Below is the text of my sermon from last night's St. Cyprian's Christmas Eve candlelight service. The St. Cyprian's community welcomed our neighbors from the First AME Zion Church of San Francisco and their pastor, the Reverend Malcolm Byrd, offered inspiring original prayers. The Reverend Dr. Sue Singer of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific shared a Godly Play children's homily and presided. My husband Matt (not much of a church goer) sat near the front, along with some distant cousins of mine from Santa Rosa. Then a number of us headed over to Grace Cathedral for a packed late night service.
What are we doing here? What is going on? What compelled you to walk through that door with the hole in it? What led you to say, I am going to that little church on the corner of Turk and Lyon on Christmas Eve? I’m going to step into that church and sing some songs, say some prayers and light some candles and focus my attention on a baby being born in a barn, in a cave in 1st century Palestine?
What’s going on?
Might it be that we crave the message of the incarnation ---- the big, fancy word theologians use to describe the eternal word or logos of God becoming flesh in Jesus---- we long to know that we are entirely and utterly loved --- that there is something in us and outside us, rooting for us like a good coach, breathing with us like a Doula --- one who says I am with you, closer than your breath --- ready to open us up more and more fully to what is true, real and whole. We long to know that our lives even the very ugly, painful, and difficult parts may be uncovered, lifted up and made sacred. We long to know that despite all that might tell us otherwise, there’s reason to hope, trust, share, and love.
The reading that Pastor Malcolm shared at the beginning of the service, is all about the deep theological stuff of this Christmas event, the incarnation. There is great beauty, grace and poetry in that opening chapter of John’s Gospel, there’s also much there for theologians to discuss, debate and write about. The author of John’s gospel must have wanted his hearers to be lifted up, inspired, intrigued --- to have their curiosity piqued. The story that Sue read from Luke‘s gospel, of an unmarried pregnant girl and an old carpenter heading to Bethlehem to be counted as part of Roman imperial occupation making a bed for their baby out of a trough , and stargazing shepherds following extraterrestrial instructions --- is, well, not quite so high brow. Luke’s story of Jesus’s birth is downright strange and complicated --- like an episode of the X-Files or a country love song.
These two very different ancient texts together seem to say that there’s deep stuff going on just under the surface of our strange and complicated lives, these texts want us to know that someone is trying to help, someone is trying to send us a love letter, someone is paying attention and working day and night to get us to notice that there’s really, really helpful information right there in front of us. Someone is eager to see humanity not just surviving but thriving, and the baby born this night is that love letter, is that invitation to notice the light increasing in us and all around us. This night is not just about strange stories from long ago but about the here and now, the common era about you and me becoming an integral part of the messy, complicated unfolding drama of hope, joy, and love --- about each of us becoming good news of great joy for our time and for our neighborhood.
How do we do that? How do we help this birthing of love? These ancient texts seem to offer two things John seems to be saying, look up --- reach for the heavens, use your mind, talents, questions to discern the profound meaning of the incarnation --- the word made flesh --- let your mind wander, explore, and aze off into the horizon. The Gospel of Luke seems to say, also look at the cracks, the tough places, the forgotten, the challenging --- notice the strange and the quirky --- and be open to surprises. There’s angels in the sky, there’s a baby in a trough. Luke’s gospel says, there’s a cave, there’s a messy barn, a place off the beaten path that has a message for you --- that message says the political, economic, social complexity of our time like that of Jesus’ cannot keep hope from being born, cannot shut out the dawning of a new day for us and for the whole human race.
Tonight we gather together in a sacred space, that as someone said the other day could use more than a little loving attention, in a city named for Saint Francis who brought living nativities into being. In the Middle Ages St. Francis had villagers of Assisi perform the roles of Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus and the shepherds to help poor, young, and illiterate people understand the meaning of the incarnation. Francis, our city’s patron Saint has much to teach us about Christmas --- about seeking tangible ways of manifesting the meaning of this day to all people. Francis walked away from a comfortable life of wealth and status, to renew an old church, walked across battlefields to meet with an enemy of his people --- Francis, must have sensed that the incarnation, Jesus’ birth, was reason to give birth to hope and new possibilities for himself and those around him.
A few years ago, a friend of mine who works among the urban poor of Washington DC came to visit the parish where I worked in the suburbs. She came to teach a class --- and in the class she helped us imagine the incredible gift of the incarnation. She did this using markers and a dry erase board. On the board she drew a line. On one side of the line she wrote "The nightmare" and on the other side "God's dream.” On the nightmare side she had the group describe the nightmares of human life ---- war, violence, poverty, injustice, disease, bigotry, racism, sexism ---- on the other side of the board under God's dream ---- we listed those longings that we all have, that we believe God intends for all life ---- peace, harmony, justice, compassion, love, health, and enough for everyone. Looking at these two lists, the nightmare and the dream, was nothing new. But what my friend began to share was how God had for centuries spoken to God's people about this yearning this longing for justice, peace --- the dream ---- through prophets and sages but people did not seem to get it --- to recognize or realize what God was trying to say. So my friend took a marker and drew on top of the dream --- a body, the shape of a human body. And this body encompassed the dream. This body was God's dream made flesh --- God's eternal word. The story we celebrate today is the story of God's longing for all coming to earth. God's dream, God's hope and yearning is given flesh in the baby born in Bethlehem. No longer was God's dream, God's longing just an abstract thing, in Jesus the dream was made real, tangible. Christmas --- this special night--- full of all kinds of symbols is about that dream, God's yearning for justice, mercy, compassion and peace being born in us.
Our challenge--any community of faith's challenge really--is to invite people to look up, to notice the lights in the darkness and to look at their own lives to see even in the strangest of places there’s reason to hope, and reason to become part of making the dream of God realized. In singing, and praying, lighting candles and sharing a bit of bread and wine in reading again and again the sacred story --- we become midwives for each other and we help one another breathe. We are invited to step out of life as usual and discover good news of great joy and peace in the trough, in the baby, the body. May this service warm our hearts and strengthen us for becoming as St. Francis was in his era, the dream and hope of God born for our time.
So look up to the heavens, and look down at the cracks, into the caves and the dark, damp places ---- breathe, know that you are surrounded by all you need to give birth. We may need to improvise a bit but in the messy, smelly and complicated reason to hope is born this night.