Christmas Eve, Year A, 2016

Sometimes, when I am feeling overwhelmed and trying to get some perspective, I just imagine where I stand in the universe. I stand on a patch of ground maybe a square foot large. I am one of seven billion people working and loving and playing on our planet. Our planet is this tiny speck in our galaxy, which is just a speck of a galaxy among billions of other galaxies. Human beings are very, very small if you stack us up next to all of the rest of creation. We are part of something much larger than ourselves, a universe filled with wonder and beauty and a wild order.

You would think the God of the universe wouldn’t give us much of a second thought, since creation is so vast. There are literally infinite numbers of places in space God could spend his time and attention.   And when you do zoom into Earth, and see the rubble and despair in Aleppo, the corruption in governments, and all the ways we hurt each other, you might think God would rather birth a new star or throw rocks into black holes rather than spend time with us.

And yet, knowing full well who we are, God decided to join us. God saw our brokenness and was not repelled, but was drawn toward us. He saw our pain and suffering, he saw our beauty and love and decided to break the barriers he had established between creation and heaven. Centuries of war and slavery did not keep him from us. Even first century sin did not change his mind. Corruption in the Temple could not keep him away. Herod, who wanted to kill him immediately, could not keep him from us. He chose to enter our world, as it is, as it continues to be, beautiful and broken.

In Luke’s Gospel, heaven first crashed through our atmosphere in the form of angels. Gabriel appeared to Mary. The Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds. God used his messengers to wake up his people, to prepare us for what was to come. These angels appeared to ordinary people, a young girl, a group of shepherds. These were not the elite, just ordinary people going about their business.

But angels are just messengers. They come and go. And God wanted to stay with us. So, with Mary’s cooperation, the God of the Universe became a tiny, vulnerable infant. The Divine took human form and stayed.

In the incarnation, God inhabited our lives. He learned what it meant to not be able to move without another human carrying you around. He learned what it meant to have bodies that hurt. He learned what it meant to be dependent. He learned what it meant to be poor. He learned what it meant to see the world through a limited perspective. He gave our ordinary lives dignity, even holiness by living them alongside of us.

And he gave us an image for this abstract God we had been worshiping. Jesus continued to reach out to real, complicated human beings. He pursued ordinary workers, the oppressed and the oppressors, the grieving, the sick, the mentally ill, women with bad reputations, women with great reputations, children. No one was too insignificant for Jesus to bless with his attention. And no one was so powerful they could intimidate Jesus. He was completely sure of himself, but only because he was so connected to his Father. His strength came from a deep knowledge of his Father’s love for him, and that love poured out of him affecting everyone around him.

The same God who is so infinite that he exists outside of time, chose to make himself specific. And when we follow him, we worship him in all his infinite wonder, but we care about the specific. We contemplate his majesty while we help the poor. We contemplate his divinity, when we see the divine in each person we meet. We contemplate his power as we seek to heal the ill. God’s experience as Jesus changes us and shapes how we understand what it means to be a human being.

We understand now that being human means staying connected to the God that created and loves us. It truly does not matter how much money we make or whether we are respected or successful. If we are connected to God, and learning how much God loves us and how much God loves those around us, then we are pleasing to God.

There is enormous suffering in our world, even 2000 years after Jesus’ birth. We can find ourselves overwhelmed, eager to turn away from the pain of others. Jesus was often surrounded by others’ pain—crowds of needy people followed him wherever he went. He healed whom he could, but he also took breaks. He retreated not to watch TV and numb the pain, but to pray and draw strength from his Father.

We too, are called to care for those who suffer, whether in Aleppo or in our neighborhoods. But we cannot care for them alone. We need the strength of our God, and we need each other. Knowing that each human being is made in God’s image is a huge responsibility. But it is not “us” who are privileged and “they” who suffer. Christians are all around. The Presbyterian Church in Aleppo this week released a statement that read in part,

In this Christmas season, we promise to continue our ministry as a Synod and as a church to be a sign of hope in this despairing time. We will try to plant joy into the life of the society. We will never cease to dedicate our effort to bring love and peace into the city of Aleppo. We will continue our worship services (200 people), ladies meeting (60 ladies), Sunday school (125 children with 18 leaders). Greeting to all of our partners hoping that they will pray for us this Christmas in Aleppo in order that we will meet the needs of marginalized people.

These brothers and sisters remind us that this incredible gift of Jesus’ birth is life changing whether you are surrounded by a beautiful home and lavish presents or whether you are desperately worried as bombs fall on your community. Jesus’ birth to a young woman is not just a sweet story we tell once a year, it the foundation of what makes our lives meaningful. It is the strength to get us through impossibly difficult situations. It is the courage to stand up for what is right and good.  It is the compassion that helps us look up and out and care for those around us.

Jesus may have ascended after his resurrection, but he sent his Holy Spirit so that we would never again be parted from God. At the moment of our baptism that presence of Christ takes up root in our heart and will never leave us. Jesus came to live among us and he still does. You may think you are far from God or don’t know God, but he is closer to you than your own breath. He is with you now, in this moment, ready to give your life meaning, ready to give you courage, ready to give you compassion. You are loved as much as the most complex galaxy in the universe. Jesus has crashed through our atmosphere. And he’s not going back.



Christmas Eve, Year A, 2013

No matter my level of Christmas cheer, there is a moment in every Christmas pageant when I am instantly filled with joy.  Whatever the reason, every year, when small children dressed in angel wings run up to the stage and shout to the frightened shepherds:  “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth!”  a huge smile lights up my face.

The children of course, aren’t actually angels.  They are ordinary children who fight with their brothers and sisters.  Their haloes are crooked.  Their wings get into the eyes of the angels behind them in line.  Some years they push and shove and jockey for position.  They are holy and ordinary in an entirely charming way.

