Open for Christmas

Rev. Sarah Buteux                                                                                  
December 22, 2013
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13

The wolf and the lamb…
The lion and the calf…
Children playing with asps and adders...
The promise that: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain…”

What do you feel in your soul when you hear these words from Isaiah?

The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together…
A little child shall lead them…

What rises up in you when this passage is read at Christmas time…?

For me it is longing. If this is prophecy than I long for it to come true.  If this is a promise than I want God to come and keep it.  I want my children to be safe. Perhaps more than anything else in life, now that I have them, all I want is for my children and your children and everyone else’s children, to grow up safe and sound in a world where no one destroys, a world where no one hurts.

But we are not there yet. A whole year has gone by since last we read these words of Isaiah in church and the world doesn’t seem the least bit safer or sounder at all; at least not to me.  Humanity is another year older, but as far as I can tell we are none the wiser, nor are we really any closer to making God’s dream a reality. Things are tough down here: too often painful, scary, violent.

And I want God to do something about that. Don’t you? I want peace and I want it now. I want climate change to stop. I want all the swords and guns and bombs in the world to get beaten into plowshares. I want everybody to get along. I want God to do something, show us the way out of the mess we have made of all creation.

The trouble is that I think he already has.

I know there are many Christians who long for Jesus’ second coming - that great and terrible day of the Lord’s return - but if we really want to see peace on earth in our lifetime, if we truly want to live in a world where everyone’s children are safe, rather than look or long for signs of Jesus’ second coming, I think we’d all do well to pay a little more attention to his first.

Namely that Jesus came to us a stranger. When our God came down from heaven he didn’t appear in a blaze of glory or wrath, overwhelming us all into submission. He was, instead, born small and vulnerable to folks so underprivileged they could do no better than wrap him in swaddling clothes and lay him in a manger.

He grew up amongst us as one of us, poor and powerless, with “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him[1]. He came to us as unassuming as one can imagine, came to us before it was safe, before we were ready, certainly before we were worthy.[2]

And I believe none of that was by accident, that every last detail of Jesus’ life and circumstance –as precarious and vulnerable and crazy as it might seem - was of divine design. I believe it is all intended to show us that God’s ways –whether we are talking about the way to use power or procure peace, show love or do justice - are not our ways.

And thank God, because our ways don’t work. Can’t we just admit that? They don’t. I mean, how much longer must we live, how many more wars must we wage, how many more lives must be lost, before we can admit that strength cannot guarantee safety any more than violence can compel peace or power coerce love?

How much wider must the chasm grow between the haves and the have-nots, how many more scapegoats must we sacrifice, how many more divisions must we endure, before we can admit that we are all in this together, that there is no “other,” that we are all brothers and sisters - children of the one true and loving God- just doing our best to live out life on a planet as fragile as we are?

Is that not what Jesus came to show us? He didn’t appear and force his way, his truth, or his life upon humanity, the better to make us all play nice.  He simply came and lived amongst us as if his kingdom had already come, trusting that if we joined him and started living and loving the way he did, that one day it actually would.

And as he moved about from village to village, from home to home, from person to person, he welcomed everyone he met – and I mean everyone –rich, poor, men, women, believers, skeptics, those who were worthy and those who clearly weren’t- to come and live into this new way of life with him.

He invited them - no matter who they were, what they had done, or failed to do - to come and be a part of this new kind of kingdom - a kingdom of love and forgiveness, grace and mercy, hope and peace- because he knew that the only way to make his kingdom a reality was to live as if it already was.

Now I know that here in the U.C.C. we talk a lot about God’s extravagant welcome and make a big deal about how radically inclusive Jesus was. You often here us say things like, “whoever you are or wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” It’s become a mantra of sorts, some might even say a slogan. You can buy everything from travel mugs to welcome mats with those words emblazoned on them in big bold letters at UCC.org.

And because of that I also know that there’s a temptation for those of us in the rank and file to dismiss that sort of talk as nothing more than slick marketing dreamt up by left leaning, politically correct ministers bent on boosting numbers and creating buzz.

I say that with a lot of love.  Some of my best friends are left leaning, politically correct ministers.

Only here is the thing – the truth I believe lies at the very heart of our scripture for today - creating communities that take seriously Christ’s extravagant welcome is not just some 21st century liberal protestant pipe dream. We’re not called to make the church more inclusive because that’s the thing to do now-a-days and we want to get with the times.

No, taking seriously Christ’s extravagant welcome is something Christians have been called to do from the very beginning, not just for the sake of those who want in, but for our sake as well, indeed for the sake of the whole world[3].

That’s why even Paul tells us to do it, right here in Romans: “welcome one another… as Christ has welcomed you.” Right here in the 15th chapter, Paul is looking back to scriptures like the one we heard today from Isaiah and saying: look, if this vision of lions and lambs gives you hope, if this is the world as you would have it be, than this is how we make that vision a reality.

If we truly want God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven than we need to live God’s kingdom into being by welcoming one another and loving one another and forgiving one another and making ourselves vulnerable to one another just as Christ welcomed, loved, forgave, and made himself vulnerable to us.

I mean think about it:

Did Jesus ever discriminate?

