I'm sharing the sermon I preached this morning. When I considered the Prologue to John this year, it was in light of the Paris climate talks, the unholy silence around climate change in this nation, and thinking about a new grandchild growing up in this strange new world. This morning was also our annual carol sing at Church of the Resurrection; knowing that, some familiar carols were part of my reflection, too.
Christmas I 2015
Preached by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, Nebraska, December 27, 2015
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Merry Christmas! I’m awfully happy to be here as we continue our celebration of Christmas, especially since the Christmas Eve snowstorm prevented us from getting from Hastings to Omaha on Christmas Eve. The silver lining of missing our Christmas Eve celebration here was that we got to spend some of our Christmas Eve with our three-month-old grandson, James. And Christmas is one of those “no matter what” times — whether it happens for us in a traditional setting or under unplanned circumstances or in an entirely new setting, whether we are in a happy time in our lives or a sad time, Christmas happens. Just as real babies get born under all sorts of circumstances, the baby Jesus gets born on Christmas Eve no matter what.
New babies can bring lots of joy to a family and a community. No matter what else is going on, a baby refocuses our thoughts and emotions for at least a while. When a baby looks at us and smiles, it’s nearly inevitable that we find ourselves smiling in return.
I think one reason we love the familiar Christmas story that we read on Christmas Eve from Luke’s Gospel is that we can identify with the joy of a baby being born “no matter what”. And we relish seeing our own much-loved children re-enact the story in the Christmas pageant. We hear about the shepherds and the angels and know this was an event for the whole world, but we also see the intimate joy of Mary and Joseph tending to the new baby. We push aside what we know is coming — the flight into Egypt, Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and the Cross — and focus on the joy and wonder of the baby lying in the manger.
But despite that refocusing and those blessed moments of pure baby joy, families throughout the ages, including Mary and Joseph, also have moments of concern. What sort of life will this baby have? What will the world be like as he or she grows? Can we provide what the baby needs? Many families today share the same concerns as those of other generations — the old global problems of war, poverty, oppression, prejudice, and violence. One of the most theologically significant aspects of Luke’s nativity story is God becoming incarnate in the form of an infant, completely vulnerable and dependent and endangered by the forces of evil in this world. God enters into our vulnerability and into the dangers of human life. We and our children are not alone.
Today we have a new concern, accelerating global warming and the effects of the climate changes that result from global warming. The challenges of climate change exacerbate all those old concerns, increasing tensions that lead to violence and war, making life harder for people who already struggled to have the necessities of life, and making those inclined toward oppression of people who differ from their immediate circle more likely to act on their prejudices.
Before Christmas the world witnessed an incredible gathering of world leaders in Paris to work on an agreement for the nations to act together to basically cut our losses with regard to global warming. From the point of view of the world of diplomacy and political relationships, the conference was a big success. Nations pledged reductions in carbon emissions, and small steps were taken toward righting the injustice faced by the Climate Vulnerable Nations, a group of smaller island nations and developing nations who face many of the worst consequences of climate change first despite having done the least to cause global warming. However, climate change is as much a problem to be solved by science as by politics, and from the point of view of what we know about predictions for our future paired up with various levels of emissions, the problem is far from solved. And the steps taken toward righting the injustice consist mostly of recognizing the injustice — a significant political step — and expressing a hope that the larger nations who emitted most of the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere while becoming wealthy will contribute money to help developing nations transition to clean energy sources and handle the damage already done. It’s a step forward, but I don’t know how much comfort recognition of my plight and a hope that someone might help me out would be if I lived on Kiribati or some other low-lying Pacific Island watching my crops die as salt water infiltrated my land. Because the laws of physics demand more of us in this case than do the old political play books, this major gathering of the world’s leaders is hard to evaluate.
