Christmas Eve – the greatest gift for getting it wrong

For over five centuries, Lutherans have asserted and proclaimed: grace is a gift. Meal time, especially during the holidays, is a great opportunity to experience grace.

Many of us will get together with friends, family, and coworkers for Christmas meals and potlucks. We sit at the same table and eat food that is shared among everyone at table. 

Where’s the grace? (besides the pre-meal prayer)

The grace in that experience, is being together. How often does that happen in today’s world? When family members are separated by vast distances unlike in any other time in human history. When coworkers can suspend their usual activities and work routines to just sit down and eat a meal together. When effort is made to make and/or bring food for all.

The grace is sharing food together despite the conflicts, the dislikes, the divisions and lines drawn between those around the table on account of political opinion, social standing, personality, past hurts.

The grace is found in those moments when, unexpectedly and surprisingly, a kind word is said between combatants, a genuine smile of thanksgiving is offered when ‘gifts’ are exchanged, or tears of forgiveness given and received are expressed.

On the surface, these moments may not change a whole lot, at least not immediately. But repeated often enough – Christmas comes every year – the seed sown deeply in the heart will one day sprout. ‘Mary treasured all these things and pondered them deeply in her heart’,[1]the scripture says. Sometimes, in the face of grace, all we can do is find a moment to appreciate and digest this gift. And let it grow in us. We are, each of us, the innkeeper who will decide whether or not to let Jesus in.

Celtic Thunder, the Irish, male group sings a powerful version of Silent Night that tells the story of Christmas at the Western Front in 1915. German and British soldiers stopped their fighting for a few moments Christmas Eve when one of the German soldiers – a lad of 21 years of age – started singing Silent Night.

Before long, combatants from both sides that had been avowed to killing each other were walking across no-man’s land. For a few moments they left their weapons behind, hugged each other and gave each other gifts of cigarettes and pots of wine.

But alas, the moment of grace passed. And before long they were shooting at each other again. And the 21-year-old soldier who had started the singing, did not make it to the morning.

Grace was given to those boys amidst the battle. In the singing of Silent Night, in the exchange of gifts, in the hugs and laughter, grace was still given.

Grace is a gift not for getting it right, but for getting it wrong.[2]And we human beings, throughout history, can get it awfully wrong. But this does not stop God.

God came into the world not at an ideal time when everyone was getting along. Herod was a paranoid despot about to wreak havoc in the land. In short, there was unrest in Palestine. Beneath the surface of all that might have appeared genteel in the little town of Bethlehem that holy night was broiling a call to arms by discontented zealots against Roman occupation. The military conflict would finally erupt some seventy years after Jesus’ birth with the destruction of Jerusalem.

God chose a particularly dark and disruptive time and place in history to enter in, as a vulnerable little baby boy born to a teenager in a barn for animals. Not a strategy for success, you might think, eh? On earth, nothing was going right.

But the grace of God knows no bounds. The grace of God enters into the thick of it. Not when everyone is getting along. But especially when everyone is getting it wrong.

The message of Christmas, in the end, is one of hope. Because no matter how bad or sad things get, it won’t stop God from prying into our consciences from time to time to tell us that God is never too far away. No matter how bad it gets, God is always with us. Emanuel. God with us.

Once we can accept that God is in all situations – not just the warm fuzzy moments decorated with visions from Hallmark – then everything becomes an occasion where some good can happen. God can and will use even bad situations for good.[3]This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”[4]

Our task this Christmas – however you are observing it – is to look for and find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything, even and most especially the problematic. Because the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good, however small or short-lived. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and never will overcome it.”[5]

Amen.


[1]Luke 2:19

[2]Richard Rohr, “Accountability Is Sustainability” Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org) Friday, December 13, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Like Knows Like” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, Monday, December 23, 2019).

[4]Psalm 118:24

[5]John 1:5,9

No partiality

At the beginning of every congregational council meeting, members take turns sharing a personal experience of God — whether in their day, or in the past, or in childhood.

Last week a young adult member told us about participating in the ice bucket challenge that went viral on Youtube in the summer. At first he wondered whether this was not just another gimmick he should ignore.

But then he inquired why people were doing this — to raise funds and awareness about ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He watched another video of how this challenge began and learned what this meant personally to its promoters.

Citing the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12; 22: 39) and the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:25-37) from the Bible, the council member concluded his devotions with the Gospel message: that Jesus shows no partiality. God’s love extends to Jews and Samaritans — even though in first century Palestine they were in conflict.

As a result, followers of Jesus are also called to love our neighbour as ourselves. Just because only 3,000 in Canada have Lou Gehrig’s Disease (a small number compared to the entire population) doesn’t mean we can ignore those who have this degenerative muscular, and fatal, disease. Minorities — however we define them — deserve our caring attention, especially if they are suffering in any way.

In another confrontation with the religious leaders of the day, Jesus confounds them by his response (Matthew 22:15-22). What we sometimes overlook in this tense exchange is the heated political context of the time:

The Emperor was putting more pressure on the local leadership in Palestine to firm its grip in the occupied territories. Rome was exercising greater power over the population by imposing currency imprinted with the Emperor’s face, and rescinding the privilege of the Sanhedrin to execute sentences of death. The pressure on Herod and Pilate in the region was mounting; their lives were at risk should there erupt any uprising or public defiance against Rome (read Shusaku Endo translated from the Japanese by Richard Shuchert, “A Life of Jesus” Paulist Press, Toronto, 1973, p.52-53)

At this point in the narrative, many remembered the recent beheading of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12). Those who opposed Rome recalled his charisma and powerful leadership. And now that he was gone, they looked to Jesus to carry the mantle of spearheading precisely such an uprising. All the various religious groups had stake in the politics of opposing Roman occupation of their lands — the Essenes, the Zealots, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Would Jesus be the one to rally the troops? Many were thinking it. And that is why they ask Jesus another trick question, significantly focusing on the new coinage.

It is also significant, I think, that there is truth in the Pharisees’ opening question: They say the truth about Jesus, even though they are plotting against Jesus who is aware of their ‘malice’. “We know,” they say, “that you show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

They knew, despite their devious motives to trap Jesus, what Jesus was all about. The truth of the Gospel of Jesus is surprisingly expressed by sinful people. They, of all people, get it! Jesus stands with all people — even the minorities, those who live under oppression in occupied lands, even to those who we would rather ignore, or not see, or even hate.

Aboriginal people in Canada make up only 4% of the entire population. And we know their plight. As indigenous people on this land we call Canada, they are particularly disadvantaged in the dominant culture and economy. Things have started to get better for some of them. But certain systemic problems exist and persist — like endemic poverty, education inequality for children, lack of safety for women, and lack of access to safe drinking water.

Do we as followers of Jesus, like the religious leaders in Jesus day, know what Jesus is all about? That’s a good start. But it’s the follow-through that’s just as, if not more, important. What will we do to be more than just a Jesus-fan-club? What will we do when we encounter opportunities to live out the Gospel of Jesus?

Because it all matters to God

Last weekend, my family visited the Biodome in Montreal. Situated right beside the Olympic Stadium, it used to house the cycling competitions during the 1976 Summer Olympics. But in recent years it was converted into four distinct and self-contained eco-systems from diverse regions in North and South America.

My favourite was the eco-system from South America, for its lush, tropical environment: humid, warm, pungent air; broad leaf palm trees; and, a host of diverse animals – crocodiles, capybaras and scarlet ibis birds.

Our nine-year-old daughter’s favourite animal is the turtle. She spent a lot of time gazing down onto the mossy ground of the rainforest where the yellow-spotted turtle made its home.

When the guide asked us if we had any questions, my daughter wondered where the baby turtles were. The guide said that it was getting more and more difficult for them to obtain babies since they were very vulnerable in that stage of life; indeed it seems that natural selection is making the turtle an extinct species.

Without their fully developed shell in which the adult turtle could retreat to hide and keep safe from predators, the infant turtles are getting far too susceptible to a premature death and more difficult to protect. Who knows? Maybe the turtle with its shelled existence is going the way of the dodo bird.

The religious people in Jesus’ day felt they were up against a formidable predator in the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Gospel of Matthew was written about the time when the Roman legions were laying siege to eventually destroy the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and fetter out any Zealots who violently opposed the occupation.

With their temple under attack, the anxious people of God were asking questions of identity and purpose: Who are we and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s holy city and temple are occupied territory? What does this say about God’s relationship with us? How does God want us to respond to this dark and murky reality of life?

This is the social and political context to which Jesus spoke, on the hillside near Capernaum overlooking the Sea of Galilee. This Gospel text (Matthew 5:13-20) forms part of the famous Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus outlined the values and purpose of the kingdom of God “that is near” (4:17).

It is a situation not completely unlike our own. When you consider the history of Christianity over the past two millennia, we find ourselves today in a similar, challenging circumstance: the institution of the church is diminished to the point of demise in many quarters. Christendom, once mighty, powerful and dominant in the western world, is relegated now in our society to the point of obscurity and irrelevance.

Many are asking those same questions: Who are we, and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s nation is “occupied” territory? How does God want us to respond to this dark and uncertain reality of life?

It is a natural instinct for many who, when under stress and pressure and the burden of fear, retreat under the shell – as a turtle does. One response to the perceived threat is to strengthen the walls between sacred and secular. Against the wiles of the crazy, dangerous world ‘out there’ we escape into our private and safe domains of home, property and religious purity. And build a fortress. But is this the right strategy? Or, does it spell, like the turtle, possible extinction?

Amidst the threats against the practice of faith in first century Palestine and twenty-first century Canada, Jesus preaches another way.

Amidst these threats, Jesus challenged Israel to be Israel, just as he challenges us to be ourselves in faith today. Jesus did not say, “You must become salt of the earth by pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Jesus did not say, “You must one day down the road when everything is perfect in the world again, or when you can somehow make yourself worthy of it, become the light.”

Jesus announced, to remind them and us: “You ARE the salt of the earth.” “You ARE the light of the world, right now, right here, in the world as it is, in your life as it is now with all its uncertainty, and in all its darkness.” We don’t have to hide nor retreat behind fortress walls. The solution is in somehow activating saltiness and brightness within us.

So, how do we do that? If there were to be only one way of doing God’s will; if there were only one way of being a Christian – then I’m not sure Jesus would talk in parables and present metaphors and images like salt and light – images open to a multitude of functions and capabilities. Jesus would just spell it out in the letter of the law.

But no. Salt and Light. It’s as if he is saying: Given all the uses of salt, and the various applications of light – how do you fit in?

When Jesus uses the image of light, he makes the point not to hide it under a bushel, but make sure everyone can see it (Matthew 5:14-16). But if others are to see the light, in what conditions do we let it shine? At the noontime of a bright, sunny day?

We will have to shine it in the darkness. After all, people don’t notice a light – whether a flashlight or candle – in the brightness of day. But at night. When all is dark. When you can’t see everything clearly. When the way is uncertain. Where shadows lengthen.

That’s where we are to go. Into places of darkness, in the world and in our own lives: Where people suffer hunger, homelessness and rejection; Where we harbor unhealthy secrets within our souls. This may not seem very religious. This activity may not be easy or make us feel good. But it is where Jesus calls us “to follow him”.

Annie Dillard writes, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.” (p.43, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, New York: Harper, 1992)

Why do we go into the darkness of the world? Why should we take these risks, and expose even our own weaknesses and vulnerability?

Because this world matters to God. All of it. Not some utopic fantasy of what it could be without all the stains of human sin splattered all over the place. But this world in all its complexities, challenges, difficulties, problems.

Just like the weeds and the wheat – what did Jesus instruct his disciples in telling that parable? (Matthew 13:24-30) – To leave the wheat and weeds together, and God will take care of separating out the two when the time comes.

This world matters to God. Our human condition matters to God. Otherwise, Jesus would not have come the way he did:

  1. Jesus appeared in the dust of first century Palestine. Often throughout the Gospels, the writers take pains to indicate the time and place of the event they are recording. For example, the Gospel of Matthew opens with a detailed account, name for name, of the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1ff). The Word became flesh. God entered humanity, in a specific time and place in history. Jesus fully embodied both human and divine. The incarnation was, and is, not some abstract notion removed from life on earth. Jesus was born into this world.
  2. When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple ripped in half (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38), symbolically abolishing the distinction between sacred and secular for all time. No longer would religious life be divided into neat categories that separated the faithful from real life, from engagement with the world as it is.
  3. In the ancient (Apostles’) creed of the church we say we believe in the “resurrection of the body”; by placing value on our own bodies in following Jesus we claim continuity between this world and the next. That means that laughing, grieving, crying, caring, walking, working, making love – doing all those things that are part of regular living in our own skin – these are all sacramental activities. These activities, Jesus preaches, are the building blocks of the kingdom of God.

The stuff of earth matters to God. And that’s why we reflect the light of Christ in the darkness of it.

By going the way of Jesus to reflect his light in a dark world, we discover a great grace: that we already have and are all that we need and God needs, to fulfill God’s purposes for us and for the world, in this time and in this place.