According to the Gospel of Luke, God used angels prominently in the incarnation.  An Angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father.  The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, to invite her to bear God’s son.  And, of course, The Angel of the Lord and a band of angels appear to shepherds in the fields, announcing the arrival of the Messiah.

Biblical angels don’t belong on earth.  They are not sweet and cute like our pageant angels.  They are huge and winged and shiny.  They belong to another kingdom, where glowing with the Lord’s presence is less terrifying.  Nevertheless, angels broke through whatever space/time barrier separates us from heaven.  They burst into our reality, terrifying the humans that witnessed their majesty.

The host of angels came to us in an unusual way. They did not swoop in to a group of priests, or at the temple, or even to the King. The host of heaven revealed itself to ordinary shepherds. The transcendent broke into the ordinary.

This juxtaposition of divine and ordinary is the heart of the incarnation.

God could have remained in heaven, relating to his creatures via a distance.  Instead he chose to become a creature.  He chose to be limited by gravity and time and flesh.  He traded the infinite for the finite.  He became ordinary.

This collision of the divine and the ordinary can’t help but change what it means to be an ordinary human.

In this Gospel, when Mary first is confronted by the Angel Gabriel she exclaims the Magnificat, a hymn that marvels at how God turns everything upside down. Mary has a deep understanding that in choosing her, an ordinary girl, to bear God into the world, God is changing the rules completely.  He lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry.  The ordinary becomes sacred.  The insignificant become significant.

The angels are not announcing a Jesus who is visiting as a tourist, taking in the curiosities of having skin and feet and limited points of view.  The angels announce that everything has changed, our categories are irrelevant.  The holy is here, born to an ordinary girl.

My husband picked up a nativity scene at Ten Thousand Villages this week that depicts the Holy Family as a Peruvian family riding a bus.  I love it because it captures the heart of Christ’s birth in a modern context.  If the incarnation happened now, Mary would probably be the kind of girl who rode a bus.  She probably wouldn’t be American. She certainly wouldn’t be rich.  Mary would be an ordinary girl.

News Anchor Megyn Kelly grabbed media attention this month when she insisted both Santa and Jesus were white.  This is easy to laugh about, but it shows how people who have power—white Europeans and Americans—through art and media have remade Jesus in our image.  He becomes more Swedish than Middle Eastern.  We subtly imply that holiness has to look like us.  We are fine with Jesus being ordinary, so long as he is our kind of ordinary.

Theologian James Cone has written that “God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know that they’re not nobodies, they’re somebodies.”

God came to earth and made nobodies, somebodies.  God came to earth to make the ordinary holy.  God came to earth so that children of every color and nation could be in relationship with him.  God’s incarnation in Jesus makes holy our ordinary experiences, whatever our skin color or our income.

Andrea Elliot of The New York Times has written a series of articles exposing New York City’s homelessness problem, by following one child—a middle school girl named Dasani.  The story is incredibly bleak. Dasani’s parents are terrible money managers, their room in a homeless shelter is shared by mold and rats, no one in the family feels safe.  But the story is also incredibly powerful because by shining the light on Dasani, we get the rare opportunity to get to know a young, poor girl.  The Marys of our world don’t get screen time.  You just don’t write thirty page stories about a girl like that.  But Elliot captures this girl—her drive, her desire to do well in school, her hunger, her exhaustion, the love she has for her family.  Elliot focuses our attention on a single girl, and reminds us that children like Dasani should matter to us.  Children like Dasani matter to God.

Our outreach team works their tails off to provide for families around Christmastime not because it is a sweet thing to do, but because they know that we are the hands and feet of Jesus.  By buying Christmas gifts and packaging up Christmas hams and vegetables we are shaking our fists at the powers in the world that tell us that there are some people who don’t matter.  By walking alongside our neighbors in need we are proclaiming that their lives are holy. When we celebrate Eucharist in a nursing home or a prison, we are proclaiming the power of God’s love for ordinary, even marginalized people. When we travel halfway across the world to make relationships in Nzali, Tanzania, we are celebrating that all humanity is united by one miraculous birth two thousand years ago.

Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, your life is holy.  You may think you don’t matter.  You may think you are too young or too old, too rich or too poor, too jaded or too tired, but God has chosen to make your life holy.  And your life isn’t just holy that hour a week you spend in church.  Whether you’re washing the dishes, or walking the dog; typing up a report at work or in the middle of a boring meeting; on the phone with a friend or going for a run—your ordinary life is sacred.  Because before those angels burst onto the scene, the God of the Universe quietly became an ordinary human being.  A human being who presumably had chores and a job..  A human being who had sore feet and stomach aches and who cried and laughed.  Jesus was one of a kind and he was just like us.  Jesus was completely divine and completely human.

Jesus was born and he lived his life and he died and he was resurrected for you. And for the woman who cleans your office, the man who delivers your mail, and the women who made the shirt you’re wearing today.  Jesus was also born for people you will never meet, whose lives are so different from yours you cannot comprehend their experiences, as they could not comprehend yours.

It seems unlikely that any of us in this room will have the gift of a visit from an angel to wake us up to the miracle of our humanity.  So really all we have is moments like these—prayers and candlelight and hymns we’ve sung a hundred times.  We gather together to remember who we are, and whose we are.

And this is who we are. We are people who remember a poor girl who was brave enough to let God in.  We gather with her at the manger and marvel that the very God who created the universe now has tiny baby toes.  We tremble as we consider the risk he’s taking.  He takes this risk for no good reason other than his love for us.

And so we become his, completely ordinary, completely holy, completely humbled.