Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"And the Word Became Flesh" | Sermon for Christmas Day 2012

And the Word Became Flesh
Christmas Day 2012 | Susan Russell | All Saints Church, Pasadena

And the Word became flesh … the scriptures tell us.
And a weary world rejoices … the hymn sings to us.

Familiar words
Comforting words
Christmas words
Words we’ve sung, said and heard
(many of us)
for as long as we can remember …
maybe even before we can remember.

And so,
on this Christmas Day in the morning,
it is the very familiarity
of these familiar words
that can become their challenge.
It is the challenge to hear them …
to actually hear them …
on this Christmas morning
as words not just describing a once upon a time
long, long ago moment to us –
but as words that are for us –
words that are about us
in this time, in this place, in this moment.

It is a very real challenge for us – for me –
because the Christmas story IS so familiar
that the amazing impact
of its glorious message
can ironically become lost
to those of us who know it best.

And I don’t want that to happen.
I don’t want that to happen to me.
I don’t want that to happen to you.
And I don’t want that to happen to us.

Because, my brothers and sisters,
the world we live in is too weary,
the challenges we face are too great
and the opportunities we have are too enormous
for us to claim anything less this Christmas Day
than the full promise of what we gather to celebrate
with our prayers and our praises,
our hymns and our hopes,
our carols and our candles.

What we welcome this morning
is nothing less than the promise of new life
in the birth of this Christmas baby.
We are called to wonder again
at the power of a love
great enough to triumph over death
as 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.

It is a longing that transcends
culture, religion, language and custom –
and it is a longing that is represented for us as Christians
in this Christmas baby
all wrapped up in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.

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.

Loved us enough to become human
in order to show us how to become fully human.

Loved us enough to yearn for us
to become the creatures we were created to be
rather than settle for being
the creatures we had become.

And the Word became flesh.

And the traditions we inherit
the rituals we practice
the customs we claim
are all designed to point us to that truth.

And so I don’t want to lose them, either --
because the world we live in is too weary,
the challenges we face are too great
and the opportunities we have are too enormous
for us to claim anything less
than absolutely every resource at our disposal --
including the beloved traditions
that are good things
holy things
sacramental things.
Those things that are for us
“outward and visible signs
of the inward and spiritual grace”
of God’s love come down at Christmas –
those things that it just wouldn’t be Christmas without:
things that sometimes defy logic or elude explanation.
And for me, the icon of “those things” has become:
The Santa Candle.

It is a story I’ve told before
but this morning I believe
it is one that bears retelling.

A number of years ago,
as I was engaged in the task of decking the halls
with the familiar stuff of Russell Family Christmases
I came across the Santa Candle:
A jolly, rotund wax figure
who had presided for many years
from the top of the highest bookcase in the living room.

Every year, someone would ask,
Can we light the Santa Candle?
And every year I would explain
that if we lit the candle,
Santa’s hat would melt into Santa’s face
and there would soon not be much of Santa
left for next year.

Well, you guessed it:
the year before,
someone had been unable to resist
and Santa was indeed a shadow of his former self.

After a moment of irritation
at having my well-reasoned instructions
so blatantly disregarded,
I tossed the half-melted candle
into the trash bag
without much more than a second thought.

And that’s where Jamie
(who prefers to be Jim)
my then-17-year-old son -- found him.
“You threw away the SANTA CANDLE?”
he said in horror.
And dusting him off
began to clear a space
on the top of the bookshelf.

“Look at him.” I protested.
“He’s half melted away!”

But paying no attention to his mother,
my 6’2” son carefully placed the Santa Candle on the shelf.
“He ALWAYS goes on the bookcase!” he said.
And so, there he sat.

There was in that beat-up, half melted Santa Candle
something that spoke to Jamie
of what is valuable, dear, worth preserving in a Christmas tradition ...
assuring me in that moment that
the seeds his father and I had endeavored to sow
throughout his childhood
had actually taken root:
seeds that say family matters, traditions matter,
CHRISTMAS matters.

Seeds that have continued to take root and to flower in him
as he has turned into an adult
making his own path,
and finding his own traditions
as he has grown and matured
through life’s challenges and changes.

For there are indeed few things
more certain in life than change.
And this year we know that all too well in my family
as we continue to meet the challenge
of finding joy in the shadow of loss.

The months since my partner Louise
lost her battle with cancer
have been equally full
of deep grief and deep gratitude. 

And in striving to live intentionally
in the tension of that profound “both/and”
for me this Advent has been blessed
with an abundance of words rich with both hope and healing.

 In the song I heard by Roseann Cash reminding:

              “God is in the roses and in the thorns”

 In the reflection I read by Bishop Steven Charleston promising:

              Joy is not the denial of sorrow,

              but the affirmation of hope over hurt,

              life over death,

              good over evil

In the hymn we sang on the First Sunday of Advent asking:

Can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create?
Life from death, and from our rendings, realms of wholeness generate?
Take our fears, then, Lord and turn them into hopes for life anew:
Fading light and dying season sing their Glorias to you.

And in the poetry of Madeline L’Engle contextualizing:

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

And the Word became Flesh
not because the world was sane or anymore ready for it
in first century Palestine than it is in 21st century Pasadena
where we struggle to make meaning
out of the violence, polarization and fears that surround us
across the country in Newtown, Connecticut
and across town in Northwest Pasadena.

And to help with that “make meaning” part, I turn to the words
of theologian Marilyn McCord Adams
who writes:

"We can’t make Sandy Hook meaningful
by looking backward,
but only by moving forward,
by working alongside
a God Who is for us,
to make good on the very worst
that we can suffer, be, or do.
God knows,
God has created us
in a world where ghastly evil interrupts,
despite our best efforts to control.

God not only creates;
God resurrects.
God makes the worst count for good
by bringing life out of death.

To be on God’s side,
we must bend ourself
to efforts that foster life,
inclusive community,
and creativity.

Collaboration revives hope
because it convinces us: 
we are safe because,
and only because,
we are loved by God!"

And that, my brothers and sisters,
is the essence of the amazing gift
we celebrate this Christmas morning in
the amazing gift of our brother Jesus
born of our sister Mary.

The Word made flesh
in order to convince us
that we are safe
because and only because
we are loved by God.

And it is out of that safety –
out of the sure and certain knowledge
that absolutely nothing
can separate us from that love –
that we can risk –
we can dare .

We can be the change we want to see in the world
that is crying for change:
for hope, for light and for joy.

It is out of that safety
that we can risk trying again:
countering the powers and principalities
of violence, discrimination and fear
with love, justice and compassion.

It is out of that safety
that we can risk loving again:
allowing the promise of being fully alive
to trump the fear of loss and vulnerability.

And it is out that safety
that can we dare to claim for ourselves
the holy work
Howard Thurman calls
“The Work of Christmas:”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

And so on this Christmas Day in the morning
I pray that you can hear the familiar words of Christmas
not as once-upon-a-time long-long-ago words
but as words that are for you
words that are to you
words that are about you
in this time, in this place, in this moment.

Because, my brothers and sisters,
the world we live in is too weary,
the challenges we face are too great
and the opportunities we have are too enormous
for us to claim anything less this Christmas Day
than OUR call –
each and every one of us –
to become
the word made flesh
as the Body of Christ
sent out to do the work of Christmas.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

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