Monday, December 29, 2008

Holy Child, Holy Humanity

A sermon by Rev. Angela Yarber | First Sunday after Christmas Day | December 28, 2008

Text: Luke 2: 22-40

I’d like to begin my sermon today with a question—a big, deep, existential, theological question. I’m sure it’s a question many of you are also asking, a question that grips us to our core this time of year. The question is: Should I take down my Christmas tree today or wait until New Years Day? Why not sometime in between, you may wonder? Well, you see, I have company coming in town tomorrow and they leave on New Years Day. So the question is: Do I leave the 7 feet of artificial glory, bejeweled in far too many ballerina ornaments up for them to enjoy, too…or do I take it down, thus leaving more room for my guests in my tiny apartment, after coming home from church today? And if I take it down today, should I also take down all the other remnants of Christmas decor: holiday hand-towels, Christmas photos and candles, stockings? These are tough decisions that should not be taken lightly.

Christmas day was only 3 days ago. The gifts have been unwrapped, leftovers are in the refrigerator, family has traveled back home, and that tree still lingers in the living room, waiting to be taken down, undecorated, recycled or stored. All that remains is you in your home amidst the crumpled wrapping paper, pine needs on the carpet in need of vacuuming, and overwhelmingly fulfilled expectation and longing. The period of waiting—Advent—is over, the prophecy fulfilled and fulfilling. The twelve days of Christmas indeed. It’s only day three. The carols are no longer playing on the radio and we’re busy making our plans for New Year’s Eve. What’s a preacher to say on the Sunday following Christmas? It is the first Sunday in the Christmas season, after all. I must say that I flipped through every book of sermons I have and not one, not one, offered a sermon for the Sunday following Christmas (not that I would have preached someone else’s sermon…I was just looking for ideas). There were plenty of sermons to read during Advent or Christmas mass or Epiphany, but the Sunday following Christmas, the first Sunday of the Christmas season—I don’t think so.

So, let’s switch gears for a moment—to the birth of a newborn baby; that is why we celebrate Christmas, after all. The baby was born, the mother has left the hospital, or manger as it were, the parents, midwives, or nurses have wrapped the baby in swaddling cloths. Photos were taken on everyone’s camera phones. Grandparents and friends have visited. The baby showers have been thrown. The baby was brought gifts: teddy bears, frankincense, balloons, myrrh, blankets, and gold. The newborn now sleeps peacefully in a carefully prepared nursery under a baby mobile of smiling clowns that spins and plays a lullaby…or under a blanket of stars in the night sky depending on the context, I suppose. Friends and family have brought the hopeful and overwhelmed new parents casseroles, food, extra diapers, and lots of hugs. And now they’ve headed home and the parents and the new born baby are the only ones left amidst the leftovers, unwrapped gifts, and overwhelmingly fulfilled expectation and longing. And then what happens? What happens—mothers, parents—after the birth of a new baby? After the celebration? After the grandparents have visited? After everyone has oogled and awed over this newborn bundle of joy that is now crying and sleeping and pooping and eating and smiling and cuddling in your tired arms? I’m not a parent, so you tell me. What happens?

My mother told me this is when you help another begin the journey of life, when you “raise your kids.” On Christmas, I spent the day with my family at my grandfather’s farm in Newnan, GA. And my one cousin was there with her baby, Brayden. He was born less than a month after a grandmother passed in April. And I asked my cousin, whose birth I witnessed, this very question, “what happens after the birth?” She told me she’s still trying to figure that out. And I wonder: Is this when reality sets in? When parents begin to ask: how am I going to balance my job with my baby? How am I going to get any sleep? What have I gotten myself into? How can something so beautiful and tiny make so much noise and so much stink? We’re still trying to figure that out.

What happens After we’ve celebrated…

How are we going to eat all these leftovers in the refrigerator? Who can we give all these fruitcakes to? Shall we brave the stores and return our unwanted gifts now? Can I lose these extra pounds I gained from eating so many holiday goodies? Have I remembered to send everyone a thank you card? Who’s going to climb up on the roof and take down all those lights?

Reality sets in. The period of waiting is over. Gestation has ceased. The prophecy has been fulfilled. Hope has been realized. We’ve had the party. We’ve sung the songs. We’ve eaten the food. We’ve ooood and awed. Now what?

