St. George's Episcopal Church | Arlington

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12.24.15

A call to be a diverse band of disciples

    Category: Christmas

    Speaker: The Rev. John Shellito

    Sermon                                December 24, 2015                Rev. John Shellito

    Holy Spirit, let your Word become incarnate in us as we celebrate the birth of your Son. In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Inspirer. Amen.

    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.

    Merry Christmas! This night is filled with memories of waiting—waiting for a sled to land on the roof, waiting to open and play with presents in the morning, waiting for parents to wake up, waiting for family and friends to open their gifts—and waiting to share a meal together in celebration.

    Sometimes it can be so easy to focus on the next thing that we lose track of the present moment. We’ve heard the nativity story presented so many times in so many different ways that we can miss the power of the story. If only takes a few words for the Gospel according to Luke to convey the essentials of the Messiah’s arrival—and still, the arrival that carries an immense emotional impact.

    We are past the praise of Mary’s Magnificat, and dialogue and prophecies with and from Elizabeth. John the Baptist has arrived, and Joseph and Mary are going through a particularly legendary gauntlet in order to pay their taxes. The timing is anything but convenient, and as much as anyone can tell, Mary went into labor while they both were waiting on the registration officials in Bethlehem.

    Luke the physician doesn’t mention the danger, stress, and pain of childbirth. It is there, though. Finally, the baby is carefully wrapped, and, laid in a feeding trough to sleep. The manger is simply one more confirmation in Luke’s Gospel that the census is a bureaucratic nightmare: that it involved incredible displacement, during which both housing and compassion were in short supply. Previously, the angel Gabriel had spoken prophetically about how much good would come with the Messiah’s birth. In their difficulty at this point, however, Mary and Joseph may have been realizing more clearly how miraculous God’s promise really was, and is.

    The Savior of the World chose to be born among animals and into a displaced family. In Matthew’s account, this same family would soon be fleeing violence as refugees in Egypt. Of all the potential places where God could have chosen to join us in our humanity, God chose one of the most difficult: an unmarried woman, a marginalized people group, and probably a teenager, who was on the road and didn’t even have a proper room in which to give birth. Was Mary ever angry about having to give birth in these circumstances? Our images of Mary are usually so calm and serene—almost entirely peaceful. But here she had plenty of reason to be both upset and anxious. Regardless of how she felt about it, Mary made do with what she had. The challenges she faced didn’t negate the promise given by the angel, but it certainly could have invited her into a more mature faith, a deeper trust, especially when she didn’t know how everything would unfold. She was doing the best she could under the circumstances, and it was enough.

    So, too, in his or her own way, was the innkeeper. The innkeeper shared available space to make room for the newborn Christ. It is not unusual to feel like the innkeeper ourselves these days—that maybe the manger is all we have to offer in our overstretched, overfull, and overwhelmed lives. And yet, Christ will join us in the space that we offer. Welcoming a newborn isn’t usually convenient or tidy—but it is transformative. Being involved in church, like raising a child, is signing up for a practical theology class on what it is to be human. Making space for the baby Jesus can involve making deliberate space in our lives and hearts and relationships for Christ to be present with us—even if it seems like all the available “rooms” in our lives are already occupied.

    And what about our church home? In our Renovation this coming year we are making space for all, and as an expression of our faith we are lowering our chancel steps to make it easier for every person to come to the altar. This is a response and an expression of the radical hospitality of Christ, that every person is invited to be part of the Body—to receive Christ, and offer their unique gifts and talents back to God in this community.

     We are engaged in welcoming Christ in this place by updating our space, maintaining its beauty, and allowing for the accessibility and flexibility, that have been part of our vision since the beginning. Moving our altar forward will not only communicate God is close to us, and indeed, incarnate among us, but it will also open up some much needed space behind the altar for our burgeoning choirs. The increased flexibility of our space will help us if we want to change how we worship ten, twenty, or even fifty years from now.

    We are answering a call to be a diverse band of disciples, who recognize the histories of marginalization at the same time that we move forward, living into God’s call for us to be a community that celebrates and appreciates the gifts we all have to offer, with our own limitations, sexualities, gender identities, and ethnicities. We include those who are serving their country in uniform, and those who are serving their country out of uniform. We are civilian families together with military families. We cannot expect every person or relationship to be identical. But by making space for all in our diverse community, we welcome the newborn Christ together.

    This particular Christmas, the nativity story also stands as a stark reminder that we as a community must stand with those who, like Mary and Joseph and the Christ child on that fateful night, might find themselves far from home and in need of shelter. Can we make space in our civic life for those who have fled their homes, and who cannot return? Can we make space for those who are seeking to begin a new life here in the States? It is a testament to our faith when we seek to welcome those who have been displaced.

    These ways of welcoming the Savior are not easy. The welcome we extend to Christ can be just as makeshift as the innkeeper’s welcome to Mary and Joseph—and it might also feel as reluctant as well at times. And yet, God used it. Likewise, Mary and Joseph probably had plans for their lives that did not involve an illegitimate birth, surrounded by animals and far from home. In Matthew, this birth was followed by a flight for their lives, into a foreign country. But instead of shutting the door and telling God there was no room in their lives for this adventure, they said yes, God, you are welcome here. If we expect our life to be perfect and without challenge, then we aren’t accepting reality as it is. Life is always going to be in process, a balancing act between many different roles. Mary and Joseph and the innkeeper each welcomed the Son of God in their way. May we follow their example, in our own way, today.

    Merry Christmas. The child is here, the waiting is over.  And as we hear the knocking of Christ on our own hearts, and on the doors of our community, may we say yes, God, you are welcome here.

    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.

    Amen.

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