To Risk It All: A Nathan Kirkpatrick Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity, 2014

To risk it all

The Feast of the Nativity of our Lord 2014

The Episcopal Church of the Advocate

 

For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given.

 

It’s uncharacteristic for me, but tonight, you get the point first.

We’ve waited long enough. We’ve waited four Sundays to hear it.

Some of us have waited a lifetime to hear it.

God loves the world — loves us — enough to risk it all by becoming human. 

That’s the point of Christmas.

That’s the point. Anything else that I say tonight,

anything else that any of us say about Christmas,

is simply commentary on that one sentence.

God loves the world, and you and me in it, enough to risk becoming human.

 

Now to understand what that one sentence means takes more than a lifetime; it takes an eternity.

So everything that follows is only provisional.

 

But, together, tonight, we will begin to inhabit the mystery

by breaking that sentence down into three parts.

If it wasn’t so very trite, you could say that I have three points,

But then you might fear a poem with rhyming couplets in your future.

 

The first part of that sentence is that God loves the world – loves us.

That may, at first blush, seem self-evident. This is, after all, the heart of the Gospel.

This is the foundational theological claim for Christians:

God loves extravagantly, extraordinarily, prodigally.

This is the witness of the Scriptures from Creation to Consummation.

It is how the story begins and ends.

You remember Genesis?

God, the eternal, whose very nature and essence is love,

creates earth and water and wind;

fashions creatures exotic and domestic;

knits humanity together and blesses us on our way.

And everything that is created

is created out of love, by love, for the sake of love.

Or if you prefer the obverse:

Nothing that has come into being

did not have as its origin or its purpose love.

This is the point of Genesis 1 and 2 and John 1, also.

It’s all made from and for love.

 

It is how the story begins, and it is how the story continues.

When humanity proves that loving is hard and our love fails,

God’s love does not fail us,

but pursues us to claim us and call us as children,

to remind us who we were and who we are. We are beloved.

It is the message of every prophet and every priest of Israel:

God loves the world and us in it.

Gloriously.

 

Those of you who are Advocate regulars have heard me talk about my first parish a good bit this year. Sorry for that. But one more time tonight.

In that church, there was a beautiful young woman named Molly.

Molly was born with cerebral palsy, CP, and was bound to a wheelchair.

She suffered from painful muscle spasms that would contort her whole body.

But she had a smile that was wide and a laugh that was contagious.

She would sing boldly in the choir, and she would bring such joy.

When she would sing “Jesus loves me,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

One Sunday, she rolled forward to receive the Eucharist.

I handed her the host,

“Molly, this is the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.

These are signs that God loves you very much.”

She looked back at me, “Oh, silly preacher, I know that.”

 

This is foundational to the Christian faith, and yet, not all of us are as lucky as Molly.

 

Some of us in this room grew up in churches that taught us something else.

Instead of beginning with the reality of God’s love,

We were taught to begin with words like sinful and broken —

We were taught a theology that uses words like depravity and disordered.

 

But, at Christmas, it is easy to see that that is a theological false start.

 

Let me say this as clearly as I can –

Any theology that does not begin with the reality of God’s burning love

Is unworthy of the name Christian

and doesn’t deserve to be spoken by the Christian people.

God loves the world and loves us.

“Oh, silly preacher, I know that.” I hope you do.

 

But it’s not just that some of us weren’t taught this;

some of us with more years than Molly have forgotten what she knew.

As life goes by, we take our hits. Relationships and jobs end.

The dream never becomes reality.

The church disappoints.

And somehow we project all of that back onto God.

We may even define it and describe it as God’s judgment.

A certain spiritual amnesia sets in and

We forget how loved we are.

 

The writer Galway Kinnell says it this way, “Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.”

 

That’s part of the point of this annual celebration of Christmas.

Whether we never learned it or forgot it along the way,

Tonight we hear it again:

You — me — God loves us.

God loves the world and us in it so very much.

 

How much, you ask?

The second part of the sentence. How much does God love?

Enough to risk it all. 

God loves the world and us enough to risk it all.

 

To be clear, if you were God, this is about the most foolish thing you could do.

If you were God, you could remain safely ensconced in Heaven, forever involved but removed.

You could stay at a safe distance, passionate and dispassionate simultaneously.

You could stay above the strife, suffering and sin,

You could stay sheltered from brokenness, bitterness and betrayal.

If you were God, to risk it all is about the most foolish

and most unnecessary thing you could ever do.

 

But, what is love at arm’s length?

What is love from a safe, self-protecting distance?

What is love that lacks the courage to be face-to-face? to be open and vulnerable?

It may be something, but it surely isn’t love.

It isn’t relationship. It isn’t really even friendship.

Love that is aloof and removed is an impossibility.

 

On Christmas, God does the thing that, sooner or later, all of us learn is required —

that love by its very nature necessitates risk, that love requires vulnerability.

that love sometimes requires the grand and glorious act with no promise of payoff.

 

And so,

When God throws God’s lot in with the world,

It means that God is vulnerable to the world’s pressures and prejudices,

It means that God is susceptible to the foibles and failures of human beings,

It means that God risks being murdered by the world’s judgments and injustices.

Sure, it is to be open to the greatest of joys, to the deepest pleasures, too. But it is risk nonetheless.

 

But where there is love, then while risky, it doesn’t feel risky.

It feels liberating, exhilarating.

It feels like the only thing you can do.

Where there is love, then it is okay to be foolish.

Where there is love, then there is nothing else to do but be foolish.

And God loves. The world. And us. Enough to risk it all.

 

And God does so

in the most humble of ways:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

For unto us a son is born, unto us a child is given.

It’s the third part of the sentence:

God loves the world and us enough to risk it all by becoming human.

 

We can’t talk about Christmas really without talking about bodies.

When God becomes human, then in a real way, God is subject to the limitations of the body.

When God the infinite becomes finite, when God the immortal becomes mortal

then God in Christ shares all the fragility of life.

Diapers can be and are soiled.

Knees can be scraped. Arms and hearts can be broken.

Blood can be shed. Life can be taken.

But, if you’re God, on Christmas, it’s the risk you take

Because you’re done loving at a distance.

 

There is a physicality to this Feast that is often tacitly acknowledged but never overtly celebrated.

There is a physical intimacy to Christmas that matches the emotional intensity of the holiday.

That is what it means to be incarnate,

that the yearnings of God for God’s people

that the desire God has for us —

will now be conveyed in sensory ways

in touch, in taste, in smell, in sight, in sound.

Our redemption is philos, agape and eros:

There is brotherly love and self-giving love and burning passionate love here.

All of God’s love, all of God’s longing,

which has spanned and shaped millennia,

is now embodied in a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes

and laid in a manger

because there was no room in the inn.

Divine love is now as fragile as an infant.

The Love that formed and fashioned the universe,

The Desire that called and claimed Israel,

The Longing that encompasses you and me,

Is in the manger now.

Here. With us. Like us. For us.

 

The point is simple. It’s meaning infinitely complex.

God loves the world and us enough to risk it all by becoming human.

It’s a mystery that we only begin to grasp, but it’s Good News.

Merry Christmas.