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As we move towards Acapulco, Mexico, and our General Conference in 2010, I want to take time to thank everyone in MCC for all your love, support, efforts and outstanding ministry in 2009.
The Board of Elders is convinced that we are experiencing new momentum in our movement, as we face a future and a world that still stands in need of an ever-more inclusive, life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
We pray for health, strength, joy and peace for every pastor, lay leader and congregation in this New Year. As we imagine a new era of commitment to our core values and to our mission as MCC, may we trust in the God who has brought us this far by faith.
I offer this Christmastide sermon to you all in the belief that God is with us! Read the entire transcript below or click here to download a copy.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Nancy Wilson
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”
It is Christmastide, one of the shorter seasons in the liturgical year, in which we get to leave up the Christmas decorations, light the whole Advent wreath with Christ candle once more. We pause, rest and reflect in the time between years.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a twentieth century prophet and saint, says this about Christmas: “You are accepted, God has not despised you, but bears in Christ’s body all your flesh and blood. Look at the cradle! In the body of the little child, in the incarnate Child of God, your flesh, all your distress, anxiety, temptation, indeed all your sin, in borne, forgiven and healed.”
The author of Colossians reminds that early church, “God’s dearly loved,” about its primary call to love and forgiveness, in community and to be full of peace and thankfulness, and to worship in song.
Today, my text is a very familiar song, a Christmas carol, written by Phillips Brooks in 1868, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Brooks was a very popular pastor and preacher, who pastored Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, and then presided over Trinity Church in Copley Square in Boston, as they built that famous cathedral. He was made a bishop only shortly before he died, at age 58. Phillip Brooks never married. Besides that powerful edifice in Boston, his most beloved, enduring legacy is a Christmas carol.
He wrote the carol for the Sunday School children of the church in Philadelphia, three years after having made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He made that dangerous, arduous journey, by sea and overland, in 1865. It is hard to imagine today what a risky, difficult trip that was a hundred and fifty years ago. It was the same year the US civil war ended, and President Lincoln was assassinated. In that war 600,000 soldiers lost their lives, as well as many civilians in a country that had less than half the population that it presently has. It is said that Brook’s sermon that eulogized Lincoln was one of the most moving and powerful of his time.
I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine that Brooks, a physically huge, towering figure at 6’4″, and a devoted pastor and preacher, was worn out by the end of the war; overwhelmed by grief and the burdens of tending to so many who were also grieving and war weary. Possibly projecting a bit, I imagine that this trip was a way of getting about as far away from that entire burden as humanly possible.
I remember reading somewhere that Brooks sought out the very hillside in Judea where those shepherds were minding their sheep and their own business, when a special star and angels alarmed and energized them. Perched on that hillside, he looked at the town of Bethlehem, which appeared very tiny and obscure. There was no electricity, only the moon and stars to illuminate it. I imagine him shaking his head in wonder, perhaps as he heard or composed those now so familiar words: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light! The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. . .”
He knew about the darkness and hopelessness of endless war and death. He carried in his own body, the hopes and fears of his generation.
I was in Israel about two years ago and I also saw Bethlehem from a hilltop, just south of Jerusalem. We could see the ugly wall surrounding it, and did not get to go into the city, as it seemed too dangerous at that time, and would have taken a long time to get past all of the checkpoints.
This Week magazine contained an article, recently, entitled “O Troubled Town of Bethlehem,” that reports the situation this way:
(Bethlehem is) a crowded Palestinian town in the West Bank (not Israel proper), with noisy markets and narrow crowded streets. . .Politically, the situation is complicated and fragile. The mostly Muslim Palestinian Authority has governed Bethlehem since 1995, though by local law, Bethlehem’s mayor must be Christian, and power on the city council is shared between Christians and Muslims. Passage into and throughout the city is controlled by Israel, whose troops occupy the surrounding area. . . Come December, it’s controlled chaos. Up to 30,000 pilgrims pour into Bethlehem on Christmas Eve alone . . .Beneath the bustle, however, Bethlehem is literally a town divided. A 26-foot-high barrier of cement slabs, fences, sand bags, barbed wire and watchtowers seal off the town from three sides. Part of a much longer wall that Israel begin building in 2002 to run along its border with the West Bank, it has become a festering symbol of Palestinian-Israeli tensions. . . ‘Jesus Christ wouldn’t be able to leave Bethlehem today unless he showed a magnetic ID card, a permit and his thumbprint,’ says one Christian university student.”
