Singing with Mary: A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2019

Familiar carols, a beautifully-decorated church, our excitement and joy at the celebration of Christmas. It’s almost enough to take us away from the troubles in our lives and the troubles in our world—climate catastrophe, impeachment, refugees, endless wars and other conflicts.

Almost, but not quite enough. I was reminded of how very different the Bethlehem of 2019 is from that portrayed in the familiar carol by the nativity scene the artist provocateur Banksy produced this year. He calls it the “Scar of Bethlehem.” It shows Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus huddled in the shadow of the concrete wall that separates the Palestinian from the Israeli sides of the town; the light above the manger provided not by a star but by a hole in the wall made by a mortar shell. Today Bethlehem is hardly a town of peace; it suffers from the violence and terror of occupation and intractable conflict.

Our world, today, a creation groaning from the pains of evil inflicted on it by human greed, carelessness, and neglect; a world suffering from endless conflict; Our nation is deeply divided politically; with the gap between the few haves and the many have-nots widening daily; , the crushing burdens of medical and student debt affecting individuals across the generations; racism, America’s orginal sin continuing; The Church, the Body of Christ is torn apart by political and theological conflict.

In this world, in this place, we gather to celebrate again the coming of God to us, in human form, weak, tiny, vulnerable.

We have heard the familiar story, sung familiar carols and with them are brought out of the present day to our memories of Christmases past, but also, all the way back to that first Christmas. We sing in imitation and echo of the angels’ “Gloria in excelsis!” We come, kneel, and worship as the shepherds did, and if we pause for a moment, empty our minds of everything else that worries us or occupies our thoughts, we may, like Mary ponder all these things and treasure them in our hearts.

But if we ponder too long, we may be reminded of the deep wounds in our lives, in our nation, and in our world. We may grow weary, our hearts may grow cold; our despair deepen. If we ponder too long, we may want to avert our eyes, walk away, overcome by the weight of the world. Our pondering may have us contemplating the abyss, the fear, the helplessness, the hopelessness.

There are other ways to ponder. Luke says that when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and greeted with the words, “Hail, favored one!” Mary was perplexed and pondered. After she learned that she would give birth to the Savior of the world; after she said her “yes” to God, as she reflected on the meaning of these events for her life and for the world, she eventually gave voice to her thoughts in the Magnificat, that great song of praise:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 

This powerful, prophetic hymn declares to us the work that God is doing here, tonight, in this place, in our world. It is work that God has been doing for a very long time and will continue to do until the final consummation of all things.

We Christians have domesticated and caricatured this great event. We have turned it first into an occasion of saccharine piety and sweetness that comforts and consoles us but never challenges or unsettles us. And our culture has cooperated with us to create and sustain a consumeristic spree of holiday spending and celebration that has nothing to do with the story we heard, the gospel that was proclaimed, the Word that has become flesh and lives among us.

We see a mother and baby, a loving family caring for its own. Onto that image we project our own images of loving families and see modeled ideals that we may or may not be able to achieve, or even want to achieve. The holy family is surrounded by all manner of figures, lost in wonder and worship. We hear the story, recreate and reimagine them but when we do they lose their power. We think of sweet, docile Mary, accepting her role, modeling her faithful and quiet devotion, ignoring the fierceness of her hymn:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 

As I reflected this week, as I read Mary’s hymn against the backdrop of the news, and the great events that occurring in our world, I was drawn to a sermon preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that great German theologian and martyr. In Advent of 1933, as it was becoming clear the direction that Germany would take under Hitler, Bonhoeffer had this to say about the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn:

For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. …

The manger, like the cross, is the place where we see Christ at his weakest, most vulnerable, most human. The manger is the place where we see Christ profoundly, wholly like us.

Yet the manger is where we also see God working out God’s marvelous purposes. We see God, in human flesh, coming to us, meeting us in our weakness and vulnerability. We see God, in human flesh, coming to encounter the poor, powerless, oppressed. We see God meeting refugees and strangers, prisoners, the homeless and hungry. In the manger, at the manger, we see God turning the world upside down, casting down the mighty from their thrones, turning away the rich, scattering the proud. In the manger, we see God bringing about a new world, a new order.

Into our world full of despair, fear, hatred, and evil, God has come. God has come among us as one of us, as the weakest, least powerful. It is mystery and paradox, that the Creator of the world, the Word, through whom all things came to be is now among us, with us, a wordless infant. His presence fills us with hope, and gives us words to speak.

