[Midnight Christmas Eve at Trinity Church, Plattsburgh, NY, December 24, 2006; Year A, Luke 2:1-20; 51-52, Mark 5:42, John 20:23, 1 Cor. 15:44, Rev. 21:4.]
I like to know where words come from. “Merry” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word that means “pleasant.” There are lots of pleasant, pleasing things about Christmas.
If we have any sensitivity, we know there are lots of people facing things that are not pleasing. We are a nation at war; there’s Iraq, and Darfur, and starving children in so many places. And all of us live in an environment that could be reaching the end of its ability to support life.
There’s another part to our word “merry.” Behind it lies another meaning – “short.” Pleasant, merry times are short. They come; but they also go. Christians are clear-eyed. We see the pain of the world as well as the joy.
Mary and Joseph’s people knew the pain. Rome oppressed them. The Temple oppressed them. Their own culture of male dominance oppressed them. That male dominance would have allowed Joseph to put Mary away and never give it a second thought.
Mary and Joseph and their people also had hope of joy to come. And it came! The heavens open and an angel appears to the shepherds. “Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).
“. . .a Savior!” Saving them from what? From lack of love? Yes. From guilt? Yes. From loss of community? Yes. From loss of hope? Yes. But, so much more that we so often miss. Saving them from moral confusion! Be loving and just – that’s what counts. Our lord tells you what to do. Lord Jesus tells us to love and to be just. That’s what counts. Yes, belief and trust and hope have power but they don’t really come into their full power until they are part of living lovingly and justly. Love your neighbor as yourself. Who is my neighbor? Anyone in need! Starving children – poor Mexicans – frightened Iraqis. Love and be just. Christian ethics are so simple. Love and be just. We love face-to-face. In a crowd we love by being just. Justice is the public face of love.
And there’s still more this Savior does. This Lord has power – power to overcome evil, sin, and death. There’s never been a Lord like this. And, more. Lord Jesus shares his power with us. He tells us to be loving and just and then he gives us the power to do it! Power can be a bad word. It’s a good word when it’s Jesus’ power – power to love where our love is weak and needs help – power to be just where our justice is weak and needs help. There’s never been a lord like this!
A Savior who both leads and empowers! And we’re his co-workers. He comes as one of us – born just like one of us. “A child wrapped in bands of cloth.” That’s the way every Jewish child was wrapped in those days. In today’s world, the angel would say “wrapped in a blanket, diapered, and in a crib.” Just like one of us. He calls us sister and brother. We’re his co-workers to make the world a better place. In baptism, we joined his mission of love and justice.
This may seem a new way to think about Jesus’ birth but it’s been there from the beginning. Jesus’ has the power to draw diverse people to his birth place – blue collar shepherds and PhD type wise men. Mary sings of God’s power in the past that will be at work in Jesus – it’s the power of justice: “He has shown strength with his arm. . . he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:51-52). The adult Jesus will say, “If I by the finger of God cast out Satan, the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20). The crowds were excited by his power over sickness: “They were overcome with amazement” (Mark 5:42). And he shares that power with us: “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:23). How could anything be more loving than that – to share his power with us. We are reborn in Jesus’ birth!
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Two stories of the love and power that Jesus gives.
We do most of our walking in the mall. Last Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. there was a line outside the video game store – Electronics Boutique. How long had people been there? The mall opens at 6:00 a.m. Stores don’t open until 10:00 a.m. There must have been twenty or so in line already. Why? One of them said, “They have Wii’s!” I think I got that right. It’s some new kind of remote – a stick or something. They’d been there for two hours with two more to go.
Catch the consumer culture here. “Get your own before they are gone!” What about time to be fed at Jesus’ table? That can wait! Of course, the store chooses Sunday for the sale – it’s the day most people are off!
Then, I got to thinking more deeply. All of them were chatting with each other. About what? It’s a video game store, so, they probably got around to kids and, then, schools and debating just how effective schools are any way. If so, I could guess there was lots of complaining going on. “They just pass kids along to the next grade whether they’ve really learned anything or not.. . .They don’t teach values at all . . . etc. . .etc.”
Then, I began to “dream” what a plucky Christian in that line might say. She’d speak up! “Our schools are underfunded! What about the gross inequality that you get a good school only if you live in a wealthy community! And, what about the parents who say, ‘We keep our kids happy. We leave teaching values and discipline to the teachers at school.'”
I’d say she’s part of Jesus’ mission. It takes courage to go against the group – think of the crowd. It’s so easy to play it safe and say, “Ain’t it awful.”
Jesus spoke up! Jesus tells us, “Speak up!” In my dream, Jesus was there in that plucky Christian at the video store in the mall. Jesus calls us to have opinions about public problems. We have two rules: one, have an opinion; and two, risk sharing it. Sharing takes courage. You can expect opposition. Will you hang in with your views or back down? Will you risk opposition and learn from it? Maybe, modify your opinion. Maybe, find a better way to express it. Christians are called to be citizens, not just consumers. Citizens care for their city – that’s where the word comes from, “city-zen,” city dweller. We are called to be responsible for our cities and towns to make them better – more loving, more just places – places with equal schools everywhere and parents and teachers who work together.
This is a Christmas story? Yes! Jesus wants to be born in that line at the mall – and everywhere. He’s “born” when we speak up for “the common good” – for what builds up everyone – not just my own private life. Jesus gives us the power to speak up and to work for a better world – a world where all children have quality education; where they don’t starve; and where violence and war are not the solution to conflict. Who’s my neighbor? Jesus answers, “Anyone in need.”
* * *
My second story is a family story.
It begins with a problem we all know about. It’s parents who think there’s an end to parenting. I remember the first time I heard a parent say, “Once she’s eighteen, she’s on her own. Time for her to move out. I’ll have done all I could.”
My second story is about a couple with eight children. All eight are grown – seven have their own children. These parents still pray for and help all eight. These two parents got one of their grown sons into treatment for his drinking problem. They planned and held a confrontation meeting. They were the ones who loved him most. Each said something like, “I love you and have to tell you this is what you did the last time I saw you drunk. You’ve got to stop.” Months later, he called his father, “Dad, I need you now!” That son is sober now.
And those parents are still praying for each of the eight. And they will continue to pray for them from heaven. Your parents and mine who are now with God are praying for you and me. If they didn’t know how to pray when they got there, Jesus has taught them how to pray by now. Our creed calls it the “communion of saints.”
And, with them are not just lost service men and women; with them are the parents and children from Iraq and Darfur and places of famine who have succumbed. We trust they are also with God in heaven. How can we not recall them? They are raised and each is given a new body, “a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44) and God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 21:4). In some way, they pray for all of us to find peace and the end to war.
Mary and Joseph never stopped parenting. Joseph probably died young – so many did. He must have been a good father for Jesus to teach about God as his Father. And Mary was there at the Cross. And Mary was in the church that formed around the table where the risen Jesus still fed them and still met their thirst. Jesus feeds us today. His clear call to live lovingly and justly feeds our need for guidance. His gift of himself in the bread and the wine feeds our need for the power to love and to be just.
“O come, let us adore him . . .” O come, for he leads us and gives us the power to follow him in loving and just living.