However, this year is unlike any in our collective memory. This year we have been reminded again and again that the best way we can express our love for our family, neighbors, and community is by staying home. By calling our loved ones and sending notes instead of dropping in for a visit. By sharing in holiday meals over zoom, google meet, or facetime instead of in one festively decorated dining room. We have attended church online, even as a piece of us aches to sit in a crowded church, taking in the fragrant smell of poinsettias and incense, the lilt of children’s laughter, the beauty and majesty of the flickering candles as the gathered people sing Silent Night.
The joy of this Christmas is laced with grief, loneliness, fear, and anxiety. Over one point seven million families around the world will spend today longing for loved ones who died from COVID-19. Even as we hold onto the hope we see on the horizon with the first round of vaccine distribution, an eventual return to the gatherings we love, and discovering new normals, we cannot forget the pain that this year has held for so many.
In some ways, the pain of this year helps us to better understand the mixture of emotions that Mary and Joseph would have been grappling with as they awaited the birth of their child. Their love was not a Hallmark special, even if we want to pretend otherwise. Mary really was an unwed, teenage mother who embraced a vision proclaimed by an angel. Joseph really was committing his life to a woman that society would encourage him to leave. The birth of their child was not attended by doting grandmothers and aunts. It was in a manger, as they travelled home to be counted for a government census.
The birth of Jesus of Nazareth was anything but perfect.
It was in equal parts messy, mystical, strange, and wonderful.
Most of all, the birth of Jesus was a proclamation of God’s love for creation.
Christina Rossetti captured the meaning of this moment in her Christmas hymn:
Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas;
star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, Love divine;
worship we our Jesus,
but wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
love be yours and love be mine;
love to God and others,
love for plea and gift and sign.
It is no mistake that we witness this story of extraordinary love through the lens of a handful of shepherds and their faithful sheep. On the night Jesus was born, shepherds were guarding their flock, when suddenly an angel, a creature of light, stood before them in the night sky. They were terrified. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).
For a few brief moments after, the night sky lit up, and it was as if all the heavens were singing God’s praises, while the shepherds stood awestruck in the fields. When it was over, the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem to go and see this child, God’s love in human form.
I have often wondered what the shepherds did with their sheep as they made their way to see Jesus. Did the shepherds leave their flock behind? While a shepherd might circle a route, leaving a flock untended for a short while, this trip to the village would have taken them away for an extended period. It would mean a predator could attack the flock, risking the shepherd’s very livelihood.
Or maybe, the shepherds brought their flock with them, and overwhelmed the narrow streets of the small village. If the shepherds and their flock all knelt down before Jesus, in and surrounding the manger, then maybe the story is reminding us that God did not just come for all of humanity, but rather for all of creation? Showing us that not only did the angel proclaim good news to the most ordinary of people, but the animals they tended as well.
With or without their sheep, the shepherds were not coming from the next field over. They traversed rocky terrain, from the mountainside and down into the village. The journey, whether short or long, would have tired out their flock. Yet any weary feet or hooves were forgotten by the mere presence of the child lying in the manger. As the shepherds and their flock returned back into the fields, they were “...glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…”(Luke 2:20).
The shepherds and their flocks were changed by God becoming flesh, by experiencing a radical and unconditional love in human form. And every time we pause to remember that God has come to journey among us, we too, are changed. Because the greatest gift of all is the gift of our God, the God of all creation, choosing to become incarnate; choosing to become flesh; choosing to become “emmanuel” or rather, God with us.
Emmanuel was born to show all of creation just how much God loves us, to show us that even in the harshest moments of our lives, the Love of Christ is always with us.
Even in this most impossible and challenging of years, we know that the Love of Christ is with us. Carrying us, encouraging us, inspiring us to keep moving forward towards the dream God has for all of creation.
God is with us. This is the greatest, most unimaginable of gifts. Our faith calls us to join the work of transforming creation through our acts of love. Love of God, love of neighbor.
As we take in the mixture of emotions this day holds for us in 2020, I invite each of us to spend some time this Christmas season reflecting on what ways we have experienced God’s love this year, and how we hope to engage in acts of love in the coming year. Amen.
Tonight we do come, as we have for many years, and through many generations. We come to remember and tell again and sing again of the birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the birth in which Love itself became human flesh.
We come to marvel and to be grateful.
But, as we’ve said many times in recent months, this year it is different. Tonight it is hard to summon up “joyful and triumphant.” I think it is important to acknowledge how hard it is not to be together physically tonight, how hard not to see and touch and greet one another in person, how hard to receive only a spiritual communion, and not the physical elements of the sacrament of Eucharist.
I was rather tearful when I read the first draft of tonight’s liturgy; I suspect that a lot of us will feel a lump in the throat during this evening’s service.
Many of our Christmas traditions center on the warm-and-cozy - families gathered in cinnamon-and-balsam scented air, watching adorable children re-enact Christmas card scenes of a wonder-filled holy family surrounded by pleasant shepherds and proverbial “friendly beasts”.
But that is not really the story we have heard from Luke’s gospel tonight. And the thing is, the realities of the events recounted in Luke’s story are realities that we can connect with in powerful ways in this Christmas in this strange and difficult year; as always, tonight’s story has much to tell us, even (and perhaps particularly) from the vantage point of this challenging Christmas season.
Luke’s narrative is set in a landscape of political unease -a first connection we can make. The Emperor, Augustus, had issued a decree requiring everyone to travel to their city of origin to be counted – not for anything that would benefit them, but for taxation purposes. Regardless of the cost or inconvenience, required compliance with political edict was nature of things for Jews of 1st century like Joseph & Mary – something in which they had no choice.
That the couple could find no lodgings and wound up in a stable added insult to the injury of the requirement of their travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem was not a commercial center with available lodging for strangers, but a small village. Joseph was not a stranger, however, but returning to the town where he certainly should have had family.
And if we know anything about the culture of the ancient near east, we know they valued and practiced hospitality.
What an extraordinary run of bad luck for Joseph and Mary that they should be required to travel just as she was ready to give birth, that for reasons unknown, there were no kinfolk to provide assistance, and that in a land of hospitality, the best shelter they could find was in a stable.
Mary and Joseph’s situation, that first Christmas, didn’t turn out the way they would have planned it any more than our Christmas is what we would have chosen.
And then there were the shepherds.
Shepherds occupied the very lowest rungs of the social ladder in first century Judea. Stereotyped as liars and thieves, shepherds were not permitted to give testimony in court. For the religious community in Judea they were outsiders; shepherds were considered ritually unclean and were unable to participate in the Jews’ required Sabbath rituals.
These were not the people to whom you would expect God to send a birth announcement, and certainly not who you would invite to visit the newborn. What must Mary and Joseph have thought when the shepherds showed up?
Luke tells this story he does to make a point about the birth of Jesus and the nature of God. It’s a point that echoes throughout the gospel – really, throughout all of scripture, - a point Jesus’ followers struggled with then, and that we struggle with today. Luke shows us (as do so many of the biblical storytellers) that God does the unexpected and the incomprehensible. That with God, things FREQUENTLY don’t turn out the way we expected or the way we would have planned.
The Christmas story show us that God arrives on the periphery, and where things are hard, which is always where God is needed. That night in Bethlehem of Judea, God shows up in the midst of the everyday realities of a baby being born and a group of disenfranchised fieldhands hearing the news and coming to see.
God takes on new life in human history in a setting of political oppression, and to a couple unexpectedly on their own in difficult circumstances.
The birth of Jesus says to us that God’s desire is to be with us in all times and places, not only when things are tidy and sparkly, that God comes among us even when we cannot be together as we wish we could.
The birth of Jesus reminds us that redemption of the world begins in small events in out-of-the-way places, that the small events in our own out-of-the-way lives are also a part of that process of redemption.
The visit of the shepherds, in Luke’s account, suggests further that the good news of God’s presence, God’s new life in the midst of chaos and discomfort, is news for everyone, and perhaps especially for those whose lives on the margins make them most open and receptive to good news.
As Martin Luther points out, the angels declare that Jesus is born “for us,” not merely that Jesus is born. 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.
We must ask whether we are ready for our unexpected God to show up in unlikely places in our lives, and to invite us on surprising journeys – journeys that, as Heather pointed out in her sermon this past Sunday, we may not even quite feel ready for.
We always have the option of visiting the Nativity story once a year and allowing the Christmas-card images to wash over us, enjoying a sweet story without really entering its power.
But this story’s true value comes in its gritty reality, its affirmation of the messy-ness of human experience, its narrative of God’s great love for us, known in Jesus of Nazareth.
God intends for God’s love to be born and grow in us, to change us, heal us, remake us – not merely to delight and comfort us.
Moreover, this story takes its greatest power, not from Jesus’ birth, but from resurrection, from the continual rebirth of all that is good and true and beautiful, the conquering of the powers of terror and death that surround us and that are seen so visibly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Tonight we remember just the beginning of that story, but its power can sustain us throughout the coming year, whatever else lies ahead.
Christ the Savior is born.
Let every heart prepare him room.
We can either have apples or oranges.
We can either leave the lights on or off.
We can either be liberal or conservative.
We can either be right or wrong.
We can either make choices that are good or bad.
We long for clear, precise, and easy answers. Yet whenever we change our perspective, by looking under the microscope or looking down from 20,000 feet above--we recognize a binary approach sometimes leaves us polarized. Particularly given how nuanced life is and how complex the systems and institutions we are a part of really are at their core. Life is really more of a spectrum, or a direction we journey towards, where at different moments we may travel forward, backward, north, south, east, or west.
Take for example living faithfully. How often have old systems, including within the Church, told us if you do X, you are living faithfully, and if you do Y, you are not. If you are a good Christian then you make God happy, and get to go to heaven. If you are a bad Christian then you make God angry, and well, all that weeping and gnashing of teeth business will set in.
Yet faithfulness to God is not so binary. Our God cannot be boxed in.
The theme we see within scripture indicates faithfulness, like most of life, is really a spectrum or direction we journey towards. Take for example the bigger picture of what is at play in our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures.
In 1 and 2 Samuel, the people of Israel have been in a moment of transition from a tribal form of governance to a monarchy. To be clear, it was not part of God’s vision for the people of Israel to have a monarchy, but rather what the people of Israel desperately wanted. God did not refuse them. Through the prophets, God explained all that would befall the Israelites if they went down this road. They kindly ignored the caution sign. God understood the limitations of their faith at that moment in time, and met the Israelites where they were.
In today’s passage, we get a glimpse of what is happening for the people of Israel as they have transitioned from King Saul to King David. David has become concerned that the tent, which has housed the Spirit of God since their time in the wilderness, is no longer good enough. After all--they were now an established monarchy, and doesn’t God deserve the best? Even the prophet Nathan was swept up in David’s vision, before God does some clarifying for them, once again. God does not need or want David to build a temple. Rather, God will make the people into a temple. God cares about the gathered people, and is always inviting us to grow in our faithfulness. Yet when we are caught up in our own ideas, and limit our faithfulness, God still meets us where we are.
So at one place on the spectrum we have the Israelites, who at that particular moment in history were only willing to travel with God up to a certain point. At another place on the spectrum, we have a soon-to-be teen mother, who will be invited to lean completely into her faith.
Mary is a young woman, and it was understood that she would marry Joseph. The angel Gabriel visits this young woman, and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Understandably, she was a bit perplexed by this surprise visit and greeting. Gabriel goes on to tell her “Do not be afraid, Mary”, you have found favor with God, you will conceive a son and name him Jesus. This son will go on to do things for God that will turn this world upside down and right side up again. Mary, still understandably a bit perplexed, wonders how any of this is possible. Gabriel speaks of the Holy Spirit at work within her, and then lets her know her relative Elizabeth, who had been unable to have a child, is also pregnant. The primary point Gabriel was trying to make to Mary is, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Now this story is one of the most curious that we explore each year. Yet the part that startles me every single time, is not the surprise conception. What surprises me is Mary’s faithfulness, her response. Her willingness to walk down this path with God. A path that we know will hold beautiful and tender moments, as well as the deep grief and agony of a mother burying her child. Mary’s response is a simple one. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary’s faithfulness is an expression of beauty that might take our breath away if we sit with it long enough. Mary doesn’t say, I don’t know about this… or I’ll try my best. She simply says, Here I am; your servant. May all you will be so. Could you imagine what our world might look like if every day we woke up and said, Here I am God. I am your servant, and I’ll go wherever you send me?
