Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Here at Plymouth our Christmas Eve service is always such a beautiful, mystical collage of carols, candle-light and communion swirling around the miraculous story of the birth of Jesus – Yeshua in the Hebrew, meaning “deliverer.” What it mean this Christmas after this horrendously unique year to hear the story and receive the gift of Jesus, Deliverer?
As in years past, we heard the call of the prophet …”the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light!” We heard the story of the miraculous birth …”she brought forth her firstborn child and laid him in a manger”… and at this point I always think to myself … really, isn’t every birth miraculous because every birth is a risk!
We sang joyfully together with the angels and the shepherds the good news of God’s presence among us in the tiny child. Soon we will marvel once at the gifts brought by exotic strangers who followed a star of hope to find this particular babe. Then the gospel writer John will proclaim, ”In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” – HE – not a concept or a philosophical idea this revelation, the Word of God, but a person. A human person of flesh and blood who is God’s light and life and love, the Holy Incarnate, God-with-us, for all people. And this revealing Word in human flesh is light shining in the darkness “and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
What does the promise of this delivering light of God-with-us mean in the midst of this horrendously unique year?
In December of 1973, the late novelist, spiritual writer and poet, Madeleine L’Engle wrote a Christmas poem reflecting on the past year and the story of the Incarnation. Some of you may remember the news of that year. For others its part of the history book narrations of the Vietnam war, the Cold War, the Space Race, the Watergate scandal and a national energy crisis. Listen with me to L’Engle’s reflections in her poem, “The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973.”
This is no time for a child to be born,
With earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour [the Deliverer] make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth. [i]
Here in December 2020, we might say with L’Engle, This is no time for a child to be born! And I don’t need to enumerate why…we have all lived through this horrendously, uniquely hard year. We each hold our private and collective fears and griefs and heartaches.
Yet my friends, I say to you this night….it is always time for The Child to be born…the child sung to by angels and shepherds, the child who was blessed and hailed as born for greatness by elders in the temple; the child who grew to be the boy of twelve astonishing rabbis with his wisdom; the child who grew into the young man who was called away from an obscure peasant life into a path of mystical, revolutionary and revelatory ministry with the Living God that changed his times and has changed the world. The child who became the innocent man beaten and unjustly condemned by the powers of oppressive empire to carry his own execution cross, the dying man praying for the world and the dead man laid secretly in a tomb by his loved ones. The Child who as God-with-us is the Risen One, the Deliverer, proclaiming and embodying Love that conquers Death.
It is always a good time….the best of times….for Love to risk birth in the story of the Child, God-with-us! Every time we dare to tell his stories, to live into the ways of the realm of God that Jesus taught, to follow in hope the star of God’s dream for a peaceful, just, and compassionate world, to act on that dream, we are participating in the Incarnation, the Word made flesh among us.
A friend of mine and a friend of Plymouth’s, the Rev. Dr. Linda Privitera, who led our Lenten art retreat two years ago, recently sent me a wonderful prose poem she wrote this Advent in the voice of the angel, Gabriel. It seems that Gabriel is complaining to God, saying….
“I have tried – really, I have - to deliver Your message.
If I may say so I am wondering why once wasn’t enough –
You know we had such an excellent response to your invitation to bear the Holy One,
Blessed be he, into an unlikely geography where holiness is not always a given.
But…this repeating of your desire for incarnation in every generation has resulted, lately,
In some disappointment on my part.”[ii]
Gabriel goes on to wonder if he needs an updated wardrobe to get people’s attention, confessing that he has worn those special shoes with the swhoosh on the side to see if that works. Still, he says, it seems that most of the folks God has sent him ask to be God-bearers, are too distracted by their phones and Zoom meetings and Gabriel is mightily confused about what digital platform to use to get their attention. He can’t keep all the passwords straight in his brain. Then, he up and questions this new list of God-bearers that God has given him. He says to the Holy One….
“And I am wondering too about your newest lists. They are a little long and are now peopled with women of a certain age – not young – and there are men here too. That’s new … I am [still] looking for Woke. …. I see where you are coming from; does the shape for the home for the holy really have to be as it was in the past? Haven’t we seen an impressive bunch of folks who were amazing shelters for the Holy, bearing it into the world in diverse ways?”[iii]
Finally, Gabriel realizes all this God work takes more patience and he cheerfully agrees to try again and again. He ends his complaint saying, “Thanks for hearing me out. I love you, Gabe.”[iv]
My friends, we are the diverse and impressive, amazing shelters for the Holy Gabriel is being sent to find. We are the ones invited to risk birthing Love in the world. This is my image of hope on this Christmas Eve in 2020 when the earth is still betrayed by war & hate & pandemic. I leave it with you…Be delivered this year by the story of Jesus, the Deliverer, God-with-us…so that you may risk birthing, delivering, life-changing Love to the world.
Merry Christmas and Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
[i] Madeleine L’Engle, “The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973”, The Weather of the Heart, (Harold Shaw Publishers, Wheaton, IL: 1978, 47.)
[ii] The Rev. Dr. Linda Privitera, ”Gabriel’s Complaints”, unpublished poem, all rights reserved.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Christmas Eve Meditation:
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC Fort Collins, Colorado
December 24, 2017
Why will 800 or 900 people struggle out through the cold on this night to come here to Plymouth? What is it that brings you here tonight? Is there something you expect to receive or to witness or to share in? What are you hoping for?
