Christmas, Perfection and the Baby Jesus

This was my final sermon after nearly five years of ministry at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, a ministry I was so blessed to have.  In late January I begin anew with service as the new Transitional Presbyter for Albany Presbytery.  A thank you to all who inspired this sermon, some of you are mentioned–others I drew inspiration from and you may not even have known it!  Thanks to Jud Hendrix who offered the quote this week on Facebook and through it offered me inspiration and to Jim Rigby who offered the Reich quote/article also on Facebook that was a perfect way to start a sermon!  Inspiration/ideas come from so many places!   

Our quote today in the bulletin is from Meister Eckhart:  

“We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”

Close up of detail of the "stole of courage," gifted to Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church by Rick Ufford-Chase in 2010.  I returned this stole to the congregation today as they begin ministry in new ways.

Close up of detail of the “stole of courage,” gifted to Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church by Rick Ufford-Chase in 2009. I returned this stole to the congregation today as they begin ministry in new ways.

Text:  Isaiah 7: 10-16 & Matthew 1: 18-25

Former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich offered this sage advice this past week:

Although it’s still possible to win the lottery (your chance of winning $636 million in the recent Mega Millions sweepstakes was one in 259 million), the biggest lottery of all is what family we’re born into. Our life chances are now determined to an unprecedented degree by the wealth of our parents.

Robert Reich is very right about this.  It’s not just the wealth, or non-wealth of our parents, but the birth lottery also extends to what community or country are we born into, what is the emotional health or stability of our families, what color is our skin, and many other markers.  Many people this past week bought a lottery ticket, hoping or praying to be that one in 259 million—but Birth is perhaps one of the greatest risks of all, at that key moment in our lives—so many factors that will usually determine where our life trajectory might go.

I wonder about these things a lot—why some of us arrive into opportunity and others do not?  As Christians, isn’t this a theological question for us?

Today in worship we begin to turn away from Advent and toward Christmas, listening to the beginnings of the Story in Matthew’s Gospel.  The Baby Jesus had an improbable birth, to parents no one would ever imagine—the Baby Jesus did not win the birth lottery.  God chose to become Incarnate in a family that was about as ordinary and forgotten as you could have gotten in that time—Mary and Joseph were not important people, they were nobodies, outcasts, the people who were used by the ruling elite of their day as a commodity that could be exploited for their own use and profit.  Any child they had would be regarded in the same way.  Biblical scholars remind us that Mary was young, we do not know Joseph’s age—but Mary was probably a teenager, which heightened her risk and vulnerability.  They were poor, caught up in a mandatory census and so when the time came to give birth they were travellers with nowhere to stay, at the mercy of the hospitality of strangers.

One of the things I have been thinking about so much this year is the issue of perfection at Christmas.  Mary and Joseph certainly were not perfect; their lives were a mess—this illegitimate and strange birth creating shame and ridicule in their lives.  Joseph was faced with the nearly impossible choice of leaving Mary and being shamed himself in the process or staying with her and suffering even greater shame.  Mary was faced with living in a culture that relentlessly punished women who were judged immoral.  It is clear that Joseph was just about to leave Mary but through God’s intervention was offered a third choice: to participate in a crazy, Divine mystery.  Even so no father for the child was ever named—just the Holy Spirit, not God the Father—nothing really to hang your hat on.  Joseph was somehow convinced that a mystery was better than heartbreak and so he took a risk on Mary.  But participating in the Divine Mystery didn’t fix everything:

their lives were still a mess,

they were still poor,

it was still cold,

their families and community still judged them,

Mary still gave birth in a stable surrounded by animals,

they still were powerless people living under incredible oppression and Empire.

It was nowhere near perfect.

And now they had a helpless baby to care for.

And yet, that is where the mystery happened, that is where the Spirit showed up.  Where it was imperfect, messy, out-of-control.

As a Pastor I hear things like this all the time:

“I can’t come to church for a while.  I am grieving.  I cry constantly.  I make a lot of noise with my tears.  I do not want to upset anyone.  I’ll come back later.”

“I can’t come to church for a while.  My life is a mess.  I’m embarrassed.  Everyone is looking at me, judging me.  I know they are.  When things are more together you’ll see me again.”

“I can’t come to church for a while.  We have no money; we’ve fallen on hard times.  I can’t keep up my pledge; the treasurer and counters come to worship.  They’ll know.  I can’t face that.  When we get jobs again we’ll get back.”

“I can’t come to church for a while.  I just had a baby.  It cries.  No one likes a crying baby.  When it’s older and isn’t so uncontrollable I’ll be back.”

“I can’t come to church for a while.  We are getting divorced. Or someone in our family is struggling with addiction.  Our family is falling apart.  Everyone at church is a couple.  Everyone at church is happy with their children.  They sit together in the pews.   They must think I am failure.  I cannot come, it is too much for me.”

I could go on and on.  I hear statements like these all the time.  My answer is always the same—“It’s ok, that’s not the case.  Our lives are messy too, we miss you, we love you, please come back, this is where we all need to be.”

I wonder if we did Christmas differently would we have different results during the year?  So many traditions, so many images—most of them ones of perfection.  Mary and Joseph and the smiling, gurgling, healthy baby.  It’s adorable isn’t it—the baby with the animals—the mom with her hair perfectly done and her thin body in beautiful blue clothes, just moments after giving birth in a stable sitting upright, no mess on her clothes, serenely gazing at the baby.  The adoring father nearby, the look of pure love in his eyes?

Or today’s images of what Christmas “should” look like: the beautiful house with a picket fence, candles in every window, a huge tree in the spacious living room with presents all around it, a big happy family gathered together for a lovely, overflowing dinner of ham or turkey, at a dining room table that is big enough for everyone to have a seat, sharing stories and fun into the night.  Everyone home for Christmas.   Or out shopping with no cares in the world, bags overflowing with gifts.  Everyone well.  Everyone happy.  Do you ever see a popular portrayal that is different?

The truth is, not all is perfect at Christmas.  The truth is that nearly nothing was perfect that first Christmas.  Our images are all wrong—and I wonder sometimes if those images have caused so many today hurt, or left others feeling unwelcome, or is why we are missing so many in the pews who no longer feel as though they fit in?  The images do not fit the reality, of Christmas then or Christmas now and the images certainly do not fit theologically with what God was up to that very first Christmas.

The Christmas message—the message that is present at the birth of the Savior of our broken world is that “unexpected things, things outside of convention can often be wonderful signs that God is at work.  Amid all of our less-than-picture-perfect Christmases, the Christmas trees that are not quite as perfect as we want them to be, the lives that are not as perfect as we want them to be, God does something new.”[1]

It is not just our lives, but it is the systems we live in and are a part of.  We all know that congregational life in mainline churches like ours isn’t what it used to be.  And it scares us to death.  So we try as best as we can to avoid it or to look for perfection in the past.  I tend to think we should embrace the messiness, the difficulty, the challenges that life today in churches has.  We should tell others around us, we should let them see how imperfect and challenged we are.  Because if we keep on projecting a picture of perfection then those who are grieving, whose lives are a mess, who have fallen on hard times, whose families are falling apart will continue to feel like the unwritten message is that you can’t come in here until you are perfect and put together.  And so they won’t.  And no matter how much we say, “you are welcome,” many if not most will no longer believe us.

Stepping into the messiness of life is hard work.

The Good News is that our Savior failed the birth lottery and was born with nearly every strike against him.

And yet that was where God chose to begin a process that could save the world.

In the messy, out-of-control place.

God is not interested in perfection.

So why should we be? 

As I close today I want to say that I realize that this is my last official sermon here.  Tuesday night will be another time, with the Christmas Eve congregation.  The focus that night must be on the holiness of the Christmas story.  I thought a lot this week about what I wanted to say and what I wanted to offer.  I hope that these words about Mary and Joseph are enough.  I pray that as a church we can live into this story in fresh and new ways and let go of the trappings of our past.  These are my hopes and dreams this Christmas.

When I was installed here as Pastor my dear friend Rick Ufford-Chase, a former Moderator of our denomination offered a sermon about taking risks.  He told the story about starting a movement of Christians who intentionally break the law to go out into the deserts along the US/Mexico border, leaving jugs of water so that those crossing do not die a horrible death of dehydration.  He talked about what a difference that ministry made in his life and in the lives of the congregations on both sides of the border.

An imperfect ministry, coming alongside wayward travellers like the Holy Family.  Offering hospitality and care to those who have been thrown away by society on both sides of the border.

That’s not what most people think of when they think of church, but it is the image of church I’m most drawn to.  A church that takes risks; does something worth sticking out your neck for.

I have told a few stories during my time here about how my home church engaged in some risky ministries when I was growing up, and that was what drew me in and changed my life and my faith during those critical years of growing into my faith.

And we have taken some risks here in ministry together, and I pray that your ministry here into the future will be marked by greater and greater risk-taking.

I continue to cast my lot in with our sisters and brothers in Colombia who are engaged in some of the riskiest and life-giving ministry I know, and this morning the Washington Post ran a multi-page report of what has been going on there but kept secret for decades, hurting those people and our friends in faith.  I keep on going back to those places of risk because I cannot see anywhere else for me to be as someone who struggles in my own way to follow Jesus.

And that is the witness as your Pastor that I have chosen to offer.  This is the sort of ministry that I have worked to invite this congregation into.

In his sermon that installation Sunday Rick suggested that we be a congregation of risk-taking and courage.

We’ve lived up to that challenge in some ways; we’ve fallen short in other ways.  Rick gave us a gift on that Sunday, one of the stoles he was given during his time as Moderator.  He told us it was to be the stole of courage—that we should pass it around to those among us in need of courage—to let it be a visible reminder of our calling as those who follow Jesus.

So, here is the stole.  I have packed up all of my other ones, but this one doesn’t belong to me—it belongs to you.  It is the Stole of Courage.  I have enjoyed having this stole around, near to me as a reminder of imperfection, messiness, risk and courage in following Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace.

So I am leaving it with you—and under Sarellen’s care as your Clerk of Session.  For it to be somewhere prominent, somewhere important—and to serve as a reminder that church, life, God, our faith is messy.  It started out that way.

And it is up to us to share our faith—all of it, and courageously invite all who we encounter to come alongside us, wherever our faith or this world takes us.

May God’s unexpected Blessings overflow for you and for me as we enter the joy of Christmas once again.  Amen.

[1] David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.  Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1.  (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Publishing, 2010) Commentary on Matthew 1: 18-25 by Aaron Klink. p. 94.


One response

  1. Shannan, blessings in your new call — they will be blessed to have your skills, your ability to see clearly and your gift for truth-telling. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

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