Monday, 24 December 2012 00:00

"Pageantry", Christmas Eve 2012

A Christmas Eve Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 24, 2012
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

This is the night of nights when we retell the story of stories.  We remember ghosts of Christmases past, we imagine Christmases in the future, we revel in the pageantry of now.  There’s something about telling the story over and over again that makes it more real.  Perhaps we hear something a bit differently this time.  Perhaps something in our mood has shifted this year, some dynamic that puts it in a different perspective.  Maybe it’s the empty place at the table.  Maybe it’s the visit by a long-lost relative or friend.  Maybe it’s the year we have lived through.  Maybe it’s the addition to the family.

We bring all of that to this warm candle-lit sanctuary.  And we rehearse again the stories told from long ago.  And we long for one night to experience peace on earth, good will toward all people.

Just one night, when all of our anxieties are laid to rest along with the gifts to the Christ child.


Just one night when we don’t need to worry about the safety in our schools, in our homes, in our hearts.

Just one night when we can remember those who have gone before.

Just one night when we can pause in the silence and imagine how we want our future to unfold.

Just one night when we let go of all of the preparations and machinations of the season, and drink in the awe of the miracle of that night so long ago.

Just one night that we put aside our petty differences and recognize that we’re all vulnerable, just like the baby Jesus, and that we are called to shape the lives of those around us.

A baby comes with DNA and proclivities passed down by generations.  But by and large, a child is shaped by their environment.  They are shaped by the love or the non-love they receive from adults, other children.  They absorb every little thing in ways none of us can even imagine.  Mary and Joseph must have done a very good job of teaching Jesus how to be and who to be.  
He was shaped by his environment.  He spend his formative years as an exile in Egypt, fleeing from the wrath of Herod.  If he ever went back to Bethlehem, he would have not had children to play with his own age, for they were killed at Herod’s orders.  Did that knowledge shape him?  He lived in Nazareth, that backcountry town that everyone looked down on.  He had every reason to have grown up bitter and cynical.

But something about how his family raised him pointed him a different direction.  When others were bent on revenge and judgment, Jesus responded with compassion and Mercy. When the powers and principalities told him that he should go along to get along, Jesus always measured his actions by a higher standard, the highest.  Is what I am doing loving?

Is what I am doing going to make things better for the poor?

Is what I am being asked to do going to set people free or continue their bondage?

I think Mary and Joseph and perhaps the surrounding community, including Elizabeth and his cousin John told Jesus the stories of the prophets who were never satisfied with business as usual when that business hurt people.  I think they told the stories and sang the songs that pointed Jesus toward the person he grew up to be.  And of course, Jesus sang, for there is no better way to make the story real than to sing it.  We don’t remember spoken words anywhere near as much as we remember the lyrics to songs.

So what will you tell the next generation?  What truths do you want to pass down.  Remember, people are watching.  And our young, especially, learn and integrate by imitation.  That’s why pageantry is so important.

It helps us remember who we are and whose we are.

I don’t remember much about the words said in a Christmas Eve sermon growing up.  Do any of us?  No, the pageantry is what it’s about.  I remember the candles, the carols, the mystery.  I also remember my maternal grandparents beatific faces. We Donley kids cherubically walked down the aisles in our little choir robes and my grandfather would sneak a wink and my grandmother a smile.  I swear I see their faces in my mind’s eye every Christmas Eve, calmly grateful that the story continues to be told.

So let us sing the songs once again, let us put on literal and figurative shepherd’s headdresses and angels wings, let us hear again what the prophets long foretold, and let it take root in us, perhaps just for one night.  And may it transform our tomorrow.  And may it shape how we see our family, our neighbors, our friends, even our enemies. For we are all thespians in this cosmic drama played out year after year.  The true magic of Christmas happens after the pageantry is over and the story lingers in our hearts and minds and it shapes how we encounter the world.

Let us take our roles in the continuing drama that reminds us of who we are and that instills in another generation the hope that we call incarnation—God as close as our very breath.

Then we can live the words of this Franciscan Benediction:

May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that we may live from deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God's creations
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor.