Monday, December 24, 2007

Sermon Christmas Eve A - December 24, 2007

The Feast of the Nativity A - Christmas Eve - 24 December 2007
Isaiah 62:6-7,10-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-14)15-20
James V. Stockton

I love what author Frederick Buechner has written about this night. “The claim that Christianity makes for Christmas,” he says, “is that at a particular time and place, God came to be with us Himself. When Quirinius was governor of Syria,” he goes on, “in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born, who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless.”

Of the many things people love about Christmas, I believe that one of them is this: Christmas says that God became not just human, not just a person, a man of Galilee. Christmas says that God became a baby, and people still love this. It’s in this that people can come to understand the significance of Christmas, the real miracle beyond the obvious, and know what really happened on that first Noël.

Since I was first a father, and I mean here a parent, not a priest, I have enjoyed reading to my daughters the story of little boy and a particular Christmas in his life. Charlie and his family are enjoying some snowy weather, and their walk back home the pass by Mr. Wilson’s house. Charlie can’t help but notice that Mr. Wilson’s house is without decoration. There are no lights on the roof, no tree in the front window, no wreath on the door. Charlie’s mom and dad explain to him: Mr. Wilson hasn’t decorated these last few years, now, ever since Mrs. Wilson passed away.

Back home, Charlie is helping his father set up the Christmas tree. Charlie has an idea. “Dad,” says Charlie, “Could I have these extra branches?” “Sure,” says Dad. And while Dad finishes setting up the tree, Charlie fashions a small wreath from the branches. He finds a couple small ornaments and a bow, and attaches them to it. “I’ll be back in a little while,” Charlie announces. He takes the wreath and walks down the street. Carefully, he makes his way to Mr. Wilson’s front door. He knocks, and knocks again. There is no answer, so Charlie leaves the wreath on the porch leaning against the door. Later that day, Charlie is outside playing with some friends. When their finished and he is walking back home, Charlie passes in the direction of Mr. Wilson’s house and can’t help but notice the wreath that he made hanging on the door.

This story reminds me that part of the manifold magic of Christmas, is that the story of the Christ child, renews the child within nearly everyone. In the blur of the shopping blitz, through the series of parties, and the worn out checklist of things to do, Christmas still gives birth in many to a childlike faith in the goodness of God. And, at least for a while, it brings that faith to life in their world today. Beyond the harder realities of most of the year, beyond the year’s discouragement and disappointment, and the impatience, anger, and despair that these breed, comes a soft and gentle reminder of innocence; of hope, of peace, of joy, of love; of ideals and inspiration and and a renewed belief that these still matter.

The next day, Charlie is helping his mother wrap up some cookies, freshly baked, to give to family who are coming by tomorrow, on Christmas Day. “Mom,” he says, “would it be all right if I took these extra cookies over to Mr. Wilson?” Charlie wraps them up nicely and adds a bow. At Mr. Wilson’s door he knocks, and then knocks again. The door opens just a bit, and Charlie can see Mr. Wilson looking down at him. “Hi,” says Charlie, “these are just for you, Mr. Wilson. Merry Christmas.” Mr. Wilson says nothing, at first. Then he opens the door, and leans down with a nervous smile. “Well, thank you, Charlie.” he says. “Thank you, very much.”

The world may have to wait each year for Christmas, but at least then, the good news does break in again. People are reminded that can and do care about one another, that people can and do help one another, that love, given hands and hearts and lives, really can and really does make the biggest difference of all. Not in power but in Love, not in riches, but in Love: not in anger, threat, and conquest, but in Love has God come into this imperfect world. As Frederick Buechner goes on to say: “The One who inhabits eternity comes to dwell in time. The One whom none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft indifferent gaze of cattle. The Father of all mercies puts Himself at our mercy.”

When we remember the miracle that we celebrate tonight, we remember that the Almighty and Everlasting, the Ruler of the universe, entrusted the very Presence of God’s own being to the fragile form of a helpless baby; and became completely subject to the fragility of human care. With the love of baby for his mother, the love of a mother for her child, nothing less than God’s Love for all has come. And by this, I think, Christmas touches in each of us the child that never surrenders to maturity, who before he or she ever even learns them by name, and long before she or he ever learns doubt them, understands meaning of peace, good will to all.

The next day finds Charlie playing outside, and on his way back home to get ready for Christmas Eve services, he passes by the direction of Mr. Wilson’s house. He sees again the wreath he made hanging on the door, and he can’t help but notice that a small Christmas tree setting on a table is now visible through Mr. Wilson’s front window. Then he notices some noise coming from Mr. Wilson’s garage. Charlie hears the sound of a hammer, and the sound of a saw, and Charlie can only wonder what is going on.