Maybe you’ve come for the music. Personally, Christmas carols are among my favorite types of music we make here in the church. And on Christmas Eve we literally pull out all the stops, are led by a wonderful choir, and are lifted up by the chiming of bells and the sound of brass.
Maybe you came because you feel as if coming to church on Christmas Eve is an obligation. You are home visiting your parents for Christmas, and you are here to be with them and you know they appreciate you being here.
Perhaps the reason you came is that indescribable feeling of peace you experience, even for just a moment or two, when the lights are down and the candlelight spreads from person to person, and there is a sea of light in the darkness of a cold winter’s night. And this year especially, when there is so much anxiety in our national politics, we all need to find a quiet, peaceful center.
There are multiple reasons for being here, and I would not presume to judge your motives for being here. I am just glad to see each of you here.
Whatever your reason for being with us tonight, you are most welcome in this place. And whatever reason you are imagining right now for being here in this place…I am going to suppose that somewhere in your experience, there is a longing for an experience of the sacred, of the holy, of the divine within yourself and among those who are gathered. Perhaps, like the magi – foreigners who set out across the desert, following a star – you aren’t entirely sure what you will find at the end of your trek tonight. Maybe you will sense a presence within yourself that wasn’t quite detectable before…maybe when you receive the elements of communion or when you boldly sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or when you lower your unlit candle over the flame held by the person next to you, or when you hear familiar Bible stories, or when you see the cast of characters in the nativity scene…maybe you will sense the presence of God in your midst.
This year, I had a wonderful sabbatical and was able to travel in Italy. And in the Roman Catholic churches where I visited or worshiped, the prevailing symbol of the faith is the crucifix: Jesus nailed to the cross. Symbols are important, because they are like road signs that point beyond themselves toward a larger reality that has not yet come fully into view. And if your dominant symbol is the crucifix, it speaks clearly of the death of Jesus and its importance in your faith. And a key interpretation –- one that I don’t share –- is that Jesus had to die to pay for your sins.
In many Protestant churches, you will see a cross without the body as the dominant symbol of our faith. It is the cross of the resurrection, so it conveys the idea that what is really important in your faith isn’t just that Jesus died, but rather that he is risen. So, it’s a symbol of hope.
The dominant symbols of two branches of the Christian household are symbols of death and resurrection…they are symbols from the last week of Jesus’ life.
I’ve been wondering, though, if we need a new symbol for our faith. One that gets at the marvel…the miracle…of Jesus’ life rather than his death. And I wonder, too, what is stirring within each of you right now…what brought your through our doors tonight. Is it that Jesus died or is it that he was born?
Over the millennia, the church has spent a tremendous amount of energy creating dogma and creeds so that the faith would “get it right,” as if “having the right answers” is what our faith is all about and that the church could do that for you. My guess is that your faith doesn’t center around the argument that Jesus is of one substance with the creator or that his mom was a virgin or that we saved by faith alone. In the lived reality of our faith, that’s sweating the small stuff! And when they were hammering out the Nicene Creed, they somehow skipped all but a few days of Jesus’ life. 1,700 years ago, the bishops at Nicaea jumped from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate” and they missed all of the good bits that happened in between! They missed Jesus’ 40-day vision quest in the wilderness, the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Good Samaritan, the healing of the blind man, and hundreds of pieces of subversive wisdom that Jesus shared with his followers.
Jesus’ life is filled with provocative, even dangerous stuff! No wonder the church has tried to avoid it! But in avoiding it, we have lost the treasure of our faith: knowing what it would be like if God took on human form; knowing what a human life utterly conformed to the will of God would be like. What would it be like for any of us – for you! – to be filled with the spirit of God?
When you think about it, this nativity scene boasts an unlikely cast of characters. God could have sent the angels to tell influential politicians of Jesus’ birth, but instead the angels told the shepherds, who were the off-kilter, antisocial people who lived with the smelly sheep up in the hills. God could have chosen a princess to bear Jesus, but instead chose an unwed teenage peasant mom betrothed to a guy who was good with his hands, but didn’t talk much. (He doesn’t get even a single line in the Bible.) God could have chosen to find them a nice birthing suite at a hospital in Bethlehem, but instead provides an innkeeper with a sense of compassion, who shows the very pregnant Mary out to a stable. What in God’s name was God thinking?
I don’t think it was unintentional. A king not born into political power and affluence, but on the ground with the lowest of the low, in a backwater village on the edges of the Roman Empire. What a life that baby was about to have…what a life.
So, maybe that’s why you and I are here tonight, to try and catch a glimpse of that child who was born for us and for all people. At the end of the day, Christian faith is not about doctrine or dogma or tradition or theology…it’s about a life…his life and your life.
Symbols are important because they point to a larger reality beyond themselves. So maybe the symbol of our faith doesn’t need to reflect death. Perhaps it needs to reflect life. How different would our faith be if we were to use the manger, the trough filled with hay to feed the animals, as the symbol of our faith. Maybe what each of us is hoping for tonight is that we will catch a glimpse of that life here in the manger, and here within each of us.
Let every heart prepare him room! Amen.
© 2017 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.