Friday, January 5, 2007

Sermon for Christmas Eve

I stole the idea for this sermon from John Shea, "Have A Defiant Christmas, preached at http://www.csec.org/index.htm.

Some Christmas I am going to send out a Christmas card that will look like this. On the cover there will be three images. The first image will be a star brightly shining but it will be surrounded by darkness. The second image will be an evergreen but it will be surrounded by trees without leaves. The third image will be the traditional one, it will be a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, but the child will be surrounded by a ramshackle stable. When you open the card, it will say in big bold print, “Have a Defiant Christmas!”

I assume my friends and family will call me up and say, “Matt, what is this about?” That will give me a chance to explain my insanity.

The first image is a light shining, but shining in the darkness. I love to drive around and look at Christmas lights. When I lived in Western NY, my favorite display was right across the street. In their yard was a plastic light-up nativity scene – the holy baby, Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph’s color was faded, but they still did the job, vigilantly watching the Son of God. Their glowing nativity tableau, however, did not have the usual shepherds and wise men. Instead, the manger was flanked by toy soldiers, Rudolph and Santa. They all looked comfortable together, a mix of Christmas symbols whose garishness caused me to chuckle every year.

You know what else I like to do? I’m going to do it tonight – it’s one of my Christmas traditions. I turn off all the lights in the house. The kids are in bed, the presents are wrapped, and there is nothing else to do but turn on the Christmas tree and watch the lights illumine the silent darkness of our home. Christmas is not just about light. It's about light in the darkness. Like the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome it.” Light has defiance as part of its character. It pierces the darkness but the darkness cannot overcome it.

The second picture on my Christmas card is an evergreen tree surrounded by lifeless trees. The image evokes a story from the Cherokee tradition called Why Some Trees are Ever Green. In the beginning the Great Mystery gathers all the plants and animals together, and the Great Mystery wants to give a gift to all the plants and the animals, but the Great Mystery does not know what gift to give to which plants and which trees. The trees and plants are gathered together and the Spirit says, “Try to stay up all night for seven nights.” Well the first night the young plants and trees, even if they wanted to, could not fall asleep. They were so excited. On the second night some dozed off. On the third night, in order to keep awake, the plants and trees began talking to one another. On the fourth, fifth and sixth nights, though, many fell asleep, until finally the Great Mystery arrived on the seventh night. The only plants and the only trees that were awake were the spruce, the fir, the holly and the laurel. The Great Mystery said, “What great endurance you have. Because you have stayed awake, I will give you the gift of being ever green, so that even in the dead of winter, when all the other trees have lost their leaves, your brother and sister creatures can look into your leaves and know that life is protected.”

So it is down to this day. In the dead of this season, when all the other trees lose their leaves, the evergreens stay green and stay awake. The evergreens are defiant. They live and they give us a sense of life.

My third Christmas picture is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. It is an image of love. The child wrapped in swaddling clothes means that the child is loved. The child is not abandoned, but enfolded and taken care of. The child is laid in a manger, a feeding trough, which symbolizes that this beloved child will be food for the world and give his life to all people. It all happens in a world where there is no room for them at the inn -- in a place where there is no hospitality, where they are not welcomed, where there is rejection. There is a defiance to the love of that baby. His is a love that beckons is from a land that lacks hospitality.

Three images: the light shines but it defies the darkness; the tress is green, but it defies the the death of Winter; the child is beloved but He defies a sense of rejection and inhospitality. I thought with these images on the cover of a Christmas card, people would understand the sentiment, “Have a Defiant Christmas.” But I suppose we really don't want a card like that. We want a card that is all light or all greenness or all love, but I do not think it is always the condition we are in when we celebrate Christmas.

There is a lot of darkness, barrenness and inhospitality in our lives. At Christmas time, we have a chance to defy them. The question is, how do we celebrate in a world that is not perfect? What might we have to do to defy them? Perhaps our health is not good. Maybe the ones you love and care for are failing. Perhaps you are waiting for test results over the holidays. Perhaps our finances are not where they should be. We need more money. Who doesn’t at this season? Maybe some of our relationships are difficult and in need of repair. Perhaps our job is not secure. Will we wait until there is all light, till there is all greenness, until there is only love in order to celebrate? Or can we defy that and celebrate in the midst of darkness and barrenness and lack of hospitality?

It seems to me the Christian tradition is powerfully consistent on this. We proclaim that our souls are deeply united to God. If we can get ourselves in tune with our souls, we may find a place where we can defy all that tries to tear us down and destroy us when the circumstances of our lives that are not completely where we want them to be. The problem is we are often not in touch with this deep, interconnectedness to the God.

There was once a German theologian named Meister Eckhart. He once said that each person has a vintage wine cellar but they seldom drink from it. We have to find the wine cellar in order to drink from it. A man once heard this quote and said to me, “I think I know what you were talking about. Let me tell you my story. I was a school teacher and at Christmas the kids always brought me gifts. They brought them in different types of boxes but after a while I was pretty savvy about what the gifts were. There would be a thin handkerchief box. I knew it was a handkerchief box and so instead of opening it, I usually just put it in the closet and then when I needed a handkerchief, I went and got it and opened it up. Well, one time I needed a handkerchief and I went and opened up a thin handkerchief box but there was no handkerchief inside. Inside instead was an antique pocket watch. I had an antique pocket watch all this time but I didn't know it because it was wrapped in a handkerchief box.”
We all carry treasures around like that in our ordinary lives and average bodies. Don’t be fooled. God’s light is in you. By God’s Spirit, you have the greenness of new life. It defies the adverse circumstances of our lives.

I do not know if I will ever send that Christmas card out. Knowing me, I will probably put it off. In the meantime, I leave you with a blessing this Christmas -- one that was written in 1513 by Fra Giovanni. “I salute you and there is nothing I can give which you have not, but there is much while I cannot give it, you may take it. No heaven can come to us unless we find it in our hearts today. So take heaven. No joy can come to us, unless it comes to us in this present moment. Take joy. No peace can come to us, unless we find it right now. Take peace.” And so at Christmas time, I greet you with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.

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