The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas
December 24, 2019
All Saints’ Church
Christmas, When Heaven Comes Down to Earth
Merry Christmas! And welcome to All Saints’ Church. We say this here every Sunday, but for those of you who haven’t heard it before: all are welcome in this place. All Saints’ is God’s house and no one else’s. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe or don’t believe, what you’ve done or haven’t done—you are most welcome here. On Christmas, we remember that there was no place for Mary and Joseph the night Jesus was born. So it is a sin for a church not to offer a place to any person on this holy night. And if you have been hurt by religion, I’m so sorry. We happen to live in a time of spiritual impoverishment, a time when religion is too often used to make people feel excluded and bad about themselves. This is also a sin, especially for followers of Jesus Christ, who proclaimed that the greatest commandment was love. Offering welcome to all people is a powerful form of love, and we hope you feel welcome and loved here.
And a very special welcome to our Jewish friends and neighbors, especially on this third night of Hanukkah. You may notice that we have eight candles at the high altar. Of course, all of them are already lit. So as you can tell, just because we worship a Jewish child this evening doesn’t mean we know how to do Hanukkah. Maybe we’ll get it right in 5781.
If you’re anything like me, you enter this holy space tonight with a mix of emotions. For some, Christmas is a time to rejoice in the presence of family and friends. For others, the holiday is a reminder of absence, of those we love but see no longer or won’t get to see this year. For some, Christmas is a chance to sing familiar hymns or to hear the amazing music of Arturo and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. For others, the pomp and traditions may ring hollow. For some, Christmas is an affirmation of faith in the birth of the Messiah. For others of you, it may have been a long time since you’ve been in a house of worship, or you may be looking around thinking, how the heck did I get here?
To all this, let me say: there is no right way to feel on Christmas. Religion is engagement with mystery. Religion is engagement with mystery. So it doesn’t really matter what’s going on for you tonight. Good or bad, joyful or anxious, faithful, curious, or doubting—it’s all authentic and true. And even if your authentic and true self today isn’t as sparkly as the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza, it makes no difference. In fact, you might know something everyone else doesn’t. Because on Christmas, we proclaim that when heaven descends to earth, it doesn’t arrive in the highest and brightest spots, but the lowest and darkest. God comes to us through our frailty, our humility, our humanity. Heaven touches earth at its darkest spot.
Everything about the birth of Jesus Christ tells us that God enters our lives in the most vulnerable, improbable places. The Christmas story is the story of God’s interest in--and love--for our flaws and faults. At Christmas, we acknowledge God’s power to transform that darkness into light.
Joseph and Mary are in an impossible situation. They are two anonymous young people thrust into the current of history. Can you imagine how powerless they must have felt when they couldn’t even find a place for Mary to have her baby properly? Think about the shame of that first Christmas, two hapless parents who couldn’t even manage to have Mary’s baby delivered in a proper place. Of course it’s not all their fault. The emperor decided to flex his muscle at the expense of his poor Jewish subjects. The innkeepers had a business to run. And the pregnant, unmarried teenage Mary could hardly count on support from her community. It is into this unjust, flawed, twisted world that Jesus is born.
But God wouldn’t have it any other way. Jesus comes into the world because of its flaws, not in spite of them. A perfect world wouldn’t need him. That manger where Mary laid him may have been made to hold slop for the livestock. But it was the perfect spot for God. It’s where God most wanted to enter the world.
There are a lot of crazy messages out there about this particular holiday. But Christmas is not about creating the perfect world, the Christmas card picture of the way we want things to be. Instead, it is about God touching this world in the places that most need it. In this over-stimulated, over-consumerized, over-capitalized society in which we live, it can be impossible to believe that something of ultimate value is offered to us absolutely free of charge. But that’s how God comes to us. Christmas is an opportunity to train your spiritual eye to ignore the distractions of life and see God truly at work. So if you’re looking for Christmas, look in the cracks and shadows of this world. It is in those places that heaven emerges.
At the first Christmas, Jesus was born into poverty. He is born this night among the poor.
At the first Christmas, Jesus’ birth was unplanned. He is born this night where there is chaos and confusion.
At the first Christmas, Jesus was born to migrant parents. He is born this night in the migrant and detention centers of this country and the world.
At the first Christmas, Jesus arrived unbidden into the most humble of circumstances. If you seek him, look to your own humility, your own frailty, your own imperfection. Because that is where you will most see and understand God’s presence.
I do not believe that Christmas is a metaphor. I believe in the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus Christ to the Virgin Mary. But I also know that this belief has no meaning at all to me or to anyone else unless I live like I believe it to be true. So on Christmas, we decorate this church, say these beautiful prayers, listen to this amazing music, and I put on this crazy silk outfit. But it’s all to celebrate the grace of humility and God’s love for our weakness. It is a paradox. But again, religion is engagement with mystery. And one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is how the God of all power and might could come among us as a poor little child.
And is it just me, or does something feel different about this Christmas? It seems like everyone is rushing to celebrate, like it’s one last party. Maybe that’s because in the backs of our minds, we all know the world will be very different next Christmas, no matter what the results of a year of campaigning.
Now, if you’re visiting from out of town, you may not be aware of the political reality of Park Slope. Senator Schumer lives up the street and Mayor DeBlasio’s house is literally just a few blocks away. You may not know that a recent poll of Park Slope residents found support for impeachment at 107%.
But as the year before us unfolds, remember the lesson from this Christmas night. Because no matter the occupant, will NOT come from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Salvation comes from God alone, and when heaven touches earth, it will land in the most neglected places, not the most exalted ones. Love cannot be elected or bought. So support your chosen candidate, and work for what you know is right. But if you want a slice of heaven, go out into the darkest places and do what Jesus did once he grew up: offer love. Offer light. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, befriend the lonely and the stranger. Do these things, and those darker corners of your own soul will be illumined with the same light that shone from the manger on Christmas.
It may not always be obvious, but heaven is around us all the time. Sometimes you just have to look where God is working. This Christmas, may God work within and through you, and may the light of Christ shine in your hearts, now and always. Amen.