Published Dec.19, 2015 in the Ames Tribune.
A large part of my job as a Christian pastor is preparing sermons. Sermons, in my branch of the Christian family tree, are 10–12 minute reflections on a piece of scripture. That scripture comes from something called a “lectionary,” a schedule of readings established by different groups of churches that I choose to follow (I can always go “off-lectionary” if so moved).
On a given Sunday I might explore the history of the scripture and its authorship; the political context in which the story we hear is happening; some tidbit about the language and how a word is translated from the Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic; how the scripture might apply to us today; and what kind of picture of God the passage is painting. Some Sunday sermons are done the Monday before, some are completely re-written Saturday night. It depends not only on what I am feeling and hearing about and from the divine, but the events in our larger world, too. So each week is a journey for me as a preacher, and one that deeply enriches my own spiritual life, even when it leads to hair-pulling and worry about whether I will have anything of substance to share.
But writing sermons for Christmas Eve and Easter morning is another matter entirely.
First, they are the two of the holiest days of the year (followed by the Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Pentecost, which I’ll save for other articles). On these particularly holy days, churches on Christmas and Easter tend to have a lot of less-than-regular attendees in the pews, and newcomers looking for a church home. It is a brief opportunity, then, to showcase all of who you are as a church, in the hope that these friends will come back sooner rather than later.
Second, the stories are extremely familiar. If people know anything about Christmas and Easter, it is that Jesus was a baby with some sheep and then later he grew up, died and then reappeared. These can be confusing stories for a literal age. Both are rich in symbolism and hope, which can become obscured by (unintentionally) damaging theology and (possibly intentional) disrespect for the hearer’s intellect. The challenge for the preacher in this case is to make the familiar new and accessible and compelling without dumbing it down or shortchanging the holiness the stories reflect.
Third, and finally, Christmas is a particularly emotional holy day. For those who are going through their first Christmas after a death or divorce or other loss, for those who are sick or living with depression, for those alienated from families of origin (on purpose or because of rejection), Christmas can feel like a tease, or a slap: a joy reserved only for others but lit so brightly you cannot look away. For those (for us), the preacher must create safe space and an acknowledgment of pain, along with the invitation to rejoice.
Those are the typical, annual, dynamics at play on Christmas and Easter.
But this year there are at least three additional layers: war, terrorism, and a presidential election. Each of these has created and is creating heightened levels of fear, division, and grief in our communities. And, horribly, each of them is employing religious language, assertions about God and who God loves, and about what God wants, to achieve their ends. The divine, which must be more than all of us and our differences (otherwise it is just a goblin or a projection of our self-centered psyches), has become a tool for the literal and psychological violence that both the Christmas and Easter stories seek to mend.
Which is why I am grateful to have them and my church. I am grateful to have a community of seekers, people of imperfect faith and quite reasonable doubts, to continue to gather with in reflection and openness on what these stories might mean. For without such stories that privilege, the outsider, the poor, the lonesome, the agitational, the celestial, the geologic, and the bovine, I would be at a loss for how to respond to war, terrorism, and presidential elections.
If you are feeling at such a loss, if you are curious about the relevance of a baby in a stable, if you are grieving, if you are afloat with happiness, I hope that you will gather with me at or in one of the other sanctuaries of hope and symbolism in our community on Christmas Eve. (I will be at Ames UCC at 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 24.) The story might be familiar and freighted with baggage, but it has endured all of this time for a reason: it speaks the truth of universal love in times of sectarian hate. And that is what I will preach.