When you and I in childlike wonder gaze in our mind’s eye, with the eyes of childlike faith, upon the infant Jesus, God is touching the best within us and raising up the relenting child that God has birthed in each of us. It is God saying to us, “Here is my Joy to you and to all the world. More than anything else, I long for you coming near to me and near to one another as people, as my family. And so I come near to you, so that you may find your love for me as I give my love to you.” And we begin to understand that in the birth of the infant Jesus, God means to come ‘down to us,’ so to speak, in order to lift us up to God. God intends to bring heaven near, so we may come near to heaven. God tells us, in effect, “I want you to trust me, and so, I will begin by trusting you. I trust you to care for me among you; I believe in you in me.” It’s because before God ever asks your or me to believe in Jesus Christ, it is in Christ Jesus, that God first believes in us.

Christmas morning arrives and Charlie wakes to a happy morning of giving and receiving and of taking a moment to thank God for it all. Then, unexpectedly, there comes a knock at the door. Dad answers, and to everyone’s surprise, in walks Santa Claus. “I understand that a very good little boy lives here,” says Santa, “and I have something here for him.” “Charlie?” says Santa, and Charlie comes near. Santa reaches into a sack that he is carrying. “This is for you,” he says, and he pulls out a small wooden sled just the right size for Charlie. It’s varnished and shiny and beautifully carved. And Charlie’s name is painted on it carefully, wonderfully. “It’s just for you, Charlie,” Santa says; “Merry Christmas!” Walking back out the front door, Santa wishes a Merry Christmas to all. Charlie can’t help but notice that there’s something about Santa that is familiar to him. Santa walks down the street in the direction of Mr. Wilson’s house. “Merry Christmas, Santa!” Charlie calls after him. Santa turns and smiles. “It certainly is, Charlie;” he calls back. “It certainly is.”

In the child born in Bethlehem, and in the child born in you, in me, God brings forward here our most god-like quality of all the desire to love and to be loved. Somehow through Christmas, God replaces our adulthood’s prudence, with our childlike generosity instead. God replaces our realistic resignation toward how things simply are with our most idealistic hope for what we can bring to be.

And so may God, who wonderfully created us, and more wonderfully restores the dignity of human nature, grant that we may share the divine life of the One who humbly shares in our humanity, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

© 2007, James V. Stockton

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sermon 4 Advent A - December 23, 2007

4Advent A – 23 December 2007
Isaiah 7:10-17; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
James V. Stockton

Hope, and Peace, and Joy, and Love. And as has been said, ‘the greatest of these is love.’ Love is the gift that, like the light of this small flame shines brightly enough to bring to people sitting in even a massive darkness genuine hope and true comfort. It is the gift of God that, more than all the others, I think, changes everything.

Through the season of Advent we Episcopalians and many other Christians as well make a journey of our own to that stable and its lowly manger to the child born there whose birth we celebrate beginning tomorrow evening. It’s a journey that begins in a darkness of sorts, recalling how very unfamiliar a thing it was: this coming of God’s chosen One. Our journey’s progress thus is marked by the lighting of the candles of the Advent wreath as we have done these past weeks. And one thing we learn along this journey out of darkness into light is that the deeper the darkness, the easier it is for people to notice the light. One does not pray for greater darkness, of course. But one may rightly pray that, by virtue of the light, people may notice and be bothered all the more by the darkness in which they find themselves.

We who see with their eyes know this symbolism well enough, perhaps. But I wonder if it isn’t those whose literal sense of sight is impaired who understand better than the rest that the light of Christ is an inward light and the Love of Christ for all is the real and actual gift to which the light merely alludes. Sighted or not, many people within and outside the fellowship of the Church understand that there is indeed a darkness and many of these are hoping and longing for the miracle that contradicts it. There is a darkness that is a baseness of spirit, that is a surrender to the survival instinct which puts one’s personal interests ahead of those of everyone else. There is a darkness of the soul that is a surrender to the fear that somehow people in the past have misunderstood those long-lived promises of better days to come, that someone has misinterpreted those ancient and eternal prophecies of mercy, justice, and victory. It is a cold darkness within and the Light of Christ, the Love of God in Christ for all, enters into that interior vacancy to illuminate it, to warm it, to burn away from it all the hidden fears and desperations that have accumulated in the farthest corners and crevices.

