10 February 2017
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into the deep.” (Luke 5)
Michelle Obama is famous for having said, “When they go low, we go high.” I’d like to play off that statement this morning, but paraphrasing it to say, “When they go thin, we go deep.”
Now, the “they” in that statement is nobody in particular. It’s anyone who speaks a platitude, or a slogan, or some kind of propaganda—anything that’s said that substitutes superficiality for substance; triviality for seriousness; shallowness for depth. You know what I mean: you can hear it most anywhere. On the television news, in the mouths of politicians, from the lecterns of the halls of academia—even from the pulpits of the church (I hasten to add).
But moving from the thinness of so much of what we hear, to the depths for which our hearts and minds yearn, is important, because in the gospel we just heard, Jesus teaches his disciples that it’s in the deep where the fish are to be found. Jesus is walking along the lake of Gennesaret, and he comes upon several fishing boats lined up along the shore, one of them belonging to Simon. The fisherman have been out all night, though the fisherman haven’t caught a thing. Yet Jesus bids them to put out their boats once more, and directs them to come with him into deeper water, and to let down their nets there. And what happens? Their nets come up full to overflowing, so heavy with fish that they even start to tear. Depth, that’s where there’s a catch to be made!
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about language, and the difficulties that come with trying to say something of substance, something with depth, something that resists the rising tide of vulgar simplification. I was put in this frame of mind by a TED talk that a colleague group to which I belong shared together. It was given by Lera Broditsky, a cognitive scientist who spoke on the topic, “How language shapes the way we think.” She pointed out that there are roughly 7,000 different languages spoken around the globe—which also means that there are roughly 7,000 different worldviews, because language shapes the way in which we understand ourselves, and the world around us.
As an example, she pointed to an aboriginal society in which their language has no equivalent for “left” and “right.” Instead, they orient themselves according to the four directions. So, for example, if I hold up at this moment what I would call my “right” hand, they would describe it as my “southwest” hand. Or if I held up my “left” hand, they would say that it was my “southeast” hand. Think of the difference in that: instead of defining my place in the world in reference to myself (left or right), this culture would have me define it by reference to the physical world around me (north, south, east, west).
The point is that when we use words, we naively assume that they have a kind of direct correspondence to the world around us. In fact, even words with the most obvious meanings, are actually very culturally conditioned—like left and right. And if that is true of simple concepts like left and right, how much more so of extremely complex concepts like—God, for instance! In our common usage, you and I assume rather casually that the word “God” refers to something rather concrete and tangible. But if we start to pick that word apart a bit, we quickly discover that it is rather indeterminate. Do we mean by God the unity of all things in the divine life, or their inherent diversity? Do we mean by God an inexhaustible reservoir of mercy and compassion, or the judgment of evil? Do we mean by God a reality that is as near as the beating of our own heart, or as transcendent as the heavens above ultimately beyond our knowing?
In short, as we begin to pick apart the idea of God, do we not come to a place where God is the silence that is left when the games of all of our other speech have ceased? Is God … silence? That’s deep.
The silence of God, however, is not a void. It is a silence that is full. A silence that is pregnant. A silence where we stop spilling our platitudes and slogans and propaganda about ourselves, and discover the depths. Thomas Merton once said, “If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, will never become anything, and, in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless.”
Our Christian life is about learning what it means to have something true to say, by stilling the superficial voices of the self sufficiently to hear the deep, silent voice of God. And by extension, church is a place where we come to learn how to use words carefully, thoughtfully, expressively, deeply—breaking the silence only when necessary. Even the words we use here in worship, which in their abundance may at first seem to be the antithesis of silence, are ultimately about replacing the superficial interior dialogue we have with ourselves, with a language that first substitutes, and then quiets our interior voice so that we may hear the silence that is God. [You have to sing Amazing Grace a thousand times, before you can really sing it once.]
Now, I know that for most of us, “silence” is about as accessible in our daily routine, as “order” is in our households. But it’s all around us, like the air we breath, waiting to be heard. It’s there, whenever you need to listen to it. So maybe, just now, in the prayers we are about to offer, you will hear in this moment the silence that is the deep, the silence that says more than anything else you will hear today, the silence that is at the core of life, the silence that both preceded and will follow you. So listen: listen for the depths, listen for what God’s silent voice has to say to you. Amen.
