Saturday, December 26, 2015

This is why we fail

This is my Christmas Eve sermon for Presbury United Methodist Church.

Let us pray:
Patient teacher, on this most holy night, or perhaps better, this most impossible night, we glorify you and praise you for all we have heard and seen, as the shepherds did. But may we all continue to ponder this story in our hearts so that it can continue to change us, so that we live as though we know you are Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. Amen.

Every year, we come back to this story. We read the same scriptures, we sing the same songs, and we light the same candles. And yet, we are not the same. We come to this story differently every year, hopefully a little older and wiser and healthier and happier, but maybe just a little older and a little poorer or a little more lonely or a little more sad. And so, while the story doesn't change, we can read it differently, ponder it in our hearts differently, see ourselves positioned within it differently than before. Understand who God is in a new and different way.

Except that's not usually what happens. What usually happens is that we have heard the story of Jesus' birth so many times that it takes on this nice, sweet, fairy-tale like feel to it. Rather than remembering the intense awe and fear Mary and Joseph experienced in the presence of the angels, or the ostracism that they must have experienced at the hands of family and neighbors, we see them only as happy new parents. Rather than smelling the musk of the animals, and worrying about their unpredictability around a baby, we smell only pine trees and see animals like the ones in Snow White or Cinderella who help clean the house. Rather than recognizing parallels between the shepherd in Jesus' story and the working poor in our own world, we clean them up in our minds, make them more respectable.

We are left with a story that comforts us in its familiarity, and maybe even one that inspires us in its simple beauty. And we need that--- we need comfort and inspiration. But we have limited the story if that is all it is for us, we have tamed it. When we hear the angels in the story say, “Do not be afraid,” we do not hear them speaking to us. When we see the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, we do not see our children. We may treasure the story the way we treasure an ornament that was our grandmother's, but we do not ponder it in our heart. We do not put ourselves beside the manger year after year, and let the story change us.

The past month, I have been using Star Wars to illustrate and inspire us as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child. I was going to try and be a little less geeky for Christmas Eve, but I can't. Because what Yoda says to Luke seems to tap into the trouble we have with limiting the story of Jesus' birth. Yoda is this little green alien who is a powerful Jedi master, and he is teaching Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original trilogy, how to become a Jedi himself. Yoda tells him that he must unlearn what he has learned, explaining to him that with the power of the Force, nothing is too heavy or too big to lift. Luke isn't really getting it, and sulks off, saying “You want the impossible.” And then Yoda lifts a giant x-wing out of the swamp with the Force. Luke rushes over too see for himself before stuttering, “I don't believe it!” To which Yoda responds, “That is why you fail.”

We read the scriptures, sing the songs, and light the candles, but sometimes we don't believe it. We find comfort in it, usually, maybe we even enjoy it, but sometimes we don't believe it. We don't believe that God has done the impossible, broken all those impossible barriers of time and space--- no, I'm not talking about outer space this time--- and come to us. God, the Creator of the Universe for whom we use such authoritative names as King and Lord, God chose to become a human just like us. And God did not choose to be born a king or a jedi master or even just a nice middle-class boy, God chose to become a poor, brown peasant born to unwed parents in a town under occupation by the Roman Empire. We forget these parts of the story when we let the familiarity of the words lull us to a sense of comfort. When we read the story more closely, when we ponder it in our hearts, we find ourselves declaring, “That's impossible!”

Sometimes, we don't believe God would become incarnate, that God would put on flesh and dwell among us. And that is why we fail. According to scripture, we were made in the image of God, but there was a break, and that image has been corrupted. If we need to wonder about that corruption, we can look to the news from this year alone from the rampant terrorism of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram massacring innocents in Nigeria and Lebanon and France to the terrorism of racists that claimed lives at Emanuel church in Charleston, from the horrifying rhetoric of politicians particularly concerning refugees and Muslims to greedy men raising the price of important HIV/AIDS medications. And the list goes on. The list goes on in our own lives as well, as we count broken relationships and missed opportunities. Our failures stemming from our incredulity at God's presence in ourselves and our neighbors are apparent. But Christ's birth is the reconciliation of that image, the act of taking us back, making us at-one-with-God (atonement) again. In Christ's birth, God shows us that nothing is impossible. That God can be incarnated in our neighbors, in ourselves. And that we are not too far gone for reconciliation.

So tonight, as we read scripture, as we sing, as we light candles, and as we come to the table for communion, I pray that we believe in this impossible story. And that we allow our belief in our incarnated God to change us so that we may see possibility everywhere. The possibility of the transforming love of God.

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