2 Christmas, January 1, 2017

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For as big of a deal as it is,
both in the Church and in the economy,
Christmas does not get much attention.

Really, if you think about it,
the most the actual story gets
is twenty minutes or so on Christmas Eve.
We hardly tell the story at all,
or point to its implications
and claims, and instead,
get caught up in the swirl
of tertiary sounds and symbols.

We cushion Christmas
with pillowed songs and dim light,
and adorn it with red ribbon and sparkles
before we leave it all behind
in a pile of wrapping paper
and feasting.

And the reason for our avoidance
is that if we spent too much time with it,
we would realize what the narrative
at the heart of the Christmas holiday is all about.

Christmas is a story of exile,
as is almost the entirety of the biblical narrative.

That is why there is so often a painful,
if unacknowledged tension,
between the Bible and Church.
Church has been captured
by the same forces of empire
that has been exiling the people of God
for thousands of years.

You see, the Bible is a story of exile
and exiled people,
and of a God who reaches out to them
and offers hope for a home-coming.
That basic plot scenario
is repeated over and over and over again
throughout the Bible
and when we miss it,
and our part in it,
we lose the profound wisdom
embedded in the narrative.

The Christmas story is told
in the hushed tones
of a dark and silent night;
is whispered in the shadows
of those hiding from oppression;
is cautiously passed underground
from person to person,
until it surfaces from the force of a multitude.

Whether it is ancient slaves
groaning under the assault of Pharaoh,
or sojourning in the wilderness
in search of liberation;
or expatriate survivors of genocide
forced into labor in Babylon;
or peasants eking out a living
at the margins of the Roman Empire;
the Bible is story after story
of exiled people
unable to fit in
or truly take root in the foreign soil
to which they have been transplanted,
or even exiled in place
as tenant farmers on land once their own.

Book to book,
character to character
the baton is passed
from biblical generation to generation.

The social and cultural dis-ease
of each generation is shared and passed forward,
along with the vision of hope for a new possibility,
a new life,
even a new birth.

Over and
over and
over and
over again
the dis-ease of being different
from the people around them
is passed on along with the hope
for a new option.

Never does the Bible
run out of hope.
God can and will
do a new thing, always.
That hope never disappears. Never.

And right there is the most painful rub,
of the most bitter angst,
you and I feel in our generation of exile.

The economic culture
tells us God cannot do a new thing –
only market forces,
only consumer confidence,
only the Dow.

The Scientific/Technological culture
tells us God cannot do a new thing –
only that which can be replicated in a laboratory,
only that which can be manufactured,
only the newest, fastest best technology.

The political culture
tells us God cannot do a new thing –
only the things that worked before
(whether they actually worked or not);
and only the things best for our own pocketbook,
and only the things best for those who live within
our borders,
and our race,
and our class
and our religion.

In our world,
regardless of which sphere of influence
we travel most often,
God cannot do a new thing.

In fact, the newest, most compelling thing
within most of those perspectives
is that there is no God;
or even if there is,
it is a God so remote as to be irrelevant to us.

Between the people who dismiss God
and those that talk about God
as if a light at the end of their magic wand,
there is not much room left for us,
or for a God
that can and does
do new things.

But I will tell you –
and I believe it is absolutely true –
that is impossible, impossible,
to thrive as a stranger in a strange land
without the hope of a God
that can and does
do new things.
Without that God
we will either shrivel into bitter cynicism
or become bloated receptacles of cultural waste.

None of us is
strong enough,
resilient enough,
wily enough to thrive as strangers in a strange land
without dying on the vine
or being swallowed by the culture around us.

Without openness to a God that
can and does do new things,
and without heart and vision
to perceive those new things,
we will eventually drift away
like one more frozen corpse
off the wreckage of the Titanic.

I have absolutely no idea why you come here,
to a place like this on Sunday morning
or any other time,
but my guess is that on some intuitive level –
and perhaps less than fully conscious –
you know you are in exile.
And alongside the whisper
that you are a stranger in a strange land,

is a stirring somewhere below your heart
of a nascent, long ago hope.
Still alive after all this time,
is that hope or vision
you may not even be able to put words to,
but because of ancient biblical people
you know it
and feel its presence.

I like to imagine we come here to listen:
come here to listen to the voice within us;
come here to catch a glimpse of that hope
as it dances on the horizon;
come here to play and sing and touch joy;
come here to get knocked up side the head
when we get cynical;
come here to get goosed
when we’ve become too uptight;
come here even to be agitated and emboldened
and re-focused when complacency has buried us.

I like to imagine, hope even,
we come here to this table that has no borders;
to these pews rubbed smooth by the prayers
of ten and half generations;
to be reminded of our place
in that biblical story of exile and liberation.

Standing here on the first day of the New Year, 2017,
celebrating Christmas for the last time,
even as everyone else around us
has left Christmas far behind by now,
I like to imagine we came here
to listen to that odd little voice inside the old story,
the one that reminds us
who we are
and whose we are.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.