Hands: A Christmas Eve Sermon

I preached this sermon on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021, for Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN.

Just over a year ago, I had the privilege of sitting at the hospital bed with two of our beloved parishioners, Dick and Vera, just before the end of Dick’s life. He was not really conscious at the time, but it was such a blessing, given all of the complications of hospital visitation these days, that Vera was able to be there in person with him to say goodbye after many decades of marriage. 

And there is one image from that afternoon that I think I will never forget—how Vera reached out to hold Dick’s hand, just as she had always done, and how, even though he was deep into his passage away from this life, his hand squeezed back, and his thumb gently caressed her hand. A memory that was deeper than consciousness, a memory of love so deeply inscribed into him that nothing, not even the approach of death, could inhibit its expression. When Vera also left us earlier this year, I thought of the two of them holding hands again in the new life that is promised to us, and it made me smile.

I remember, too, several years ago, holding my infant godson, so afraid I would drop him, so in awe that my life had even a small connection to the beauty and the possibility of this new life. I remember how his little fingers, tiny and determined, would wrap around my finger, surprisingly strong, an instinctive urge to hold on, to connect. His grasp felt like an inquiry, simple and direct: will you be there? Will you care for me? Is it true that I am not alone in this big, strange world? Can I hold onto you?

I think it might be said that from the beginning of our days to the very end, there is no gesture more fundamental than to reach out to the ones we love, to feel their fingers intertwined with ours. Because, if you think about it, this is what we always do—when we’re happy, when we’re frightened, when we’re falling in love, when we’re waiting for important news, when we can’t quite walk on our own strength, and when we must say goodbye for the last time: in all those moments of life when words fail us, we reach out, and we just hold hands. 

I think it can also be said that our journey of faith is much the same—like that famous image from the Sistine Chapel of Adam and God extending their hands towards one another at the moment of creation, their fingertips separated by an infinitely small distance—underneath all of our striving and our doubting, our seeking and our praying, we are extending our hand out into the deep, into the vast mystery of life, reaching out for something certain, something true, something that endures, something (or Someone) to hold onto. When all is said and done, we yearn, quite simply for a God who will reach back and clasp our hand and say, I am with you. Hold onto me.

And that is exactly what we are given on this night. A God whom we can hold onto. A God who holds onto us. All of the music and the lights, all the activity and the excitement, all the exhaustion and ambiguity and yearning that characterize both the holidays and life in general—all of it finds its answer here, in the birth of a child in Bethlehem, in the terrified wonder of the shepherds in the field, in the song of the heavenly host, in the courageous heart of a young mother, and in the tiny hand of an infant that reaches out, surprisingly strong, towards your own hand. It is the hand of God, holding yours in the cool and pregnant darkness, and it is the answer to your own questions: I am here, now. I will care for you. You are not alone in this big, strange world. You can hold onto me.

How else would love come to find us if not like this: in the flesh, in the way we most instinctively understand? How else could God close that infinite distance between the fingertips? Only like this, only by letting us, at last, take his real, incarnate hand. Only by becoming as one of us, in order to say,

I have always loved you, I have always been for you, ever since the beginning, but now I am with you, too. And I promise I will always be here to hold your hand. 

Even when everything else slips away, even when everything you counted on seems to disappear, I am here.  When you laugh and dance for joy, I will take your hand and dance with you. And when you are weak and afraid, I will be there, too, for my fingers are intertwined with yours now, my life is intertwined with yours now. Just hold on.

I don’t know about you, but in the uncertain times in which we find ourselves, when the preciousness and the precariousness of the present moment are both felt so keenly, I need this good news of Christmas more than ever. I need to be reminded that even in a broken world, there is hope, and that God is still with us. 

In the birth of Jesus–the birth of God among us –our outstretched hands brush against the glory of heaven. In the birth of Jesus, we find that the whole world is full of sacramental possibility, especially in those simple actions of love that make up our lives—the wound mended, the bread broken, the injustice addressed, and yes, the hand held. All, now, instruments of grace, because God has taken them on as the work of God’s own hands.

What a gift to be given. And what a gift to pass on to others. Because, essentially, that is what we are trying to do here at Trinity, as followers of this holy child of Bethlehem, this Savior born for us—we are showing up for one another and for our neighbors and for our community, especially the most vulnerable in our midst, extending our hands in love. We are facing life together, we are celebrating and mourning together, studying and praising together, hands clasped in prayer, hands clasped in greeting, hands clasped in solidarity, hands clasped in trust. 

All because, on this beautiful, silent night, when even the loveliest words ultimately fail to express the fullness of our joy, a hand reaches out to us, a tiny hand from the manger, yes, but in truth a hand reaching out from across eternity, down through garlands of stars, down through the centuries of longing, down from the hidden source of our deepest wonder. And it gently caresses our own, a love so deeply inscribed into it that not even death will inhibit its expression, holding us, softly, but firmly,

as if to say, quite simply,

It’s going to be ok. I am here. Just hold on. 

