Called to Joy: A Christmas Sermon


Based on Luke 2: 1-14


I might complain (just a little bit) to my pastor friends who serve churches that Christmas, at Monmouth College, comes on December 7th—which means I have to start listening to Christmas music mid-November to prepare myself and my message. There is no Advent in academia, no expectant season of waiting and spiritual preparation.

This year, though, I’m not complaining. Christmas couldn’t come soon enough.

In my message last year, I prayed to God to save us from the darkness which I described as a nation entrenched in deep, unyielding differences; children separated from their parents at the border; hateful, destructive rhetoric; endless mass shootings; wildfires raging; our environment degrading. Obviously, I’m still praying that prayer.

This year, though, the angels have turned me to joy.

In Luke chapter 2, when the angels proclaim Jesus’ birth as “good news of great joy for all the people”, they do not do so in a time when joy is easy to be found, or to a people whose lives naturally spark joy. The shepherds, whom the angels address, are the poor day laborers, the Unseen, the field workers like those bringing in the harvest here in rural Illinois no matter the weather. As I drive by these field workers in rain, sleet and Halloween snowstorms, with my car heater blaring I think, my blood is not thick enough for that kind of cold; my character’s not strong enough for that kind of work. These workers, I imagine, do not rejoice in the labor, as much as what the labor provides—food, shelter, a livelihood for the family they love.

It is to these—these head-down, hard-working, don’t-stop-to-think-about-your-life-or-your-life-will-overwhelm-you— that the angels call to joy—great joy, in fact; life changing, necessary joy.

The poet Christian Wiman writes that “joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone, the only antidote to the nihilism that wafts through our intellectual atmosphere like sarin gas.”[1]

I often counsel people who are going through difficult times to intentionally seek joy as they observe the day’s sunset, or listen to their children’s laughter, or receive their spouse’s embrace, or witness a stranger’s random act of kindness.  Seek joy, I advise them, not to demean or downplay their darkness but to help them find their way through it. Joy can serve as a buoy when life’s storms overwhelm; moments of joy are stepping-stones through the darkness and despair.

Perhaps you have come here tonight, to Christmas at Monmouth, seeking such an inoculation of joy—a decision the angels would approve of. Because here among the music, and the beauty, and the love and pride we feel for our students who have worked so hard to pull all this off, the world’s problems do not feel so heavy, or so insurmountable.

We need this. We need the good news of a baby born to turn an oppressive human empire on its head; we need the good news that there is a power greater than human greed and immorality; we need the good news that the arc of the universe bends towards justice; we need to hear Luke’s angels proclaim that this Christmas there is good news of great joy for all the people.

We need this joy not only as an inoculation against the darkness and despair but also as a way to resist it.

The poet Jack Gilbert writes:

“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

Joy resists injustice; joy resists despair and hopelessness; joy resists evil by refusing to acquiesce or accept that darkness is the more powerful reality. The angels call a poor, oppressed people to joy so that they can resist the ruthlessness of their world.

Recently, I was introduced to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam felt a moral responsibility to write poetry for his people during the Russian Revolution of the 1900’s. When the government demanded poets write patriotic poems to inspire obedience among the working class, Mandelstam resisted. He resisted by writing poetry that evoked a violent, upending kind of joy; the kind of joy that can save you when life is insufferable. Mandelstam also wrote a poem mocking Stalin, which got him arrested, exiled and eventually killed.

In this Russian context, Mandelstam’s poems weren’t written down—they were too momentous, too truthful. He composed in his head while walking the streets of St. Petersburg, reciting his memorized poems to his wife, who memorized them herself and only decades later, after Mandelstam’s death, wrote them down.

Even after he was arrested and exiled to a Russian corrective-labor camp, Mandelstam continued to compose poetry. His health declined. He was starving. The last time he was seen alive he was scavenging for food out of a garbage dump. Mandelstam knew full well that he was about to die. Yet, still he resisted the darkness. The last poem he wrote before his death was this, called “And I Was Alive.”[2]

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering
power,
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel declares, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Embrace the joy the angels proclaim. Rejoice in the hope God provides.

 

 

 

[1] Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman, Yale University Press, 2017

[2] Read more about Osip Mandelstam in Ilya Kaminsky’s introduction to “Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam” and Christian Wiman’s interview here: https://onbeing.org/poetry/and-i-was-alive/

[Feature Image: Drew Selby]

Is there room for me? A Christmas Sermon

What follows is my sermon, “Is there room for me?” to Monmouth College at our annual                                          Christmas Convocation based on Luke 2: 1-14.

Traditionally, in a Protestant worship service, all the children are invited forward for a special time or message from the pastor.  One Christmas, when I was the pastor of a small church in North Carolina, I decided to involve the whole congregation in my children’s message by acting out the scene where pregnant Mary and Joseph are looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem.  I gave the people sitting on the aisles doors made out of posterboard.  Then I led the children around the sanctuary to knock on the doors and ask if there was room for them to come in and stay.  I did this not realizing how difficult it would be for my church members.

Two-year old-Garrett, clutching his tattered teddy bear, knocked on Leon’s door and asked, “Do you have room for me?” and Leon—well, I could tell that Leon wanted to cave—so, I interrupted, “No, Leon, you’ve got no room for Garrett.  Now shut the door.”  The same thing happened when sweet little Grace in her red velvet dress knocked on Sharon’s door.  Sharon’s a grandmother who never says no to a child.  She looked devastated to have to turn Grace away.  “I’m sorry sweetie,” she said.  Finally, my own 4-year-old, tow-headed, son, Isaac, knocked on Mack’s door, with his sweet little six-inch clip-on-tie and his shirt tail untucked.  Isaac and Mack had a special connection.  They looked for each other every Sunday morning and that Christmas, Mack had made Isaac a toy train out of wood.  So when Isaac asked, “Mr. Mack, do you have room for me?” It was all Mack could do to stay on script, “No, Isaac, I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room for you.”

Every Christmas, as I consider what to say to you at this convocation I try to take the pulse of our community and then respond in a way that I pray is both helpful and faithful.  This year, with race and interfaith relations boiling over, the rescinding of DACA, and our divisions growing ever wider, it seems to me that many of us just feel left out in the cold, or feel left to wonder, is there room for me?

Our seniors getting ready to graduate wonder, “Is there room for me, is there a place for me, in life beyond college?”

The woman living in a society where glass ceilings are yet to be broken and #metoo is trending on twitter wonders, “Is there room for me, for my aspirations and my success?”

The white man, tired of hearing about his unearned privilege and confused over what, exactly, to do about it, wonders, “Will there still be room for me if I let others in?”

The transgender man who just wants to use the bathroom like everyone else wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The undocumented student, who fears her and her family’s deportation, wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The Syrian refugee, whose family is scattered all over the world and whose home has been decimated by violent, warring powers wonders, “Is there room for me?”

The African American student attending a predominantly white college, wonders, “Is there room for me?”

Pondering this question (the question of whether or not there is room) I returned to the text and discovered a detail that I had missed. When I read this story of Jesus’ birth before, I had always pictured a weary Innkeeper greeting Mary and Joseph in the middle of the night, a lantern reflecting their faces desperate for a place to stay and the Innkeeper’s regret as he, reluctantly, followed the script, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got no room you.”

Well, apparently, I made this whole scene up because there is no innkeeper in this text.  In fact, I learned recently that the word inn would more accurately be translated as “guest room” or “guest bed” in the peasant house or desert cave where Mary and Joseph more likely stopped. This was not a place of business—not some kind of hotel—but family and friends who had come home for the census and crowded in for the night with people and animals sleeping on different levels.  So yes, there was no bed for them, no guest room with a private bath, no luxury to speak of at all.  But there was room.  Mary and Joseph were taken in.  Their baby was born, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger.

Knowing this, now I wish I could go back in time, back to my church in North Carolina and back to the Christmas when I led all those children around the sanctuary.  I wish I could go back and give my church members the right script.  I’d tell Leon, go ahead and cave. Let Garrett in. Sharon, it’s okay, you’ve got room for Grace.  And Mack, you can make room for Isaac, just like I know you would for any child of God.

In today’s world, it seems like we’ve been operating under a script that tells us there just isn’t enough—there’s not enough room, not enough resources, not enough jobs, not enough alternative sources of energy, maybe even not enough love to conquer the hate or good to overcome the evil.  This belief in scarcity arises out of fear and anxiety.  I get that.  I know that fear too.  But this belief in scarcity only leads us to hoard in excess, to isolate ourselves, build walls, choose sides and arm ourselves to the hilt to protect our own.

The birth of Jesus Christ flips this script.  It proclaims the good news of great joy for all the people.  No one is left out in the cold.  Nor is anyone left out as Jesus grows up and purposefully reaches out to those who have been left out: the women, the children, the stranger, the sick, the poor, even the despised tax collector.  Jesus apparently believed that what God has given, God has given in abundance. There is enough.  There is room for us all.

There is room for the graduating senior and the woman with career aspiration.  There is room for the privileged and the underprivileged.  There is room for the lgbtq, for the undocumented, for the refugee, for the minoritized. There is room for us all.

The angel Gabriel wasn’t kidding when he said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.”  A Savior born in an overcrowded house among the animals because the good people there believed they had enough to make room.

This Christmas, may we know this Savior and this salvation when we too make room for all of God’s people.

[Feature Image: Wbeem]