Saturday, December 24, 2011

Homily: December 24, 2011 [Christmas Eve]

December has been a busy time for us, so Kathy and I have not had a chance to see the new Muppet movie yet. But one night last week a cable channel showed the 1984 classic, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and we decided that we’d watch that to prepare ourselves for the newest film. It you remember The Muppets Take Manhattan you’ll recall that it ends with Kermit marrying Miss Piggy in a festive church wedding service. As the camera panned around at all the guest Muppets filling the church, you couldn’t help noticing the big gathering of Sesame Street characters at the back of the room. Suddenly, surprising even myself, I cried out to Kathy, “Look! Everybody’s there! Even Ernie and Bert!”
Kathy took my hand. “It’s only a movie, dear,” she said. I tell this story as an example of what this season does to people, even to bookish clerics like me. I am of course too old to have grown up with Sesame Street; Howdy Doody, Kookla Fran and Ollie, and Miss Frances were more my early childhood style. But Ernie, Bert, the Count, Oscar, Cookie Monster, and Big Bird were prominent in our house when our son was little, and seeing them again made me feel as if I was in the presence of old, loved friends. I might not have cried out in joy had this been the Fourth of July. But because I saw it in the days preceding Christmas, some childlike part of me felt free to express itself.
So Christmas brings out our childlike qualities. It shows what a real intellectual I am that, whenever I think of Christmas, the first image that comes to mind is Snoopy’s doghouse. If you remember another great cinematic classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, you’ll recall that in that story Snoopy wins the neighborhood lights and display competition by decorating his doghouse with flashing lights, colorful ornaments, and a big red star. To Charlie Brown, Snoopy’s doghouse seems like a garish sell-out of the holiday. To me, that decorated doghouse has always served as a vibrant image of home—especially when Snoopy and Woodstock are asleep on the roof.
Home, in a sense, is what Christmas is really about. In Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, our scripture readings have been not about home but about its opposite. They’ve been about the absence of home, also known as exile. For the past few weeks in church we’ve heard stories of ancient Jews and early Christians expelled and adrift from all they love and hold sacred. Now tonight in the Gospel reading from Luke, Christmas arrives with the timeless, familiar story of Mary and Joseph, going themselves in a kind of exile from their home village of Nazareth in the north to their ancestral town of Bethlehem in the south to be enrolled in the Roman census. As Luke’s Gospel puts it,

All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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. [Luke 2.3-7]

There are many reasons this story always speaks so directly to us, but chief among them, I believe, is the way it plays on our notions of home. Mary and Joseph are on the road. When the time comes for Mary to give birth, she and Joseph go first to an inn and then to the inn’s outbuildings where she gives birth and lays the child Jesus in a manger. The beauty of the scene, of course, comes from the way Mary and Joseph manage to make a home in the barn with the new baby and the attending shepherds. We respond year after year to this story because it figures for us the picture of what we all really long for: we all long for home, for the security of the mother, the father, the infant together under one (even if modest) roof. The manger scene figures for us the perfect picture of human security. It is our shared ideal image of what it means to belong. It is our epitome of home.
If Christmas is about anything, it is about home. And by “home” I mean neither our houses nor our nuclear families—though they too can give us authentic intimations of home. Instead, by “home” I mean where we all deeply, finally belong. And if there are any people who need a home, it is those of us who live in the consumerist, materialist, individualistic world of the 21st century. The values that drive this world are not the values of the manger scene. So to the extent we respond to the values of the stable in Bethlehem, we are aliens in our own world. We are all in exile, whether we admit it or not. Exile is a biblical metaphor that speaks to people of faith in every moment. We, like the ancient Israelites and early Christians, live in rocky, uncertain, hard-hearted times. We, like the ancient Israelites and early Christians, respond to and long for God’s values of peace and justice and humility and compassion—values that are honored in public discourse but seem to be missing from our actual experience of life.
But if the image of exile speaks to us, so do God’s promises of restoration and renewal. As did the ancient Israelites and early Christians, so have we also felt the touch of the miraculous vision of life’s possibilities that God offers us in the Christmas story. To be a person of faith or a seeker is, in the 21st century, to be an exile in one’s own native territory. But it’s also to claim the hope for dimensions and possibilities to our life more joyous and hopeful than anything our culture has to offer. To come to church on Christmas Eve is to declare that each of us here deeply longs to connect with the source of our being, to return home. To come to church tonight is also to proclaim that we see something in the manger scene which tells us that life can give us more than the “wearisome possibilities” [Walter Brueggemann’s phrase in Cadences of Home] the world usually has to offer.
Christmas is about home, and it’s about the new possibilities for living that God tonight holds out to us. Frederick Buechner says, “We carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons us. “[Fredrick Buechner, The Longing for Home, p. 110] That wholeness is most perfectly shown in the life and ministry of Jesus. The child whose birth we celebrate tonight will become the man, Jesus of Nazareth, a healer, preacher, and teacher whose life will be dedicated to proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He makes that proclamation to his fellow exiles: to the poor, the sick, the lonely, the mourners, the oppressed, the outcast. Jesus heals people. He gathers them around his table. He opposes the killing structures of his day by saying that everybody, regardless of social distinction, has a place in his community. Jesus builds around him a disparate group of people who, together, can be at home with each other in the new world of possibility that Jesus’s presence creates. The things that Jesus does look to the world outside his presence like impossibilities, and so they are called miracles: healing the sick, feeding the 5,000, raising Lazarus from the dead, casting out demons, restoring the sight of a man born blind. To those inside this new home of his presence, what Jesus does is make God’s “impossibilities” for life, joy, and wholeness possible and available. When you step into the Kingdom of God, you step into a new world of hope and freedom and joy, and you step out of dependence on the bad ideas or false allegiances our culture usually wraps in tinsel expecting our grateful thanks.
I believe that all of us here tonight have come because this picture of a woman, a child, a man gathered around a manger says something true to our shared deep, exilic longing for home. At bottom, each of us knows that what we want for Christmas is not yet another thing. At bottom, each of us knows that what we really want for Christmas is a sense of being at home, a sense that we are living life in alignment with that “vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons us”. The home we see realized in the Bethlehem stable is the true home that will abide.
Time passes: not even Kermit’s and Miss Piggy’s marriage could last. We are all mortal and fragile, so even Snoopy’s doghouse will finally fall silent and Woodstock will fly away. For Christians home is never, finally, about preserving an ideal moment or recovering the past. Our true home lies not behind but ahead of us. Our true home is the place we are going with God, each other and Jesus, and we experience our true home now whenever we refuse the “wearisome possibilities” on offer around us and say yes to the life-changing blessings made real in the ministry and resurrection of Jesus then and now in the community that gathers in his name.
Whoever you are, wherever you are in your life and faith; whatever losses you have experienced; whatever longings you feel: tonight, in this place, you and I are here, together, home. What makes this our home is not that it's an institutional church or a beautiful building. What makes this our home is the story of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus gathered together, brought out of exile and into the warmth of a sheltering stable. We, with them, are open and alive to the miraculous possibilities for love and blessing and life and hope that God offers us always, and especially tonight. This Eucharistic meal we share together is the sign that what we long for is within our reach, that we can experience it as we gather around this table in God’s loving embrace and are fed with the bread and wine of thanksgiving and hope. Exile is over. You really can come home. In fact, you’re already here. Amen.

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