Who will dare to run to love?

A Sermon for Christmas, 2010

Unexpected and mysterious is the gentle word of grace.

Ever-loving and sustaining is the peace of God's embrace.

If we falter in our courage, and we doubt what we have known,

God is faithful to console us, as a mother tends her own.

In the name of the God. Amen.

It was the summer of 1962. I was enjoying my life as a brand new teenager, before everything got packed and moved from Ohio to Tennessee. Ah, those summer days! I knew the fall held one of my life's great excitements and uncertainties, that growing-up time called "high school." And so, until moving day, I pretended summer would never end.

My father's job required him to be in Memphis by a certain date. Our family would join him there once the Cincinnati house was sold. In the meantime, I helped my mother with basic parenting duties. My four younger siblings kept me busier than I liked. One of my duties was to play where they played, keeping an eye out for them. And on Deepwood Lane in rural Clermont County, there was plenty of playing and lots of eye-keeping-out for me to do.

One fine summer day my sister Mary was riding her bike about a half-mile from our house, where the lane intersected the main, busy road. Bored and distracted, I heard the screech of tires and a crash. I looked up and saw Mary flying over the handlebars of her bicycle, then hitting her head on the road, and rendering her unconscious. Terrified, I froze. I watched her lying there, lifeless. And I did . . . nothing. I thought, I am in such BIG TROUBLE! After what seemed like a lifetime, my fear began to thaw. I knew I had to do something. But what?

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mother, running up Deepwood. I turned and watched her move, faster than I've ever seen her before or since, her dress billowing behind. She ran barefoot, having kicked her shoes off because, she said later, they got in the way. What struck me most, both then and now, is how she ran with such complete abandon. Her needs were nothing, compared to her deepest desire to protect and comfort her beloved child.

Although Mary fully recovered, I felt guilty about that day for a long, long time. Nearly fifty years later, I've learned some lessons about the power of forgiveness and love. Of course, my mother's response on that summer day was simply what mothers and fathers do. And yet, in our 21st century world, filled with horror stories about what parents can do to, or do not do for, their children, we need to hear stories like this. We need to hear about fathers and mothers who love their children so much that they would do just about anything for them. I thank God tonight that my mom and dad still feel that way about their children.

This Christmas night we come to celebrate the power of God's love and forgiveness. Someone once said that the Gospel, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, is simply this: You are forgiven, and you are loved. No matter what mistakes you have made, no matter what sins you've committed, God hears your confession, forgives your sins and welcomes you back into the everlasting arms. Why? Because God loves you! It's that simple. You and I are God's precious, beloved children, sons and daughters in whom God delights. No matter who we are or what we do. No matter how banged up we get or how afraid we become.

Sometimes, we need help believing this basic truth about God. Sometimes we need a divine intervention. Sometimes life gets so dark, we need some light to break into our lives. We all need to be shown, time and time again, how much God loves us. God reveals that divine love to all of us and, especially, to those in Scripture whom Jesus called "the least of these." That is, people on life's margins, people made poor, the most unloved people of all. Through them, Jesus shows us how much God loves us all.

Surely the shepherds didn't expect to receive God's love in that way on that night. No one, including the shepherds, ever thought they would be visited by . . . angels! Had God's messengers made a mistake? Did the angelic GPS malfunction? Were the angels truly destined to disturb these field-dirty tenders of sheep? Now, when we hear the word "shepherd," we might think of "the clergy." But these shepherds were less like clergy and more like today's immigrants who tend our lawns. We might ask, why were the angels meant to comfort and consort with the likes of them, the bottom of society's barrel?!

In a time of great political and military unrest, in an earlier "orange alert" world, two thousand years ago, Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, was hailed as the savior of the whole world, a king of peace. Yet the Pax Romana was anything but peaceful for those under Rome's influence and power. There was no forgiveness, no love for people under the rule of Caesar's thumb. Into that time and place, into our own time and place, Jesus, the savior of the world, is born. A baby, birthed outside of town, in an animal house, to an unwed, under-age mother, a not-yet-married couple. Talk about "the least of these"! And they had trouble finding a place to stay? Why are we surprised? How many institutions, how many churches, how many of us welcome such a family through our own doors, even at Christmas?

Even though you made your way through these doors tonight, some of you may feel like a shepherd or think there's really "no room at the inn" for you. Some of you may feel pushed to life's margins these days, through poverty or disease or unemployment or some other change or chance of life. Some of you may feel like you need to enter through a side door, because, for years, you've been told you're not good enough to come in the front door. Maybe you've been afraid to come to church at all. Actually, if we are honest, most of us have had some experience of being excluded, not being welcomed, feeling shepherd-like, or sheep-like or Mary-and-Joseph-like. Most, if not all, of us have felt unloved.

If this describes you tonight, fear not. For tonight there is grace, there is the gift of God's light, God's love. When God's light shined on the shepherds, they were "terrified," "quaking" as one hymn suggests, or "sore afraid," as rendered in the King James. But the angel saw how they felt and said, "Do not be afraid." This blinding light brings Good News: a Savior, Love incarnate, has been born! Whatever those shepherds had planned for that night paled in the light of God's love. "Let us go NOW to Bethlehem," they said to each other. "They went with haste," they "hurried off," (New English Bible), "they left, running." (The Message). When they heard of the Christ child, they couldn't help themselves. They must have run like the wind to the light and love of the world.

My mother, Betty, now eighty-four, just can't run anymore. What used to look like light to her often now feels like darkness. But she still sees Jesus. Now, she is counting on Jesus to run to her, the way she ran to her daughter years ago. And when I look, I see Jesus, running to Mom, in the person of my sister Mary and our other sisters and our brother and our father. I see Jesus running to her in all the wonderful people from their church of nearly half a decade. I see Jesus in their retirement community of seventeen years. I see Jesus in their hospice of six days. And while her legs can't do it anymore, her soul still runs to love, looking for God, rejoicing to see Jesus, who comes once again this Christmas into the world, lighting up her life and ours, loving us every single moment with an everlasting love.

There is Good News tonight. We are forgiven, and we are loved. In this brutal, beautiful world, there is salvation, there is healing, there is light, there is love. Tonight, once again, we are being given the opportunity to run to God's light, into the arms of God's love. My sisters and brothers, do not be afraid, for unto us a child is born, ready to run to us and run with us. In Jesus, love has come down again this Christmas. Who among us tonight will kick their shoes off and run to Jesus? Who will dare to run to love?

In the name of the God who is mother and father of us all. Amen.