Sermon Preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo, December 24, 2011
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” At the end of this service we will hear Dean Spangler read this sentence as we kneel with candles in our hands to sing “Silent Night.”
The light, the carols, kneeling in this cathedral bring back Christmas memories.
My wife Carmela and my children are here tonight with me, and I cannot help but remember the many Christmas eves we spent kneeling in this cathedral at this service. Though we lived in Minnesota, Carmela’s parents had moved here in 1986, and so we came from Minnesota to what seemed like the balmy climate of Buffalo for the holidays. This 2011 Christmas does indeed seem balmy.
My most lasting memory of those services is how warmly the bishop, David Bowman, greeted me at the end of the service. He made me feel as though he really knew me and that I was a part of this community. Every time I stand at the back of this cathedral, now myself the bishop, I can never forget the welcoming warmth of his greeting—it says to me what a bishop and the Episcopal Church should be all about, a place of embracing welcome and of hope.
And perhaps because my children are here to celebrate for the first time in the comfortable house we have just bought right in the heart of Buffalo, I am taken back this evening to another memory from my boyhood growing up in Mississippi, in the era of the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, the exact time and place and circumstances that are depicted in the popular novel and movie of 2011—“The Help.”
Each Christmas Day, after Santa Claus had arrived, my family packed into our station wagon and headed off to my grandmother’s old house in southern Mississippi. There we were joined by all of my aunts, uncles, and their children. The house was soon filled with noisy, boisterous cousins, shouting their greetings, embracing one another. My grandmother’s ample parlor and her large front hall were jammed with gifts and wrapping paper. Diets were laid aside, and we stuffed ourselves with turkey and dressing, and then we went outside in our shirtsleeves to observe the odd Southern custom of standing in the chill Christmas night to watch fireworks explode overhead. Southerners did this still in my boyhood because during the Civil War the Confederate Army lost two important battles—the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3rd and the Battle of Vicksburg on July 4th, both in 1863. As a result, Southerners did not feel comfortable celebrating and shooting off fireworks on the 4th of July, so we waited until Christmas night.
It was our custom for each child to bring all of his or her Christmas toys to this gathering. By the end of the day, much of what had been delivered to me by Santa Claus had been broken to bits by my cousins. One year a young and debonair uncle even crashed my new pogo stick through the floor of the front porch, causing my grandfather, who had doubts about this uncle, to appear immediately at his side, toolbox and saw in hand. He repaired the floor boards right then, even while the family party was still going on, all the while grinding his false teeth. But no one noticed my pogo stick, thrown aside in the hubbub, never to be repaired.
As a small boy, I was overwhelmed by the sight and the sound of so many grownups and cousins gathered in one place. When I got tired of the turmoil, I would climb the stairs from the over-heated rooms below into my grandmother’s cool attic, new books in hand. In response to the overload of Christmas, I would hide up in that attic for days, doing what I wanted to do: read.
My generous and understanding grandmother would always say to me: “Choose something you really want to do. If you want to specialize in isolation, be by yourself. You can’t do it all”
Specialize. Isolate. Focus.
We are said to live still in the age of specialization and isolation. In the colleges and universities that surround us in Buffalo, scholars go deep because they do not try to connect to all knowledge. They narrow their thinking. In the medical corridor of our city, surgical specialization narrows down even more precisely, and here in our diocese of Western New York, we often counsel churches and parishioners to specialize for a time, to get to know one ministry area and do it well, whether it be outreach, worship, music, our building, or something else.
“Try not to do it all,” is sometimes the best advice. A narrowing of focus can be a good thing. It can give.
But it can also take away. The isolated researcher who chooses to shut out everything else, the isolated parish church that is cut off from the larger community, like the little boy who chose to stay in the attic, begins to breathe stale air. Sometimes we must focus very narrowly to survive. But, if we stay narrowly focused for too long, we can lose touch.
Have you ever read the 2004 book, The Future of Competition? When I first read it, it made such an impact on me that I preached a sermon on it at Trinity Church in Boston, and I am returning to those themes tonight, because they speak to this very moment in our diocese, cathedral, and region. The book’s authors believe we are living on the cusp of a new age in which societal systems are dramatically changing. They believe that the new way of doing business, whether you’re actually a business or some other organization, like this church, for example, lies in the co-creation of value.
To understand what is meant by the co-creation of value, think for a minute about what makes television shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars so wildly popular. And what do they have in common with the way in which President Barrack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign used social media to interact with the public? Think also of your own behavior when shopping online. Isn’t one of the things you look for, even expect, when shopping at an online site for, say, a new drill or food processor, the customer review section?