Into our world, into our lives, God comes. Mary sang of God’s coming and of God’s mighty acts; casting down the powerful, sending away the rich, scattering the proud. Her faith proclaimed and sang those mighty acts, although there was little to show for them. Herod ruled, Rome ruled; the poor and the oppressed suffered.

So too, today. Let us proclaim and sing God’s mighty acts, let us declare to the world that Christ’s coming into it means a new world, a new creation. Let us rejoice and sing to the world that Christ’s coming brings hope to the hopeless, freedom to the prisoner, justice to the oppressed. May our hope burn brightly as our voices carry the tune: ”Gloria in Excelsis Deo” Thanks be to God!

The shepherds were just doing their job: A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2018

 The shepherds were doing their job. It was a thankless, underappreciated life. They were little more than vagabonds, outsiders, feared and despised because they spent most of their time in the wilderness, living more like animals than humans. But it was a job someone had to do, like all those people who are doing their jobs tonight while we worship and celebrate: cashiers at convenience stores, employees at fast food outlets, hotel workers, doctors, nurses, orderlies, first responders. Continue reading

What wondrous love! A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2016

 

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus.”

They would claim that he was divine, a son of God, Savior. His reign ushered in a new age, a new beginning, world peace. Heralds of his rule would travel throughout the known world, proclaiming the good news of the peace and justice that he would bring about.

Caesar Augustus, Emperor.

There is another side to the story. Thirst for power, brutal repression; execution and assassination of his competitors and opponents. Underneath the glittering facades of temples, fora, and other public buildings that he constructed throughout his empire, was brutal tyranny.

It was now, during the reign of this emperor, that the events recorded in Luke’s gospel occurred. It was during the reign of Caesar Augustus, who symbolizes both the glory and the evil of Rome, another story, a different reign, begins to unfold.

It’s as if Luke wants to present us with the two options as clearly and distinctly as possible—on the one hand, all of the Glory that was Rome, Caesar Augustus in all his splendor and power; on the other hand, Bethlehem, the manger, Jesus Christ, in all his poverty and weakness.

It should be easy for us. Rome is reduced to rubble and ruins while Christianity lives on. But let’s be honest. In fact, it’s not that simple. For fifteen hundred years, Christianity has been intertwined with empire and power. For over 200 years, Christianity has been enmeshed with the American Empire. And maybe, that’s the way we want it.

We want the show, the power. We want the bread and circus, the Hollywood entertainment. We want something, anything to numb us from the brutal reality in which we live.

We see a bit of that brutal reality in this story. A ruler’s whim, to count all of those he ruled, so that he could tax them more efficiently, control them easier, meant that in distant lands, people were forced to move from place to place in obedience to his power and might.

We are all too familiar with such movements by people, forced by events outside of their control. The sheer immensity of the refugee crisis throughout the world as people flee their homes because of bloodshed, and terror, and climate change. Human catastrophe on a scale not seen in generations. Just this week ending a 4-year horrific spectacle as the world looked on, forces backing President Assad of Syria seem to have reconquered Aleppo. The rubble, carnage, and human suffering went unabated while we watched, the international community’s efforts to end it ineffective, half-hearted.

Syria. The word evokes for us the immensity and intractability of the problems we face as a world. Suffering humanity, horrifically efficient technologies of war, unspeakable human evil, helplessness, futile diplomacy. Syria—a word, a region that links current events with the events of 2000 years ago.

The suffering has continued for so long. The endless war that began in 2001 shows no sign of coming to an end; the divisions, hatred, and distrust in the region show know sign of ending. We have grown so accustomed to it that we hardly notice, or care anymore. And we can’t imagine a world at peace.

With such enormous, intractable problems, we grasp for solutions and saviors: More and better weapons, more resolute use of power, political strong men, easy answers. If only someone with the political genius and ruthlessness of Caesar Augustus could save us.

Such desires, such hopes are not only on a geopolitical scale. They are also on a personal, intimate scale. Our private concerns and worries, our fears about our own lives, our families, our futures—we pin our hopes on miraculous, magical deliverance; a superhero who will make all things right, fix our problems.

We even treat religion like that. We believe in a God who will intervene and make things right, delivering a miracle when we need it most, or perhaps coming soon, at the end of time, to rescue us and make everything right.

