The Messiness of Christmas

A Sermon for January 1, 2017. First Sunday After Christmas. Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-22

37036One of the Advent-Christmas traditions here at Pleasant Hill is to place this beautiful, porcelain made Nativity set on the communion table. These figures from Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are familiar to worshippers: Mary and Joseph, the baby, a shepherd, an angel and the magi. All the major players are here…except for one.

There’s no figure of King Herod—King Herod the Great who was appointed by the Roman Empire to rule over Judea, the country in which Jesus was born.

In the millions of interpretations of the Nativity in displays, greeting cards, paintings and children’s books that have been created over thousands of years, a depiction of Herod is not included. Cattle, sheep, camels, a donkey, a dog, a cat and even Santa Claus are added to the scene. But not Herod. The beloved hymns of the Advent-Christmas season don’t mention Herod either, except for two obscure carols, one written in the late 16th century and the other in 1911.

And yet he is an integral part of Jesus’ birth and early childhood.

The reason for Herod’s absence, of course, is obvious. He’s not a good guy and certainly no admirer of Jesus. Herod is, quite frankly, scared of the baby and the prospect that this child will one day overthrow his reign and become Israel’s ruler.

Herod is so terrified of losing his throne and power that he plots to murder the infant Jesus by sneakily asking the magi to let him know the baby’s exact location so he also may pay homage.

But his plan is thwarted when an angel of the Lord warns the magi to return home by another road and then tells Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This, however, is not the conclusion of the story, although historicaly our retellings often end here.

After realizing the magi have tricked him and the baby who threatens his kingdom is not within his reach, Herod becomes filled with rage. “If I can’t have the one baby who will become king, I will kill them all!” Herod probably thought as he ordered his soldiers to murder all boys in and around Bethlehem who were between the age of infancy and 2-years-old.

And that image of children being slaughtered by a ruthless king is too much to comprehend. Genocide doesn’t fit neatly with the angels’ pronouncement of joy, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, the star over Bethlehem, and strangers coming to worship the child.

Herod’s violence breaks our silent and holy night in which we celebrate the prince of peace on earth. Herod makes the celebration of Christmas messy and ruins one’s sentimental view of and desire for the holidays, which is not something many Christians like to consider. But we need Herod in the Christmas story in spite of his horrific actions or maybe because of them.

In her essay “Putting Herod Back in Christmas” Anglican priest and author Joy Carroll Wallis[1] puts it this way:

Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race. …Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees and nobodies.”

Christmas, with its spirit of giving and message of incarnate love, peace and joy, certainly speaks deeply to our hearts and draws out our child-like sense of amazement. It sparks our imaginations and stirs our souls to do a lot of good in the world. But the events that occurred on that first Christmas reminds us that humans have the potential to cause a lot of mayhem.

Jesus is born into a broken and sinful world, in a time in which the Roman Empire controlled everything and Caesar proclaimed himself to be god-like. And from birth to death, Jesus encounters persecution by the Roman authorities and religious leaders who feel intimidated by his presence and the truth that he is the actual embodiment of God’s love among humanity.

Jesus shakes up the world and threatens the status quo. And that holy upheaval scares people who wish to cling to their own power, prestige and agendas. It scares them enough to lash out violently against “the other” whom God has created and to ultimately reject God’s love for human beings—especially the ones who are marginalized and viewed as unnatural and different.

Jesus not only rattles the people during biblical times, but his life, teachings and resurrection also frightens people today, including devoted, long-time believers. Can Christians then open their eyes to recognize and understand the messiness of Christmas and this birth in our lives and world?

Religious writer Matt Emerson[2] says it like this:

We are two thousand years from first-century Palestine, but the Incarnation is not like the Civil War. It is not simply an event from which we draw lessons. The challenge for moderns is to see the dynamics of Palestine within the human landscape of the human heart. Our inner life is one of clashing sects and regimes, of shaky alliances and diverse languages. A Herod hides in all of us. So does a Pontius Pilate. And a St. Peter. And a Mary. At one time we are the moralizing Pharisees; at another, the ruling Romans. Christ today must enter this territory. Will we prepare him room? It’s strange. And it’s difficult. Christ unsettles. Christ imperils…A mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry. This is the first Christmas. Can we today recover some of its dramatic impact?”

