Sanctuary of the Memorial Church decorated for Christmas 2021. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity
(The following is a transcript from the service audio)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thank you all for being here tonight and for joining us for this holy night and for our Christmas observances year at the Memorial Church. For those who are visiting the church, my name is Matthew Potts and I'm the minister here at the church and I'm new. I started here in July, July 1, and I have to confess to you that on July 1, when I imagined my first Christmas at the Memorial Church, it did not look like this.
It was more joy to the world than silent night. Remember those were the heady days when masks were starting to come off and vaccination rates were going up. But as the carol tells us, the silent night is still a holy night and your presence here marks its holiness, makes it holy. Scripture tells us when two or three are gathered, Christ is there. I'm not a math professor, but we got more than two or three here tonight. So thank you for marking the holiness of this night with us and for making this night holy, here among us.
Last night, I was saying goodnight to my daughter, Camie and she said, "It doesn't feel like Christmas, dad." Partly that's because we've gone through a lot of change in our family, right? While our routines have changed, because we moved up here to Cambridge and we're in a new church and everything's new. And so the so much of Christmas is marked by tradition and our traditions are shifting slightly and so it doesn't feel like Christmas. But also it kind of doesn't feel like Christmas.
To kind of get into the feeling of things, today we watched some Christmas specials. One of the ones we watch is the Charlie Brown Christmas special today. A favorite of mine. If you know this Christmas special, Charlie Brown gets very exasperated at one point in the half hour that we are with the gang, the Peanuts gang. And he looks up at the sky and says, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?" And Linus Van Pelt, very matter-of-factly says, "I know what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown." And he goes into the middle of the stage, like this one and then he reads a portion of the lesson that Jason just read for us.
Not the whole thing, interestingly. Just a couple of lines. It's only a half hour program. They got to cut it short. But just a couple of the lines. So which lines did Charles Schultz choose? Which are the ones that tell us what Christmas is all about? It's the ones about the shepherds, the angel appearing, and the shepherds hearing this message. Why the shepherds? Let me talk to you a bit about shepherds.
Shepherds in the ancient world, at time of Jesus, lived marginal lives. It was hard to be a shepherd. You had to live outside, sleep outside. You didn't get paid great. You were a laborer. What's more, it was hard to sort of abide by the ritual rules of the religion and so they were often just sort of outside comfortable or polite society. These angels come to the shepherds and it says that they are terrified. They are terrified and that makes sense, I think.
If you walk out of this church tonight and the heavenly hosts descend upon you and start shouting at you, you'll be terrified and they were. That's fair enough. But I think there might be more to it than that, for these shepherds. I think they might be terrified of more than just this appearance of these heavenly hosts, which is terrifying enough.
In the gospel of Matthew, we don't hear about shepherds, but we do hear about Herod and we hear that Herod, when he heard about Jesus, he had every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem murdered. I wonder if any of these shepherds have a one year old boy at home. Whether they do or not, every one of them lives under the reign of a king who would do such a thing. They are terrified. They get good news tonight. Peace on earth. Goodwill towards all. But not yet. Not for them, not even for us, yet.
The King James translation of this line terrified is sore afraid. They were sore afraid, Linus Van Pelt reeds. They were sore afraid. It's such a meaningful phrase. Sore. They were sore with fear. Bone tired with fear. Exhausted with fear. Does that sound familiar? These shepherds are sore afraid and yet, in the midst of all that fear, they have faith. But in what? What do they have faith in? What do these shepherds have faith in? And what does that faith look like to them? What does it look like to us who hear their story, so many years later?
Let me tell you more about my daughter Camie. So four years ago, I know it was four years ago because we had just gotten our puppy Suki, who was four years old. Four years ago, the family, our three kids, we were sitting down to watch another Christmas special, not even a Christmas special. It was a straight to video movie. You know, those of you who are young parents, who have been young parents, you know sometimes in December, you need your kids to sit in front of a movie for a few hours, so you can get some things done and this was one of those times. We sat them down in front of a movie called The Search for Santa Paws.
There's a golden retriever. There's Santa. We just got a puppy. What could go wrong? It's perfect. Perfect movie choice. This was a harrowing experience for our children and for Camie, especially. The plot line of this movie is that this golden retriever puppy has to save Santa. Santa loses his magic and cannot be around for Christmas and it's only if this puppy sacrifices himself for Santa, that Christmas will be saved. Exactly. Yes. That was our reaction. We were like... But we couldn't turn it off because we have to know what happens to the puppy. We can't stop the story now.
