|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
December 24, 2017 – Christmas Eve
Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord: Year B
Christmas: Love Incarnate
Back in 2015, in several southern states the Confederate flag was finally moved from flagpoles atop capital buildings to the history cases of museums. That same year nine African-American Christians were brutally gunned down in their church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a young white supremacist. In the days that followed, in a gesture of profound grace and mercy, the loved ones of those murdered spoke words of forgiveness to the man who thought none of them should even exist. Around that same time an image went viral of a black South Carolina state trooper, Leroy Smith, gently guiding a white supremacist to a seat after he was overcome by heat at a rally protesting the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capital. In an article on the event, a reporter for The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Smith said he was taken aback by the worldwide attention but hoped the image would help society move past the spasms of hate and violence. Asked why he thinks the photo has such resonance, he gave a simple answer: love. ‘I think that’s the greatest thing in the world – love,’ said the burly, soft-spoken trooper. ‘And that’s why so many people are moved by it.’”
Tonight, millions and millions are gathered in churches around the world, because we are, just as Trooper Smith said, moved by the idea of love. We hold in the depths of our souls the belief that love is, indeed, the greatest thing in the world, and we believe, as crazy and amazing as it sounds, that perfect love took on flesh and came into the world on a fateful night in Bethlehem. We are here because we long to know that love and feel that love and see that love change our world.
Love is simultaneously the most powerful force in the world, capable of leading a man to help someone who absolutely hates him, and it is also the force that makes us the most vulnerable, because it involves risk. Love breaks down difference and distance to draw us toward one another. Love is like gravity for the soul: it is the force that brings us closer to each other, even to those people who are hard to be with, even when the person we love is suffering or in pain. Love is what stirs in our souls to lead us closer to them, rather than turning away or abandoning them.
Think about it. Love is what leads you to take care of your parent as he ages and fades in front of you. Love is why you keep showing up and being with him, rather than saying, “I don’t want to see him this way.” It’s your love that leads you to want to be with him, even though your heart hurts to be there. Because love pulls you closer, even though it is terribly hard. And love is why you stick by your child when she so sick that she barely resembles the little girl she normally is. Love is why you don’t say, “It’s too hard to see her this way.” No, love is what leads you into her room to wrap her up in your arms and hold her tight and tenderly care for her.
Christmas only makes sense through the prism of love, because it’s only love that can explain why God came among our weak and weary world. God could see the suffering and pain of all creation, weighted down by sin and death, and God could not turn away. God’s love is so great, so indomitable, that God simply had to enter our world to touch us and heal us and lead us. Why else would our savior’s name be Emmanuel – God with us? Love led God down from the majesty of heaven to a manger in tiny Bethlehem, and eventually, to a cross on a rocky hill outside Jerusalem. Love. Nothing else can explain it. “Love all lovely,” to quote Christina Rossetti, “love incarnate, love divine.”
But if love is the divine force that brings us closer to each other, there is a force that opposes love: fear. Love causes us to become vulnerable, to move closer even when it’s hard, but fear…fear causes us to flee from vulnerability, and it pushes people farther apart. Fear is what puts up boundaries between people, and keeps us locked in our own safe silos, sure that if we make a move to help or serve or be with someone else, we will get hurt. Fear divides and isolates and strangles our souls.
Yes, fear is the opposite of love…which is why, on the night perfect love came into the world to live with us, angels appeared to shepherds bearing a message: “Fear not! Love rests in a manger not far from here. Love divine, all love’s excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down. Do not be afraid.” Their timeless message still rings true today, all these years later.
Three days after the mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Southerland Springs, I celebrated the Wednesday evening Eucharist. It was such a hard week, and everyone was on edge with grief and fear. There were maybe 10 people here, or so, our usual crowd for a weekday service. I clearly remember the psalm appointed for that day, because it felt like God was speaking right to us:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, who then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom then shall I be afraid?” (Ps 27:1).
One of the customs of weekday Eucharists is that everyone gathers around the altar for communion. Not all the lights were on in the church, so it was a little bit dim out in the nave and transepts, but as I began the prayer, I noticed a man out of the corner of my eye. He was moving around in the north transept, but he had a hoody pulled over his head, and it was dim in the church at that hour, so I couldn’t tell who he was. What I could tell was that he was behaving strangely, as though he didn’t know where to go or what he wanted. By the time I got through the opening sentences of the prayer, everyone had noticed him, and you could feel the fear rippling through our little congregation. Lots of glances over shoulders, lots of deep breaths. The events of Southerland Springs were so fresh in our minds, and we had all been absorbing fear from the news and neighbors all week, so we were, to a person, afraid.
It’s a weird thing to pray the Eucharist afraid…but I’ll also say this: it’s hard to stay afraid when you pray the Eucharist. Because it’s not just an incantation or generically pious words we say in that prayer. The one we invoke in the Eucharist is real, and he is love incarnate, so fear had no room to dwell for long. As I was saying the words – “In the fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace” – that very Son gave me the same message the angels proclaimed the night of his birth: do not be afraid. So, I paused, and I said to the hooded stranger lurking in the shadows of our church, “Good evening. You are most welcome here. Won’t you come and join us for the Eucharist?” And after a moment, he stepped slowly into the bright light of the chancel, pulled back his hood, and took a place in the circle. He was a total stranger to all of us – I had not seen him before, and I have not seen him since – but that night, he joined with us in the Eucharist, and became one with us in the communion of Christ’s Body and Blood.
The story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, of the Word becoming flesh, of love coming down and dwelling among us, is not just a sweet bedtime story for naïve religious dreamers. It is not just a tale about something interesting that God may have done long ago and far away. It is the perfect sign of what God desires for us right now, today, whatever our circumstances, whatever our lives. I know it seems that the world is overrun with problems, and there are more things that ever to be afraid of. But God’s answer to all our very real challenges remains the same today as on that first Christmas. Love. Love, which will drive out fear. Love, which bring us closer to each other. Love, which will heal our divisions and strengthen all our efforts for good.
So, listen to the message of the angels (some of whom may work as South Carolina state troopers), and do not be afraid. God has chosen love incarnate to be our salvation, so we can trust that, even though it may make us as vulnerable as a newborn baby, it is powerful enough to carry us through even our hardest moments and darkest hours, straight up to the door of heaven itself.