The Hanging of the Greens at Christmas 2007
I love Christmas. Except for one thing: it’s such a mess. Bringing real trees that once grew in a forest into the house, with needles falling like rain into your rugs, bringing up boxes from the basement covered with dust, bringing home gifts, boxes, bags from shopping expeditions, and the wrapping of those gifts, the paper, the tissue, tape, tags, ribbons, only to be torn away by Christmas day, your living room covered with torn paper, bent boxes, crushed tissue, squashed ribbons, bags of trash, another pile of debris for the City of New Orleans. It’s a mess at home, and it’s a mess at church too, with a 14-foot tree to put up, take down, clean up after, 1000 top heavy poinsettias tumping over in their pots, dumping dirt on the carpet, ten times more candles than usual, not to mention the pageant preparations with boxes of props and costumes to locate, mend, iron, or create, and then pageant night with kids running around dressed up like animals and angels everywhere. And Christmas Eve: the most beautiful service of the year, but even messier than a wedding, even since we outlawed rice, with candles stuck in pews, wax dripped on the hymnals, grape juice on the rug, bread crumbs on the carpet, wadded up Kleenex stuffed under cushions, twisted bulletins. It is amazing what we find in those pews—you guys are a mess! It’s not just pew side. Even up here. Pulpit side. I could write a sermon on just what you find inside the typical pulpit: paper clips, dried up pens, none of which work, used matches, a water glass from 15 years ago, bibles, hymnals, envelopes, bulletins from a decade ago, pennies, nickels, candles. Preachers are a mess. I know I am.
I guess you have to say people are messy. Lives are messy. Life is messy. Goodness knows we try to clean it up, dress it up, cover it up, especially at church. Looking around, however, everybody looks so great, you might get the idea that we are all perfect people. Don’t we know by now that everyone of us is dealing with something?—whether it is a relationship, something in our past, a history, a habit, a disease, a weakness, a guilt, a grief, a loss, an inadequacy, an insecurity, some secret we cannot tell–we all have our issues. Do you know there are a lot of people who don’t come to church because they feel they are not good enough to mingle with perfect people like you and me. If only they knew! The one thing we all have in common: is this mess we are in.
It’s called life. This is the way God has created life. When Billy and I first moved here, we inherited several potted plants on the patio. One of them was especially pretty and healthy, requiring very little attention, except to be watered regularly. It was the only thing that made it through Katrina unscathed. One day I was on the patio with my daughter Sarah watering plants like I always had, including the pretty one, remarking on how resilient it was, how it had come through the storm unscathed. Sarah looked at me, took my face in her hands as said, “Mom, Mom. You do know that it’s not real.” I couldn’t believe it! I got right up to it to closely. Even up close, it is remarkably real! But she was right. It is made of some kind of silk or something. But it’s not real. It will never die. But it will never live. I can water it another 5 years, but it will still never come to life. This fake plant. It fooled me! Maybe there is a parable here. How many of us spend so much of our lives, pouring ourselves out for that which is fake, adoring that which is not real, not true? When all the while the life which God has given us, the true life, is not plastic. I am not totally clear on why this is. I only know that true life fades, sheds, drips, ages, changes, wrinkles, yellows, one day dies. What a mess.
I am telling you all this because this is what Christmas is really about. Think about that first Christmas: what a mess it must have been! Not the least of which was the mess Mary was in, being pregnant but not married and not by the man she was to marry, but then taking that long trip with him to Bethlehem, 9 months pregnant, to pay taxes, on the way, her water breaks, on the back of a donkey, labor starts, not cool, no room in the inn, no place but a stable, with animals, friendly beasts, no doubt, but smelly too, and not a doctor, not a nurse, not a free clinic, not a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer for miles around. Spread a blanket, build a fire, boil water, after hours of blood, sweat, tears, a baby is born, right there, on the scattered straw of the stable floor. They cleaned him up the best they could, wrapped him in those swaddling cloths, laid him in a feeding trough where the cow had been munching all day. And if he was like every single baby I ever met, he cried, he burped, he wet, he made diapers, he was his own little precious mess. And all around them was a big political mess brewing that would soon put this little vulnerable family right smack in the middle of a dangerous, life-threatening situation from which they would have to flee.
Christmas means things to us, but we should never try to clean it up too much. Because this precisely is the message of Christmas. This is precisely the place God chose to intervene in history. As if looking down from heaven he said, “You see that mess down there, that dark, cold, lonely place. That’s where I will be, that’s where I will go.” And it was into the midst of this mess that love came down, hope was born: “The Word became flesh [and blood and sweat and tears and human like you and me] and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” That’s our scripture lesson for today: John 1:14. It’s about the incarnation. As Frederick Buechner put it: “It is untheological. It is unsophisticated. It is undignified. It is the way things are. It means that all ground is holy ground, and if we are saved anywhere, we are saved here.” In the midst of the mess. 2000 years later still he comes into those places where we least expect to find him, in those places where we need him the most, that we might know the height and depth and breadth of his everlasting love for all the world.
Today, as we sing of his love, his life given for you and me, those of you who are holding the symbols of the season, the holly, the ivy, the evergreen, are invited to bring them forward and lay them on the altar. They are real. They are not plastic. They are not perfect. They might shed. They might prick. They may even make a little bit of mess. But let that be a sign unto you!–he is here, God is near, Emmanuel.