The Sermon: Let Our Hearts Be Raised In Love
“Well how is it that they could turn us away? Welfare is supposed to help us. It took three times before they even gave us shelter. My son was making so much noise, they sent me away to go back out to the street with two children. We slept on a park bench and at the train station. We hoped nothing happened to us. We had to beg for food.”
These words were shared with me by Claire, out City Reach guide describing the night she lived the reality of Mary in the Christmas story, looking for shelter, food and safety. “I am lost” she writes, “among all the children, the women, the men, the elderly, the disabled” who walk the streets of Boston all night; 8000 on any given night. “All we want is love,” she writes, then adds “I know one thing, God keeps an eye on us in the street.” I hear in her words, the eternal promise of the Christmas story, “A son will be born,” said the angel an “his name will be Emmanuel, God is with you.” All the City Reach guides feel God is with them with such conviction, I began to tune in, listening inwardly for an indication of a holy presence that, in the words of the hymn, is known by a sense of my heart being raised in love.
Claire, now more of a Shepard in the Christmas Story, helped me tune in to the presence of the holy. We began by walking the streets. It was early on a Friday night and the downtown throbbed with the vitality of all those going to the theater, to concerts, to restaurants. We walked by places bursting with life, but through Claire’s eyes, I learned to see the door and entryways as places of refuge that would, at some wee hour convert to cardboard enclosed mangers, homes for the night. I began to notice people in the shadows dragging boxes that would serve as their make shift walls.
The next day, we started early, sorting through a small mountain of bags filled with donated goods. We created a mini market, with tables serving as men’s and women’s clothing, coats, accessories and toiletries. That morning my heart was raised in love several times. There was the ten minutes I spent with Dan, sorting and trying on every x-large button down to find a one that could button over Dan’s immense torso, a moment that danced with vulnerability, soft humor, and longing. And the moment with a woman, who could only speak Mandarin who wanted to know what the word toiletries meant on the slip of paper each “shopper” is given. While Greg searched Google translate, Anya and I mimed, (taking a shower, and brushing our teeth), and we all laughed with the light of her understanding.
Claire, Dan, my Chinese friend, Anya, Greg, all the Senior High Youth and the City Reach folks, helped me realize to live as if God is right here, with us in our midst is an invitation to live in a new way. To know, especially when you are lonely or discouraged or in trouble, that brokenness and despair is not the whole story. That the incarnation, is not a one time thing, but a moment we birth again and again, and that all of us no matter our circumstances, are compelled to live abundant lives with hearts raised in love.
One of my favorite “I am with you” Christmas stories is about a student Santa, named Alex who was being told on his first day at the department store how to be a good Santa Claus, you know the ones that help the real Santa know each child’s Christmas wish? I thought of this yesterday when my husband Ben showed me the picture in the Boston Globe of the adorable little girl with a bow in her hair sitting on a store Santa’s lap crying. In the story, the store manager tells Alex “Whatever you do, don’t frighten the children.” Well the very first child that arrived screamed the moment he set eyes on Alex’s bright red and fury Santa suit and long white beard. Nothing would pacify him, not even the parent’s encouragement to be a “brave boy”. Alex, got an idea. He began to peel off his uniform, bit by bit starting with the beard. The child stopped crying, and watched fascinated. Off came the red hood, and Alex’s young, embarrassed face came to light. Off came the glasses and two twinkling, youthful, blue eyes appeared. Off came the robe and underneath it was an ordinary kid in jeans and a sweatshirt. The child looked on in amazement, until he soon was laughing and relaxed. After a while Alex put back on his Santa outfit and told the little boy of a story of how a very long time ago, God had come down to live on earth with us so that no one would be frightened, God came in very ordinary clothes and lived the life of a very ordinary child. The boy listened wide-eyed as the student Santa lived into the message of the story, “I am here, and I am with you, you have no reason to fear.”
I’ve started to keep notes on “I am with you moments” Over thanksgiving a bunch of us played flag football, you know the game where instead of tackling someone you pull the flags on their waist. As we ran along side or behind the one with ball to help defend them, someone started yelling “with you ” so the person would know he or she was close in support. Soon, “with you” filled the crisp air. The message was clear, I am with you, right here, you moving, and I moving, in a kind of dance. Here I am with you when you need me. This message is the one we celebrate on this night, but Christmas is not supposed to end when the celebration is over and the decorations are put away. The incarnation is an invitation to live in a new way. As we listen to Britt sing holy night and as we fill the sanctuary with our lighted candles, let us feel the deeper dance that is ever at play in our soul; the dance that moves us into our holy selves. Let’s do good with these lives we have been given and say “I am with you.” Let us be grateful, and let us be glad.