Have you ever wished that there was a way to keep the Christmas Spirit all year long? I don’t mean all of the rushing around, eating too much, and feeling like something is missing. That stuff you can keep. I mean the sense of wonder, the hope that we truly can be at peace, and the moments of stillness when there is no time left to do the things that have been left undone.
Oh how I wish we could bottle up the way people treat each other with just a little more love and charity during the weeks that lead to the celebration of the birth of Jesus! What would it smell like – fresh baked cookies, pine trees, or maybe just cinnamon? What would it sound like – favorite carols, Handle’s Messiah, or maybe just the story of the nativity of Jesus?
Of course there is a reason that we only celebrate Christmas once a year. It is because we need the anticipation of Advent and the revelation of Christmas Eve to demonstrate what we believe. And we believe that the God of the universe chose to be revealed in a special way through the faithfulness of Mary and Joseph and the vulnerability of the Christ-child.
And today, while we remember the sights and sounds of Christmas and the good feeling we get from joy filled celebration, we remember that God is still with us – even as the world still cries out for salvation. Today we are bold to celebrate Christmas in July as a part of our continued efforts to integrate our calling to express the love of God with our practices as a congregation. Our vision, our sense of identity as a congregation is that we are “A Place to Experience, Explore, and Express the Love of God.”
Some time back the Fellowship Committee realized that our monthly gatherings for lunch were a perfect place to celebrate the various mission projects and relationships we share in the community. So, we started calling those lunches our “Express Lunch” where we “express the love of God” through these projects and partnerships.
Today we are highlighting our relationship with the C.U.P.S. Basket Ministry. For those who are not familiar with it, C.U.P.S. (Communities Uniting in Prayer and Service) was formed after the storms of 2005 to meet the needs of those displaced by the hurricanes. One of the ways that we have continued to support them is by offering space and materials for gift baskets at Christmas, Easter, and throughout the year. C.U.P.S. produces baskets for birthdays for children at risk and as gifts for teachers, families of inmates, our Meals on Wheels Clients, our LARC cleaning crew, and even a few nursing homes. Sue Turner and her crew of elves take new and gently used items and make them into expressions of care and love for those who often go unnoticed, and we’ll be helping her with some of the basic preparations after lunch today.
Perhaps the basket ministry is an obvious proclamation of the Gospel, but I think there is yet more the scriptures hold for us today. Acts of charity certainly are an expression of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, but we must be careful to remember that they are the end result of faith, and not the means. Besides, it is easy to do something good and feel justified.
The harder road is to recognize our own need for charity and how it intersects with those we think of as needy. The harder road is to consider the way our faith offers reconciliation not only with God, but with each other. The harder road is to consider how oppression affects the powerful and the powerless alike, and how God has called for an end to it through Jesus Christ!
Oppression is a good place to start. I grew up believing that oppression was outlawed in America, and technically it is. Oppression can be defined as systematic, ongoing, cruel or unjust treatment or control. Oppression can be something overt and intentional like slavery – which is arguably worse today than any point in human history – or it can be insidious and idealistic like racism or classism or sexism. So, yes, oppression still happens, even in these United States.
In the time of Isaiah oppression was fairly straightforward. It came in the form of the invading Assyrians who overthrew Israel. Having a border nation with a shared heritage overthrown will get your attention. The people of Judah saw the light. When King Hezekiah came in, he cleaned up all the religious places and kicked out the foreign Gods. The people, for a time, were safe.
The author of Matthew’s Gospel certainly knew that Isaiah was writing about Hezekiah, but he also knew that the struggle against oppression was still real. That’s why he used the prophecy to refer to Jesus. And although many will debate the virgin birth and the idea that all kings claimed some kind of divinity, that’s not really the point of the author of Matthew’s Gospel. His point is not about mystical revelation. Matthew’s Gospel is about faithfulness to God. Matthew is concerned about faithfulness to the God who redeems, and he is concerned with the response of God’s people. And he is not shy about the fact that faith is something that is both practical and risky. In the story we shared today, Joseph has decided to divorce (dismiss) Mary quietly – even though they aren’t married yet.
