Forgive me for starting this sermon tonight with a Star Wars reference – I can’t help it. Our family saw the new movie on Friday morning at 9:00 am, and we loved it, and as a Gen Xer, there are few myths more powerful and resonant for me than the Star Wars myth. I won’t spoil the film for you who haven’t seen it. But there’s a line from it that’s been repeating in my mind since then: They win by making you think you’re alone. But we’re not alone.
The whole Star Wars thing is about a small group of good people coming up against the power of a whole evil empire. And well, so is the Bible. That’s the theme of the story tonight. And the small group of good people as our story begins – you can imagine the text scrolling along, right up here – had just about given up all hope. The Romans had occupied them for so long. Rome allowed the Jews some tolerance to practice their religion, but before long, that tolerance would end: the emperor Caligula would order his own statue set up as god in the holy temple of Jerusalem. Jews would be forced to sacrifice to the emperor just like everyone else in the empire. The temple would be destroyed when the Jews tried to revolt against this.
The demand for a census we heard of tonight was only one step along the way – the power of the great empire to shape the lives of small people. The census was already in itself an affront: as one rabbi in the Talmud said, ‘the evil eye controls something which is counted.’ But the people could do nothing to resist the census – the emperor said no exceptions. So off they all had to go.
And against this dark backdrop is the birth of a child, born to poor people, born in a stable because there was no room in the inn. In a small backwater planet, I mean district, with no importance at all. Nothing to show that anything in the world would possibly be made better by this birth.
And yet somehow a strange mix of people began to make their way to that baby, in his out-of-the-way location. First, some mangy shepherds, having had a vision of angels. Then, some magi astrologers, looking up at the sky and gawking at a star. And then later, a power-mad king, searching for the child with evil intent, for some reason threatened by this unlikely child. But the baby’s father had a dream of warning, and carried the child out of harm’s way.
So then later others would come to that baby, now grown. People who were sick and sought his healing. People who were poor and desperate for bread, and hope. People who were rich and desperate for freedom, and meaning in their lives. People who were skeptical but curious, who came to argue against him and left changed; people whose lives had seemed perfectly fine until he came along and unsettled them, and they had to drop everything just to be with this man. And finally came another set of power-mad rulers, intent on destroying him, strangely threatened by what he said and did. And they crucified him, succeeding in their intent. And yet, three days later he walked again, full of abundant life.
So then later still others would come to gather around that baby, that grown man, that risen miracle. More sick people seeking healing; more poor desperate for hope; more rich desperate for meaning; the skeptical and disbelieving; the arguing and angry; the ones who weren’t sure just why they came, and yet they did. And they would gather in groups all over the world, more and more, for centuries on end, and they have gathered here in this church tonight. All kinds of us, drawn in by this Jesus. What a mix of us is here tonight.
Jesus seems to draw us in. Baby Jesus, healer/teacher Jesus, risen Jesus: all kinds and conditions of people gather around him. There is something about Jesus that brings us closer.
What we say about this Jesus is that he is the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, the Son of God. God in human form, Emmanuel, God With Us. In him we see that the separateness we thought was there between God and us is an illusion. Jesus is the bridge between heaven and earth, or more accurately, the one who shows us that heaven and earth are not separate after all. God is here, with us. God has always been here.
So on this singular and holy night we see and experience the truth: that God is here, and that we are here together. We are not alone.
What a shame that we use this Jesus to divide ourselves, to wall off and war, to condemn and separate. A sign and a symptom of our confusion.
Just this week the world lost a great spiritual figure, albeit one who attained his wisdom through a meandering path. Baba Ram Dass died on Sunday, and no, he was not a Christian, and yes, he did a lot of LSD before he found his way into meditation and prayer, but hear me out on this anyway, because God calls all kinds of people to witness to the truth. One of Ram Dass’ wonderful lines was, ‘Treat everyone you meet like God in drag.’ Words to live by, that would make this a different world if we could follow them.
At a formative age in college, I heard a recording of Ram Dass telling of an encounter he had with a state trooper. He was driving on the NY Thruway, meditating as he drove, ‘totally blissed out,’ as he said, and because of his ecstatic state, only driving about 20 or 30 miles an hour. The state trooper pulled him over, and approached the car. Ram Dass rolled his window down and looked at the cop, and as he did, he saw the cop as the Beloved, and looked at him with total unconditional love.
Later, he wrote, ‘Now, if you put yourself in the role of a state trooper, how often do you suppose they are looked at with unconditional love? Especially when they’re in their uniform. So after he had finished all the deliberations, he didn’t want to leave…So he stood there a minute, and then he said, “great car you’ve got here!” …so we [told] old car stories. Then we ran out of that. I could feel he still didn’t want to leave. I mean, why would you want to leave if you’re being unconditionally loved?’
Finally the cop tore himself away, warning him to drive faster, and as Ram Dass drove away, he saw the cop just watching him go, waving. A traffic stop had turned into an encounter with divine love – two human beings actually seeing one another, loving one another, as connected through and with God in their midst. Just imagine.
We live with an illusion of separateness. We live believing ourselves to be isolated one from another, alienated from God, perhaps even from our own selves. We live setting up those states of isolation and separateness, marking boundaries of who is in and who is out, of what makes a good Christian and what does not, of what makes our kind of people and what makes those others. We find all kinds of ways to distinguish ourselves from those we fear, those we despise, those we don’t understand. And that’s what the powers of evil want us to do. That’s how they win. If we are divided, if we refuse to see one another as the Beloved, if we build walls and group ourselves into tribes warring against tribes, evil wins.
There are a lot of forces in our world that want us to be isolated, my friends. Some of them are in our government, in this country and in others. Many of them are in large corporations that want you to buy their products and let them track you through your day. Some of them are in our city, in our schools and in our workplaces, our police precincts and our churches, who show us or maybe even explicitly tell us ‘like with like’ is the only way to go.
But most of all, this force toward isolation is in our own selves, in our fears, our instincts, our self-preservation. Keep to yourself. Don’t get involved. Don’t go out of your way or expect others to go out of theirs. Keep your head down and it will all be easier. After all, everyone wants to keep things easy.
And when we’re isolated one from another, evil wins. We begin to believe the worst about each other, because we don’t know any different. We can’t gather forces with others to change things that are wrong. We think we’re the only one who feels this way, and we turn back to our screens. We are stuck in despair.
The Incarnation is God’s ultimate means of conquering that despair, that isolation. God comes to be one with us to show us that we are already one. God comes to gather us in to show us that we are already connected, God’s beloved children united in love. It’s not easy sentiment to say so: it is truth. Truth that stands against all the lies our world tells.
Tonight in this church, look around at who is here. There may be people here you know; there are probably many you don’t know. And yet you’ve all come here tonight. As you come forward to the table to receive communion, look at the scene set here, this old, old story that reminds us of what is as true and fresh today as ever. Christ is born. God is with us. We are not alone. And the light of Christ fills all the world.