Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve 2013: On vulnerabilty, holiness, and human statues

 “Do not be afraid.”
This is what the angels always say. They said it to the shepherds, overwhelmed by flashes of lightning. They said it to Joseph, telling him to still get married, even though his wife was pregnant. They said it to Mary herself, to whom the invitation for the Holy Spirit to come upon her certainly could not have been an easy choice.

Do not be afraid. Everyone in our story has been told not to be afraid.

The world that Mary and Joseph and those shepherds lived in was pretty different from our own.  They were all on the margins, Jewish people living in an occupied land. For the shepherds, even more so, they were viewed as being particularly untrustworthy, living as they did outside the bounds of polite society, instead keeping the company of sheep. There is not a lot of cleanliness or polite society to be had spending your days with a flock of wooly animals out in the field.  None of our protagonists tonight would have fit in very well in a world like our own. They didn’t even fit in in their own.

And that’s exactly the point.
There’s a universalism that is implied in these texts—if God could be born of a girl like Mary, if a guy like Joseph could go against his culture and his family and marry someone who would waddle, rather than glide smoothly down the aisle—if the shepherds were the ones who would declare that there is peace on earth now, who would say that God’s goodwill extends to everyone—then certainly, certainly, there will be room in that manger for us. In my sermon on Sunday, I talked about all the questionable people in Jesus’ lineage through Joseph—he was related to prostitutes, liars, and adulterers—and those are the ones that the Gospel of Matthew included!

Theologically, we can probably get on board with the idea that the core message of Christmas is that this miraculous child of God and child of humanity is born for all of us. If I asked each of you, you’d probably say, “Yes, Christmas is for everyone.” Yes, of course, it doesn’t matter who you are. Salvation for all. Sure.”

What is in question, I suspect, in many of our own hearts, is whether this child is actually born for us.  Do we believe Titus—I mean, who ever reads Titus—do we believe him that the we are heirs of the hope of eternal life, do we believe that it’s not because of our righteousness but only because of God’s good nature that we are reconciled, saved, treasured, beloved—is that really for us?

I don’t always behave as though it were, and I wonder if you don’t, either.

There is a lot about our culture that’s different from that of the shepherds and Mary and Jesus.  But what we all have in common, I’m guessing, is fear. What we fear might be different, but we still fear.

I think one of the scariest things for all of us is our vulnerability. As a parent, I feel vulnerable on behalf of my children. As a priest, I feel vulnerable on behalf of Christ Church. I’m vulnerable as a spouse, as a daughter, as a friend.   I’m vulnerable standing right here.

The common denominator for each of these is the simplest, hardest thing: it’s love.  I love my children and I fear for them. I love this church and I worry about the leaking roof and the pledge income. I love my parents as they are a little greyer and a little slower with every visit. I love my husband and trust him with everything I have, but I also know that he is human and we will both disappoint each other. Love is about vulnerability.  It’s being willing to show up, to be judged, to admit your need.

This week, I heard an incredibly moving TED talk by the performer Amanda Palmer. She’s become controversial over the last year for beginning to just give away her music; she invites people to pay, but they don’t have to.  She says that we need to stop talking about how to “make” people pay. Instead, we need to let them.  It can be up to each individual to offer their gifts, whether a couch for the band to sleep on or ten dollars for a music download. Let the artist do their art, and let the people give from their gratitude. Let them be in relationship with each other. Whether, as she says it is, this is a way to run a music business, I don’t know—it does sound a lot like church, this relation of trust and love, creativity and hope.

She says that some of her courage for this came from her work as a street artist, when she spent time in Harvard Square as the Eight Foot Bride. So she stood there, and people would drive by and say, “Get a job!” and, despite that that was her job, she said that she had the most amazing interactions with people, standing there on a crate, painted white in a long dress. She said that when someone came by, they’d put their dollar or whatever in the hat, and she’d give them a flower and look at them. She’d really, really look at them. And she says that sometimes, someone would look back, and there would be this astonishing moment of gratitude: thank you for seeing me. Thank you. No one ever sees me.

This shared vulnerability, of her standing there, being seen, of the passersby seeing her and engaging with her, I think, that’s what holiness is. Palmer talks about the art of asking—how terrifying and wonderful it is to admit that you need something.  You want to be seen. You want to see. You want to acknowledge the other.

That vulnerability of love is the core of what this day is about.  It’s about us seeing each other. It’s about God seeing us. And it’s about us seeing God. Every place where love happens, every place where we trust each other with who we are, it’s holy.

At point of Christmas isn’t just God becoming human. It isn’t just all of us coming together with those shepherds for a night of wonder and awe.  What happens at Christmas is all of this, and more. At Christmas, God—God Godself, offers us an example of the vulnerability of love. God offers God’s very self to us, in this soft, needy, human form, and shows us. This is what love looks like. Love looks like trust. It looks like need. It looks like hope. 

Joseph and Mary ask for a place to stay.  It’s holy.
The shepherds are amazed at what they’ve seen. It’s holy.
Mary ponders in her heart. It’s holy.
The angels say “Don’t be afraid.” It’s holy.

This day, this day when the power of God becomes vulnerable, this day, the power of God comes in this tiny child. This day, we open ourselves to each other.  This day, we refuse to be separated. This day, we won’t be afraid.  This day, we, too, will be holy.

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