11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Sermon December 25, 2015
2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
“LOVE INCARNATE – WE WERE ALL AFRAID”
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Let us begin our Christmas morning with a story from Annie Dillard’s 1982 collection of essays titled “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” This is the first time I’ve used this story in a sermon and what follows is a slightly-edited version of Dillard’s childhood memory: “God in the Doorway.”
“One cold Christmas Eve I was up unnaturally late because we had all gone out to dinner – my parents, my baby sister, and I. We had come home to a warm living room, and Christmas Eve. Our stockings drooped from the mantel; beside them, a special table bore a bottle of ginger ale and a plate of cookies.
“I had taken off my fancy winter coat and was standing on the heat register to bake my shoe soles and warm my bare legs. There was a commotion at the front door; it opened, and cold wind blew around my dress. Everyone was calling me. ‘Look who’s here! Look who’s here!’ I looked. It was Santa Claus - whom I never – ever – wanted to meet. Santa Claus was looming in the doorway and looking around for me. My mother’s voice was thrilled: ‘Look who’s here!’ I ran upstairs.
“Like everyone in their right mind, I feared Santa Claus, thinking he was God. Santa Claus was an old man whom you never saw, but who nevertheless saw you; he knew when you’d been bad or good. And I had been bad.
“My mother called and called, enthusiastic, pleading; I wouldn’t come down. My father encouraged me; my sister howled. I wouldn’t come down, but I could bend over the stairwell and see: Santa Claus stood in the doorway with night over his shoulder, letting in all the cold air of the sky; Santa Claus stood in the doorway monstrous and bright … ringing a loud bell and repeating Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas. I never came down. I don’t know who ate the cookies.
“For many years now I have known that Santa Claus was actually a rigged-up Miss White, who lived across the street ... Miss White was old; she lived alone in the big house … She liked having me around; she plied me with cookies, taught me things about the world … I liked her. She meant no harm on earth …
“It is I who misunderstood everything and let everybody down. Miss White, God, I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from … that love from which there is no refuge - For you meant only love … and I felt only fear. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.”
Sisters and brothers, does this story not resonate somewhere deep within us? It does for me! It resonates within that sacred space, that precious place, where I am still a child; a child filled with a certain amount of confusion, a child filled with anticipation, a child filled with hope, a child filled with a touch of dread – at the coming of Christmas. Will my Christmas dreams come true or will they be shattered into a thousand fragments?
I remember only once going to see Santa. Santa was apparently working at Frank’s Department Store just west of Halsted on 79th Street. At that time, I didn’t know the amazing array and number of Santas. I thought we were going to see the one and only Santa!
My mother had brought my twin brother and me to Santa. I remember feeling frightened as I approached the tubby fellow but I sat on his lap nonetheless. I told him about the gifts I was dreaming of for Christmas. But I wasn’t too sure how this Santa business worked.
I saw Santa talking with my mother after my twin and I were done. In my mind I wondered if Santa was spilling the beans about what I wanted. Why would he tell my mother? What was going on? I wasn’t sure of the answers but my hopes were still brightly lit!
But, you see, there was a fairly big and unacknowledged problem. My family was a poor family. We just scrapped by with the money my father made loading freight cars for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. And the hoped-for gifts I had whispered into Santa’s ear were costly gifts. After all – why not go for broke if you’re in Santa’s lap? What did I know, after all?
That was the only time I sat in Santa’s lap. The Santa business seemed rigged – as it invariably must for those children born into poor families. Santa and I did not have a long and memorable history. But that’s all right – because, as we know, Christmas is surely not about Santa.
Christmas is about Christ. Christmas is about a love so incredible that it was willing to be born into a poor Palestinian family – who also just scraped by on what meager resources were available to them. Now that I could comprehend! Here was a story – a truth - I could wrap my child’s arms around. Here was a story – a truth – that could find a welcome home in my child’s heart!
Brothers and sisters, this story – this truth – has never left me. It still resides in the inner recesses of my heart – it still reverberates in the silent sanctuary of my soul. It is this story – this truth – that alone gives me hope. It is this story – this truth – that alone gives us pause to ponder its awesome reality.
Of course we must ask: why would Love Incarnate wish to be born among us? We can never really know for sure. None of us can ever begin to comprehend the mind of the Almighty. But I don’t believe the only purpose of this birth was to open up heaven’s gates for us. Such thinking is too limited to be worthy of the Almighty.
I believe part of the answer lies in the possibility that God wanted to deeply know what it felt like to be one of us. I believe God wanted to deeply know what it felt like to be a human. How else could God be able to judge us when the time comes? If God the Almighty had no experience of what being human is like – how could God judge us? Now please understand, church, that this is my own speculation – and I could be wrong. This is deep water we’re treading in!
At our home, my beloved Beth and I have three cats: Molly, Donny and Tessa. They each have their own distinct personality. Over the years I’ve come to know a good deal about each of them – but I’m still very removed from their experience of things.
Our oldest cat, Molly, is the most loquacious of the three but usually I have no good idea what she is meowing about. I sometimes imagine how helpful it would be if I could just spend some time in her body – seeing what she sees – experiencing her joys and her fears, understanding her language. The same holds true for Donny and for Tessa.
Now, to be sure, sisters and brothers, the analogy that I’m exploring here is a weak analogy. But it’s hard to think in terms of the Almighty. Everything we can possibly say about God will be wrong in some significant and serious way. But – we keep trying.
This is why we have a Bible filled to over-flowing with all kinds of images, analogies, and symbols. This is why we have an army of theologians – to help us try to understand what is ultimately impossible to understand.
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” – “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” - words from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Analogies such as these two Christmas analogies are almost impossible to fully fathom. Often, sisters and brothers, all we are left with is a sacred silence: “Silent night, holy night! All is calm – all is bright!”
And not only are we left with silence – we are also left with a touch of fear. After all, do we not all, from time to time, attempt to run away from that divine all-consuming - from which there is no refuge? So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid! Of course, we were! Amen!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister