Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Preach One: Christmas Day

Preached at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral, Jackson, MS.

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen...

And that's where Luke leaves us on Christmas night, although of course we cannot be certain whether the shepherds found their fields and flocks again by morning light instead of starlight.  It came upon a midnight clear, wrote the Rev. Edmund Sears, imagining that glorious song of old ringing out when the night was darkest and the cold at its most deep.

They went with haste, the story goes, perhaps with echoes of angels and glorias still sounding when they arrived and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in a manger.  How many minutes old was he?  Hours, at the most?

Good news...great joy...a Savior...the Messiah... The shepherds made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed.  But even if their account of angels took a while to tell; even if some among them asked if they could hold the baby; even if they tried to sing him some of the heavenly song they had heard; they would not have stayed long, mindful of Mary's weariness.  And so, Luke writes, they returned, glorifying and praising God.

Watching them go, Mary and Joseph surely slipped into such a fitful sleep as a baby and a barnful of animals would allow.  When they awoke...well, we only have the story of Christmas night.  What happened on Christmas day?

The night, I suspect, though holy, had been anything but silent with cows lowing and sheep bleating and Mary laboring and midwives instructing and at long last a baby crying.  When Christmas day dawned, it might have been quiet for the first time since they settled in the night before, exhausted already, and sore, from their journey just ended.

Did they wonder, still somewhere between waking and sleeping, whether it had all been just a dream?  The angels, the singing, the shepherds, the swaddling clothes?  And then the baby stirred and sighed, and the morning sun shone through the stable door, and Mary and Joseph saw that it had not been a dream but wonderfully and amazingly real.  Reaching for Jesus, they held love in their arms, even if they only understood it at the time to be the love of a parent for a child.

And yet, those midnight glorias in harmony with Mary's own magnificat proclaimed this child was not just beloved but Love, not just God-given but very God of very God.  By his birth those things of which Mary sang were already coming to light, the mighty being cast down, the lowly being lifted up, the hungry being filled with good things...

It is Christmas day, no longer night, for those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.  The light of Jesus Christ would reveal once and for all the love of God, and would show us how to live in that love.  Howard Thurman reflected on that way of living, that way of loving, in the words offered as our final blessing this morning:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace to all,
To make music in the heart.

It is Christmas day, when the work of Christmas begins.  Perhaps, though, we who are weary, we who are sore, we who have had long days or nights, whether from work or study or sorrow or sickness or grief or loneliness or lovelessness or lifelessness...perhaps, like Mary and Joseph in the quiet of Christmas day, we would do well to pause first.  To find, for the first time in a long while, some silence.  To take love in our arms, even if we only understand it at the time to be love for a person or a memory or a story or a song.  For the one Mary and Joseph hold today is the one who would one day hold us all in his own outstretched arms, with love, for love, as Love, that we might be with Love for ever.  Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Preach One: Advent 4C

Preached at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral.

Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

If you came to our house, you could stay in our guest room...well, our guest room/sewing room/home office/library/storage closet/place where old exercise equipment goes to gather dust.  There is a fine line between cozy and cluttered, and I'm afraid we crossed it long ago.  But there is a bed in there, with warm blankets and assorted pillows, and a little table topped with a lamp and a stack of favorite books.  There are empty hangers in the closet, and a chair for your suitcase - just let me move some old magazines out of the way, and a half-knitte afghan, and...oh, that's where the computer cable for the old camera went...

We do clean up the guest room when we are expecting visitors, although I gave up trying to clean it out  a long time ago.  We wash the sheets, make the bed, and put out clean towels for our guests, hoping that they won't mind sharing the room with its now permanent residents like books and balls of yarn, boxes and rolls of wrapping paper, files and piles of things that need to be filed.  If you come to visit, we'll get the room ready, as ready as we can.  We'll prepare.

Some people have guest rooms at the ready all the time, so that all that's necessary is a little dusting and fluffing of pillows.  Others of us have to work at little harder to make room.  I wonder if Elizabeth had a guest room at all, a place to put young Mary after greeting her so effusively, after blessing her heart and her baby.  After all, Elizabeth was expecting, too, and perhaps she had already begun turning her guest room into a nursery.  Her womb could scarcely contain her baby as he leapt for joy within her; he would one day need a room the size of a wilderness, so loud would be his voice and so large his message of a kingdom yet to come.

