Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Do Not Fear
A Homily for Christmas Eve, by Griff Martin
On December 24, 2016
For the Community of First Austin: a baptist community of faith

God the usual prayer before the sermon seems antiquated tonight on this night, the evening we light the Christ candle to celebrate the birth and reality of Jesus among us. So it seems in poor taste to ask for further Incarnation because this is the night you became and become flesh in the fullest sense. And it seems in poor taste to ask of your presence because it is already here…. So make us aware of that, for if we are aware of You than nothing else will matter, but if we are not aware of You than nothing else will matter. Amen.

There is such a temptation to make tonight a Hallmark card experience… to tell the story in a saccharine way that feels merry and bright… to try to find words that will be almost whimsical and yet deeply hopeful, words that will lead you straight from this place to your warm homes where you are surrounded by family and friends and you are singing carols by the fire and feasting on tamales and opening Christmas Eve pajamas and all is well.

And trust me, I know the temptation to preach that sermon because I tried to write that sermon. I so wanted that sermon for tonight, for my first Christmas Eve among you. However every time I tried to write that sermon… the Spirit started buzzing around me like one of those ladybugs or Asian Lady Beetles or whatever we are calling them this week, those red bugs that have invaded our state this season and wont leave.

And I tried my hardest to escape it. But it would not buzz off.

It started in my office where I sat trying to write a homily and every time I started my mind drifted back to you. I though of those of you who I have held hands with and wept with in the last few weeks over those taken from us way too soon and who aren’t here with us tonight and it’s not fair. I thought of those of you I have sat and heard about your fears of moving into a retirement community and this being your last Christmas at home as you know it…. those of you are facing big challenges in the coming year… those of you who have called me in the last few weeks and you’ve joined this community because we truly mean all people are welcome and you have sat in my office crying tears of joy because you and your beloved partner finally feel at home and free here and yet you are so scared the whole world will never be as welcoming as this place. And none of that seemed like a great jumping off point for this time, esp. the Holly Jolly Christmas Eve I wanted.

So I headed to a local coffee shop because it seems that lots of people in this town find inspiration in a coffee shop. And so I got my drink and sat down at a ridiculously small table and then I realized that the couple to my left were having a conversation way too loud about their finances, more importantly their lack of finances and in trying to stay out of that conversation I realized the two women sitting to my right were having a conversation about one of their daughters who was being bullied in school. And none of that seemed like a great jumping off point either.

And so I headed home with deep hopes that God would wake me in the middle of the night with words of inspiration, which is often what God does when I get stuck and am sitting with a text…. Instead I woke up in the middle of the night in my own darkness and my own fears and anxieties. And that certainly did not seem like a good jumping off point.

So the next day I knew I had two places of inspiration left. So I headed to the bookstore, which is like church to me. And I sat down knowing I would find inspiration for this message only to look up at the newsstand in front of me and newspapers with headlines about Aleppo and the humanitarian tragedy playing out in our life and stories about the shooter from Charleston being convicted. And then beneath the newspapers were the magazines; some trying to celebrate the Year of 2016 which everyone agrees has not been a banner year for human beings and others were full of worry about the current President while others were worried about the President Elect. And I’ve really had just about enough of that.

So I headed to my last place, my oasis which is just down the street from here and serves a Pecan Porter that seems to always inspire me. And I sat down thinking this was going to be the moment only to be drawn into the worst flirting I have ever witnessed in my life. They were both about my age and it was obvious that they really wanted a date but they were both scared to ask.

And it was there that I finally surrendered, threw my hands up and knew that I had to preach what was real and what was around us, that on the night where the Really Real became part of us nothing would work but the truth. And I knew then that the words we needed to hear tonight were the words of the Angel to the Shepherd on that night when Christ was born: “do not be afraid.”

Because we are afraid.

Fear is primal in us and all living things, even in a science lab in a petri dish, a tadpole which knows absolutely nothing and has no experience of anything beyond the petri dish, if a scientist passes his or her hand over the dish and a shadow is cast on the tadpole, the tadpole will flinch in fear because it knows how to be afraid. Fear is in our DNA and it’s working overtime right now.

We are all so afraid right now. Somehow in the last year we have given fear a really prominent role in our lives and then we decided to let it drive. And we have forgotten the great truth that one of my spiritual mentors Elizabeth Gilbert teaches us: “Fear is a mall cop who thinks he is a Navy Seal.”