The Gospel of Luke, which I read earlier, offers us some words of wisdom for what to do after this period of eager expectation. Let me tell what I hear from Luke and offer my stretching interpretation. Luke tells us:

“Every first born son will be designated as holy for the Lord.”
“My eyes have seen your salvation,” Simeon proclaims.
“The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom”
And also from Galations, which Jodie read earlier:
“You are a child and also an heir through God.”

These are the words and phrases that stand out to me. And I might add:
Every child is designated as holy for the Lord. When we look into the eyes of a child, into the eyes of another person, we can see our salvation. It is our responsibility to help all children, all people, grow and become strong and filled with wisdom. You are God’s child and heir. All humanity, each person, is God’s child and heir and deserves to be treated as such. Whether this person is black or white or Asian or Latina, has a college degree or not, is heterosexual or homosexual, speaks the same language you do, is rich or poor or somewhere in between, each person is just as much a child of God as you and I, just as much a child of God as the little baby whose birth we celebrate at this time each year. Look into the eyes of humanity and behold the face of God; witness the birth of Christ in the miracle of birth that is each little baby.

On Christmas morning, not only was a holy child born, but humanity was made holy. We celebrate the birth of the son of God. True. But we also celebrate the way in which each person is a child of God. God becomes incarnate, not only in the little baby Jesus, but in all humanity, actualizing divinity in flesh. Look into the eyes of another and see your salvation. Love a child and see Christ in his or her eyes. As the stunning musical Les Mis declares, “To truly love another is to see the face of God.”

And I say all these things—these abstract concepts of love and compassion—following the celebration of Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth, God with us, Emmanuel. And as I say all these things and speak of the virtues of loving humanity and treating all people as children of God, I cannot help but think of another celebration on the calendar, though not on the “liturgical” year that we follow in the church. And that is the celebration of New Years. And with New Years comes New Year’s resolutions. I wonder how many of us will vow to the classic, “eat healthier and exercise more.” A few years ago, I decided that my unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions made me feel unnecessarily guilty when I “fell short.” So, rather than making a resolution to “run every day” or “give up my beloved chocolate,” I decided to make a positive and fun resolution. I resolved to go to the beach at least 10 separate times in 2006 because going to the beach makes me really happy. Fortunately, 2006 also hosted my move to California, thus making my beach visits more readily available. I digress…

So, perhaps it is with the virtues of love and compassion that we should enter the New Year. Sure, go ahead and resolve to eat healthier, exercise more, quit smoking, save money. Those are all fine and good. But perhaps also, as we enter 2009 as individuals and as a community, we can resolve to see each person we meet as a child of God and no less. We can resolve to treat each and every person as one who is just as valuable as the little baby that we celebrate at Christmas.

And this resolution, this call to “see salvation” in the eyes of another can and must be applied in praxis. It’s good to love others in our hearts and minds, but how can we help others grow and become strong and filled with wisdom if this love is not accompanied by action? How can we grow and become strong and filled with wisdom without action? I’m sure our social-justice oriented congregation has plenty of suggestions for how to put this love into action. ROM (Reaching Out Ministries) may recommend feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, fighting for affordable healthcare for all people. Some of our youth and children may suggest standing up for that kid at school who everyone else makes fun of or who sits alone at lunch. While there is an array of ways to approach this idea of love in action, I’ll simply mention some practical things I’m working on that often go overlooked. For example: Think before you shop or buy. Where does that food come from? Who is making it? Where is it being made or grown? Are the people making it and growing it paid a living wage? Where do those clothes come from that you wear? And I don’t mean Target or Old Navy. I mean: who makes it? What are their working conditions? Are those working conditions just and fair? Advocate for equal rites for all people. Who is allowed to legally marry, vote, receive healthcare, buy a home, receive an education and who is not allowed to do these things? Is this fair? What are you going to do about?

If seeing salvation involves looking in the eyes of another, then we cannot see if our eyes are shut to the injustices that surround us.

So, those leftovers may remain and the tree may still be decorated and you may be a little overwhelmed at this fragile bud of humanity now resting in your arms, but salvation is actualized in your very being. I’m looking into your eyes and seeing the face of God.
My eyes have seen salvation, not just in the Christ child, but in each of you. Go and do likewise. Amen.

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