The First Sunday after Christmas
Isaiah 61: 10 – 62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23 -25, 4: 4-7; John 1: 1-18
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Three stories from last week. Story number 1: Last week I got a call from a friend of mine who is also an Episcopal priest. We talk most weeks, and he is a rector of an Episcopal church in another state. When I asked him how he was doing, he said “Jimmy, do you really want to know?” And I said “Well, yes…I think?”
And my friend told me how he was doing by beginning in this way: “Jimmy, I just found out that the parish administrator at my church embezzled $95,000 in the last few months. How’s that for a Merry Christmas?”
I didn’t know what to say – I was speechless. I finally said how sorry I was that this had happened at the church and that I hoped they would be able to work things out. And it seems like they are.
I begin a sermon on the first Sunday after Christmas with that story, because the story is a reminder to all of us that Christmas is never perfect. We are on day seven of the Christmas season, halfway through. By now, all the presents are unwrapped, family has come and gone, the customer service and gift exchange lines at the stores are all as long as they will be all year. We are done with Christmas, by and large. And now is the time in the Christmas season, particularly today, on New Year’s Eve, when we begin to think about all of the expectations we had for Christmas, or maybe for this year, that just didn’t happen.
The ground swell of enthusiasm for Christmas evident in this church on Christmas Eve and Day, has now receded. We are back to normal, whatever “normal” is. And yet, here we are on day seven of Christmas, with Christmas already over, on the eve of a new year, 2018.
In spite of our best intentions toward New Year’s resolutions, problems like embezzled funds and unpredictable circumstances will carry over into next year. So, what do we do?
For me, I return to Scripture, and there I encounter an uncomfortable truth that is as haunting as it is nurturing, and the truth I discover this morning read is from the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse10, which describes Jesus in this particular way: “He was in the world, and world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” The truth of that verse, for me, is that God, desiring to be known by us, becomes human in Jesus. That’s the Christmas story. But the uncomfortable part of the Christmas story is this: God wants to know us, but we reject our creator, we reject this God who wants to know creation. We crucify this God who seeks to reach out to us. [PAUSE].
Story number 2 from last week: I went with my family to see the new Star Wars film entitled “The Last Jedi.” The latest film surprised me in many ways, and after methodically comparing this ninth entry into the star wars canon (I’m including Rogue One, for all you Star Wars fanatics out there) I liked it. I liked it because it surprised me – it was not at all what I was expecting. For the first, and likely only time in my preaching career I will create an intentional analogy in the way the film’s protagonist, Luke Skywalker, was misunderstood, much like many of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and like Jesus himself. The film explores the last thirty years of Luke’s life, most of which are spent in monastic exile as a result of a personal failure of his. Luke’s mentor, Yoda, appears to him, and says that failure is the best teacher. I agree.
In a world that values, commodifies, and monetizes success, God, again kind of like of Yoda, invites us to embrace failure. When we acknowledge our failure, we might, like Jesus, appear misunderstood, and we will be rejected. But we will never be closer to the heart of God.
Story number 3. A childhood friend of mine from grade school, whom I have not spoken to in over thirty years – he and I are friends on Facebook. He suffers from acute depression, and has tried, unsuccessfully to complete a PHD in psychiatry. Last week he posted an invoice of the student loans he has amassed trying to complete his degree. Over $500,000 he owes. He does not know how he will pay them off.
He is more like Jesus to me than many I know. He is misunderstood, deemed by the world a failure. Although he considers himself agnostic at best, I believe he is closer to the heart of God than many, including myself.
That you will be misunderstood and not accepted is the haunting, yet beautiful truth of John’s Gospel. The misunderstood and rejected prophet is our messiah – who invites us into relationship with the divine, knowing fully that we will reject the God who created us. Knowing that our rejection of God might make God out to be the biggest failure of them all. And God doesn’t seem to be bothered by that, as God is not tethered, like us, to competition and success and payoff.
I conclude with the conclusion of story #1. Before I got off the phone with my priest friend, the one whose parish administrator embezzled $95,000 last week at his church, I said “Merry Christmas,” which felt like a stupid thing to say. It wasn’t. Christmas is merry regardless of mistakes or the unexpected, because Christmas is about recognizing a misunderstood and rejected prophet, and welcoming that prophet into our heart, so that we might learn and see that failure is not tragedy – it is blessing. AMEN.