This graphic is telling, but initially confusing. There’s a color-coded chart of all the possible legislative items that would address gun safety issues. Do not be fooled. The point of the colorless calendar chart below it is that none of them has been achieved.
A sad but also joyful interview, perfect for Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. This is also a good place to start if you want to wean yourself off of the view (which she made part of her book title) that “Everything happens for a reason.”
I had some helpful tips from the late scholar Bill Placher, who is consummately accessible: Article from Christian Century
(Not sure if you have to log in. But we can all have that access. I need to hand out the password in church.)
One thing he says is that pastors did well who shared reading interests with their congregations and also read things that their congregants were reading. I’ll look for opportunities to read what you are reading.
But I’m reading (and planning to write on) the decline of the mainline church (see my previous sermon below). There is a lot of baseless recrimination on this issue: “The mainline church is declining because they don’t support my position on the culture war” seems to be a common refrain.
But here was a fine article, unfortunately dated (from 1990s) that comes up with interesting conclusions based on good data. It’s a little hard to work through, but it appeared in the popular conservative magazine First Things.
And now I’ve just ordered a brand new book: The Future of Mainline Protestantism in America. This is by good scholars from a good press, and I expect quality. Not sure about accessibility. But you are invited to read along with me. It should definitely give us perspective on what is going on locally with our church. I found it on Amazon but ordered it through Amherst books for the same price ($30 paperback) with no shipping charge! Buy local!
I went off lectionary for the day, and took a break from my “Love of God” series (all of a week into it!). But lots of good feedback. I wonder if anyone disagrees? I’d like to hear from folks who do.
1 Samuel 3:1-11; Revelation 3:1-22
“The State of the Church”
In the Book of Revelation, John the Seer dictates letters to seven important churches of his day; we heard three of those letters. John shows a distinct attitude in each letter, ranging from encouragement to strong warning. I thought about using these letters to address our church in this way, on this day, as we take stock of where we are and plan for where we want to go. Would we be the church who is “dead,” who are told “to wake up and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death?” Or are we like the faithful church in Philadelphia, who has “but little power, and yet you have kept my word and not denied my name?” They are told “to hold fast to what you have.” Or are we like the church in Laodicea, who is so satisfied with their wealth and success that they are neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm. So God says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” like lukewarm coffee. It’s not my focus today, but we do learn something about God’s love here, when God says, “I reprove and discipline those whom I love.”
But I find these letters by John really off-putting too. They don’t read to me like letters dictated directly from God. John’s biases show through; he seems to think only martyrs are real Christians. Maybe John needs to lighten up.
We should be very wary of claiming to speak directly for God. So I have no letter from God for the church in Granby. And it may be that John himself is dimly aware of the dangers and limits of pronouncing divine judgment. The one constant refrain in his letter is: “Let him who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying…” I’d like to think that’s John’s way of saying, “Judge for yourself; if the Spirit speaks to you through what I say, then use it in good health.” Ultimately, the Spirit of God has to judge us from within, both individually and as a church.
So we must ask ourselves, what does God think about our church? And we must listen to one another. Those with long roots in this church can to share what was so valuable from the past that we need to preserve. Newcomers can add a fresh perspective, seeing the church for how it is today, not through some rose-colored lens that those with long associations might have.
I do have a role in this conversation. I see this church in light of the challenges that the larger church faces, and the resources its leaders have proposed. But ultimately I’m left with my own take on what ails the church today and what fresh ideas might help the church regain the right combination of faithfulness and power. I confess you won’t often find a pastor in a small church who has given so much thought and study to these questions, and believes, hopefully not foolishly, that he has insight to offer.
So what problems is the church facing today, and how can we address these? Let’s focus on churches like ours: mainline churches that are mostly middle class, mostly white, which don’t believe in dramatic spiritual powers and don’t believe the Bible is inerrant. Our kind of church is not doing well. According to the Pew Research Center, the percent of the population affiliated with mainline churches like ours has gone from 18% to under 15% just since 2007. And this is down from around 25% a few decades earlier. These statistics can be analyzed in a variety of ways, but they tell us that all is not well. Still, let’s not obsess about numbers; my first concern is always whether our mainline churches are presenting a compelling and faithful way of life, with God at its center. If we’re not doing that, then even if we were growing, we would not be a true church. And you’ll notice that the Book of Revelation’s letters never once mention whether the churches are growing. Let us be faithful to God, and be not ashamed of what we are but share our faith, and I trust God that all will be well. (Not that we don’t need to prudently manage the business side of things, of course!)
