Monthly Archives: December 2007

The “E” in Christmas

The following is my sermon for today, Christmas Eve 2007. It will be preached at the “Midnight Mass” this evening. The text, of course, is Luke 2:1-20.

As many of you know, it has been my custom to illustrate my Christmas sermon with an object, something that I have found while shopping for gifts that has seemed to me to exemplify some aspect of the Incarnation, something that has spoken to me of the meaning of Christ’s Nativity.

Well, this year I haven’t done any Christmas shopping. The money that I would have spent on presents for Evelyn, Patrick and Caitlin, I instead gave away to Episcopal Relief and Development to further the Millenium Development Goals. So, I haven’t been in any stores and I haven’t seen any oddball object to share with you.

But I did read a story! It is a very brief tale contained in J. Philip Newell’s book Listening to the Heartbeat of God about an event in the life of the Scottish Presbyterian clergyman George MacLeod who, in the 1930s, founded the modern Iona Community. Before I tell you the story, though, I have to preface it with a bit of linguistic explanation.

If you’ve ever been to Great Britain or to some parts of Ireland, you may be familiar with the expression, “the High Street.” This is the British Isles’ equivalent of the American expression “Main Street” or “downtown”. Traditionally, the High Street was the central business and commercial district of a British or Scottish town.

It seems that in a church where MacLeod was preaching there was a stained glass window of the Incarnation over the altar. It depicted the stable scene with angels flying overhead and included a part of the angels’ song, “Glory to God in the Highest”, in its artwork. However, at some point before MacLeod came there to preach, some hooligan had chucked a rock through the window! The rock had broken out the letter “e” in the word “highest” so that the angels’ song now read, “Glory to God in the High St.”

MacLeod is said to have commented that the window should be left that way, or that perhaps the “e” should be replaced on a swiveling panel so that the window could say both things – “Glory to God in the Highest” and “Glory to God in the High Street” – for it is in “the High Street”, on the Main Streets, in the business districts, in the everyday commerce of life, the ordinary business of living, that the Glory of God in the Incarnation ought to speak to us most loudly.

So my “object” for this year’s Christmas Sermon is the letter “E” …. What can “E” tell us about Christmas? Well, let’s consider a few words that begin with the letter “E” and the first one I want to explore with you is a little used one in its basic sense … the word evangel.

Evangel

We know this word usually through derivative terms like evangelical and evangelism and evangelist … and we could, I suppose, consider one or another of them, but these words all have the archaic and little-used word evangel as their root, so let’s take a look at it.

Evangel is the English version of a Greek word – euangelion (euangalion) – and both the English and Greek mean “good news”. It was translated into Old English as “god spell” and eventually into the modern English “gospel”, but it really just means “good news”. I thought I might just tell a few “good news, bad news” stories to illustrate this word, but the truth is that any piece of news can be good news or bad news depending on one’s viewpoint.

The star which shone over Christ’s birth place was good news to the Magi and the Shepherds, but it was bad news to Herod and his court. Jesus’s announcement during his ministry on earth that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” was good news for the poor and oppressed, but it was bad news for the devil and the oppressive systems he uses. It all depends on your point of view and your attitude.

The Nativity of Christ was and is evangel, good news, to those who had the right attitude, the right point of view. The amazing thing about the Incarnation, though, is that it also fosters in us the attitude that can make any situation, no matter how difficult or tragic, a matter of evangel, of good news, of Gospel. This is because the Incarnation of God in Christ happens, as MacLeod saw in that broken window, in the High Street, in the places where we live the ordinary occurrences of everyday life.

There’s a story that demonstrates this that’s been floating about for years. I tried to find out who first wrote it, but I couldn’t. It is the story of Michael, a man who worked on high communication towers, like those used for cell phones and micro-wave relays. Here’s the story as told by the unknown author:

Michael is the kind of guy you love to hate. He is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better, I would be twins!”

He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Michael was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation. Seeing this style really made me curious, so one day I went up to Michael and asked him, “I don’t get it! You can’t be a positive person all of the time. How do you do it?”

