Christmas Eve; 12.24.2020
Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20; Book of Common Prayer, p. 134
My sister Amy and her husband found a house they loved when they moved from Lawrence Kansas to Snellville Georgia. But the house had been in foreclosure and had stood empty for a few years. You might know that in some places in the South, because of the warm, humid, rainy climate, overgrowth of unwanted weeds and vines can be a problem. You may have heard of Kudzu. Its vine blankets telephone poles, fences and forests in “prehistoric-looking” giant leaves on its vines. But other weeds and vines if left unattended have their way of overgrowth, too.
And so, for those years, the yard of that foreclosure house was a victim of Kudzu and a host of other weeds and vines and thorns. The yard all around the house had become so overgrown that landscapers wouldn’t even take the job. So, Amy and my brother-in-law Dale rented a 40-yard dumpster and set about clearing the overgrowth and underbrush from all around the house, thorns and all!
Recently, Amy sent me photos of the results. I had visited there after Christmas last year, so there were things in the photos…like a driveway, that I hadn’t even seen! Amy asked me if I had seen the redbud tree in one of the photos that was growing out of a dead stump. She said that after they’d started cleaning, she saw it growing sideways out of the stump to reach any light it could find. That was in the direction of the southeastern morning sun. The sickly-looking, but very much alive redbud tree seemed to know that if it just reached for the light, it would live. It had stretched out of the dead stoop and the dark overgrowth and underbrush that was strangling it, to reach the light and stay alive.
Amy giggled with delight as she told me the story. She said her mission was “Save the redbud! Save the redbud!” And she did.
Tonight, we rejoice in our God who looked upon us and said, “Oh! The overgrowth and underbrush AND THORNS that have come between me and my beloved people! Save the people! Save the people!” And God determined that the best way to do that was to actually BE one of the beloved- to be one of US in the flesh. To risk EVERYHTING to come and save us – save us from our pride and vanity, our grief and sorrow, our greed and power-grabbing, our anxiety and fear. Tonight, we rejoice in not just “save the people!” We rejoice in God acting to, “Save MY people!”
The prophet Isaiah writes, “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” The prophet Isaiah promised that the light would find us – that we would find the light and bend toward it because it gives God’s people and God’s creation life. And like the redbud, we crave it and bend toward it. “Save the redbud! Save MY people!”
My theology professor, the Rev. Dr. Joanne McWilliam always wanted her seminary students to be clear about the saving power of Jesus. She would say, “You’ve all heard the phrase, ‘Jesus saves!’” Then she would say, “Saves us from what?” The students would look at each other and draw a blank. Isn’t it enough that “Jesus saves?” Of course, the “right” answer is “from our sins.” That, what our prayer book defines as sin as, “…the seeking of our own will that distorts our relationship with God and all creation.”
Yet, I think right now, Jesus saves us from fear. Fear that the coronavirus will never be vanquished. Just today, in the United States, it was reported that 265,000 have died due to the virus. [As of December 21, a recorded 317,000 have died.]
Jesus saves us from pride and arrogance. How DO I really listen and love someone with whom I disagree about the future direction of our country? Jesus saves us from sorrow. How do I trust that God is an ever-consoling presence in my life after a terrible loss? From addiction and co-dependence. How do I learn to “Let go and let God?” From abuse of God’s creation. How may I join those whose goal is to protect this beautiful earth, our only home? From violence and war. How can I be an agent of God’s peace?
And finally, Jesus saves us from despairing of our lack of in-person connection.
Now and then I watch the PBS Newshour. There is a segment the Newshour that airs regularly called “Brief But Spectacular.” The intention is to report good and inspiring news. A few weeks ago, the reporter checked in with some essential workers she had interviewed several months back and asked, “How was your life transformed by the pandemic?”
The reporter went back and re-interviewed a doctor, the AIDS quilt creator who now makes masks, a couple that drives their tractor-trailer rig in 48 states making essential deliveries, a 911 operator and a palliative care nurse. The palliative care nurse described the growing need now of palliative care for the increasing number of coronavirus patients. Yet she identified hope in this way. She said, “What gives me hope is the recognition of the essentials in life; and the essentials are human connection.”
Human connection. That’s exactly what we are celebrating tonight. God saying, “I don’t want to be isolated from my people. I want to connect with them in a life-giving way.” There is no better way for that than to be born of flesh and to live as one of us, God’s beloved. Born in humble conditions. Born in darkness. The heavenly angels in that darkness of the night flashed bright light that announced to the poor shepherds and only them, this great news of the Savior wrapped in bands of cloth and lying with the beasts in their feeding trough.
I’m reminded of the prayer from our nighttime service called Compline. At the conclusion of Compline we sometimes pray, “O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil…”.
“those who work while others sleep…” I think essential workers these days are “saving the redbuds.” We connect with them in this prayer. We give thanks for them who do their righteous work, for our communities depend on them.
The human connection runs very deep. It is essential in all its forms whether or not we are isolated during a pandemic. And the God-connection IS the human connection we celebrate tonight in the birth of God in Christ. We are to cast off the overgrowth of fear and worry… and lean into the light and life of the Messiah. God IS with us, and there is no greater IN-PERSON connection.