[And the angels said] "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
Today is the day we celebrate the birth of a child who will change the world. The writer of Luke will express the special nature of this child in a colorful manner. Luke depicts him as having been born in a shelter for farm animals, his mother laying him in a rough manger, the feeding trough from which those animals were accustomed to eating. Like most hero sagas, it is a very humble beginning for this man who will eventually be seen as sitting at the very right hand of G-d.
But Luke is intent on conveying to his readers that from the beginning, this is no ordinary child. The skies above the farm shelter are lit up with angels proclaiming “Glory to God in heaven, and on Earth, peace among those whom he favors!" Some that G-d favors are In nearby fields where the angels visit shepherds watching their flocks. They are terrified at first but an angel tells them not to be afraid, that the savior for whom they have been waiting has finally been born. The angels direct them to the place where Jesus is lying. They will be the first to encounter this newborn child and when they leave these humble shepherds will be the first witnesses to the birth of a savior.
It’s a beautiful narrative. But it is important to note here that the birth of Jesus is just the beginning of a much longer story. And that story has major implications for each of us and the world in which we live.
Is the Christ Born in Me This Day?
Meister Eckhart was the Benedictine abbot of a monastery in Erfurt, Germany of the 13th CE. Loved by mystics, Eckhart was insistent that faith must be more than a simple aspect of believing, it must flow into the world in the lives of believers. Eckhart was a prodigious author and in one of his most famous writings he asserted
Here in time we celebrate the eternal birth that God the Father bore… in time, in human nature….We should ask ourselves: If [Jesus’ birth] doesn’t happen in me, what good is that birth after all?
Brother David Vyhof of the Episcopal Society of St. John the Evangelist would restate Eckhart’s statement this way: “What good is it that Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem 2000 years ago if he is not also born (this day) in me?”
That’s a rather daunting question. I find myself asking “Who am I to reveal the Christ? How could Christ be born in me? How could my life reveal the Christ child that we celebrate this day?” I would like to suggest to you this morning that our lectionary over the coming year will offer us a guidebook on how to do exactly that.
Guidance from Our Lectionary
This year in our lectionary, our Gospel readings will come from the Gospel of Luke. The First Sunday of Epiphany, Luke’s Gospel will recount its vision of Jesus’ baptism. At the end of the story, a voice from heaven will be heard to say, “You are my Son, my Beloved….” It is a beautiful story. But we are quick to say that’s true of Jesus but what does it have to do with me?
One of the things that has gotten lost over the two millennia of the Christian tradition with its focus on sin and salvation is the original blessing of Creation. According to the writers of Genesis, we are all children of G-d, born bearing the very image of the G-d who created us with the ability to grow ever more into the divine likeness. At the end of the Creation narrative, G-d deems the creation “very good.” Not perfect but very good. And beloved, just as it is.
On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we will hear the parable of the Prodigal Son. The message of that parable is that we are beloved by our Father in heaven even when we find it difficult to believe that, much less to love ourselves. If you are like me, you may struggle with the point Jesus is making here. But if we are to reveal the Christ in this very good but broken world, accepting ourselves as loveable, imperfect as we may be, is the first step toward loving our neighbors as ourselves, those neighbors with their own brokenness and imperfections. Accepting ourselves as beloved by the G-d who created us is the place that revealing the Christ in our lives must start.
Can we work on that this year?
On the Third Sunday of Epiphany, Luke will detail Jesus’ return to his home in the Galilee after his baptism. In the local synagogue he will read from a scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Following Jesus means becoming conscious of the many poor people who live among us in this affluent society, becoming aware of the thousands of people we lock up each day and the thousands more who are captives of addictive behaviors and mental illnesses. It means allowing our hearts to be broken by the suffering of those oppressed by the evils of racism, sexism and all the other ways we demean the humanity of others. And it means allowing our broken hearts to fashion the way we interact with others, the ways we spend our money, the ways we vote. All of these are ways in which Christ may be revealed in our lives.
Can we work on that this year?
On the Third Sunday in Lent, Luke will relate a parable about a fig tree. It’s owner, unhappy that it has not produced figs in three years, is ready to dig it up and cast it into the fire. But Jesus has the protagonist in the story respond with a plea for its life: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
The regularity with
which Jesus references Nature in his teachings suggests a deep love for this
very good Creation. But here he is observing that the good Creation requires
care to be healthy and productive. Like the owner of the fig tree, we have far
too often seen the Earth as an inexhaustible source of our consumerist demands
upon it and the bottomless garbage pit for what we have used up and tossed
away. Revealing Christ in our lives calls us to reconsider our patterns of
consumption, to make environmental concerns a bottom line in our voting for
policy makers who might yet salvage our damaged world from the increasingly
serious threats of climate change.
Can we work on that this year?
The Work of Christmas Now Begins
How can our lives reveal the Christ who is born this day? Let us begin by working on accepting ourselves as beloved by G-d, loving ourselves with all our imperfections. Let us work on becoming conscious of those who suffer in our world and willing to act on that consciousness. And let us work on cherishing the Earth as G-d’s Creation and ordering our lives in a way that evidences its value. Those are all ways the Christ can be born in us this day and shine forth for the remainder of this year. And if we lose our way, our lectionary will provide weekly reminders for us
Howard Thurman was one of the leading religious thinkers of the 20th CE. A leader of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Thurman offers us this take on the work of Christmas and I close with it:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
to heal the broken, to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among people,
to make music in the heart.
May the Christ child be born in each of us this day, people of G-d. And may the work of Christmas now commence. Merry Christmas!
[Sermon offered Christmas Day 2021, St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL]
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2021