[Sermon delivered on Sunday, December 27, 2015 (Christmas I) at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer – Greensboro, NC by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
John 1.12-23 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior.
Our Gospel reading this morning is poetry at its best. Some scholars believe it to be an ancient hymn singing the glories of the Incarnation – the “coming-down” of God into the messiness of the human condition so that we might be raised into the new, divine life of Christ.
I like John’s Gospel because while the other Gospels get stuck in arguments about who Jesus’ daddy was, John suggests that Jesus always was and always will be. From everlasting to everlasting the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word laid the foundation of the universe and spun spinning worlds into existence. The Word formed humanity from the dust of the earth and breathed life into this new creation. The Word called a people, freed them, protected them, and in the fullness of time the Word put on a robe of flesh and came to see about us in our brokenness.
Christmas is the celebration of the lengths to which true love would go to penetrate our hearts of stone and our broken world, for it was indeed Love which came down at Christmas. Love that would enter our mess and suffer with us in order to redeem us. Love would experience poverty in the manger, hunger and thirst in the wilderness, a broken heart at the tomb of Lazarus, anger in the Temple, and finally agony and death on the cross in order to reach you and I. That’s the significance of Christmas – a reminder that the love of God is a love that is willing to get messy.
But more than the significance of Christmas, that is the foundation of this family that God is creating called “the Church.” John’s Gospel says “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” To those who open themselves to this love, we have the power to become children of God because being part of this family means we open our hearts to receiving and giving love.
First, we must receive love. This might sound a lot easier than it really is. We have to know deep down in our core that we are beloved – truly, abundantly, and without any stipulations. Do you know that God loves you? Do you know how much God loves you? Do you know that God is concerned about you? That God cares about you?
Henri Nouwen says, “When we are thrown up and down by the little waves on the surface of our existence, we become easy victims of our manipulative world, but, when we continue to hear the gentle voice that blesses us, we can walk through life with a stable sense of well-being and true belonging.”
Beloved, God loves you. God is crazy about you. God loves you to Heaven and back. God loves you to life – literally. And who are you not to be loved. You are all that and a bag of chips. And that means that no matter what folk might say about you, how folk might treat you, how folk might talk about you behind your back, you must know that you are somebody, that you are loved to your very foundation.
Being loved by God means that we have to put an end to all of the negative self-talk and acrobatics that we engage in in order to earn God’s love. Being loved by God means that if no one else will speak into you, you have to know that God has already spoken in you when the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. It means that every now and then, when you feel as though no one sees you and no one cares, you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, look at yourself in the mirror, square your shoulders, and speak over yourself how loved you really are.
You may not sing like Whitney Houston, but I hear God singing, “I believe in you and me. I believe that we will be, in love eternally…”
You may not look like Naomi Campbell or Tyson Beckford, but God loves “all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections…”
You may not be able to preach like Peter or pray like Paul, but God’s dream came true when He looked at you. God is “overjoyed, over love, over you.”
So, first we must receive love, but we must also give love to others. One of that most transformative teachings that Jesus ever gave to us through the words of Holy Scripture is found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. After Jesus tells his followers to “love your neighbor,” one of the people in the crowd tried to trip him up by asking “well, who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling him a story of a man who was travelling down from Jerusalem to Jericho and got assaulted, robbed, and left for dead. The priest and the Levite saw him and passed by. That the religious leaders of the time couldn’t be bothered to have compassion on someone they saw suffering on the road of life is a sermon for another day.
But along came a Samaritan – a hated group of people – and he was moved to compassion. I am not sure what motivated the Samaritan. Dr. King suggests that he was motivated by a “dangerous altruism.” He suggests that whereas the priest and the Levite asked “if I stop to help this man, what will happen to me;” the Samaritan asked himself, “if I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” The question is different. The focus is different. This is compassion – a literal willingness to suffer with someone.
Compassion, not just love, is what the world needs now. Compassion is what love looks like with its sleeves rolled up. We need love that is willing to enter some messy situations and spaces. We need love that is willing to listen and engage, not debate and estrange. We need love that is willing to embrace newness and difference, even if it means letting go of some old ways of living and being. We need self-denial, not self-aggrandizement.
That’s exactly what our Gospel lesson is showing us. God becoming flesh is God willing to suffer with us to redeem us and raise us into the divine life of Christ. God becoming flesh is God hitting the streets, taking up residence in our messiness, moving into the spaces in our lives we’d rather hide or cover up, God loving dangerously.
And if we would become children of God, we can only do so by loving as God loves – dangerously. We have to be willing to see the face of Christ in every person we see and, as the Baptismal Covenant suggests, “seek and server Christ in all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
Note that there is no asterisk. There is not clause. There is no footnote. Loving our neighbor means loving our neighbor and what the Parable of the Good Samaritan suggests is that we must define neighbor as broadly as possible. Just when you think you’ve stretched the limits of your love as wide as you can stretch is, I invite you to hear God say to you “wider… draw the circle of your love and my mercy wider.”
So what does that mean?
Love is never satisfied in estrangement, but always seeks reconciliation.
Love seeks equality and liberation for all, not status or privilege for some.
Love is humility and openness, not prideful arrogance and closed-mindedness.
Love crosses barriers of race, class, gender, and status to serve another in need.
Love became flesh and dwelt among us to call us each on this missionary journey towards literally loving the Hell out of this world.
And in just a few minutes we will baptize Jacqueline Lynell Halley into this mission. We will welcome Lynn into a lifelong relationship to God through Jesus Christ. We will induct Lynn into a ministry of living compassionately and loving dangerously. When we baptize Lynn into the death of Christ, we baptize her into the death of one who came and died compassionately for each of us. But we also baptize her into the life of one whose Resurrection put a comma where the world put a period, whose life redeems our living in the service and mission of Almighty God.
Evan and Senadzi, it is your primary duty to raise her in this knowledge, to teach her the love and fear of God, to teach her to see the world sacramentally that she may see the hand of God at work in the world around her, and to raise her in love and for love. It is the duty of the Godparents to assist in this task. And it is the duty of everyone here to pray for Lynn as she grows into the full stature of Christ. It does indeed take a village to raise a child; but, it also takes a Church to raise a Christian.
And this day is an opportunity for each one of us to pause and reflect on our own baptism and not only the difference Jesus has made in our own lives, but the difference we are called to make in the world simply because we have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Forever. That means that each of us is just as called and loved by God today as we were on the day we were baptized.
Today we commission Lynn and recommission ourselves as children of God. Today we claim for her and reclaim for ourselves the love that God has for each of us. Today we commit and recommit to living life compassionately and drawing the circle of God love and mercy wider, and wider, and wider…
For “there’s room at the cross for you. There’s room at the cross for you. Though millions have come, there’s still room for one. There’s room at the cross for you.”
And every single beloved creation of God.
 Henri J.M. Nouwen. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company; 2013), 73.