‘Twas the night before Christmas
and in every room
is a person connecting
to worship by ZOOM.

The children are nestled
in bed with their screens,
with hopes that St. Nick
will come in their dreams.

They’ve ordered their presents
from websites this time
to help the old elf
use Amazon Prime.

There’s Ma in the meeting
with a question to ask.
“When I sing the old carols,
should I take off my mask?”

And Pa in his shirt,
with a coat and a tie,
wearing sweatpants below,
so no one should spy!

“You’re muted,” says the host
to Grandma. “Am I seen?”
She asks, “Is this video?
And what is “share screen”?

Still, the stockings are hung
by the chimney with care,
and the pageant recorded
on YouTube to share.

There are angels in bedsheets,
colored lights all aglow,
and shepherds with sheep
by a barn, in the snow.

They run to the manger,
with some pushing and shoving,
to see the wee Babe
who redefines loving.

In time, He will tell us,
“Give yourself to the least.
Find the lost, lift the last,
invite all to the feast.

Raise the valley, lower mountains,
make the Way smooth for all.
Share your treasure, give your coat,
free the captive, heed the call.”

What a year we are having—
2020… Are you done?
In this annus horribilis
People fighting… where’s the fun?

We are distanced from each other,
hardly daring to meet,
to protect the most likely
on the margins, the weak.

Ah this wretched COVID-19
all the suffering, neighbors lost
hundreds, thousands who are dying,
and our spirits: tempests tossed.

So we’re thankful for heroes
who make up the front line:
doctors, nurses, drivers, teachers,
EMT’s, who are a sign

That together we’re stronger,
thank you truckers, cleaners, aides.
Thank you singers, painters, dancers
for the beauty you’ve made.

And we’re thankful for faces
that shine through the screens,
the bonds we are making,
the new community we’ve seen.

Forget the Grinch who has tried
to keep Christmas away,
God’s “Yes” is much bigger
than any “No” we can say.

For Christmas can come
without boxes or bows.
It comes without packages
parties or shows.

For it comes any time
that you let yourself see
that God will be born
in the big and the wee.

For if He can be with us
in the weak and the lost
and is willing to love us
no matter the cost.

Then there is no person
no place and no sorrow,
no night that is angry,
no fearsome tomorrow,

Where God is not present,
where hope does not stir,
where love cannot conquer
the fear we aver.

Even death has been vanquished
by this Love everlasting,
which triumphs by giving,
surrender surpassing.

So no wonder the angels
can’t silence their shouts:
Hallelujah! Glory be!
Fa la la! Or thereabouts.

So merry, merry Christmas!
Jingle Bells! Deck the halls!
Strike the harp, join the chorus
From the mountain, tell it all.

That God has come to join us,
pleased as man with us to dwell,
this Jesus, son of Mary,
brother, friend, Emmanuel.

Love,
David

This past Tuesday my sister and I drove to Timonium to greet our dad on his 80th birthday, arriving on our parents’ doorstep in our face-masks with their favorite Chinese takeout for lunch. Later that evening, our families including grandkids gathered on Zoom, with “Lolo” (“grandpa” in Tagalog) sharing stories from his childhood and the years he and his family lived in an evacuation village high in the mountains, away from the Japanese invaders during World War II. He recalled a particular guava tree where he used to play in the village, and the day the sky turned black with the smoke of American airplanes flying overhead to liberate the islands.

Yesterday in the front courtyard of Redeemer, 7 of us gathered to visit with one another, hear scripture, share where we are finding “Good News” today and celebrate the Eucharist. We were masked and gloved, standing in a circle as snow fell around us and on the Christmas trees, lights and decorations that have been so lovingly placed there, transforming our outdoor sanctuary into a veritable Christmas winter wonderland.

Tonight, 500 citizens from all around our city, including 35+ from Redeemer, will gather on Zoom in solidarity with our BUILD sister congregation Sacred Heart of Jesus, to support them in their grief over losing 40 of their members to COVID since March. We will also recognize the essential workers and drivers who have personally delivered 2.2 million meals since March, many of whom are receiving food themselves or are one paycheck away.

