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December 24, 2023 “Christmas Eve: Be the First One”

December 24, 2023 “Christmas Eve: Be the First One”

Lisa Wiens Heinsohn

Homily by Lisa Wiens Heinsohn for St. John’s Episcopal Church on December 24, 2023

Merry Christmas!

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. You have increased the nation’s joy. There shall be endless peace. I am bringing you news of great joy that shall be for all the people. Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God.

There is a theme in the stories and prophecies that for Christians are bound up with the birth of Jesus, and it is a story of boundless and increasing joy. It is a theme about light that shines out of darkness, beginning as just a tiny sliver of light, and then exponentially increasing, sending waves and ripple effects outward. It is joy that is unexpected, unearned, un-looked for, and contagious. It is the raw, profound joy of God coming to us to help. To heal. To join with. To save us from drowning. To feed us with an extravagant meal that never ends. To invite us to sing in a chorus of beautiful voices that never stop, because the joy is too great to contain.

And I don’t mean just giddy happiness, like when you play with a puppy or like those annoying people who are only cheerful all the time. Christmas is about having discovered a deep reality that mostly only marginalized folks like shepherds ever really recognize at the first pass: God is not here to judge and punish us, but to stand right next to us and love us extravagantly and help us in all the ups and downs of this untamed adventure we call life. And it turns out that love is contagious. Joy and generosity are contagious. Most of us, even if we’re not aware of it, are just waiting for a nudge to step into our best selves, to step into a life in which we live freely, taking risks for the sake of love, choosing joy and trust over fear and numbness.

I remember one Christmas diner a number of years ago, I was with extended family and unfortunately politics came up. Let’s just say that we didn’t all vote for the same presidential candidate at the last several elections. Someone said something that got my stomach in knots. But then, my brother Steve just responded kindly, while not compromising his own integrity, but without demonizing the other person either. It was breathtaking. My whole attitude changed. It helped the whole tenor of the conversation stay relaxed and loving, and surprisingly authentic and honest too.

Being able to share contagious love starts with receiving the love of God in Christ who comes to us as a tiny baby. Then, when we are filled with this love and this joy, we can share it, and watch it take on a momentum and a life of its own and spread outward like light in the big bang or the birth of a star or a beautiful sunrise.

The best way into this reality isn’t through ideas, but through experiences. With her permission I’d like to share an experience Linda McKee had recently that portrays some of this. Rex also told this story in his deacon’s blog in the e-news a few weeks ago, in case you missed it. Linda was driving in St. Louis Park when she spotted a young man in his twenties who appeared to be so drunk he was barely conscious. He was walking and weaving in and out between the sidewalk and the street, falling down on the street and getting up, and cars were dodging him and trying to avoid him, but he seemed oblivious. Without even thinking Linda decided to help him so she whipped her car around and got out and approached him and just said, hey Buddy, let’s get you out of the street. She kept nudging him. Then a mailman got out of his car and told Linda he had been following him for a whole block. Pretty soon a third guy stopped his car and came to help. Eventually police came and they gently guided the young man into the back seat so he could be taken home. Later Linda thought, what did I just do? What if the drunk guy had taken a swing at me? What if he had gotten violent? It was risky, stopping to help. But she didn’t even think of that when she stopped. She just did it because she wanted to protect this man who was helpless in that moment, even if he might have been helpless due to his own actions.

What does this have to do with exponentially increasing joy?

It has to do with contagious love. The mailman had been following the drunk guy for a block but didn’t get out to intervene until he saw Linda do it. When two people were involved it paved the way for a third to come help. Sometimes it just takes one person to model love, one person to crack the ice with a smile, one person to stand up on behalf of someone being bullied, one person to ask the kid who is all alone to play with the group, One person to delete the snarky email response instead of sending it—and it somehow opens the door for others to do the same. Scientists speculate that just before the big bang, the entire universe was what they call a “singularity”—the size of a subatomic particle. Then it exploded and it’s been increasing ever since. Dawn starts with just a hint of light on the horizon, but soon it becomes the bright sunshine of day. Love and joy are like that.

Sometimes we are like the drunk guy, totally lost and out of control. Sometimes we are like the mailman following along in the car, concerned but not knowing what to do. Sometimes we’re the other people just speeding by, oblivious or feeling like we don’t have time to stop. God in Christ is the one who gets out of the car to help us. Not to judge, not to scold, not to lock us up. But just to help. It’s easier to do this for someone else if you’ve been the recipient of such help from someone else. But either way, Jesus’ Way of Love is contagious and available for anyone and everyone—from the marginalized stranger to the Harvard MBA.

Love is the one thing that grows when it is shared instead of diminishing. Joy is also contagious, laughter is contagious, good moods are contagious. It brings joy when kindness that is unearned and unexpected comes your way and helps you bear your burden. It brings joy when you can let go of the fear that you will never be good enough, when you know you are wildly loved exactly as you are. And we all know that this world is in desperate need of courageous generosity, love that takes risks, love that models a different way of being than what we see in the evening news and political discourse and family feuds. Sometimes it just takes one person to break the ice and change the whole course of events for a group of people, or neighborhood, or nation.

Be the first one. Say yes to love. Joy is contagious. Even if the whole world seems dark, or the evening news is terrible—swim upstream, people. Swim back to the source of who you are, the love of God in Christ, the profound and unconditional delight God feels in us just like we feel when we hold a newborn baby. Know with certainty that there is nothing you can do or become that can separate you from the love Jesus embodies and shares with us, and that we ferociously celebrate each year on this holy night. Amen. Merry Christmas.

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