I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on Sunday, December 23, as we tipped from the season of Advent into Christmas. The text is the story of Jesus' birth, found in Luke 2:1-7. You can read it here. Before the sermon, we sang the hymn, "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming."
We know the story of Christmas.
A child in a manger.
An angel, the shepherds.
It has a mysterious hold on us.
We tell it again and again.
Through carols we search
for the mingling of word and melody
that will unlock its meaning.
Through pageants we rehearse the story once more:
we stand at the manger
among halos constructed of tinsel and cardboard,
amid a herd of wooly, preschooled sheep.
We have told this story a thousand times,
in a thousand different ways.
The set is always the same,
we know the script by heart.
it continues to pull us back
to something that is both basic
and fundamentally true.
For a moment a door in our hearts slips open
and we are as still and unguarded as the rose in winter,
hovering on a cusp, ready to bloom.
A few years ago, when I was a staff member at a very big,
progressive Church on the Upper West Side,
we had the occasion to welcome Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
who came to preach.
Archbishop Tutu was the first black South African Bishop
of Capetown in South Africa.
He was instrumental in dismantling apartheid
and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The staff and the leaders at Riverside were all in a tizzy over his arrival.
We scrambled around, making sure that everything would go perfectly
from the moment he arrived to the moment he left.
We fussed with lighting,
replaced all the batteries in the microphones.
We ordered food that we were assured would be to his taste.
I was coordinating the worship services,
and I think I made about 36 drafts of the bulletin,
because we kept learning that more VIP’s were coming
and I’d have to create some kind of appropriately important speaking role for them
and shuffle around all the seating up in the chancel.
And then he arrived.
All five foot three of him entered the chapel where the clergy were vesting
and he was immediately subsumed by all the important guests,
paraded around and introduced to everyone who was there to greet him.
You could barely see him at the center of the huddle of clergy who had surrounded him.
I stood on the outside, near the wall, with a few other staff members,
and took it all in.
I had never seen someone who exuded such pure,
It was no wonder that everyone wanted to be close to him.
And then something kind of amazing happened.
I saw Bishop Tutu’s eyes break free from all the important people,
that inner circle that had had surrounded him,
and scan the outside of the room.
And he saw all of us standing there,
Ralph who was the head of maintenance,
and Marlon who worked the sound booth,
and he very graciously broke through the ring of VIP’s that ensconced him
and walked over to us,
and shook all of our hands.
And learned our names.
And smiled at us in a way that made you think,
God must love me, because this man does.
A child in the manger.
An angel. The shepherds.
They are the ingredients of a story
of a God who,
just like Bishop Tutu,
is always looking to the edges.
Surrounded by a throng of the most important people,
all elbowing their way in for a word or a handshake,
God quietly slips away
and finds the custodial staff, hanging back in the corner.
If you’re looking for God,
you can expect to find her around the edges.
The inn was filled with important people.
And so God perferred to be born out back, in a feeding trough.
Perhaps what keeps us returning to this story,
drawing us back to tell it once more,
is not tradition or sentiment,
but that it makes us feel seen.
The strains of carols,
the words and melody we search for but can’t seem to find,
the truth revealed as we gaze on the child in the manger,
is that God is for everyone.
No matter where you stand in the room,
God sees you,
seeks you out where you are,
knows your name.
It is a truth that is so simple as to seem impossible.
That love has come to live among us,
tender and fresh;
a rose that blooms in the silent, unseen hours of the half spent night.
Amid a frozen landscape,
love springs up
and catches us unaware.
We thought that no one would see us here,
standing in the corner.
But love has found us, despite our best intentions.
This is Christmas.
To stand quietly, as the door to your heart slips open
and God enters in,
a bright, unexpected blossom,
hovering on the cusp,
and ready to bloom.
We share the semron at St. Lydia's, and so I invite you to spend time in silence reflecting on two questions:
In your expereince, where is the rose, and what is the night?