Sunday, December 25, 2011

Silent Night (NOT)...Sermon for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass 2011

There are two things that I especially love about this midnight mass.
The first is that it really is a midnight mass.
We will pass over from Christmas Eve into Christmas Day
as we celebrate the Eucharist.
It is so wonderfully counter-cultural to have church at midnight.
People are usually NOT at church at midnight.

I love this.
Because what it really says is
the Holy Spirit comes at odd and unusual times,
not necessarily prime time or convenient time.
What it says is that God is always doing the unexpected
and urging us to do the unexpected--
like come to church and stay past midnight.

It also reminds those of us who are usually in bed by 9 PM
that there are still some things
worthy of staying up late.
I do realize-- that for some of you,
midnight is hardly late--not late at all in fact--
but hopefully you too will admit
that midnight on Christmas eve
holds a magic for all ages,
for both night owls and early birds.

The other thing I love about this midnight mass is
after we have received communion,
the church lights are dimmed into darkness
and we each hold a lighted candle
as we sing.

We sing
the well-known
and much loved Christmas carol
"Silent Night."

Silent night, holy night....

Yet the truth is
it is unlikely that the night of Jesus’ birth was silent.
Holy, yes.
Silent, no.

Babies coming into the world generally don’t tend to be quiet affairs.

Think about the sounds.
Perhaps Mary crying out during the birth.
Joseph reaching for the child, whispering words of comfort,
to both baby and Mary.

Our theology teaches us that Jesus was fully divine and fully human.
I imagine that fully human baby
came into the world
not with uplifted hands in the orans position of blessing,
but wailing at the top of his little very human lungs.

Perhaps there were others there as well.
Joseph may have sent for help--
there may have been women from that Bethlehem neighborhood
that came to assist with the birth--
or if they weren’t there for the birth,
surely they came not long after--
bringing food, chattering, cooing,---
word of a new baby spreads quickly.

Tradition tells us there were animals--
lambs bleating, donkeys braying, a cow or two mooing--
perhaps even a crowing rooster and a clucking hen or two.

There may have been noises from the town streets-
a heated argument spilling out from one of the overly-full inns,
people chopping wood for fires,
peddlers calling out in the wee morning hours.

What a world of noise it must have been
for the newly-born Jesus.
Merry Chaos, little one!
Happy not-so-silent night!

Our culture today tends to make the Christmas story
a Hallmark special of sentimentality.
There’s nothing wrong with sentimental,
but it’s highly unlikely that this first century birth
was a Charlie Brown sort of Christmas.

There were noises and smells--
some not too pleasant no doubt.
I don’t think Mary--or Joseph-- was baking sugar cookies that night.

Mary, like most mothers who have just given birth,
was probably exhausted.
And like any new parents,
both she and Joseph probably can’t take their eyes off this baby.
They already know that God will use this child
in ways they cannot really imagine.
That in itself is both wonderful and terrifying.

Jesus is entering the world in a time of strife and terror.

There was no doubt great tension throughout the city--
everyone having to report for the census.
Be counted, be registered and then be taxed.
Not showing up was not an option.

Though surely at least one or two
thought of starting an Occupy Bethlehem movement.
Risky probably to even THINK such thoughts
under that regime.

Herod was not known as a good and generous ruler.
He was known as an executioner, a slaughterer.

The world was in desperate need of good news.

The baby is born and immediately the angels go out to tell the world.
They go out into the fields to tell the shepherds.
The good news did not go first to the wealthy and the privileged.
The news came first to the poor, these rural laborers--shepherds.

Can you imagine-- there you are living outdoors,
sitting beneath the night sky
and an angel shows up and says,
“Guess what? God’s Messiah, has been born--
just up the road! Come and see!”

At first the shepherds are afraid.
Surely there must have been at least a few moments of unbelief!

The Messiah? Just up the road? Really?!!
(Whoa! Angels, get a grip!)

But regardless of what the shepherds were thinking
or muttering under their breath,
Luke’s gospel says they went.
They went to see for themselves.

How important it is to go and see for ourselves.
How easy it is to discount even good news,
to scoff it away.
But the shepherds went.

You have to wonder--
if the news had gone first to the wealthy and the privileged--
would they have gone to see for themselves?
Would we?

The shepherds went with haste.

And what do you know?!!
There was a baby--a child lying in the feed trough, the manger--
and there was the mother, Mary
and the father, Joseph.

The shepherds heard, they went, they saw, they were stunned--
they worshipped--and they went out and told others.
Today we would call that model evangelism!

What does this story mean for us today?
How do we find light in the darkness
in a world today
which also seems in desperate need for good news?

Repeatedly God calls us to pay attention to “babies in mangers.”
I don’t mean that literally.
I mean we are called to pay attention
when we see God at work in the world in unexpected,
in surprising ways.
We are called to not expect God
to fit neatly into our or the world’s little box of expectations.

We are called to pay attention when love comes down
in unexpected places at unexpected moments.

We EXPECT (though it doesn’t always happen)
that we will meet God in church.
Isn’t church where God lives?
Yes and no.
Yes, I hope God lives here.
But God is not confined to church or to one place or to one people.

If we pay attention,
we might hear God speak to us
in the voice of the cashier at CVS
when she shares about the Christmas it snowed and
they lost their electricity
and their house was full of family
and they couldn’t cook the big meal they planned
and they couldn’t even shower
but how her granddaughter who was four years old at the time
remembers that “as the best Christmas ever.”
Sometimes what seems like a disaster
eliminates some of the busy-ness that fills our holidays
and just makes us treasure the being together,
being present with one another is the gift.
Love comes down.

If we listen
we may hear the voice of angels in a prison
or at a hospice bedside or in a school classroom
or in a parking lot.

A friend with three small children
recently shared that her middle daughter told her,
“Every night when Papa comes in to tell me good night,
he always tells me he loves me
and he tells me that I am important.”
Love comes down.

If we push aside our dark tendencies to blame others
or to lament the hard knocks that life has dealt us
(and life can wield some knockout punches),
we might rediscover hope--and even joy.
Love comes down.

When we feel we are too small,
too insignificant to make a difference
we might remember that we have been given immense power.

Last year Americans spent $ 450 billion on Christmas.
Clean water for the whole world--
including every single poor person on the planet,
would cost about $ 20 billion.
We are not without power.
We are just sometimes lost in the darkness
on how to best use that power.
We need to open our eyes and see the baby in the manger.

Coming out of the darkness and noise and conflict
and seeing a newly born baby,
is not the END of the story.

Kneeling or standing in silence
with one small lighted candle
is not the END of our service.

Christmas is the BEGINNING of our story.
Every year we hear the story once again
and every year we are given another chance to begin again.
To embrace the love that comes down.

Yes, we live in a noisy world,
a chaotic world, a troubling world.

But we still hold our candle in the darkness
to remind us of the words of the prophet Isaiah:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness
on them light has shined.

Christmas is our beginning.
Love comes down and love goes out.

From here we go out into the world
to give voice and vision
to those who have been pushed aside to the harsh margins.

The work of Christmas begins,
but does not end, tonight.

Howard Thurman puts it this way in his poem “The Work of Christmas”:

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 flock,
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 brothers [and sisters]
To make music in the heart.

Love comes down.
Christmas is the beginning of the story.

Silent night, holy night...
love’s pure light....

Love’s pure light.

Merry Christmas.

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