Sermon for Christmas Eve 2011 Michael Coffey Luke 2:1-20 John 1:1-14
This somewhat silent and beautiful holy night, we come together again to hear an ancient nativity story and contemplate some odd claims about God. We come together again, not so differently from how we come together most of the time, but tonight with concentrated effort and expectation. We come together hoping again, maybe with some cynicism, maybe with some weariness, and maybe with some desperation. We come together wondering if love can be renewed in us, or if we have used up all of our wishes. We try, don’t we, to let others love us, to let God love us, to love others and God in this life, and maybe even to love ourselves, accepting what we are and what we aren’t. We try, and at times we shine like stars in a high desert night sky. But too often, we grow dim and love fades within us, lost in the light pollution of the evening city atmosphere, and in our deepest regret, we even do harm instead of love. I just saw the movie Hugo. Hugo is a boy who knows that the saddest thing is something that doesn’t live out its intended purpose. In the story there is a mechanical man, a magical machine that, when wound up, can write and draw. There is also an older man who lives in sadness because he no longer does what he loves, and sense his life was for nothing. There is another man, a police officer, who is broken by war and become part rusty machine himself, and who is damaged by a childhood of abandonment. Hugo wants to make the mechanical man work again, but he discovers he doesn’t have the key. They keyhole is heart-shaped, and nothing but a heart-shaped key will make it work. In the story we come to see that the same is true of the other characters: Their heart-shaped hole is waiting to be filled so they can live out their purpose: to love and to be loved in the particular ways they were each made to love. Can anything renew the love within us the love we ache to accept, the love we long to give in our particular ways, in order to truly live our purpose on this short hike through the universe? Can anything fill the heart-shaped hole in each of us? If the answer is no, the only thing left to do in this day and age is to shop, and eat lonely meals, and hide behind locked doors and computer screens, and live with regret and sadness at all the love we failed to give and receive. But tonight, maybe foolishly, maybe without good reason except childlike wonder, maybe beyond what we can justify with the state of the world and the state of our lives, tonight, let’s assume that love can be renewed in us by the ancient nativity story and through odd claims about God and love and the human family. The ancient story is Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus, a birth that sets the cosmos sailing in a new direction. Everything in the story helps us hear that love in this world is renewed in a particular way: not through the empire’s power and wealth, not through those who account themselves great like Emperor Augustus. In Luke’s story one thing startles and awakens us to the way God’s love is renewed in the world: through ordinary, even lowly, people, from Joseph and Mary, caught up in a divine scheme they can barely figure out, to shepherds minding their own business as they eke out a living tending sheep suddenly summoned by divine messengers to seek out God’s wonderment in their midst. But most important, there is the newborn, the one who will unlock human hearts to love again, Jesus himself, with angelic songs singing him into lofty greatness above even the emporer, but born in lowliness, vulnerability, caught up in the confusing shuffle of human life. Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth highlights the most startling claim: the renewal of God’s love comes through ordinary, humble, unremarkable human life. There may be hope for us yet. Then we get to the odd claim about God and love and humanity. It is the claim that God’s love in Christ, God’s Word or wisdom or purpose in John’s language, is an embodied love. The great, strange claim that Christianity makes, is that God’s love is not an abstraction, it is not a great philosophical or religious idea, it is not a lofty goal so high we can never reach it or experience it. The great Christmas claim we make is that God’s love comes to us in this reality, in the flesh, embodied and touchable and knowable, through action and presence and personhood. In the Orthodox churches of the east, the incarnation is the central redeeming thing God does: God becomes enfleshed in real human life in Jesus, and this renews God’s love in us, this makes us new and more than we were on our own. The Orthodox tradition has been willing to go farther in the Christian claim about incarnation than most of the Western churches, Roman Catholic and Protestant. They have been willing to claim, that God becomes human in Christ so that we can become divine. Now, this could play into our needy little egos and make us think we as individuals somehow become great, god-like, and then maybe we can get everything we ever wanted, and not need anyone or even need God anymore. But that would just be our way of messing things up again. The point is that God’s love became embodied in Jesus so that we can embody God’s love in ourselves. And only when God’s love is embodied does it renew and transform and create new possibilities for life. That is what we celebrate in this Christmas festival: We are renewed in love by God’s embodiment in Jesus, and we become the embodiment of the same divine love through the Holy Spirit and some kind of crazy trust. If you want to know what happens when God’s love is embodied, just look to Jesus. Don’t just look at the infant in the manger, though, look at his whole life and how he embodied love with persons and in society. Look at how transforming and world-changing Jesus was, for individuals, families, societies, religions, politics. Look also at Jesus’s life and how much it costs to embody divinity: it will cost you your whole self, it will require you to let go of keeping your life safe, it will draw you into a story bigger than your own. This love of God is not an easy, sentimental, feelings-oriented love. It is a real, risk-taking, costly love. It is love in the personal dimension that means embracing each other, accepting each other as wounded souls, suffering how much we hurt each other, forgiving family and friends for their limited ways of loving, walking through pain and sorrow together, holding one another’s hands when we lie in death’s bed. It is love in the public dimension that means seeking healthcare for those without money or insurance, sharing food and shelter with those who have lost job and home, shaping society toward justice that protects those most vulnerable, welcoming as neighbors those who build our homes and harvest our crops but are here without legal documentation. I recently showed a documentary called Lord, Save Us from your Followers: Why Is the Gospel of Love Dividing America? There were two particularly powerful stories in the film. One was how the film’s director and narrator setup a confessional booth at a gay and lesbian pride festival. The confessional wasn’t for others to come and confess, it was for the church to confess its sins in rejecting others, and even promoting hatred. The men and women who came into the booth were shocked, surprised, and moved to tears and gratitude, when they sat face to face with another person who asked for their forgiveness in how they had treated them. Near the end of the film there is a beautiful and powerful story of a church in Seattle that lives out incarnate love in a city filled with homelessness and lost souls. They head downtown on Saturday nights to feed the people living in the streets. But more than that, they shampoo their hair, they wash their feet, they listen to their stories and their struggles, they embrace them as fellow members of the human family divinely loved. These two stories are beautiful examples of divine love embodied in real life. This embodiment of divine love breaks down the barriers between us and draws us into the unity we share with each other and with God. At the heart of the church’s life is the meal of divine love. The reason we take the Eucharist, Holy communion, with such reverence and seriousness and ecstatic joy and great thanksgiving, is that it is the ongoing renewal of embodied love in us. We, once again, receiving Christ, become Christ, become embodied love in a world dying to be loved, become a community that bears the cost of love, become our true purpose, as our heart-shaped hole is filled. The reason for being part of the church is so we might more fully embody divine love for the world, which we cannot do on our own, not without God and not without each other. Because love is not a lonely, self-centered project meant to prove our individual worth. Love is the God and community centered process of becoming one, one with each other, one with God, one in Christ, the incarnate Word, the embodied love that renews us even now. We celebrate at Christmas and in the church always that Jesus embodies God’s love fully. But we need not claim that Jesus embodies God’s love uniquely. If Jesus alone embodied God’s love, then it only lasted 30 years or so in a small corner of the world. But, God’s work among us by the Spirit is to continue the embodiment, the incarnation, through real, ordinary people people whose lives are caught up the love story of Jesus people who have died to their old life of resisting the cost of embodied love, and are ready to freely and joyfully love as God loves.