Two and half years ago, I stood in a long line of pilgrims in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. As I inched forward I took in the beautiful mosaics being painstakingly recovered on the walls and floors. I tried to count the oil lamps and candles hanging above the altar. Ahead of me was a short set of stairs that bent away to the left under the sanctuary. This was my destination, along with the pilgrims from my group, not to mention the hundreds of others from other groups who had descended upon the Church of the Nativity that morning. Finally, I reached the top of the stairs. I had to duck to enter the low-ceilinged chamber. The pilgrims ahead of me shuffled along, each stopping for a brief moment to touch something on the floor. I, too, approached. There…there was the spot – marked by a gold many-pointed star. There was the spot (the Church remembers) where Jesus was born. I touched it like everyone else. And I felt…nothing.
Here is the yearly iteration of my Christmas Day sermon/song. It is a musical rendition of parts of John 1 and Luke 1-2. I absolutely love singing it, and it is the highlight of my Christmas worship every year. This is the first time I have recorded the song since 2012.
Sermon for Tuesday, December 25, 2019 || Christmas Eve || Luke 2:1-20
One of the unique things about the Gospel according to Luke is how concerned the text is with setting, with time and place. Several times, Luke tells us when and where the events are happening. You’ve all heard an example of this tendency a million times: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
Why do we care that this registration happening while Quirinius was governor of Syria? The ancient world did not have reliably standardized calendars, so to date an event, one reliable way was to delve into Roman records. Rome was an empire, and if there’s one thing the Roman Empire did better than oppressing nations it conquered, it was record-keeping. So Luke uses the information available to date the birth of Jesus, and so this Quirinius guy had his named immortalized in the best-selling book of all time.
[The stage is set with two chairs next to a table with a third chair behind it, like a late night talk show. The narrator functions as the “host” of the talk show interviewing guests.]
Welcome back. My next set of guests have a wonderful, inspiring story to tell.
This story is about fear and love. I want to tell you that up front so you can listen for those two things — fear and love. The Bible says in the first letter of John: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.” This story we share today happened because God so loved the world that God gave us this Perfect Love in the form of God’s own child. This story tells how Perfect Love became a person. The fancy word for “became a person” is Incarnation. For the Incarnation to happen, God chose several people to help. Every one of them was afraid, and the love of God gave them the chance to serve despite their fear.Continue reading “God’s Perfect Love: A Christmas Pageant”→
Announcing “Advent with the Beginning of Luke,” a new daily devotional book for your Advent observance. Entries from December 1st through Christmas follow the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke – from the birth announcements of John and Jesus to the songs of Mary and Zechariah to the birth of Jesus, and culminating with the presentation in the temple. This Advent study will make a meaningful addition to your personal or group preparation for the feast of the Incarnation.Continue reading “Advent with the Beginning of Luke”→
Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017 || The Eve of the Feast of the Nativity || Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14
Imagine the scene in your mind’s eye: Mary collapses in the hay, her body racked with the utter exhaustion of labor. Joseph wraps the newborn in cloth he has ripped from his own traveling cloak and kisses his son’s eyes clean of the life-giving fluids of the womb. The baby boy tests out his lungs, and the shrill shriek of new life startles the placid animals dozing in their stalls. Mary beckons Joseph to hand her the baby, which he does – reluctantly. She places the naked infant on her own bare brown skin, and he inches his way to her milk, an impossible crawl for one so new, but he manages it just the same. Joseph watches, rapt with awe and wonder. The wild star burning bright in the night sky, the echoes of angels’ song – neither could compare to the beauty of the newborn, this treasure Mary holds to her breast.
This is the script for a new Christmas Pageant written for Advent 2017. At St. Mark’s we have an abundance of small children (under 4), so this pageant is written with them in mind. Seeing them jump up excited when it was their turn to run up on stage was so wonderful!
If you’d like to hear a monologue version of this from the early service, please click here.
Narrator is seated on a stool slightly stage right of central entrance. Children are all seated on the floor in front of narrator, speaking characters are in the sacristy.
In the beginning, God had a story to tell: the greatest story ever told, the story of Creation. And God began that story with four simple words: “Let there be light.” Everything God created was a character in the story: birds and bugs, land and lizards, fish and flowers, mammals and the moon. Birth and life, death and decay were also characters, as were both cataclysm and cultivation. For untold generations, God’s story of Creation grew in the telling until a new group of characters entered the tale, characters who somehow knew the story was being told.Continue reading “Part of God’s Story: A Christmas Pageant”→
Right now, you might be thinking, “Wait a second…where are the baby and the manger and the shepherds and the angels? I know it’s late, but I don’t think I nodded off during the Gospel reading.” Now, I don’t know whether or not you nodded off, but I can assure you that I didn’t say anything about the baby or the manger or the shepherds or the angels. Tonight, I read a different version of the story of Jesus’ Nativity. Allow me to explain in brief, and then we’ll get to what I really want to talk about on this most Holy Night, which is God making a home here.
