24 December 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”
“Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”
Where is it that light? Where is it in your life?
Is it just a vague feeling you have…that a better world is possible…
Are you clinging to faith but wondering “…where is that light? I want to see it, but…”
We are a people who walk in darkness—who live in a land of deep darkness…
If that sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s from the sermon I preached last Christmas Eve. Which was all about seeing light in the darkness.
A lot has happened since then. Exactly a year ago, on December 24th, the first sample of a novel coronavirus that was perplexing doctors in China was sent for genetic sequencing, and we all know what this has meant for the world in the past year. 1.7 million deaths worldwide, over 300,000 here…ravaging the Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities at much higher rates…serious strains on the global economy, on small businesses, on the food distribution systems, and a tremendous toll on health care. This year we become more acutely aware that first responders are not the only essential workers…essential work also includes cleaning services, and delivery services, and those who stock the shelves…This past year, we’ve witnessed a long overdue recognition of and reckoning with the history of racism in this country. We’ve had to make hard decisions about whether to go see family and friends…We’ve spent long hours in front of the computer…in lonely isolation, in meetings, or exhausted but still trying to homeschool your kid. We’ve fasted from singing and the sacraments for long stretches…it’s been a year…and a lot of walking in the darkness…
Kelly Brown Douglas, who is the canon theologian at the National Cathedral and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union, says that theology is most often done in the context of a crisis…when things are going well…you rarely do theology…It’s when things go badly that we start to ask, “what is God up to?”* Well, we’ve had plenty of chances to do theology this year, haven’t we?
And the theological import of this night…the thing that has really been driven home to me this year in particular…is that God doesn’t wait for things to be all better before showing up. God doesn’t wait until we’re all in agreement, and things have settled down. God waits for one young woman to say, “yes,” and then dives in to start making things better.
The world Jesus was born into was not a Hallmark card. It was a world of imperial violence, and oppression, and poverty, and disease, and early death.
The good news of the nativity—the real theological message of Christmas—is that that is the world God enters…this is the world God enters. No matter how messy, no matter how dark it seems…God enters the mess of the real…fully and completely…and with astonishing vulnerability…and sets about slowly but inevitably, building…a better way…a way of peace, and justice…and love and sacrifice and service.
We started this service tonight in darkness…it was different from the way we traditionally start a Christmas Eve service…of course it was? It had to be different this year. And in the darkness a light was kindled…a crèche appears…the light grew and continues growing.
Shall I recount some of the ways the light has been visible this year? The shift to online services was by no means seamless…there were plenty of glitches, but we held on and held together and week by week we learned and were able to drawn strengthen and sustenance from seeing this sacred place, hearing glorious music ring from it…discovering new intimacy by being able to see and hear the service in new ways, and interact with people we may not have really interacted with in the past.
We all know that the pandemic has been tragic for the unhoused community; yet the leaders of MANNA and outreach transformed a 6 times a year meal, to a monthly meal with additional food and clothing drives along with it. In addition to our commitment to the Brookline Food Pantry, we also committed to delivering groceries to the Fuel Program at Church of the Redeemer and the B-Ready program at St. Stephens. We gave grants from the outreach fund to help Episcopal City Mission, the Evergreen Church, the Greater Boston Food Bank among others.
Shall I tell you about choir hangouts, and learning events that Stephan organized and led; live-streamed compline services; book groups and bible studies, courageous conversations and living stones listening groups; centering prayer, daily offices that migrated online.
Shall I tell you about family ministry…we welcomed Tammy, and saw the growth and development of online church school and family hikes, and boomwhacker services…and spooky saints.
Shall I tell you about, Anoma and the calls and connections and end of life bed-side visits she made…the vestry, the property committee, the Facility Use committee, the staff…all of whom continued work in new and renewed ways.
Yes, an awful lot about this year has been exhausting. An awful lot has been sad and grief-stricken. Some of this year has been quite energizing. Plenty of days, we still walk in the darkness…but that’s where the light shines.
Our world is messy and complicated and deeply wounded, but that’s where God enters…that’s where God is…God enters the world as it is…and invites us to help make it better…to take part in God’s work….of bringing peace…and comfort…and solace…and reconciliation…to a world that really needs it.
If theology is only really done in crisis…then we had plenty of opportunities this year…and the theology that has emerged is the theology that has always been there…shining in the dark. It’s the one that proclaims the inevitability of God’s grace, is one where we are stirred by the irresistibility of God’s will…and grounded in the sure and certain hope of God’s presence among us now…this night…and always. That is the truth of Christmas…and may that be our guiding light now and always.
*She said this during a clergy conference in 2019.