The Feast of the Nativity – December 24, 2015, 10:30 pm
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
So by tonight, in the grocery stores, in the airport, in our dentists’ offices, we’ve all heard the popular Christmas carols at least, what, 1000 times? They’ve gotten a little stale by this point. And yet I still love them anyway. Being someone who has lived most of my adult life away from my family, the one that always runs through my head is the old Bing Crosby WWII classic:
I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
Home for Christmas. It always sounds so good. The smell of good food, soft light on dear faces all smiling to see us come through the door, everything and everyone there where we want them to be – all safe and warm and well. It’s not often reality, but it doesn’t keep us from wanting it in our dreams.
So it’s always a bit of a shock to realize that Mary and Joseph didn’t make it home for Christmas. The emperor had issued orders: everyone had to pick up and go. Go back to where their family came from, stand in long lines, pay the money they’d scraped together, stay until the authorities allowed them to leave, be counted. Statistics must be kept. So Mary and Joseph, two poor people among so many, put together their meager belongings and set out, even though she was hardly in the shape for traveling, and they went until they came to Bethlehem. A city already teeming with people, as if everyone on earth had been born there and needed to come back precisely there for the census. So full was that city that without lots of money to spend, there could be no room for the poor to stay. The refugee camps were not yet set up. No one could open their hearts to this young couple, this woman in the beginning stages of labor. And so they wound up in a barn. And that’s where God came to be with us. Making his home where there was no home. In the midst of what was temporary and rushed and beyond Mary and Joseph’s control.
And before they could settle in there they had to leave again, escape and get out, warned in a dream that it was too dangerous too stay. They had to run, to flee the murderous rage of the local warlord, flee the massacre of children, cross borders and go to Egypt until this time of trouble had gone by. And then, and only then, could they make their way home.
And that is the story of Immanuel: God with us. It’s never as pretty as we try to make it out to be.
The Christmas story, a young Middle Eastern family seeking refuge and being turned away. The connection between that story and our current global situation is hard to miss, and it has been made by many in this season already. The plight of refugees in our world now, Syrians and Iraqis and Afghans and so very many others, seems unending. People who cannot stay in their homelands, who may never be able to return to their home, people fleeing war and violence and unrest and chaos. Fleeing lands where their children are unsafe. People paying unscrupulous thieves to get them somewhere else, perilously traveling and maybe never getting there, undergoing journeys of months and years on trains, in trucks, on inflatable boats, on foot, crossing and re-crossing borders and hoping to gather their families together again in one place. Immanuel: God with us. And they wonder: Is God with us in the refugee camps? On the trucks and the boats filled to overflowing? Is God in the places where they long to find their home?
Their story wrenches at the heart. Perhaps because it strikes at what we all fear – the loss of our home. We all need to feel at home. By which I mean that we need a place to call our own, where we are safe and can let down our guard. We need somewhere where we know the rules and the language and can raise our children in peace. Where we are known, deeply known for who we really are. We long for that, at our core. And yet we all know that we are never completely safe; we know as we grow older that what seems solid is always slipping away, nothing ever stays the same. And we are never completely known, even in our most intimate relationships. We all live in what is temporary and rushed and beyond our control. We live in a time of peril and danger, where terrorists and illness and addiction and abuse can take away what we love, and take away what should be our home. We are all refugees in this world. We are never fully at home. And we wonder: is God with us? Is God in the places where we long to find our home?
But refugee is not the only part we play in this story, this crisis. We are also the rulers and authorities that make the world what it is, who cause and create the injustice and the violence and the hardheartedness. The ones who insist that vast numbers of people pick up and move in order to satisfy our whims and desires, to sustain the appetites of consumers and the platforms of politicians halfway around the world. We are ourselves the camps and the countries that should take in the refugees and find them a home and welcome them, the innkeepers who say whether the young mother may come in and rest. We are the ones who can offer water and food to those looking for help, who can tell our governments to open our borders, who can stand against the fear that hardens all of our hearts – who can protect the holy innocents threatened by Herod and all his forces. Is God with all of us, even so? Can God come be with us in our unsettled, unwelcoming hearts?
The restless Augustine of Hippo famously said, ‘Our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.’ He knew that truth by hard experience. In his book of Confessions he wrote about his journey before his conversion to faith. Nothing he tried worked – not success in his career, not pleasure, not the distractions of this world. Nothing satisfied. Discontent and despair and discouragement waited at the end of every turn. And then he realized that all of it was because of God’s doing: You made us for yourself, O God, he said. And so we are never at home apart from you. Nothing else is right.
It is how we are made. We are made to seek home, to seek safety and the deep knowing of relationship. And we are created to make home for others, to reach out in concern and love for those we see in need. Look at little children, how deeply and keenly they identify with their homes, how worried they can be about those who have no home. Look at the emptiness so many of us feel in the midst of what we think should fill us up: success in work, graduating from school, even being home with our families on Christmas Eve. We are never at home apart from God – we are restless until we place our trust and hope in God’s love for us, finding our home and purpose in God rather than ourselves. And we are never really at home until we join the work of God, when we renounce our fear and hatred and love of material comfort and instead care for God’s children in this world.
That is why our own country’s attitude right now toward the plight of refugees in our world does not sit right for many of us. It is partly because we know the history of this country, built on waves of immigrants and refugees who needed to make their home in a new place. It is partly because our nation’s values do not support the exclusion of people of one particular religion. It is partly because we know that our country’s foreign policies are in part at the root of the global crisis we now find ourselves in. But it is also, more deeply, because we know what it is like not to have a home. We can feel in our hearts the frightened aloneness of the refugee. We know what it is like to feel unsafe and ill at ease. And we know that we are the ones God calls to make a home that is safe for others.
Is God in this world? Is God with the lost and frightened refugees? Is God with those who would close the doors to their need? Is God with us here in this church tonight, us who seek what Christmas is all about?
The story says yes. The baby Immanuel, God with us, born and raised in the midst of crisis. Jesus, whose name means ‘God saves,’ teaching his followers that to be at home in God means feeding the hungry and healing the sick. Jesus, on the cross, blessing and forgiving with his last breath those who put him there. Christ, God’s anointed, raised from the dead and sending us all out to do that work too. God with us at every turn, with us in every place and every situation. God our home even when we have a hard time finding that home for ourselves.
Sometimes even our pop songs get it right. Billy Joel once sang,
Well, I never had a place that I could call my very own
But that’s alright my love,
‘Cause you’re my home
…Well, I’ll never be a stranger
And I’ll never be alone
Wherever we’re together that’s my home
Tonight, here, in this place, come and be at home. God is with us; God is always with us. May we rest ourselves in God; may we give of ourselves with God; may we be at home and be a home for all God’s children in this world. Merry Christmas to all of you, here, home for Christmas.