Ordinary: A Christmas Sermon

I preached this sermon on Christmas Day, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 2:8-20.

Not quite as planned. A bit haphazard. Maybe somewhat underwhelming, even, after so much hope and expectation and hardship. Confusing and, for some, tinged with fear. And yet, somehow, in its startling ordinariness, still happening, still a quiet miracle, still infused with unspeakable grace. 

Am I describing how many of us have experienced the holiday season this year? Or am I speaking about the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago? 

Yes.

On this Christmas, perhaps more than any in recent memory, we perceive the hidden, frank domesticity of the Nativity, for we, too, like the Holy Family, have been gathered in, with few options, seeking shelter above all else. 

But despite our recent immersion in the spare, the low-key, and the unadorned, it must be acknowledged that, even with all that we have learned and lost this year, with all the comforts foreclosed, we might still struggle to wrap our heads around the Savior of the world coming exactly in the way that he did—as an infant, born to an average family in a humble town, in a common peasant home, with the guest rooms past their capacity and animals crowded in for the night. Few expected, then or now, for the Messiah, the promised Holy One of God, to be, by all appearances, so very ordinary.

But so he was. A baby as fragile as any other, born with no particular privileges or advantages apparent, at a precarious moment in his people’s history. 

I know that I say to myself every year that I understand this, that I love how God came to us in suprising humility, but then I wonder, when I look at the habits of my life and when I look at what I am tempted by in the world around me: do I understand, really? Do I love him, just as he is, this child in the straw, who offers love, but not safety?

Because even now, even though we know better, even though we’ve told the story a thousand times and more, we still keep looking for Jesus to enter the world elsewhere—in a palace, in a capital city, among splendor and power and success.  We still admire and imitate the people who live and work in those places, and in our dominant western culture we tend to shape our values around their opinions and agendas. We long for the child of Bethlehem, but we keep looking for an emperor. 

And even in the history of the church this can be true, when we have tried to retroactively ennoble the Christ child in our imagination–ensconcing him in gilt and velvet and crowns, sometimes forgetting that these are subversive symbols of how he turns earthly values on their head, not actual depictions of his birth and life. 

But thankfully, blessedly, try as we might, we cannot escape the fact that he was not born as an actual king—and we are reminded in the Christmas story that God did not enter creation through the ornate front doors to be greeted by the servants, as it were, but instead came in the back way, through the service entrance, seen only by those who tend the sheep.  

And what good, good news it is that this is so. 

Because it means, for average people like you and me, that God was never interested in being unattainable. God was never interested in being insulated from us. God never wanted to be known as someone who is too busy, too important, to notice and regard with care the details of our lives. On the contrary, God was born in such an ordinary way to signify that it is here, in the midst of our vulnerable, complicated, boring, unimpressive, precious little days that he desired to make a dwelling place. 

He wanted his own life to be as plain and sweet as ours sometimes can be—a life of both chores and of chocolates—because he is Emmanuel—God WITH us—and that means with us through all of it: the good, the bad, and the long stretches of the simply OK. And thanks be to God that he visits us there, because most of our lives are made up of the simply OK, and I, for one, long to be known and loved even in those moments where I feel entirely uninteresting. 

The manner of Jesus’ birth is good news, also, because it means that we need not become impressive, powerful people in order to take part in God’s life or God’s mission. No matter what family we were born into, no matter how much money we make, no matter how many times we have failed or fallen down, we have not missed out on the chance to participate in the things that God truly cares about, because those are, in the end, quite ordinary things—feeding, clothing, visiting, listening, forgiving, remembering, grieving, rejoicing. They are the things that you can do wherever you are, no matter who you are. And the day that we realize that these things are all that God requires of us, that they are the elements of a truly important life…that is the day we are free. 

Let that day be today, this eminently ordinary day, as you gaze at a baby in the manger, with common shepherds as your companions. Let God’s humble birth, his little bed of hay, his quiet Mother, teach you that your life can be enough, will be enough, humble and little and quiet as it, too, might be, if you will only give over your love, your heart, to be pierced and shaped— not by the Savior we expected, but the Savior that we needed. The Savior of the everyday.

It is for him we say:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,” AND glory to God in the lowliest birthing place.

“On earth peace,” AND in our ordinary hearts, peace, this Christmas day, and every day to come.

Courage: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on December 22, 2019, the fourth Sunday of Advent, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.

I have discovered in recent months that one of the great privileges of a life in ordained ministry is the invitation to be present with people in those deep, delicate moments when life’s urgent mysteries present themselves:

In the act of placing our Lord’s body, hidden in bread, into an outstretched hand;

In the silence between a question asked and an answer given during a vulnerable conversation;

In the prayers offered beside hospital beds or when gathered around tables for meetings and meals;

In the tears and the jokes, the handshakes and the hugs.

