Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon: "Lights, Please"

Reverend Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 24, 2015 – Christmas Eve

“Lights Please”

“Fear not. I bring tidings of great joy, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord,
 and this shall be a sign unto you.”

For many of us of a certain generation, when we hear these words from the Gospel of Luke we can’t help but hear them spoken in a familiar voice,
one we’ve heard deliver these prophetic words year after year  -
the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

For many of us, Linus and the Christmas story are forever entwined in our minds and in our hearts.  
Because Linus is the one who told the story.

While Snoopy is caught up in getting the light display on his doghouse just right, and Lucy is trying to convince Schroder to play Jingle Bells on his piano,
and Charlie Brown is stressing out over the fact that no one seems to know what Christmas is really all about,
it’s Linus who calls for the spotlight and tells the simple story of the Good News from the Gospel of Luke.

“Fear not. I bring you tidings of great joy, for unto you is born a savior.”

This is the story we strain to hear in the world outside the walls of our faith communities.
In our wider culture, the Christmas story we encounter is about red nosed reindeer, magical snowmen, and TV commercials that try to convince us that Santa wants us all to wake up on Christmas morning and find a brand new car in our driveway with a giant red bow on it.

I think we all know THAT is not the real Christmas.
It may be the Christmas we remember from our childhood – when we’d lie awake at night anticipating Santa’s arrival while visions of candy canes, tinsel, and toys danced in our heads.

And it may be the reality of the Christmas we celebrate as adults – where we run ourselves ragged trying to find gifts for everyone on our list, and eat too much, drink too much, and spend too much, all in our search for holiday cheer.

That’s the Christmas we celebrate out there.
But it’s not the Christmas we celebrate in here.

Which is why many of us come here on Christmas Eve.
What draws us here  – beyond the music – and the candle light – and the tradition –  what draws us here is the story.

This story of a baby being born on a cold winter’s night.
A baby who was destined to save the world.

Not in the sense that we picture superman or the X-Men saving the world.
Jesus did not have the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or send bad guys careening across the room with a wave of his hand.

Jesus came to save the world with a much greater power…
The power of compassion, and grace, and love.

These are powers that we tend to undervalue in our world….and in ourselves.

When we become enmeshed in the events of our world that invoke fear and distrust and hate in our hearts, our instinct is to respond with even more fear, distrust, and hate.
We’re not conditioned to respond to fear with compassion,
to respond to distrust with grace, to respond to hate with love.

Yet we’ve all witnessed how acts of compassion, grace, and love have the power to change hearts, change minds, and change the outcome of events that could have gone so differently.

Just in the past week, we’ve seen three examples of this extraordinary power.

On Monday, when Islamic militants ambushed a bus in Kenya with the intent of singling out the Christian passengers and killing them, a group of Muslims shielded the Christians and told the attackers they were prepared to die together.
The Muslim passengers, who were mostly women, told the militants to kill them all or leave them alone.  The attackers left them alone.
Love was more powerful than hate.  

On Tuesday, a local TV news program in Chicago aired a story about the city’s homeless population and the public’s assumption that most were violent or mentally ill.
The segment featured a brief interview with Latoya Ellis, a single mother with three children who was laid off from her job and then evicted from her apartment. 
The family of four was living in a shelter.
After the segment aired an anonymous donor stepped forward, helped the family find an apartment and prepaid their rent for an entire year.
Compassion was more powerful than fear.

A few weeks ago, police in Orem, Utah showed up at the home of Rebecca Freemont to arrest her for shoplifting.  
Expecting to find a stash of stolen goods, officer Jared Goulding was taken aback when he instead found a single mother with two children living in a nearly empty apartment.
With no furniture, no TV, no books or toys, and nothing on the walls, except for a picture of a Christmas tree on which the kids had hand colored ornaments and decorations.
Officer Goulding then learned that what Rebecca Freemont had stolen was a few cans of food for her children. She had taken nothing for herself.

In response, the Orem Police collected money and furniture donations amongst themselves in order to help the struggling mother.
When word of their charitable act got out, the police started receiving cards and money from strangers who also wanted to help.
And as of yesterday, the Orem police received enough money to buy the Freemont family a real Christmas tree, presents for the kids, and -- most importantly – bags and bags of groceries.     
Grace and mercy was more powerful than distrust and judgment.

These stories of random acts of kindness and extreme acts of courageous compassion can’t help but warm our hearts, at any time of the year.
But what we often fail to realize is that acts like these are much more common and much more powerful than we think.

While our attention and our news media tends to gravitate towards the acts that feed our fear, our distrust, and our hate, there is a quiet revolution happening all around us – one that is born out of our God given drive to embody love, to feel compassion, to exhibit grace.

When Mary looked down at the wriggling infant that she gave birth to on that cold winter’s night she may have known that he was destined to change the world, like the gospel writers claim…
or she may not have had any idea who he would turn out to be,
or the legacy he would leave behind.

An entire faith – now 2,000 years old – is built on the belief that this baby had and has the power to save us from ourselves.

He brought with him the radical message – firmly rooted in his Jewish faith - that it is in our best interest to love our neighbor, to show hospitality to the stranger, to help the weak and the suffering, and to liberate those held captive by tyranny, oppression, and fear.
Because we are all connected – one to the other.

Jesus lived a life born out of the belief that we are created by a loving and forgiving God who offers unconditional grace not to just a few, but to all.

A God who empowers each and every one of us to partake of the bounty and beauty of this created world.

A God who welcomes us all at the table –
regardless of our gender, our race, our abilities, our ideology…
...regardless of who we love, who we are, or who we’ve been.

If we’re all equally precious in the eyes of God then it stands to reason that we should treat each other – and ourselves - as if we too recognize how precious we are.

The Christmas story is our annual reminder that we have it in our nature to come together and celebrate all that is good in us and the world.  

Because despite our inclination to one up each other,
to look down upon those below us,
to wrap our arms around what we own and what we love and live in fear that someone will try to take it from us,
….we were created to be much more than this.

The Christmas story reminds us that each one of us has within us a power that is greater than all our fears put together.
The power of compassion, love, and grace.

Every year at Christmas time, when Linus steps out on that stage
and recites the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke,
we can’t help but lean in and listen –
and feel drawn to the hope and promise that this simple story of a baby born in a manger brings into our lives.

For a brief moment all the other things clamoring for our attention fall away.
For a brief moment we get a glimpse of who we are and who we were created to be.

“Fear not. For unto you this day is born a savior.
Who is Christ the Lord.”


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