27 January 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8)
Rather than talking twice today—once in the sermon, and a second time at the Annual Meeting—I thought I would combine the two into one “State of the Church” address. Perhaps it will help make up for the postponement of the State of the Union, which we were all looking forward to so much.
Let’s start with the reading from Nehemiah. It may seem a bit obscure, but it’s actually really important. The people of Judah have, after many years, finally returned to Jerusalem after their forced exile in Babylon. They found the city in ruins, so as a first priority they have rebuilt the city walls for safety, and now they turn their attention to their religious life that is in tatters after such a long disruption. Ezra the priest stands up to read the Torah, the law given through Moses, and when the people realize the divergence between its lofty vision of what it means to serve God, and the feebleness of their own efforts, they begin to weep. How far they have fallen! How pitiful is their conformity to its precepts! But in that moment, they also discover that to reintroduce God into every aspect of their lives—as the law proscribes—is a source of great joy. As Ezra reminds them, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
In short, they realize what Abraham Heschel summarized with the maxim, “God is of no importance, unless God is of supreme importance.” Or in other words, unless God touches every aspect of our lives, then God is no god at all, but only a casually important resource rather like a dentist, or an undertaker: useful from time to time, but not all that influential on the way we live. But that is not what the people hear in Ezra’s reading of the law: they hear there that the God who created us has a claim on our life, a claim to be the context for everything we do. Otherwise, it is not God whom we follow, but a mere fantasy of our own ego.
So, for example, if God is not the source and standard for our concepts of justice, then God is not God. Or if God does not touch the way in which we relate to other people at home, at work, or in the community, then God is not God. Or if God does not judge the truthfulness and integrity of our politics, then God is not God. Or if God does not determine the meaning of community in every part of our lives, even where it is most uncomfortable at places like the border, then God is not God. To repeat: “God is of no importance, unless God is of supreme importance.”
Having been the pastor here at St. Michael’s now for nearly four years, it seems to me that our great blessing is that like the people who heard the Torah read by Ezra, this parish has over time committed itself to doing its best to let God be supreme in our life together. We’re not perfect, obviously. But when we worship, we do try to have something to say, rather than just to say something. When we meet together, we do try to be respectful and hear one another out, letting the Spirit work between us. When we hear someone knocking on our door, we do try to welcome them in. When we look around our neighborhood, we do try to see and respond to real human needs. When we come up against political challenges and issues, we do try to let our faith-based commitment to human dignity and justice shape our thinking. When we consider the gifts that God has given us individually, we are quick to respond generously to the needs of others, and of the church. Heschel called such a life, a life that is compatible with God’s presence.
Think back over what evidence from this the last year we have for our genuine efforts to be God-centered people. We housed, cared for and supported a family seeking asylum.
We invited all three of our local congressional candidates to speak to us as a sign of our political engagement—and diversity.
We launched The Restoration Project to cultivate deeper discipleship with Jesus.
We held our first annual all-parish retreat at Camp Stoney.
We began Soul Break, to invigorate our contemplative prayer life.
We experimented with The Well as an intergenerational Saturday evening worship experience.
We continued to reach out to our brothers and sisters in Navajoland.
We provided essential early childhood education to over 70 preschoolers, and supported their sometimes struggling families.
We invested time and resources in taking our J2A teens on pilgrimage to Canterbury.
We supported those who are caregivers for a loved one, or who grieve someone’s loss.
We added new staff to expand our programs in Christian formation for all ages, to deepen our pastoral care, and to enliven our music in worship. (And by the way, I want to add that we have what I think is an exceptionally fine staff. They work hard, they support, encourage, challenge, and joke with one another. And they love the people they serve. Our heartfelt thanks to each of them.)
We did our best to spend and manage money carefully, to honor and make most advantage of the gifts you so faithfully give.
And perhaps most stunningly, almost without thinking, we just decided to put our shoulder to the wheel and pay off our mortgage through one lead gift and then an extraordinary outpouring of generosity to our Easter Challenge. I’m still amazed, and with that done, we have finally finished a project the parish took on over a decade ago, of which we are all the beneficiaries, as we have celebrated today.
And meanwhile behind the scenes we continued to provide food to those who need help through the food pantry; we fed meals to those experiencing homelessness, or who had been released from prison.
