The Mystery of Love: Where does this Story Take Place?

May I be the first to officially wish you a Merry Christmas. Whatever brought you to Holy Communion this evening, we are glad that you are here. Some of you are here because your parents made you come. That’s a good thing. It’s good to build up political capital at home. You might need it later. Some of you are here because a sibling asked you to hear them sing in the choir. Some of you are here because it is Christmas, and you are wandering, and perhaps you feel a little awkward. That’s okay. Whatever your emotional state, whether you are here ready to sing “Joy to the World,” or whether the quiet of “Silent Night” is more your tune; You are welcome. Whatever brought you here tonight, welcome. We’re glad you are here. Merry Christmas.

We know this story so well. Mary, Joseph, the Angels and Shepherds. Versions of the nativity have been painted on the windows of shops for weeks. Grandma’s creche might have been carefully unwrapped from ancient tissue paper before being set up on the mantel. Earlier tonight a diverse array of children presented our annual Christmas pageant, telling the story once more. We’ve heard and held, we’ve acted this story. We’ve sung the story. We know this story. This night I want to ask one question to all you experts on the Nativity. “Where?”

Where does this story take place?

I think the answer to that question has the power to unlock the mystery of Christmas, the mystery of Love come among us.

Where does this story take place?

Tonight I want to examine just two facets of that question, the socio-geographical and the personal.

The Social Geography of Christmas

Of course the immediate geographic answer is right there in the text: “in Bethlehem of Judea,” the city of David, the house of bread. We could point to the place on a map. But since we know this story. I want to push the question a little more. The strata of this location and its meaning, the layers, run deep.

Bethlehem today is a sort of Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem, walled off from Israel, guarded by checkpoints and high walls, razor wire. In the time of Jesus Bethlehem was a farming and ranching community outside the provincial capital. An easy day’s journey from the seat of power, it was at the edges, not the center of society.

In the story we’ll read in a couple of weeks, at the end of the Christmas season, the supposedly wise men get lost on their way to Bethlehem. They’re looking for a king, and so they turn right when they see the palaces and temples in Jerusalem. They wouldn’t think to look among the little houses and huts of Bethlehem.

Location mattered in the time of Jesus, more perhaps than ever before in human history. Emperor Augustus, who in our text has declared that all the world should be registered, his star has risen in Rome. Augustus was a new kind of ruler, considered the first emperor, he transformed the Roman Republic into a monarchy. Augustus also created a new form of religion: emperor worship. He was not just the king of the known world. Augustus fancied himself divine. He required worship. He raised taxes on the poor to convert his capital into a marble coated shrine to his deity. Thanks to the emperor, all the world would be oriented toward Rome.

Provincial capitals, like Jerusalem, the seats of governors and client kings, were to reflect the glory of Rome, the power of the emperor. In a province like Syria-Palestine, far from the center, the reflection might be a bit shabby, but it was clear where power resided, and in which direction the local ruler pointed. If all roads led to Rome, Bethlehem was little more than a truck stop. Notice, Jesus isn’t even born in the center of the lesser town. No, there is no room, noteven in Bethlehem.

Tuesday this past week found me in a laundromat, along with a number of volunteers from Holy Communion. Six months ago, a team from our church launched a new ministry, “Laundry Love.” Every third Tuesday, we gather to build community in the Classic Coin laundromat. We pay for laundry, provide childcare and a little food. We also hope to engage neighbors in conversation, and laughter. Anyone is welcome to volunteer, or to come do laundry. We hope to take perhaps one of the worst chores, and make it fun. We also hope to help lighten the burden a little on families making hard economic decisions in our neighborhood.

This week, as I surveyed the washers and dryers, and the crowd of volunteers, I thought, maybe this is where Jesus would have been born today. A laundromat would be a warm place to stop if there was no room at the inn. I could see Jesus laid in a laundry basket, carefully surrounded by warm towels given by grannies who have spent their last quarters on the dryer.

