My mother’s parents lived in Greenville, Ohio, about an hour north of Dayton, where I grew up. Every Christmas Eve, my grandmother, Merea Bowman, whom we called Honey, would arrive from Greenville loaded down with tin after tin of assorted Christmas cookies. She would bring them straight to the kitchen, and before even hanging up her coat, begin unloading them onto festive plates, so that they were ready for people to eat.
My grandmother was a good cook, no doubt, especially when it came to Midwestern basics, like pot roast, watermelon pickle, green bean casserole, and Christmas cookies. The cookies she brought with her had been terrific when she baked them … in June. But after baking them, she had placed them lovingly in not-very-airtight tins, perhaps with a layer of wax paper on top, and then put them in the back of her 1955 Frigidaire Imperial Ice-Box. She made a variety of flavors of cookies, but by the time they arrived at our house, they all had the same flavor, and that flavor was freezer-burn.
Being good kids and loving our Honey very much, we smiled and ate the cookies.
Now, looking back on this part of my childhood Christmas experience, what shall I say. What’s the story here? Is the story: “My grandmother brought terrible cookies every year”? No. I the story is this: My grandmother loved us so much and was so excited about sharing that love with us at Christmas that she started baking in June. That’s the real story.
So how about Christmas? What’s the story at the heart of our gathering tonight?
We have a gospel tonight about a man and a woman, Joseph and Mary, who are on the road. From the point of view of the Emperor Augustus or the Syrian governor Quirinius, they are simply one thing: taxpayers. They are subjects of the rule of Rome – a rule which was “a brutally enforced social quietude often found under tyranny”(David L. Jeffrey).
Rome wants to make sure it’s getting all the tax it can out of people like Joseph and Mary so that it can continue to pay an army to oppress them. So the story here, from the Emperor’s point of view, is that these are just one of hundreds of thousands of families on the road home so they can be counted and taxed. What, the girl is pregnant? Too bad. Get moving. And be afraid if you don’t comply. You may be jailed. You may be moved off your land. You may be one of the thousands to be crucified in that year alone for threatening the power of the Emperor. This is the story here, according to Emperor Augustus.
But the story is very different from God’s point of view. God’s version of the story is voiced by the angel, who says “Be not afraid.” Joseph and Mary are beloved children of God, not just made in the image of their creator but called to bear that creator into creation itself. They are called to nurse, and tend, and teach, and love, and ultimately suffer the loss of this most unique of children, who is Emmanuel, God with us. God’s story reveals the connectedness of heaven and earth, of now and always, of rich and poor, of us and them, of joy and sorrow. It is all holy; it is all where God is; it is always coming. Be not afraid. That’s the story God tells.
Centuries ago, Ambrose told the story this way:
God was a baby, a child, so that you may become a complete, mature person. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes so that you may be freed from the bonds of death. He came to earth so that you may be in the stars. He had no place at the inn, so that you may have in heaven many mansions. He, being rich, became poor, that through his poverty, you might become rich” (Exposition of Luke 2:41-42).
This has been a hard year in the life of the world and in the lives of many of us. Division, loss, violence, and the slow-motion natural disaster that was last winter in New England look like the story. Yep, all that happened. Yes, this we name, too. But if we only tell this story, then we let the Emperor Augustus’s of this world win.
The story is that in the midst of all this darkness, God continues to break in, and the sacred gift and mystery of life is not overcome by it. We are not overcome by it, for God is with us, and we can live lives that testify to that truth.
So what is the story of this year? Here is the story I will tell:
I will tell of Malala Yousaftzi changing hearts and minds as she travels the world on behalf of girls everywhere.
I will tell of Bill Richard, the father of Martin Richard, testifying with transcendent grace at the trial of a man who set the bomb that took his son’s life, and promoting the foundation founded in his son’s memory to promote peace through education, athletics, and community.
I will tell of firefighters and soldiers walking into danger to serve and to save, risking everything for others.
I will tell of members of this community overcoming years, decades of uncertainty and fear to say yes to Christ through baptism or return to Christ through confirmation.
I will tell of all the times I wasn’t sure I could find the right words or chart the right course but did so by drawing courage from the example of people in this congregation.
I will tell of the ways in which Christ comes through the work and witness of all those who practice peace in the face of violence; practice healing in the face of brokenness; practice justice in the face of oppression; practice love for all creatures – and especially those most devalued by the majority – in the face of hatred.
Be not afraid. All those who incarnate this Word from God are the spirit of Christmas at work in this world and in my heart. They are my story.
This is our story. Take time to tell it – over egg nog tonight at the reception, over the dinner table tomorrow whever you are, over the phone in calls you make specifically to thank someone who has been the face of Christ in your life.
Shout out this story. Go tell it on the mountain. And in the kitchen while we eat freezer-burned cookies. Be this story – It’s who you were born to be.