christmas eve message 2016...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes from Christmas Eve that have some bearing on my current
study of Bonhoeffer for the 21st century. I am, of course, clearly indebted to both William Willimon and Walter Brueggemann for their wisdom and challenge in this homily. Here is my working hunch going into 2017:  the Trump administration will be arrogant bullies, their way of operating in the world will create an opportunity for people of compassion to rally against the cruelty, and it will be excruciating and fearful. That said, it will give our generation a shot at living into our Christian oddity with clarity.  So as the 12 days of Christmas unfold - and as we retreat for a brief spell à Montréal at week's end - I will likely post less but will return to this thread in the New Year: Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

Introduction

“The first task of the preacher,” states the Reverend Dr. Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament Studies at Columbia Theological Seminary, “is the maintenance of congregational oddity.” (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope.) It is not entertainment or comfort, spiritual succor or moral refreshment; it is the development and nurture of oddity. And by oddity, Brother Brueggemann means a way of living in the world that challenges the values of the status quo, gives individuals and congregations the freedom to act on behalf of God’s compassion in society regardless of politics, economics, race, gender or class – and empowers us with the vision and the spiritual resources to do so consistently and in a disciplined manner. Christianity is not about random acts of kindness, but rather a witness in solidarity and love that is dependable for all life in God’s sweet creation.

And on Christmas Eve 2016, this old, grey haired preacher feels called to remind us that Jesus did not come into the world simply to create a new holiday saturated with consumerism and sentimentality; or to sacralize a social order of dog eat dog and all the spoils to the victor. If that was the Lord’s intention, Jesus would have been born inside a mansion – or a castle, palace or gated community – surrounded by gold and the symbols of power instead of shepherds, animals, refugees, darkness and straw. Clearly our Creator had something else in mind – something wildly different and even odd – something tender, something transformative, something earthy yet spirit-filled. God sent us a Savior in the form of a homeless infant so that we might see how the love of the Lord becomes flesh: through tenderness and vulnerability, through presence and peace-making, through opening our hearts like a momma or poppa and sacrificing everything on behalf of our beloved baby.

Insights

That’s what our oddity as people of faith is all about: we intentionally choose love over compensation and security. We cherish love before career and compassion before prestige. Professor Brueggemann is explicit when it comes to articulating our oddities. Over time, he tells us, Jews devised obvious signals to show the world their oddity and devotion to God: Sabbath, kosher, circumcision. Not only did these acts challenge the corrupt habits of empire, they showed their boys and girls how to survive at odds with the status quo. “We live in the demanding presence of the Holy One so now we must keep redeciding for a life propelled by God’s presence.” Jewish oddity challenged the idols of scarcity and violence and celebrated shalom and God’s abundance.

In parallel fashion, and for similar reasons, “the baptismal imagination of the early Christian Church called for comparable acts of peculiar and particular oddity.” We are always at risk, you see, of dissolving our vows of love because the pressures of our culture wear us down, asking us to worship the dollar or the flag before the Lord our God. “So Christians are forever reimagining and retelling and reliving our lives through the scandal of Good Friday, the rumor of Easter Sunday and the promise of Christmas Eve… and we do this by regularly renewing our commitment to oddity: noticing signs of new life in the most unexpected places, sharing the bread of broken-ness, the wine of blessing and embracing the neighbor – always the neighbor – who is for us a symbol of God’s abiding presence and love.” (Brueggemann, ibid)

Christmas Eve is one of our annual oddity renewal ceremonies that asks us, like Mother Mary, to bring to birth new life in unimaginable places and nourish love through tenderness, sacrifice and presence. This Christmas more than any other in my 35 years of ordained ministry cries out for such a renewal – and here’s why: so many Americans – and others throughout the world from Aleppo and Istanbul to Germany and Washington, DC – are terrified and trembling because of politics when the truth of the matter is God has come to earth in the Christ-Child and is actually making tyrants quake. Methodist Bishop William Willimon recently put it like this:

The Feast of the Nativity, Christmas, doesn’t (only) give us a picture of a babe lying sweetly in the manger… Matthew’s gospel gives us once powerful Herod trembling in his boots, cowering like a frightened rabbit, terrified by the thought of this bombshell of a baby. There’s a new king in town who rules not from the Herod Tower in Jerusalem but from a stable in backwoods Bethlehem, welcomed not by the biblical scholars at the temple or the new coterie of generals but rather by immigrant nonbelievers from the East. King Herod is rattled. Now, eventually Herod will get his act together, move decisively, and ensure national security — his troops will slaughter Judean boy babies. That’s what kings do when national sovereignty is threatened. The state’s answer to just about any problem is: Violence. So Matthew teaches us that a baby, who causes consternation among Herod and his ilk, that infant who gathered about him those whom Herod oppressed, that baby and his people are dismantling Herod’s empire stone by stone without raising an army or firing a shot. Matthew’s Christmas story suggests that we ought to be trembling not out of fear of this or that political bully, but by the prospect of God With Us, God’s Anointed Messiah, God getting what God wants through a baby and his presaged revolution. What does the name Jesus mean but “God saves,” and God’s salvation is not just personal; it’s political and public and worldwide.  (William Willimon, sermon, December 2016)