The ancient Israelite king, King Ahaz is one of those afraid and desperate. The nation of which he is king is shrinking in influence and prestige among the surrounding lands. Ahaz is trying to hang on to what is left. His people are turning with false hope to false gods, and, like their king, they are surrendering to a fatalism that gives them excuse, if not reason, to be utterly self-interested and to assume that everyone else is the same. To believe in all gods is to trust no god, and so, ultimately, the people trust only themselves. But knowing also that their resources, material and spiritual, are extremely limited, they know that even the next day, all may change, and so change to them means the end. And so rather than caring themselves, the indulge themselves as best they are able. They live just for today and do not allow themselves even to ponder what may come tomorrow. So afraid and so desperate are they that they fear even the changes that God’s Love might make. Little is left of love for God, love for neighbor, even of love for self. The inward light, has faded.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God reaches out to the people: “Let me remind you of my promise,” God says. “Let me give you a sign of my faithfulness to you. Ask of me in order that I may respond in a way that will brighten your hearts with my Love.” Who wouldn’t jump at the chance? Who wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to ask a sign of God with the assurance that God will do it? Ahaz says, ‘No.’ Holding to his fear more firmly than to the hand of God, he is afraid to ask.

Trusting more in the inevitable cruelties of fate than in the faithfulness and Love of God, Ahaz turns away from the promise of God. Covering over the a substance of a selfish desperation with a veneer of devotion, Ahaz declines. “I wouldn’t want to test God.” What is it like to offer a gift to someone and have that person refuse it? What is it like for God to offer to the people rescue from their fear, and have them turn away from an admittedly unfamiliar grace to the darkness and desperation that they know so well? What is it like to be as deeply afraid as are they? And what is it like to be as deeply rejected as is God?

God responds as only God can. Where God might turn from the people as decisively as the people turn from God; where God might exercise divine judgment and their story would end here and now, God responds instead as only God is able. Though no sign is asked, yet a sign is given. ‘God with us’ shall be born. Contrary to their fears, God will preserve the people against the hostilities of their enemies. Contrary to their desperation, God will bring the people will again to live in that legendary land of milk of honey. Contrary to their being accustomed to the gloom, the very presence of God is coming here to be among them.

Even the mere promise of the sign is signal to those in search of reason to hope that things are changing, that Love is breaking in to the world. Maybe you and I and our fellow Episcopalians and fellow Christians and even the wider fellowship of all seekers after God can take it as a hopeful sign in itself, that after all this time, people still are watching for a sign.

Even hundreds of years later, long after God had spoken to the king through the prophet Isaiah, people held onto the promise of God’s sign to them. Until on a quiet night, a typical working man, Joseph the carpenter, has a dream. Perhaps like Joseph the son of Jacob this Joseph also is a dreamer. Maybe he, like many around him, has dreams of the sign to come of the presence of God among the people. If so, his dreams are, as the Christmas hymn puts it, met tonight, as soon again they will be met in that little town of Bethlehem.

Finding his fiancé to be pregnant with a child not his own, yet, Joseph is a kind an decent person. He might have disgraced her as he surely as she seems to have disgraced him, but he responds as only a kind and decent man could do. the engagement will end discreetly, and the two will part company. But as only God is able to do, God enters in and everything changes. Tonight Joseph learns that his dreams are God’s dreams, as well. Just when his journey with Mary has seemed to come to its end, he finds that his journey has only just begun.

And we also, we here at the end of our Advent journey, find ourselves concluding a journey back to the beginning, back to the stable, to the infant Christ-child, to the Light of God is born within us. Driving out dark fear, Hope enters in and springs to life in the people of God. Relieving gloom and desperation, Peace wells up to calm and comfort the people of God. Shining brightly upon us, God’s own Joy lifts us up the people of God, and makes it home in your heart and mine.

And at last, the greatest of these is Love. It comes when we ask and when we do not. Quietly but insistently, God’s Love comes in and changes everything. And it offers itself always until, comforted by it, calmed by it, inspired by it, we take it and it becomes us. So that wherever you are there shines the Light of God; so that wherever I am, there the warm glow of the promise of heaven gives its comfort. God’s Love come among us: yes, long ago in away in a manger; and also here at the end of our journey, it is come into our world again in you and me. Wherever we are, today, tomorrow, on Christmas Day, on any day thereafter, because we are there, there is the Love of God come near; and here and now or there and then, as only it is able, God’s Love changes everything.

And now may Almighty God, who gives us grace to reflect in this world the eternal promise of God, grant that we may share always in that Love that filled to overflowing the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ, that it may overflow ours to God’s praise and glory; through the same Christ our Savior, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, One God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

© 2007, James V. Stockton