Birthdays in masks … church in the snow … citizen assemblies on Zoom …

What once would have raised eyebrows and questions among us — “Why wear a facemask to a birthday celebration?” “Why hold church out in the snow?” “What the heck is Zoom?” — has now become part of our human experience, a strange blend of the familiar with the unfamiliar, the comfortable with the uncomfortable, the known with the unknown or the “still-learning-and-getting-to-know”.

Our upcoming Christmas celebrations will be more of the same: Lessons and Carols, pre-recorded … seeing friends and family, in masks or on Skype … going to church on Christmas Eve, on Zoom …

And yet amidst all this ongoing strangeness is the constancy of the ties that bind us, that hold us together when all else feels uncertain and shifting. Ties that are unseen yet remain unbroken, that keep us connected even when we feel we are drifting apart. It is this constancy, this connection, this unbrokenness that the prophets among us point us ever towards, that the angels among us proclaim and announce, and that Emmanuel — God With Us — embodies.

I recently stumbled upon a poem on Facebook that speaks to this truth, here it is below. Hope you enjoy it, and remember we are together, even when we are apart.

~ Cristina

I got out of my car today, carrying my groceries.
Carrots and potatoes
Broccoli and onions
An ordinary sack of ordinary things.
Then I heard
High in the clear December sky,
The sound of hundreds of migrating sandhill cranes,
Each one flying with purpose, heading south for the winter.

Suddenly they released themselves from formation,
They opened and gathered
Hovered and honked
Blossoming like ink spilled into blue water.
Skating randomly around like Jesus bugs on a pond.

And then, without any apparent reason
That could be seen from the ground,
The flocks realigned and regained direction,
Recreating their connections
Wing to wing to wing,
Washing forward in waves on their way out to sea.

Sometimes things come together.
And we don’t know why.
Maybe the wind shifted
Or the light changed.
Maybe it was courage
Or a moment of clarity.
Maybe the eternal called
Or the internal clock chimed.
All I know is that somewhere
Something keeps weaving.
Creating whole cloth
From what seemed hopelessly unraveled.
Something keeps nudging our hearts
In the right general direction,
Pulling through the threads
Of membership
Of kinship
Of connection
Of wing to wing to wing.

By Carrie Newcomer

Who is a prophet in your life?

Last Sunday during youth formation we wondered about who and what prophets are. Here is some of what we came up with: People who tell the truth – and are often brutally honest. People who give us reality checks, or maybe advice about how we should be living or what we should be doing. As Cristina preached in her sermon, prophets “call things exactly as they see them, or rather, exactly as they are; not how we might wish for things to be, or how it would be more comfortable, or more convenient, for things to be.” And always prophets point us to God, God’s love for us, and God’s vision for the world.

And so we asked, who are the prophets our own lives? Who are some prophets we might think of today?

A grandmother who offers her own clarion opinions and insights came up as an example. Friends who tell us the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it. Greta Thunberg, the young environmental activist, whose actions challenged powerful adults around the world to act on climate change; the Black Lives Matter movement and its truth telling about the deeply rooted racism and violence experienced by black folks in the U.S. Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe, two athletes in the public eye who have protested police brutality and racial injustice (and, in Kaepernick’s case, were publicly castigated for it), as well as gender discrimination.

Who are prophets in your own life?

Often, I think of prophets as loud and splashy – and sometimes they are! Sometimes they have to be. Think of Mark’s description of John the Baptist, from Sunday, a man clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey out in the wilderness. He was a character with a following, so much that people sought him out at the river to be baptized. And he directed people to Jesus, the one who would come after them, who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. And perhaps because he had a following – other Gospels attest to his disciples – or perhaps because he unsettled those in authority – he was arrested. (Mk 1)

Or think of Isaiah, who Mark quotes at the beginning of his Gospel. Isaiah had prophesied the judgement of his people and their exile in Babylon, along with a lot of judgement against other nations – sometimes walking naked and barefoot to do so! (Is. 20:2-3) Talk about a reality check. Among other things, Isaiah challenged people who wrote oppressive laws, who turned “aside the needy from justice,” and who robbed the poor of their rights. (Is. 10:1-2) He relayed God’s anger to them. But he also comforted his people as he prophesied their return from exile:

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God…[God] will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Is. 40:1,11)

Isaiah pointed his communities – and communities of neighboring peoples – to God’s justice and to God’s love, even, and perhaps especially, when they didn’t want to hear it.

