Christmas Sermon 2015

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Dear friends,

Merry Christmas! For those of you who were unable to be with us at St Thomas for our Christmas Eve service, here is a copy of my Christmas Eve sermon.  I hope, wherever you are and whoever you are with, that the light of Christ is born within your hearts this day!

 

Christmas Sermon
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Amenia Union, NY
December 24, 2015
The Rev. Betsy Fisher
Many of us grew up with different Christmas traditions – things you do every Christmas. In the Fisher house, we have a very special angel that sits on top of our Christmas tree. My mother sent each of her kids this Christmas angel to put on their trees. Putting that angel on the tree each year has always been a special moment, and who got to do it was always a big deal. Traditions are important at Christmas – in our homes and in church as well. Each year we hear the story from Luke’s gospel about the birth of Jesus. This is my 60th Christmas, and I have heard that story every year! Sometimes hearing the same story over an over can seem like it’s old hat – we know this, we’ve heard this, nothing new here. But we Christians believe that Scripture is the living Word of God; that it always has something to say to us, right here, right now in the world we live in. So what does this Christmas story have to say to us tonight here in Amenia?

Something I often tell the parish when they are hearing a story from Scripture for the umpteenth time, I tell them to listen carefully and see what jumps out at them this time. What did you notice that you had never noticed before?
That’s what I did these past weeks getting ready for Christmas. And the thing that jumped out at me this time more than ever before was Mary. It hit me how terrifying and dangerous this situation was for her. Think about it – she was no more than 15 or 16 years old. Unwed, betrothed, promised to Joseph but not yet married. She was poor, and lived in a culture that stoned women to death when they were found to be pregnant out of wedlock. This is what the angel called Good News! This is what the angel means by being honored, favored, chosen! Yikes! 29 years ago this Christmas Doug and I were waiting for the birth of our first child any day. My situation could not have been more different from Mary’s. I was 30 years old, married, educated, employed. I was surrounded by a loving, supported family who were thrilled at the prospect of this new baby. I lived in a warm house with plenty of food and every possible contraption one could ever need to raise a child. I had all this, and still I was TERRIFIED! Mary had nothing – she had shamed her family, she had no supportive community around her, except for her cousin Elizabeth. She was poor and in danger, with nowhere to lay her head as she gave birth. And yet, through all this, Mary was able to say Yes to God. She didn’t have to, but she did. Because she knew her God and knew how God had worked through history , how God was continually faithful to God’s people.

I recently read a transcript of a speech that was given by the rock start Bono. Bono was invited to be the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast back in 2006. He told the story of a great turning point for him in his spiritual life. He said:
“A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord’s blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it… I have a family, please look after them… I have this crazy idea…
And this wise man said: stop.
He said, stop asking God to bless what you’re doing.
Get involved in what God is doing-because it’s already blessed.”

That’s exactly what Mary did. She didn’t ask a million questions about how this was going to be for her, she didn’t ask God to take care of her, or make it easier, or fix what didn’t work in the situation. She responded with the greatest YES in all of history. She got involved in what God was doing. Because she knew her life, and all of life was already blessed. She knew that God was at work in the world and she wanted to be part of it. She said yes to being a” God-bearer” for the world.

This Christmas , we are reminded again that THAT is what we are called to be. We are invited to be God-bearers to the world. We are the ones that can bring the light of Christ into the places of darkness in our lives and in our world. Jesus was born in that stable over 2000 years ago, but his light lives on within each of us. And we are called to share that light with all whom we meet, friend and stranger alike.
But that is such a difficult thing to do these days. The world is a scary, and precarious place. Greed and hate and anger and ignorance rise endlessly. Violence has become commonplace. Terrorism is back on the front burners of our minds. Where do we begin to be light in the midst of such darkness?

There’s a great story about Charles Schulz’s show “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special”. 50 years ago Charles Schulz wrote that classic Christmas special featuring the world’s favorite pessimist, Charlie Brown, and his band of friends. Charlie Brown is trying hard to find the meaning of Christmas, to stem the tide of commercialism and materialism and find the true meaning. But his friends will have none of it. They are all wrapped up in the commercialism of the season. In complete exasperation, he yells at the top of his lungs, “can anybody tell me the true meaning of Christmas?” And who steps forward but Linus, the little boy who constantly clings to his beloved security blanket. “He says “I can, Charlie Brown”, and proceeds to recite the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s gospel, the one we heard tonight. There he is holding on to his security blanket – this blanket he never lets go of. THid blanket that lets him know he is alive. He clings to thi blanket until he gets to the line where the angels say to the shepherds “Fear Not!” At that moment, Linus drops his blanket. He drops the thing that he depends on to keep him feeling safe and secure to announce the news that Christ has been born. It is the only time in the history of the Peanuts comic strip that we ever see Linus not holding his blanket.
Charles Schulz did this on purpose to make the point that, whatever it is we are holding on to as our security blanket — money, prestige, being well thought of, alcohol, food, being cynical and snarky, living with a protective shield around our hearts – whatever it is we hold on to, we don’t need it anymore. On this night, we can drop it, because the light has come into the world and the darkness will never put it out. Christ has come to tell us that there is another way, a way out of the darkness, into the light. We can put down whatever our own security blanket may be and cling to the light, to Christ. We can trust that God is here, active in our world, active in our lives , even when we can’t see it or don’t understand. Remember Mary – you couldn’t find a more precarious situation, and yet she was able to enter into what God was doing in her life and in the world, because she knew it was blessed. Even when the world couldn’t see the blessing, she could.

