December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve B

Do Not be Afraid

GOSPEL

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 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. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
SERMON
The prophet Isaiah speaks of and he speaks to, “ A people who walked in the darkness”. Can we really find better words to capture the experience of the people of this world and the journey we’ve shared during 2020, and will continue to share for some time moving forward? We are a people who are walking in the darkness.

During the past twelve months, a deadly virus has extinguished the light of life for more than 350,000 of our neighbors and 1.7 million of the earth’s inhabitants. It has covered millions more, of those who mourn these losses, with the dark pall of grief. And even as a vaccine is being delivered, the death toll rises with each passing day.

In the past twelve months, the murders of 18 unarmed black men and women at the hands of police has certainly cast a dark shadow over the families of these victims and the cities in which they lived, as well as, over the officers who were involved, and the system that enables and protects such brutality.

In the past twelve months, the light stolen from the eyes of thousands of caged immigrant children, and the terror that consumes the lives of the parents from whose arms they were torn, creates a dark memory for those among us who seek to maintain some semblance of humanity.

In these past twelve months, the well-paid members of the senate majority, who live a life of privileged security, have held millions of people in a dark limbo with regard to any assurance of essential relief and continuing unemployment benefits. And what they finally grudgingly delivered is not nearly enough.

In the past twelve months, the dark shadow cast upon the civil order by a thoroughly deceitful and morally bankrupt administration, that even in its waning, would take us to a place of anarchy, where a would be tyrant, his sycophants and a racist militia of white supremacists and Christian nationalists, that would serve his dark and deadly cause, is hell bent on stealing even more daylight and casting a darker cloud over our future.

The robbery, and the rape and the murder of the most vulnerable, are not just street crimes. There is a direct relationship between increased violence on our streets and increased greed and indifference in our institutions, as there would be a direct relationship between peace on our streets and justice in our places of business and in our halls of government. No justice. No peace.

Yes, we come to this night as people who have been walking in the darkness. From our childhood we have identified the darkness as something to be feared. And so, fear is certainly our response to what we see as those dark forces that do us harm.

Yes, the fragility of human life, the omnipresence of death, and the dark powers of this world can and do generate fear.

But there also exists a fear of an entirely different order. This fear, I believe, is the threshold and the portal to the fullest experience of light.

As we listen to the Christmas story once again, we hear many references to this fear in the narratives relating to the birth of Jesus as told by Luke and Matthew.

Luke notes that, at the angel’s word to Mary, “she is greatly troubled”. In other words, she is frightened to her very core.

Matthew writes that “Joseph was afraid” to take Mary as his wife after the angel told him that she was pregnant.

Luke’s account of the shepherds brings us to the very same place. When the angel speaks, and the glory of the Lord shines around them, the shepherds are described as “filled with fear.”

There can be little doubt that fear comes so naturally to us. And as it can come in response to dark forces, some, over which we have no control, and others over which we fail to seize appropriate control, it can also come as a response to things that cause us to wonder and linger in a place of might be called expectant unknowing. That space that is the waiting room or antechamber of love.

Yes, human beings experience fear at the approach of love. And that is what this holy night is really all about – the approach of love.

As much as human beings crave intimacy and union, that much do we fear it and tremble before it. And if we fear it with other human beings how much more must we fear it with God.

Yes, as we can react with fear to the unpredictability and apparent indifference of nature. Yes, we can be frightened by the malevolence and infidelity of the world in the design and execution of its social contracts. But also, and maybe even more poignantly, we can react with fear to the awesome faithfulness of the God who comes into our lives? The God who makes His home among us. The God who would even dwell within us. The God who brings light to whatever the darkness both out there and in here.

For those of us who prefer hiding in the shadows, being called into the light can be very frightening. For those who confuse peace with personal comfort, any disturbance of the status quo of our souls, can be very unsettling. For those who do not want to move, much less change, an invitation to be transformed by love, can be absolutely terrifying.

The coming of the One who is faithful and the invitation to be bathed in light, clothed with peace and transformed by love immediately places us at the heart of another and deeper kind of fear. It is called holy fear.

Mary, Joseph and the shepherds experienced holy fear. And in response to their fear the angelic chorus was always the same. “Do not be afraid.” They all moved thru their fear to embrace the joy that the world cannot give and cannot take away.

For most of us the coming to birth within us of the Son of God, and His invitation to the dance of divine intimacy began when we were still in our mother’s arms. For those of us who have tried to stay with the music, this holy night is a passionate moment in an ongoing celebration of love. For those who have sat many of them out, this holy night is a new invitation to push through our fear of being loved and return to the dance.

The Kingdom of God is about justice for all and not acquisition by a privileged few. We remember the poignant words of Mary’s song, “He will caste the powerful down and raise up the lowly”. The reign of God is about love that extends to all people of good will and is not bound by ethnic, tribal, national, cultural or religious distinctions. The dominion of God is about peace that is borne of the work of ongoing reconciliation and communion with all who would do good, even if they are different from ourselves.

My sisters and brother, it is our joy, peace and hope to model the priorities of the Kingdom of God in our lives that light may continue to shine in the darkness. Even as a deep darkness has engulfed 2020, have not the first responders, the health care professionals, the immigrants who sustain the food supply, and the many people of good will who have found creative ways to respond as servants, been a sign to us of a light that the darkness cannot extinguish? Here we find God. Here we find the light of the Child born for us. Here we find the love of the Son given to us.

On this holy night, in which we remember the God who took our flesh upon Himself, may we once again put on the Lord Jesus Christ, be bathed in His light, be clothed with His peace and be transformed by His love. May we stand in this world with faith enough to confront and undo the powers of institutional evil and oppression, rather than being cowed into fearful submission to them. Let us be less frightened by enemies conveniently contrived as scapegoats and be more seriously disturbed by the gross dysfunction in our political, economic and legal systems.

The Holy Child whose birth we celebrate this night has promised to be with us in God’s great work of bringing forth justice upon the earth. To be with us in exposing the lies that ensure the continuing dysfunction in our political, economic and legal systems. To name the real enemies and to remove this branding from those whom the system would have us scapegoat.

And as far as our fear at the coming of eternal love into our lives, hear again or maybe for the first time, the message of the angels, “Do not be afraid”. The Lord comes only to embrace and enfold us in love and to gentle us with a kiss that He will, again and again, lovingly place upon our otherwise troubled brows. Yes, the light does shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and will never overcome it. Listen to the message of the angels. Heed their counsel. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
December 24, 2020