Amid our joyful celebration of Christmas, can we connect with the upheaval that accompanies Christ’s birth? Can we admit that as much as we want Christmas time (and the days ahead) to be filled with peace and forever free of violence and heartache, the reality is that it’s not going to happen instantaneously?

Can we stop brushing aside the messy, hard-to-look at parts of Christmas and life so we can take a moment to see the pain of humanity instead of ignoring it and pretending that the atrocities around us bear no affect on our daily living and happiness?

Can we acknowledge the pain so that we might connect with the hurting, the oppressed, the outcasts and nobodies whom Jesus came to dwell among?

Can we see in the faces of babies, particularly those born in extreme poverty, the Christ child who was delivered in a musty stable to a poor peasant couple in the hub of Empire?

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Can we see in the faces of immigrants and refugees the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus running for their lives under the cover of night to a foreign land to escape a bloodthirsty king?

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Can we see in the faces of innocent children and families of war-torn Aleppo, the fear and anguish of the children and families in Bethlehem who suffered genocide at the hands of Herod’s army?

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Can we see in the faces of the poor, the working class, the discriminated, the abused, and the broken, the God who dwells among the suffering?

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Can we see in the face of Herod, our own capabilities for destruction and know that God desires for us to act in the restorative ways of love?

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Can we witness as the magi did, the epiphany of God’s love in the world’s most broken places? Can we truly see the power of our Sovereign Creator who comes to be with us in human flesh and divine glory as a vulnerable, defenseless child?

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In a reflection on the scripture reading, Christian theologian David Lose[3] assures us that we can:

Sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful and filled with goodness and grace. And God is a part of that, giving blessing and celebrating with us and for us. And sometimes life is hard, gritty, disappointing and filled with heartache. And God is part of that as well, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us ever more deeply into God’s loving embrace and promising that nothing—not even death—will separate us from God… God is working not only with the characters of this (Christmas) story, but also working through their triumphs and tragedies in order to work salvation in and for the world. God is likewise holding onto us through the joys and sorrows, working through the triumphs and tragedies that attend our lives—all to share the news of the salvation God has wrought in and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.”

God is calling each of us to share the good news and help build God’s kingdom—a place where all are welcomed, redeemed and cared for in love.

God is calling each of us to do the work of Christmas, long after the carols have been sung, the decorations have been removed and the season has officially ended. Or as the late civil rights activist Howard Thurman said so profoundly in his poem The Work of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken,

To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers,

To make music from the heart.

             The work of Christmas is not easy. It’s hard, challenging, frustrating and tiring at times. It’s plain ole messy. That’s just how it is.

We take the fear, scorn and despair with the joy, wonder and hope. We take the bad with the good. We take Herod with the magi.

But the anguish reminds us that Jesus enters into a mess and the mess doesn’t overcome God-with-us; and the gloom reassures us that we’ve been made to endure messes and to get busy living out God’s love.

This is the first day of a new year, a new beginning. There’s a lot of messiness in this world and there will be a lot more. None of it will get cleaned up by itself.

So let’s get up and get to work.

Amen.

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[1] http://liturgy.co.nz/church-year/herod-christmas

[2] http://www.americamagazine.org/content/ignatian-educator/terrifying-first-christmas

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2973

How Do You Measure Five Hundred Twenty-Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes?

Sermon for January 3, 2010 (updated from the sermon “How Do You Measure A Year In the Life” preached on January 1, 2006 at Colesville Presbyterian in Silver Spring, MD) Ecclesiastes 3:1-9 and I John 4:7-12

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure—measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife
In Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?
How about Love?
Measure in Love
Seasons of Love
Seasons of Love

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one.
Everything was created through him;
nothing-not one thing!-
came into being without him.

What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.

The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.

The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life

he brings into Light.

We the children of God are reminded–on this 2nd Sunday of Christmas and in this week of Epiphany—that we are called (like the wise-men) to follow the Life-light that blazes out of the darkness. We are called to be witnesses to the Life-light in our daily lives—in five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes; in five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear.

But what does it mean to be witnesses to the Life-light every single day. How can we measure all of the times and opportunities we will have in this new year of 2010 to be witnesses to Life-light that is Christ? How can we measure the time we spend following the Life-light? How can we measure our lives?

How to measure life is the question that the characters in the Tony-award winning musical and acclaimed movie RENT ask over and over as they try to understand their existence as poor, starving and struggling artists and friends living amidst poverty and the AIDS epidemic of the early 1990s in the East Village of New York City. The characters wonder if a year of one’s life can be measured just “in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, and in strife.”

Maybe, they think, it can be measured in another way—measured by a powerful force that defines various aspects of life like having coffee with a friend or laughing with children or comforting someone who is in pain.  A significant measurement that carries and sustains people minute by minute—that marks and binds each moment in our hearts and souls.  “How about love?” suggests the characters of RENT. “Measure in love. Seasons of love.”

Love might be the best way to measure our lives, to measure the times that we are loving witnesses to the Life-Light that is Christ? But what does it look like to measure our lives in love on a daily basis?  And what, as the writer of Ecclesiastes might ask, do we gain from the toil of measuring in the first place?

For us to understand what it means to measure our lives in love in 2010, we must take a brief look back at how we measured our lives in 2009:

  • An economic crisis of huge proportions—massive layoffs, spikes in unemployment and homelessness, Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme that ruined families and caused some victims to commit suicide; misuse of government funds by financial institutions
  • An increase in the drug trade and violence on the Mexican border.
  • Two ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have resulted in military and civilian casualties on both sides—on and off the battlefield, including the massacre of 13 people by an Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood in Texas.
  • Genocide in Sri Lanka and a civil war in Pakistan
  • The slaying of 13 people in an immigrant center in New York; the Craigslist killer and numerous other bizarre and horrendous mass murder-suicides.
  • Politicians slinging mud mixed with hate and false truths,  both left and right over any number of issues.
  • Volatile debates over health care reform, religion, race, gender, economic status, and marriage and gay rights
  • Iranian elections marred by fraud, censorship and bloodshed
  • The admission of marital affairs and gross public displays of rudeness and misbehavior by numerous prominent politicians, athletes and Hollywood celebrities.

Judging by the list, we as human beings haven’t done a good job measuring life in love.  But how can we measure such a thing as love when it seems to be so obviously absent in our lives and world?  Pick up a newspaper, click a radio channel, turn on a TV, surf the web, check the Twitter, scan Facebook, or watch YouTube and one quickly realizes that we are inundated by a mess of problems and pain.

The world is filled with so much selfishness, hate and violence that love doesn’t have room to breathe and exist. Exactly where is the love when we see people screaming and spewing venom at one another at town hall meetings and in the public square? Where is the love when we see folks thrust into poverty by the greed and abuses of others? Where is the love when we read about teenage prostitution in downtown Atlanta? Where is the love when we hear that a 4-year-old boy is struck and killed by a stray bullet at a New Year’s Eve church service in Dekalb County? Where is the love? Where is the people’s love? Where is God’s love?

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Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?
In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died
It’s time now to sing out
Tho’ the story never ends
Let’s celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends
Remember the love
Measure in love
Measure, measure your life in love
Seasons of Love

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A year’s journey can be difficult to measure in  love when it seems that most of our five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes are filled with strife and tragedy.  But it is precisely in those frustrating and painful moments that we start to remember there are moments and places in the world where love is not lost.  As Hugh Grant’s character says so eloquently in the 2003 holiday film Love Actually:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion… love actually is all around.

So often we journey through every day of our lives without noticing that love is here surrounding us despite the pain and misery we’re feeling.  But there is always a time for love (a season of love) as well as times, says the writer of Ecclesiastes, for birth, death, planting, killing, healing, weeping, laughing, dancing, seeking, keeping, tearing and speaking.

Those times are not separate unto themselves. They are all a part of the human experience, overlapping one another in so many ways. Each moment—whether dying, weeping, planting or building—is filled with a measurement of love. And each moment moves us closer and closer to a time for peace.

Love is actually all around, even in a war torn country like Iraq where death fills the air and blood runs in the streets.  This became particularly clear to me when I read a recent news story about the West Virginia Army National Guardsmen deployed in Iraq.  About five months ago, a convoy took a wrong turn and ended up in Zwaynat, a small village southwest of Baghdad where Noor Hassam Oudah, was visiting her uncle. The soldiers soon learned that the infant, known as “Baby Nourah,” was born blind due to congenital cataracts. The condition is correctable but surgery was not an option for her parents who live in Baghdad due to a lack of financial resources, medical facilities and doctors to perform the operation.

