December 24, 2019
Advent, the month or so leading up to Christmas Eve, is a time of getting ready, of preparing. Preparing for Jesus to come again and make this tired old world new again through love, a time for the fires of hope, peace, and joy to be built, ready to roar into life at the mere hint of a spark. And every year, I find that, by the time Christmas Eve arrives, I’m still surprised. I feel aggressively unprepared every year in my soul, unsure if I’ve really heard correctly what I think my part could be in Jesus making all things new. And this would worry me a bit, as a pastor, if I didn’t find myself, every year, in such good company. Not only those I serve alongside of, but also the folks we read about in Scripture on Christmas Eve. These are people, as Leigh and I were talking this month, she identified as aggressively unprepared. I take comfort in that.
I’ve always found Christmas to be kind of a hard time of year. I’ve never really felt prepared for what this Celebration promises, because I’ve known enough disappointment in life to be a little cautious with hope. As a child I waited for Christmas Eve to be a moment where everything changed, where my fears and anxieties melted away like the wax on the candles, we sing silent night by. My family growing up was full of tension and anxiety. My Father’s alcoholism and difficulty showing affection, and his tension with his parents, especially his mother and Brother, made Christmas feel like a time when it wasn’t peace on earth breaking out, but more the loudest voices I’d ever heard. I wished growing up that somehow, I could do something to make my family life different. Praying “Come, Lord Jesus” took on a new meaning during those tense Christmas Eve’s.
Our Scripture story this evening reminds us just how unprepared everyone is for the Incarnation, of the coming of the little Baby Jeshua. Mary tries as best she can to prepare for what God is doing. When She encounters the Angel Gabriel, who tells her God’s plan for a little one to grow inside her, she knows she needs to prepare, and she goes to be with her Cousin Elizabeth. Together, both unexpectedly pregnant, they can be who the other needs. There is so much expectation building among them. When they first get together, the little one in Elizabeth floods her body with the Holy Spirit and excitement, and Elizabeth burst out in praise for what God is doing through Mary. Get ready, Elizabeth cries, great things are about to happen. And Mary finds herself overflowing with expectations too. She bursts into song and poetry about a world that’s not ready for what God is doing, but that it is also time. She praises the Holy One of Israel for ushering in an age of Tyrant’s being torn down from their thrones, the rich being sent away empty, the poor settling down to tables spread with joyful abundance, justice remaking the whole world. Mary and Elizabeth have months together, their bodies changing, their imaginations dreaming. And then one day, the powers of empire intrude into their visions of revolution with a mandatory registration. Whatever birth plan Mary and Elizabeth had made is thrown into chaos as Mary and Joseph start the steep climb up the hillsides of Galilee. Whatever expectations Mary had were cast along the sides of the road as they crested the top of the hills above Jerusalem, her heart sinking as they make their way downhill to Bethlehem. They arrive aggressively unprepared at Joseph’s family’s home, Mary knowing that it’s time. The house is packed with people in town for the registration. We often hear that the inns were all full, but actually, the Greek most likely refers to the guest room in Joseph’s relatives place. There’s no space in the best room of the house to have a baby in, and so the family, aggressively unprepared and also realizing that it’s time, pulls together and sets her up in the lower level, where animals lived, their warmth heating the floors above. As the pain begins, the pushing, the sweat and blood and smells of new life, mixes with the fear of death close at hand. There are no angels as she pushes, no prophetic songs to soothe her as she cries out, just the age old mystery of birth, with the wise women of Joseph’s people doing what wise women have always done, helping her to bring new life into the world. The moment has arrived, the Baby has come, he is wrapped and laid in a feed trough, the best anyone could find. And I have to wonder, did Mary have any doubts, any fears in those moments, holding her little one, any anxiety that her hope and faith about what this little one will mean, might have been misplaced?
When I moved here to Baltimore with my Husband Eric, to serve as your Pastor, I did my best to prepare. I found myself swelling with excitement as this community listened to God’s dreams of who we are, and who we wanted to be, a place where all could be all of who they are, where we could talk honestly about the scourge of white supremacy and the injustice baked into the fabric of our area, being a church that would stand in solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, a place that would seek the welfare of our immigrant and refugee siblings in a time of our nations shameful treatment of the people God throughout scripture tells us we must embrace as our family. Over these past two years I’ve found myself falling in love with you all more and more each passing day, and find such joy partnering with what God is doing through us all. It makes my heart sing. And yet, after a while, I also realized that I was aggressively unprepared for the loneliness that comes with moving to a new city. I found that I missed being a part of a vibrant LGBTQ+ community, I missed having friends outside of ministry who could nourish me, artists, musicians, and dreamers who make a new reality through their struggles and resilience and overflowing embrace of life. I found myself wondering if part of following God’s call was giving up that sense of belonging.