Bethlehem is not the sleepy town Phillips Brooks saw from the hillside. It is the journey from that romanticized the 19th century Christian perspective to the 21st century reality of Bethlehem seems like a journey of light years, rather than centuries. But is not untruthful to still say “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. . .”
In Brooks’ poem-become-carol, Jesus almost sneaks into the world, with the mandate to “cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.” I am sure he was contrasting the obscurity, quiet charm and peace of Bethlehem to the war torn and weary reality of America in 1865. Today, the battle has come to Bethlehem itself – for justice, hope, and peace.
The verse we are used to as the last verse ends, “Come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” Brooks plays on the meaning of “Emmanuel,” which is “God with us,” so that the phrase really repeats that desire to be with God, and for God to be with us, three times.
God is with us – in the darkest places, in the places of despair, fear and pain, this is the good news of the gospel: God, incarnate in Jesus, blessing and redeeming our flesh as well as our lives. I think of Troy Perry, one hundred years after this carol was written, writing his own page of history. From the dark streets of Los Angeles, and raids on dark gay bars, and suicide attempts, God’s love and light burst forth in a new kind of church community.
I saw the movie “Precious,” last week, the poignant story of a teen age girl who triumphs over incredible abuse and neglect. The lesbian teacher in the story cannot fix all Precious’ problems. All she can do, at one point, it to tell her, “I love you, I am with you.” That believed message, alone was enough of a bridge for Precious to walk across to freedom and hope.
All over the world, MCC, we are saying to individuals and communities, “We are with you! Believe that God is with you, and take spiritual power and authority today to change the world and your community!” This year, 10 million people in Beijing listened to MCCers share that good news in a very different cultural context; people in Papua New Guinea; Uganda; Asheville, North Carolina, are hearing that good news of God’s radical, inclusive love. Sunshine Cathedral MCC in Jamaica just celebrated three years of liberating hope forGod’s LGBT people, for people with HIV/AIDS and for all people, straight or gay who seek to do justice in Jamaica. Today, a group of people of faith in Malta seek a connection with MCC.
God is with us – melting our fears through hope and faith. 2009 has been a challenging year, especially on the economic front. Some of you have lost loved ones, faced down illness and discouragement. Some years we are happier to see end than others, and perhaps this was that kind of year for you. But we know that in the midst of challenges, ministry still happens! The hungry – physically and spiritually – are fed; those in prison are visited. Buildings were built this year, housing more and more ministry, and milestones achieved. We see the fruit of a lot of years of work, as the Human Rights Church becomes less of a dream and more of a reality in Eastern Europe and around the world. We feel the momentum of God-with-Us cheering us on.
As people of faith, every day holds the possibility of a New Year beginning. That is the meaning of the 12 step phrase, “One Day at a Time.” Every day holds hope for beginning again, for redemption, peace, miracles. For God to cast out our fears, sin, resistance to love, and enter in our hearts and communities in peace.
God is with us – every town, every community, is Bethlehem, with all its struggles and all its promise. We can be light, love and peace for each other.
Thanks to Google, I found a 5th verse to “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” that I had never seen in any hymnal or songbook. It captures my hope for all of us in for 2010:
“When children pure and happy Pray to the blessed Child; When Misery cries out to Thee Son of the Mother mild. Where Charity stands watching, And Faith holds wide the door, The dark night wakes, the glory breaks And Christmas comes once more. “