Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
I have a story for you tonight, a story that’s a little different from the one you just heard. It’s one about a guy named Earl Smith. Earl was a drug dealer and addict in Stockton, CA. And he was a mean one – feared on the street, running a network of dealers. The kind of guy who if you crossed him, he’d make you pay. Until one day one of the dealers who owed him money arranged to see him, and brought along a young guy named Steven Moore. A few minutes into the conversation, Steven pulled out a gun and shot Earl six times, point-blank, and once more in the back as he slumped to the floor – and then left. A neighbor called 911. Earl was rushed to the ER and there in the hospital, he heard a voice. It said, you’re not going to die. Because I’ve got something for you to do. You’re going to become a chaplain in San Quentin prison.
After that, Earl changed his life. He went back to school, got off the drugs, became a pastor, and started working at San Quentin – one of the hardest, meanest prisons in the country. But he didn’t do very well as a chaplain. He couldn’t figure out how to connect. That Christmas he was passing out Christmas cards to inmates, working his way down the cell block. The prisoner in cell 66 was new. Earl looked at him, and recognized him. It was Steven Moore. And in a moment, Steven recognized Earl – and jumped in terror to the back of his cell.
Now, Earl thought he had forgiven Steven long before. But he started shaking and sobbing, and so he turned and kept going, and barely made it to the end of the corridor. Immediately the prospect of revenge rose up for him. The prison economy runs on favors and paybacks. He had friends and supporters in that prison. All it would take was a word, and they’d be glad to do him a favor. Steven Moore would be dead.
But instead, Earl worked his way back up the cellblock, and found himself stopping at cell 66, where Steven still crouched, wide-eyed. And instead of a threat, something else came out of his mouth: Thank you for shooting me. Because God used you to get to me. And with that, Earl kept moving, feeling a weight lift that he hadn’t even known was there. He was free of his hate. And finally his real ministry could begin – and it did, lasting for years, helping countless inmates in that prison come to peace.
I owe this story to my husband Jim, who interviewed Earl for Guideposts magazine, for an issue on forgiveness. But this is also a story of incarnation: God with us. God with us, in a deadly encounter of cold violence. God made manifest in a person and place where we would swear God would never turn up.
Tonight we celebrate the feast of the Incarnation. The story Luke tells of Christmas Eve is also a story of incarnation, the Incarnation. In the rich, lovely details of the baby and the shepherds, the virgin mother and the angels, God with us, Emmanuel, is revealed. It is a story of sweetness and peace. Our hymns and carols and the story Matthew’s gospel tells add in starlight and snow, barn animals and kings. Love all lovely, love divine.
But there’s a subtext to the Christmas Eve story as well.
- There’s a scandal to Jesus’ conception, and tension between his earthly parents.
- The Roman Empire’s oppressive demands force the pregnant Mary near term to travel for days to a strange town.
- No one in that town cares enough to offer her a place to stay, to have her baby.
- The first ones who come to visit are shifty, rough characters, shepherds, some of the lowest of the low.
- And in Matthew’s telling of it, there’s a king who tries to murder the baby soon after he is born, and the baby’s parents must flee as refugees to another land.
- Everyone in the story, except the king who tries to murder the child, is poor.
- No one in the story, except the king, is powerful.
The Incarnation story is a story of God acting in this world, in a time of poverty, oppression, and violence. God made manifest in a person and place where we would swear God would never turn up.
Of course we’re more familiar with that story. We hear it every year, and we wonder anew at the poverty of it, the humble stable, the outcasts and sinners Jesus will grow up to make the center of his ministry. But it’s a little less obvious to talk about Incarnation in a story like that of Earl Smith and Steven Moore. Forgiveness, redemption, yes. But incarnation? And yet that’s how Earl saw it. God used you to get to me. Thank you for shooting me. It took that encounter for Earl to see God there in front of him. It took the aftermath of that violent moment for him to recognize God’s hand at work. And it took that reencounter years later in the prison, staring into the eyes of his would-be killer, to see that most clearly. Sometimes that’s how the Incarnation works.
But sometimes we look around us at the way the world is and wonder, where is God? Where is God while the poor are made poorer and refugees are turned away and people plot and kill? Where is God when our loved one is hurt, when a child suffers, when our lives are upended by terrible news? Where is God?? And what we usually mean is that surely, if God were here, such things would not happen. Surely if God were here, oppression would end, suffering would end, violence would end. Surely God is not found where such pain and grief abide.
Yet Emmanuel came to be in just such a time and just such a place. God didn’t choose Herod’s palace to be incarnate in, or the prosperous cities of Caesarea – God chose Bethlehem, and the no-account tiny town of Nazareth. God came as a baby. God came as Jesus born in out-of-the-way places, to unimportant people, in the midst of oppression, hunted from birth. God came as such a one to show us that it is in the least and the unexpected that God is at work; in the poor and the unlikely that God is found. It is not a super-powerful supernatural we are waiting for. It is one born just as one of us. The ordinary and the small, showing up for the lost and the beaten.
Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has worked for 30 years with gang members in LA, talked about this in an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago. He told her that his mantra to himself was “Now. Here. This.” “Now,” period, Here,” H-E-R-E, period, “This.” He said, ‘So when I’m walking or before a kid comes into my office, I always say, “Now. Here. This, Now. Here. This.” So that I’ll be present and right here to the person in front of me.’ He goes on to say, ‘In the end, it is about imitating — trying to imitate the kind of God you believe in.’ That is the Incarnation, God with us. God present in Fr. Boyle, being present to the people who come to him for help. God present in those young men, whether they know it or not.
So do this: look to your right and to your left. Yes, look! Right next to you in church tonight is the Incarnation. And you are the Incarnation for the person sitting next to you.
That is to say, you may be. You have the potential to be. You may be the Incarnation without knowing it, even when choosing to do harm, as Steven Moore did to Earl Smith. You may be the Incarnation without realizing it, touching another person’s life in a way you’ll never know. After all, God works through us whether we know it or not.
But like Fr. Boyle we can choose to go further: we can opt in, ourselves. We can stop and look into the eyes of the other and see them, be fully present to them. We can stop and listen and know each other, whether we be strangers or members of the same family. We can stop to know and to be fully known. We can be God-with-us in a place of pain and sadness, a time of violence and deceit; and in times of sweetness, laughter, and joy too. We can be rooted in the light; we can show forth the light that shines in the darkness. Imagine if each one of us here tonight lived like that, each and every moment – with each and every person we meet and pass on the street. Imagine how different our world would be.
Most of the time, for most of us, living that way, being that fully present, is too hard to sustain. Hard to be here, now, in this. Good thing, then, that God does it through us, sometimes despite us. Good thing, then, that God did it so fully and completely in Jesus Christ – Jesus who grew up from that baby, turning up in such an unlikely place, and walked among us, healing and feeding and proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus who died on a shameful cross, the unlikeliest place of all for God to be. And who rose again because death, it turned out, is not that powerful after all: the Incarnation, God with us, light in darkness, is everything.
So tonight we celebrate all of that in this service, beautiful and lovely and glorious. But our celebration doesn’t need to be so lovely to be true. Tonight all over the world people in all kinds of places are celebrating it as well, sometimes in the most unlikely of places – places where you would swear God never would show up. And yet here and there and everywhere God is with us. The truth of Christmas is not just in the little baby lying there in the manger. It’s not just a long-ago faraway story, or a set of emotions in your heart. Christmas truth, Incarnation, is here and now.
Now. Here. This. Merry Christmas.
[South Dakota Lauren Stanley 7 services in 14 hours, 210 miles driving. Baptizing babies, sometimes just 5 people there]