Where could you imagine this story taking place today? Where does God act? Often far from the halls of power, among the least likely people, at the edge of the edge. While the king would have us all worship him, while those in power build gold palaces, the King of kings is born in such an unlikely and out of the way place and is celebrated by all the wrong people.

The mystery of God’s love is not centered where human systems of power would suspect. God’s love does not emanate from Rome or Washington. God’s love does not trickle down from on high. God’s love is born among the shepherds and the vulnerable. That is the story we celebrate tonight. God’s love comes among us and lifts up the lowly, the unacknowledged, the unheard. That is where God’s love is born.

The Personal Geography of Christmas

I’ve already started leaning toward the second dimension of my question for Christmas:

Where does this story take place?

This second dimension is personal: Where does this story take place for you?

Where does this story take place for you? Maybe I could ask that question differently: Where was your “best” Christmas?

I suspect for most everyone, save maybe the angels and shepherds from tonight’s pageants, the question takes us back in time. We remember a Christmas past with fondness. I would caution that these memories have the tendency to get polished by age. We remember past Christmases better than we may have experienced them in the moment. This capacity we have to look back across years and geography, to remember the Christmases past, can produce as special kind of longing.

If you are longing this Christmas, if you are missing loved ones, or you are just longing for the Christmas spirit, as you once believe you knew the spirit, know that longing can be a blessing. Longing itself can help us search for where this story takes place.

Brother Thomas Matus of the Camaldolese has written about the nature of faith, of religion. In the diaries from his travels to visit one of his order’s monasteries in India you learn that brother Thomas isn’t the world’s most traditional monk. As a young man in California, before he became a Christian, he was initiated in an Hindu order. It’s a very Californian story: a young white man first becomes Hindu, then converts to Catholicism. But Brother Thomas eventually joined the Camaldolese Catholic monks, an order with a monastery in India. Visiting the country connected the two parts of his spiritual journey. In India he finds a question central to all religions:

Which direction should I bow?

Which direction?

All religions are directional. They all point toward God. There’s a reason we often talk about a “spiritual journey.” Faith is an orientation.

If tonight you find yourself longing, you are in a place to begin the journey, to begin walking. It brings us back to the original question: Where? Which direction?

Tonight, for followers of Christ, the shepherds know the answer: Bow to the stable. Head toward that most unlikely place where God’s love chose to dwell. Bow to the vulnerable little child entrusted to an unwed girl, still too young. Bow to that manger on the margins, off the road, outside the center, in that antic cold and frustrated night. There, where you’d least expect it, God’s presence can be found.

What if the “where” of this story is exactly the question we need this Christmas? What if all of our worries about the fate of the world, the state of our own lives, could be relieved? What if instead of looking for answers to come from the elite, the empowered, we turned down a different road? What if the power to change the world was in the hands of the most unlikely  people?

Where does this story take place? The answer is more complex and beautiful the harder you look. For in the end the story can take place only in the hearts of all those who long for God. The love of God comes among us, yes even us. The answer to the question is up to you. Where will this story take place for you this Christmas?

Amen.

The Darkness Did Not Overcome It.

I have a confession to make to you, as I begin this sermon. Over the last week or so as I thought about this text, I had mis-remembered a crucial line. Here is what I was planning on preaching about: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness COULD not overcome it.” Could not.

Then, as I sat down to set down my notes, I re-read the text, and I saw the crucial difference: did. “The darkness DID not overcome” the light.

Well, that’s a different sermon, I thought to myself. The darkness did not overcome the light.

Often, as I was preparing to do in my earlier draft of this sermon, we like to split things into either/or, darkness/light, right/wrong. We set up little contests, or big fights. We live in a digital world, and sometimes I wonder if all of the on or off, this or that, has us playing a zero sum game. We polarize easily today.

The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr says that we are dualistic in our basic inherited theology in the West. That’s what he calls this either/or us vs. them tension we seem to constantly live with: dualism. We set ourself up in opposition, in tension. He argues this causes some of the basic inequities we’ve constructed. When we view the world, especially the people of the world, as us vs. them, we set up a dualism. Women or men. Black or white. Gay or Straight. Republican or Democrat. We have created a lot of “or”s to categorize people. And our categories are failing us.

