Christmas Day 2009
Luke 2: 1-20
The Revd Robert Whalley
The story I just read from the Gospel of Luke is a very strange one, though it is probably a story you’ve heard many times before; maybe memory connects it to other services in church buildings, connects to to old music and stained glass, or to family dinners, and times of joy or maybe frustration and dread; or maybe the story connects certain movies, either biblical spectaculars or family disaster-comedy ending with reunions in snowy villages with happy resolutions, starring Bing Crosby or Macauley Culkin, generally not in the same film, generally fiction.
But I would like to go back to that original story and retell it in a way that emphasizes its original strangeness the shock of the encounter, the journey, the discovery, and the moment of choosing where we might go from here.
The other background piece to what I’m about to say has to do with strange phenomena called “senior memory”. When I leave my glasses, when I enter a room and forget why, when I begin a sentence and pause, there seems to be more open space than it used to be. So I’m trying to be more methodical with memory.
There’s a wonderful book by Jonathan Spence called, “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci” about a sixteenth century Jesuit priest who went to China with a memory method where you visualize rooms inside your head. A memory palace: where each cabinet or picture, each chair or table in the palace holds the story of something you hold dear. That needs to be seen as part of the story I am going to retell.
So just imagine that all this is taking place inside your head. You’re spending the day minding your thoughts, watching your concerns, keeping busy shepherding the various constituencies that are part of your daily existence: whether that has to do with your job or family, parents partners or children; has to do with money, health, power or poetry; love, life or death: all those concerns wandering like sheep over the meadows and mountains of your mind (And I apologize if this sounds like a 1970s song).
Then something new happens. You are surprised by a message that comes from someplace you have never considered before. The word we translate as angel originally simply meant meant “messenger;” so pretend that a messenger (maybe several, or even lots of them) arrives on the scene and you have this intuition, insight, that they are coming from someplace that is both deeper, higher, larger than the world you usually inhabit. And they tell you something new: that there is a new way of being, of living, becoming, in the world, and you need to leave aside your taken for granted everyday concerns and attend to this new possibility. These messengers may have wings, they may be in space suits, they may be dressed in an unremarkable manner; but it is their message which matters, which surprises you into taking a new step in moving towards a new discovery of how to be in the world, of how to be who you are.
So you leave your flocks, those habitual concerns, and let them take care of themselves for a little while, and you follow this promising message to an incongruous destination and find yourself witnessing something that is absolutely newborn.
No birth happens in a vacuum. This one has been nurtured and mothered in the midst of surprise and miracle, there is a husbanding hope and help alongside, and all the animals of every day life are there as well. This all makes sense to the way you see the world: odd, but not too unusual. Yet there is something completely newborn in the middle of it. Something you never thought you’d see.
Any baby is a surprise. They all used to look like Winston Churchill, and even now they seem to bring a message from another place, they’re not quite with us yet. And this baby is like that, except more so.
An English theologian from the 1950s talked about something called “God-shaped events”: assume for the moment that the word “God” might mean something concerning holiness, justice, compassion, connectedness, truth, love. And sometimes we can see small packages containing those events or transactions carried, acted out in the life of others, as well as in our own lives.
Actually I would be surprised if there were anyone in this room today who had not been at least once amazed by some surprise of caring, a “God-shaped” event they have received from another person; an unexpected gift, a quality of presence, a reaching out in love.
And it is as if this baby, in this stable that seems surprisingly unstable, both carries and is carried by that deepest current of love. It is as if the child is both a wide window into and a window, a vista, in which a depth and height and breadth, of caring is face to face with you. If the earlier messengers spoke a word of hope and holiness, then this infant is a symphony, is Technicolor and 3-D and special effects beyond belief, and in looking at this child you see yourself and the world you thought you lived in, anew.
And this is all happening inside your head. Except that your head seems to be open to something bigger than itself, bigger than what you usually think of as the world, and you have this strange perception, call it a hope, that this is bigger than you know, that the baby may be the truth of how we are related to the center of everything, to the edge of everything, to everything and everyone we know. And it has to do with love, being born in love, traveling in love, making mistakes and failing miserably, and rising up again to begin again in the name of love.
So if that is the case, then this baby, this new beginning, isn’t just happening in your head. It’s happening in the world you live in day to day, in the world of history, institutions, expectations, culture, here and now as well is there and then. And you look around at this church and the people gathered, at the old books, the strange robes, the stained glass and see a tradition and community gathered in the hope that this is at the heart of reality.
A wise man once said, “Look at everything, look at anything, until it surprises you, until it tells you something you don’t know.” I’d say this: look at the story: Luke, Joseph, Mary, Bethlehem, the shepherd and the angels, as well as the tradition, and the hope of this place, and the hope you carry in your own heart; and see if this perception, tradition, community gathered over time and space can offer you a way to deepen your daily experience of connectedness and compassion and caring for yourself and your neighbor and the stranger too.
Then go back to your daily concerns, shepherding them in your everyday fields, but remembering the Angels as well, the newborn truth, remember the possibility of compassion and connectedness, that it all may be true.
In the name of Christ. Amen