Saturday, December 24, 2011

The desert, the stars, the manger, and the altar.

My Christmas Eve sermon for 2011

“If, as Herod, we fill our lives with things, and again with things; if we consider ourselves so unimportant that we must fill every moment of our lives with action, when will we have time to make the long slow journey across the desert as did the magi? Or sit and watch the stars as did the shepherds? Or brood over the coming of the child as did Mary? For each one of us there is a desert to travel, a star to discover, and a being within ourselves to bring to life.”

I found this quote on a notecard a month ago, and couldn’t find out who originally wrote it, but it has dominated my thoughts as Christmas approached this year. It both convicts me and inspires me because they key phrase is “When will we have time….?” And that is a question I ask myself every day. It seems like there’s never enough time to do all I must do; much less all I desire to do. But the feast of Christmas itself asks something more. When will we have time to do these holy things… it is almost like we’re being asked, “When will we have time to be a Christian?” Or to visit Jesus in the manger.

You have all made time to be part of that journey tonight. Some of you no doubt under duress; others seeking a feeling, or warmth, or music; and still others looking clearly for God. We are taking the time tonight to stop, breathe, and think and pray about big things—about God becoming man, about shepherds seeing angels, and magi journeying on faith. The Christmas story isn’t just about being a passive witness to events a long time again, it’s about remembering that Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us—now, and that we are not just witnesses but participants in God’s story. Our stories are inherently part of God’s story, and when we reflect, we can see those connections and better develop our role in God’s story, so that we find ourselves reflected more in the shepherds and the magi and Mary than in Herod. 

So what’s your desert to travel? What’s your star to discover? And what being is it that God is calling you to bring to life? 

I realize we didn’t read the text about the magi—which is from Matthew’s gospel rather than Luke’s—but I suspect you’re pretty familiar with it. The magi—wise men—follow a star across the desert from the East in search of God in a very unexpected place. They are looking for God outside their own country, outside their own religion. And when they get to Jerusalem, first they go to a semi-obvious place—they go to Herod’s palace. They don’t go to the Temple, interestingly, they go to the seat of temporal power. But then they go to Bethlehem, and find a baby and bring him their gifts and worship him. When we are in the desert looking for God, do we look in the obvious places or in the places that are less likely?  

We can find God in the obvious places—temples, churches, cathedrals—but we can also discover God in the unexpected places. The desert, the hospital bedside, the manger. The purpose of our time in the desert isn’t to rush across and get out as quickly as possible; the people of Israel spent 40 years during the exodus in the desert. It’s to get to the right place, the promised land, the promised child, even if that means you have a few detours along the way. Jesus is always there at the end of the journey, but first we may have to stop and ask for directions; and then we may have to listen for the dream that will tell us to go home another way, because Herod is dangerous, and always there. The journey across the desert doesn’t end in Bethlehem, either—it continues, back across the desert, home, where we tell what we have seen, and praise God for it. 

What star is God calling you to discover? Over Thanksgiving, my family and I went down to rural North Carolina to spend the week with my brother-in-law in a house they have just built in preparation for their retirement. The night before Thanksgiving, we filled the new Jacuzzi out on their deck, turned out the lights on the deck and relaxed staring into the heavens. Their house is so far in the middle of nowhere that you could actually see not just all the stars in the sky, but the line of the Milky Way standing out among them. A skyscape a lot closer to what the shepherds saw on a hill outside Bethlehem than what I’m used to seeing here.  

I’m not aware as a New Yorker of the absence of seeing the stars. There’s plenty of twinkling lights in the city. But to suddenly remember just how full the night sky is, was kind of profound. It made me remember how often we don’t realize what we’re missing. We’re focused on who we are, where we are, the way things are in our own little corner of the world, and we not only miss the bigger picture and forget how limited our own vision is, we forget to imagine the possibilities for how things could be. Sitting and watching the stars reminded me that being open to discovery is part of faith. If you’re not looking at the stars, maybe you won’t discover the angel. If you don’t remember that there are stars, maybe you’ll miss the star that is calling out to you.  

Mary gives birth to the Word of God. I’m never sure what “brooding” over the child means—when I was 9 months pregnant, I remember mainly just feeling huge and uncomfortable, and I’m not sure that’s brooding; and in the days after Nathan was born, I was overwhelmed and exhausted and desperate to learn how to feed him and care for him, and I don’t think that’s brooding either. But we do give birth to a word. We don’t literally give birth to Jesus, but the Words which we speak (whether they are actions, or words, or relationships; or whether they are lack of action, silence, and aloneness) are what enter the world on our behalf and take on life of their own. 

At a meeting this week, I met a woman who now works at another church who upon hearing I was from the Church of the Epiphany was delighted to tell me that this was the church her parents brought her to as a young child in the 1960s. She recounted a story from when she was about four years old of how she tripped going up the steps and fell and cut her face, and remembered a very kindly priest who comforted her, got her a band aid, and patched her up. She looked at me and finished the story by saying, “And I think that’s the reason I’m an Episcopalian today.” The word we speak may seem to us to “just” be a band aid; but the being it brings to life might be a Christian. All those little “words” we speak—a purchase, a vote, a “yes”, the taking of a hand—can bring to life justice, or peace, or reconciliation, or love…. Or not.  

Jesus Christ the Word came to bring all those things to birth: justice, peace, reconciliation, and love. Tonight I invite you into the desert, up to the stars, into the stable, and up to the altar to witness and participate in what can be. God has become human, for us, and it is now for us to bring that Word to the world. Justice, peace, reconciliation, love. Merry Christmas.

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