There is, for me, no greater joy than to see the infinite iterations of love that flow in and through this parish—in and through each of us who gather here. 

And throughout this Advent, as I reflect on the many ways that love shows up here at Trinity, the word that keeps coming up in my mind is courage.  

Now, courage is perhaps not a word that we might typically associate with the quiet, expectant season of Advent, but courage is something that I see demonstrated in the lives of every person seated here today. As we learn one another’s stories and better understand each others lives, we often find out how much courage is contained in the people around us, in ways we couldn’t have begun to imagine beforehand. 

Courage is something of a misunderstood word. We tend to equate it with showy displays of bravery or strength, as if it is a quality reserved for the fearless and the bold. But the ancient root of the word courage, “cor” simply means “heart”—and so to be courageous is to be full of heart; to let whatever resides in our heart to overflow into our lives and into the world around us. 

And that is what you and I do in our lives as disciples of Jesus—we seek the heart of Christ and cultivate our own hearts to mirror his. We engage in a thousand small, daily acts of courage—of heart-centered action. Most of these acts the world will never notice, but they are, in fact, the very things upon which the flourishing of the world depends. The quiet gestures of attentiveness that sustain our common life.

So if you do not tend to think of yourself as courageous, I have news for you: you are. By getting up each morning and doing the thing that you must do—to offer the care that you must offer, to send up the prayer that you must send, to grieve what you must grieve—you are full of heart. You are full of courage. And, as our texts this morning reveal, God is with you in all of it. 

God with us. Emmanuel. This is the name we hear in Isaiah and in Matthew; and it is not just a name, it is a promise.

It is, in fact, the definitive promise of the entire Biblical narrative: that God is with God’s people, through everything. Through creation, through estrangement, through exile and restoration, through waiting, through weeping, through victory and vanquishment, through the thrill of love and the void of loneliness—God is with us. God is the one who gives us the courage—the hopeful, faithful heart— to face all of it, and God is the one who makes meaning out of all of it. 

For King Ahaz, who was ruling over the kingdom of Judah in a time of political instability, the name and the promise of Emmanuel was the sign he didn’t ask for. For whatever reason, he refused the prophet Isaiah’s offer of an assurance from God.  But God offered the sign anyway, in the form of a baby about to be born whose name-Emmanuel–literally bore the promise of God’s presence. And for the time being, anyway, the people of Judah were safe. God was with them.

Centuries later, as Matthew recorded the story of Christ’s birth, the moment that God appeared to us in human flesh, he drew on this ancient narrative of a baby carrying God’s eternal promise—God’s eternal “en-couragement,” if you will—and connected the name Emmanuel with the name of Jesus.  So it is a name we sing out to this day, especially at this time of year, with fervent hope and gratitude, offering it as the answer to every question that this troubled word might offer.

O come, O Come, Emmanuel. O, Come, O Come, God, to be with us.

This is the heart of our faith: that even when it seems otherwise, we believe that God is with us. That God will always be with us. The prophecy of Isaiah has been and continues to be fulfilled, especially and ultimately through Christ.

God’s name and God’s promise of presence is written on our hearts, and that name and that promise gives us the strength to do what we must do, those everyday acts of courage. Those small, unglamorous, but vital offerings:

the feeding of a hungry mouth,

the wiping of a tear,

the holding of a trembling hand,

the speaking of truth to power. 

In each of these, we find the presence of God.  In their accumulation, we find the significance of our entire lives. 

So yes, in Advent, we are reminded of the big, beautiful things: of God’s promises to us, and how the coming of Jesus Christ fulfills those promises for all time; how the birth of a child who we call Emmanuel will make the mountains sing and the stars dance in the night sky.

But we are also reminded, in Advent, of the humble things, the earthy things, the tender, powerful things that comprise our lives, that fill our periods of longing and waiting, and we are assured that these things are courageous enough, beautiful enough, just as they are. As the offerings of our hearts to God, as the demonstration of our courage, they tell the same story, they bear the same name: Emmanuel.

Because the God who will be with us as an infant in a bed of straw is also the God who is with us as we wait beside the hospital bed; 

the God who is with us as a thundering voice from on high is also the God who is with us when we cry silent tears into our pillow at night; 

the God who is with us as the sovereign of all creation is also with us as we stand in the lamplight of a familiar doorway, being welcomed home. 

So no matter where you find yourself in this season, and in the seasons to come, take courage. God is with you, and within you, working through you. In your waiting, in your wondering. In your pain and in your joy. In every act of love that you give or receive. 

In each of your names, I hear a whisper of his name, Emmanuel. In each of your faces, I see the face of Christ. What a gift we are given, to find God in one another. To be courageous for one another. To love one another. 

This–simply this–is enough.

This–simply this–is everything there is.