We want easy answers, miracles, fireworks, and spectacles.

Instead of that, we hear this simple, familiar story from Luke, the birth of Jesus Christ in a manger, in a tiny town, on the edges of empire.

Christmas tells a very different story. God came to us, not as a superhero, not as easy answers. God came to us as one of us, in all of our frailness and messiness. God came to us, God came to the world, in the embarrassment of a stable, in the weakness of a newborn baby.

But you know, I don’t think we get that. I don’t think we understand or take to heart what it all really means. Oh, sure, we say the words, we sing the carols, we come to Christmas Eve services, light our candles, say Merry Christmas, but I’m not sure we grasp what it’s all about. Quite frankly, I’m not sure we’re able to grasp what it’s all about.

God came to us became one of us, as a tiny, weak, powerless baby, utterly dependent on others for survival. It was a life that began in poverty, humility, and obscurity. It was a life that ended with an ignominious an excruciatingly painful execution. To all appearances, it was a life lived in futility, without meaning.

Think about lives like that in our day—refugees fleeing the violence of Syria; mothers here in Madison worried whether there will be food to put on the table tomorrow, let alone whether there will be gifts to share with their children; the men sleeping in the homeless shelter across our courtyard this evening. Lives today lived in pain and suffering, loneliness and despair.

This is our world; the world we have made and inhabit, a world in which the glory of God is overshadowed by the lights of commercialism, and the beauty of God’s creation is destroyed by our hubris and greed. This is our world, in which we belittle, despise, destroy other human beings, created like us in the image of God, bearing like us the image of God.

This is our world. The amazing thing is that God loves it still. This is what we have made of our humanity, what we have done with the image of God in us. The amazing thing is that nonetheless, God became one of us.

In this story from Luke, we are presented with alternatives. Here, at Christmas, we see the power and hope of God’s love expressed in a baby, showing in weakness, vulnerability …

When the angels came to the shepherds, they were not coming to the powerful, the connected, the wealthy. When the angels came to the shepherds, they were coming to the marginalized, outsiders.

Jesus was born, God became flesh and dwelt among us, not among the powerful, the wealthy, the connected, but to poor, oppressed peasants in a backwater of empire.

If we only allow ourselves, we can see in this story, in the babe in a manger, the wondrous love of God. What wondrous love it is, that God took our human form, that God emptied Godself, as Paul writes in Philippians, to show us what humanity could be, what we might be.

What wondrous love it is, that angels appeared to shepherds, the Jesus Christ was born among the poor and oppressed.

What wondrous love it is that the Word became flesh and lived among us, to show us the power and possibility of love.

The manger, birth of Christ is a challenge to us. It is a challenge to us to hope and to love in spite of everything. It is a challenge to us to love our neighbor and our enemy. It is a challenge to us to love outsiders and outcasts, the homeless and the hungry, refugees, the marginalized.

The manger, the birth of Christ, is a challenge to us to see the world through new eyes, to see the world with hearts filled with hope and love bursting to share with others.

The manger, the birth of Christ is a challenge to us. It is a challenge to us to receive the love of God in Christ, to be remade fully in God’s image. It is a challenge to us to love like Christ loved, to go to the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the outcast ,to offer them food and shelter, to share with them the love of Christ.

What wondrous love—seen in the birth of Christ, seen in his giving himself on the cross. What wondrous love we’ve received. What wondrous love is ours to share. w

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Love Beckoning, Love Embracing: A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2015

 

As I was driving home from the church yesterday, a thousand things related to Christmas running through my head, including this sermon, it struck me that I have been at Grace for more Christmases than at any church (or in any city) since I left home for college thirty-nine years ago. In case you wondering, it’s my seventh Christmas here. To some of you who have worshiped here for thirty, or fifty, or more years, and have seen priests come and go, I’m still a newcomer, a transient. To others of us, seven years seems a remarkably long time. Continue reading

The Light shines in all the dark places: A Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity

Merry Christmas!

What does it feel like to say that familiar greeting this year? Are you filled with Christmas spirit? Are you ready to enjoy the annual celebration with joy overflowing, get-togethers with friends and families? Are you full of Christmas cheer? Or does it all, in spite of every effort, seem like Christmas this year is a little darker, our hope and joy dimmed by a nation and a world that seems to be spiraling out of control in violence, environmental degradation, and fear. Continue reading