The first story I have to share comes
from Paul's letter to the Romans, it is the introduction to
Romans, the first 7 verses, where we read:
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
7 To all Godís beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christmas is of course a very special
time, isn't it? I was struck with the "Heart-to-Heart" column,
appears every Saturday, written by one of our local members of
the faith community, and in the column this particular Saturday,
a Unitarian woman told a story about how her family was touched
by God's grace on Christmas Eve. And that is a special time,
unlike any others.
So what is it that makes this time of year so special for us? Is
it our wonderful decorations? All of the wonderful Christmas
music? The Christmas stories, not just those in Scripture but
the many other wonderful stories about this time of year? The
joy of the children, and their exuberance and anticipation? All
of the gift giving? The spirit of the season, of joy and
All of that is all part of the season, that makes it such a
special time. And yet I think it's also even grander than that.
That there's something mysteriously wonderful that you just
can't put into words.
So, typically we read the birth stories from either Matthew or
Luke. Those coming to our Christmas Eve service, you'll get to
hear those stories told in a very creative way this year, a new
script that we're using. The two stories interacting with one
another, and that's the Family Service at 7:00 p.m. I think it
will not only be fun, but very insightful and will enlighten us
in a new way.
But we don't often turn to the apostle Paul, because those
stories aren't there in Paul. Paul says nothing about angels and
shepherds and Magi. Nothing about Mary and Joseph or the virgin
birth, or the Star. Nothing about the Inn in Bethlehem in which
there was no room, or the flight to Egypt. None of those
familiar stories are told in any of the letters of Paul.
What little Paul does say, we find here in this text from
Romans. "Jesus, a descendent of David", in other words, a Jew,
thoroughly human, "declared Son of God by his resurrection", in
other words, Savior of all people, not just Jews, thoroughly
The mystery of Jesus as the Christ is just that -- the unity of
the human and the divine in one person, the flesh and the Spirit
in one reality. And we typically think of God as being apart
from this world, apart from us. We think of spirit as being
separate from flesh.
But as Richard Rohr, a Franciscan
spiritual Director I've cited many times, a popular author and
speaker on spirituality, Rohr notes that is "dualism" -- the
belief in two opposing forces struggling for the soul of the
world. But we are not dualists. We are Christians. And the
unique contribution, says Rohr, of the Christian faith is
precisely that the material and the spiritual coexist in one
reality, which we call the Christ. So that the problem of the
separation between the spirit and the world, between God and us,
that that has been resolved by Christmas. By the miracle of
Christmas. The incarnation, the joining of flesh and spirit, has
redeemed the world.
It wasn't the death and resurrection of Jesus that redeems the
world (as we often think). No, Rohr says our redemption was
already secured the moment the divine and the human became one.
Easter is but icing on the cake.
The great divide between God and humanity ended on Christmas
morning. Rohr even says that one can make the case that the
divide never existed. That from the moment of creation, when the
Spirit of God moved upon the face of the earth, that that spirit
has been with us ever since. That's the message of Genesis 1. It
is only our misperception that has kept us from seeing that.
It's what we sometimes call 'sin'. Sin is nothing more than the
false notion that we have been separated from that which we
cannot be separated from. As the apostle Paul himself says later
in this letter to the Romans:
"For I am convinced
that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things
present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth,
nor anything else in all of creation can separate us from
the love of God in Jesus Christ".
So that separation is false. And if it
wasn't clear enough before Christmas, it should be clear now:
the incarnation of Christ is the pattern for all humanity, for
all creation. As Rohr says, the journey to Christhood is our
journey too. The incarnation does not stop with Jesus, rather it
begins with Jesus.
I was invited to open for the Interface service on the 11th, a
week ago Saturday. I shared in that gathering, the theme of the
service was "Lights of Peace and Fellowship". And so I noted on
that theme, that the Gospel of John opens with this passage with
which we conclude our Christmas Eve services:
In the beginning was
the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God, all things came into being
through Him, and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was
the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness
and the darkness did not overcome it.
And we share that in total darkness,
with only the Christ light (candle) burning. And then we share
that light around the circle as we sing Silent Night, and when
the stars in the universe are all aligned with us, that happens
right at midnight, and the chimes ring, and it's one of the most
beautiful, sacred, holy times of the year.
Later on in John's gospel, Jesus says "I
am the light of the world". But in the Sermon on the Mount, in
Matthew's gospel, Jesus says "You are the light of the world".
And I think we're very comfortable with affirming Jesus as the
light of the world, but this idea that we are the light of the
world makes us a little uncomfortable. Who, me? Who am I to be
light to the world?
Maryanne Williamson, in a quote that is quite well-known
(falsely attributed to Nelson Mandela, because he used it in his
inaugural speech in 1994 when he became President of South
Africa), she writes:
"Let your light shine. Our deepest fear is not that we're
inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond
measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.
We ask ourselves, 'who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented,
and fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child
of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's
nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't
feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the
glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us,
it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we
unconsciously give other people permission to do the same".