In those days the engagement was as binding as the wedding, even though they were not supposed to be together until after the wedding. Mary has been revealed to him as pregnant, and although the text says “by the Holy Spirit” all Joseph knows is that Mary had another dance partner. Joseph is described as righteous because he is willing to divorce her quietly. He could go to court and clear his name, sort of. He might get back the bride price if he paid one. But he is unwilling to take away her dignity just to save his own. It is a lose / lose situation for Joseph, but he is righteous because he knows that being right is not always the same thing as doing the right thing.
Then Joseph takes righteousness a step further. An angel visits him in a dream and tells him that this child will be “Emmanuel, which means God with us.” And because of a dream – because of a belief in the active presence of God and his faith in the God who is remembered in song and ceremony for redeeming God’s people – Joseph makes the connection between righteousness and mercy, and he took Mary as his wife. And together they created a hospitable space in the world for the presence of God to enter in.
And isn’t that what we are called to do, even here, even now, even today? The struggle is still real. Opinions fly like sharpened knives over what it means to be courageous, over the free access to military grade weaponry, and over the reality of racial tension in our land. We segment ourselves off with other birds with similar feathers. We lob emails and articles and memes across the trenches of the internet, and we take positions of righteousness because we think we know what is best. And sometimes we do. But sometimes being right is not the same as doing the right thing. Sometimes we have to be willing to find the connection between righteousness and mercy in order to be faithful to the God who is in the business of redemption.
That’s why Paul told the church in Ephesus to remember how it used to be. He wanted them to remember how it used to be before they experienced God’s activity in their lives, before real faith began, before redemption made sense to them. For some of us that may be hard to understand. If you grew up in the church you may not have a moment when you did not know about God. But consider this, Paul said that redemption was both the Gentiles and the Jews.
All are in need of redemption, for in the same way that hanging out in a garage does not make you a mechanic, going to church does not make you a disciple of Jesus! But the church is still the place that God calls us to become. And the church does not become the church just because people who are nice to each other sing Christmas Carols. The church becomes the church when people who cannot even speak to each other for fear of losing status and resources and identity sit down to share a meal and find out that they are each beloved in the eyes of God.
In some small way, my hope is that the baskets we make this year will demonstrate the fact that we see people – people who normally go unnoticed – as God’s beloved. And yet I know that God is pushing us toward something more. For God has broken down the dividing wall between us and put hostility to death! I’m sure that those in the news media will disagree with that – given the inconvenience it would cause them – but I’ll stand by it.
I’ll stand by this text because I believe that God has put hostility to death in two ways. First, God has put hostility to death eternally. The end result of all things will be that God’s love consumes everything. All the hostility in the world is like a pebble in the ocean when compared to the love of God. And secondly, God has put hostility to death immediately between those who love God. God’s love is so enormous that hostility between those who love God lasts about as long as a candle under a glass. When we truly love God and express God’d love in our relationships, hostility simply dies. It has no fuel. It is snuffed out.
Then we become like building blocks – with Christ as the cornerstone – for a hospitable space in the world for the presence of God to enter in! That’s what Paul encouraged the Ephesians to become. And for a while they did, and they were safe. Historians believe they lasted for around 148 years.
It does make me wonder – maybe safe is not the thing we want to be. Maybe we should be open to the struggles that are real and oppressive. Maybe we should be taking the risk of losing status and power in order to temper righteousness with mercy. Maybe we should be as worried about our own need for reconciliation with others as we are worried about our need for reconciliation with God.
Or maybe worried isn’t the right word. Maybe excited is a better word! After all, today we are celebrating Christmas, even in July, for we are a people of the story of redemption. And we have been redeemed so that we might become an example of the power of God’s amazing love. Somehow I see us as a part of that dome that snuffs out the fires of hostility and creates an open space for love to grow. Somehow I see us as the ones who bear that love into the world as our stories are woven with all who follow Jesus! Somehow, I still believe that God is active and present in all that we do and say.
So when you say, “Merry Christmas!” think of it as a shout for all oppression to cease. When you say, “Merry Christmas!” think of it as a call to righteousness that requires mercy. And When you say, “Merry Christmas!” remember that God is with you, molding and shaping us like clay in the potter’s hands into something ever more beautiful, ever more useful, and ever more faithful to God’s story of redemption – even here, even now. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen!