Thursday, December 25, 2008

Showing Up for Christmas

Good evening, and Merry Christmas!

I love that wonderful Christmas song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," especially this verse:

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more. -Ralph Blane

So here we are.

Once again we have made it to this place; some of us haven’t seen one another in a year or more; family and friends together again. Like the shepherds, we hear the invitation as if from angels, and we make our journey to this sacred place, to witness, once again, the birth of God in our lives.

We come here, despite the fact that so many of us have perfectly good reasons not to be here.

In fact – I mean, there’s no reason why we can’t be honest about this – I bet there is more than one person here tonight that thought, I’m going to skip going to church this Christmas.

Maybe you’ve lost a loved one recently. It’s a very painful thing to be in church on that first Christmas without mom or dad or another loved one. Sometimes when we’re in grief, our happiest memories can just be too painful to bear, and so we avoid things like church that might trigger those bittersweet memories.
Bless you for being here, anyway.

Maybe you have been laid off from work, or had some other kind of bad news, and you’re mad at God; and you thought for a moment that you might skip church just to punish God. And then you realized that probably wouldn’t work and so you came.
Bless you for coming.

Or maybe you’ve just been feeling less and less connected to church, maybe the whole idea of church just seems increasingly strange to you and you wondered why should you go; but then you had a change of heart; or someone talked you into it; or you came out of habit anyway, and here you are.

And bless you for coming, too.

Whatever the reasons – and I’m sure there are a hundred other reasons not to go to church – here you are. Bless you.

Sometimes we do things for reasons we ourselves simply do not understand. But it doesn’t matter now.

Like the wise men, who followed a golden light.
Like the shepherds, who spoke to the angels.
You are here. And so is God.

There was a time in my life, almost 30 years ago now, when I had given up on church altogether. I had dropped out of seminary; I didn’t believe in God anymore, I thought the church was dying, and nothing could ever bring me back. Then my girlfriend (and future wife) said if I wanted to marry her I had to marry her in a church, and so she dragged me off to one, and I went there determined to not believe any of it, and I discovered something very important. God didn’t really care what I believed. God was simply waiting for me to show up.

I knew a guy once who became very angry with God because God had refused to give him what he desperately wanted. He had been praying for his wife, who had cancer, that she might be healed. And she didn’t get better. She died. And that was it for my friend.

Of course his heart was broken. At first he blamed God for it. And then he just stopped believing in God altogether. And of course, who could blame him? Because he thought if God exists, then God wouldn’t have let his wife die.

It took years for him to get a new thought about this. It happened when a friend of his dragged him back to church. And he realized that maybe it wasn’t God’s plan that his wife suffered and died; maybe God had been as broken up about it as he was; and that while he had given up on God, God had not given up on him. And so he spent the sum total of about one microsecond to open himself to the idea that God might still be alive; and everything changed.

These things might just be words to you; just vague ideas; sometimes none of this makes any sense at all until our hearts are broken open and everything falls apart. And then we have a choice: we can either just stay broken; or we can try to put the pieces back together again without God’s help – which is kind of like trying to fight an infection without the help of antibiotics – or we can take a moment to be here – really be here; and see what a difference it makes.

I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get with my faith; and if I’m not showing up on a fairly regular basis, I forget pretty quickly what it’s all about.

The other day I was standing in the middle of the women’s lingerie section at Macy’s, trying to decide whether the gift of a red satin Wonderbra for my wife was an appropriate expression of Wonder at our savior’s birth, when I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a person’s voice speak my name directly into my ear.

It turned out to be an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in couple of years; he found it highly amusing that the color of my face now matched the color of the item that I was not hiding behind my back, and while he waited for me to recover my composure he asked me if I was going deaf. It turned out that he had been calling my name from across the room, but that I had been completely oblivious to him until he actually tapped me on the shoulder and spoke directly into my ear.

I told him that, as far as I knew, my ears were fine, it was just that, you know, I had been absorbed in this deep theological question.

But later, while I was driving home, I realized that he must have felt the way God felt, calling our names again and again, and getting no response, and thinking we must be going deaf. And then God got this great idea. He sent someone down; someone to cross the infinite distance between us, and tap us on the shoulder, and speak our name.

God is here, even now, calling our names, hovering in our shadows, waiting for us to turn, and recognize him.

In our loneliness, he is waiting to comfort us. In our despair, he gives us hope. In our pain, he offers solace. In our violence, he teaches peace. In our guilt, when we keep going over and over in our minds things we wish we had done differently, he forgives our sins and helps us to realize that all things are being made new, every moment.

Our savior is born, and we are born, anew.

Yesterday, I told that story to a friend of mine who is a pastor, and she said it reminded her of the time when she was rector of a parish like this one, and she was always terribly busy during the Christmas season and didn’t have any time to see her friends, until one day a friend stopped her and said, “How can I tell you I love, you, if you don’t have time to listen to me?” And she thought, that’s God, speaking to me.

And that made me think of the person I knew in college, who spoke very bitterly about how she didn’t have any friends, and I tried to very gently suggest to her that maybe she would have more friends if she listened more, and talked less.

How can God talk to us, if we won’t listen? How can we come to know his boundless love, if we won’t get to know him? How can we be expected to even notice the angels, much less understand what they are saying, if we never pause long enough to look up at the stars, and listen for the angelic voice?

What kind of people will we become, if we don’t take the time to let God into our lives?
The poet Walter Bowie wrote,
They whose eyes are in the dust
Will never see a star.
They who came to Bethlehem
And only dross have sought
Will take away alone with them
The emptiness they brought.

“They whose eyes are in the dust / Will never see a star.” I suggest that we take a moment, on this holy night, to bring ourselves to that shepherd’s field. The sheep have settled down for the night; it is still, and calm, and bright; a galaxy of stars lights the darkness.

We are showing up.
We are listening for the angel.
We are witnesses of God’s birth.

Come, Heavenly Child, and on this place
Shed the sweet halo of thy grace.
Anna Hempstead Branch.

Amen. And Merry Christmas!

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