Light, Life and Love
A Sermon for Christmas Eve
Merry Christmas! Here's a question for you: Will you get what you want for Christmas? Maybe you'll open most of your presents tomorrow. Or maybe your family opens gifts on Christmas Eve. No matter when we do it, we love to open presents, because it brings out the child in us. And for parents or grandparents, watching children open their presents is also a delight. No matter what your family's present-opening practice is, the question remains: Will you get what you want for Christmas? The really big question, let's call it the human question, is: What do you want?
I know a woman who went to see a priest for some spiritual counsel and advice. The priest listened to the woman, while she told the story of her life and laid out her plans for the future, plans complicated by other plans her husband had, plans including her work, her marriage, her family. Along the way the priest resisted uttering pat phrases like, “We plan, but God laughs.” Finally, the priest couldn't help herself. She interrupted the woman, asking, “Yes, but. . .what do you want? What do you want?”
What do you want? Perhaps it's a new job – or just a job. Perhaps a place to live that feels a little more like home. Or a better teacher. Or a more sympathetic boss. Or a different diagnosis. Maybe all you want for Christmas is your “two front teeth.” What DO you want? Is it something as simple, as important as. . .someone to love? Maybe that 60's song got it right: “Don't you want somebody to love?” Don't you want somebody to love. . .you?
The poet Raymond Carver asked, “And did you get what you wanted from this life?” I did, came the answer. “And what did you want?” To feel myself beloved on the earth (from “Late Fragment”). Does anyone here NOT want to be loved? Have you ever wanted to feel loved and cherished enough to be someone's “beloved”? A long time ago a dear woman named Enid, who had been widowed for years, invited some of her church friends over for dinner. Afterward we helped her with the dishes. On a piece of paper taped to a kitchen cabinet, Enid had written these words: “Happiness is having someone to call you 'darling.'”
To know that God's eternal hands hold one's life, like a baby, the poet says, is really all that I want. Is that all you want for Christmas? If no one else calls you 'baby' or 'darling' or 'beloved,' if someone used to say those words to you but you hear them no longer, if no one has ever said them to you. . .dare you believe God says them? Do you really believe God loves you? Are you God's beloved? Or did God used to call you “beloved,” but something happened between you, and you're just not sure how God feels, or how you feel, anymore?
This begs another really big question, a God question. The great spiritual teacher Joan Chittister frames that God question this way: What kind of a God do you believe in? (www.trinitywallstreet.org/faith/institute/). To help us along, she tells the story of a little girl in a Catholic school art class. The art teacher, a nun, asks, “What are you drawing, Katie?” “I'm drawing a picture of God!” she whispers. The nun cries out, “Oh, no, no, no, Katie. You can't do that. NO one knows what God looks like!” To which Katie, her head buried in her work, instantly replies, “They will when I'M finished!”
What kind of a God do you believe in? A God of Wrath? A God of Judgment? A God of Laws? “I have known all those Gods in my lifetime,” Sister Joan says. But God, she suggests, is “the mystery nobody wants,” the mystery that Christians this time of year call Emmanuel, the mysterious “God with us,” God incarnate, God-with-flesh-on, God – dare we say it? – within us. The mysterious God who dares love us enough to breathe life into us as children. The mysterious God who dares love us enough to come into the world as a child, as a vulnerable baby. The mysterious God of love.
We want a God who is all-everything. All-knowing. All-protecting. All-conquering. But what we get – and Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the first to teach us this – what we get is a mysterious God who is all-LOVING. A God who brings down the powerful and rich from their hugh and mighty places, and then, lifts up the poor and lowly. A God who lifts people up in both Bethlehem and Baltimore, in both Port-au-Prince and Port Republic. A God who loves everyone, especially children. A God who SAVES us. I don't know about you, but THAT'S what I want. That's the kind of God I want to believe in. A God who loves us enough to save us, especially from ourselves, so we can love and help save others. A God who loves us enough to have dreams for us and for all the children of the world.