Our seniors shared their monthly lunch together. We provided clothes and school supplies to our local public schools. And there are also all the amazing things that so many of you do out in the community that the rest of us don’t even know about.
We didn’t get it all right, we made some mistakes, some people may have felt overlooked along the way. But I think it’s fair to say, that we genuinely tried to let God touch our lives, and through us the lives of others, so that it could not be said that God is of no real importance to us, but is perhaps of supreme importance.
Two years ago, I suggested that we ought to try turning the parish inside out. As you can see, we’ve come a long way in doing just that. But there is more to do. Our Immigration Ministry is considering opening up space for emergency housing, “The Landing,” to offer short-term shelter to immigrants just released from detention, people from Navajoland coming to town for medical care, or maybe even youth groups on pilgrimage. Our own Rite 13 middle-school group needs support and encouragement. Our preschool has greater potential still for addressing the critical issue of early childhood education in New Mexico. “The Well” needs to be established as a regular Saturday evening worship experience. We need to continue to deepen our support for seniors, anticipating the “silver tsunami” that wil affect our whole society as the boomers age. Our Parish Hall desperately needs a makeover, to make it a true place of hospitality. And it may even be time to revisit the Sunday morning schedule, which always seems rushed and leaves us a bit scattered as a community.
But I trust that as people willing to put God first, we are also people who will achieve what God intends us to do. We can take great courage in that, in these days when communities of faithful integrity and with a commitment to truth and justice are so vital to our common future not just as a church, but as a nation and a people. Amen.
Pastor Joe Britton
Homily for the funeral of Marion Canterbury
St. Michael’s Church
24 January 2019
Jesus said, “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution.
The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.”
(Matthew 5:10, in The Message)
It was Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who once said, “Reform in the church always comes from the fringe.”
To celebrate the life of Mother Marion Canterbury brings those words to mind, for she was someone who truly lived life and exercised her ministry at the edge of the church—and to great effect!
Marion was the kind of person who sought out the needs of people wherever and whatever they were: she would as readily celebrate the Eucharist on the tailgate of a pickup or on a pool table in a bar, as in a church.
Or sensing the hunger—both physical and spiritual—of the students and faculty at NMSU, she created “God, Mother, and Apple Pie,” a restaurant in Canterbury House (which everyone of course assumed was named for her). Through her prodigious culinary skills, she not only brought the campus community in for both breakfast and lunch every day, but made her own living at it as well.
Marion was a priest who was never seduced by the titles and privileges of the institutional church. She never wore clericals, but just a black shirt with an open white collar—imminently more practical in the desert heat, if nothing else. Being beyond retirement age for much of her ministry, she mostly worked for half-pay.
She was, in her way, a worthy successor to the legendary Preacher Lewis, that intrepid pastor who founded congregations all over southern rural New Mexico, from El Paso to Albuquerque. His circuit was along what was known as the Jornada de Fe, and from his base in Las Cruces he walked or hitch-hiked from one far-flung community to another to be present with their people.
Marion became pastor for several of the 28 churches founded by Lewis, including Christ Church, Hillsboro, my own home base. Like Lewis before her, she is remembered in Hillsboro for making the slightly notorious S-Bar-X saloon her first stop whenever she came into town—not for a drink (or maybe so), but mainly to catch up on the news, to find out who needed what, and to put out her tin cup to take up a collection.
At a time when being ordained as a woman was still very new in the Episcopal Church—and still very precarious—Marion became a deacon in 1979 and a priest in 1980. When she was later forced out of her ministry by a new bishop, along with a number of other women in this diocese, she remained loyal to her call, shaking the dust off her feet and going north to Wyoming to follow in her father’s footsteps by ministering to several congregations there. A note that came with flowers for this service from Christ Church, Douglas reflects the strength of her ministry there: “She was a wonderful, unique and necessary gift to the world.”
Perhaps the obstacles that were thrown down in Marion’s path are why her daughter Susy wanted the text from First Corinthians printed on the back of the bulletin. As Susy explained, “In Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, the heroine finds herself questioning whether she can do what needs to be done, whether she can save her father, her little brother, whether she can do her part in stopping the creeping darkness threatening the earth. She expresses her doubts to some spiritual allies, one of whom quotes part of this scripture to her. I'm sure my mom experienced many such doubts and, like the heroine of the story, kept moving forward anyway.” And so we read in Paul’s letter, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise … But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.”
Marion never had much money, but she had a zeal and zest for life that got her by, together with her five children. One time, the story is told, the lights at home were out because the electricity had been cut off for non-payment. “Goody,” exclaimed Marion. “We can have a candlelight picnic.” And so the family did.
Tommy Means recalls that he was discouraged by the bishop at the time from ordained ministry, who said that he had no qualifications whatsoever. “Marion however demanded it,” Tommy said. “And it was hard to tell her no.” Tommy is here today, now a beloved retired priest whose path paralleled in many ways Marion’s own journey through southern New Mexico and up to Wyoming. He is a living tribute to her instinctive pastoral wisdom and insight into what people are capable of doing, when given the chance.
But we would fail in our task of mourning Marion, if we only celebrated her daring unconventionality, and did not also learn from her example of what might be called a “ministry in the raw.” That’s where our scripture readings come in.
In planning this service, Marion’s daughters asked that some of the lessons be read from The Message, a modern paraphrase of the Bible which as you may know seeks to restore the liveliness and directness of its original language. When we hear the Beatitudes read from that version as we did today, and in the context of the life of Marion Canterbury, we can perhaps grasp the visceral directness not only of Jesus’ ministry, but of hers as well. He, like her, was not one to beat around the bush: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope,” he says. “With less of you, there is more of God and his rule,” or, “Count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out … What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort.”
In words like that, we hear an urgency and candor that is so easily drained out of our ordinary life together. I sometimes imagine, for instance, that what we blithely call Jesus’ “Words of Institution” in the Eucharistic prayer, were originally stammered in a kind of despairing desperation at the Last Supper. Somehow, somehow Jesus had to get the message across to his friends that he was about to die for them—“What can I use?”, (I imagine him saying). “Maybe this, this bread, this is my body! And maybe this, this wine, this is my blood! Do you get it? Do you care?”
Mother Marion was a priest who, by her own example of self-sacrificial ministry, called the rest of us also to care. To care about things that matter! To care about the poor, the immigrant, the alienated! To care about the reform of the church! To care about one another! To care about God! (To care about … God.)
I regret to say that I never met Marion—or rather, I only met her on her death-bed, as I administered Last Rites to her—but I have to say nevertheless, that I will miss her tremendously, as will many of you.
Thanks be to God for the gift that she was! Thanks be to God, for a life lived on the fringe. Amen!
January 20th, 2019: The Second Sunday after Epiphany (Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend), JP Arrossa, preaching
13 January 2019
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
I Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord
“You are my Son, the beloved.” (Luke 3)
If the truth be told, Epiphany doesn’t really mean much to most of us. For starters, we’re not even sure what the word means, and to be told that is comes from a Greek word meaning “showing forth” isn’t terribly inspiring. Even its main characters—the Three Wise Men—nowadays seem borrowed from Christmas, giving the whole season a kind of leftover feel, a kind of filler between the excitement of Christmas and the drama of Easter.
All that, I think, is the backdrop for why over 30 of us last week went on pilgrimage to the Jemez Pueblo, to participate in their Epiphany ceremonial and see if there was not something more to be gotten out of it.
The day’s events are amazing, from start to finish. At dawn (long before we got there), the deer and elk dancers come down out of the mountains, linking the days events to the natural world with which the pueblo has living in harmony for generations. Mid-morning, the dances begin in the plaza, with dancers representing buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope—all moving to the sound of a drum chorus that lays down a beat for a primordial celebration of the oneness of creation.
About the same time, mass begins in the San Diego Chapel. The signal to begin is the arrival of a procession from the “crib house,” where the figure of the baby Jesus has been sheltered for all 12 days of Christmas, with the house open 24 hours a day, and food available for anyone, anytime, who comes to prayer before the crèche.
The mass concludes with the blessing of the canes—symbols of authority that are passed annually from one year’s tribal leaders to the next, including a cane first given by the King of Spain when this part of the world was Spanish, a second given by the President of Mexico following the Mexican Revolution, and a third given by Abraham Lincoln during the 1860s.
Following mass, a second procession returns the Christ Child to the crib house, and hundreds of people come to visit—and all are fed around a large communal table piled high with food.
