Choosing to be in the story: Homily for Christmas Eve, 2016

One of the things I talk about a lot in sermons this time of year is Christmas movies and specials. And my absolute favorite is a Charlie Brown Christmas. I love Snoopy decorating his dog house, and Charlie Brown picking out the scrawny little tree. I even love the different dances they all do when Schroeder plays his piano.

I’ve probably watched it every year of my life, and so it’s just not Christmas to me until Charlie Brown shouts “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” And then Linus takes center stage, the lights go low, and he recites the Christmas story.

When Linus finishes he says very simply, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

And the truth is that Linus preaches a better sermon than most preachers. His simple retelling reminds Charlie Brown why we do all of this in the first place. And, every year, if we have ears to hear, it reminds us too.

Some might wonder why we come here each Christmas eve. The event we’re celebrating happened about 2,000 years ago. The baby whose birth we celebrate has not actually been a baby for a long, long time. And yet every year we gather and hear the same story, and light the same candles, and sing the same songs.

I think part of the reason is that, like Charlie Brown needs Linus, we need the reminder too.

That can feel especially true when the light in the world seems to be so dim. For so many this year has not been what they hoped. The world seems, in some big ways, broken. Cities like Aleppo cry out for peace. Communities struggle with addiction and isolation. Our very country feels for many like a harder and more unkind place.

I’ve heard more than a few people say that they are ready for 2016 to be over.

And yet, before we can get to New Year’s Eve, we have to go through Christmas. And that is good news. Because for these near 2,000 years, no matter what the year has brought, good or bad, this yearly reminder of God’s love has come in the literal darkest of days.

The real meaning of Christmas, the one that Linus proclaimed to Charlie Brown, is indeed the birth of this child. And the amazing part is that we believe that by Christ’s birth God chose to not just be the creator of the world, but to be a part of this world in a new way. We believe that God became one of us.

In other words, Christmas is about God loving us so much that God chooses to participate in this world. Christmas is about us not being alone anymore, no matter what else is happening.

That’s the first part of the Christmas story, one that was written down in this book centuries ago. But it’s not the end of the Christmas story. Not by a long shot.

You see, if Christmas is about God’s participation in this world, then it’s also about our own participation in what God is doing now.

The story we read tells us that. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Wise Men. They all said “yes” to being a part of this story.

And now each of us has the choice of whether or not we want to be a part of the Christmas story. Because each year we close another chapter of this story that we are writing with God. And on Christmas Eve, we get to choose to start writing a new one. We get to choose to participate.

In a real way, that’s what all these candles that we are about to light are all about. At the beginning of the service we lit the Christ candle up here, proclaiming Christ’s birth, proclaiming God’s participation with us. And as we end the service we will spread the light from that candle to one another. And as we hold it up, we will proclaim that we are willing to be a part of the Christmas story this year. Not just tonight. Not just tomorrow. But everyday.


One of the last scenes in Charlie Brown’s Christmas comes when the whole gang gathers around the sad, little Christmas tree he has picked out. And, together, they string the lights, and hang the ornaments, and wrap it in the warmth of Linus’ blanket. And when they do, it is transformed, and it is beautiful.

That’s the power of community. The light each of us holds tonight may not seem like much on its own. But taken together, it is brilliant. And just like Charlie Brown’s tree was transformed by the participation of many, this world can be changed and be made beautiful too. And the more of us who decide to be a part of that work, the more of us who choose to participate in what God is doing in this world, the more likely and quickly that change will be.

Scripture tells us that the light shines in darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. And that is true. But tonight, at the end of the service, you will blow out your candle and step back into the world. So when you do, you will make an important choice. Will you let that light die out? Or will you instead take it into your heart, and carry it with you everywhere that you go

If you do that, then you will have given this world the greatest gift that you ever could. And you will have joined this Christmas story that God began for us all these years ago. And, together, our light will shine in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. And it will indeed be a Merry Christmas. Amen?

Carrying the Light: A Homily for Christmas 2015

Each December, when people start asking me about the different Christmas Eve services we have here, I get one question more than any others: “But which one has the candles?”

We love fire on Christmas Eve. For a lot of us it just doesn’t feel like Christmas until we light our candles, and raise them up as we sing “Silent Night”.

That makes sense. On Christmas Eve we gather to tell a story that’s been told for about two thousand years now. Through the centuries Christians have told it in words. They’ve told it in song. But, from the very beginning, they’ve also told it in light.