So First Lt. Jason Hickman decided to contact some folks he knew at The Order of St. John, an organization accredited by the United Nations to provide first aid, health care and support services in more than 40 countries. The organization referred Hickman to a doctor at a hospital in Amman, Jordan who later on Nov. 15 performed surgery that successfully restored Baby Nourah’s eyesight. Hickman also asked for donations from fellow soldiers and friends and family back home in West Virginia to cover the costs of medical expenses.  Relatives and friends provided the bulk of the $5,000 needed to help Baby Nourah.  The 1-year-old saw Hickman and some of her generous benefactors for the first time on Dec. 1 at a celebration for the soldiers who saved the baby’s life.

Reflecting on the event, Hickman told reporters, “So there we were in a place we hadn’t intended on being. Wrong turn, perhaps, but that’s not how I see it. My interest and contacts with Order of St. John, the wrong turn, her being there with her uncle instead of with her parents in Baghdad – no, not a coincidence. I don’t believe in the traditional sense of the word ‘destiny,’ but I do believe that God puts people in certain places at certain times. Things don’t happen solely by coincidence. All you have to do is look for the road signs.”

In the midst of a time of death, destruction and war, a child is saved in love. Hickman and his fellow soldiers took a turn away from the destruction around them and in doing so, they measured life not by the number of enemy kills but by the love they gave to a child who was blind. Love is all around. We just have to look for it, embrace it and share that love with another human being.  We have to keep doing in 2010 what I know many of you did in 2009—live a life of love toward the family member, the neighbor, the co-worker, the stranger and even the one who wrongs you. That is who we are as Christians, as Presbyterians, as the Church, as God’s people—children who are called to love one another despite the obstacles in our way.

Mother Theresa, who measured each and every moment of her life in giving love and care to the sick and dying children of Calcutta, India, once said, “God doesn’t look at how much we do but with how much love we do it.” Measuring our life and everything we do in love helps us to understand God’s unconditional love for us. “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him,” the apostle John says in a letter to first Century Christians. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

No one in the musical and film RENT embodies the message of John’s letter more than the character of Angel.  A street musician and drag queen, Angel becomes a part of a close group of friends when she offers bandages, comfort and a night on the town to Collin, a wise street philosopher and part-time college professor, who has just been badly beaten during a mugging.

Angel and Collin immediately fall in love, and Angel quickly becomes close friends with Collin’s buddies from college—Mark, a filmmaker and Roger, a rock guitarist.  Collin, Angel, Mark, Roger, and other friends struggle with life’s daily challenges like paying the rent, finding jobs, getting people to appreciate their art, building relationships, and trying to merely survive a New York winter where the poorer get poorer and the sick get sicker.   Collin, Angel, Roger and another character Mimi also live with either HIV or AIDS, which had a slim to none survival rate in the early 90s due to the country’s apathy and ignorance toward the disease and its victims.

And yet despite all of these struggles, the one person who is consistently optimistic and exuberant about life is Angel.  Despite her illness which could lead to her death at any time, Angel enjoys every second, every moment and every day of her life—dancing, singing, being with friends and making people smile. Angel is a compassionate friend who makes an effort to love everyone. Angel measures her entire life in love.  For Angel, who is a marginalized member of society dying from a terrible disease like AIDS, there are only two options: measure the rest of your life in hatred and bitterness or measure it in love.

Angel knew that measuring in love was the better choice. It is only in love that we truly live because we are living for God and other instead of ourselves or out of our own frustrations, bitterness and selfishness. As the Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Our living as real human beings, and loving the real people next to us is, again, grounded only in God becoming human, in the unfathomable love of God for us human beings.”

Because the story of God’s love never ends, it is time to sing out, to celebrate and remember a year in the life of friends.  So may each day of 2010 be an opportunity to measure our lives in God’s love for humanity and to follow the Life-Light who makes that love holy and good within us.

………………………………………………………………………………………

It’s time now to sing out
Tho’ the story never ends
Let’s celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends
Remember the love
Measure in love
Measure, measure your life in love
Seasons of Love

Amen.

Notes: Special thanks to the PHPC Chancel Choir whom sang the song “Seasons of Love” from the musical/film RENT throughout my sermon during the 11 am service.  During the 8:30 am service, clips from the film RENT (of Seasons of Love sung by the cast) and the film Love Actually (the opening and closing scenes in Heathrow Airport) were used as book-ends for the sermon.