The dances, meanwhile, continue, interrupted only by breaks for the men of the drum chorus to come to Crib House, where they are met with dancing in the yard followed by a visit to the crèche and the requisite meal.
What to make of all that, especially as outsiders who were nevertheless warmly and even enthusiastically welcomed in? The word that has finally stuck in mind as emerging after the intensity of the day, is “connection.” For me, the day was about celebrating connection: the connection between the natural and the human world; the connection between the catholic and the native expressions of the oneness of God; the connection between native and Anglo people; the connection between generations. As Fr. Larry, the Franciscan friar who received us, put it, “the dances aren’t just for them, they are for the whole universe. They dance for the good of all creation.”
And so, it seems to me, we might rename the Season of Epiphany, the Season of Connection. It’s the season in which the child Jesus, born of the house of David, is connected through the Wise Men to the wider world. And through them, it’s the season when peoples of all faiths, and of no faith, are connected to one another. It’s the season when Jesus is connected to God, as in today’s story of his baptism, when he is first identified as God’s “beloved.” It’s the season when the human family is connected to one another, as we realize that God’s embrace of Mary was God’s embrace of us all. And yes, it’s the season when the Christmas story, with all its simplicity and naiveté, is connected to the story of Jesus’ passion, as he (and we) begin to understand what is at stake in his life.
How different, then, this narrative of connection is to the rhetoric of division, fear and separation that have dominated our national news this week. While the Christian church is observing the drawing together of all things into one, the political realm is hell bent on driving deep wedges of separation. Where God sees one, it seems to be our determination to see many. Where God would unite, we divide.
And it is in that context that I would like to share a piece of news of importance to us all. We received word over the Christmas holidays that our asylum family (Armando, Bela, Armanda, and Gabriel), have made their way out of the United States to Canada, where they hope to receive a more favorable hearing for their application for asylum. The news was a bit of a surprise, but also a sign of the boundless hope and determination that drives those who seek a place of safety and opportunity. And speaking of connection, we as a parish have been bound to them by fate, and we remain hopeful and supportive in their continued journey toward a place to call home.
But let’s go back to where we began, with the word Epiphany itself. The root verb in Greek, “phanein,” means to appear. It’s a word that can be applied to the dawn, for instance, when the first light appears on the Eastern horizon. As you may know, in many native traditions, that first light is the most sacred moment of the day: the time when the mystery of life is renewed through the approaching gift of a new day.
“There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and everlasting. There were many colors on the hills, and the plain was bright with different-colored clays and sands. Re and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plain, and there was a dark wilderness on the maintains beyond. The land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around.”
Epiphany, Year C January 6, 2019
An Invitation to Epiphany
This feast we celebrate today--this ancient story we hear again this year
is not really about those wise ones from the East:
Be they kings or astrologers,
Zoroastrians or lapsed Jews,
Babylonians or even descendants of the people of the exile;
It’s not about the star,
Its brilliant light,
Or even the remarkable convergence of planets
in the pre-dawn sky;
It’s not about those gathered around the baby
Be they shepherds or kings,
Or cattle mewing or lambs bleating;
And it’s surely not about Herod that venal king
Known for his mendacity,
His capricious cruelty,
And eliminating all threats to his questionable authority.
No. This feast we celebrate today
This great feast of Epiphany,
This feast that celebrates God’s light shining in our world--
is about the baby
On whom the star shines its light;
Around whom the wise ones,
the cattle and the lambs
all gather in the deep, dark night.
This feast we celebrate today, this Great Feast of Epiphany is about that baby
cradled in his mother’s arms, God with us, Emmanuel.
Not a sunshine God or a summer Divine;
Not a God who visits only the most deserving of our kind;
Not God who comes for a visit, stays awhile and then leaves;
But God with us on our darkest days,
God with us through our deepest fears
and also in those most precious of moments when the whole universe seems to sing.
God with us, now and always.
God with us, Emmanuel.
To the people stumbling back from generations in exile and to the people who stayed behind in a war-ravaged Jerusalem, to a people who walked in darkness—the darkness of their temple destroyed and torn down, of families forced apart, to a people who lived in the deepest darkness of loved ones killed before their very eyes, the prophet says most forcefully:
Raise your eyes and look about
As you behold, you will glow
Your heart will throb and thrill.
