A sermon preached on Christmas Eve – December 24, 2017 – at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. You can read the scripture by clicking here.
Now, this may be the wrong way to start off a Christmas sermon when we are expected snow later tonight, but I used to live in Berkeley, CA… where it never snows.
I was walking through my neighborhood one December day, as the sun was beginning to set. I walked around my neighborhood in a section I’d never walked before. And there, tucked in the midst of several blocks of homes, sitting on a corner lot, there was a synagogue I hadn’t seen before.
At first glance, it seemed deserted for a Friday, when people should be buzzing around the property, preparing for a Shabbat service. A porch light shone on the steps but there were no lights on inside. There was one sign and it told me only the name of the congregation Chochmat HaLev – the name means Wisdom of the Heart.
I walked up the sidewalk along the side of the building. And, as I approached the side door of the building where a porchlight shone from the ceiling of an alcove, I saw it.
Lying across the porch blocking the double door was a simple bed. A few layers of foam with a couple of blankets and a square blue throw pillow. Someone at the synagogue had prepared a place for a traveler, a person without a home.
It wasn’t much, really. It wasn’t a four-poster bed. It wasn’t a soft, downy mattress with lots of pillows. It wasn’t even a cot in someone’s guest room. It was just a few layers of foam with a couple of blankets and a square blue throw pillow.
A place for a stranger to lay his head. A soft bed waiting, welcoming… intentionally made for someone without a home. It wasn’t much. But as I stood there looking at it, it somehow felt opulent. Chochmat HaLev – the Wisdom of the Heart.
We’ve heard the Nativity story before, from much better storytellers and interpreters than me. Mary and Joseph traveled from where they lived to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem. Mary’s labor started and they had to find a place to rest, a place where Mary could give birth. Anything would do. And they were given permission to bed down in a stable because there was no place at the inn.
It’s hard to imagine less opulent, less hospitable circumstances for the birth of this child. For unlike the bed lying in wait on the porch of the synagogue, the preparations for Jesus’ birth were anything but intentional. Mary and Joseph were traveling, strangers in a land that wasn’t theirs. Maybe not refugees, but definitely migrants.
For sure, no one sought them out, or welcomed them. I’m sure they were met with suspicion and wariness. There was no room indoors for them and no one had laid a bed out for them in expectation of their arrival.
Is this how the light of Christ is supposed to be welcomed into the world? Perhaps that’s the wrong question.
Perhaps a better question is, is this how the light of Christ IS welcomed into the world? And the answer is… yes.
For the light of Christ comes to us regardless of preparation, regardless of whether we think we are worthy or ready, regardless of what we think is our ability to receive this blessing.
There we are… shopping for gifts, wrapping presents, baking cookies, trimming trees, buying that last minute quart of eggnog… tending our flocks. We function, plan, accomplish, achieve goals, cross things off our to-do list. Often, these are good, necessary things – taking care of ourselves and the people we love to the best of our ability.
Yet this is when it happens, when we are tending our flocks. This is when the light of Christ is born. The Light of Christ comes as Love that just shows up, unannounced and in the most ordinary way.
And this is the essence of Hope. We say things like we hope and pray… but often that’s laden with expectations.
But God’s Hope for us has nothing to do with expectation and all the ways we try to make sure things happen just the way we want them to. Hope is the movement of God surprising us in the least expected place, the place that has somehow been forgotten or overlooked, often places that are not wanted.
A place that we have not planned for or a person that we have not looked at before. Hope arises, not in the things we want, but in the things and the people that become a blessing to us. Chochmat HaLev – the Wisdom of the Heart.
And this Hope, when we experience it, it feels opulent. Because it’s completely unexpected. We can get so focused on the things we think matter, that we can forget about the Love just waiting for us when we stop and take a moment to breathe.
Perhaps we become suddenly aware of the beauty that surrounds us – in a leaf, or a smile, or a dog’s panting, or a child’s Christmas pageant. Or maybe we catch another person’s eye and laugh knowingly together. Perhaps we just take in a nice, long breath and feel how the oxygen feeds our cells. Something catches us unawares. It’s not much, when this happens, but it always feels opulent.
We suddenly realize that whatever we are doing is not the point of the whole thing. We see how connected we are and somehow instantly know that we are not, that not one of us is alone.
And this… this is the manger – these moments of opulence.
This is the manger. This is where God breaks down the walls of expectation and focuses us, even if just for one moment, on the thing we’ve been forgetting, the one we’ve been overlooking, the numinous yet mundane reality. Chochmat HaLev – the Wisdom of the Heart.
The manger is the place inside of us that we often try to hide. The manger is the person or place that seems most inconvenient. Because that is always where God will be found waiting for us to see. And this is always where we are called to kneel – the unexpected, least hospitable, most inconvenient, overlooked place in our own neighborhood.
And despite what Good News this is, it can be terrifying. Just like it was for the shepherds, this message that we are not alone, that God is with us, is an earth-shattering reality. Because it can be hard to hear that you don’t have to do anything to be loved by God. There is nothing special that is needed to be the precious beloved child of God that we are all born to be, which is the very essence of the Incarnation.
It can be hard to accept that you are good simply because you breathe, to realize that the bed in the alcove of the synagogue has been laid out for you.
This is how Christ is born into the world. This is how God makes Godself known to us. This sudden, unexpected invitation to love, to a gift that we happen upon on our walk through our own neighborhood.
It isn’t much, but somehow, it’s always opulent.
The nativity story tells us that despite the lack of hospitality, the world is changed on this night when Jesus is born. Because on this night, the world is reminded that God is with us. God makes God’s home amongst us.
So, here we are, my friends. Here we are. The wait is over. Our only task now is to stop for a moment and take a breath, to rest in God’s invitation that is the Christ light. Because God is here amongst us, no matter what we have done or what we have not done. God is with us in this manger.
What a gift. What an unexpected gift of Love.