Michael reply: “Each morning I wake up and say to myself: Mike, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or you can choose to be in a bad mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to accept their complaining or I can point out the positive side of life. I point out the positive side of life.”

“Yeah, right, it’s not that easy.” I protested.

“Yes, it is.” Michael said. “Life is all about choices. When you cut away all the junk, every situation is a choice. You choose how you react to situation. You choose how people affect your mood. You choose to be in a good mood or bad mood. The bottom line: It’s your choice how you live life.”

I reflected on what Michael said. Soon thereafter, I left the Cell Tower industry to start my own business. We lost touch, but I heard that Michael was involved in a serious accident, falling some 60 feet from a communication tower.

After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, Michael was released from the hospital with rods placed in his back. I saw Michael about six months after the accident. When I asked him how he was, he replied: “If I was any better, I’d be twins. Wanna see my scars?” I declined to see his wounds, but did ask him what had gone through his mind as the accident took place. “The first thing that went through my mind was the well being of my soon to be born daughter” Michael replied. “Then, as I lay on the ground, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live or I could choose to die. I chose to live.

“Weren’t you scared? Did you lose consciousness?” I asked.

Michael continued, “The paramedics were great. They kept telling me I was going to be fine. But when they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared. In their eyes, I read ‘he is a dead man.’ I knew I needed to take action.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, there was a big burly nurse shouting questions at me,” said Michael. “She asked if I was allergic to anything.”

“‘Yes,’ I replied.

“The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply.

“I took a deep breath and yelled ‘Gravity.’

“Over the laughter, I told them, ‘I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.'”

Michael lived, thanks to the skill of his doctors, but also because of his amazing attitude.

It is in every situation, every moment of life, both easy and difficult, both the favorable and tragic, that God is with us. God was with Michael in that fall, with Michael in that hospital, with Michael and with the surgeons and health care professionals in his treatment and in his recovery, because God was Incarnate in Christ in that stable in Bethlehem. At Christmas we celebrate not only the Good News that Jesus was born 2,000 years ago, but also the Good News, the Evangel, that he is with us in the High Street, in our ordinary lives, today

Engagement

Another “E” word I’d like to consider with you is engagement. Of course, it’s a word that comes up in the Nativity Story because Joseph and Mary weren’t yet married when she became pregnant. They were “betrothed” – an old fashioned word for engaged. But that’s not the sort of engagement I’m thinking of tonight. Another use of the word engagement is to describe the action of gears and cogs. When the teeth of two gears mesh together, they are said to be engaged … and they then work together to get something done.

God’s engagement with humankind is what the Evangel, the Good News of the Incarnation, announces. Until the Birth of Christ, God and humankind were separate. When Mary gave birth to Jesus, that changed. God and humanity were engaged in the most intimate of ways.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, “God became human so humans would become gods.” It is sometimes said that “in Christ, God was reconciling humanity to himself,” but as Athanasius’ statement implies, much more than a superficial reconciliation occurred in the Incarnation. Through the Incarnation we have been made co-creators with God and co-redeemers with Christ. We are engaged with God in the on-going work of creation and salvation, and God is engaged with us in every aspect of our lives.

There used to be a television show on CBS that I almost never got to see, except when someone video-taped it for me. It was called Sunday Morning (and the title may give you a hint why it was impossible for me to watch it very often). On one segment of the show, Charles Osgood told the story of two ladies who lived in a convalescent center. Each had suffered an incapacitating stroke. Margaret’s stroke left her left side restricted, while Ruth’s stroke damaged her right side. Both of these ladies were accomplished pianists, but had given up hope of ever playing again. The occupational therapist of the center sat them down at a piano, and encouraged them to play solo pieces together. Ruth would play the bass left-hand notes, while Margaret played the higher right-hand notes. They learned to play in a new way, and a beautiful friendship developed. That is a wonderful model of the engagement of God and man lived out in the Incarnation of Christ.

