Tuesday, December 26, 2017

telling my part of the story at christmas...

At the close of a gloriously full day of comfort, joy and feasting with my precious family, a thought came to me about the nature of my Christmas Eve sermons: I almost always choose the pastoral rather than the prophetic path.  Pope Francis and the Rev. Dr. William Barber stand on platforms quite different from my own. They speak to a broken world - and their messages are challenging in all the right ways. My calling, however, has mostly been to a specific people in a discrete place and time.  And while we recognize and engage in the issues of our day, from standing with refugees, women and people of color to advocating with our friends in both the LGBTQ and peace movements, the words of our high holy days sound different from those of national/international leaders.  Indeed, they are much more personal and far more tender.

In the past, some have been annoyed when I make this distinction between what might be spoken to the cameras when all the world is watching and what I share with 100 people on any given Sunday morning or Christmas Eve. Ministry for the long haul recognizes that in the local church, most of the prophetic work takes place in small groups of study, action and reflection. There are obvious times for bold, formal messages that take on the injustice and cruelty of the status quo. But I have found that most Sunday mornings - or Christmas Eves -are not the best time to start such a process.  It always makes sense for Pope Francis to call out the short-sighted policies of the United States towards Palestine on Christmas Eve: the whole world is watching Bethlehem. The Archbishop of Canterbury rightly gives great attention to the violence and hatred that right-wing ultra-nationalists inflict upon our society.

But for me as a pastor of a small, local church in a modest city located in the hills of Western Massachusetts, my Christmas Eve work is to lovingly remind those who gather that Christ's invitation to love comes in small, forgotten, broken and often invisible ways to those with power or too much to do. In the cycle of Christian stories,  Christmas Eve begins our education in the upside-down realm of Jesus who arrives as Messiah in the flesh of a poor child rather than a mighty monarch.  Indeed, the arch of the Christian story is a way for us to shape and evaluate our own actions:  do they honor what is forgotten and overlooked? Do they mature through a time-tested wisdom tradition? Do they take on the status quo so that the vulnerable are protected, the lost are embraced, the lonely find community and the hungry are fed? Do we pick up our own Crosses rather than remain silent in the face of fear, prejudice and oppression? Are we willing to live into our highest values - even unto death - or do we deny what is true and hide in privilege like the disciples? From the story of Christmas through the Triduum, we have been given a way to reflect on our lives. 

My job as pastor of a local church is to invite people back to this path with hope and vigor.  I give thanks for the national and international preachers who have a stage on which to call out the violence. My calling, to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot, is less grand: I am to be a lesser poet, reminding those in our house that a fresh start is always possible. God is with us. May we humbly watch for the light to grow within and among us as we walk towards Epiphany.

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