancient kings of Israel turned against the ways of the Lord. The 8th Century BCE prophets were repudiated, even the greats like Amos and Hosea.

But the plan prevailed, and now comes the birth event itself. Yes, on this Holy Night we are all but there, “standing on the tiptoe of expectation,” as one Gospel writer puts it. But that’s because we know the story. The actual birth of Jesus was a quiet, unheralded event except for a few motley shepherds, the Holy Family and some seers from the East.

And that’s the point. God chose a path to be born into humanity that would encounter little resistance because God wanted to join the resistance, not provoke it. The author, Rick Maurer, in his book entitled Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Unconventional Strategies that Build Support for Change, writes about the phenomenon of resistance and how one overcomes it by actually joining it. Well, God knew about this before Mr. Maurer did! God joined the resistance, if you will, by choosing to be born into it, lowly and quietly in a backwater region of the Roman Empire through the biological birth process of a young girl, probably 14 or so.

It is this method of God’s, taking the path of joining the resistance, that makes the Christmas story believable. If Luke had chosen to depict Jesus’ birth in terms of cosmic, earth-shaking conquests, if Luke had portrayed dominions and powers being toppled, it would never have worked. Few people approach the Messiah as conquering king. Most of us come to the crib, gaze into it and wonder, wonder if the light of the Christ Child is really strong enough to overcome the great resistance of the darkness.

And so far, it seems, that is exactly what happens. Slowly, deliberately, and with apparent failures and setbacks, the plan of salvation unfolds. It’s not a smoothly rising road, but a journey with rocks and deserts in the way for most of us. But this crib is the starting place, and it teaches us all something profound about God’s nature. God does not choose to use power to overwhelm us; rather God uses the most compelling possible strategy, being born as a human being, to lead us back to our loving creator. Nothing else would have or could have worked. The writers of the Gospel saw that, and used the birth narrative to illustrate this truth. True, they each wrote about it from different perspectives, but the account of Joseph, Mary, the shepherds and the wise men is more than a charming story.

How do you measure resistance to God? America is still a church-going nation, but if you came from another planet and read newspapers or watched the six o’clock news you would never know it. The resistance is in full swing every day. Good news is hard to find. It always has been. It doesn’t make good copy.

Luke is not interested in any of this. As a writer, as a believer, he wants one thing to be clear: God came and was born among us, quietly but with every intention of joining the resistance and conquering it, one soul at a time. That is the miracle, the Good News prevailing. This is the night when we can shed our resistance anew, and find that simple things like a birth in a manger matter more than anything.

This is the night when heaven and earth are joined in a glorious way, with human beings at the center of the joint. This is the night when “the hopes and fears of all the years” are resolved by a stable and a star. This is the night when we can truly sleep in heavenly peace, because we know that God has entered our world to reclaim it forever.

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is staff officer for congregational development, rural and small church communities, at the Episcopal Church Center.