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

It’s ok to fall (5): God knows everything about us anyway

I don’t like being in the spotlight. Literally, too. I don’t mind being the centre of attention from time to time. But I must confess a high degree of self-consciousness, especially when I am supposed to be the sage on the stage.

I suspect many of you share my knee-jerk away from standing on a stage by myself feeling the heat of the light on my face, not being able to see anyone in the auditorium, and just knowing in the back of my brain that every little wrinkle, every little blemish, every little imperfection is exposed — fully. Are your hands sweating? Mine are, just thinking about it.

And that is why the Psalm for Lent — and often read on Ash Wednesday — is Psalm 51. “Create a clean heart in me O God and create a right spirit within me” (v.10) — we sing in our weekly offertory.  Before this petition, there is a quiet yet poignant confession, in verse 4: “Against you, you alone [O God], have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”

This, at first, may sound threatening and alarming. Yikes! God almighty has been offended by my sin! I. Am. Doomed! And there’s no hiding from God. Wow! We’re in for it, aren’t we? Never mind the friends, co-workers, family, spouse, people around me that I  have offended and hurt. They may not always easily forgive — but they’re not God! After all, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand!?” (Psalm 103:3)

Perhaps that is why we read in the Gospel for today (John 2:13-22) about Jesus snapping his whip and overturning tables in a righteous anger and prophetic impulse. This image of Jesus may leave us feeling a bit queasy. We may not like this image of Jesus. We may feel threatened by it. Uncomfortable, at very least. 

Why is Jesus angry? Jesus is angry for the injustice of the temple moneychangers taking up valuable room where the Gentiles are allowed to come and pray to God. And he is losing it, in the temple of all places! Entering the temple, Jesus discovers how deceiving appearances can be. While the place appears to fulfill its function, closer inspection reveals that the temple has forgotten its purpose.

I read this story at our mid-week bible study a couple of weeks ago, when we discussed the text of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It is a re-telling of Dostoyevsky’s classic poem about the conversation between the Grand Inquisitor and Jesus:

“During the 16th century in Spain, at the very height of the Inquisition, Christ appeared unannounced in the streets of the city of Seville. As he went about caring for and healing the poor, the sick and the lame, the people began to recognize him and flock to him. An old Cardinal also recognized him …. and had him arrested!

That night in prison, Jesus had a visitor. The Grand Inquisitor entered his darkened cell and reprimanded Christ for appearing again and getting in the way of the Church’s work. ‘You are offered three tools to bring in your kingdom and rule the world. You were told to change stones into bread. Imagine the possibilities … bread for the hungry … people would have followed someone who fed them. But you refused! It was suggested that you throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple and let God’s angels sweep you up before you came to harm. People would have been amazed. Everyone would have followed you. But you refused! And you were offered authority and power over all the kingdoms of the world. But you refused! In all this you wanted people to follow you out of love or not at all. And look where it got you.

‘Well, we have corrected your mistakes and we’re doing well. We cannot let you hinder what we are trying to do. And so, tomorrow, you will die.’

Jesus said nothing in reply. Rather, he looked into the eyes of the Grand Inquisitor for a long time and then walked over and kissed him. Oh how that kiss burned. The Grand Inquisitor stepped aside and let Christ escape into the night, saying to his back as he left, ‘Do not come back again.'”

We may squirm in our seats, now. 

This Gospel, I believe, pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and driving us out in the name of God. What kinds of ways of doing things have gotten us stuck in a rut — in our individual lives, and in the life of the church? It’s an important question to ask. Just because Jesus is ‘our’ saviour, doesn’t means “he is perpetually well-pleased with us knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, but also to us and even, on occasion, against us.” (Paul C. Shupe, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 2 David Bartlett/Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.96)

Well, there’s one thing we do I don’t believe Jesus could get upset about — at least, one activity of the church, one way of doing things. Know what that is? The potluck meal, of course! Everyone likes a potluck! Right?

You come, bringing your own dish to add to the table. But you come, also willing to try a little bit of everything, right? That’s what makes it fun! Doing this, doesn’t mean you will necessarily like each and every dish. Tasting a bit of other people’s gifts doesn’t mean you will run home and try to make what everybody else made. And, you certainly wouldn’t be rude to the people who brought dishes you weren’t too crazy about. At the potluck we practice being generous, adventurous, compromising, and kind to the other.

The potluck is an important symbol in the history and practice of being the church; I would say a guiding image on congregational life and how to work together. Because in the potluck experience, we practice being ‘other-centred’ rather than ‘self-centred’.

This practise reflects the ‘outward’ movement of church-orientation. It may start with a potlluck. It ought to end serving those who are hungry. The ancient word for church in Greek, ‘ekklesia’, literally means: ‘a people called out’. Called out to see what God is doing ‘out there’ in the world. Called out to act.

The movement is centrifugal. It certainly isn’t ‘convenient’. Sometimes we need to be ‘thrown out’ of our self-centred preoccupations with maintaining the institution of the church and the comfort of our lives, and out into the world where God is doing something. Where there are people in need.

The cleansing of the temple — though hard it feels sometimes to be judged, to be convicted of our sin, to be honest about our true motivations — this scene ends with the sinners being thrown ‘out’. Out, into the world, in order to get a fix on what God is doing. Out in the world, in order to find God, again. Out in the world, to get back on track with what Christian faith is really all about.

