Christmas Eve sermon 2014

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

In our second reading we heard these words from Paul’s letter to Titus, “When God’s generosity and loving kindness appeared. It was not because of any good deeds that we had done but according to God’s mercy.”

I would like to reflect on God’s mercy this evening. The world to which Jesus was born was not a world known for a great deal of mercy. Lots of us have – lots of us have different manger scenes that we haul out at this time of year and usually there’s one that’s particularly special because of whoever gave it to us or when we, when we found it.

The one that’s especially importantly to me is a little manger scene that my parents bought in the early ‘50s in Piazza Navona in Rome. Not much of it left, many pets have eaten most of the animals there. Goats are all gone, most of the sheep. The donkeys have their – the angel has one wing.

But there remains a – a piece of that manger scene which always fascinating to me. There is a Roman soldier in that manger scene that’s not common. Probably you would not find that anywhere else but in a manger scene produced in Roman.

And he is a reminder of the world in which the story that we heard tonight is taking place. It was the world of a so called Pax Romana, the Roman peace, the worldwide peace that the Emperor Augustus had established.

So the soldier represents the order, which was a good thing, but he is also remind – a reminder of the high cost of that order. The cruelty that would hand-in-hand with empire. The slavery, the huge economic differences, the racial and ethnic tensions that were boiling just under the surface all the time.

The women who were treated as chattel. The children that were often killed at the father’s will. This is the world that Jesus was born into. A world of tremendous sophistication and education and a world of calamitous cruelty.

We who cherish our democracy know that our freedom was born out of refusal to choose between disorder and cruelty.

And the alternative was for a community of free persons to accept together the obligation to serve the common good. We often forget that freedom and that obligation go together. They can’t be separated.

Very often we tend to think that freedom is about being able to go our way as much as we can do it without getting in somebody else’s way. But in fact, freedom, as our founding fathers knew, is forged out of our common concern for one another. We cannot taste freedom separately. We can only taste it together.

That idea of democracy, of freedom, of commitment to the common good and indeed a, and indeed a passion for the common good had its roots partly in the democracies that flourished before the rise of the Roman Empire, both in Greece and in Rome, but that democracy, like ours, had its limits. It was often limited by class, by race, by money, by heritage and heredity.

The commitment to the common good and the freedom that we celebrate tonight is a limitless freedom. A freedom that has no end which is universal.

The earliest Christians understood the coming of Jesus Christ as an answer to the universal claims of the Roman Empire. An answer that said yes, the entire human race is one but it is one because God loves everyone equally. It is one because of the universal salvation made known to us in Jesus Christ.

And that revelation as Titus reminds us revolves around the concept of mercy. Mercy is not the same thing as reward. Most of us live in a, in a situation in which we seek reward for merit. If we do what is expected of us we can expect to be rewarded, but that is not what mercy is about. Mercy depends on the generosity of a giver who recognizes the plight of the suppliant whether that suppliant deserves attention or not.

Mercy lies at the heart of the religious disposition, to pay attention to the cry of the stranger and the poor and the hurt and the guilty even when that cry is not even when to pay attention to that cry is not in our own immediate self-interest. That is what it means to be religious.

And our Christian mothers and fathers understood that in Jesus Christ God had made known to us God’s infinite mercy for all of us.

Now Titus says that God’s loving kindness and generosity made its appearance to us not because of any good deeds we had done, but because of God’s mercy.

I want to be really clear that Titus does not mean to be shaking his finger at us and reminding us that we’re not perfect.

What he is trying to say, like so many of the early Christian witnesses to the Gospel, is that God, even though God wants us to be good people, that’s not God’s first concern. God’s first concern is that we be alright, that we know that God loves us. That we know that there isn’t really anything that we can do that can separate us from God’s love.

We Christians do not do a very good job of communicating that element of that Gospel to the world. Most people think that Christianity is about the shaking finger but the Gospel is about God’s love and when we know that we are totally loved and accepted by God, then we can allow our hearts to be broken and to begin to become the kind of loving and merciful people that God wants us to be.

But the message of this Christmas night is that God’s mercy has been lavished upon us. Indeed that God loved us so very much that he became one of us and remains one of us.

