Delivered at Ames UCC on December 25, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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There’s something about the Christmas story that has been bothering me this year.
As we hear in the Luke version of Jesus’ story, the Roman emperor tells everyone to go to their home towns to be registered. So we learn that Joseph is from Bethlehem but living in Galilee. That’s a 70 mile separation, a long way by foot and by mule.
But what is bothering me is why Joseph left his family, why he wasn’t already in Bethlehem at the time of the census. Why did he leave his family, his clan, his tribe in the first place? Did work take him away or war? Was he a refugee or merely an émigré? The story doesn’t say.
We know that it was important for the early Jesus storytellers to link Jesus to Bethlehem, to prove that he was the anointed one predicted in the older Hebrew prophecies. But they could have just said he was there at his birth, they didn’t need this elaborate story of hardship.
As you all know, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s can themselves be a hardship for some us because of our families of origin.
With the juggernaut of family-themed advertising, those of us whose families are broken or cruel or broke or without a home, can be left feeling lonely, angry, or even like failures by this morning. After seeing ad after ad, we might want to scream, “Why can’t I come to a well-lit house on Christmas Eve to be surrounded by exclamations of joy and shiny gifts?”
Why? Because family is complex.
Maybe that is why our faith ancestors in the community of Luke included Joseph’s distance from his family, when none of the others did. Maybe the followers of Luke heard a holy call to tell a story as complex as real life, a story to remind us that God is in the complexity of real life. Including the complexity of family. Including the family we enter into through God.
Even those of us with close, happy families of origin find family in a church. Our church is our family. Like in a family, at church we celebrate births and we mourn deaths. At church we are patient with growing pains and the sudden appearance of adulthood. At church we figure out how to stay married or get divorced. At church, all who allow it become our children. At church, we may ask for the grandparents we need.
Sometimes at church we fight and fall out, even roll our eyes. But more often we laugh and cry, even at the same time, with no shame.
At church we have may come just as we are, be it in jammies or suits, because we know we will always be welcome. And so welcomed, we have the opportunity to bring our best selves. Here we can lay down all stinginess and pick up generosity. Here we get to be jocular siblings and wise crones.
Because life can be a long walk in the dark, a risky pregnancy, and a precarious marriage. But when we take that walk in faith, our story tells us that the right people will be by our side, and we will know sanctuary, too.
Our church family may sometimes smell like a herd of sheep or speak in an accent from far away. But always we will be accompanied by angels heralding the good news that from the most humble and lonely of beginnings peace may yet be ours.
So on this Christmas Day, let your surname not be Gebbie or Hannover or Watts. This Christmas Day, let your family name be Ames UCC. Merry Christmas, Kate Ames UCC. Merry Christmas, Eli Ames UCC. Merry Christmas, Bill Ames UCC.
In the name of the God of complicated lives and families, Merry Christmas to you all, my sweet and precious family.