That’s not a suggestion; that’s not a request; that’s a promise that in the moment you see the hand, the glory, the child of God, you, too, will glow with God’s glory; you, too, will shine God’s light.
Like those people of the exile, like their kin scratching out a life for themselves in the rubble of Jerusalem, like those wise ones traveling for months across the desert for just a glimpse of God’s glory, like those shepherds approaching the manger, we, too, know darkness; we, too, long for light.
There is no avoiding or denying the darkness of our shared days: children still sequestered from their parents in shelters and tent cities on our border; worshippers in a church in Texas and a synagogue in Pittsburgh shot down as they pray; government employees held as pawns in a forced shutdown over a wall.
There’s the darkness of our own days too: worry about bills piling up, watching as loved ones struggle, feeling the grip of sadness on our shoulders. We, too, know darkness.
And yet to us the prophet says most forcefully:
Raise your eyes and look about
As you behold, you will glow
Your heart will throb and thrill.
That’s more than a suggestion;
That’s more than a request;
That’s more than a promise.
That’s an invitation to Epiphany, an invitation to take stock (people do that at this time of year)—to take stock of the many epiphanies, the many moments in which you’ve caught a glimpse of God in your life or in your world or in the lives of those around you, the times when people who cross your path have been a beam of God’s light in your life.
Perhaps in the sound of the migrating cranes flying overhead—heard but yet unseen;
Or in a moment of tenderness in an ICU when a loved one rubs oil into the dry
cracked skin of one who has laid there for days;
Or in a hard conversation that opens the way to genuine reconciliation;
Or in glimpse of an inflatable swimming pool
like the one that used to live just outside St. Michael’s far west door;
Or in any one of a multitude of moments.
Take time now to step into that invitation to Epiphany. Raise your eyes and look about, open your heart and look back.
Bring to mind some of those epiphanies, those moments when God’s light has shined in your life. Linger a minute. Soak in the warmth of that light.
We won’t stay there for long. Just a moment or two. Then I will call us back with a blessing prayer.
Let us pray:
God has called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
May you experience his kindness & blessing and be strong in faith, in hope and in love.
Because you are followers of Christ,
Who appeared on this day as a light shining in the darkness,
May he make you a light to all your sisters and brothers.
The wise men followed the star and found Christ who is light from light.
May you too find the Lord when your pilgrimage is ended. Amen
Christmas Day 2018 Pr. Susan Allison-Hatch
Christmas Day, 2018 St. Michael and All Angels Church
Love Comes Down at Christmas
Love comes down at Christmas
In a most unusual place--
a rough stable
in a small village
in the distant reaches of the Roman Empire
Love comes down at Christmas
To a most unlikely pair--
A young girl
barely into her teens
pregnant and “Not Yet Married”
some might say “disgraced”
An older man
a carpenter by trade
eking out an existence by the work of his hands
family and friends and neighbors too urging him to ditch
that feckless girl
But Love comes down at Christmas
To that unlikely pair
far from home
turned out by friends and family
forced to find shelter for the night
desperate for a place to birth their child
Love comes down at Christmas
through a baby born to Mary
a baby like the babies many of you have born
a baby like we all once were
so very human and yet divine
Love so fragile, love so strong
Love, pure love, right there in the stable
But there’s more to the story for
Love comes out at Christmas too--
Shepherds in the fields hear a sound
An angels song sung just to them
Promising them a most special gift
A gift of joy, a gift of peace
All they need do is follow the star
Love still comes down at Christmas
(and throughout the year as well)
Love still comes down at Christmas
Even in our troubled world
Even in our messy lives
Here’s the best news of this day
The good news of great joy
The news of which the angels sing
Love doesn’t just come down to visit
Love comes down to stay.
Love comes down to dwell with us
With us in all our ragged ways
Love comes down to dwell with us
With us on our most miserable of days
And so we pause on this the holiest of days
To drink in the miracle of Christmas--
A baby—a most human baby—born in Bethlehem
Love come down at Christmas
And throughout the year as well
God with us—Emanuel.
24 December 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“In those days …” (Luke 2:1)
I have here a small stone—no, a shard of concrete, really. There is nothing particularly remarkable about at first glance, except that, it was once a part of the Berlin Wall, that infamous Cold War symbol of division and repression.
