Sunday, July 25, 2021

Sermon: "Star Words, Revisited", Christmas in July (July 25, 2021)


Today, we gather during the hottest part of the year, not long after a record-setting heatwave, to hear the stories that we associate with the coldest part of the year. We gather, sitting in folding chairs instead of pews, spread out with some of us in the open air, others in the AC, and still others miles away in their homes, to lift our voices as one in singing these sacred songs that, in spite of everything, still manage to transcend time and space. Things are different today than when we normally sing this music, and yet somehow, we cherish that which remains the same.

We gather in the joy of even being ABLE to sing together, after months of lockdown and a year of dramatically modified worship. We gather, celebrating the miracles of science that have made this possible while at the same time anxiously awaiting the day we can truly return to “normal”. We gather on the cusp of “rescue” from the tyranny of this virus while still having to wait “just a little bit longer”. We gather in hope, yet under the shadow of another infection spike, a new variant, and potential breakthrough cases. We gather in the tension of this reality.

We gather remembering another people, in another time, living in the tension of their reality. Having spent generation after generation waiting for salvation, it had finally arrived, not in the form of a vaccine, but in the form of a child. They celebrated the knowledge that God had kept God’s promise and that change was coming, yet they also knew that there was still a long road ahead of them. They basked in the “light of the world” while still living under the shadow of hardship, an oppressive regime, and the cross that stood between them and full reconciliation with God. Different from us, and yet, in some ways, the same.

As the world begins to open back up around us, we must remember the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors that hope, while crucial, isn’t the same thing as the finish line. The angels proclaimed good tidings of great joy for ALL people, not just those who’d already had the opportunity to experience it. Once they’d received the Good News themselves, the shepherds were expected to go forth and share it with others. Even as we start to feel safe and comfortable again, that doesn’t mean the work is done. If all of humanity isn’t able to share our sense of safety and comfort, then there’s still more for us to do.

As we gather to celebrate this good news of great joy that we hold so dear, we must not let ourselves revel too long in the sense of peace and goodwill that these songs and stories cultivate within us. Just as that first Noel was more of a checkpoint than a finish line in God’s story, so we too must prepare for the next steps. In December, we aren’t celebrating a happy ending; we’re taking a moment to rest and recharge before setting back out into the world on the mission given to us by Christ himself. And the halfway point of the year is a good time to ask ourselves how well we’re actually doing that. IF we’re actually doing that.

Just because Jesus was born didn’t mean that God’s people had reached their journey’s end. Just because Jesus was resurrected didn’t mean that the disciples could take it easy. Just because we’ve been baptized and confirmed doesn’t mean that we’re all done. Just because we’ve been vaccinated, been given the okay to gather again, been feeling the dread and fear lift from our own lives, doesn’t mean that we’re back to normal. We have responsibilities to God and to one another, and these responsibilities persist even in the face of our own personal relief and joy. And so, no matter how safe or satisfied we individually may feel, we do not rest until either all of humanity is gathered in God’s kindom or Christ calls us home.

It’s been over six months since many of us chose our “Star Word” for 2021. Every Epiphany, we have the opportunity to select a word to guide our intentions for the next 12 months. With so much changing from one minute to the next this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us have let this discipline slide a bit. It’s been all that we could do to put one foot in front of the other, let alone try to keep an eye out for divine patterns or a “greater plan”. But as we start to feel like things are finally beginning to resolve around us, it may be time for us to start looking for that bigger picture again. Remember that, no matter what we might long to believe, we haven’t “arrived” anywhere. God is still calling us forward, ever forward, into our next lesson, our next responsibility, our next challenge.

If you feel settled, give yourself a moment to breathe, and then let this be your wakeup call. Even in the best of circumstances, with hope on the horizon and salvation in sight, God’s people are never called to passivity, always to action. And I think we can all agree that as hopeful as we might feel, these are far from the best of circumstances: COVID-19 still threatens, the very real effects of global climate change are here, and our nation is still painfully divided along all sorts of lines. That doesn’t mean the hope we feel is false. It just means that there’s a lot more work to be done.

And so, I encourage you to keep listening, so that you can keep searching. The magi’s journey didn’t end when they arrived at the manger, but it took both a symbolic and literal new direction afterwards; in the same way, make sure you don’t become complacent simply because you might be experiencing hope for the first time in a while. Dust off that Star Word from back before the vaccine was widely available, before we knew what 2021 had in store for us, before we could even imagine a return to “normal”. Pick out a new one after worship if you can’t remember what yours was. And listen for the new ways that God is calling you to be good news to ALL people—children and adults, vaccinated and unvaccinated, Democrat and Republican, Christian and non-Christian, friend and foe. If this (whatever “this” ends up being) isn’t the end, then what is God calling you to do with the days immediately ahead of you?

As we revel in the joy of Christmas in this decidedly un-Christmasy context, remember that the good news isn’t restricted to a certain time or place, a certain season, or a certain feeling. Let’s remember the real message of the manger, one that can’t be constrained by any limits that we might try to place on it: God is with us. Not so that we can feel that all is right with the world, but so that in every moment—the joyful and the sorrowful, the triumphant and the frustrating, the relieved and the uncertain—we can persevere in our work on behalf of ALL of God’s children. Because that’s what Christmas is all about. Amen.

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