So what does that look like? Whether we are growing or shrinking, whether our budget is balanced or not, church should be a powerful experience. Church should change lives, even if it does so slowly. It should take your breath away. It should open you up to that raw, vulnerable, on-edge side of life, like you get when you’ve had a really intense personal conversation with a good friend, or better still, a stranger. You know what I mean? When your ears are perked up, and you feel you’ve finally let your guard down and exposed yourself to what really matters in life. At the end of such a conversation, I find I feel exhausted but also full of nervous energy. A good conversation, a great novel, even a movie that isn’t an escape but really calls to you—these can make you feel this way, like you are on the edge of a great precipice of life. Why shouldn’t church feel that way too—even more so?
What? You say you’ve never felt that way? Well it’s never too late. Imagine how Moses felt at the burning bush; or how Peter felt when, after pulling in a huge trove of fish, said to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am an unclean man.” Or how Adim Malek prayed as he fled for his life as a boy solider, and finally found liberation. Or how some of you have faced losing your own children, but God stood by you through it all. I don’t wish these difficult experiences on anyone, but church can really happen when our hearts are at their most vulnerable and exposed. How many of our mainline churches tap into that kind of power? If they did, they wouldn’t be shrinking, I assure you.
Mainline churches should have that power; we’re talking about God, here, and what more than God can lead you to live life on the edge? But mainline churches have too often managed to make God ordinary, commonplace, blandly familiar, even boring. People who are hungry for life on the edge, who really want to feel life, have to flee the church and look to crazy extreme sports, or grizzly horror movies (or death metal). Maybe they fail to appreciate that ordinary life can also be extraordinary, but they are on to something. / Really, it’s shocking. Right where life ought to be most exciting and on the edge, we’ve made church the home for life at its most conventional—plain-vanilla. We should almost be proud of ourselves for such an unlikely achievement. How indeed?
I think what happened is the church went from praying for the Kingdom of God to come and for this age to pass, to recasting itself as a pillar of social order. It became the church’s role to uphold mainstream society. This dramatic shift started long, long ago; with Constantine, played a big part in the fourth century, but there were a lot of smaller compromises along the way. Our Puritan ancestors were remarkably counter-cultural when they lived in England, but when they settled here they became the establishment, and church became the place where rules were enforced and people kept in line. And still today, the small-town New England church might continue to assume that it is our role to be the center of town, the pillar upholding all the values that make a place like Granby what it is.
But exactly what those town-‘n’-chuch values are shifts through time and with location. Once it was important for church to reinforce sexual morality and patriotism, to shun divorce, and make anyone who was different feel judged—maybe they were foreign born, dark skinned, or gay. More recently, churches may reinforce the value of self-fulfillment and individual achievement; we endeavor to promote well-adjusted young people who have “positive values,” like healthy self-esteem. Often the main value we promote towards others is tolerance—“live and let live.” If you are up in Amherst, church might be a place to celebrate progressive political values, with just a touch of self-righteousness. In many rural areas, it’s the opposite—conservative social values reign, to which faith lends the hubris of absolute certainty that everyone else is wrong or degenerate. Now, don’t get me wrong; teaching values is, well, valuable. I do it. We can and should have important discussions about what personal and social values best align with the Gospel. But too often church serves simply to lend a vague divine blessing on whatever conventional values we mostly white, middle class people hold anyway; and predictably our teenagers will either rebel against all this just because it’s conventional, or the more conforming teens will ploddingly go along with it. But you don’t need a church to instill these values; the Bible just seems to get in the way of conventional values anyway—it’s such a strange book. No wonder people have stopped coming to church to imbibe conventional values, whether progressive or “family values.” You can rely on youth sports, Disney movies, and school to instill conventional values like self-esteem, hard work, and tolerance, in your kids.