In his book God Has A Dream, a book some of us will study next month, Archbishop Desmond Tutu begins each chapter with “Dear child of God.” And he says this to us, God's beloved children: “If you are to be true partners with God in the transfiguration of the world and help bring (the). . .triumph of love over hatred, of good over evil, you must begin by understanding that, as much as God loves you, God equally loves your enemies.” Now, “before you can love your enemy, you must love your neighbor. And before you can love your neighbor. . .as yourself (remember that summary of the Ten Commandments?), you must first love yourself. And to first love yourself, you must know that God loves you now and God loves you always. . ..“It is a radical thing,” he continues, “that Jesus says we are members of one family. . ..God says, All, ALL are MY children. It is shocking. It is radical” (p. 41, 29, 20). Fellow children of God, all means all. Welcoming all, forgiving all, loving all. That is God's call to us. This is what God wants: for us to love all – including, first and foremost, ourselves.
How easy it is to say those words of love; how hard to live them. There is, of course, darkness all around us. Using Isaiah's words, people are still living and walking in deep darkness. And it's not just “those other people” who are lost in the dark. Depression, one of the most common human experiences of deep darkness, can cripple anyone. And yet there are those who have found a mysterious light in the dark. One survivor, Parker Palmer, has reflected extensively on the light he found in his own darkness.
He says, “I got tremendous help from a therapist at one point — in one of my depressions — who said to me, 'You seem to keep treating this experience as if depression were the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to re-image depression as the hand of a friend trying to press you down to (the) ground on which it's safe to stand?' “Well,” Parker continues, “those words didn't mean much to me immediately because when you're there, you can't hear that kind of counsel. But they grew on me, those words did” (www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/02202009/profile2.html).
Many things can lead us deeper into our darker moments. We may even live for a season of our lives in what is called the “dark night of the soul.” What we can learn to do, with help, is to reclaim those dark moments as a time to ground ourselves in the light of a loving God, who shines through friends and the other children of God who truly love us. We can never eliminate the dark, but we can learn to turn on the Christ light in our darkness. We can let the Christmas light of God shine into the darkest days of our world and our lives.
There is also death all around us. Innocent men, women and children die daily, but not just in our own time. Part of the Christmas story reserved in the church's calendar to be told several days from now, on December 28, is called the Feast of the Holy Innocents. King Herod, the ruthless ruler of the so-called Holy Roman Empire, appears to have been a barbarian towards everyone. It's not surprising, then, to hear that the Wise Men's report of the infant King of the Jews caused Herod to get angry. Fearing he would lose his throne, Herod ordered the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem under two years old. No one knows how many Holy Innocents died then, but the church still honors them as martyrs (Matthew 2:13-18).
Surely, the twenty children and six adults who cared for them at Sandy Hook School are today's martyrs. We continue to pray for the repose of their souls and for their families, friends and neighbors. There is a way in which, during the days approaching winter, those deaths stopped us cold. But there has also been an amazingly warm outpouring of life-giving support, from all across the globe. Not just candle-lighting, letter-writing or bell-tolling, but in countless “random acts of kindness,” in life-giving ways of “paying it forward,” some of which may not be officially Christian but begin to feel a lot, amidst all that death, like Christmas.
I've been saying lately that sometimes, when things happen to us, when the darkness and death seem so great, there are simply no words. Sometimes, there is only music. And yet, sometimes there is both. If there is only one thing that helps us truly celebrate the birth of Christ, it may be Christmas carols. Tonight those texts and tunes might just bring light and life to the darkness and death of your world or mine. That's because, with Jesus, as the carol we just sang puts it, “light and life to all he brings.”
So. . .here's an old tune with a new text for us to sing together. It's called “Love Has Come,” and it's sung to the tune of “Bring a torch, Jeannette Isabella.” You have a small part: it's one word, sung twice, two times close together, in three verses.
The word, the Word made flesh in you, is. . .LOVE. “Love! Love!” is what you'll sing. Dearly beloved children of God, can you handle it? I'm sure you can! Here goes:
Love has come, a light in the darkness! Love shines forth in the Bethlehem skies.
See, all heaven has come to proclaim it; hear how their song of joy arises:
LOVE! LOVE! Born unto you, a Savior! LOVE! LOVE! Glory to God on high.
Love is born! Come, share in the wonder. Love is God now asleep in the hay.
See the glow in the eyes of his mother; what is the name her heart is saying?
LOVE! LOVE! Love is the name she whispers. LOVE! LOVE! Jesus, Emmanuel.
Love has come and never will leave us! Love is life everlasting and free.
Love is Jesus within and among us. Love is the peace our hearts are seeking.
LOVE! LOVE! Love is the gift of Christmas. LOVE! LOVE! Praise to you, God on high!
– Ken Bible
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
December 24, 2012