Pastor Barbara Thrall
In the name of the God who comes in small packages. Amen.
Good evening and Merry Christmas! Every Sunday as we gather you have been gracious enough to share your thoughts and comments when the sermon is over. Those thoughts and comments are insightful, clever, helpful, and thought-provoking. You many remember that last Sunday one of you remarked that it had occurred to you that the Virgin Mary, in her encounter with the angel and the Holy Spirit, was so young. Yes, she certainly was. That observation got me thinking about these stories we tell, these old, old tales of our ancestors in the faith, and I began to wonder about what we might notice if we could hear these stories for the first time. Fresh, original, uncluttered.
In the late 1970s I had an experience of that “first time”, albeit second-hand. I was a religion teacher in a Roman Catholic girl’s high school, and the religion department needed someone to teach a section on the Christian faith to a group of girls who were not native English speakers. My English-as-a-second-language religion class had a pair of sisters from Thailand, a girl from Venezuela, girls from Bolivia, Viet Nam, Guatemala, and Ecuador. And then one day there arrived a singular person, Suzanna, straight from Yugoslavia, a communist country. She was tall, forceful, a strident “superior being” as only 16 year old girls can be. It was beginning to dawn on her that she had a lot more to learn than just English.
Our class moved together through the fall and got to December and I began a unit on the Christmas story. We worked on it, through art and music and the words from scripture, and Suzanna was really struggling. Finally one day it all came out. She was confused by all of it and simply did not know whether to believe it – was the account of the Nativity a fanciful tale or did people think it was true? Did we actually believe this stuff really happened? Like the usher in the African church I mentioned last Sunday, we all pretty much looked at Suzanna like she was from Mars. “What do you mean? Don’t you know this story? How could you have missed it?” the other students asked. Her well-defended response was powerful. “No, this is all news to me. I don’t know who these people are, or why we are studying them. I remember a little bit about this from something my Grandmother talked about once, but shepherds, angels, a baby and his parents, I don’t know what this is all about.” And then she started to cry.
The room got very quiet, and I think I was not alone in wondering what her tears were about exactly. Was she a teenager, humiliated and angry, finding herself on the outside of something everyone else had been privy to? Or was she mourning the loss of what could have been a beautiful part of her childhood, had she been brought up somewhere else and by other people? Or was she deeply touched by the beauty of the scene, an angel’s visit, a poor couple alone in a strange country, a tender baby in a manger with animals all around? I don’t really know. But I do know that Suzanna was not, and is not, the only person who cries at Christmastime.
The musician and Adam Wiener wrote a song this year that is based on a journal entry he made decades ago. For a number of reasons he had written in his journal, “Christmas makes me cry.” There’s a little humor in the song but as you might expect for this year, it’s rather dark. Still, at the center of “Christmas makes me cry” are a couple of things about Christmas that are standards every year.
One is that at Christmastime we go in search of connection, whether it be with a story, with one another, with family and friends, with God, with kindness, generosity, or joy. Just as nobody goes through life totally alone, something in us tells us that nobody should be alone at Christmas unless they want to be. We yearn for one another and connections. I think that’s part of why we are here tonight.
At the same time Adam Weiner’s song highlights something else that is really important. That something is sympathy. He observed that Christmas every year brings that out in us, an altruism, a reaching out to others, an effort to be neighborly. And this year, in one way or another, if we are living and breathing just about anywhere in the world right now, we are all in sympathy, together in “feeling something” this year. We have been carrying heavy burdens and we are all in something like the same boat, more or less, just trying to stay afloat.
And then along comes that angel, to us, calling in the night, “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, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” That cry is echoed by the Psalmist on behalf of the cosmos – “Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad, let the seas thunder and all that is in it. Let the field be joyful and all that is therein.” Not only are men and women glad with the angel’s announcement. The whole created order sings with shouts of Joy. God is doing a new thing, and we are witnesses. Maybe for the first time. Maybe for the 15th or the 50th time. That child in the manger was sent to us, out of sympathy for us, to make a connection with us, so that the gulf between God and mankind might be bridged. So that any separation from God we might have been feeling would be healed, in the person of a little child.
The late Rev. Sam Shoemaker, a great preacher and evangelist whose career spanned the 1920s to the 1960s, had a radio program in which he shared a sermon each week. Those sermons didn’t always contain the most profound or orthodox theology, but they almost always made a powerful point. In one segment Shoemaker was speculating on what God the Father might have said to Jesus his Son on the night before Jesus left Him to go down to earth. Sam Shoemaker imagined the Father and the Son conversing much as a human boy and his father might do before the son leaves home to go out into the world. In Sam’s imagination, God might have said, “Son, I hate to see you go. I sure am going to miss you. I love you with all my heart. But I do want you to go down to earth, and tell those poor souls down there how to live, and point them to the way that will lead them back home.” Sam Shoemaker said he thought the last thing God said to Jesus before he left was, “Give them all my love.”
That is the gift, the singular gift of Christmas. In a story that is as old as time, and as new and fresh as this day, God has given us a treasure in a small package, a tiny human life, a little person who would grow into an adult and who would live and die and rise again, as one of us. This is the gift the angels sing about, and have been singing about for thousands of years. If we are listening tonight perhaps we will hear their songs to us – “We don’t care how old you are, or where you are from – “Unto you is born this day a savior who is Christ the lord.”
And so yes, maybe this Christmas we’ll cry a little bit, and hopefully we will also laugh a bit, or even a lot, at the incredible workings of God’s universe, at the sympathy and connection we feel for and with Jesus and his parents, and at the wonder of a God who says with all his heart, “Give them all my love.” Merry Christmas. Amen.