Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Christmas Sermon

 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
    on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
-       Isaiah 9:2; 6-7.

In his great vision, the prophet Isaiah goes on to say that this child will establish justice for the poor, restore nature to a harmonious equilibrium, and bring an end to violence.  This promised child, whose birth we celebrate tonight, is destined to lead us back to paradise, bringing creation to its fulfillment. 

That is truly good news to people living in a land of deep darkness.  We gather tonight, as we do every Christmas, to be bathed in the light and to claim the promised child as the source of our own hope in dark times.  From where else could our hope possibly come?

Writing in the depths of the darkness of the Nazi regime in 1942, the great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, affirmed,

Ecce homo – behold God become human, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world.  God loves human beings.  God loves the world.  Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world.  What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.  God establishes the most intimate unity with this.  God becomes human, a real human being . . . Jesus Christ is not the transfiguration of noble humanity but the Yes of God to real human beings, not the dispassionate Yes of a judge but the merciful Yes of a compassionate sufferer.  In this Yes all the life and all the hope of the world are comprised.[1]

It is in the birth of this promised child, God made flesh in Jesus, that we find our hope.  But what exactly is illuminated by the light of Christ?  What is the content of our hope?  By becoming human for our sake, God in Christ Jesus opens up the possibility that we, too, can become human. 

“The great revelation of Christmas is that God is human,” writes Walter Wink,

It is the great error of humanity to believe that we are human.  We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human.  We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not arrived at true humanness.  Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness – which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.[2]

Jesus is not some kind of alien invading our world by cleverly disguising himself in a human body.  He is fully human, showing us thereby that he is fully God also, because only God is fully human.   What Jesus opens up for us, however, is the Way to become human ourselves, and so realize our divinity.  God became human so that we can become divine: precisely by becoming human ourselves. 

Jesus is the promised child who shows us what it means to be human so that we can participate in God’s project of renewing the world, of bringing the whole creation to its fulfillment, of returning to paradise.  What does being human look like in the face of Jesus Christ?   It looks like unrestricted love:  a power that heals the body, welcomes the outcast, and reconciles the enemy. 

In a land of deep darkness in which health is a privilege, prejudice is celebrated, and the vulnerable are treated as scapegoats, we need to see the light:  we need to recover our desire and our willingness to become human.  We need to claim the promised child as our hope, discovering that hope within ourselves as mirrored in the face of Jesus Christ.  We can become human.  That is our hope, that is the hope of the world. 

We can no longer allow the fear of death to define us and coerce us into being anything less than human.  This, too, is what Jesus shows us in his dying and being raised into eternal life: only by refusing to live in the shadow if death can love become unrestricted.[3] In the face of great evil, the temptation to become less than human, to mirror the evil we hate, is also great.  This we must resist, even unto death; this we can resist, because love has conquered death.

Daryl Davis is, for me, an icon of the power of unrestricted love.  Davis is a remarkably gifted musician.  He also is a connoisseur of hate groups, which might seem odd since Davis is an African-American.  However, he is driven by his profoundly troubling experience of racism to find the answer to the question, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”  This need to understand has led to some unusual relationships and a remarkable ministry of reconciliation.

Through a series of encounters in Maryland honky-tonks where Davis played with a country band, he came to befriend a former member of the KKK.  This led to an interview with Roger Kelly, the Grand Dragon of the Maryland KKK, as part of Davis’ research for his book on racism and reconciliation.  Davis came away from this very tense initial meeting surprised to realize he actually kind of liked Kelly, even though they could not have disagreed more on the matter ofrace.  Kelly left Davis with his card, and invited him to keep in touch.

Whenever Davis performed in the county where Kelly lived, he’d call and invite him to come to the show.  Kelly would come, and would bring other friends of his from the KKK.  Davis and Kelly developed a friendship, and Davis even attended some KKK rallies as Kelly’s guest – and act which required tremendous courage – of different sorts – on both their parts. 

Roger Kelley became an Imperial Wizard of the KKK, but his friendship with Daryl Davis began to nag at his conscience.  Eventually, Kelly, and a dozen other key leaders of the Maryland KKK, renounced their membership, effectively eviscerating the KKK in that state.  Through the power of unrestricted love, they discovered their capacity to become human mirrored in the face of Daryl Davis. 

“The lesson learned is: ignorance breeds fear,” says Davis. “If you don’t keep that fear in check, that fear will breed hatred. If you don’t keep hatred in check it will breed destruction.”[4]

Reflecting on his relationships with white supremacists like Roger Kelly, Davis argues,

You challenge them. But you don't challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together
began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.[5]

In a land of deep darkness Daryl Davis is shining the light of unrestricted love, affirming the possibility of civil discourse and transfiguring relationships across the deepest divides.  We can engage the enemy without becoming the evil we deplore.  This is Jesus’ third way between conformity and violence.  It is the way of becoming human.

We can become human.  We can return to paradise, if we are willing to follow the child, born this day, born in us, who is leading us there.  That is our hope, that is the hope of the world.  Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2005), pp. 84 – 85.
[2] Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man, p. 26.
[3] James Alison, “Looking Backwards for Christmas” at http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/pdf/eng24.pdf.
[4] Bob Massey, "Dancing with the Devil," The Washington Post (July 5, 1998).
[5] Conor Friedersdorf, “The Audacity of Talking About Race with the Ku Klux Klan,” The Atlantic (March 27, 2015).