None of this has anything to do with the real heart of church, as I want to present it to you: standing naked and vulnerable before the absolute God—placing yourself face to face with the God upon whom everything depends. That is what church alone can deliver; no other organization can. Church ought to be where everything superficial, everything fake, everything false is exposed; where we bring before the fire of divine love everything we have substituted in the place of real, unbounded living, to be burned away. Paul tells the Corinthians that they should be speaking with such a prophetic edge in church that when a new visitor comes in for the first time, “the secrets of” that person’s heart will be “disclosed,” and he or she “will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you.’” That’s power, not borne of manipulation and pulling heart-strings, but truth; real truth-power.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am looking for that in a church, but I’ve never been so explicit. Maybe you’re saying, Yes I want that! How do we get it? Good question. It’s nothing you or I can manufacture. At best we can open ourselves to this kind of raw, divine power: The God “who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open.” But we can try to clear out everything we substitute in its place: the god of convention, the god of Granby. We can choose instead to settle for nothing less than the true God who is far beyond our little lives. Maybe we find it hard to believe in this God. We can see convention; the everyday world has an almost oppressive reality to it. What is beyond it can’t easily be seen. Then the place to begin is with honesty. Wherever we are with faith, church has got to be the place where we are at our most raw and honest. You can’t fake it before God. Even if you’re not sure you believe in God, you surely don’t think you can fool God! Whatever God is, he’s nobody’s fool. So if we have intellectual doubts about God or are confused about God, or if we find the Bible strange or silly, we honor God by being honest about it. Nothing so dishonors God as pretending to be a ‘good Christian.’ Then church becomes just a show of piety, where you fake it for the sake of upholding convention; and then we’ve dethroned God. Instead, let’s be honest and vulnerable with our confusion and doubt, and only then are we open to better understanding. And then maybe the God we seek will be gracious and show himself here, will “come in to you and eat with you, and you with him.”
But maybe this isn’t what you come to church for. Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, or you just prefer the God of ordinary life, of convention, who upholds everyday values. Maybe I’m freaking you out! You don’t need to be. I can work with where you’re coming from. God is our creator, the one who created the various orders in which our lives move and have their being. And God’s created goodness is still visible in the bonds of family, in ordinary neighborliness, in loyalty and reciprocity with one’s own people. I don’t think that these values by themselves are enough to make church powerful, and they are not the values we find at the heart of our redemption and calling in Christ. But some of you have helped me see that, seen in retrospect from the vision of that extraordinary calling we have in Christ, with its very unconventional way of being a distinct and holy people before God, the continuing goodness of God in even ordinary things can seem amazing. I continue to journey with you and learn; I hope you will do the same with me.
Gen 1:1-5 ; Mark 1:4-11
I promised a series on the Love of God during Advent. Nothing so encapsulates who we are and what we are about as a church as the Love of God. So the Love of God gives us a point to rally around and in which to find our unity; this is just what we need as we approach our annual meeting. And yet the mystery that underlies the love of God is bottomless. (So I haven’t figured out how long this series will go!)
Most of us agree that love is central to who God is, and also that Jesus has something important to do with God’s love. But we might not be sure or agree about what that is. So I want to take this sermon series to rethink God’s love through Jesus. Today I want to explore how Jesus holds together God’s love with God’s justice.
That point is important to make, for when we hear the “Love of God,” many of us will hear in that phrase a contrast to the justice of God. Love and justice are opposite, we might think. Love forgives, justice punishes. There’s some truth to that. But then we end up with a God who is two-faced. As if sometimes God is loving, other times God judges and punishes. How then can we sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with its line, “There is no shadow of turning in thee?” I think we’ve made a mistake. I think that the deeper into God’s love you penetrate, the more you find it united to God’s judgment; and vice versa.
Now, part of the reason we think love and justice are different is that we assume love means affirming someone as she is. (We believe this: “Wherever you are…” We are open and affirming.) Well that’s good; giving affirmation to others is for us a vital and important component of love. Now, we also happen to live in an era in which many believe self-affirmation and high self-esteem are the surest ticket to human goodness. “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” (No, that’s not in the Bible. That’s secular wisdom, and we should be wary of it.)