Once you know that bit of information, certain features of this little stone start to stand out. On its face, you can detect the remains of some spray paint—perhaps it is part of what was once an anti-communist slogan, or someone’s plea for freedom, or a message to a loved one trapped behind the wall. It’s indecipherable, really. The fragment is just a small piece, only a hint, of something much larger.
And this little stone, I think, has a lot to say to us about Christmas. For if you find that making sense of what Christmas has to do with the idea of a God who created all things—well, welcome to the club! Christmas is confusing, because it’s such a small piece of a much larger story. Christmas is like this little splinter of concrete; just a trace, a tiny part, of a story that is much longer, and much deeper than the one episodic incident that we get tonight.
Think of it this way. Christmas is just one piece of a very large mosaic that is the story of God and of God’s creation. Looking at the one piece, we only see a fraction of that larger picture. It’s a very beautiful hint, but still only partial. The task of our lives is to find out where and how that piece—and all the other pieces we are given over time—fit in to the vast and beautiful mosaic that is God.
So to have any idea of what Jesus’ birth is all about, you have fit that piece into some idea of what it means to say that the life we live, is a gift given to us by a creator and that it is not of our own making. You have to have some idea of what has gone wrong with humankind, such that we hurt one another, wage war against one another, and live according to the ways of corruption and mendacity, rather than justice and truth.
You have to have some idea of what Jesus did and taught as an antidote to all that. You have to have some idea of what his way of peaceableness meant to a society torn by violence. You have to have some idea of what the inexhaustible nature of his life meant to a world mired in a culture of death.
You have to have some idea of how Jesus gives the gift of his own presence to those who follow him, so that they might live the life of mercy and compassion that he lived. You have to have some idea of the hope that following Jesus inspires, and of the ways in which countless individuals through the centuries have found him to be the way of peace and reconciliation.
If you have no idea of all of that—then Christmas is simply an isolated fairy tale at best, or a rather unlikely legend masquerading as fact at worst. That’s why, week by week, communities of faith like St. Michael’s tell and retell the whole story over and over again—knowing that we never get it quite right, that we never get to the bottom of it, that we never fully digest its meaning, but that unless we keep trying to see the whole picture, then none of the bits of the mosaic will make any sense.
But back to this little stone. As I said, it was once a part of a wall that deliberately divided and separated people from one another: East Berlin from West Berlin, the Communist Block from Western Europe. We as Americans stood for tearing down such walls, believing that true freedom means, among other things, freedom of movement. Perhaps this stone was located near where President John Kennedy defiantly proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” challenging the idea that such divisions can persist or even exist. Perhaps it was near where President Ronald Reagan prophetically challenged the Soviet bloc by demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
And when the wall finally did come down, razed one astonishing night by the picks and sledge hammers of the very people it had tried to contain, this little fragment, and thousands more like it, were transposed from being a means of oppressive control, to being symbols of hope. The bits and pieces of the wall became reminders that when people of courage act collectively, they can do great things; and that such courage comes from moving beyond seeing things only partially, to recognizing the whole panorama of justice and peace. In short, these fragments became symbols of the power of the human community, when it acts together for good and with a clear-sighted vision of the goal.
Christmas, too, is full of little bits and pieces: story fragments like Mary and the angel, Joseph and his dream, a Roman census, a plodding donkey, a busy inn keeper, an empty cow shed, some visionary shepherds, a mysterious comet in the sky, strange foreigners arriving on camels … on and on it goes.
But fragments can add up to something truly significant—whether the bits and pieces of concrete that became a wall of separation, or the bits and pieces of the Christmas story that ultimately fit into a majestic picture of nothing less than “a cosmos that is capable of love” [as Joseph Bottom wrote this week in the final issue of The Weekly Standard]. For if you put the bits and pieces of this night together with all those other bits and pieces that we trace here throughout the year, that is precisely what they start to reveal: a world that is made by love, through love, and for love.
Revealing that larger picture is precisely what our life in community here in church is all about. As the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Each of us is like a little stone, but together we reveal the face of God to the world. No [one person] can say: ‘I make God visible.’ But others who see us together can say: ‘They make God visible.’ Community is where humility and glory touch.” That is the true hope of this very fragmentary night, which despite its incompleteness, is nevertheless part of the inexpressibly beautiful mosaic of God. Amen.