Light is a huge part of the Christmas story. There’s the light of the angels that floods the shepherds’ fields. There’s the light of the star that brings the Wise Men to Bethlehem. And there’s the Gospel of John tells us that, “the light shines in darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

That light, the one we gather around tonight, is the Light of Christ. The baby whose birth we are celebrating would grow to be the very essence of hope, peace, joy, and love.

So while candles are always a nice touch, we can never forget the fact that on Christmas Eve they symbolize something so much bigger than just flame itself. They proclaim that the Light of Christ has once again come into this world.

That’s because Christmas is about more than something that happened in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. It’s about God’s love that still somehow chooses to come into a broken world. It’s that love that still compels us all to gather here each December 24th, to light these candles.

And I think we do this in part, because we know at some level that light changes everything. It can brighten the longest nights, and banish the most bitter cold. It can make new pathways clear, and it can show us that there is nothing to be afraid of in the dark.

But all of those things can only happen if that light is first allowed to shine.

Right after I first moved here a couple of years ago, I was asked to preach at a nighttime worship service out on Star Island. And if you’ve never been to Star Island, the first thing you need to know is that you can only get there by boat. It’s out in the middle of the ocean, about seven miles off the coast.

There is this old stone chapel on the island, one that gets very cold and dark at night. And the night I was preaching I was told everyone would walk up to the chapel together. But I decided I should go up early to look over my sermon first. And so, I found myself navigating up this rocky path in the dark, and walking into an empty building.
And that’s when I discovered that there is no electricity in the chapel. No light switch. No lights, in fact. Just pitch black darkness.

And, sitting there, with a sermon I could not read, I wondered why no one had thought to tell me about this.

But that’s when the most amazing thing happened. I looked down the rocky path I’d just stumbled up, and I saw a line of people walking. Each one was holding a lantern with a lit candle in it. And as they walked into the chapel, one by one they hung their lantern up on hooks set high in the walls.


Chapel Lanterns at Star Island.

By the time everyone was there, the chapel absolutely glowed with light. And the light transformed everything.

What’s true of lanterns is so much more true of the light of Christ. It lights us up in ways that nothing else can, and it changes us. But more importantly, it has the potential to light and to change the whole world. Because of that, it’s important to remember that it was never something for us to keep just for ourselves.

And so, at Christmas, we get to make a decision. Are we going to, as the old song goes, hide our light under a basket? Or are we going to let it shine?

To put it another way, tonight will you just hear the Christmas story? Or will you decide that this year you are going to become a part of it?

Later in the service we will turn down all the lights, and begin to spread the flame from the Christ candle. And when your candle is lit, you’ll be able to see what is right there in your pew. And that will be enough…for you.

But when we begin to sing Silent Night, and we stand up and raise our candles, something will change. Suddenly the flame of your candle will join that of your neighbor’s. And together, our candles will light this entire sanctuary. That’s because when we share our light with the world, and with one another, everything looks different.

This is the moment many of us love best on Christmas Eve. It’s beautiful. But it’s also fleeting. It only lasts a few verses. But the good news is that when we blow our candles out, that feeling doesn’t have to end.

Christmas is not just about seeing the light of Christ. It’s about picking up your light and letting that light live within you. And it’s about lifting it up and shining it for all the world.

The thing about being a follower of Christ is that even when we blow our candles out, people should still be able to see Christ’s light burning within us. Not just once a year, but every day. And in the darkest of times and places, they should be able to see that light burning all the more clearly.

That’s what Christmas is all about. It’s about refusing to give into the hardness and anger and fear of the world. It’s about choosing instead to be a light of compassion, a light of peace, and a light of love. And it’s about letting Christ’s light shine in you, so that the lives of others may be lit by it.

And so, may your candle burn brightly tonight. But may it burn even more brightly tomorrow, and then every single day after. And this Christmas may the light of Christ once again bless us and bless this world. Amen.

The Light: Homily for Christmas Eve 2014

John 1:1-5

1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

1:2 He was in the beginning with God.

1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being

1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

10885152_10100748574687168_7267670351363878850_nThere’s a joke that you can tell how long a minister is going to preach by what is written in the bulletin. If you look down and see “sermon” printed there, you know it’s going to be a while. But sometimes you see the word“homily”. I joke that homily is Latin for “really short sermon”, and it means I won’t be talking long.

You all just checked your bulletins, didn’t you…don’t worry, it’s okay. If you didn’t, it says “homily”. I’m not going to preach long this evening because my sense is that you already know this story, or else you probably wouldn’t be here. And usually the role of the preacher is to retell the story in some way and make it relevant to your life today, but I’m going to guess that more than perhaps any other story in the Bible, we all know how this one goes.

