This is an excerpt from a sermon was given on Christmas Eve, 2105 by the Rev. Jennifer Steckel McNally at Saint Anne's Episcopal Church in Sunfish Lake, MN
Tonight is an ancient night. A holy night. Tonight is a night which belongs to your ancestors and their ancestors and theirs before them. Tonight is about storytelling and about the truths we carry in our souls. It is about the thin line between heaven and earth, between fear and miracle. Tonight is deep and full of mystery.
If you’ve ever felt lost and alone, felt like an outsider, this is the night for you.
If you’ve ever knocked at a door, hoping against hope it would be opened, this night is for you.
If you’ve ever looked up at the night sky and made a wish on the brightest star, this night is for you.
If you’ve ever seen something holy and sacred in the eyes of another person, this is the night for you.
If you, like me, are troubled about the state of the world today. If you’re tired of the politics, tired of problems that seem too big to solve, and people who seem more interested in slugging it out than finding solutions; if you’re saddened by the refugee crisis, by racism and religious intolerance; feeling hopeless and helpless against hunger, homelessness and gun violence right in our neighborhoods. If these things trouble your heart and soul, the way they do mine, this is the night for you.
Whether you’re here right now because church is where you feel at home, or because your mom made you come – or anything in between – this night, this ancient and holy night, is for you. Because tonight we celebrate the story that goes something like this: Once upon a time, a baby was born. And that story is for all of us. It’s for everyone. Even you, who don’t expect this story to be yours. God has this way of coming to us in all kinds of expected places.
Once upon a time, the Jewish people were living in difficult conditions – the Roman government was a powerful dynasty and when they said jump, you said how high. Even if jumping went against everything you believed in. Once upon a time, there was a young unmarried woman who found herself pregnant. It was unexpected, and maybe not a pleasant surprise. It was also a miracle of light and love and hope.
Tonight is about then, and it’s about now.
Once upon a time, both the Jewish people and this young woman were facing deep unknowns. It felt dark and scary. They might have felt powerless and trapped – both the people as a whole, and this young woman and her fiancée. Once upon a time, you and I have been there, too. In situations which seemed hopeless – deep and dark. Maybe it seemed there was no way out. No light to be found. Maybe we were too proud to share with others some of what we were going through – too proud to ask for help. Or maybe we didn’t have anyone to ask.
In tonight’s story, there are so many burdens being carried. Maybe your burdens are like Mary’s – worries you carry close to your heart. Maybe yours are more like Joseph’s – overwhelming obligations on all sides. For Joseph powerful government pressing him – and the sudden need to care for his new family. It was all too much. Go to Bethlehem, find his pregnant fiancée a place to stay, give the government an extraordinary amount of money. And then what? What would he do with a baby? What will any of us do with…. a difficult medical diagnosis, a difficult living or financial situation, difficulty with a darkness in our lives. We don’t really know, do we, what burdens others might be carrying?
Last spring, I spent some time in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with friends who are working to end homelessness there. A man they knew, a United States veteran who spent 11 years living on the streets, had finally secured a place to live. He asked my friend, an Episcopal priest, and me if we would come and bless his new house. We drove through an old and worn part of town and then out a very busy two lane highway until we reached the address – it was a small one bedroom place on one side of a small duplex. There was no driveway to the house, so we parked in an abandoned church parking lot about a quarter mile away, and walked single file back along the highway to get to Tim’s new place. He proudly opened the door, invited us in, and gave us a tour. In the one small bedroom were 5 cots lined up. The room was small enough that the cots were almost touching. Tim waited 11 years to get off the streets, and when he finally did – into a place which was small for just one – he invited four other homeless men to move in with him. “It’s what Jesus would do”, he said, “and he knew what it was like to have people say there is no room for you, so I feel like he gets me – and I try to get him.”
This story is about then and now. It’s about them and us. It’s about you and me.
It’s about a little baby who they called Emmanuel, which means God with us. God in us.
The author of the Gospel of Luke believed God comes to us in the most unexpected places. The Jewish people had been waiting for a long time for a Messiah – a leader or savior – to come. For a powerful someone to ride in, leading armies, and ready to overthrow Rome. Imagine their surprise when this once upon a time doesn’t even take place in Rome, the city of the powerful, but in Bethlehem, the city of David, the king who had been defeated. And imagine their surprise when the Messiah turned out to be a little baby. A baby didn’t have an army. A baby wouldn’t be able to stand up to a powerful government. A baby wasn’t going to crush their enemies. He was just a baby. And we might think now: a baby isn’t going to solve the refugee crisis or the gun crisis or the environmental crisis. A baby isn’t going stop abuses of power or end racism. But have you ever looked into the eyes of a baby? Or heard a baby laugh? Had a baby reach to be held or snuggle in your arms? The whole world can be found in a baby. All of the love, hope, and peace that we could ever want.
No, A baby isn’t going to solve the refugee crisis or the gun crisis or the environmental crisis. A baby isn’t going stop abuses of power or end racism. But you can. Maybe because the baby from this "once upon a time" tonight empowers and encourages you. As the reading from Titus puts it, the birth of this baby then encourages us “in the present age” to live lives that are “upright, and godly”. Emmanuel, God with us.
Once upon a time, the angel said “Do not be afraid”. I once read this about fear: “Fear is not your enemy. It is a compass, pointing you to the areas you need to grow,” Do not be afraid, the angel said. It’s time to grow in new ways.
Do not be afraid to give birth to God, to the love and miracle you’ve been holding close inside. Give birth to it, wrap it in swaddling clothing, care for it tenderly, and delight as it grows. And then let that beloved baby lead you to new things. Let that chubby, foot-stomp-y, energetic toddler lead you. Let that teenager, the one is now taller than you, the one who sometimes makes you crazy, and who sees the world with fresh eyes lead you. Let the homeless man lead you. Let the refugees lead you. Let any fear you have be the compass which leads you into new growth.
This is your story and God’s story, and it is the love story which you and God write together. It is a story which is already etched into our hearts - and a story still being written. Don’t be afraid to write in your part. Don’t be afraid to write yourself a starring role. Know that whatever turns your once upon a time take, God is with you. Merry Christmas.