Which is why this image of the light shining in the darkness caught my attention. The darkness did not overcome it.

What is this light that shines?

The light is John’s version of the Christmas story. Rather than the shepherds and angels of Luke, the beautiful Hallmark/Disney  Christmas, John gives us a theological hymn. Aren’t Hymns some of the best of theology? Aren’t they also sometimes the worst? In this case, the Logos hymn, it’s some of the best. But what does the Logos do?

The Logos Generates. You may have missed this word in the passage as it was printed in your bulletin, because it is not there. Our New Revised Standard Bible translates the Greek word “ginomai” the root for our word “to generate” as “came into being.” I think we are better served by the fullness of the verb “generates.” In the Beginning, John tells us, the Logos was with God and through the Logos all things were generated.

This verb, generates discloses something about the life of God. God is constantly generative. Bring to your mind another descendant word, generator. According to John, the ongoing action, the ongoing work of God in our world is generating, giving power, giving life to all life. All life, note that God does not simply bring human beings into being. God, the Logos, continues to bring all things into being. Unlike our power generators which belch out carbon and limit the life of the planet, God generates ongoing life.

This verb, I posit, may be the best guiding light in determining whether a policy, or a position, or an action is Godly, is Christian. Pope Francis, I think, gets this intuitively. He has mostly left behind the life-sapping fights that have characterized the Roman Church. He has frustrated reporters that want hard-line statements on women, gay people, or non-Catholics. Instead he is busy embracing deformed men, washing Muslim girls’ feet, and playing with children. He’s generating life.

Of course using “generating life” as a guide can get tricky. There are moments when no decision will generate life, but I think this is a pretty good measuring stick. If an action or policy generates life for more people, for more creatures, for the planet, that action could be called “Christian” or “Godly” because it participate in Christ’s action as Logos.

God generates, life and light. But that does not necessarily mean that God is not also in the darkness. From the seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughn:

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

We often associate darkness with loss, with sadness, with difficulty. We talk about the “dark night of the soul” using the words of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross. But do we know what the dark night means?

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, the Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor considers John of the Cross’ dark night. She says readers of Dark Night of the Soul are bound to be disappointed if they want John to tell them how to survive hard circumstances and cling to God. “One of the central functions of the dark night, he says, is to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped…since God is not a thing, God cannot be held on to. God can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.”

I wonder whether this image from John’s Gospel of the light shining in the darkness is less about opposition and more about contrast. A candle shining in the darkness is more poignant that the same flame on a bright sunny day. Light and darkness need one another to make meaning. Christ’s light came to shine, but not to overwhelm.

Last week, on Christmas Eve we lit candles during the services and sang “Silent Night.” Those weren’t the only candles lit at Holy Communion on December 24. There’s a not-well-kept secret in Episcopal Churches like Holy Communion. Almost every service we have is at least a little interfaith. Some of the members of our choir are Jewish. Jews come here just to sing hymns, especially at Christmas. The Anglican choral tradition has admirers in other faiths. They may choose not to receive the bread and wine, but they are more than happy to belt out Christmas carols and descants.

Last week, on Christmas Eve, as the choir and clergy gathered for dinner between the services, two of our choir members lit the first candles on a menorah and sang the blessings of Hanukkah. This year Christmas Eve was the first night of the Jewish celebration of light. That day earlier a rabbi friend, Jack Moline, was quoted in the Washington Post. “Lighting a candle in the darkness — that is something that stands on its own.” Another rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, once said that almost all Jewish holidays can be summarized simply: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Note, the goal is not conquering or eliminating the enemy. The goal is survival.

“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I was ready, as I was preparing this sermon, to talk about all the ways darkness could not overcome light. Now I’m not so sure. We face the start of a year that brings certain unsteadiness. I am less sure about saying exactly where “darkness CANNOT overcome light.” I am concerned about setting up too many definite opposites this early in the year. In the times to come, I think we need some more room for nuance, which may mean feeling like we’re stumbling around in the dark a little. We may need to let go of our assurances to move forward.