(Careful, it’s a trick question. The answer is: Yes! Once, when he met the Syrophonecian woman. But he repented immediately).

From that point on, Jesus never waited for people to conform or get their act together before he helped them. He didn’t hold back until people could prove that they believed the right things or would behave the right way before he offered his love or healing or forgiveness.

No. Jesus acted first. He gave of himself first.
He came with love before we’d earned it
He came in peace while we still held swords.
He came with forgiveness before we asked.
Shared his truth before we understood.
Jesus came to us first, welcomed us first, loved us first, and then invited us to go out and do the same for one another.

Friends, the church is called to be a living sign, ground zero for the advent of Jesus. Well, every time we welcome someone in the name of Jesus, make room for someone in the name of Jesus, extend grace, offer hospitality, or create a safe place for someone to come and be themselves –no matter how strange or odd or different they might be - we make the world that much safer, grace-filled, loving and hospitable for everyone else. We stake out a little more territory for the kingdom. We cover a little more ground with the love and blessing of God.

We not only make the world better for that kind of person, we make it better for all kinds of people, including ourselves.

Those of us in the dominant group, the in-group - whatever that may be, we don’t always get that. Given our status as gate-keepers, we have a tendency to think that because we have what everyone else wants we therefore have what everyone else needs. But that’s a fallacy and a very dangerous one.  We may have the power, but that doesn’t mean we have the right. We may have the knowledge but that doesn’t mean we have the wisdom to use it well. We may bear the name of Christ even, but that doesn’t mean we naturally know or follow him any better than anyone else.

Part of what Jesus is trying to teach us, part of why he came to us as a poor wayfaring stranger rather than a big strapping demigod like Thor (as dreamy as that would be), was to open our hearts to the other, help us see that they hold the key to our salvation. We are not just supposed to welcome people different from ourselves for their sake - save them by bringing them into our fold - but for our sake, in order to save ourselves. For when we welcome the other they come and teach us things about God we would never know otherwise.

They ask questions we would never think to ask otherwise. They reveal truths we never dreamt of, show us needs we would never see, and ultimately give us the courage to be who God created us to be because by God’s grace we’ve given them a safe place to be who God created them to be.  They teach us to love as we have been loved – not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, but because love is the way, the way of Christ, the way home to God’s holy mountain.

There’s a U.C.C. church in Somerville Mass that gets this. It’s a church I check in on every now and then when I start to get discouraged and need someone to remind me what the kingdom looks like. It’s a church, like so many others, that had shrunk to the point of almost closing its doors before the people there made the courageous decision to throw those doors open as wide as possible and welcome anyone and everyone in.

They became an open and affirming church way back in 1999, and are now so open and affirming that one of their biggest events of the year is a drag gospel brunch. That’s right, people come to church in drag. At their last one, the Rev. Molly Baskette gave a sermon that I have listened to over and over again on youtube.

In that sermon she looks out at her people and she says,  “We are happy,” and one look at the men, women and children in her congregation all dressed to the nines in great big church lady hats, feather boas, and sparkles, you know she speaks the truth. “We are happy, “ she declares, “because we know that God loves us just as we are and as we are becoming. We are happy, because we know it is ok to be ourselves here because there are other people clearly being themselves here,” (the people start to laugh,) “and being loved and accepted for it,” she says.

“There’s a cascade effect in a church like ours,” she continues, “that takes seriously Jesus’ radical welcome to all kinds of people. First the queers come,” she says, (and everyone gets quiet), “and they make everything better.” (The whole congregation goes crazy.)  “The aesthetics improve and stuff gets done.

Then the agnostics and the doubters and the curious say, well if they are welcome then maybe I’m welcome too and they come and they make everything better. They blow the lid off of orthodoxy and we start having really good conversations about God.” (“Amen,” somebody shouts).

And then the addicts and the folks struggling with mental illness say, well if they are all welcome, maybe I’m welcome too, and they come and they make everything better too because they show everyone else how to be radically dependent upon God and how to work through hard times with God and they tell amazing stories about the good that God has done in their lives.”

“Every time you let one kind of misfit in the door,” says Molly, “another kind starts lining up. They come in wheel chairs or in pain, they come very old and very young, they come broke, they come with crazy hipster clothes and odd facial hair, in every shade of human skin, they come and every one of them makes us better because this is what the kingdom looks like.” [4]

“This is what the kingdom of God looks like.”

“Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you”

Friends, Molly speaks of a cascade effect in the church, but when the church opens its heart the way Christ did, there is a cascade effect in the world as well. Every time we open ourselves to another no matter how other they might be, that vision of a world where no one hurts or destroys the little ones, the different ones, the innocent and the meek ones, becomes a little bit brighter, a little bit firmer, a little bit more real.

Every time we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us, we welcome no one less than Christ and nothing less than his kingdom into the world.

And in the end, isn’t that what Christmas is really about?

So may it be, for one and all.

Amen

[1] ” Isaiah 53

[2] Romans 5:8

[3] Feasting on the Word, Joanna M. Adams p 43

[4] Rev. Molly Baskette's Sermon "One Of Us" from First Church Somerville's Drag Gospel Brunch Sunday on October 21, 2012.