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Sermon: 12/24/2018 Christmas Eve

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Sermon, Christmas Eve 2018                                                                                                Jeffrey B. MacKnight
24 December 2018                                                                                                              St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

A Story: One Christmas Day, the old bachelor priest, Fr. Peter, arrived at the Joneses’ house for Christmas dinner.  Mrs. Jones welcomed him, and little Johnny said hi.  Trying to make conversation, the old padre asked Johnny, “So what’s for dinner today?”  “Goat,” said Johnny.  “Are you sure?” said Fr. Peter, a little worried.  “Oh yes, Father,” said Johnny.  “I heard Mom say to Dad, ‘I guess we’d better have the old goat for Christmas dinner….” 

Today is my twentieth and last time to preach to this community at Christmas, since I am retiring in May. I’d say that makes me an “old goat”!   This made me think: 

What, for me, is the most important message of this strange story of a child born of poor parents so long ago in Judea, an insignificant outpost of the Roman Empire? 

When we set aside all the trappings and customs of Christmas – the twinkling lights in the neighborhood as we walk the dogs at night, the piles of brown Amazon boxes in the recycling bin, the endless variations on the twenty most popular Christmas carols (and I am a full participant in many of these traditions!) – what is at the core of this ancient story which to this day holds our imaginations?

It’s about reunion: two realities coming together and becoming one:

  • God and Human, Heaven and Earth, Spiritual and Temporal
  • Making unity out of separateness
  • Overcoming enmity and alienation
  • Finding reconciliation when our sins have driven us so far apart

In fact, I would say, whenever a barrier is overcome and a relationship is formed or renewed, Christmas comes. 

This year I was touched by such a story in the news.  You may know the sweet operetta called Amahl and the Night Visitors, by Gian-Carlo Menotti.  Amahl is the story of a desperately poor boy Amahl, and his mother.  Amahl is disabled – he cannot walk without his crutch, made from a tree-branch which he fashioned himself.

One night, when Amahl and his mother have run out of food, there is a great stir outside: three great men have arrived – the Magi, the kings, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christchild.  This encounter will change the fate of Amahl.  When Amahl hears of Jesus, he decides he wants to give a gift to the Christchild himself, but all he has is his crutch.  He offers it, and in that moment, he is healed of his infirmity: he can walk, he can run!  He goes with the Magi to meet the baby Jesus. It is a beautiful story of human life touched by the divine: a Christmas moment.

What I read about in the newspaper was a special production of Amahl – to be performed in a soup kitchen in Times Square, Manhattan – in an Episcopal Church!  Professional soloists joined forces with impoverished diners in the soup kitchen, bringing together folks from different backgrounds in a moment of art and beauty and inspiration.  The diners realized they could sing and dance and act.  Barriers were broken!  Hope was renewed!  When the homeless people rise with pride to sing the “Shepherd’s Chorus”, Christmas comes. 

When folks who have been humiliated and felt discarded in this world stand up and join in a glorious proclamation of human worth, of healing power, of God touching the earth, Christmas comes. 

At Christmas, we center on this babe born in a poor manger.  There is a sweetness about this child, this little baby, son of Mary. There is an innocence there, as there was in Adam and Eve, before they ever rebelled against God’s will, before sin entered this world. 

This child has not yet seen the terrible things of this world which nobody should ever have to see.  No barriers have yet been erected between this child and other human beings. 

There is a hope in this child which comes with every new life: the hope that joy and love and satisfaction will outweigh loss and heartache and estrangement. 

And there is a promise in this child – that if God and humanity can be truly joined – truly one – in this baby Jesus, they can be truly joined in me, in you, in every human being. 

Every child is an incarnation of this Christchild, and deserves love and care, and a future.  If we could only recognize that kinship in ourselves, and in others, God’s Kingdom would truly come on earth as it is in heaven. 

So, each year we hear again the angels sing, we gather around the stable, we draw close to the manger, and gaze on the child who has changed the world, and changes it still.  The glow of that child shines on our faces and changes us, softens us.  Old grudges fall away, and in that moment love conquers all.  Christmas comes. 

And if love can happen in this moment, then love can prevail in many moments, in all times and in all places. 

So bring him incense, gold and myrrh, come peasant, king, to own him;
The King of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone him.
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary. 
                                                                                                            Hymn 115

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