Friday, December 26, 2014

Grace that Dawns Upon US

Sermon preached at the late Christmas Eve Service at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo, New York:  Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20.

          Every Advent, I dig out a letter I received from my then bishop right after Christmas 1983. More than anything else, this letter reminds me what Christmas means and grounds my faith in this busy time.

          The bishop’s letter was a reply to a rather long-winded and, frankly, whiney Ember Day letter I had written him before Christmas.  It had been a difficult fall.  I had wanted to begin seminary that fall, but he, my bishop, had insisted I work for a year.  I ended up working in my hometown, and living with my great-grandmother.  I felt like I was spinning my wheels.

          My relationship with my family wasn’t good at that point in time.  My sister had just gotten pregnant and had eloped.  I was tutoring a teenager with hemophilia who was having a rough time of it.  I was not a happy camper.  I poured it all out.  I marvel when I re-read that letter that my bishop didn’t prescribe a few more years of growing up.

          But Bishop Wilbur Hogg (yes, that was his real name) wrote me wise words.

Your weeks before Christmas have for you indeed been full of blows and shocks, and these events are not respecters of our own times and conveniences.  We are never waiting as one issue at a time is settled.  Events are continually keeping us off center, and keeping us on the go.  Even in Bethlehem the only stationary actor is the innkeeper.  The shepherds come in from the fields, the wise men travel from the eastern mountains, and even the holy family must pick up and travel to Egypt because of the paranoid jealousy of Herod.  In the middle of all this activity a baby is born in a cowshed and God visits his world.  The mix-up is apparently the atmosphere in which, at least in this world, God works.

It was the first time I understood, as I said last Sunday, that the good news is not only that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.  It is also true that the light shines in the darkness, but does not simply get rid of it.  What the light does in the darkness is help us to see, to be honest about what waits in the dark for us, confess our fear of it, but then face it with courage and hope.

          No one ever preaches on Christmas Eve on the reading from Paul’s Letter to Titus.  Most preachers look on it as an annoyance more than anything else.  I certainly thought so, until I read the passage in the translation called the New English Bible and its successor the Revised English Bible.  You just heard it in our usual translation.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.

          Ho, hum.  But listen to the words translated a different (but perfectly legitimate) way.

For the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all humankind.

How often does the grace of God–God’s way of unconditional love–dawn upon us as a surprise, as the suddenly discovered way forward through the darkness.  It isn’t as if it wasn’t there all the time–it surely was.  But we so often feel overwhelmed by the darkness, by the confusion or busy-ness or pain or guilt of it that we miss it. We keep trying to figure our own way through some problem or mess, but, again as I said last Sunday, we cannot make the light for ourselves.  We must receive it.

The grace of God dawns upon us and begins, at least, to light the darkness.  This grace is a revelation, usually, that we are loved in spite of the darkness, and that others are as well, and so the way forward is forgiveness or reconciliation with ourselves or one another.  Or suddenly we can see our bondage to something or someone that is controlling our lives, and the grace of God–which is our liberty as a child of God–enables us to break free.

Either of these experiences–or any other experience of the grace of God–brings healing.  The word “healing” here is meant in its broadest, most holistic, and Christian sense.  We find our wholeness, our balance, the integration of all the parts of our lives–even in a world that leads us often into fragmentation, keeps us off balance, unsure of ourselves, and fearful.

These thoughts are what Paul is trying to get across in the rest of that bit of his letter to Titus we heard.  It’s full of religious code words so we might easily turn it off–talk of “godliness,” of “renouncing worldly desires,” and “exercising temperance.”  Paul is talking about the kind of balanced wholeness each one of us longs for, but is a struggle to find in this world.  Paul is talking about his–and God’s–desire for our freedom from all that keeps us from our wholeness.

Now what has this to do with Christmas? In a word, everything. For we Christian folk, the birth of Jesus is “the grace of God dawning on the world for the healing of all humankind.” Why is this so?

Because it is such a radical, revolutionary, revelation of God.  God coming among us not in strength and triumph, but in weakness and vulnerability.  Messiah, Savior, Healer, revealed to us not as adonai–Lord over us–but as emmanuel–God with us.

“This shall be the sign,” the angels tell the shepherds.  “This will be the sign that the Messiah has come.”  Go not to Jerusalem but to Bethlehem.  Look not for a king but for a baby.  Look not for a baby clothed in royalty in a palace, but in strips of old cloth in a feeding trough in a barn.

Amazing.  Truly, absolutely, astounding.  Even if the prophets had hinted that the Messiah would be somewhat different than people expected–no one expected this.  No one expected God to visit his people in the mix-up and mess of life.

It is grace that dawns upon us–unexpected and surprising, though there all along.  And it heals precisely because of its unexpectedness and its surprise.  It heals because it is not our own doing.  It draws us out of ourselves, makes us more than we ever thought we could be, and gives us things for which we never asked.

And this experience–and here it is where what we Christians call the “good news” explodes across the sky like a multitude of heavenly hosts–this experience is for absolutely everybody.  It is not just for the powerful or the successful, or those who have some secret knowledge about life or about God, or those who seem in this life to get everything right, who seem to “have it all together.”

For the grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all humankind.

There was no reason for Paul to insert the word “all” into that sentence except to effect this very explosion.  Nobody gets left out of this experience of dawning grace–of the light that cannot be earned but only received–the love that seeks not to bind but to free–that seeks not to separate but to integrate–that makes for healing in our lives.

Pray, my sisters and brothers, for a dawning of grace this night–of the life-transforming experience that in this babe of Bethlehem we are loved no matter what, and can claim our freedom as his sisters and brothers–children of God with him.

Let the air explode with angels of good news.  Glory to God.  Peace–healing–on earth for absolutely everybody and in every mixed-up circumstance you or me can imagine.  Let us make haste to this glory and this peace.

I leave you with a quote from Bishop Charles Henry Brent, the Bishop of Western New York, our bishop, from 1917 to 1929.  He could not have imagined the technology at our fingertips, but this quote is still right on the money:

Modern life is fine in many of its aspects; it is diligent in its labors, honest in its investigations, courageous in its enterprises.  But it lacks one needful thing.  It is too reasoned, and not sufficiently spiced with the recklessness of those whose idealism is a controlling force that sends them to the Bethlehem manger with the racing feet of Christmas haste.[1]

[1] From the sermon “Christmas Haste,” a portion of which is excerpted in Love Came Down: Anglican readings for Advent and Christmas, compiled by Christopher L. Webber (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 2002), pp. 75-76.

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