Sermon for Christmas Day 2016

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Last night we heard again that wonderful account of Christ’s birth from Luke, the story we most closely associate with Christmas. We are asked this morning to back up more than a little bit, as the Church has never been much for sticking to a strict chronological account as we wend our way through the liturgical year. We are asked, in fact, to consider this morning the beginning of the backstory of Christmas, and more than that, the very beginning of everything:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.

One wonders how the first Christians to hear this account of the Christmas story reacted. Keep in mind that John’s Gospel (at least in its written form) is likely much later in origin than the other (what we call “synoptic”) Gospels, and it is entirely possible that this story’s first audience had heard the beautiful account from Luke that many of us heard last night and the rousing tale of adventure and political intrigue from Matthew’s Gospel. But here, there aren’t shepherds and mangers and angels. There aren’t magi from the East following yonder star and wicked Herod plotting some foul scheme. There’s something much different going on in this reading, something with remarkable theological depth, something which is (to be honest) rather baffling.

The passage has become familiar to us, I suspect, but its depths of meaning and nuance can elude us. N.T. Wright once said that you can say a hundred things about these fourteen short verses, though I personally doubt that a hundred point sermon will go over very well, especially as many of us are suffering from holiday induced exhaustion. That being the case, I’ll limit myself to one point.

Over the last seven months, many of you have been subjected to little Greek lessons in my sermons and bible studies, but if there is one Greek term out of all of those that you ought to try to remember it is the following: logos. It’s the word that’s translated as “Word” in the first verse of today’s gospel. You’ve probably seen it before in English as a kind of suffix meaning “talk” in the sense of subject matter. So “theology” means something like “God talk” and “technology” means something like “skill talk” or “science talk”. Logos has something to do with “discourse”.

But, it means a great deal more than that. “In the beginning was the discourse, and the discourse was with God, and the discourse was God” doesn’t make a lot of sense. But if you think about our translation “In the beginning was the Word &c.”, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. It’s just so familiar that we think it does.

There’s another word in English we get from this funny Greek word logos that might get us closer to an understanding: logic. Now, when I was in college, I had to take a couple of semesters of logic, and it was mostly about translating statements like “If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man then Socrates is mortal” into funny quasi-mathematical equations with various doodles in place of words. It was, in the end, a beneficial exercise, and necessary to do more interesting things in philosophy, but that’s not all we mean when we use the word “logic”.

We might say that an exercise or structure contains “a certain logic” or that it doesn’t. There’s “a certain logic” to working a puzzle; there may or may not be “a certain logic” to winning at the craps table at the casino. There’s a certain logic in the design of a medieval cathedral or a modern skyscraper; not so, some would argue, with a building designed by a postmodern architect like Frank Ghery or a modern atonal art song.

When we use “logic” in this sense we mean something like elegance and order, a quality held by something that’s intuitive, that we can wrap our minds around and figure out.

I think this gets us closer to an understanding of John’s use of the word logos. In the beginning there was some ordering principle, something by which the cosmos came to make sense, to all hang together, as it were. And that principle of order and elegance was with God and it was God.

I think a particle physicist or a mathematician, no matter how agnostic he or she is on the question of God, would have to say that our universe holds a beautiful quality of order. The complexity of the natural world is startling, but at its heart is an elegant intuitiveness. As Christians, we can find meaning in what we believe to be a created order. As complex as the processes that got us here are—from however a tiny singularity expanded into the known universe to the finer points of biological evolution to the development of human consciousness and moral sensibility—those processes can, I think, be seen in a theological framework as having been governed by some divine order.

And this brings us back to the logos as it relates to the Christmas story, because, believe it or not, there is a point to all this. While the great majority of the cosmos behaves in ways that are at least theoretically predictable, human will seems a somehow less elegant creation. This is not, of course, because mankind was made any less perfectly than the physical world in which it finds itself. Quite to the contrary, so perfect a creation is man that he can rebel against the order of things, that he can choose disorder, which in theological terms we call “sin”.

A few verses into John’s prologue we discover precisely whom the logos, the ordering principle of creation is:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

John tells us that the force which gave order to everything has become that which is disordered, that which has rebelled against order, a human being- a baby in a manger who would grow into a man, and though without the stain of original sin the rest of us have inherited, nonetheless just as capable of engaging in particular sins, just as capable of falling like Adam, but who ultimately triumphed over those temptations. Thus, the possibility of a new order among rebellious mankind was made real.