Mercy is at the heart of the Christmas story. It’s implied in the, in the – in an account of Jesus’ birth that we heard tonight from Luke’s gospel, Jesus in the manger surrounded by animals and lowly shepherds.

We’ll hear later this evening the choir sing the traditional antiphon for Matins on Christmas day. “Oh wonderful mystery, that animals should see God born and lying in a manger. And if animals then criminals then guilty people then frightened people then lonely people, all people, the whole creation invited to gather around this manger where God’s mercy became known to the universe.”

This is the central claim of Christianity often forgotten but not communicated, that God wants to relate to us not first and foremost as judge but as friend, companion, spouse.

Jesus and his constant companion, the holy spirit, is walking along side us, is never far from us, always wants to be involved in our lives. So what is enjoined on us this evening is not perfection but that we should accept and rejoice in the mercy that has been lavished upon us and by God’s grace, through the alchemical working of this mercy in our hearts, should gain the capacity to be merciful to others. Not an easy thing to do but it’s our life’s work as Christians.

Every morning my wife and I take a walk and lately it’s been in the dark and we live on Riverside Drive but we live on the funky part of Riverside Drive. So we pass a lot of different houses, some condominiums, some ramshackle and one day about two months ago we were walking along, seven in the morning, Riverside Drive, full of traffic, rushing into town for the rush hour, and there was an SUV parked on the sidewalk, on blocks, pretty permanent-looking.

Couldn’t walk out in the street, too dangerous. To the left, junk. I was pretty mad.

I said if this SUV isn’t gone by Christmas I’m reporting it.

So on we went. Day after day after day I had my daily occasion to express my annoyance at this SUV. However, I will confess to you that during advent I’d been working on compassion.

So we were walking along one morning and there was the SUV and I thought well, here is an opportunity for me to exercise compassion.

So I said in my heart, I am grace this SUV and I pray for the person who put it there and we made our way. I felt pretty good about myself.

Three days later it was gone.

And, of course, I thought – well that shows what a good prayer I am.

So learning to have mercy is not easy for any of us. Maybe easier for you than for me but we have occasions all the time, every day, to make a choice between anger and compassion. Between our own justice, our own right and the mercy to the one that has wronged us.

Each of us has a long list of people who even if they have not asked for our mercy, we know that they need it. And we know that for our own souls good we must give it.

How can we become people of mercy in a world that is so devoid of it? It seems to me that it’s worse now than ever.

When I went to the Lambeth conference, the conference of Anglican bishops from all over the world – eight years ago I was a new bishop. We met in bible study in small groups every day, and in my bible study group there was the Bishop of Peshawar in Pakistan who brought home to us in his own humble way what a risk it was to be a Christian in that place constantly over, overtaken time and time and time again by the Taliban.

Just last week we heard about how the Taliban evaded a military school and facing a classroom of small children said, who among you is the child of a military? Up with the hands. Now that, for me, is an example of a complete loss and lack and deficit of mercy. How can we, in the face of that, learn to be merciful people?

I just returned from New York City that is still reeling from the assassination of two policemen on the heels of the dismay over the failure of the grand jury to bring Eric Garner’s case to trial.

We in Ohio are still grieving the loss of a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland, and with our own troubled history in Cincinnati are still thinking about Ferguson, how can we in the midst of all that become people of mercy?

Well the answer is that none of that can change unless we become merciful ourselves, even to the point of forgiving those who have been merciless themselves?

Where do we start? We start at the manger and we can think tonight of this holy table as the manger in our midst where it is the place from which we are invited to receive the body and blood of our crucified and risen savior, Jesus Christ. He is our mercy. He is our life, our grace, our joy. It is for his birth in our lives again and again that we give thanks tonight.

The ultimate reality is not cruelty. The ultimate reality is mercy. That’s who God is. That is the power and the dynamic that created the whole glorious and beautiful universe in which we dwell. And it is our eternal future, if we open ourselves humbly, to the mercy that has been poured into our hearts in Jesus Christ.

Let us begin there tonight. Let us gather at this manger to receive the food which is our sustenance –