I remember, as you know, as this was going down in the movie, Camie just like crying out, like literally crying. She was weeping but also looking at our new puppy and she said, "Don't do this. Who cares about Santa? Save the dog." And that's a little bit ruthless with Santa, but I was a little bit proud of her too, to be honest. I was a little bit proud. We don't want anything bad to happen to Santa, of course. But here's this magic man in the sky who drops into us and delivers presents to us and appears each year with bags full of loot for us. That powerful magic that our children know every year and she was ready to give up that magic for this puppy, to save this dog, because she knew then, I think she still knows, there's more powerful magic than Santa.
These shepherds are sore afraid. They're afraid of angels shouting them from the heavens. They're afraid of tyrants ruling them in Jerusalem and yet they have faith. But faith in what? What does that faith look like? Note what they do when these angels shout down at them. They might have continued staring up into the heavens. An army of angels just cried out to them. They might have just stood there with their eyes to the sky, fixed there, not moving. But that's not what they do.
They turn away from the heavens. They turn away from the angels because what they have faith in is not up there and then they go and they see this family and they defy Herod, this tyrant, this cruel King Herod. They defy him and proclaim that this child, the child they have found, this child is the anointed one of God. Is the Messiah. Is the Christ. Not Herod. This one because what they have faith, in what these shepherds have faith in, does not sit on the throne in Jerusalem. They turn away from all that. They turn away from the armies in the sky. They turn away from the armies in Jerusalem and they turn toward love, toward the humblest form of it that they can find, in the fields around Bethlehem.
And when they find it, they see it, and they say to the family and to everyone they see afterwards, they say this. "This is where we place our faith. Not in kings and emperors. Not even in angels and heavenly hosts. We place our faith in love because that's where God places God's faith too."
This is a scary time in our world. It does not feel like Christmas. This pandemic is stubborn. It refuses to go quickly or quietly. Six months ago when I started this job, I thought we had it licked. We do not.
The threat of tyranny to democracy in our world is just as stubborn. Last Christmas, I thought we had tyranny licked. We do not. It still threatens this country and this world. Injustice is all around us. Our climate clock keeps ticking. We are sore afraid. I am sore afraid. But sore afraid is what the first Christmas felt like too.
Tonight, we have received another message from the heavens read by Jason, from our eagle lectern rather than shouted in song from the skies by angels. And if we are to learn anything from these shepherds in this lesson, having faith in the message we have heard, will mean turning away from the heavens. Turning away, even from this eagle lectern and then turning toward our own lives, toward the good and ordinary loves that fill our own lives.
It will mean turning towards people like this holy family, who have no place to go. Who are outcast from the good graces of kings and innkeepers alike. It will mean turning to people who are vulnerable, like we are vulnerable. And scared, like we are scared. And who are filled with love, like I hope we are filled with love. Faith, like the shepherd's faith, will mean proclaiming the power and the goodness of love. However, humble the conditions under which we find it.
Whether it feels like it or not, tomorrow is Christmas. I hope you will gather with people you love. If not, I hope you will spend much of the day calling or Zooming people you love, but with whom you cannot be close. Or it may be that you will gather quietly with the memories of those you love but see no longer.
If you're like me, you'll do a little bit of all three of those things tomorrow and your heart will feel both full and broken all day long. Maybe that's what Christmas feels like. Tomorrow, on Christmas day, wherever you live, I wager, there will be no kingly degrees, no visiting magi, no angelic choirs. We don't even have a choir here tonight, but that's okay.
Because even if like me, you are sore afraid this Christmas, you can still heed the angels' message. You can still imitate these shepherds. You can still turn toward love. And if you do, I promise you, however it feels, your Christmas will be holy. It will be sacred. Whether it is filled with joy or sadness, the God who is love will be there with you.
God will be with you, wherever and however you find yourself when morning comes, because this is what Christmas feels like. It feels like finding love in the midst of worry, and trial, and trouble. When you're sore afraid, just like the shepherds, near a small forgotten village, in a small forgotten corner of an ancient fallen empire. These shepherds, who turn away from emperors and governors, who turn away even from angelic armies and all the host of heaven and instead turn toward a young child and his young family and all the love his birth fulfills, in them and in you and in me.
To answer Charlie Brown's question, this is what Christmas is all about. God is with us; with you and with me. God could go anywhere in the universe tomorrow for Christmas, but God will choose to spend it with you and with those you love, be they near or far, or held only in the memory of your full and broken hearts. Unto us, this child is born. Come, let us adore him.