Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Last Sunday night we went Christmas caroling in the neighborhood. And we sang one of my favorite songs – O Little Town of Bethlehem. But this year, a particular verse captured my imagination. You know it. I’ll say it. You can join me if you like.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
That is the line that stuck in my mind. That is a line we’ll come back to later.
Caroling is a tradition at Epiphany. There were about 70 people, split into a few groups, ringing doorbells, singing to neighbors. But as with all things church, traditions have a tendency to grow. After singing we gathered in the Great Hall for chili, then watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on the big screen. I’m sure a few of you have seen it, but for those who haven’t let me bring you up to speed:
Winter has sat in; the children are out playing, but Charlie Brown isn’t feeling it. He wanders over to the Psychiatrists booth, where Lucy comes to meet him. He pays his nickel, and after Lucy celebrates her glorious money, she asks him what is wrong. To which Charlie Brown replies: “I know I should be happy, but I am not.”
Lucy eventually diagnoses him with pantophobia, which is the fear of everything. Charlie Brown thinks that is exactly right…All those fears over all those years rolled up into one big diagnosis – pantophobia.
Lucy suggests that the best way for Charlie Brown to get over pantophobia is by getting involved with something. She then appoints him the Director of the Christmas pageant. A lot of things happen to Charlie Brown next, culminating with him buying a rather anemic, pathetic Christmas tree. He takes it to the theatre and gets roundly mocked. Finally, in exasperation he yells out: “Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?
Linus approaches, “Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” He moves center stage, blanket in tow, and asks that the lights be turn down low. A spot light shines upon him and Linus begins:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field,
keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them,
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you;
Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes,
lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel
a multitude of the heavenly host
praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest,and on earth
peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:8-14)
Linus leaves the stage; walks over to Charlie Brown and says: “That is what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”
And it is. In his wisdom, Charles Schultz didn’t try to improve upon the story. Nor did he try to water it down to “reach” a broader audience. In fact, he even went back and used the King James Version of the Bible with its lo’s, and unto yous, and ye’s and even the masculine pronoun, meant to include all people. Schultz went there, I suspect, because there is something about this story that calls us backward, connecting us to all past Christmases we’ve known, and even more than that to all known Christmases.
This story of the birth of Jesus, serves, in a sense, as a touchstone, meaning a place we can reach back to and lay our hands upon and experience again, the same thing that we experienced the moment it happened. Mostly, touchstones link us back to personal experiences like a first kiss, or the passing of a pet, or even something mystical, a mountain top experience made only for our memory.
But this story of the birth of Jesus has a more cosmic connection, carrying all of us back to that moment in time when God said to all humanity: “Here I am, I’ve come like you, to be with you, to remind you, what it means to be you.” God comes to remind us of our humanity, and to remind us that we are God’s beloved, and that God is here, and God is near; then and now, always with us. And this is good news. This is good news indeed.
Now this story about the birth of Jesus may or may not have happened exactly like we hear it in scripture; but it wasn’t written to teach us about history. It was written to teach us about something that is true: that we are the hope of God, and if God can hope in us, then we can have hope in ourselves. And if God can hope in us, meaning each one of us, then we can hope in each other, and if that happens there is hope for the world. And this is good news. This is good news indeed.
At the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown leaves the studio with that sad little Christmas tree. Walking across the snow he stops at Snoopy’s house. It is all decorated and on it is a ribbon that reads: 1st prize. Charlie Brown borrows one red ornament from the house, and puts it on his tree. Under its weight the tree bends to the ground. Charlie Brown walks away dejected, leaving the tree behind. But unbeknownst to him, the cast and crew from the pageant had followed. They stop at the tree, and decide spontaneously to decorate it using all the ornaments off Snoopy’s house. The tree was transformed by the loving hands of the community.
This is an example of what can happen when a community believes that God believes in them. They love their neighbor, even if (and I’m quoting the movie here) their neighbor is “that blockhead Charlie Brown.” When those children reach out to Charlie Brown, they reveal through their actions the hope of God, and this empowers them to do the impossible; to transform that anemic tree into a thing of glory. Hope is powerful.
Hope is powerful. A person of hope is the kind of person able to walk confidently down the road of life, even if they can’t see around the next corner. Yet as they walk they do see signs, and symbols, and shadows, and scenes of God’s hopes, round about them.
Like with everything, we notice what we are attentive to, and we get better at what we practice. Here at Epiphany, this is a place where we gather to practice hope. Epiphany is like a gym for the human spirit. Everyone is spiritual, that is just a part of being human, but not everyone’s spirit flourishes. Not every spirit can say that joy and peace and equanimity are their general operating conditions. Not everyone walks with hope.
The church is organized and designed to be a gym for the human spirit to help us grow into the hope that God has for us. But whether we know it or not, whether we attend to our spiritual lives or not, our God came into the world to show us how to love, by loving us. You are beloved. And this is good news. This is good news indeed.
Here is what I hope for you tonight: that you reach back into Jesus’ birth story, and linger there; that you lay your hearts upon the edge of that wood manger; and take hold of Mary’s hand and ponder with her the birth of Jesus.
And as you do ask yourself: What are my hopes, and where do they lie? What are my fears, and from where do they come? And of these hopes and in these fears, where do I meet God?
Reach back and take hold of the cosmic touchstone that is Jesus’ birth, and as you do let your voices ring bright with song; and let your minds be filled with memories; touch the cosmic expanse of God’s glory, and let that be good news to you.
And may this good news travel to all realms of your life, and maybe, maybe, as it does, you will continue to sing, even in the spring, even in the summer, even throughout the year: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all people.