There’s Mary, and the angel, and the most unexpected of births. There’s the trip to Bethlehem, and no room in the inn. And there’s the stable, and the manger that stands in for the crib. And finally, the shepherds, who come because the one they have been waiting for has finally been born.

We know this story. Even Linus tells it at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas, and I know I can’t beat Linus when it comes to telling this story.

And so, I’m not going to tell you the Christmas story of what happened two thousand years ago tonight. I’m not going to tell it to you because I’m going to ask you to tell it instead. And I’m going to ask you to tell it not just tonight, but tomorrow, and through all twelve days of Christmas, and then every day from then on until we arrive here again at the manger next Christmas Eve.

But first, we just heard five different lessons from Scripture. The first four were from that familiar Christmas story that we all know. But the fifth was from the Gospel of John, and it’s a passage that is traditionally read on Christmas eve. And at first it might even seem a little out of place with the rest of the story. But listen to it again:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

That light that they’re talking about there is more than just a candle or a bulb or even a star. That light is Jesus Christ, the light that comes to shine in the darkness. And as wonderful as the story of the nativity is, with the shepherds and angels and manger, that light is the truly good news of Christmas.

And it’s good news not just for 2000 years ago, but for today. Because the reality is that this is a world that is often not what it should be. There is too much war. Too much poverty. Too much injustice. And too much pain. And there is too little hope. Too little peace. Too little joy. And too little love.

You and I, we know what it is like to live with the reality of darkness. Because we are human. And yet, because of Christmas, because of the very choice God made to send hope into this world in the form of a newborn baby, we also know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Christmas is about the light overcoming the darkness. It’s about a birth 2000 years ago, but it’s about so much more than that. Because Christmas isn’t just about what happened back then. It’s also about the ways God is still choosing to come into our world. And, perhaps most amazing of all, it’s about us too.

And that’s because Christmas is a story of choices, good and bad. It’s Mary saying “my soul magnifies the Lord” when the angel tells her she is pregnant. But it’s also the innkeeper shutting the door on Mary and Joseph, and saying that there’s no room in the inn.

And it’s about our choices too. Because we each have a choice about how we are going to respond to the story of Christmas. We can leave here tonight, our hearts unchanged, and we can forget this story until next Christmas eve.

Or, we can make another choice. We can choose to be a part of the Christmas story. And we can choose to live as reflections of this light that has been sent to shine in the darkness.

My hope is that you will choose the latter. And my hope is that you will choose to tell the story of Christmas with your lives, not just tonight, but long after the tree is taken down, and the presents are opened.

It’s no coincidence that on Christmas eve we symbolize our joy and hope by lighting candles. We are, after all, celebrating the light of the world. And so in just a few minutes we are going to be lighting our Christmas candles by passing the flame of the Christ Candle that we lit tonight. And as that light spreads throughout the sanctuary, we will end with Silent Night, and as we sing the last verse we will lift our candles into the air.

And so tonight, when you lift up your small part of the light of Christ, let it be more than just going through the motions. This year, as you lift your light, make a promise to yourself that you will lift that light all year long, and that you will be a part of the Christmas story. And make a promise to the world that you will use your life to spread a light that will shine with joy and hope and love and peace in the places that need it the most.

If you do that, then you will truly understand the meaning of Christmas. And the light of Christ will shine just a little brighter in this world because of you. Amen.

Christmas Eve sermon, 2011

When we tell and retell the most important stories of our life, we often find that every time we tell it, there are a few details that we can’t leave out of the story. Whether it’s the name of the hotel where you stayed on a honeymoon, or the hospital where your children were born, or what the course looked like on the day you got that hole in one. There is some detail about every important story of your life that may seem insignificant, but that you can’t leave out.

The story of the nativity, the birth of Christ, is no different.

We know this story: Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, the three wise men. We know about how there was no room at the inn. And we know about how there was a manger.

It would be an important story without any of those things, because this is the heart of it: “God loved us so much that God became one of us, so that we all might love God and one another.”

But that’s not the way the Gospel tells it. The Gospel tells us about a baby, born to an unmarried couple, under extraordinary circumstances. And they tell us where it happened. And where it didn’t. It wasn’t enough for the Gospels to just say “he was born” or even “he was born in Bethlehem”. They tell us he was born in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.

