A homily preached on Christmas Eve 2021 at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Seattle, Washington
When I was six years old, I came home from church on Christmas Eve, made my little brother put on his bathrobe, plopped a dish towel on top of his head, and brought him into the living room, where I draped a lacy crocheted afghan over my own head and shoulders, tightly swaddled my doll Tabitha in a flannel receiving blanket, and directed my first nativity pageant. The story we tell every year on this night, the one that so vividly lives in our hearts and imaginations, is about the Holy Family, Mary and Joseph and Jesus, but it is also deeply and truly, a story about us.
You may know the story of the day you were born. You may hold the story of the birth of your child, or a sibling. When you were born, stars danced and angels sang. Every birth is a miracle, and every child is holy. How do I know? Let me tell you another story:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters… And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
The very first thing that God spoke into being was light. And in this story, every time God makes something, God looks at it and calls it good. God creates us—humans—in God’s own image and calls us good. We carry within us the light of our creator. We are light bearers, all of us.
During the Christmas pageant at Saint Mark’s, when we get to the part where Jesus is born, the manger glows. Mary and Joseph wear golden haloes that catch and reflect the light. Here’s a secret about Baby Marilee, who played Jesus on Tuesday night: she glows, too. And so does her sister Esmé, and so do her parents, who played Mary and Joseph. So do you.
Mary brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes just like I swaddled my doll, just like my mother swaddled my brother and me, because babies love to be swaddled, they are calmed and soothed by the snugness of the cloth wrapped around them. There was no room for them in the inn because the busy inn was no place to deliver a baby. Mary needed privacy, quiet and warmth, perhaps in the room on the ground floor, where the most important animals—the cow, the ox, and the donkey—would be brought in at night for safekeeping. The manger may have been a hollow in the floor, with fresh, sweet-smelling hay, the perfect spot for a baby to snuggle down. Jesus, God’s own child, was born in this simple, ordinary way. God comes to us in the messy, everyday miracles of life and love.
One Godly Play story begins like this: “There once was someone who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things that people just had to ask him who he was. Once when they asked him, he said, ‘I am the light…’”
Another time, Jesus told the ones listening to his stories, “You are the light of the world.” The light shines in each of us. By this light, we see God in each other: in family, friends, and strangers. Through small acts of kindness and courage, the light grows and spreads. Everyone glows with the light of God’s love. Everyone is holy.
The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13 (CEB)
“Oh, sure,” you’re probably thinking. “People talked about God and with God all the time in those days, and everyone agreed on what God is like. Nobody doubted or struggled with their faith. It’s so different from today and my experience.” Stay with me here.
The prophet Elijah has witnessed more than his share of dramatic miracles—enough food in famine, fire from heaven, answered prayer in the form of drought-ending rain, raising a child from the dead. At this point in the story, though, Elijah has given up on God. That it can happen to him shows that it can happen to anyone. He runs for his life and hides in a cave, defeated and depressed. What next? God comes to Elijah, not in the stone-breaking wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire. God comes to Elijah in silence, in what the King James Version calls “the still small voice” of God. Just when we in our disheartened disbelief think we have God all figured out, God is in what we do not expect. And as surprising as it may seem, as one mainline denomination puts it, “God is still speaking.”
Let’s talk about God, if not in public or with our friends, then at home with our kids. Many of us, even those who count ourselves believers, do not talk about God. It’s easier and more comfortable and a lot less dangerous that way. However, let’s take the risk. Let’s agree that we can talk about God without trying to prove the existence of God. Doubts are welcome here. Let’s also name that talking about God in this day and age is complicated by the fact that many of us don’t agree on who or what God is. What we are trying to articulate may be drastically different from the understanding of God that we grew up with. Our thoughts and beliefs may not be what are commonly accepted in popular culture or even in our extended families.
Where do we start? It’s easy to understand why we personify God, why we make God like us, only bigger, stronger, more powerful. There are consequences, however, to trying to make God more relatable. American teenagers overwhelmingly view God as “a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist” whose job is “to solve our problems and make people feel good,” according to Christian Smith, the principal investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion. The research tells us that this is not simply a matter of misunderstanding. This is the God that we, their parents and their churches, have given them. We have failed to introduce them to the God of invitation and imagination, the God of the burning bush and the still small voice, the God of living water and rushing wind, in whom “we live and move and have our being.”
The first problem Smith and his collaborator Melinda Denton identify is that most U.S. teenagers are “incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives.” Why? “Religious language is like any other language; to learn how to speak it, one first needs to listen to native speakers using it a lot, and then one needs plenty of practice speaking it oneself.”
We need to practice talking about God, what we believe, and why it matters.
So how do we talk about God? The theologian Elizabeth Johnson offers three ground rules from early Christian thought:
God is a mystery.
No name or image of God should be taken literally.
There are many and varied expressions of God.
Above all, Johnson encourages us to speak of “the living God,” not “this invisible, greatly powerful, grand old man in the sky.” God as superparent who must be obeyed or else is especially unattractive to young people, she points out, who may be rebelling against parents in general. (Imagine that.) The living God, an image found throughout the Bible, is creative, active, present, and new. The living God is the one I want to talk about, the one I love, the one who is Love.
What is God like? We get stuck when we divide up the world and everything else into what we know and what we believe, the rational and the miraculous, the ordinary and the holy. Christians should know better: Jesus embodies both. As pastor Rob Bell puts it, “When we talk about Jesus being divine and human, what we are saying is that Jesus, in a unique, singular and historic way, shows us what God is like.” If you have trouble talking about God, try talking about Jesus.
One afternoon at home when my son Peter was seven, the phone rang, and Peter came running upstairs while I was chatting with the caller. He was breathless and impatient, hopping up and down from foot to foot. When I hung up, he asked with great excitement, “Mommy, was that Jesus?!” Puzzled, I told him no, it was a priest calling from another church. What made him think that? He was crestfallen. “The caller ID said ‘Good Shepherd.’” That image of Jesus so real to Peter was one he recognized from Sunday School and from the Bible, too: The Good Shepherd who calls us each by name, whose voice we know and follow, who lays down his life for the sheep.
Let’s talk about God in metaphor and mystery, in simple concrete ways like a mother hen and a friend, God as gardener, artist, and builder, God as light and rock. Let’s talk about what we imagine when we say “God.” Words will fail us here. This is where we start, but not where we end up. The living God is calling us, moving us forward, inviting us to help bring heaven to earth, “reclaiming the planet an inch at a time” as Sister Joan Chittister says, “until the Garden of Eden grows green again.”