“To all who received him,” John continues, “who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, But of God.” We are offered by God’s Grace regeneration, rebirth, through Baptism, which is not a mere symbol, but an objective means of transformation. In it, we are made new creations and given a chance to set aside our inordinate desires in favor of the particular logic of God’s Will, the logos by which he ordered all things. In more simple terms, we are able to follow Christ. What a tremendous Christmas gift that is.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The first sermon I ever preached was about fourteen years ago, when the Rector at the parish in which I grew up took a chance on an undergraduate back home on Christmas break. The bishop who was rightly skeptical about a teenager wanting to pursue ordination to the priesthood had nevertheless licensed me as a layreader, and on that first Christmas break, for some inscrutable reason, I was allowed to preach at the Midnight Mass. As I recall, it was unlike any Christmas sermon I had preached since, in that I had assumed the entire congregation was as interested as I in historical theology. I remember saying something about Kierkegaard’s view of the contemporaneity of the Gospel and about the Mariology of St. Ambrose of Milan.

Since then I’ve attempted to start my Christmas and Easter sermons with an illustration, usually from popular culture, that can serve as an entry point for those who aren’t regularly subjected to my peculiar theological interests. Unfortunately, it means that people are subjected instead to my relatively eccentric tastes in popular culture- usually old episodes of Star Trek or the appendices of fantasy novels or the criminally underrated “He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special.” But this year, I think I’ve finally hit on the piece of popular culture which we can all agree is a compelling presentation of the Christmas message- namely the 1965 CBS special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Most of you have seen it, so I won’t painstakingly recount the plot. The short version is as follows- Charlie Brown is charged with directing the Christmas pageant and the combination of an uncoöperative cast and a depressingly puny Christmas tree drive him to wonder aloud whether or not anybody really knows what Christmas is about. At this point, Linus stands up and reads the Christmas story as it appears in Luke’s Gospel (what we just heard, albeit in the more sonorous Authorized Version of scripture), everybody remembers what Christmas is really about, and they all decorate Charlie Brown’s sad tree and it’s nore-or-less a Christmas miracle. Now, that all sounds awfully corny, but every time I see it I shed a single, manful tear; if you’ve watched it, you know that it is awfully sweet and genuinely heartwarming.

Well, I recently realized something that I’d never noticed, despite having seen the program probably a dozen times. If you are familiar with the peanuts characters, whether from their television specials or the comic strip, you know that Linus always carries around a security blanket. Their are whole tv specials and comic strip arcs dedicated to the poor, insecure kid’s unwillingness to give the thing up. But you might not have realized, and I didn’t until it was pointed out to me recently, that when Linus gets up to read the story of the nativity he drops his blanket. He gives up the one thing he depends on for security when he shares the story of Christ’s birth.

The story of Christmas as it was initially experienced that night in Bethlehem and as we still experience it today is all about the transformation of fear into joy and a holy hope, of stepping outside the security of our ordinary occupations into a world filled with both danger and promise. The Shepherds seem to swing wildly from fear to joy at the tremendous news we heard again tonight: holy fear at the power of God, displayed by the heavenly host, and great joy when they finally see the Christ Child. Presumably they could have stayed with their flocks; though we don’t often think of it this way, I imagine they were taking quite a risk in going to the manger to see what had happened. Think about it- I doubt they would have marched all their sheep right into Bethlehem any more than you’re likely to see cowboys drive their cattle down Main Street when you leave church tonight. They responded to a scary situation (a bunch of angels showing up over their field) not by doing the most prudent thing, not by clinging to the security of keeping their flocks in sight and letting whatever crazy stuff was going on in town happen without them. Rather, they took a risk, left their flocks behind, dropped their security blanket so they could get to the manger.

And think about Mary. It took her nine months to get to this point. She’d left the security blanket behind a long time ago. But then there’s nothing like staring reality right in the face. I don’t know what it’s like to look for the first at a tiny human being who has just changed one’s whole life by coming into existence, but I’ve been told it’s a trip. Imagine bearing a child whom you’ve been told was set for the rise and fall of many and whom you’ve acknowledged (in verse, no less!) was coming to flip the social order as you knew it on its ear, and now you’re looking at this kid and there are shepherds horning in on this intimate moment, and God knows why this had to happen when you were on a state-imposed road trip. What do you do? Heck if I know, but my first response wouldn’t have been to ponder these words in my heart. The security blanket’s been thrown out the window on the way to Bethlehem and she’s not going to get it back. Ever. Yet she treasures the words of the shepherds, ponders them in her heart; she’s not afraid.

