Friday, December 26, 2014

Sermon - "Putting Ourselves in the Story"

The Reverend Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 24, 2014
Christmas Eve

“Putting Ourselves in the Story”

Last Sunday our Church School children put on our annual Christmas pageant right here in the chancel.  The children dressed up as shepherds and sheep and Mary and Joseph, and a plastic doll played the role of Jesus. Some of the younger children looked a little bewildered as to why the adults were making them march up and down the aisle wearing hats with floppy ears, but for the most part our kids love putting on angel wings and magi crowns and acting out this timeless story every year.

Earlier today at our 5:00 service our 8th grade Confirmation class presented their own version of the Nativity story. 12 and 13-year-olds donned the same pageant costumes that many of us wore at one time in our lives, borrowing a parent’s bathrobe and tying a dishtowel around their head.  Traditionally, the confirmands start off standing out in the cold in front of the church – recreating the iconic stable scene in a live version of the Nativity – and hoping to God that none of their friends drives by and sees them.

Here at our 7:00 service, our Senior High youth dispense with the robes and angel wings and instead just tell the story – using a narrative that is pulled from scripture and embellished just enough to make the tale of Mary and Joseph and the baby they called Jesus come alive for us today.

Later on, at our 9:00 service, the story will be told yet again – this time in lessons and carols. Pastor Dick and I will read scripture, the choir will sing hymns, and the congregation will join in - singing the familiar verses with gusto and fumbling with the words on all the rest.

As we compare these multiple ways we have of telling this old familiar story across the generations, we might notice that as we get older we gradually remove ourselves from the story.

We go from arguing over who gets to be an angel and who gets to be Mary, to rolling our eyes and feeling awkward in our costumes,
to ditching the costumes and reading the story aloud off a printed script,
to sitting in a pew and listening to someone else read the ancient tale from scripture, while our minds wander off to the guests we’re expecting at home and the gifts we still have to wrap.

As children, we rehearse for weeks in anticipation of the Christmas pageant, learning where we’re supposed to stand and what special role we have to play.   But as we get older, the rehearsals become less and less frequent, because we’ve heard the story so many times before and we already know what everyone is supposed to do.

When we become adults there is no rehearsal. All we have to do is show up and listen.   Yet even that can be a challenge when everything else that frames this familiar story – everything else that we DO to celebrate Christmas – is swirling around us, preoccupying us, and pulling us away.

I wonder why this happens.
At what point does the story become so familiar, and dare I say, TOO familiar, that we no longer get excited when we hear it and no longer feel the need to tell it ourselves?

Christmas does excite us.
We look forward to spending time with family and friends.
We look forward to the food and the festivities.
We look forward to this entire season - when everyone seems just a little more patient and a little more forgiving,
when strangers wish us Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,  
and we can’t wait to see the look on our loved one’s faces when we give them the gifts we know they’re going to love.

We may even look forward to coming here.
To sing familiar carols.
To see the church decorated with greens and sparking in the glow of warm candlelight.
To lose ourselves in memories of Christmas’ past and to experience once again that magic moment when the lights go down and we all hold our candles aloft and sing “Silent Night”.

Afterward, we walk out into the cold night air, dispensing hugs and handshakes, and wishing everyone good health and happiness before hurrying off to wherever it is we can’t wait to be - Dinner out with the family. A gathering of friends. A quiet night at home.    To warmth and peace and anticipation of tomorrow.

But somewhere in all of this we’ve put distance between ourselves and the story that started it all.   
The simple story of a young woman giving birth in a stable.   
The miraculous story of a baby who came to save the world.

We forget that this baby came into the world in the same way that we do.
Screaming and wriggling against the sudden influx of cold and light and touch.   
With no inkling of the impact he was going to have on the world -
yet still containing in his tiny body the immense power and love of God.

Maybe it’s because the story is so ordinary - with its shepherds and sheep and fields where they lay – that it causes us to tune it out over time.
Or maybe it’s because the story is so extraordinary – with its angels and guiding star and God coming down to be one of us  – that it causes us to dismiss it as a fairy tale... entertaining to children but not one that moves us as adults to tears, to joy, to action.

But if you can….imagine the bleakest scenario that your mind can conjure up.
One that is steeped in all the deepest sorrows and pain of being human -  poverty, violence, oppression, anger, fear, grief – your own or the world’s.
And then imagine a warm healing light flooding into this scene –
lifting up the lowly and the broken, feeding the hungry in body and in soul, bringing hope to the hopeless, and pulling back the veil of darkness exposing it for what it is - something that WE construct out of our own fear and our resistance to accepting that we are ALL created in the image of God.
That we are all worthy of love, compassion, and grace.
Every single one of us.

If we can recall a moment in our life when we felt completely and truly loved – valued – worthy.
Or a time when we felt so much joy we thought we’d burst from trying to contain it.
And if we’ve never experienced a moment like this in our life can we at least imagine it. Can we imagine what it would feel like to experience that much love, that much joy…and then times it by a 1000….

Then maybe, maybe we could imagine what it felt like to be kneeling outside that stable on that first Christmas day.

Christmas IS about family and friends, and giving and receiving, and being made aware of our need to be kinder and more compassionate to one another.

But it’s also about the radical entrance of God into our world.
The point where God said to us:
You need to know who I am.
You need to see me, hear me, touch me.
You need to learn from me, to do as I do.
And you need to hurt me…
to know that I feel your pain,
to know that I would do anything, anything,
even die for you, and be resurrected from the grave –
to show you that fear and violence is never the answer.
To help you understand that causing pain for others is never, never going to alleviate your own pain.
Only love and mercy can do that.

This is what God did for us through Jesus.

This is why the shepherds fell to their knees.
This is why the star moved in the sky.
This is why once a year our whole world stops to honor and remember that moment.    
That moment when Christ was born.
And light flooded into the world.

We dress our children up as shepherds and angels and put them in Christmas pageants because we love this story, and we want them to love this story.

But we should never forget - no matter how many years we have behind us, or how many times we’ve heard it - WE are a part of the story.  
We are the reason why God has come.

We are right there kneeling with the shepherds, and singing with the angels:
Joy to the world, the Lord has come,
Let earth receive her King,
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And may Heaven and nature sing…

For Christ is born today.

Thanks be to God!


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