Can we, dare we, believe that we have that light? That we have
that glory of God that is born to the world on Christmas
morning, that it also dwells in us?
I want to share with you a different
Christmas story, from Walt Wangerin Jr., a Lutheran pastor, one
of my favorite storytellers, in his book "Ragman and Other Cries
of Faith", in which he talks about the miracles of Jesus.
And one particular miracle, and then he reflects on the
Disciples reaction to that miracle. He writes: "For the moment,
the Disciples surrendered logic, they accepted that a door had
opened in the universe. They took the impossible production as a
sign, and worked backward to a cause they had not seen, for
flesh and spirit abide on different planes, and their eyes were
flesh. We see the light, even if we cannot see the source of
light. Light and source together, they called the glory of God,
and they believed on him. Even so did Jesus reveal himself, even
so he does".
Listen. Here is a story historically
true. My son Matthew has always been borderline hyperactive.
This is a very exhausting condition for all concerned, and
unnerving. The kid leaped before he crawled, and played football
before he talked. He watched the televised games with his whole
body, that is, he ran every play in the living room, dropping
back for the quarterback, shooting forward for the wide
receiver, making magnificent dives for bullet-balls, and then
managing even to tackle himself against glass hutches and
Matthew was the whole darned team at the age of four in a poor
man's living room. Now, I'm a patient man, I'm a Pastor, I'm
paid to be patient. I spent many a Sunday afternoon in painful
patience, practicing this virtue, this fruit of the Spirit. And
sometimes I would slip. Suddenly delivering myself of a sermon
in a living room before one wide-eyed four-year-old, damping his
enthusiasm for a while, but I would generally regain my patience
again, presenting my son with an admirable example of Christian
restraint. Restraint, Matthew. Self control -- see, this is how
it's done. Through my (clenched) teeth: SEE, THIS IS HOW IT'S
But Matthew heard other drums. Matthew
took other examples, each of them more vigorous than the last,
terrifying to a father's heart. He watched what he called the
"Six Millions Dollar Man" with worshipful attention. But that
which he watches, he believes in. And that which he believes in,
he becomes. The completeness of this kid's loyalty is an
inspiration to all the faithful anywhere. No better Disciple
existed. Let him teach the saints of sainthood. But for God's
sake, let him believe in the meek, not the Six Millions Dollar
There came the day when in order to find some peace for my work,
I commanded my son to his bedroom, then bowed my head over my
typewriter and trembled for a moment in the cool silence.
Silence is a blessed thing. And patience is a virtue. I raised
my hand and began to type a sentence, tentatively. Another
sentence followed. Soon a paragraph developed, it was wonderful,
I found my stride -- I was on the way to a full page,
entertaining visions of a possible chapter before the day was
through, when an almighty crash erupted from Matthew's bedroom.
Up on my forelegs, flying to the bedroom, my fingers still stuck
to the typewriter keys. The bedroom door was still shut. No
matter, I could read instantly what the Six Millions Dollar Boy
had done, for his foot stuck through the door. Two and a half
feet above the floor! When I opened it in proper fashion, I
dragged a child out, smiling on his back. "Hi Dad!".
Through my teeth, strangled screams and very heavy judgment upon
the child's head, I soon took the smile from his face even
before we took his foot from the door. At the age of eight,
Matthew ran away from home.
This is the cause & effect sequence as best I can remember it.
There is a bleak, reasonable logic to every successive step, and
I can understand that he should have run away.
At night, we prayed a regular prayer, certain portions of which
I italicize for the edification of my son. We pray:
"Jesus Savior, wash away, all that has been wrong today. Help me
every day to be, good and gentle, more like thee".
But on a particular night, particular energy sizzled in my
Matthew. I folded my hands and began: "Jesus Savior, wash away,
all that has been wrong today, . . . . .". Matthew, what are you
Dear Matthew had slipped from covers and
concentration, was sitting on the floor, emptying a cardboard
box of some 3,000 football cards. "Sorting my cards", he said.
"Terry Bradshaw. . . ". "No you're not!", through my teeth,
WE'RE PRAYING. It's time to go to sleep. In bed please, fold
your hands, please. Now, "Jesus Savior, wash away, all that is
wrong today. . . ". "Matthew, what are you doing?!"
He was trotting out of the room, he was going to the bathroom,
"To brush my teeth". Jesus Savior, . . .well, tooth-brushing is
my rule, after all, and the boy is obeying a rule, grant him
that, and I shouldn't countermand rules. Earlier, I had extolled
with wonderful proofs how important that was. I let him go. I
bowed my head and waited. Patience is a virtue. Yes, but
Vesuvius is a volcano.
When he returned, broad, grinning, wide-toothed, content with
himself, we made white knuckle folds of our hands and again we
dove into our prayer: "Jesus Savior, wash away, all that has
been wrong. . . . " "Matthew! Where are you going?!" "To
the bathroom, to pee". What was I to do? If he did not go to the
bathroom to pee, the kid would pee in his bed, and then his
mother (and my wife) would find good reason to become his
protector and my adversary, herself defeated by wet, stinking
When he bounced back into the bedroom, into his bed, folded his
hands so sweetly, he noticed a certain smolder in my
countenance. "Aren't we going to pray?", he said. "Tomorrow!", I
roared, "we wore the prayer out tonight".