Mary is an exemplary model of faithfulness, while our earlier stories from 2 Samuel are a reminder that even when our own faithfulness is limited--God is still with us. Sometimes we are going to feel fully alive, and in complete solidarity with God as we make this journey. We will wake up and say, Here I am God. I am your servant, and I’ll go wherever you send me. Other times, we find we can only trust God up to a point, because we simply are not ready to go any further.
I would even argue that we can experience both during the same season of our lives. The bible doesn’t tell us whether Mary had sleepless nights of wonder and hesitation, but it would be pretty normal if she did. While the invitation to go further in our journey with God is always, always waiting for us, it is important to note that God does not shove us. God walks the path with us, no matter where we may find ourselves on the journey of living faithfully.
As we draw nearer to the Christ-child this coming week, I would invite us to take stock where we are on our journey of living faithfully. Where on the spectrum do you find yourself at this moment? Or where is the compass directing you to walk towards? What do you need to take that next step of journeying with God? And know wherever we are on that journey, God is with us, and that our God isn’t going anywhere without us or until we are ready. Amen.
One preacher recently suggested that the wilderness is also a place within our society. How often are the voices crying out in the wilderness, also the prophetic voices within our communities crying out for God’s vision of justice and mercy. John was an odd fellow, whose dress, manner, and message would have made the majority of people uncomfortable. Yet he was also sounding an alarm; a voice crying out, “Sleepers’ wake!” He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Who are the voices crying out in the wilderness right now?
The prophetic voices that come to my own mind are the bewildered cries from our streets, for the unnecessary deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and at least 164 other black men and women killed by police between January and September of 2020. The voices in our societal wilderness are crying out, “Sleepers’ Wake!” The question is, will we listen to their cries? It would be simpler and far easier in this busy life to simply tune out their cries, just as wary and uncomfortable listeners tuned out John the Baptist’s message in antiquity. Yet our baptism demands that we listen, that we engage, that we shift, change, and grow.
In fact, the Episcopal Church refers to the work of racial reconciliation and healing as the work of becoming beloved community, and they ground that work in our baptism. The image that they use to portray this work is a labyrinth, and they identify four quadrants of the labyrinth and connect them to the promises we make in our baptism.
To engage in the work of racial reconciliation and healing, we will travel through each of the quadrants of the labyrinth many times.
However, one of the reasons we are engaging in a parish wide read of Stamped from the Beginning is because we recognize that as a faith community we need to begin to listen to the prophetic voices in our societal wilderness. We need to begin by telling the truth about the role of racist ideas within our understanding of American history and within the Church. In his preface, Kendi buries a common misunderstanding about the history of racism. Kendi writes:
“As I carefully studied America’s racial past, I did not see a singular historical force arriving at a postracial America. I did not see a singular historical force becoming more covert and implicit over time. I did not see a singular historical force taking steps forward and backward on race. I saw two distinct historical forces. I saw a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. I saw the antiracist force of equality and the racist force of inequality marching forward, progressing in rhetoric, in tactics, in policies” (x).
Neither my undergraduate studies in politics, nor my studies in seminary ever introduced the idea that racism and antiracism are dual and dueling paths. I had believed-- hook, line, and sinker-- that the work of addressing racism in America was a matter of taking two steps forward, and one step back. Ibram Kendi from the very beginning of his book, invites us to dismantle any such misconceived notions, and to look at how these two paths of racist and antiracist ideas have developed and progressed in America and in the Church.
This work is hard, humbling, and at times, demoralizing. Yet we cannot make genuine change and bring about God’s dream for this world without traveling this difficult journey.
There is no magic button. We must take the time to re-learn our history, and I cannot encourage you strongly enough to take the time to read Ibram Kendi’s book. And if you are too overwhelmed by his original work, read the youth version. It is critical for those of us who are white to relearn our history, to repent for the ways the Church has been complicit in systemic racism, and to recognize the privilege we inherently have whether we acknowledge it or not. The voices crying in our societal wilderness are crying out to us, “Sleepers Wake!”
There may be moments where we grow wary and uncomfortable with this work. I imagine those following John the Baptist, as he proclaimed of someone even greater coming any day, also grew a bit wary and uncomfortable. Yet no matter how tempted we may be to halt our work of relearning or to tune out those cries, I urge us to turn to God in prayer. Let us ask God in prayer to open the eyes of our hearts to see clearly and understand what must change in order for our world to becoming beloved community. This is the work of our baptism. Amen.
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