This ability to share our opinions in an interactive way is what is meant by the term “co-creation of value.”
There appears to be a definite shift away from unaware customers who are told by the business selling the goods what the value of those goods is towards a new form of consumerism in which we all can readily share information and experiences with others, applauding really wonderful products and services and panning those that don’t measure up. We’re moving away from being isolated couch potatoes to becoming active citizens who want to be connected to something bigger than ourselves.
To succeed, companies, and even churches, cannot be like the boy in the attic. They cannot isolate themselves and pretend that they alone are in control. They must strive like my grandmother did to be innovative, to take risks. They must grant increasing amounts of control to the customer.
In the Scripture lessons we have been hearing throughout Advent, the Prophets of the Jewish exiles, who have returned to Jerusalem about 400 years before Jesus was born, speak about isolation and connections to a community that knew it was coping with overload. Israel’s world had been shattered by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, by the fall of the House of David, and by the deportation of Israel’s priests and leaders. The Jewish exile community responded by narrowing its focus and turning in on itself. It specialized in being apart. It would not connect with other people.
So the Word of the Lord in the words of the great prophet Isaiah came to the children of Israel as a shock when they returned to Jerusalem. The message was: “Your wisdom may have convinced you that sanity and survival require you to withdraw, to isolate yourselves. But I am giving you a new message. My salvation involves something wider than your survival. My salvation is to reach out from you to the ends of the world. And you, my formerly focused servants, are now to begin to shine your light outward, ‘to shine out like the dawn’: you are to begin to connect.”
Israel for a time certainly resisted this message. Who is this Prophet, they asked, who tells us, the returned exiles, to give up an inward focus that is the very thing that saved us from alien overload? What kind of God would ask us to go into the fray, let other people chime in, surrender our love of clear-cut process and wielding control, in order to see what miracles break forth?
The Gospel passage that Dean Spangler will read at the end of this service tells us some reassuring things about the God who spoke to Israel, and the full future that God has in mind for us. It is not at all like the specialized and closed world that I chose for myself as a child on Christmas in that cold and dusty attic.
The key words in the Gospel passage are such Good News that they are read right at the end of this key moment of worship in our church year to remind us what all of this celebration is about: The God of Israel, the God of all creation, the Word “was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
God tried a new thing! He was innovative! He took a risk on humankind and sent his own son to live among us as one of us.
This is a message for all of us. It means first that God is not just an hypothesis or a good idea, or a force, but that God came to earth as a living person named Jesus. It also means that in Jesus, God comes as a remarkable connector who links you and me beyond ourselves to God.
The Gospel uses the word “light” to describe both this unique connection to God that Jesus is, and to describe the unique connection to God that Jesus makes possible for us. This is a way of saying that God has not remained a dark mystery. God is known in Jesus, the true Light who can enlighten everyone. What the Prophets of exile pointed to as God’s mission for Israel, has now been made visible in one Person, in the baby born at Bethlehem, Jesus Christ.
To return to my Christmas memory: My family gathered in shirtsleeves in that rural Mississippi town and watched the fireworks burst into the night sky as a symbol of the light of Christ shining in the darkness. Where did the Light need to shine for us? It soon became clear.
A month before, an African-American man was shot dead in my grandmother’s town when he set foot on the courthouse lawn, intending to vote for Eisenhower in the presidential election of 1956. This event deeply shocked my grandmother. Because of her deep faith in Christ, she began to seriously question racism in many areas of her life.
She invited African-Americans to her table for a meal, which my own parents deeply disapproved of, and then at the age of 75 she was one of the first white people to sign up for the initial voter registration drive of the Civil Rights Movement, a risky business in Brookhaven, Mississippi in the 1950s. She did not fear, because she had seen the Light.
I still remember the image of her sitting at her dining room table, praying with African-American women, black and white hands held together. And as I saw all those hands together, it made all the difference in the world to me.
I saw in those clasped hands the incredible opportunities made possible for everyone when connection is made, and I began to move on, out of that attic, out of that closed world of my boyhood, and into a much wider one.
As you hold the light and kneel tonight, you might ask where God is now calling you to move in your life. Where is God calling this cathedral, this diocese, to move?
Of one thing I am certain: God is calling each and every one of us, individually and corporately to move on from whatever disappointments and doubts we may have to hope and faith in the future, for the message of this night is that God intends good things for this world. God comes to us so that we can be part of those good things, so that we can co-create a better future for ourselves, our communities and for future generations.
The grace of Christ’s light allows us to change, and because we can change, we are a people of hope, a hope that extends even to eternal life with God forever. The future—your future, my future, our church’s future—is ripe with possibilities! Can you not feel it this night of all nights?
“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.