A manger isn’t much. It was a sort of container for the hay that the animals ate. It wasn’t a crib, or a bed, or anything like that. It was perhaps the most unexpected resting place for a newly born Messiah. For God, on God’s first night as one of us.

But as much as we remember that manger, we also remember why Jesus was there. We remember that when Mary and Joseph got to the inn, they were told there was no room for them there.

Have you ever wondered whether that was really true? Have you ever wondered if maybe there was room at the inn? Maybe the innkeeper had a couple rooms left, but he saw this unmarried couple with this woman who was obviously pregnant, and decided maybe he didn’t want to rent them a room? Or maybe, even if there weren’t any rooms left, they could have found some place for a woman who was nine months pregnant and about to give birth?

But they didn’t. And so Jesus wasn’t born in the inn.

There is a Christian tradition about the spot where Jesus was born. There is a church in Bethlehem that was built over the very spot where Jesus was said to have laid in a manger. It is considered so holy that three different Christian traditions, Catholic and Orthodox, have laid claim to it for centuries and now they all have monks that live there and there is sort of an uneasy truce. The monks still to this day sometimes even have fist fights over the space.

Now, I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants for the place he was born. I’m not even sure if that’s the exact place he was born or not, or if it even matters. But what I am sure of is that we remember that place where Christ was first born. We remember it enough to want to know exactly where it was, and to keep that place holy.

You know what we don’t remember? We don’t remember the name of the inn.

Was it the Bethlehem Hotel? The Road to Nazareth Convention Center? The Holiday Inn?

We’ll never know. But, I often wonder if the inn ever realized who they turned away. I wonder if a few decades down the line they realized that when Jesus’ mom had come to the door, they hadn’t given her a room. They’d given her some hay.

Now if this was just a story about an innkeeper who missed a chance to open the doors to Christ over 2000 years ago, I wouldn’t be telling it tonight. But this isn’t about what an innkeeper did 2000 years ago. It’s about what God did, and what God still does. And it’s about what we do next.

Christ still comes into this world. Christmas still happens. It didn’t just happen once, it happens all the time.

Sometimes God knocks at our doors and we are asked if there is room in the inn. And sometimes we look out and we don’t really like what we see, or we don’t like what it would mean to let Christ in, and we close the door and say “there’s no place for you here”.

But sometimes even when we don’t really want to, even when we’re not sure we want to open that door up, we do anyway. And that matters. Because Christmas may be about the story that we read. It may be about Mary and Joseph and the baby and the manger and no room at the inn. But that story teaches us about more than just an event that happened centuries ago. It teaches us about opening ourselves up to what God is trying to do in us in this world. And it’s about telling God that, even if we don’t know what it means yet, there is room for God in our lives, and we want to be part of what God is doing.

There’s a good chance that if you are here tonight, some part of you wants to be a part of that. Some part of you wants to be a part of love made real, of God being active in our world, of a world that can change. Some part of you wants to be a part of the Christmas story. Maybe not the one that’s written in the book with the shepherds and the manger and the wise men, but a part of the Christmas story none-the-less.

The denomination that this church is a part of, the United Church of Christ, has a saying that I’ve always liked. We say, “God is still speaking.” I believe that. I believe that God is not only still speaking, but God is still active in this world, and God is still writing the Christmas story. God is still writing the story of what happened when Christ came into this world as the Prince of Peace, and what happened next. And you can be a part of that story.

The question is, do you want to be the inn that closed its doors. Or do you want to be something else.

Scripture tells us that out in the fields, the shepherds heard the baby had been born. And they got up and they came to the manger and saw the new thing that God had just done in the world.

That’s who I want to be on Christmas Eve, and everyday. I want to be the one who doesn’t close the doors to my heart when God is about to do something new, but the one who hears about it, and comes running. When God works in this world, I want to be a part of that story. Like that piece of ground in Bethlehem, I want to be the everyday thing, that becomes holy, not because of who I am, but because of who Christ is. I want to be a part of the story.

I can be. And so can you. And so can we all.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that that baby born that night grew up to become an adult. And when he did, and he was asked what we God asked us to do, he answered this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, open the door, open your heart, and let it all in. If Christmas is about the incarnation of God, and this is what God incarnate saw fit to tell us, then this is the ultimate Christmas message

When the tree is put away, when Christmas dinner has been eaten, when the nativity sets go back into their boxes, these things remain. And the ultimate test of how well we have celebrated Christmas this year will not be in what was under the tree or anything like that. It will be in how well we opened our hearts, and let that Christmas message in. May we do so this Christmas, and always. Amen.