When we start to trust and act like God’s presence is with us as Savior, we honor God’s call to

oddity in a broken world – to paraphrase folk singer, Carrie Newcomer, we quit fretting and trembling and return to doing those things that have saved us in the past – and then the miracle of Christ’s birth starts to multiply and expand. Once we affirm our conviction “that the Babe of Bethlehem is the only true sovereign and that Jesus’ people, though marginalized and ridiculed by the powerful, are God’s politics” then the world starts changing in beautiful albeit small and sometimes overlooked ways. I think of the woman in one of Alabama’s large industrial cities who recently “spent hours writing letters to every Muslim in her town saying, “You are a valued, child of God. Here’s my phone number. Let me know if I can be helpful to you in this time. Our politicians do not speak for me. I speak to you in the name of Christ who loves you and has given me responsibility for you.” In this, beloved, Herod trembles. (Willimon) I think of the artists who created each of these beautifully challenging contemporary icons, too.

I was told of a Roman Catholic priest who said on the Sunday after the election, “OK. America has elected a president. Fine. But remember that the most important, decisive election was when God elected us to be light and salt to the world. We know that lying is wrong! Hate speech is wrong! Groping and sexual abuse is wrong! So let us try to live so that people might look and see something that America is not. God has chosen us to witness; this is a great time to obey God and not simply human authority!” Herod trembles.

And don’t forget that an emerging, non-partisan alliance is taking shape and form right here in
Pittsfield – the Four Freedoms Coalition highlighted on the front page of the Eagle this morning – a group that cuts through our divisions and asks us to walk in love and human tenderness with one another. It about Black and Brown and White together – gay and straight and trans-gendered together – rich and poor, religious and secular, young and old together. The message from the angels to is fear not because when love is shared it is Herod who trembles.

Conclusion
Now let me bring this home in a way that awakened my heart to God’s tender love being born again right here in this very Chancel. It happened during our regular Tuesday night choir practice – as unexpected a place for Christ to be born, I submit to you, as any raggedy stable in Bethlehem. We were working on an arrangement of “O Holy Night” that you heard last Sunday. It’s stunning – slightly different from the traditional setting – but poignant soul food for those who love the Lord. Amen? And three things happened that night that you need to know about:

First, another young person under the age of 12 joined our choir that night. Like our youngest alto, this new singer also brings enthusiasm, innocence, talent and fun into the mix. This alone would have made my heart sing but something else took place while we were working to bring this tricky anthem to fruition. For some reason I looked up and out of the corner of my eye saw one of the mommas of the choir next to our new chorister helping him keep pace and make sense of this complicated score. I know that her own heart has been shattered this season yet there she was being the presence of love and tenderness with another of the Lord’s little ones.

During Passover our Jewish sisters and brothers sing, “Dayenu” during the Seder – it means that would have been enough for God to bless us with – it would have been enough to cross the Red Sea, Dayenu, it would have been enough to leave oppression, Dayenu --and that act of tenderness would have been enough for me. But after about 20 minutes, when the rest of the choir had shown up and snuck into their assigned places, I saw a new person enter the Sanctuary – and then another – both of whom have wanted to join our choir. Without missing a beat, our choir chaplain, Renee, got each new friend their music, helped them get situated, welcomed and seated – and the music kept rolling. Twenty people were now standing in a semi-circle in this chancel singing “O Holy Night” like angels: senior citizens and children, women and men, gay and straight, rich and poor, recent arrivals and veterans alike.

Again, I’m thinking “dayenu” when our music director says: “I want you to do this song one more time – and sing it now like a prayer. Some of you know that I am Portuguese, but I am also of Syrian stock. And given everything that is taking place in Aleppo and the Middle East, I can’t help but feel we need to lift this up tonight as a prayer for our sisters and brothers. So sing it one more time for Syria on this dark and cold night.” For a moment, it felt like the air had been sucked out of our lungs by grief – and then someone gasped and we burst into tears. “You want us to sing now, do you?” said another choir momma.

Frederick Buechner, the wise old Presbyterian from Vermont, likes to say, “Pay special attention to the presence of unexpected tears: They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.” So we sang that night: we sang and wept, we sang and prayed, we sang and renewed our vows of oddity. And in that little circle of safety some of us sensed that once again Christ the Lord was being born within and among us.

Beloved, what took place in our choir – or in that Roman Catholic priest’s homily in Chicago – or the letters of that woman in Alabama welcoming Muslims who might experience fear and intimidation – are NOT random acts of kindness. They are the fruit of the Holy Spirit being born within us like Christ was born in the Virgin Mary. They point to a life-time of disciplined compassion that senses the Lord’s birth whenever tenderness is required in a harsh and dark moment. What we affirm on Christmas Eve is a renewal of our oddity - our dedication to sharing the tenderness and hope of God through our flesh – for in this the Lord Jesus is brought to birth over and over again. In the name of all that is holy, let us join this feast: that love might be strengthened, real lives saved and the tyrants of this hour tremble for God Immanuel is with us just as the angels proclaimed.

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