Do not be afraid.

This season I have realized how much there is to fear in our Christmas story that we just glance right over…. Elizabeth and Zachariah must fear the conditions of birth at an advanced age, Mary and Joseph must worry about what people will say and how they are ruining their reputation and then they have to worry about traveling this late in the pregnancy and on top of all that they have all the fears of first time parents, the inn keeper must be scared because she did not have room and had to put a woman about to give birth in a stable because that was all she had, the shepherds must be afraid when suddenly on a normal night the sky opens up and a host of angels starts singing to them, even God must be afraid of this plan, this Incarnation, which is so risky, God’s very being born as a helpless baby.

No wonder the words all over this story… to Elizabeth and Zachariah, “Do not be afraid” and then to Mary “do not be afraid” and then to Joseph “do not be afraid” and then to the shepherds, “do not be afraid.”

And then to us tonight here at 901 Trinity Street, “do not be afraid.”

But why not? Fear in each of these stories seems to not only be a reasonable reaction but the only reaction. So, God how are they not afraid? God how are we not to be afraid?

I think they understood that the fear itself was also an invitation. They understood that with new things and with big things, fear was always going to be present but instead of allowing it to take over they knew fear was just a call to pay attention. They knew their options: fear or faith, fear or freedom, fear or love… and they chose faith, freedom and love.

And in that wisdom and choice they saw that the Incarnation was big… it was the story of love coming to earth and it was the very marriage of God’s divine story and our human story into one new narrative, the two stories were now one story… and most importantly they saw that they were being invited to be part of the new story.

In the words of the great baptist theologian James McClendon: “We have two stories, one of divine self expense and the other of human investment, of God reaching to people even before people reach to God, of a god who gives in order to be able to receive, and a humanity that receives to that it shall be able to give. Together they constitute the biblical story in its fullness. And now the capstone word is this: these two stories are at last indivisibly one.”

Maybe the shepherds did not word it quite that elegantly. But I think they understood it.

They leaned into the fear, they faced it head on and in doing so they heard the voice beyond the fear. The voice of God whispering to them: “Let my story and your story join together. I want love to be born and I want the whole world to know. And I want you to be part of it.” They knew that when the story of God and the story of humanity collide, the Kingdom of God is at hand.

And that is why when the angels disappeared the shepherds immediately say to one another “lets go straight to Bethlehem because I can’t wait to see what God has done for us.” And it’s why Joseph says yes to the angel. And it’s why Elizabeth says yes to the angel. And it’s why our Mary, Mother Mary, puts her hands up and says, “Let it be.”

Because in the fear, actually beyond the fear they have heard the truth even before it’s written in the book of 1 John centuries later: “perfect love casts out fear.” And there is no more perfect love than the God who wants God’s story to be one with our story. The God who is Immanuel, the God with us. The God who is born tonight. The God who is love.

On this cold night gathered together do you hear the whisper of God…. “Let my story and your story join together because I want love to be born again because there are new trails to forge, there is salvation still to come, there are new truths waiting to be born, there is love waiting to be shared, will you help me bring My Kingdom even nearer?”

Tonight can we be as free as Elizabeth and Zacharias and say “it might not make sense, but come on.” May we have the energy of the Shepherds rushing to Bethlehem to try to be part of God’s story. May we be like Joseph and let the voice of God’s dream be louder than the voice of fear. And may we be like Mary and look beyond fear to say, “Let it be.” And may our story join together with God’s story to let love be born again.

Fear not… because I am asking you to be part of a story bigger than fear.

So to the couple at the bar trying to work up the courage to admit what they really want, to those of us reading newspapers and magazines that only feed into the fears that are already way too real to us, to the couple at the coffee shop worried about finances and to the mother worried about her daughter being bullied, to me in the middle of the night and the fears that wake me up, to those facing huge changes next year, to those who this is your last Christmas at home, to those who are longing for the whole world to be as accepting and welcoming and wanting as this church, to those who are waking up tomorrow morning and someone is missing and to those who are getting the Hallmark Christmas that we all so badly long for… to all of us this night…. “Do not be afraid” says the Lord.

It’s the same message that was given to those shepherds on this night so many, many years ago: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people, for today in the City of David there has been born for you a Savior who is Christ the Lord, This will be a sign for you: you will find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manager…. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among all men and women with whom God is pleased.”

Do not fear, love has been born and love is waiting to be born again.

Amen and Amen. 


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