But first: yes, we are used to the Christmas Pageant version of the story of the Nativity. Most of that story is found in the Gospel according to Luke. I say “most” because a few bits come from the Gospel of Matthew and a few others bits are made up entirely. Tonight we read another take on that same story, a take so vastly dissimilar that it seems to be a different story entirely. But it’s not. The story is just condensed. The story of the Nativity is distilled down to a single, yet powerful verse of scripture: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
That’s it. That’s the Gospel of John’s Nativity story. That one verse; half a verse really. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Pretty concise, right? But even in their brevity, these words pack in a whole lot of meaning. They are pregnant words, so to speak.
The Word that becomes flesh is the main character of this prologue to John’s account of the Gospel. In just eighteen verses, John explores some pretty weighty theological ideas, and he does so using poetry. Indeed, these verses are best understood as a poem: John uses special words and rhythm and imagery in an attempt to get to the very heart of God’s making of and presence in Creation. The weightiest of these special images is the word “Word.”
This is the Greek word logos. We get the English suffix “-ology” from it; you know, biology, zoology, paleontology. We also get the word “logic” from it. When something is “logical,” it is orderly, organized, it makes good sense. So when John claims that Creation “came into being through [the Word],” he’s stating that God was organized about the act of creating, that God had a plan for the universe and wasn’t just creating all willy-nilly. You can see how John’s poem goes all the way back to before anything existed, all the way back to when there was only God. John needs this cosmic perspective in order to demonstrate the extraordinary specialness of what happens next.
This organizing principle, this logic behind Creation, this giver of all life, this Word became flesh. This Word took on the very meat and bones and skin and breath and soul that had evolved over untold millennia within the Word’s own orderly Creation. This Word became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a man of seemingly humble origin who had a knack for helping people live better, fuller, and more authentic lives, serving one another in love. This Word became flesh, which means he got dirty and tired; he grieved and wept and sought comfort; he ate and drank and laughed with his friends. He was homeless at times; he was also a refugee. He was welcomed and excluded; he was loved and hated. He touched and healed so many people, but sometimes he needed to go off by himself to recharge. He took a first, newborn breath. He took a last dying breath. All this to say: he was one of us.
In fact, he was the best one of us. He was the best one of us because he was so much more than simply one of us. He was the Word. He was life as life is meant to be lived, as God dreams for life to be. As so many theologians have said, this Word became like us, so that we could become more like him.
And this thought brings us to the last important word in John’s brief Nativity story: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Lived among us. I don’t like this translation. It’s about as weak a translation of the original language as you can get. I prefer this: “And the Word became flesh and made his home among us.” Made his home among us. This gets much closer to the intent of John’s original poetry. The Word didn’t just live here for a time. The Word settled here. The Word made a home here.
I think this second translation impacts me so much because I have lived quite a nomadic existence. In my nearly thirty-three years on this planet, I’ve lived in ten different states. The longest I lived anywhere was six years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The second longest was four years at college. I’ve lived a lot of places. But I never, ever felt like I was making my home anywhere. Until now. I live in a real house with my wife and two children. We brought the twins home to that house. In their short lives, they have never lived anywhere else. That is their home. We have made a home.
The Word became flesh and made his home among us. God made a home here. The Nativity we celebrate this night marks not a brief dalliance with Creation, not simply a passing through, but a commitment to be present, to be active, to be here. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, this commitment continues long ages past the Word’s earthly walk. The home God made is no longer just in Bethlehem or Nazareth or Jerusalem. The home God makes is here, in each beating heart. And the home God makes is also out there, within the whole of Creation. As the Godly Play stories so aptly put it: “All of God is in everyplace.” That’s God’s home. We are God’s home. And God is our home, now and into eternity.
So this night, we celebrate not only the first, newborn breath of the babe in the manger. We celebrate the deep reality that God made a home here in order that we might have a home in God.
As many of you know, Tim Evers and I spent much of last week in Haiti visiting our mission partner, St. Luc School. As you will see later in this sermon, I’m so thankful that a coincidence of calendar had us travel there during Advent. My first glimpse of the country came from 10,000 feet in the air. The Haitian landscape rises rugged and mountainous to the east where it abuts the Dominican Republic and flattens to the west where a peninsula bathes in the Caribbean Sea. Our destination was in the countryside west of the capital.
We arrived at the hospital of St. Croix in Leogane after the wildest vehicular ride of my life. Negotiating intersections paired survival of the fittest with a massive game of chicken. There were next to no traffic lights, and the painted traffic lanes seemed merely suggestive. Even which side of the road to drive on was in doubt. But we made it, thanks to our driver’s aggressive skill and liberal use of the horn.
