Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Hope Happens

Christmas Eve 2008 (5:30 p.m.)
All Saints Church, Pasadena

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon from this pulpit entitled, “Wilderness Happens.” And so I was amused just a few days after that Sunday when, stuck at a red light at Lake and Walnut, I noticed the car in front of me had a bumper sticker that read, “Fruitcake Happens.”

“Maybe that’s my Christmas sermon title,” I thought. But I ended up opting for a variation on the theme: Hope Happens. And at least part of the reason was this quote from our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori:

“Advent,” she said earlier this month “is the season when Christians are called to live with more hope than the world thinks is reasonable.”

I like that. A lot. So much that I don’t want to give up living with more hope than the world thinks is reasonable just because Advent is behind us and we’ve finally arrived at O Holy Night. For tonight is the night that we glimpse the incarnation of that hope – more hope than the world thinks is reasonable – represented for us as Christians in the baby in the manger. And it is the night we receive – once again -- the sudden, amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace: a God who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another.

For it is the night we gather together – once again -- surrounded by light and beauty and music and community to celebrate the mystery of Christmas. We welcome again the promise of new life in the birth of this Christmas baby. We wonder again at the power of a love great enough to triumph over death and we claim a Christmas Truth greater than any of the traditions it inspires: the mystical longing of the creature for the creator -- the finite for the infinite -- the human for the divine – all wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

When my children were growing up, one of the most treasured rituals of the Christmas season was setting up the manger scene on the dining room sideboard. We actually used the same set of crèche I’d grown up with – including the lamb who had been making it through Christmas on three legs since about 1967 and the Wise Man whose head had to be super-glued back on about every third year. But every December out they came from the box with the tissue and the bubble wrap – ready to play their annual parts in the Christmas drama.

And I’m remembering tonight one year when we had a little more “Christmas drama” than usual. It was the year my younger son, Brian – who was probably about 7 or 8 at the time – decided to “expand” the cast of that year’s Christmas crèche.

We’d set everything up “as usual” … Mary and Joseph were in the stable with the donkey and the cow staring soulfully (Mary and Joseph … not the cow) at the empty-til-Christmas Day manger. The shepherds started out on the west end of the sideboard and edged their way toward the stable as Christmas approached while the Three Wise Men and their two camels did likewise from the east – what with striving for historical accuracy and all.

And lo it came to pass that one morning over breakfast my older son Jamie – who is still the detail guy in the family – noticed that something was not kosher in Bethlehem. Joining Mary and Joseph around the manger was Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and three Star Wars Storm troopers.

Jamie was not amused. In fact, he was pretty irate. “Who let them in?” he said … as if he didn’t know the culprit was across the table from him slurping up Honey Nut Cheerios. “There are no Star Wars guys the Bible!” But Brian, not missing a beat, said “Yeah, well, there wasn’t any Little Drummer Boy in the Bible either and they let him in. These guys are just waiting for Baby Jesus like everybody else. Get over it.”

Jamie must have – gotten over it. Because as I remember it, Luke, Hans and the Storm Troopers were still there when I retrieved Baby Jesus from his hiding place and put him in the manger late that Christmas Eve when I got home from the midnight service and they were fast asleep.

That was Christmas then and this is Christmas now. It’s been a long time since I had boys young enough to argue over adding characters to the nativity scene – but in retrospect I see that year’s Christmas crèche as an icon of a core All Saints Church value: “Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith there is a place for you here.” And it seems to me that the little drama between my kids at the breakfast table over who gets to decide who gets to “come let us adore Him” was a little microcosm of the challenges we still face in parts of this church – this communion – this country.

Hope happens. But it doesn’t just happen. Here’s another quote I found about hope … this one from one of the early church fathers-- Augustine of Hippo:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

Ewww! Courage? Anger? That’s not very … “Christmassy!” Couldn’t we just stick to sweetness and light tonight? Of course we could.

And if we do, we give in to what is a greater Christmas temptation than all the Eggnog and Christmas Cookies in Christendom. And that is the temptation to “put Christ into Christmas” only to leave him there: to receive with joy the gift of the Word made flesh on this Christmas Eve and fail to live as the Body of Christ the other 364 days of the year.

For the shadow side of our beloved Christmas traditions is that we risk making them more important than the message they represent. We risk being like my 10 year old Jamie … so worried about where the Kings go on the sideboard that we aren’t willing to make room for everybody at the manger. The danger of the Christmas story is that it IS so familiar that we can lose the amazing impact of its glorious message in the frenzy that surrounds the Christmas event.

Its ironic – isn’t it – that the very season that offers the message of Peace on Earth, Good Will to All brings instead Stress on Earth, Bad Temper to Many. The challenge is to balance the traditions that manifest the joy of the season with the gift that is the reason for the season: and that gift is of course Love. And the work of Christmas – OUR work at Christians – is to make that love tangible … as Howard Thurman describes in what has become my annual Christmas meditation:

When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To teach the nations
To bring Christ to all
To make music in the heart.

That, my brothers and sisters, is not just the work but the purpose of Christmas – purpose that drives our work and our witness at All Saints Church not just this Christmas Eve but 24/7.

And on this Christmas Eve 2008, let me enter into the record this important note: I am all in favor of living a purpose driven life.

But here’s the thing: let’s make sure that the purpose that drives us is turning the whole human race into the human family – not limiting those who can “Come let us adore him” to those who look like us, think like us, vote like us or believe like us. Let’s make sure that if we’re going to preach family values that we practice valuing all families. And let’s be clear that the hope that we claim on this O Holy Night – the “more hope than the world thinks is reasonable” -- is the hope we are called to not just celebrate but to guard: from war and violence, from hunger and famine, from budgets that prioritize bombs over bread, from policies that favor profits for corporations over healthcare for children, and from purpose driven agendas whose purpose is to write discrimination into our constitution.

Wilderness happens. Fruitcake happens. And hope happens. And in my imagination tonight a hope driven Christmas – a purpose driven Christmas – is driven by Hope’s two lovely daughters … Anger and Courage … who, together in a sleigh led by eight tiny reindeer, circle the globe this night proclaiming “Peace on earth, good will to all” … with Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo and three Storm Troopers singing back up, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

[Have I mixed enough metaphors?]

My brothers and sisters, as we celebrate tonight the wonder of the amazing gift of our brother Jesus born of our sister Mary -- with all of its beloved trappings and traditions -- may we also be given the grace to bring the hope of Christmas alive in the year ahead. May we be given the courage to refuse to leave Christ in Christmas but to follow in his footsteps by doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God “in season and out of season.” And may we be given the energy and imagination to hold onto more hope than the world thinks is reasonable as we go out from this place into this “O Holy Night.”

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.


Muthah+ said...

We had a turtle and a dragon in our manger last night. Wonderful sermon. I will "steal" of it. It isn't just a CA sermon!

Pat Klemme said...

Alleluia! Amen. Thanks be to God!