Christmas Eve & Day

Christmas is a funny time for pastors. It is the beginning of a story that will end in trouble and then begin again in mystery. It is a time saturated with tradition, with expectations met and unmet, with emotions named and unnameable. And it is a work day. Here are my sermons from both our Christmas Eve service, which is highly traditional and never changes, and from our Christmas Day service, which is very casual and communal.

Christmas Eve 2019: Arriving Where We Always Are
Delivered at Ames UCC
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

ARRIVAL

We did it! We have arrived!

Four Sundays ago, John the Baptist and Amos and Peter and Malachi and Mary and Isaiah and Ezekiel and Esther, prophets from the Hebrew Bible and Christian testament both, as well as the authors of hymns sung each week told us to be ready, be ready, be ready, prepare ye the way, and we did and now here we are.

But where are we?

As Christians, Christ-ians, as a people with a scriptural tradition, worship is a time of spiritual imagination. In our daily devotionals and each week here we step back in our understanding of time, or maybe step through to God’s more eternal, cyclical, overlapping time, to be with our forebears and ancestors.

Through these poems, hymns, myths, and histories, we try to learn about their historical and cultural context to understand why they did what they did, from exodus to exile, from river baptism to open table. We try to smell what they smelled, walk where they walked, and listen as they listened. We ask if what is recorded tells us a truth about their time or a Truth for all times.

And if the Christmas stories tell us any truth, it is that we cannot ever be ready for an encounter with God.

GABRIEL & HEAVENLY HOST

Consider Zechariah, spouse to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth.

Both Zechariah and Elizabeth are old enough that no one expects Elizabeth can get pregnant any longer. They are going about their lives when, while at work in the temple one day, there appears to Zechariah an angel of God. You might think Zechariah, of all people, would be ready for a heavenly messenger, but the story says he is terrified, he is overwhelmed by fear.

Next, we have Mary herself. The angel Gabriel appears to her with the words, “Greetings…do not be afraid.” Mary, a young person and not a priest, must be made of stronger stuff than Zechariah because the story says that rather than being scared, she is “much perplexed.” Maybe that is code for baffled, itself a state of confusion, and not a prepared readiness.

Lastly, we have the shepherds of tonight. There they are under the stars at night, when they receive not just one angel of God, but a whole heavenly host. Their terror is noted, as well as the lead angel’s effort to assure them. The arrival of angels is always going to be startling scary, and not a time of practiced clarity.

Whatever our prophets may say about being ready to receive God, then, at this most critical moment in the Christian testament, we see that no one is.

And that is OK.

There is no judgment cast on Zechariah, Mary, or the shepherds. Which maybe tells us that it isn’t all of that prophetic preparation-talk that we need but angelic present-talk.

PRESENT

Consider your own life and how much time you spend in preparation.

Preparation for school, preparation for a career, preparation for work, preparation for the week’s meals (if we are lucky enough to be able to eat a week of meals). And once we have prepared and arrived in those spaces—school, work, dinner—how much of our mental energy switches to the next place or task we much prepare for?

The Christmas story, however, story makes us stop. This story makes us stop preparing and just be, be in the moment, in every moment, with the divine. Because God is not out there. God is not in a faraway space, at any remove from us. At work, like Zechariah, we are with the divine. At home, like Mary, we are with the divine. Outside, like the shepherds, we are with the divine.

God is, the stories of Jesus claim, incarnate, tangible, touchable, vulnerable. And here. And because God is here, the angels tell us we need not be afraid.

NO FEAR

No matter the vagaries of empires or the availability of housing or the drudgery of work, we need not be afraid. In our lives, in our ordinary, everyday, constantly preparing yet never prepared lives, we need not be afraid.

Where we have arrived at tonight is where we are at every moment: with God.

Lives in which we come together in an old room made warm by rich woods, glowing lights, and good will. An old room filled by people drawn to a small infant—and to the ministry that infant will grow into and the mystery the adult will draw us all toward.

Do not be afraid.

For on this night it is not an angel, but a group of humble humans bring good tidings of great joy: in our everyday lives God is birthing possibilities gorgeous, joyous, and hopeful.

AMEN

Christmas Day 2019: Baby Love
Delivered at Ames UCC
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

NEWBORN

How many of you have lived with a newborn? What was that like? Be honest.

Years ago I was a nanny for a friend who was in medical school. I lived with her and her three children aged 11 through 19. Highlights from that time include no one ever doing the dishes, everyone complaining about what I cooked, and a super fun night when all three of them, independently of each other, got drunk.

Now, I went into this gig loving these children. I had known them for a couple of years and thought they were funny, smart, and kind. I didn’t really appreciate, though, that they were also going through phases of rapid change, major stress, and creative experimentation.

One day, after giving their mom/my friend an update, a rather aggrieved update in response to which I thought she was insufficiently distraught, she told me this: Infancy is the time when parents and guardians store up enough love to survive the later years.

The love a little baby inspires, in most cases and in spite of all the poop and screaming, sees parents and guardians through the years of bad romantic choices, drugs, going broke, dropping out of high school, choosing a weird college major, getting into credit card debt, and the lifelong criticism of their parenting they can expect.

This isn’t true for every parent, of course. Some parents do not feel that love. Some parents do but still cannot care for their children. There are few universal truths when it comes to human relations. But for my friend, baby love was a well deep and sustaining.

I think it must have been for Mary, too.

MARY

We don’t hear from Joseph after Jesus’ birth but Mary remains a central figure in Jesus’ life and his death. Mary travels with Jesus on his journeys, one of the group of people who made his efforts possible with food, shelter, and protection when the crowds got too big.

But it wasn’t easy for her. At one point Jesus says

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

Luke 14.26

Ouch. Thanks, kid.

Then there is the end, a bitter, bitter, end. The beginning we mark today is always tied to the end we attend to on Good Friday. And it is Mary who stayed by Jesus in his hour of greatest suffering and need, fearless in her devastation, alone except for some of the other women.


Then there is the end, a bitter, bitter, end. The beginning we mark today is always tied to the end we attend to on Good Friday. And it is Mary who stayed by Jesus in his hour of greatest suffering and need, fearless in her devastation, alone except for some of the other women.

Whatever Mary’s love of God, and the hymn at learning of her pregnancy says she had a lot, I think it must have been that baby love that got her through. It wasn’t gifts from strangers, like the Magi of today, that made the declarations of kings and empires manageable. It was baby love that allowed her to let her child be who he must even though it cost her everything.

And that is the invitation to us.

US, TOO

The Christmas story isn’t included in all of the gospels, so I wonder if those that did knew something about the human heart. Maybe they knew that in order to be bold enough to go out and be fishers of people, to risk the aspersions of neighbors and crosses of empires, we would need a little baby love, too.

Because when we remember that Jesus the adult was first Jesus the infant, we remember that he did not come into the world fully ready to upend injustice and call for beloved community.

Jesus had to learn to walk before he could teach us to walk with him.

Which means that we can learn to do just that, to the river and to the table and to the cross and beyond. But let’s stay in the baby love for now.

LOVE

Soak up today this celebration of a love willing to be vulnerable, a love needing our care. Soak up this astonishing testimony to God’s complete solidarity with the human existence. Let the baby love my friend and Mary knew fill your heart today, for then you know God’s heart of love for YOU.

AMEN

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