Or perhaps another piano-playing story, one I’ve shared here before.

Ignatz Jan Paderewski, the famous Polish composer-pianist, was once scheduled to perform at a great American concert hall for a high-society extravaganza. One of the stage hands had brought his 9-year-old son to work with him and the boy was waiting for his father in wings. Growing bored and tired of waiting, the boy slipped away and, for some reason, was drawn to the Steinway on the stage.

Without much notice from the audience, he sat down at the stool and began playing “chopsticks.” There was an uproar as people began yelling, “Get that boy away from there!” When Paderewski heard the commotion backstage, he grabbed his coat and rushed over behind the boy. Reaching around him from behind, the master began to improvise a countermelody to “Chopsticks.” As the two of them played together, Paderewski kept whispering in the boy’s ear, “Keep going. Don’t quit, son…don’t stop…don’t stop.”

In the Incarnation and life of Jesus Christ, God engages with us and plays a counterpoint to the chopsticks we play, and together with God we become co-creators of the composition of our lives and co-redeemers of all who hear the melody.

Embrace

The story of Paderewski reaching his arms around the young boy brings us to one more “E” word … embrace. The dictionary says that embrace means to enclose or encircle, to eagerly accept, or to hold close with one’s arms as an expression of affection. In the Incarnation, God does all of those things. God encloses us within the circle of his love; God eagerly accepts our humanity; God holds us close with deep, deep affection.

God’s embrace is an everlasting embrace. God always surrounds us with his love and protection. In the Celtic Christian tradition, there is a poetic prayer form called a lorica or “breastplate.” It celebrates the encircling, safeguarding presence of Christ.

George MacLeod, whose observation about that broken “E” in the Incarnation stained-glass window started us off tonight, wrote a lorica which I would like to read for you. If you’d like to read along, you’ll find it on the last page of this evening’s worship booklet:

Christ above us, Christ beneath us,
Christ beside us, Christ within us.

Invisible, we see you, Christ above us.
With earthly eyes we see above us
clouds or sunshine, grey or bright.
But with the eye of faith
we know you reign,
instinct in the sun ray,
speaking in the storm,
warming and moving all creation.
Invisible, we see you, Christ above us.

Unknowable, we see you, Christ beneath us.
With earthly eyes we see beneath us
stones and dust and dross.
But with the eyes of faith,
we know you uphold us.
In you all things consist and hang together.
The very atom is light energy,
the grass is vibrant,
the rock pulsate.
All is in flux;
turn but a stone and an angel moves.
Underneath are the everlasting arms.
Unknowable, we know you, Christ beneath us.

Inapprehensible, we know you, Christ beside us.
With earthly eyes we see men and women,
exuberant or dull, tall or small.
But with the eye of faith,
we know you dwell in each.
You are imprisoned in the dope fiend and the drunk,
dark in the dungeon, but you are there.
You are released, resplendent,
in the loving mother, the passionate bride,
and in every sacrificial soul.
Inapprehensible, we know you, Christ beside us.

Intangible, we touch you, Christ within us.
With earthly eyes we see ourselves,
dust of the dust, earth of the earth.
But with the eye of faith,
we know ourselves all girt about with eternal stuff,
our minds capable of Divinity,
our bodies groaning, waiting for the revealing,
our souls redeemed, renewed.
Intangible, we touch you, Christ within us.

Christ above us, beneath us,
beside us, within us.
What need have we for temples made with hands?

Emmanuel

Well, we need temples made with hands, these churches of ours, as places where we can meet to express our mutual love of God, our mutual commitment to one another as Christians, our support of one another in the faith, our shared joy in the Incarnation. We need temples made with hands so we can come together in one place to hear once again the old familiar story, to sing the old familiar carols, and to remember the last and most important of the “E” words for tonight – Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” God is with us in our commercial places; God is with us in our work places; God is with us in our homes; God is with us in the ordinary, everyday business of life.

The Glory of God is with us in the High Street.

Glory to God in the Highest! Amen.

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