I don’t know how many of you receive our diocesan magazine, Church Life. If you do you probably read the bishop’s column about the safety pin as a symbol for the church. I might get myself in trouble for this, but I wanted to gently push back against his conclusion. The bishop wrote that the symbol which is presently de riguer among progressive folks to indicate that they are a safe person for marginalized classes of people after the divisive election might be a good symbol for the church, particularly in this season in which the Christ Child was granted safe lodging in Bethlehem. The column was even flanked with photographs of church buildings with safety pins photo-shopped on.
Now, I want to be a part of a church in which all God’s children are welcomed and shown love. I want to be part of a church in which the poor and the persecuted and the lonely and the frightened are given an extra helping of the grace and mercy we all receive from the hands of God. I believe in the preferential option, the proposition that there is a special place in the heart of God for those on the margins of society, and that belief is the foundation of both my moral theology and my soteriology.

That said, the primary symbol of the church is not a symbol of safety but of danger. The cross, right there on the altar, is a symbol of one who bravely stepped away from the comfort of a carpenter’s life in Nazareth to follow the perilous path his Heavenly Father had set for him. The star up there is a symbol of men who left the comfort and safety of lives as respected priests and sages in Persia to travel to a Near Eastern backwater whose king would try to coöpt them for political intrigue that had nothing to do with them. The crèche right down there is a symbol of a young woman and her betrothed who together chose a course of action predicated neither on safety nor propriety but on the seemingly impossibly dangerous and unpopular demands of a God whose plan depended on their willingness to show extraordinary courage and faithfulness.

Yes, the church should provide a safe space for those whom society despises; I absolutely agree with the bishop on this point, so don’t bring me up on heresy charges. But – I’ll speak purely for myself here – being somebody with every benefit imaginable (white, straight, male, a product of private education, never having existed outside the world of the professional middle class) the last thing I need is for the church to be my safety pin or security blanket. I need, the world needs, a church that will push people like me to drop that security blanket and travel even unto Bethlehem, even unto Calvary, for the sake of all God’s beloved children.

It seems to me the great paradox of Christmas, of the Christian life even, is that delivering tidings of comfort and joy may be, even ought to be, uncomfortable. It requires us to drop the security blanket and set out on a dangerous path. I think we sometimes miss the fact that the Christian life is an adventure. For the shepherds and the magi and Mary and Joseph and for our Lord and Savior himself the future was never certain. The future promised the potential for great triumph and glory, but also the potential for failure and derision and even death. It was certain that it would never be safe and that it would be frequently uncomfortable. Nevertheless it is always full of joy- not the sort of blissed-out warm fuzziness of just having eaten too much turkey and stuffing and having received everything you had circled in the Sears catalog under the tree, but the fuller, realer joy of having lived a life in service to something greater than oneself, in having exhausted one’s life and substance for the sake of mercy and grace and love, in being prepared to hear those words, “well done, good and faithful servant.”

The joy of Christmas is the beginning of that journey, the foretaste of the greater light we pray we’ll reach with God’s help. Here we behold the promise of God, the fullness of joy in its nascent form, the natal expression of an ancient promise. Christ is shown this night as the beginning and end of that journey and he is revealed as the journey itself.

Since I opened with a silly pop culture reference let me end with some poetry which I think encapsulates this promise as it unfolds from the nativity and expresses itself in the Christian life until its consummation. It serves, I think, as a reminder to throw the security blanket away, and to get ready to set out from Bethlehem pondering the great and holy mystery of Christ with us as we march together to Jerusalem. From W.H. Auden’s lengthy For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, written in the darkest days of the Second World War, the following excerpt comes immediately after Auden describes a family having burned the greenery, taken the ornaments back up to the attic, sent the kids back to school, and grown tired of left-overs. The manger has disappeared into the past, and one wonders where the Christ Child has gone. At last, the poet reminds us that the manger is just the beginning, that Christ is with us always, and though the path is dangerous we are called to set out upon it with confidence and joy:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

May the Father’s blessing be upon you on this holy night, and may you find the strength and courage to follow the Way, to seek the Truth, and to rejoice in the Life you have been given in Christ Jesus this night and always.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.