But prophets don’t have to be loud and splashy. The friends I have who challenge my ways of thinking and acting or who remind me that I’m beloved (which is its own kind of prophetic voice) aren’t walking in the street naked to do so. They’re calling and texting and checking in, and I’m trying to do the same for them, too. They remind me where God is in the world around me, and how I can turn myself towards God when I get lost. Sometimes being lost can be so seductive, or so terrifying, that it’s easy to get stuck there, in the wilderness. Prophets, loud and splashy or more intimate, show us the way back to God.

I wonder – who are the prophets in your life?

One last thing: I think poets are prophets, too. They can tell us exactly how things are and point us towards God’s love and vision for the world all in one go. So here is a poem from one of my favorite prophets, Naomi Shihab Nye.

Shoulders

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

~Rebecca

Dear Folks,

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!  Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all they years are met in thee tonight. 

We have sung the carols a thousand times, watched the pageant over and over, packed and unpacked the creche so often that the shocking story of the Incarnation has become tame.  The vision that God is born from a human mother, that heaven and earth meet in a baby wet from delivery, ought to find us hiding under the sofa rather than basking in any sentimental glow.  Sound the alarm!  Hit the decks!  The God of the universe is wearing swaddling clothes and is asking us to hold him in our arms.  Yikes!  “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” is how the gospel of John describes this news, a notion that more than a few have called undignified, unsophisticated, and un-theological!   But according to Christianity, it is the way things are.

Writer and former boys school chaplain Frederic Buechner writes, “All religions and philosophies which deny the reality or significance of the material, the fleshly, the earth bound are themselves denied (by this revelation).  Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy, (but) incarnation means that all ground is holy, because God not only made it, but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it.  If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here” within the dusty mess of the world and our lives.

The stories of Advent and Christmas present a vision that touches something quite deep and universal—of hope fulfilled, of peace achieved, of light that shines through overwhelming dark—but their gifts are more than emotional.  They are mythic and politically charged, conveying truth that speaks directly to our current wilderness.  Consider their historical context: the kingdom of God in the form of a Jewish peasant born in a marginal backwater is lined up against the imperial kingdom of Rome.  And this poor brown man (and his mother Mary) offer a liberating way that continues to save us today, across the centuries, if we have ears to hear it.

Convention said the Roman puppet Herod was the “king of the Jews.”  Caesar Augustus was called “son of God.”  His successor Octavian, who ruled at the moment of Jesus’ birth, had the moniker “one who is divine.”  Apollo was understood as the “light of the world.”  So a story which appropriates all of these titles to Mary’s son, who was poor himself and gave voice to his humble following, redefined power then and now.

A vision of this social transformation from around the time of Jesus goes like this:  “The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls and fences… Lives will be in common and wealth will have no more division… There will be no poor man there, no rich or tyrant, no slave.  Further, no one will be either great or small anymore.  No kings.  No leaders.  All will be on par together.”  (Syballine Oracles 2:319-24)  But how does this new day begin its dawning?  The transformation began in the humility of the manger, but it has always depended on human beings to carry it out: God with us, God for us, God acting through us.  Some current opportunities?  Living wage jobs, affordable housing and health care, integrated neighborhoods and fair access to capital, equitable public schools, affordable daycare, a justice system committed to rehabilitation more than punishment.  O come, o come Emmanuel in our hands and minds and hearts, in our systems and in our organizing… Now!

Fully understood, the Incarnation means that we bring heaven to earth.

Love,
David