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12.25.15 Rev. Barnes

Luke 2:1-20                                         In Peace, Be.                                     Susan J. Barnes

December 25, 2015                                                                            St. John’s, Minneapolis


Thank you for being here.

This is my favorite service of the entire year, because it’s intimate, relaxed, quiet.   We have finished with the fuss and bother of Christmas and come to share in the celebration of Jesus’ birth in this beautiful place–joyfully festooned for the season by loving hands.

This sweet sanctuary has been tuned by a century of song, warmed by a century of caring, hallowed by a century of prayer.

*.      *.      *.       *

The Christmas story takes us to another world, remote in time and space.   For hundreds of years artists have depicted the scene in paintings, stained glass, sculptures–and now posters and greeting cards.

Poets have, too–some whose words have been set unforgettably to music.

“Love came down at Christmas…”

“Round yon Virgin, mother and child…”

Those dreamy, gentle evocations are dear to us, indeed. But we need to remember the actual risks, the real dangers involved with Jesus birth that early readers would have quickly grasped.

I got that reminder thanks to an updated image by Everett Patterson that Russ Stephens shared with me.   Called Jose y Maria, it’s a drawing of a young Latino couple on a littered sidewalk outside of Dave’s City Motel.  There’s no vacancy.  It’s dark.  She’s pregnant and anxiously rests her hand on her belly. Jose is on the pay phone, with the directory in his hand.  They are frightened, vulnerable, alone.

In fact, danger hovered over Mary’s problematic pregnancy.   An unmarried woman, realistically she risked being judged an adulteress and put to death by stoning.   Or she might be simply shunned by society, outcast by her family for the shame she brought upon them, abandoned by her fiancé Joseph.

Knowing all that, Mary still had said “Yes”. She agreed to bear God’s child.   Thoughtfully, deliberately, courageously, she had put her life on the line.    God was with her in that solitary choice.

God was there, afterward, in the companionship of her elderly cousin Elizabeth and of Joseph himself. Mary was not alone.   Elizabeth embraced Mary, affirmed the truth of the child’s holiness, and honored her prophetically as “blessed” among women.   Joseph remained with her faithfully.

Travel was very risky in those days.   And it was hard.  How much more so when Mary was near the time for delivery?   But following the Emperor’s decree, she and Joseph went;  from Galilee to Judea, from Nazareth to Bethlehem they traveled–between four and six days’ journey on foot.

There we know their challenges did not end. The couple found no shelter with Joseph’s tribe.    Were his relatives ashamed to house them?   Perhaps.   Far from home, Mary was surely a stranger in a strange land and in a very poignant, strange state of being.

The late J. B. Phillips, Biblical scholar and author of The New Testament in Modern English, wrote:  “There was no…special privilege;…the entry of God into God’s own world was almost heartbreakingly humble. In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman looking desperately for a place where she could give birth to her first baby.”

Then, the child was born.   Childbirth is still risky in the best hospitals.   Imagine delivering a baby in a crowded, dirty, animal shed!   But that ‘s what Mary did.  And she wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a feed trough.   There he was sought out and worshipped by lowly shepherds.

Dear friends, the comfort of the Christmas story is not in its glowing perfection but in its tough, everyday reality.   The more we know about that, the more comforting it is.   Far from a precious, pretty, plaster saint, Mary was a woman who faced challenge after challenge with God’s help.  In every way she proved herself worthy to bear God’s child and to rear him.

This story shows God’s confidence in and presence with the poor, the humble, the vulnerable.  Little wonder that it has spoken for centuries to people who live on the margins.  They get it!  It can speak, as well, to any of us when we are in danger, or alienated from family and friends, when we are misunderstood, or struggle to find a safe place to rest our heads.

God’s love took flesh in defiance of what the world might expect: not in safety, comfort, and privilege, but in danger, in controversy, in humility.

Tonight we celebrate the ineffable mystery of our faith: God’s love incarnate through a real human being, an ordinary young woman who became extraordinary as she faced hardships and risked death.

God’s love incarnate in a real human being, a fragile boy child named Jesus.

Born into the real world–our world–Jesus brought God’s transformative love and peace with him

God beckons us to follow Jesus’ example in being bearers of peace.

God’s peace, carried by one person, can transform the energy of a crowd–even a volatile one.

On April 4, 1968, Bobby Kennedy was campaigning for President. Boarding a plane for Indianapolis, he was stricken to learn that Martin Luther King had been shot.  On arrival he heard that King had died.  Against the advice of the Mayor, and refusing police protection, he went on to the rally in a black neighborhood in the inner-city.   News of the shooting had spread through the mixed-race gathering and tensions were rising.   Standing alone on a flat-bed trailer,  Kennedy told the stunned the crowd that King had died.

Casting aside his prepared remarks, with compassion, vulnerability, and grace, he went on:

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said. “I had a member of my family killed…killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.”

The crowd dispersed quietly   Indianapolis was spared the violence that other cities suffered in the wake of King’s assassination.

God’s peace dwells potentially in the soul of every human being–waiting to be awakened.   That’s one meaning, one gift of the Incarnation.   And it’s a gift that multiplies infinitely in the giving.

Close your eyes for a moment and recall how you feel–or felt–in the presence of the most peaceful, centered person you know.   [Silence]

A beloved elder, perhaps?     A relative?  A friend?   [Silence]

Breathe in that peace.   [Silence]

It’s palpable, isn’t it?

Do you feel the transformation in your own body?   In the energy around you?

That peace is part of your very being.   It is yours to claim, yours to share.

Like our brother Jesus, you and I can bring God’s peace with us into this troubled, fearful world.

Could there be a better Christmas present?