Christmas at St. John’s, Lafayette

Marc Chagall,  Madonna of the Village , 1942

Marc Chagall, Madonna of the Village, 1942

Sermon preached by the Rev Dr. Bradley Pace
at St. John’s on Christmas Eve

When we tell the story of the exile in Godly Play, the storyteller uses the desert box, figures that represent the people of God, and a large metal chain that separates them from their home in Jerusalem and from the Temple. One Godly Play storyteller recently wrote on the Godly Play Facebook page that a seven-year-old in her class was working with the desert box. He had it set up just so, with God’s people on one side, the Temple on the other and the chain separating them. He looked up at the teacher and said, “you know, if you turn the chain this way, it’s a bridge instead of a wall.”

When I heard this story, I thought, this kid gets it; he gets something powerful about what God is up to in the world. The prophet Isaiah said that a little child would lead God’s people. Think about this story the next time you doubt the ability of a little child to lead us into seeing what God is doing, into seeing the ways of justice and peace. Think about this story the next time you doubt the spiritual capacity of children.

What this kid gets is the fact that God is in the business of building bridges rather than walls. In fact, this is exactly what Christmas is about. Whatever else the Christmas story is about, it is fundamentally about God crossing the boundary between heaven and earth, crossing the boundary between the divine and the human. Whatever else the Christmas story is about, it is fundamentally about God becoming flesh and dwelling with human beings. Whatever else the Christmas story is about, it is fundamentally about God making his home in the midst of human joy and pain. The Christmas story is about the incarnation—the embodiment or en-flesh-ment of God. This is what John is telling us in the beginning of his Gospel. John doesn’t give us a manger or lowing cattle or shepherds or magi. John doesn’t even give us angels shouting Gloria in excelsis. Instead, John takes us back to the beginning of creation. “In the beginning was the Word,” he says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being….” But then the God whose word this is, the God who is this word, did something we did not expect. “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” This Word that became flesh comes to us in a manger, this Word lived among us as an infant child. This Word was full of the glory and grace of God because he was God in the flesh. He came to dwell with humankind—the Greek word that John uses means God literally “pitched his tent” with us. And thus, the wall between God and humanity was torn down.

The Christmas story—the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, God living among us—shows us what God thinks of our walls. The Christmas story shows us what God does with our walls. We define God and put God in a box only to see God smash our idols. We build walls to keep people out, and God—as Carlos Rodriguez reminds us— “goes over to the other side … and invites us to join him there.” We put up walls to separate our tribe, our kind, from the others, and God destroys the distinctions we make. As St. Paul says, “in Christ, we who were once far off have been brought near…. [In Christ, God] … has broken down the dividing wall, the hostility between us.” God obliterates the markers we use to gain the upper hand, to hold on to our privilege, to maintain control. In Christ, God has dealt once and for all with the power of sin and death. In Christ, God calls us to break down walls rather than build them. God calls us to love our neighbor, to welcome the stranger, to seek reconciliation, to work for God’s own justice and peace.

But that’s only the beginning of John’s story just as the manger and the shepherds, the angels and the magi, are the beginning of the story in the other Gospels. Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary are forced to flee to Egypt in order to save the infant Jesus from Herod the King. This story is not in Luke’s Gospel, but we do hear the prophet Simeon tell Mary that Jesus is “a sign that will be opposed” and that because of him “a sword would pierce [her] soul”.

John tells us that Jesus, God’s Word, God in the flesh, “was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Human beings, God’s own beloved creatures made in the image of God, did not recognize God in their midst.

How can this be? How could the world—the world that God created, the world that God so loved—how could we be blind to God’s coming?

I think the simple answer is that we love walls. There is nothing more human than building walls, literally and figuratively. Walls make us feel safe. Walls make us feel secure. We build theological systems to keep humanity safely on one side and God on the other. We are here; God is out there. We have built many real, physical walls throughout our history too. Just now, this very moment, there is a wall segregating Palestinians from Israelis in Bethlehem.

Our leaders continue to build borders and fences—and even demand actual walls—to keep us safe on one side from some “very bad people” on the other side. We separate ourselves by political party or by race, by class, gender, or sexuality. We live in silos of people who look and think and live like us. Gated communities are still all the rage. And sure, not all of us support these walls or think this way, not all of us demand these things, not all of us yearn to be on one side of a wall. But human history and the current moment show us that these walls are the rule rather than the exception. And besides that, not one of us is exempt from the pain of estrangement or loss. We are all victims of history, victims of the past. People of color or women, for instance, have borne the brunt of that past. But we are all broken by it, to mix metaphors, we are all broken by the dividing wall that keeps us from being able to truly love one another as sisters and brothers. Not one of us is immune from sin—from the failure to live as we were created to live, reflecting God’s love into the world and back to God.

But the Christmas story—the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, God living among us—shows us what God thinks of our walls. The Christmas story shows us what God does with our walls. We define God and put God in a box only to see God smash our idols. We build walls to keep people out, and God—as Carlos Rodriguez reminds us— “goes over to the other side … and invites us to join him there.” We put up walls to separate our tribe, our kind, from the others, and God destroys the distinctions we make. As St. Paul says, “in Christ, we who were once far off have been brought near…. [In Christ, God] … has broken down the dividing wall, the hostility between us.” God obliterates the markers we use to gain the upper hand, to hold on to our privilege, to maintain control. In Christ, God has dealt once and for all with the power of sin and death. In Christ, God calls us to break down walls rather than build them. God calls us to love our neighbor, to welcome the stranger, to seek reconciliation, to work for God’s own justice and peace.

Here is the true meaning of Christmas. It looks like the splendor of a candlelit church and sounds like the quiet beauty of “Silent Night”. It tastes like the bread and the wine of the Communion table where we become one body in Christ. But it also sounds like the prophets crying out in the wilderness or the great mystics who taught us how to find those thin places where God and humanity come into closer contact. It looks like St. Elizabeth who built schools and hospitals for the poor or Desmond Tutu who called a nation to justice and racial reconciliation. It looks like the brave and loving people who witness to hope and peace on both sides of the wall in today’s Bethlehem and all places torn by fear, suspicion, and violence. It smells and tastes like the paella made by chefs who crossed into Mexico today to make traditional Christmas meals for thousands of migrants waiting to apply for asylum in the U.S. It looks like my friends Steve, Jorge, and Josh who have been caring for migrants at the US’s southern border and witnessing to their trauma and fear. It looks like Doctors without Borders. It feels like the grace and compassion of the Pennsylvania Amish community who reached out to the family of the man who murdered ten young girls at an Amish school there or like the forgiveness offered by the members of Mother Immanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to the man who shot their pastor and eight others during Bible study. Here is the true meaning of Christmas—the joy that comes from peace and justice, the hope that comes from swords beaten into plowshares, the strength of community, the comfort of confession and forgiveness and reconciliation, the power of sacrificial love that tears down walls and crosses borders.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” May the Glory of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ, abound for you this Christmas season. May you experience the fullness of God’s grace and truth. But may you also recognize what God has done, what God is doing, at Christmas. God has crossed the boundary between heaven and earth, crossed the boundary between the divine and the human. God has become flesh and lived among us, God has pitched his tent, planted his flag, made his cause with us in the midst of our joy and pain. In Christ, God has brought us near to one another and broken down the dividing wall between us, making true reconciliation, true communion possible. And God has called us to rejoice, to seek peace and justice, to let go of that which divides us, to confess and forgive, to tear down walls and cross boundaries.

May the blessing of that God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be with you and those you love this Christmastide. 

Amen.