A sermon for Christmas Eve

Way back when I was a young newspaper reporter, I worked for an editor who just loved human interest stories. Those are the ones that show the human face behind the headlines. They’re stories about real people the readers can identify with. A good human interest story helps us to understand the world we live in and very often it can also help us to understand something about ourselves and the kind of people we want to be.

People love a good human interest story, and the story told in the Christmas gospels is one of the best human interest stories ever told. No matter how many times we hear it, it still has the power to fill us with hope and expectation. It’s a story about a family making it through a tough situation. It’s a story about love. And it’s a story about a baby—and who doesn’t love a baby? One part of why we love it is that it promises to satisfy some of our deepest human longings: Those longings for peace and love, for the beauty and promise of new life, and ultimately for the redeeming of all human brokenness. It’s a wonderful story partly because of the way it fills us with hope.

And the Christmas story has the power to pull us right in to a personally. It calls us to remember all the times that we’ve heard it before, to remember where we were and how we felt and who we heard it with. And those memories often make us feel both glad and sad.

For myself, I always hear it in the voice of the pastor of the church where I grew up. This was on Long Island, so not surprisingly he had a strong New York accent. And his voice sounded a lot like Grandpa on The Munsters, if you remember that old show.

And I have to tell myself when I get up there and start to read it not to go into imitation mode, because when I get to the part that goes, “And she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in the mange-uh.” That’s how I hear it in my head.

But this story doesn’t just carry us back to the past. It’s always happening again right now. And that’s the miracle of Christmas: That Christ came into the world, that Christ comes into the world again and again. And that Christ comes into the world through us. So I got a Christmas card from the Diocese of Pennsylvania. That’s a little strange, because I’m part of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, so it’s like getting a Christmas card from yourself. And this one has a modern interpretation of an ancient icon. It shows Mary standing there with her arms out, and there’s a kind of a figure within her that shows the Christ child also with his hands out in the position that we use when we’re praying at the altar.

This icon is called theotokos, which is a title for Mary that goes back to about the third century. And usually it’s translated into English as “Mother of God.” But we don’t really have quite the right word for it. A closer translation would be “Christ bearer,” bearer of Christ. God bearer. It’s part of the tradition that says that she bore Christ into life in this world. But there’s also a tradition that says that we do the same. That we’re all meant to be Christ bearers. That she bore him and birthed him that first Christmas, and we bring Christ into the world every day in our everyday lives.

So there’s a guy from the 13th century, early 14th, named Meister Eckhart, and one of the things he said was

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.

So we’re all called to bear Christ into the world. And also to look around us for those other places where Christ is being birthed. In our baptismal service in the Book of Common Prayer what we say is, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons. To recognize where God is at work in the world, but also to see where there is love around us, and how the world is changing for the better. And to tell those things to everyone we meet. That’s part of proclaiming the Gospel.

So how do we do that? Partly by just being good and loving persons, being loving to everyone around us. But it’s really bigger than that. So going back to human interest stories, I want to share three human interest stories that I think show what this looks like. 

First is the story of Shane McDaniel.[i]He’s a single father of 21-year-old twin sons, and he lives about 35 miles north of Seattle in the state of Washington. And he and his sons spent months, I think starting back last spring, chopping and stacking firewood, until they had enough, he estimated, to fill 80 pickup trucks. I think the estimated value was $10,000. And then he put out the word that he would deliver it for free to anyone who was in need, who needed that firewood. And this is in an area where a lot of people do rely on wood only to heat their houses. Hundreds of people took him up on the offer. He put his number out there and he became sort of a hub, like a clearinghouse for donations of firewood and for deliveries of firewood. He’s hoping to do it again next year and to have even more than his 80 truckloads. So that’s the story of Shane McDaniel.

The second story I want to tell is the story of Katelyn Kenny.[ii]She’s a young woman who graduated from the University of Houston in 2017, in journalism, as a matter of fact. She spent the first year after college working as a volunteer in the Episcopal Service Corps in Texas. And now this year, she’s in Washington, and she’s an intern in the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, which is an office that works to build relationships with people in Congress to influence public policy, as many other groups try to do. But to influence it in the direction of justice, because doing individual good deeds is not the only thing we need to do. We need to change our society to eliminate some of the problems that bring people to the point of needing those things. She describes her job as standing at the intersection of public policy and private personal faith. And she says she’s growing in that place, and also trying to discern who she’s going to be in this life.

Okay. So now the last example of my three. This one’s going to seem a little frivolous, but I’ll explain it. So Alyssa Emrick,[iii]a college student, was on the way home from church with her father, Troy, when they passed an intersection in Toledo, Ohio, where there’s this great big weed growing. It wasn’t the first time they saw the weed. But her dad got inspired. They stopped at a Walgreen’s and bought some tinsel, and they decorated the weed. And they were very pleased with their work.

But it didn’t stop there. Next thing you know there were ornaments on the weed. Next thing you know the weed had a tree skirt. Someone brought a little train, they put out a little train going around the weed. Then someone tried to steal the weed. But other people brought potted dead plants and put the next to it, and they put ornaments on those. People brought gifts, they brought socks and hats and imperishable food for people in need in Toledo. Soon the weed had a Facebook page called the Toledo Christmas Weed. And people came to sing carols next to it. And eventually it was in the news, which is how I found out about it..

Okay. So that maybe isn’t as profoundly people-oriented as the guy bringing firewood, but you know what, joy is part of it. Joy is part of the good news. It’s part of being a Christian. There was joy that first Christmas night. Even the first followers of Jesus knew joy in the worst persecution. Joy is different from happiness. We know joy here tonight. We’ll go out of here singing “Joy To The World.” And sharing that joy is part of the story of the Toledo Christmas Weed..

So I want to close with a poem. It’s by Saint John of the Cross, who was a 16th-century saint and mystic. He says:

If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy and say, “I need shelter for the night,
please take me inside your heart, my time is close.” 

Then, under the roof of your being, you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the Anointed One will take birth inside you,
as the Virgin grasps your hands for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us. 

Yes, there, under the dome of your being
Creation comes into existence, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb of your soul, as God grasps our arms for help;
for each of us is a beloved Servant never far, 

So yes, if you want
the Virgin will come walking down the street toward you
pregnant with light and singing.

And that is the true miracle of Christmas. 

Amen.


[i]Caitlin Huson, “A father and his sons cut wood … “ Dec. 21, 2018 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2018/12/21/father-his-sons-cut-wood-fill-trucks-then-they-brought-it-homes-that-needed-heat/?utm_term=.99760a0de28f&wpisrc=nl_inspired&wpmm=1Accessed Dec. 24, 2018.

[ii]Katelyn Kenny, “JCE Internship Begins in Washington, D.C.,” Oct. 2, 2018. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/uto/jce-internship-begins-washington-dcAccessed Dec. 24, 2018.

[iii]“A humble weed grew … “Washington Post, Dec. 19, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/12/19/humble-weed-grew-cracked-city-sidewalk-now-its-christmas-weed-festive-holiday-destination/?utm_term=.6e8add5e6d27. Accessed Dec. 22, 2018.