A sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas
Many years ago I heard a particular sermon preached from this pulpit and that sermon has come back to me recently from the dusty archives of my mind. The preacher followed a familiar format, beginning with background on the readings, then pointing out the challenges humanity faces in the world, and finally a lead up to how we, as Christians, can meet those challenges by helping to bring the Kingdom of God into harmony with this earthly world. I was ready.
(singing) “Christus Natus Hodie; Ding dong ding; ding-a-dong-a-ding. ding dong, ding dong ding-a-dong ding”.
I’ve always wanted to be able to sing that in public, and it’s not a song that I’ve ever been able to. So there! I hadn’t decided to do that until before the 9:00 service tonight. But it is the opening line that I had, Christus Natus Hodie—Christ is born today; this very day. And it’s a wonderful thing. But I have to tell you, and I don’t know if you’re like me or not, but I am really tired of the Christmas myth. I’m so tired of the myth that Christmas has to be perfect, and that we have to have it all in place. I’ve done it over and over, and every year I say, “No, not this year”, but then it catches up with me and it just has to be right. We kill ourselves and we worry: is tomorrow’s dinner going to be right? Will the tree lights go out in the middle of everything? It is the perfect Christmas. I think that what’s so ironic about it is that we just heard a story about Christmas, and nothing in that story is perfect. In fact, if it had been, there wouldn’t have been a story. It’s filled with misunderstanding; it’s filled with disaster; it’s filled with errors and people being shut out in the night. And maybe that’s why it is so attractive to us, because we know that it’s a story of terror; we know that it’s a story of anxiety, and it draws us in because we can go to that place with those people and share in that. It’s a safety for us, and we need them, really, as our companions to get through Christmas. Especially the way the world throws us Christmas.
But look at that story: it’s really weird. I mean at the very beginning, the very fact that we look at a scene of people outside, in a manger, in a stable, in a cave and see warm light and think of comfort and warmth. Abandoned in a cold night. Stand on your front lawn tonight when all the Christmas lights are on, and see how warm and cozy you are in the morning; how many people have joined you to celebrate that. People locked out in the night? They didn’t even have a place to stay in a room in a house that was their rightful property as the kinfolk. So off they’re put to a place where the animals nest.
Shepherds—that wonderful Christmas image. But in the 1st century Judaism, shepherds were very odd people. They lived out in the countryside; they lived by themselves; a nomadic life; probably terrified of the city and very distrusting of other people. One commentator has suggested that they are the modern day equivalent of bikers. A Harley gang riding out on the streets, and that’s who God chooses to give the message to. Because God only knows, quite literally, that they are the only ones able to take it. Take a message that’s going to be one of Jesus reaching out to the dispossessed, and those on the fringes, and those who don’t have the perfect Christmas—never have and probably never will.
And then most of all, I think, the baby. Yes, it’s about a baby, but the problem with this baby and this child is that in that world it was not the reality we think of, certainly when we look at a creche set. A child was that to be reviled; a child was a nuisance, not considered a person; not worthy of any consideration. And certainly not this child who’s going to move around with the biker gang; who’s always going to reach out to those who are on the fringes. This child who lays in a manger in Luke’s story—what is that about? In a place where the animals eat? But this is the child that will be food, and maybe that’s why we’re here tonight. We know that in our anxiety and in our grief, we come into this place, we become their comrades, and we will eat that bread that will give us life. And a child, because in that world, something that would have come from that child, would have been odd. And for us, certainly, a child always signifies something new. Certainly a new way of looking at things that always confronts and confounds us, especially at Christmas. “Don’t screw it up, Johnny or Suzie. Mommy’s got to do this; we’ve got to make sure it’s right.”