I am sure that in the year to come, we will stand together. We will light candles together, when we need to. Just as in 2016 we lit candles to pray for an end to gun violence with the Moms Demanding Action, to pray for an end to gun violence. Holding light in the dark is an action of hope.

One memory from 2016 stands out clearly for me. In my mind’s eye I can still see the crowd that came together on June 12 last year in the Grove. As the summer sun set the night after the attack on the Pulse Nightclub you could see 1000 faces lit by candles held against the dimming orange sky. I needed those faces that night. I needed those candles. I needed the assurance, after an attack on the LGBT community, that God’s light can still shine. In the year to come we will hold on to light in the darkness. We will pray.

There are times when we live in darkness. God can be found there in the darkness as well. Bringing the contrast, bringing light in uncertainty, that is part of our ongoing work, our ongoing celebration of this Christmas season. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Sometimes I’m still working out what the Gospel means, but even in uncertain times I know: God’s light still shines.

Christmas: The Beloved Contradiction

Christmas comes as a beloved contradiction: God comes not to the protected center, but to the edge. Once in Royal David’s City, stood a lowly cattle shed. This very Victorian carol captures the tension. The Royal City holds a place so humble, and God’s power chooses to enter there. The back and forth can seem extreme on Christmas. The hymns we sing swing wide with our emotions. We jump between the quiet of Silent Night and the blasting trumpets of Joy to the World. Christmas comes to our ears as a contradiction, yet, we love the tension. We come to this service with anticipation to hear once more the message of the angels, to sing these hymns and splendid descants. We celebrate that the full glory of God enters the most humble of human circumstances. What a contradiction.

As I prepared to preach this night, I was stopped in the first verse of our Gospel by the character Augustus. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus, that all the world should be registered.” Caesar Augustus was great-nephew of Julius Caesar, and his adopted heir. Augustus is considered Rome’s first Emperor. Augustus’ rule marks the end of the Roman Republic. He was famed as a builder of roads and cities. Augustus himself joked that when he rose to power “I found [Rome] brick. I left it marble.” As the adopted son of Julius Ceasar, he was given the title “Son of God.” Augustus was a fitting name, at least in the emperor’s own mind.

Coating your capital in marble is expensive, so the Emperor declared a tax. That is how the King James Bible translates this first verse of Luke’s second chapter. “a decree went out…that all the world should be taxed.” Augustus registered and taxed the whole known world. And so Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem, to Royal David’s city and find themselves at the manger with their new son. God appears in human history, not in the halls of centralized power, but on the edge of civilization, surrounded by a motley crew of shepherds.

Luke likely included this story in part, to give us some exposition. When did these things take place? In the reign of the first Roman emperor. Surely you’ve heard of him. Jesus’ contemporaries knew that the wider world would need a sense of context. The preacher William Sloane Coffin once said that If you took a gallup poll there is no question which figure would have been estimated more significant: The august emperor or Jesus, the baby in the manger.  And yet what a sign of hope for humanity: While the marble of Rome lays in ruin, here we are this night, celebrating Jesus’ birth.

Christmas contradicts human logic. Allan Rohan Crite, the famed black Episcopalian artist’s image of the Mary and Jesus is on the cover of your bulletin. Crite captures the contradiction well. Mary and Jesus are drawn with curves and ovals, the soft center in the midst of the hard ramshackle lines forming the city around them. Crite’s is not a traditional nativity scene, no mighty angels, no peaceful snowy fields, no bright star. In the image on your bulletin, the angels give way to the humble stoop in a rough neighborhood. But even there mother and child share a loving gaze. God incarnate is held by Mary on the edge of town, in the dangerous street.

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The story we tell this night is not far off the artist’s rendition. Jesus is not born in the Royal Hospital. God comes in flesh, not in the Imperial palace of Rome, or even in the provincial capital in Jerusalem. God comes on the edge, on the edge of the edge, the margin of the margin, and still there is no room.