Some scholars believe that Jesus was born not in a stable, but in a cave. That’ s where people would have kept their animals in ancient Israel. I like that image of Jesus born in a cave. Sr. Doris Klein says “We all carry a cave, a hidden place within us, into which God longs to be born. ” We all have a dark place, a wound that needs healing, a fear that keeps us from reaching out, a loss that is paralyzing. We all have something like that inside us. That is our cave within. And that is exactly where Christ longs to be born within us. In that place. Christ longs for us to let go of whatever keeps us from opening our hearts and let the light of Christ be born in that place within. Only then can we become God-bearers to the world, when we allow Christ to light the darkness within us.

Joseph Campbell said : “We have to be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Mary let go of the life she thought she would have in order to be part of God’s life and God’s work. That is how she found the life that was waiting for her. That is how the light came into the world.
That is my prayer for all of you tonight – that you are able to open your hearts and let God be born into the cave within you. I pray you can get involved in what God is doing and bring that light and blessing to others, no matter how dark it may be.

I want to leave you with the words of the great poet, Howard Thurman:
“I will light candles this Christmas.
Candles of joy, despite all the sadness.
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage where fear is ever present.
Candles of peace for tempest tossed days.
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens.
Candles of love to inspire all of my living.
Candles that will burn all year long.”

May it by so, this Christmas, and evermore. Amen.

 

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Blue Christmas

array_of_candlesLast night I led a Blue Christmas service at St. Thomas.  This is a service for people who, for a variety of reasons, are struggling during the holiday season.  It’s a service of quiet, candlelight and music.  For many of us at St Thomas, grieving is the order of the day this Christmas season.  I share with you my sermon from last night’s Blue Christmas.

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I am struck by the contrast for me of this service last year and this service this year. Last year I spoke from expertise. This year I’m speaking from experience.

I am one of the broken hearted this year. And I have found if you are trying to do Christmas the way the world says it should be done, then it is awful to be one of the broken hearted. And if you try to do Christmas the way “it’s always been done,” frustration is dissatisfaction will be the order of the day. Because this isn’t like any other Christmas. We are broken hearted this Christmas. But I have also found that if I welcome in the broken heartedness, as it is, not trying to change it or make it something different, make it better – there is a depth in that place that can speak to me about God in this season.

Two people’s writings have really spoken to me this Advent. Bishop Alan Gates of Boston and Thomas Merton. Alan wrote about how much of Christmas is about wishes. We wish for so many things – they tend to be tangible, ( like gifts), fairly immediate and mostly all about us. Sometimes our wishes are for things that are far beyond our control.

But we that follow Christ are not about wishes at Christmas. We are about hope. And hope is different. He talks about hope not as a sentimental, airy fairy kind of thing. He talks about hope as robust! Christmas wishes will come and go swiftly enough. But hope is neither quickly fulfilled or quickly dismissed.

He says, “Advent hope is a path with no horizon, a promise with no end.”

I wish with all my heart that my sister was still here, that the terrible brain hemorrhage she suffered never happened. I wish we could go back and do that all over, change how things were. And I know with complete certainty that that will never, ever happen. That wish will never ever come true.

 

But hope is different.   Hope is what allows me to put one foot in front of the other.   On this road with no horizon, in a situation that I can’t imagine ever being better, Hope is that small voice that whispers to me over and over “This is not the end. You may not be able to see it, or imagine it, but there is more life coming. New life. Different life. Even in the midst of this darkness, there is light. And life and endless love.

 

I think that’s the same voice that gave Mary hope as she faced this brutal situation for a teenaged Jewish girl. I can’t even imagine the terror she must have felt when faced with the prospect of this situation. She was literally facing her own death – the law said she would be stoned to death if found to be pregnant out of wedlock. But she faced that situation, as it was, without adjusting any of it, and took the next step, and walked on that path with no horizon. One foot in front of the other. Because she had hope in the promises of her God.

The words of Thomas Merton that I read last Sunday have resonated within me so much lately. He said:

 

Our work this Advent is to seek and find Christ in the world as it is, not as it might be.”

 

So often our kind of hope is “I hope this will end. I hope this will get better. I hope I will stop feeling this way.” And then we feel let down when that doesn’t happen.

Merton is saying that right here, right now, just as things are, Christ is present. Nothing has to be different for us to experience the love and compassion of Christ. And right here, right now, there is more life. Our world as we know it has ended. But that doesn’t mean that life has ended. There is more life, even though we cannot see it on this road with no horizon right now. Our imaginations can’t imagine how things could ever be better. But God’s imagination can.

That is the hope I stand in this Christmas. It grounds me in the moment, as it is, full of sadness and heartache. But without despair. This Christmas, I celebrate that the light has come into the world, and the darkness can never put it out. It is the greatest gift I will get this Christmas. I pray it for all of you as well. Wherever you are right now in your hearts and souls, know that this is not the end. There is more life coming. There will be joy again. It will be different than before. But it will be real and deep and true. Underneath all of this pain and disruption of life is a hum that is God, that grounds us in the sacred and healing love, that tells us , As Julian of Norwich says, that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” This Christmas, may it be so. Amen.