Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 2)
George Schulz turned 100 a week ago. You might recall that he was a prominent figure in Washington for decades, serving under several presidents as secretary of labor, then treasury, and finally of state. Reflecting back on his long career in public service, Schulz had this to say:
I’m struck that there is one lesson I learned early and then relearned over and over: Trust is the coin of the realm. When trust is in the room, whatever room that is — the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the [situation] room — good things happen. When trust is not in the room, good things do not happen. Everything else is details.
Trust, you might say, is the precondition for productive human interaction.
Yet such trust is in short supply these days. We live in a time when we have been taught to be unrelentingly suspicious, coached by both political leaders and public activists to be distrustful of institutions, of government, even of one another. Perhaps you have seen the disturbing image of two hands locked in a handshake, which on closer inspection turn out to be handguns interwoven with one another. The caption reads: “Life is full of fake people: Trust no one.”
Christmas, therefore, becomes an opportunity for us as people of faith to reassert one of the foundation stones of spiritual life: the belief that at its heart, the world and the cosmos in which we exist are ultimately trustworthy, because the God who created them is trustworthy. And if God is to be trusted, then our task as beings made in God’s image is to live our own lives in such a way that they too foster and encourage the indispensable trust between human persons.
Last Sunday, the families of the parish presented the annual Christmas pageant, virtually this year, which was entitled “Do not be afraid.” As its name implies, the pageant’s central message was that we have nothing to fear, because God is with us. God has not created us, only to abandon us. That is not to say that life will not be difficult, sometimes crushing even—but it is to say that we are not alone in the struggle.
Tonight we come to the place where that assertion is made good: in Jesus, God gives us not an idea by which to try and convince us of life’s trustworthiness, but a life through which to show us by example what makes for trust: a life lived peaceably and on behalf of the other.
Through Jesus, we see a reflection of what God is really like: wanting to give what God is, to what is not God. That is, God wants to give to us human beings the experience of what it is like to dwell in the embrace of an unconditional love and concern. It’s not that God is bored and in need of company; it’s not that God is frustrated and in need of help. It’s that God cannot help loving, and so in Jesus chooses to turn that loving gaze upon us. And caught within that gaze, whether of the newborn child or of the dying man upon the cross, we see intimations of the love that is at the root of the whole creation, and therefore of trust itself.
Perhaps that’s what Linus realizes in A Charlie Brown Christmas, when he’s reciting the Christmas story just as we heard it read tonight: at the moment when the angel says, “Fear not,” Linus drops his security blanket – one of the only times in the entire Peanuts series that he is without it. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” he concludes.
Tomorrow afternoon, we are going to perform online the 1938 Nativity play by Dorothy Sayers, entitled “He that Should Come.” In her play, Sayers shows us a world much like our own — as she put it, a world that is “casual, inattentive, contemptuous, absorbed in its own affairs and completely unaware of what was happening.” But the point is that it was into this world that Jesus was born, “not into ‘the Bible,’” not into a fairytale, not into a time long ago, but into the world as we know it, so that we might learn to trust even in our circumstances, even in our own times.
The message of Christmas, then, is that we inhabit a cosmos that is ultimately trustworthy. As Rowan Williams says in his little book, Tokens of Trust, “At the heart of the desperate suffering there is in the world, suffering we can do nothing to resolve or remove for good, there is an indestructible energy making for love. If we have grasped what Jesus is about, we can trust that this is what lies at the foundation of everything” (p. 10). Everything else, as George Schulz put it, is details. Amen.