Right when I imagine Mary is really starting to wonder where God is in all this, the most unexpected people show up. Shepherds, folks who townsfolk feared and locked their doors when they came around. These Shepherds are looking for Mary, and the Baby, and they seem, somehow different than most shepherds. They’re walking taller maybe, looking like they’re allowing themselves to be more themselves in town. They share with Mary and the family that they had been visited by an Angel, and seen the sky filled with the heavenly host, and were told “This child, he’s been born for YOU, he’s a savior for You; not the emperor, not the powerful, not the religiously devout, but you Shepherds. Go and see!” And Mary, she ponders all of their words, these new friends, this new community, the extended family that fills an even more overflowing home. This probably wasn’t quite what she was expecting, and yet, as she looks back at the kind of hope she sang of this child brining, wasn’t this exactly what she had felt rising from the depths of her bones? She’s feeling unprepared, and yet, it’s time for all of the world to be made new.
On Saturday, I found myself in the midst of exactly the kind of community I was starting to wonder if I had said goodbye to when I moved to Baltimore. A colleague and friend of mine, Rev. Emily Scott, is the organizing pastor of a new congregation called Dreams & Visions, and they were having a Queer Nativity in a church just around the corner from our Apartment. Eric was the host, and as I walked in, it was a foretaste of the reign of God; I was surrounded by friends I have made from other communities of faith through our work together, even Rabbi Ariana from Henenu, a Social Justice Jewish Shtiebl. There were Trans and gender non-binary folks dressing up as Angels and Shepherds, Royalty and Animals. I saw an Angel taking their place on a balcony over the worship space, a rainbow flag hanging below, with the rainbow and a black and brown stripe representing the experiences of queer people of color. The Magi were brought to life by the Three Queens in fabulous drag, and the offering collected as people tipped them as they performed. The Baby Jesus was played by a fellow pastor, Tim, and his Husband Perry’s newly adopted son, James. It was the kind of community I had known, somewhere deep within me, was possible for Eric and I. I found myself awash with gratitude that it was possible to follow God’s call on my life, to dream of being a part of the world being made knew through this little church in the woods, and also to have a queer chosen family, friends along the path. And do you know, right in the midst of that community, I heard that my dream for the world wasn’t just mine. My Conversations with folks quickly turned to “Hey, I know we just met, but can I get your number? I’m trying to make friends, and it is so hard.” Here were my shepherds, reminding me of God’s call to community and the world being made new through love.
Beloved, this time of year can feel like we’re aggressively unprepared for what we dream of for our lives. And yet, there can be unexpected messengers who remind us that we are not alone, that the Holy One is at work among us.
I wonder what dreams of a world turned upside down are kindling inside of you this night. I wonder for you what you dream of, and also feel unprepared for, all at once. Maybe you’re realizing it’s time, that this is the year you need to make a change in your relationship, that you’re never going to feel fully prepared, but it’s time for growth to happen, for change to occur, to mourn what could have been and step boldly into a new reality. Maybe this is the year that, as unprepared as you feel, it’s time to start the path to recovery from addiction. Maybe this year, like me, you have found yourself unprepared for the death of a loved one, and you’re realizing you need help on the path of grief. Or maybe you’re realizing just how unprepared you are to have a child, and yet, it feels like it could be time. For some of us, in the face of the brokenness of the world, feel so unprepared to challenge the systems that oppress us and so many, and yet there’s this ever growing sense that it’s time to hold space for yourself, to bring about change. However, the Holy is growing within you, however Jesus is being born through you to make the world new, hear this good news; while we may feel aggressively unprepared, the time might just be now. And when it’s time, I invite you to allow this community to be your shepherds, people who can watch for signs of the Holy growing and being birthed through you. Or if it’s not us, I’d invite you to risk finding those folks who can give witness to the growth, the healing, the justice you seek. Maybe it’s time to risk making that appointment with a therapist or going to a room full of people who have walked this path before. Maybe it’s time to gather friends or family and risk trying something new. You might also find that your calling is to be a modern-day Shepherd, to share where you see God at work in and through others. Our world needs some Mary’s and Shepherds this night, and in the days and weeks and years ahead. May we be that for one another this night, and forever more. In the Name of the one who was, and is, and evermore shall be, Amen.