"Aren't you going to hug me?", he said. "Tomorrow!", I
thundered, and left. Tomorrow.
Breakfast. My wife called the children, four of them, to wash
their hands to eat. Three of them did. One of them didn't budge.
Was reading the sports page in the living room. I was no longer
a patient man. "Matthew", I said, "didn't you hear your mother?"
"Yes", he said, "I heard her". "What did she say?". "She said,
'wash your hands'". "And why haven't you washed your hands?".
And in perfect innocence, the child looked up at me from the
floor, with perfect rationality, lifting two fingers, he
answered: "Because she didn't ask twice".
All my rhetorical skills, honed these 10 years in the pulpit,
flashed in the living room, slammed the walls, damned a child
for no account, and withered his soul to nothing. In round and
echoing terms, I did condemn the boy. In the language of Moses
and the prophets, I sinned against my son.
That afternoon, he ran away. Clarence Fields, Cub-Scout leader,
called from church. "Isn't Matthew coming today"?, he said. "He
should have come straight from school", I said. "That's an hour
ago, he isn't here yet", said Clarence.
I covered the mouthpiece and spoke to Joseph in the kitchen: "Do
you know where Matthew is?". His brother said "yes", and then he
said "no". "What does that mean?", I asked Joseph. Joseph's eyes
were wounded, and near tears. "He ran away", said Joseph, "but I
don't know where he went". "From home?". "He said he wasn't
worth nothing. He said he wasn't coming home".
Then Joseph cried.
And a hammering began in my own chest. It was no easy thing to
tell Clarence that Matthew ran away. This was my son, this was
my doing. The Cub Scouts immediately deployed, all leaping into
Mr. Fields car, and good-deeding it through the city at high
speeds, crying "Matthew!" out the Windows.
For my own part, I didn't know what to do. There was water in me
that threatened to drown my soul, and I could have been glad to
die. Lord how I have mishandled my son--my son--my busy,
exuberant, and vulnerable son. I went out the front door, I
wandered into the park and began to cross it through the trees.
Oh my son, what have I done to you? Guilt is a very real pain.
Thick in the chest, sharp in the gut, almost intolerable, and no
one to blame but myself.
Then I saw him. Matthew, dragging his little self across the
street and into the park, coming home. I didn't touch him, I
hadn't the right. I held my distance, and fell in step beside
him. "You ran away", I asked, to be talking, to hear him talk.
"Yes". "But you came home!", I said as brightly as I could, as
though this made right thereby. He said: "I saw a man, I thought
he was going to kidnap me. I was afraid, so I came home".
Oh, Matthew, the home that I made for you is only the lesser of
two fears. A place to hide in, not to live in. I had no more
words to say, a wretched father. We went home in silence, he to
his room, I to my study where I sat in my chair and could not
move. Earth stood still. I think it was half an hour later that
Matthew passed that door, glanced in and saw me and stopped.
"You OK?", he said. "No", I said. "Are you sick?" "No, . . yes".
He gazed at me a moment, perplexed. I dropped my eyes, without a
sound, neither sobbing nor sighing, I cried. "Ooooh", said
Matthew softly. "No Dad", he said, "Don't worry". He came into
the study and put his hand on my knee. "I love you", he said. He
smiled briefly, and he left.
That child, that child had no right to forgive me so. Where did
he get the knowledge? Where did he get the maturity?
The might of an ageless mercy, the transfiguring power. A door
had opened in the universe, and through my son and in my face,
the glory of the Lord had burst from a little child. No Sunday
school lessons, nor all the sermons he had heard me preach, nor
the smattering of Bible reading that the child had done, but
Jesus Christ himself was the cause of this most dramatic and
real wonder. Matthew didn't speak the Christ, for an instant,
Matthew was the Christ.
Christ abode in him and I saw it. Not with my eyes, for that was
his own short fingered hand on my knee. But with my soul, to
which the word had penetrated, changing it. He had done so
casually what in fact he could not do, only God could do that.
But I was most certainly done, I was forgiven indeed. Even so,
did Jesus reveal himself and sign my soul? Even so he does. And
I believe on him.
We come to the manger to behold a
special child. A son of God who loves pure light. Jesus Lord at
But isn't every child a special child? Every child a son or
daughter of God?
Maybe this is the mystery of Christmas we must rediscover every
year when we come to that manger on Christmas Eve and we see
that child, not with our eyes, but with our soul.
We see that there is indeed the Christ where God dwells. And if
in that innocent child, then in every child.
And if in every child, then every person.
And if in every person, then each of us.
This is indeed a mystery, too wondrous to comprehend, that
somewhere, that lost inner-child, that divine spark of God's
light, that somewhere within us, there is that one waiting to be
You, says Paul, are called to be saints. To be that holy light
of Christ in our world.