As we drove, both from the airport and on the way to St. Luc, I tried to take in as much of my surroundings as possible. Here are a few impressions in no particular order:
Wherever there is an open patch of ground, there are kids playing soccer on it. Grass is optional. And having a ball is optional.
Most people are dressed the way you or I might when we’re doing yard work. The big exception are kids – particularly girls – wearing immaculate school uniforms. And I mean immaculate. Their blouses are the only thing I saw that I would classify as the color white. Everything else that could be white was painted tan by all the dust.
There are stray dogs all over the place, many with mammary glands obviously swollen with milk. I realized how odd this sight was to me because nearly every dog in the U.S. is spayed or neutered.
The two main forms of transportation are walking and riding small motorcycles — dirt bikes, really. I didn’t know you could fit five people on a dirt bike, but you can.
There are lots of scrawny little goats milling around.
Many of the ramshackle dwellings are fenced in with tarps emblazoned with “USAID” – the United States Agency for International Development. The tarps say, “From the American People” on them. It’s a sad commentary that the emergency tarps provided five years ago after the earthquake have become a permanent fixture in people’s dwellings.
In the distance, the landscape is truly stunning, but focusing on the landscape close by tells what happens when there is no functioning sanitation department. Discarded bottles and Styrofoam food containers collect in piles like raked leaves, along with other unidentified refuse.
All this I saw from the seat of a dented Mazda dualcab truck. All this I saw without actually interacting with anyone. Thankfully, we did interact with people, and so my appreciation for both the blessings and challenges of life in Mercery, Haiti deepened. Our main contact was Fr. Sonley Joseph, the priest in charge of St. Croix and its eight — eight! — satellite parishes, including St. Luc. Sonley and I have a lot in common: we’re both writers and we both lived in the same dormitory at Virginia Theological Seminary (he a couple years after I). I liked him immediately, and not just because of our kinship, but because of his soft-spoken, yet ardent and inviting vision of the mission of God. In Haiti, the Church’s participation in God’s mission has always been linked with education, and most churches have schools attached. Sounds like St. Mark’s, if you ask me.
Fr. Sonley was our guide and interpreter when we went to St. Luc on Wednesday morning to say hello to the students and teachers. We received 270 bon jours in return across the eight classrooms, from 6th grade on down to pre-K. The school has no electricity, but there is enough tropical sunlight to illuminate all the rooms, save one whose windows are shaded by plants. The classrooms are quite noisy because there’s nothing but cinderblocks to keep sounds from one room invading another. And most teaching is done using the blackboard, as there aren’t enough books to go around.
But even with these challenges, the teachers’ love for their profession and their students is evident from the moment you step into the room. Tim and I met with the teachers later in the day, and they all agreed that St. Luc is the best school in Mercery. Their pride for and dedication to their school was wonderful to feel. Access to education is a fundamental human right. And these teachers are realizing this fundamental human right for those 270 beautiful children, in a country were such access is far from assured.
To be involved in the process of educating these children, even in the small way we at St. Mark’s are, is a gift. Our partnership with St. Luc School is a gift from God, a participation in God’s mission as Fr. Sonley described it. Of course, there is so much more we could do. We have a list, prioritized from simple to incredibly ambitious. But that’s only for these 270 kids. What about the other children of Haiti or in other poverty-stricken places (even here in the States) or the other needs and disparities that need to be addressed or the issues of injustice that keep people from having access to fundamental human rights? There is so much more that we could do! There is always so much more we can do — So, so, so, so, so much more that we can easily be overwhelmed; the need can steal our breath, then our balance, then our will to persevere.
And this is where the season of Advent infiltrates our hearts and minds and gives us a little breathing room to stand back and take it all in. Yes, the needs of this world are great. Yes, the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. But Advent teaches us two things that will sharpen our focus and our will.
First, as Stacey so aptly put it last week, Advent reminds that the One we long for is already here. There is a tension at play between God’s kingdom already here and God’s kingdom still to come. God’s kingdom is alive and well in Haiti. Indeed, despite the general poverty of resources and circumstances, the faith of the people of Haiti is deep and abiding. I saw dozens of signs that said “Merci Jesus” on them. Thank you, Jesus! For what, you might ask? For life. For love. For family. For the same things you and I thank Jesus for. That’s the “already” of the kingdom. The “not yet” is still breaking in: it’s in the teachers sweltering at blackboards with 50 students clamoring for attention; it’s in the mother painstakingly washing the uniform each night so it is immaculate again in the morning; it’s in the hungry yet smiling faces of those children who are Haiti’s future, whom we are helping to educate.