On the other hand, we assume judgment means disapproving of someone as he is. And we try to avoid judging people; we associate judging with being judgmental, and truly that is a bad quality, in part because being judgmental means we are assuming the authority to sum up everything someone is and pronounce approval or disapproval. To do so is to put ourselves in God’s place. But God reminds us: vengeance is mine. So for us, we rightly love and affirm a lot, but judge and disapprove a little or never (I hope). Love and judging are very different.
But are they so different in God? Are love and judgment in God mutually exclusive like this? Or have we taken our human idea of love and justice and projected them onto God; God who said, “My ways are not your ways.” Have we said, well, if loving for me means affirming people as they are, then when God loves us, God must affirm us as we are? And God wouldn’t judge us, right? After all, the least God can do is to live up to our standards of good behavior.
Well, we should ask ourselves whether God’s love must have this same quality of affirmation and self-esteem building that has become popular in the last 40 years. Perhaps we’ve concluded that God must love us by making us feel good about who we are. And then we’ve concluded that since God loves like that, like a good parent who never says anything negative, then God can’t possibly be a judging God. And so we’ve ended up with the idea that love and judgment are simply opposed, and God can’t both be loving and just, in the sense of condemning what is wrong in us, or even just showing us that our glory lies still in our future.
And then we become very puzzled by Scripture. The Bible just doesn’t say that God loves us by affirming who we are. So we resort to dividing the Bible up between the good parts and the bad parts. (Now I am the first to admit that there are some bad parts of the Bible, at least parts that are very troubling and don’t seem useful.) And so doesn’t just about everyone say, The God of the Old Testament is a judging God, but the God of the NT is loving. I hear that all the time. It’s a little dangerous because it can go in an anti-Jewish direction, recalling my sermons from last August, as if the Jewish God is the bad, judging God. But it’s also just patently false. God is loving in both testaments; and God justly judges in both testaments. Even a quick reading of the Gospels will show you a Jesus who is very critical of his society’s religious leaders, even of “this whole generation;” and he is also quick to rebuke his disciples. Our idea of a meek and mild Jesus who just wants to make everyone feel good is a myth—an idol.
So it seems we have placed our limited and faulty idea of /what love is/ upon God; we’ve remade God in our image. And that is how God’s people from the very first have so easily found themselves worshipping an idol instead of the true God. The true God is not divided; God is never forced to choose between being loving and just. God is one, even if God looks one way rather than another to our fallen little minds. But the more we immerse ourselves in God’s wholeness, or the more we ascend into God’s infinite and eternal being, the more we can perceive the oneness of God, the sameness of God’s love and justice. Of course, none of us ever rises to perfectly see God in this way.
So thank God we have Jesus our Christ to guide our weak powers of perception, and to protect us from our tendency toward recasting God into our limited image of God. As I said last week, by the incarnation in Jesus the Christ, God showed God’s own infinite being to us in a way we could grasp and live with. If God hadn’t shrunk himself to our size in a way that still contained God’s whole and infinite being, then we would inevitably do so for ourselves, shrinking God into a idol that we can handle, thereby losing the God who is truly our Lord, and never the other way around.
It is Jesus the Christ who holds together all that God is, including both love and justice, in a way that brings us life. In Christ we are loved and forgiven by God, yes; but also in him we are truly judged and our flaws and sin are made known and purged away.
I want try to be very clear on this difficult point about Jesus. He is not just a delivery person for the good gifts of God. He doesn’t show up at our door and drop off good things from God, certainly not things like wealth and success, as some Christians persist in believing, but not even the gifts that are unquestionably good, like our Advent virtues of hope, love, joy, and peace. Jesus doesn’t present these to us like a passage which then becomes our property, receiving our thanks and perhaps a tip, and then we add these goods to our other valued items like family, prosperity, meaningful careers, and so on. Neither is baptism a conveyer of gifts which we then own, whether we think of the gifts as salvation, forgiveness, or even meaningful ‘spiritual experiences.’ Of course we do experience tangible benefits from faith in Christ, although if we lived in a different time or place we might just as easily experience persecution and suffering for our faith. If Jesus just delivered the goods to us as our property, and if baptism in his name just magically conveyed some powers or benefits to us, we wouldn’t need to read and ponder so much about his life, about the things he did and said. We could just talk about our own experiences of God’s benefits, with a nod to Jesus our delivery man.