Elizabeth wouldn't have had much notice of Mary's arrival, and no mention is made of whether Joseph came, too.  They would have been hot and hungry and tired from traveling - it was about eighty miles or so from Nazareth to Elizabeth - so that even if the law did not demand hospitality, anyone would have been inclined to show it, hurrying to fetch water and bake bread and fold back the blankets on the bed.

We, on the other hand, have had three week's notice and a day to get ready for the one who is coming, the guest who is now almost here.  I don't mean a mother-n-law or a child home from college or a long distance relation from afar off - I'm afraid I can't help you prepare for that in the space of this sermon today, although if you need to make room and would like to store some things in our guest room/sewing room/home office... Christmas is two days away, and we've all been preparing room, right?  We've been making beds and tidying up, baking and decorating, putting out clean towels and going grocery shopping.  We're ready for any number of guests.  So, where will Christ stay?

Through all the season of Advent, prophets and predictions have foretold his coming, have called us to repent, to prepare the way of the Lord.  Even as the volume of our commercial culture turns up and we are invited to hurry and consume, Advent urges us to hush, to make room, to quietly unclutter ourselves of those things that would crowd Jesus out, that would distract us from him, our guest, that would make us less hospitable when he comes, when Emmanuel, God-with-us, is with us.  There are two more days.  Are we ready?

Mostly.  Maybe?  Probably not.  For looking around us and looking within us we cannot help but see the clutter that is still there in our world, in our nation, in our communities, in our homes, and in our hearts.  Things are a mess, and try as we might we're just not going to be able to clean it all up by Christmas, all the strained relationships, all the sins of pride and fear, all the neglect of forgiveness and faith, all the cracks caused by violence and divisiveness and doubt, all the piled up distractions and addictions and dust... Repent, we have been urged, prepare, make a way, and we want to, but where will we put all the mess we've made?  Even if we do make room, can it ever be fit for God?

For God, who once knelt knee-deep in mud and clay to shape us into being?  For God, who once wandered in the hot, weary wilderness for forty years rather than leave a people behind?  For God, who, though all-powerful, chose to become all-vulnerable, who chose a peasant and not a princess as a mother, who inspired her to sing about turning the world upside-down, who was born not in a mansion filled with perfectly-prepared rooms but a dusty manger filled with hay?  For God, who loved sinners and ate with tax collectors and touched lepers and invited outcasts to be his friends?  For God, who chose to go as we do, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in order to prepare a room for us, to make us guests in heaven as God has been on earth?

Over and over and over again, in this great story of salvation, God has visited us not in our readiness but in our unreadiness, not in our perfection but precisely in the midst of our mess and chaos, our grief and pain, our fear and wavering faith, and God has loved us there.  And God has stayed there, though the pillows aren't fluffed and the bed isn't made and the star atop the tree is askew and all our sins are showing.

If our spiritual housekeeping has been less than perfect this Advent, we do not need to add regret or despair to the piles strewn across our guest room floors.  Goodness knows they're cluttered enough.  Christmas will come, and Christ will be born, whether we are ready or not, and in such a way as God has always been at work in this world, it'll be a mess.  If we let him, he will help us with our housework, with the hard work of sorting through those sins and fears, those doubts and griefs, the hard work of forgiving and trusting and being generous, of being reconciled, of showing compassion.  And then he'll ask us to help him with the housework he has come to do, in guest rooms and hospital rooms, in boardrooms and classrooms, in waiting rooms and meeting rooms and worship rooms and wherever there is yet room for love to scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, to bring down the powerful from their thrones, to lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things.

It won't all happen in the next two days, or this year, or next, or the year after that.  Our guest rooms aren't always ready, and our hearts are easily re-cluttered.  And so Christ comes not just at Christmas but makes instead a daily visitation, witnessing every mess we make, inviting us to make a mess with him, slowing but surely transforming us and all the whole world to be not just a guest room but a dwelling place, a home, for God.

O come, o come Emmanuel, God-with-us, and make us ready to be with you.  Amen.