One of the most meaningful liturgies for Christmas I’ve ever attended involved a long walk. A decade ago I was living in San Diego, California. A college friend invited me to the Border Posadas. Church groups from San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico were to meet on either side of the border fence, just a few yards from the Pacific Ocean. The Posadas celebration comes from Latin America. Traditionally a procession forms, moving from house to house. The people, like Mary and Joseph, ask for room in the Inn. They are turned down at house after house, and so the procession continues until it comes to the designated home, or to the church, where at last they are given room and the party begins.

That December the air was cold, well, cold for California. The Border Patrol, in a measure of crowd control, locked down the parking lot nearest the border fence. So those of us who wanted to participate had to walk about a mile on the sandy beach paths down to the fence. Some of our fellow travelers were filled with anticipation. There, on either side of the fence, they planned to reunite with family members. Because their immigration status might be in question, or their loved onemight lack a visa, crossing the border was out of the question this Christmas. These folks trudged through the sand with smiles and little gifts to pass through the fence, if they could sneak them past the guards. When we arrived, we sang Christmas Carols in English and Spanish. We read Scripture. We prayed, one congregation, separated by the border. Hearing the refrain “there is no room” up against that menacing fence, made the contradicting message of our story all the more poignant. Humans failed to make room for their creator. In the words of John’s Gospel: “[Christ’s] own people failed to recognize him.”

Mary and Joseph didn’t choose their journey, following Luke’s story. The Emperor Augustus’ decree meant they were forced to travel. The registry was required. Mary was heavy with child, and the journey could not have been easy.

On a clear day today, you can see the edge of Bethlehem from the hills of Jerusalem. Royal David’s City is made visible by the huge border fence constructed by the modern State of Israel. Bethlehem is Palestinian territory. During my pilgrimage we crossed over to see the Church of the Nativity. The journey reminded me of my trips to the US/Mexico border. The guards in Israel wore similar uniforms to US Border patrol, and they carried almost identical weapons. You have to go beyond the guards, beyond the wall, to find the place where Jesus was born.

Leaving behind a sense of safety can feel like a contradiction. In my travels I have passed by border patrol agents and militarized walls, barriers built to keep people like me safe, I have thought in my gut “Would my mother really want me to leave this cordoned safety?” (I’ve talked with her since, and her response is mixed).

In the midst of this contradiction, on the edge of the respectable, outside the centers of power, Christ comes. God comes to us. Emmanuel, God is with us, in the most dire of human circumstances. This is good news.

Out on the edges, out beyond what we can control, in circumstances that Mary and Joseph surely did not choose, Jesus was born. Tonight, thousands of years later, we celebrate the Love of God coming to transform our world, to transform our lives. And in Scripture we hear once more the message of the Angels, a message which can feel like a contradiction: God comes to the edge.

As a priest, I’m privileged to spend some edgy moments with folks. I’m invited to stand by hospital beds, and to negotiate with landlords who have handed out an eviction notice. Parishioners ask me to walk with them in protests, and to pray with them after a loved one has died. Those of us who are clergy are privileged stand as witnesses as God continues to come to the edges of human life. When we are at our worst is often when God breaks through.

I have also had the privilege to witness those “creative edges” that change life. I’ve celebrated with entrepreneurs as a little side project became a full time job. I’ve walked with folks as an unexpected friendship blossomed into romance. I have witnessed vows to “love, honor, and cherish” a spouse. I’ve seen college students discover a passion and launch into a career. Often the moments of clarity come not in the carefully controlled center of our lives, but out on the creative edges. The edges are God’s territory.

And so this night, we wait silently. We light candles against the dark. We stand as witnesses to the persistent work of God, the continued blessing of the edges of life, even this year, especially this year. And this night, we shout loud hosannas. We proclaim with all our might “Joy to the World. The Lord has come.” Tonight we embrace the mystery of Christmas. We celebrate a contradiction we may never fully comprehend: God loves us, and God comes to redeem us from our own sense of control. Merry Christmas. Amen.