Here’s the way it really is: the blessings we have from Jesus all come second to, and indeed grow out of, the blessing we have in Jesus. That is, the greatest blessing we receive, and the principle blessing of baptism, is that we die to ourselves and now live our life in Jesus the Christ. Now, this is where you might say to yourself, “there goes the pastor again, being obscure, sounding like an academic, instead of preaching about things that are meaningful to my life.” Now, I have been known to do that, fair enough. But not this time. I am simply preaching the great mystery of the gospel, the great mystery of baptism, and maybe you have a hard time understanding it because you’d rather focus on the blessings that you get to call your own. I like those things too. But those blessings might just be good luck, or our vain wishes. So we need to listen to the mystery of baptism as Paul describes it (and I’m just explaining what he says in Romans):
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Let me try to make this clear: the greatest blessing and gift we get from Christ and from baptism is to have my ego taken away, my ME, my entrapment within my own cares, my own way of seeing things, and especially my own hang-ups and problems; but also the ME that people have put down, and all my insecurities that come from that. Jesus doesn’t give you a whole bunch of good things, so much as he takes away your life. We like to say, we’re saved! But it is truer to say that you lose your life. And if you are really attached to your ego, to having things my way, to the world revolving around me, or if you accept that you are low as your harassers have been saying you are, baptism is going to feel like you are drowning. But once you realize how wonderful it is to be freed from the prison of Me and Mine, and to be raised into being Christ’s and God’s, you will really feel the gift of salvation; then you will know peace and joy and love and hope like you never have; then shall suffering becoming bearable and all your fears will be conquered. This is the love of God that is also justice; the love that slays our old self in a way that might feel like a punishing fire, until we realize it is really the warmth and light of love.
Jesus holds together God’s love and justice. We see this in his baptism. Jesus wasn’t baptized so he could receive gifts from God. He did not need to be saved from sin. Instead, his baptism was first of all a submission of himself to God and to humanity. It is already a laying down of his life to God, and it is a perfect human act of humility to accept baptism, an act of repentance, not for himself but for all humanity. Jesus’ baptism is the fulfillment of righteousness; it is exactly the right self-giving act that the messiah of God should do. And then by doing this act, Jesus sees the heavens open up to earth, and the voice of God saying, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” No one else has ever heard those words, so far as we know. Jesus alone receives them, but for us all, so that when we are baptized in the name of Jesus, we also hear those words of love as our own; and then we begin to share in that same Holy Spirit, in the power to participate in God’s justice on earth.
God knows we will not unite love and justice as Jesus did. We do not easily give up our egos; we want to hold on to our lives as at least a little bit our own. That’s ok. We are not called to literally lay down our lives for God. God in goodness and mercy gives us the grace of creation with its pleasures and delights, while also opening us up to the grace of the Holy Spirit, as much as we are called to do. The waters of baptism are the perfect symbol here. They signify to us the death to ourselves and rebirth into God’s life; but because those waters carry the echo from creation in Genesis, baptism also conveys the continuing blessing upon the creation in distinction from God. God also says it is good that we continue as created beings doing our own thing, living our own life. God loves us also like that, even in our sinfulness. But in Jesus we find the love of God that unites us also to God’s justice. And so we will watch and listen as Jesus’ life of loving justice unfolds, showing us a godly humanity that we also can participate in. That story will continue all the way until Holy Week, when we shall see the union of God’s love and justice is all its mystery and splendor.
On communion Sundays, I have started offering an extended Message for All Ages (“Children’s sermon”) in the place of the regular sermons. So I preach this interactively with the youth and with everyone–not exactly as written. And I substituted the Exodus reading for the contrast of being able or unable to see God.
Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 2:1-12
Silas asked me some questions a few months ago: Where is God? Can we see God? I thought that they would be perfect questions for Epiphany, which is a celebration of God being visible or manifest at Jesus’ birth. Not many were there: Jospeh, Mary, the animals, the shepherds according to Luke, and on Matthew’s telling, the wise men.
The Wise Men learned of Jesus’ birth because they saw a star in the sky. Notice that no one came to Jesus and said, ‘I knew I’d find you here because I saw in the Bible where it predicted your birth.’ In other words, the good religious people of the day were surprised by Jesus’ birth. But the Wise Men were not Jews. They were from another land and practiced another religion. But who studies the sky in our day? –Scientists. They found Jesus using their own wisdom and studying. And they were very humble. They believed the truth they discovered even though it might have sounded strange. Notice how there were only a few Wise Men—there weren’t hundreds. Not many were wise enough to find Jesus by their own smarts and study. But something about Jesus allowed some people to find God without the benefit of the Bible at all. So the first lesson is this: The truth that is shown to Jesus is so much a part of creation, even the stars in space, that anyone who looks carefully can find that truth. And we can learn about Jesus from wise people even if they’re from another religion.
Now, why can’t we normally see God? God almost never appears in the Bible. God speaks a lot in the Bible, but almost never as a voice from the sky. God fills someone with a message—those are the prophets—and they tell people what they hear God saying in their mind. So why do you think God doesn’t appear and speak like you and I appear and speak?
Well, we get a clue from our first Bible reading; it’s a conversation between God and Moses. God tells Moses, You can’t see me face to face and live. I don’t think that means you would die if you saw God. (Or it would say, ‘if you see God face to face you’ll die.’) I think it means that you can’t see God and live like you normally live. So, normally, What do you live for? Usually, I’m living to do well on my history exam, or I’m living for our family vacation, or I’m living for Christmas to come. Or you just relax and play and watch the world go by. The things we live for our people-sized. So the purpose of my day today is to make it to church and back without freezing, go home and eat and relax and read.
Now what do you think God’s normal day looks like? God sees all the things people are living for, all their plans, and God also sees what they ought to be doing but aren’t. Imagine if you could see all the purposes of all the people in the world, and all the animals and plants and other planets. And you could see what they should be doing but are not. If you could look into God’s eyes and see all of that, the purpose of everything, could you still go home and be excited for spaghetti with meatballs tonight? Or your favorite show on tv? So you can’t see God because if you knew everything God knows and what the purpose of all of life in all its variety was, your own little life would seem so small. But that’s not what God wants. God wants you to live your own life, in the way only you can, but in a way that is a part of God’s really big purpose. So God knows that you can’t see God directly, and God protects us from a vision of God that is too much for us.
So God comes down to our own level, for we cannot see or imagine what it would mean for God to be in everything, and everything to be living God’s purpose. God shows us what it looks like when one person lives perfectly according to God’s purpose. You know who that is? … To see God, we aren’t able to look for God as the ruler of the universe, because then we’d say, “Well, I can’t rule the whole universe. How can I help God with that?” But in Jesus we can see just one person perfectly living out God’s purposes. And even there Jesus might seem to great for us; you might say to yourself, I can’t be like Jesus. Well, we have much to learn about how Jesus lived, and how he died, and how he rose again and became the eternally living head of the church; we have much to learn about Jesus and what he means for each of our lives. You don’t have to be Jesus. Because no one can take Jesus’ place. It takes a whole church to fills Jesus’s shoes, to take his place. Only Jesus could look to himself and know, truly God is in me, completely, perfectly. I can’t say that, and I think everyone eventually realizes that I’m not perfect like Jesus. But together as the church we can make up for each other’s imperfections and together do the good work that Jesus did for God.
So Jesus’ friends saw God in him, but then he left the earth and is with God now. So where can we see God now? … Not in any one of us, or in yourself; we’re all very human. But you can see the Spirit of Jesus here in this church, living and working among all of us, in good actions of kindness, love, and forgiveness; in a great desire for justice and for all things to be right. God is visible here, even though God is much bigger than this church.
