December 25, 2016

A Time for Courage


Text: Luke 2:10: “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people...”

I have been so looking forward to seeing you. It’s been a long year since we last gathered here together. There have been times that just knowing there would be another quiet night in December when I would see all of you again was more than a little of what kept me going.

We have been talking here through the Advent season about time. Advent itself is seaon focused on time, about taking time to prepare and about the time we count down until the coming of God among us—not just back in the mists of ancient history, not just at the end of time, but in this moment, on this night.

But even with all that talk about time the irony is I have just plain run out of time to get my Christmas errands done. I haven’t had time to go to any concerts or sing any Messiahs. I haven’t taken the time, or made the time, to make deeply thoughtful choices in my few Christmas gifts. Until this morning I hadn’t even made time to open the Christmas cards that came in the mail, let alone put any in the mail of my own.

But I have to admit that I love reading the Christmas letters that come in those cards. Reading them helped to revive my spirit mightily.  They remind me of the lives and the adventures of the people in my life, of the tender bonds that make this life of ours so rich.

When I read them what I most wanted to do was write back. I wanted to return that connection with one of my own, to keep my end of the bargain in those bonds. The only problem with that was I already had a writing task today, and it’s the one you’re hearing right now. And to tell truth, most of what I’d write in a Christmas update letter is about the things that happen right here, because right here is where I have most of my adventures.

Well, you can probably see what’s coming. I love few things more than efficiency, and getting both the sermon and the Christmas letter done in one effort was too good an idea to pass up.

So here goes:

"Dear family and friends, and fellow-ministers of Saint John’s,

"We are all decked out for the Christmas Eve crowd, and our little jewel-box of a church has rarely looked so beautifully turned out for a party. It’s been the sort of year that we need a party, so I’m looking forward with more eagerness than usual to all ye faithful coming back.

"The year for us brought its joys and its sorrows, like all years do. We gave back to God some beloved people who have been part of this place for a long time, none longer than Ethel, who was baptized by the first rector and buried by the eleventh. We prayed like crazy for our kids, who seem to live in a more dangerous world than we did. And we gave our love and best wishes to young couples whose weddings we’d celebrated here with great joy, and who this year set out on new adventures in new places.

"We kept working at feeding hungry people and setting aside food from our grocery lists for the food pantry. We kept the boiler working with craft wire and sealing wax and a lot of earnest prayer, together with some well-timed calls to the service guy. We worked hard to spruce the place up a little more; we painted the parish hall and finally cleaned out the stuff from the attic we couldn’t remember the purpose of.

"We had no fewer than seven of our rising stars in college this year, which may have something to do with why there are a lot more parents checking their phone for text messages during my sermons than there used to be. A few of those young ones had spent time in the spring interviewing the more senior members of the parish, and we all learned something about ourselves in the process. All of them fill us with great hope for the future.

"And heaven knows that it is hope we need.

"What has been going on outside our community seemed to keep reminding us, week after week, why we keep coming back to this little place, this place of peace and purpose. The whole world seemed to race farther and farther down a dangerous track week after week.

"And all of it together gave us a thought that many of us haven’t really ever had before: At just the moment when the world seems to be paying less and less attention to what it is we believe, it turns out that what we believe is more and more needed.

"It feels like what we’ve seen around us is pretty solid modern-day proof for something we already knew from reading the bible—that we get into trouble when we think we answer only to ourselves, and that if you really want to change the world, if you really want to help people become the best they can be, you can’t frighten them into it it with violence and you can’t threaten them into it with hate. It turns out that most of the time you can’t even do it by changing their minds with evidence and reason.

"You have to change their hearts—and you do that with kindness and compassion.

"That’s the truth at the center of Christmas that we hold on to, and so that’s what we’ll be coming back to remind ourselves of again this year. When God finally decides to set things right with us once and for all, it doesn’t happen with a dictator and it doesn’t happen with a warrior. It happens with a tiny, vulnerable baby of questionable legitimacy in a poor family.

"And it happens in a poor family that—right after this baby appears—have to run for their lives and become refugees.

"There’s another truth there, too, one that doesn’t change no matter what else changes. It’s that God’s purpose in all of this, God’s hope for us, isn’t communicated to us by thunderbolts from the mountaintop or by terrifying bloodshed. It isn’t even communicated to us in tweets.

"It’s shared with us in a way that changes our hearts by acts of mercy—not just the stories about the things that were done by the man that the baby grew up to be, but the ways in which we’ve seen the example of those kindnesses extended by people around us, acts of grace that cut right through the fear and the isolation that so easily tempt us.

"Somehow it used to be easier to make sense out of all of this. We have a hard time believing in anything, because so much has let us down. God must feel pretty let down by us sometimes, too; and yet there is the fact of the baby, and the fact of the amazing possibilities of gentleness and grace we still see in the lives of good people, even in the face of things that are brutal and violent.

"So maybe what we’ll ask for most of all this Christmas will be a little bit more bravery. A little bit more courage to remember what God does for us this night and all the year through, and to live more like we’d rather give our hearts to that than to the fear that’s so much on offer. You don’t have to speak French to know that courage, both the word and the idea, lives in your heart, and it’s there you have to find it.

"Maybe this year when the angels say “do not be afraid,” we’ll hear it differently. For us, in the year to come, they won’t be simple, cheap words of Hallmark-card comfort. Instead they’ll be a directive, a rule for us to keep. Don’t be afraid. Don’t let ourselves be afraid. Because it’s when we give into fear that hearts shut down, hate walks in, we lose our way, and God’s heart gets broken.

"It’s always easier for us to be brave when we’re together, so we’ll keep hanging out here, once a week or so. Maybe next Christmas we’ll get the new boiler. For now, it can wait. Because for now, we have more important things to do.

"So Merry Christmas. May God’s peace find you, and may the angels make you brave. If you need a little encouragement, we’ll be here like we always are, and we’ll be happy to see you.

"Love from all of us to all of you,