Second, Advent teaches us to focus on a particular spot at a particular time on a particular person. The particularity of Jesus’ Incarnation is what we are getting ready for. God came to us in all the particularity of a precious human life, born in a place that could easily have been fenced with a tarp from USAID. Because of this Incarnation, Jesus had a chance to meet people in a way God couldn’t — eye to eye, touching, embracing, walking with, eating with…dying for. When you start to get overwhelmed by the needs of the world, return to Advent. Walk with Mary and Joseph to that starlit stable in Bethlehem and witness the birth of grace and love. See Christ embodied in his own peculiar humanness. Then go back to the needs of this world. Don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity. Instead, do what God did in the Incarnation: pick a place; pick a person. Be present there. Form a partnership there. Form relationships there in that singular place. Find Christ in that person. And be an incarnation of Christ to that person.
That’s what we’re doing in the partnership between St. Mark’s Church and St. Luc School. It’s an Advent partnership: already begun but never quite finished. It’s also a Christmas partnership, because in that little school off a dirt road in the boondocks of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, we incarnate Christ for each other. Thanks be to God.
The greatest story ever told began
When God breathed deep and bade the light to shine;
Creation burst from Love and Word, then ran
Away and grasped at purpose less divine
Than God would wish or yearn for it. For God
In foolish wisdom wove with freedom’s thread
And gave creation chances to be flawed,
If chance there were to choose the Lord instead.
This freedom came to earth when Eden’s dust
Was poured in human form, but right away
The fruitless choice was made, and broken trust
Turned Eden’s joyful hues to shades of gray.
The freedom God had granted first abused,
When fear and shame were learned and love refused.
With love refused, sad separation reigned:
We littered earth with broken covenants
And chose dark paths to walk and then complained
To God that we were lost beyond all sense.
In longing God would call us to return,
And for a fickle time we would repent.
The cycle thus unleashed: we’d grasp then spurn
The love of God, but God would not relent.
We showed no willingness to come to God
So God in mercy chose to come to us,
As shepherd, comforting with staff and rod,
To teach us sheep again to love and trust.
As love so often does, this love began
When Mary felt a tremor ‘neath her hand.
Her hand leapt up to shield her dazzled eyes
When Gabriel, awash in radiance,
Appeared to her, and much to his surprise,
He saw no fear in Mary’s countenance.
Confusion showed instead on Mary’s face:
She wondered how she ranked as favored one
When her humility would grant no place
As high, yet humble love would bear the Son.
Now God entrusted Mary to decide
If God’s design to walk upon the earth
Would flow through Mary’s womb, thus God relied
On human freedom to approve the birth.
But God chose well: the humble maid said, “Yes,”
And through her love this broken world was blessed.
The world was blessed one night in David’s town,
But so few saw the miracle arrive
That we might wonder whether it came down
At all, or if it simply failed to thrive.
The savior people sought was not a child,
Who nestles helpless at his mother’s breast.
They sought a fighter who like Samson piled
The bodies of the foes he sent to rest.
They sought a soldier who like David led
His troops to bloody victory with ease.
They sought a muscle-bound Messiah bred
To root out rank imperial disease.
So when the unexpected came that night
The people waiting all ignored the light.
The light was fading fast in Bethlehem
When Joseph, hand in hand with Mary, passed
the final house, which closed its doors to them
Like all the rest had done that day. At last
The months of waiting ended with a burst
Of pain that echoed through the darkling gloom;
She knew the birth would now be unrehearsed
And cried to Joseph, “Please go find a room.”
But Joseph would not leave her in the street,
So heaving Mary to his arms he veered
Off down a dusty trail and heard the bleat
Of sheep and goats, and knew a stable neared.
For once, thank God, a door stood open wide,
And breathless, weak, the couple dropped inside.
The couple dropped inside a stable stall,
And Joseph gathered up the fresher hay
While anxious Mary paced from wall to wall
Until the urge to push would not delay.
The universe contracted to the here,
The now, the pain, the prayer, the ancient swell,
The final push, the crystal cry so clear,
The Word made flesh was born — Emmanuel.
The universe expanded once again
As light ascending from within the child,
Reflected in the nighttime sky, and then
The light ignited in a star most wild.
The brilliance shone on heaven and on earth,
Proclaiming God-with-us, the Savior’s birth.
The Savior’s birth took place, yet no one heard
Until the herald angels praised his name
To shepherds (“lowlife rabble,” many slurred),
And yet for outcasts such as these He came.
When eastern wisdom read the star’s good news,
The magi journeyed west toward the flame;
But Herod welcomed them with bloody ruse,
And yet for immigrants like these He came.
For all creation was the Savior born:
Yet not for wealth, nor fortune, nor for fame,
But for the broken, lost, abandoned, scorned,
And Yes — what Joy — for you and me He came.
The greatest story ever told endures
Oh God, keep telling it till we are yours.