Delivered at Ames UCC
on June 10, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Since it is June and we are six months away from it, I think that I can say, without ruining anyone’s holiday, that Christmas makes me uneasy.
As you may be picking up, I’m using these first weeks of Ordinary Time to go a little more deeply into the other holidays and seasons of our tradition and how they create a bridge between us and our ancestors and our successors and God. So last week we had Advent; today we have Christmas.
And Christmas makes me uneasy.
Christmas makes me uneasy because it has become so divorced from church. Christmas’s disconnect from worship and communities of practice, its embedding in the marketplace, into product development and advertising’s manufacture of desire, makes me uneasy because I fear that there is no way to bring it back home to us.
Home has become part of the problem, too.
In the Christmas story, a king sends a pregnant woman on a journey. Now, marketing tells us that if we do not journey in December, if we do not have a family to reunite with in some idyllic home, we are not really part of the story at all.
Christmas makes me uneasy because, having become so untethered and coopted, complex theologies, weak theologies, and theologies that bear false witness to God are promoted and promulgated without thought to their consequences or resources for their understanding or debunking.
How many people have had their depression deepen in December because they cannot afford to participate in the holiday, in financial or familial terms? How many people have lost the opportunity to understand the hope of Christmas because they have no ground for interpreting virgin births and guiding stars and blaring angels?
Christmas makes me uneasy because the marketing and the pressure and the shallowness so distort its ancient truths and eternally relevant gifts.
Over the last eighteen months, since just before Christmas 2016, I’ve been doing a few things to draw more deeply on our tradition’s ancient truths and eternally relevant gifts: intensifying my prayer practices; returning to the faith leaders of oppressed people through black liberation theology, womanist theology, and liberation theology; and to the faith leaders of oppressed people who have not only metaphorically staked their lives on these stories, but those who have done so quite literally, too. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, born in 1906. He was also a double agent in the German secret service and worked to keep Jewish people free during Hitler’s rise to power. That work, as well as a small role in a plot to murder Hitler, was discovered. After two years in jail, Bonhoeffer was hanged in 1945, just a month before Germany surrendered.
But before that, Bonhoeffer wrote what came to be some important books. One is The Cost of Discipleship, in which he coined the phrase “cheap grace.” Another is Life Together, which is about his residential seminary and how the men (it could only be men then) lived in faithful community.
In a section on service in Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes that the first service we are required to give is three services to the people in our community. The first is listening, the second is helpfulness, and the third is “bearing with others.” He explains that bearing with others means “tolerating the reality of the other’s creation by God—affirming it and . . . breaking through to delight in it.”1
Life in community requires listening, helpfulness, and receiving each other as beloved children of God with such joy that we celebrate each other even though initially we may struggle to actually like each other.
That sounds like the story of Christmas to me. That’s the story that gets lost in all of the marketing and pressure and surface theology.
Mary listened to God and her own heart and Joseph listened to God and to Mary. Joseph took Mary just as she was, despite what the world may have said of her pregnancy. The innkeeper was helpful. The shepherds and the astronomers listened to stars and seraphim and rejoiced in the goodness of God that came from a place as weak and marginal as a baby in a barn.
Mary and Joseph and the innkeeper and the angels and the shepherds and even the magi were not innovators in those actions, in those choices. They did not practice listening and helpfulness and acceptance as if those were new qualities, or a new instruction from God tied to the birth of Jesus.
And though Bonhoeffer’s expression of life in community is beautiful, his instructions are not original to Christianity or the Christian story, either.
Just look at the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, or as I think of them, the Ten Teachings.
As we studied last week, they begin with
- Don’t bail on the power of freedom.
- Don’t make up a holiness to accommodate your preferences.
- Don’t use holiness to unholy ends.
- Don’t work all day every day.
And then today
- Don’t ignore the wisdom of your elders.
- Don’t lie.
- Don’t kill.
- Don’t steal.
- Don’t spread false rumors about others.
- Don’t lust after the people and resources you see on the other side of the fence.
All of those “don’ts” may sound negative, but they add up to the same positives we hear in both Bonhoeffer and the gospels: At all times and in all places, try not to hurt other people, instead try to help. Rely on the strength of God to try not to hurt other people, instead try to help.
When we enter into the story of Christmas and that of the Exodus, which anyone can do regardless of family or financial status, we are stepping into a long line of people who have tried to live together well and tried to safeguard the lives of all other people. It’s a line that goes from here in Ames back to 20th century Germany and 1st century Palestine and the Levant in the 5th century before the common era. It is a line that goes back to the beginning and extends before us to the end.
What could Bonhoeffer, Mary, and Moses have in common? Faith enough in the teachings of God, strength enough from God, to liberate slaves and trust women and resist tyranny.
I guess I don’t really need to be uneasy about Christmas because that kind of power can never be drowned out by a Black Friday sale.
This stream of the life eternal can be very, very rough. We may have to leave the only home we’ve known or get pregnant at the worst possible time or have to risk our lives to save those of others. I hope that because of your time in worship and this community of practice, you know that you do not ever walk through those turbulent waters alone.
We go together, look at how we are all here together right now, and we are joined by the great cloud of witnesses, all the saints in light, whom some day we will join.
Until then, study the ancient truths of our faith, and accept its gifts eternally relevant.
And in all times, and in all places, and all costs, listen, be helpful, and bear with each other in joy.
1Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 2005. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5. Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.