So that’s what communion is all about, especially today on Epiphany. We see God—but we can’t see God the ruler of all. We see God because God appeared as Jesus, in a size that is right for us. But even though Jesus was the same size as us—he was even a baby—none of us quite lives up to Jesus’ perfection. But Jesus doesn’t ask any one of us to do what he did. He leaves it to the whole church to carry on what he did. In us, in the very best we do, Jesus lives and reigns forever. All of us acting together and in loving unity can continue this life for God—so that when the church really is faithful, it’s once again like God being visible on earth—acting and speaking and loving.
[Moving toward the table] And so we take the bread, which we call the body of Jesus, and the cup of grape juice, which we call his life, his blood, and we eat it together just like your family eats together around the table. Because in our sharing and loving and learning and acting together, Jesus lives within us and among us. And so we see Jesus here; we see God here.
What to say on Christmas Eve–with a crowd potentially loaded with people who rarely step inside a church? A preacher doesn’t want to guilt trip them or be a spoilsport; I’ve heard loathsome Christmas Eve sermons dwelling on how this little baby will have to die a horrible death on the cross. Pooh. But neither is it satisfying to simply give in completely to the secular function of the church at Christmas–to be just another lovely accoutrement to a holiday whose real heart is kids opening presents. Besides that dilemma, I’m under strict orders to keep our 4:30 service to no more than an hour so as not to interfere with Christmas Eve dinner plans. (No argument from me–we had a lovely meal to put together involving squash tart and latkes.)
So I came up with this. It touches on the sense of universal affirmation that is part of the genuine substance of Christmas. But I included a rather firm invitation to our visitors, making it plain what they might be missing on the other 51 Sundays of the year.
Isaiah 9:2-7 and Titus 2:11-14
What happened on the night of Christmas some 2000 years ago is a great mystery. To say God was born in the world may sound very obscure. It may sound like an absurd miracle that just makes no sense. I personally love trying to plumb this mystery; and we shall explore it over the course of an upcoming adult class on the topic, “Who is Jesus Christ for us?” (You can sign up with me if you are interested.)
But what all this mystery is basically about is very simple. What appeared in the world the night of Jesus’ birth was the start of a new way of being a community. That is what our reading from The Letter to Titus tells us. “The Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” This grace trains us to renounce the ways of the world and to live godly lives “in the present age,” it says—this is about here and now. The letter tells us that Jesus Christ “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
Don’t we need a new way to be a people, to be a community? Is our current way of being a people making us zealous for good deeds? Are we in any real way even a people at all? Aren’t we more like a loose affiliation of families and individuals, at best—and at worst, we are more and more set against one another—urban sophisticate against rural good old boy, red against blue, young and trendy against old and stuck-in-my-ways, secular against religious reactionary? When our public life is so divided, it’s no wonder we’d rather find our tribe online, or that we get so easily sucked into addiction, for the people right around us, body and soul, have become as strangers to us; maybe they are even dangerous or deluded.
In Jesus, God introduced a new, badly needed way to be a community. This new way is what Israel was searching for all along, and we heard Isaiah’s great excitement as he imagined the one who would “establish and uphold” this new way “with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.”
This is a community deeply rooted in an ancient past and its hopes; a community brought together first by Jesus and the women and men who followed him and who led it after he was raised into its everlasting eternal life. It is a community that over many centuries has made plenty of mistakes to atone for and learn from, to be sure. But it is a community well-grounded in the rich, beautiful symbols that you see around you tonight, while also open to new truths that we will discover together. It is a community that spans every border and all times as only God can. This is what we are about here, being a people that Jesus purified for himself.
And that is why we share communion at the culmination of our Christmas celebration this evening. At the heart of the Christmas miracle is a new way of being a people—gathered around a table, sharing the most basic food and drink; and in this sharing, participating in the life of God on earth that Jesus Christ personified and inaugurated. Jesus brought this salvation to all, as the Letter to Titus told us. So we are all this community tonight, and we join in it with the angels, the animals, the stars, and every human being on earth. Join in this feast, for God embraced us all.