The story of the cleansing of the temple as John tells it points toward replacing the material ‘bricks-and-mortar’ temple with the temple of Jesus’ body. This is a theme that is picked up later again in the fourth chapter, when he tells the woman at the well that she will no longer worship God in any particular, physical location (John 4:20-23) but in “spirit and truth.” John is painting, here, a narrative foreshadowing Christ’s death and resurrection, and its embodiment in the Holy Communion which we celebrate every week.

Maybe it’s better that it is only against God that we have sinned. Because only God can fully restore us, heal us and love us despite knowing all the dirt in our lives. I think we know that human beings don’t have a good track record of forgiveness of others. Only God, in Christ, will continually offer to us his mercy and forgiveness, knowing full well how off-the-mark we are. And, for us to know that we can always return to the Lord our God, return to the table of the Lord time and time again — in all honesty, truth and humility, to a God who will not spurn us for our faithlessness and weaknesses.

We can fall on our knees, because nothing is hidden from God, and everything we need, God gives us — and then some. Thanks be to God!

When the gift seems strange

Because of the nature of my work, I cannot travel, like many Canadians do, to warmer climes during the holidays. I confess having fantasized celebrating Christmas Day or Easter morning in the tropics.

I imagine watching a sunrise over the liquid horizon, feeling the warm ocean breezes on my sun-bronzed skin and hearing the crackle of palm leaves above me. I squish my toes into the still-cool pristine sands beneath me and breathe in the salty air. I turn to those sharing the scene beside me, and say: “Merry Christmas”. And we burst into singing together, over the thunder of the crashing surf nearby, “Silent Night, Holy Night”.

I have to confess, I would like to experience this one day. I’m putting it on my bucket list. But I wonder: Will I then miss the typical experience of us northerners who are familiar with a winter setting for the celebration of these holy events? Will I feel I have missed something integral to the experience of a Christmas celebration without the frigid temperatures and snow-laden environs?

Those of you who have experienced a Christmas in a setting that is totally foreign to our typical Canadian winter climate, I’m interested in hearing from you. How did you feel? What did you think? Would you do it again?

As I reflect on our time-worn traditions, I confess how often I put so much emphasis on the ‘window dressing’ of the event, as if what makes the experience enjoyable for me depends on decisions I make or on how much I can control the circumstances. However, in all truth, achieving that ‘picture perfect’ Christmas depends in large part on forces beyond my control; for example, the weather. So, I am caught in-between pretending I can manage an ideal experience whose outcome is ultimately beyond my control.

The real question, therefore, is: How can I receive the gift of Christmas despite the circumstances of my life?

After the worship, we are holding our now annual ‘Epiphany potluck lunch’. Considering the origin of this church tradition, we are practising the spiritual discipline of receiving a gift, unexpectedly. Some of the first potluck meals in North America were held in 1843 at St Paul’s Church in Chicago, which served a large wave of German immigrants swelling Chicago. They held regular potlucks — communal meals where guests brought their own food (from a paper written by Daniel Sack on the social meaning of church socials).

But the original practice was in the spirit of spontaneity. The food was provided for an unexpected guest, but according to the ‘luck of the pot’. There was little or no control over what kinds of food people brought. Yet, attendees rejoiced in whatever they received, however mismatched or unbalanced the contents of meal ended up being. It was, after all, a gift.

In the Christmas story called “The Fussy Angel” which I read in worship on Christmas Eve, the angel assigned by God to look over the Christ child on the night of his birth was frustrated with the imperfect, out of control, events surrounding the Holy Birth.

He chastised the Wise Men for their pricey and pretty yet wholly impractical and useless gifts. “If you were truly wise,” griped the angel, “you would have known that what we need is hot water and towels; goat’s milk and bread; twenty diapers and some soap to wash them with.” Not gold, frankincense and myrrh! (p.15-16, Mary Arnold, “The Fussy Angel”, Ignatius Press, 1995). Yet, the Christ child accepts these gifts, however impractical.

The gifts, of course, hold symbolic meaning: the gold – for a king; the spices – used in burial practices of the time.These gifts point to the identity and purpose of God made human in Jesus Christ, whose destination was the Cross and the empty tomb of Easter.

Admittedly, the whole story about astrologers bringing strange gifts to a child in a strange land sounds somewhat exotic, not real.  It is filled with strange incidents, strange gifts, and strangers encountering one another.

At the same time, there is meaning here. Should we but pause to consider the deeper, sometimes hidden, levels of our experience we may appreciate the gift anew, however strange.

The movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (Fox Searchlight, 2012) tells of a group of seniors who head off to an inexpensive retirement home in exotic India. As unfamiliar and sometimes frustrating as the experience is, when one character asks why he likes it so much, he replies: “The lights, the colours, the vibrancy; the way people see life as a privilege, not as a right.”

Perhaps Epiphany can open our eyes as well to the holy revealed in what we may have previously thought of as strange, foreign, outside our experience.

Perhaps you have celebrated Christmas and New Year’s this year differently from ‘the norm’ — in a different setting, with different people, outside your comfort zone. Perhaps this Christmas was the first without a loved one. Or, perhaps your life circumstances are changing due to ill health. Admittedly, these are all situations to which, on the surface, we may react even reject outright if we had a choice.

But the Christ child teaches us something important: He didn’t reject those outlandish, impractical and useless gifts brought to him by, of all people, foreigners from the East. Instead, he welcomed them into their home with giggles, gurgles, and laughter.

And this grace, this gift of freedom, is infectious. It liberates us to receive and rejoice in the gifts of life, however small and strange they may at first appear.

20140103-110930.jpg