Good friends of mine have a house that is a wonderful magic place for their nephews and nieces to come to. I call it The Great House. And Elaine has creche sets all over the place. She told me that last week her niece, Kennedy, came. Kennedy is maybe a 2nd grader. Kennedy has no exposure to Christianity; doesn’t know this story at all. She began to play with the creche set. She moved everyone around and she created a story. Elaine said when she finished, “Tell us, Kennedy, what this story is.” For Kennedy, the sheep were kittens; the cow and the donkey were dogs; the Three Kings were friends and were off in a circle facing one another, having a conversation with themselves. The angel was the mother of the baby, and the shepherd was the father. Mary and Joseph were the brother and sister of the child. That’s not bad theology for someone who doesn’t know the Christmas story; that’s not bad theology for someone who’s not a Christian. It’s pretty good theology if someone were a Christian and thought that way. Mary and Joseph as brother and sister of Jesus; an angel as the mother; and a shepherd, the Great Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, God the Shepherd, as the father. But I think the most intriguing to me, and I’d never thought about it, were the Three Kings, or the Wise Men, as friends. That’s a wonderful image for the Trinity, isn’t it? Three Kings, on this Feast, facing one another like a Trinity. Just today I happened to see in the New York Times an op ed piece by Peter Wehner. He’s writing about this very notion of friendship. He says, “The Incarnation also underscores the importance of relationships, and particularly friendships. The Rev. James Forsythe, a winsome and gifted pastor of McLean Presbyterian Church in Virginia, which my family attends, says friendship is not a luxury. It is at the very essence of who we are. The Three Persons of the Christian Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—speak to the centrality of community. ‘When we are in friendship’, according to Mr. Forsythe, we are participating in something divine. That is, fellowship and friendship were present in the Trinity and are therefore of immense worth to us. I’ve experienced that in my own life, he says, when friends served as God’s proxies, dispensing grace I could not receive in solitude’”.
The Three Kings as friends, the notion of friends, and the kings bring to the child the gifts. And it’s in that notion of gift-giving, especially between friends, not receiving, but giving. Four years ago I was involved in my parish at Trinity Cathedral in Portland; I was involved in the Wednesday community meal. It was a meal that anyone could come to, but it was largely 400 homeless people that came there for a hot meal. I met a young man named Scott. Scott was about 32. Scott had the mentality and social skills of maybe a 5th grader, maybe a 5 year old, sometimes. But Scott would always speak to me and welcome me when I came up to serve at the meal. Scott had had a rough year: his mother had died; he was homeless. I never knew from one week to the next if I would see Scott when I got to Trinity, or if he would be there. But this particular day, which happened to be a couple of weeks before Christmas—my perfect Christmas (I’ve told you about it before), the Christmas tree fell over in the middle of the night, Jesus went flying off onto the coffee table; the ornaments were smashed; it was a disaster. And it was the year of the Clackamas shooting when violence came very near to me. There was Scott, and he handed me this. It’s a pretty cool toy for a guy to give another guy. It’s a red RZN motor bike. He wanted me to have it. I can’t imagine him parting with it, but I took it, and it sits on my shelf of sacred items. I always know Scott by this; I don’t know where he is, but I know that he gave me this, and that gift is his presence. That gift is an incarnated presence, and God dwells in that reality.
Every year since I can’t tell you when, on Christmas Eve there comes an hour, usually 4 to 5, when I’m expecting Christmas to come. It gets very quiet, and if the light is out, it starts to sink, and it seems so sacred; it seems so near, and then it passes away. There’s a sense of loss, like it was there, and I couldn’t keep it and make it stay. And I have to go on, off to church, and do our things. It’s an experience that W.H. Auden knew. He writes about this in his Christmas oratorio, For The Time Being. “The happy morning is over”, he says.
“The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done; that, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”
So here we are again, and Christ is born today. And yet the world will move on; we’ll have to pack the decorations; and we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to do. And that safe space will be filled with anxiety once again. It wasn’t until today, when I listened to the Service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College, that I heard a verse from one of my favorite Christmas songs, O Little Town of Bethelehem. The 3rd verse:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.
Is that that hour? Is that that silent coming, the gift that’s given to me? And for an hour I can hold it, but then I have to give it out and move back into the world. Christus Natus Hodie. But we’ll have to do the work with him. If Jesus is Incarnated, then he needs your friendship to make that reality, and to tell that Good News.
It is my prayer for you that you’ll have the perfect Christmas.
The hopes and fears of all the years --- Parenting Jesus, complete with the concerns of parents today, in the past, and in the future.