Here, though, is perhaps the strangest thing about the Paris climate talks: After they finished and the world leaders and diplomats went home, we in the United States didn’t hear very much about them. Since the talks ended, debates for the Presidential candidates of both major political parties have been broadcast. Both debates were supposed to be about national security and relations with other nations. None of the moderators at either debate asked a single question even touching on climate change. It was as if nothing at all was happening to the climate and as if this big gathering of the world’s leaders had never happened. For a grandma hoping for some global stability as her grandbaby grows up, the all too common silence around this issue from the news media, political and religious leaders, and people who discuss every current event except this one is shocking.
It’s a whole new world, and many people feel less secure and more vulnerable than ever.
This Christmas passage from John’s Gospel can take us from the realization of our vulnerability to a realization of the fullness of life that Christ brings to us, a fullness of life that restores our hope and confidence. John’s Good News of the Divine Word, the light that shines in the darkness, is that God is indeed right here with us no matter what. The Word became flesh and lived among us, pitched his tent among us. Every place — this church, this neighborhood, this city, Syria, Kiribati, the Arctic Territories, Paris, every place — is holy ground.
A sense of sacramental living is part of our Episcopalian ethos. Sacramental living is living as if we might touch and connect with the Holy in every part of our everyday lives. It’s why we believe a small piece of bread and a sip of wine can be for us the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s why we use water for baptism, oil for healing, and a Bishop’s hands for confirmation and ordination. These ordinary, everyday things help us experience the Holy. How can this be? John tells us that God is right here with us, nearer to us than our own heartbeats, closer to us than our own breath. If we respond at all to God’s love, we will be living sacramentally, living in such a way that we expect to find God around every corner, waking up in the morning in eager anticipation of the possibility of an encounter with Jesus. And if we are in a world so valued by God and suffused with God’s loving presence, then we will live in a way that values all of creation, not just our favorite little corner of creation. And we will value the living things in those places, most certainly including our sisters and brothers whose very existence is too often forgotten or ignored.
Knowing that God has come to live among us as one of us also lifts us to a place of strength and courage. Fear and that nagging feeling of vulnerability tempt us to divide the world into us and them, where ‘us’ means good and ‘them’ means bad. When we know that the Word, the Christ, has come to live among us and we see the light shining in the darkness, we see how silly so many of our divisions are. We have the strength and courage to live in our culture without buying into the powerful cultural forces that would keep us divided from one another.
Knowing that Christ is among us and that the simplistic division of Us from Them is not reflective of the reality of God’s kingdom, we also find the strength and courage to speak the truth instead retreating into a fearful or embarrassed silence. We can act boldly out of love for one another and for all of creation, no longer shrinking back. We can share Jesus’s truth and love with a world that sorely needs to hear words of love instead of words of hate and words of truth instead of silence. We find the strength and courage to follow Jesus no matter what.
Luke’s nativity story of the baby in the manger connects us with a vulnerable baby. This morning’s passage from John helps us understand why we have hope in that Holy Child and why we continue to have hope for all of our children. The Word that was with God and one Being with God from the beginning has come to live among us! We are not alone. We can look at the world’s biggest problems and get to work on them because Christ is here with us no matter what. And if we fail to do what needs to be done before it is too late, we still are not alone. The difficulties we will face if we continue doing too little too late will be spiritually bearable if we continue to have the courage to follow Jesus and live into God’s kingdom, loving one another and refusing the loud voices of our time that encourage us to ignore or even hate those Jesus calls us to love.
What do we do to honor the Baby Jesus? We keep loving. We keep working for justice and peace. We keep speaking the truth into the unholy silences created by powerful people who lack the courage to acknowledge our real problems, and we refuse to be frightened by the straw men they create in an attempt to distract us from the work of God’s kingdom.
Jesus is sustaining us and giving us strength and courage to do our best for all of the children of the world. And so we sing “Joy to the world” in the face of fear and anger. We let our own little lights that Jesus gave to us shine in the night of ignorance and prejudice and greed. We have ears to “hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell”, and we “go tell it on the mountain and over the hills and everywhere” because the Word made flesh has pitched his tent among us all over the world.
We belong to Jesus. We know that the light continues to shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. This is our joy no matter what. Amen.