Christ Episcopal Church
Albemarle, North Carolina
Sermon delivered Christmas Eve at Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield.
A couple of days before Christmas a few years ago, I was with some parishioners from Grace Church, in Millbrook, NY, where I was the rector. They were all saying how much they still had to do to get ready for Christmas. I said that was true in the Fisher family too and I still did not have a Christmas sermon ready and that was stressing me out. One person replied, “Don’t worry about it. People don’t come to church on Christmas for the sermon. They come for the music.” Ok. Well then let’s look at the lyrics for some of that music.
Do you know that the Christmas hymns we have been singing tonight would have gotten us arrested in Soweto, South Africa in 1985? Yes, in that place they made the singing of Christmas hymns an offense punishable by arrest. In that country, in the time of apartheid, they feared these hymns could spark a revolution. Christmas to them was not “cute” – it was a radical call for a new world.
Consider with me some of those lyrics:
From the seemingly so innocent “Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight…where misery calls out to thee, Son of mother mild.” This hymn invites the hope of a better society.
From “While Shepherds Watched Their Flock at Night,” we get several “fear nots” to people kept in their place by fear and intimidation. This is empowerment.
And, to those governed by self-serving leaders, let’s find out who the real king is. “Angels We Have Heard on High” invites us to “Come, Adore on bended knee, Christ, the Lord, the newborn king.”
And the hymn that is the favorite of so many, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Sing all ye citizens of heaven above.”
That was 1985. As we know now, not even the suppression of those hymns could stop God’s grace from overturning apartheid and recreating South Africa.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Dudley Brooks
We can sing these hymns without getting arrested, but I think there are ways that they could be revolutionary for us this night.
A story I told once, but is worth retelling, is from an author named Minka Sprague. One day Minka was walking in Manhattan and feeling overwhelmed by her life. She was a single mother raising two children; she was going to school and holding down a job. The more she thought about it, the more overwhelmed she felt. She could not imagine how to do this. She could not imagine how this might work out. In the depth of her anxiety, she started to pray:
“God I cannot imagine this but You can. My imagination is too small but Yours is not. Lord my God, please share with me Your imagination.”
And God did exactly that. Day by day God shared God’s imagination with Minka. Day by day people came into her life who helped. Day by day things fell into place.
On the first Christmas God began this incredible new chapter in human history of sharing God’s imagination with us. God did it with a revolutionary person. In Jesus God is sharing the plan of salvation. Day by day in the life of Jesus the imagination unfolds. Follow his story of mercy, compassion and hope. Follow his life which is so Spirit-filled that death could not put an end to it.
I bet some of you will get books for Christmas. I’m really hoping Santa or someone in my family gives me the Bruce Springsteen autobiography, Born to Run. Besides reading those books, I invite you to read one Gospel all the way through; but not in small doses like we do in church. Read the whole story. Take Mark or Matthew or Luke or John and learn about a new way of life revealed in Christ. If you are pressed for time, read Mark. It is the shortest one.
Madonna and Child, @JesusMafa
The story in Matthew and Luke begins with a baby. Somehow, in God’s imagination, it is important to come to us as a baby. Think of how vulnerable that is. A baby needs to be cared for and protected. This baby needs Mary and Joseph and all who helped them to survive during a violent and dangerous time. Remember on this holy night over 2000 years ago the king, Herod, wanted to find and kill Jesus. The threat was so imminent that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were forced to become refugees in Egypt. Thank God there were people generous enough to take them in. In coming to us as a baby, God needs us. That is some big leap of imagination but it is true.
And it wasn’t only true when Jesus was a baby. Listen to this story. It comes from Etty Hillisum, a young Jewish woman, who died in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. She kept a journal which is published under the title An Interrupted Life. One journal entry described a day in which she and a friend were talking in the midst of the indescribable horror of the camp. It was an awful, desperate situation. Her friend said, “why doesn’t God save us?” Etty responded, “Oh, it is too late for God to save us here. It is time for us to save God.”
Those words are haunting. It is time for us to save God. And it could be that many theologians would say they are the heart-felt words of a person in pain, but it is not good theology. So don’t tell the bishop, but I think there are many dimensions to theology and spirituality, and this is a tremendous insight into the soul. Etty was right. In that seemingly godless situation, it was up to her to keep God alive in her heart, in that camp. And she did by living compassionately and generously until the end of her earthly life, enlivened not by a shallow optimism, but by a deep hope.
Friends, no matter what side of the political aisle we are on, these are difficult and divisive times. We need to “save God.” We need to save God’s dream of peace, of abundance for all, of respect for the dignity of every human being, and reverence for God’s creation. That revolutionary Christmas hymn, “Silent Night,” gives us hope. Evangelical church leader Jim Wallis tells us “peace and mercy triumph over angry attacking in God’s world according to the wisdom of Silent Night”:
“Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, all is bright!”
And when politics destroys the “calm” and “bright,” God brings both back:
“Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace.
Jesus Lord at thy birth”
Friends, we need to save that dream – now and always.
Perhaps God comes to us as a baby to make a point about faith. Faith in all of us begins as a “baby faith.” Perhaps we have a “baby faith” tonight – a sense of wonder generated by those great hymns, a desire to belong to something greater than ourselves. Maybe a yearning for “the peace that passes all understanding.” Maybe you have heard of the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the Dream God has for it, and you are intrigued about how that could happen. Perhaps we have a baby faith and we are called to nurture it – to help that faith grow.
Ornament from the Fisher family Christmas tree
Allow me to offer you an image. We are blessed with three great children but for this image I will stay with our son, Geoff. He was healthy and about seven pounds at birth. We fed him and nurtured him and cared for him, made sure he got enough sleep. He grew and grew and grew. When he was 13, he was taller than me, and I’m over six feet. He would delight in lifting me up in the air.
Faith can be like that. It can start out like a baby and then we nurture it – though prayer, through acts of compassion, through partnership with others in the faith community. Until someday it is bigger than we are. Until someday we no longer “have faith” but faith has us. We no longer carry faith around with us and bring it out when convenient. Faith picks us up. Faith carries us. We don’t hold faith but we walk in a world of faith. The world becomes transformed.
That is why Christmas is so revolutionary. It is about a whole new creation. It is about a world in which God’s imagination unfolds. It is about a relationship with God in which God needs our “yes,” needs our response. God made a commitment to us this night. God won’t let go. Don’t let go of God. And let the revolutionary song break out: “Joy to the world. The Lord is come, let earth receive her King, let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.” Amen.