Christmas Eve Sermon, 2017

Isaiah 62:6-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:(1-7)8-20
Psalm 97

Birthday Empathy

I’m hoping that some of you who are here tonight have seen the most recent Star Wars movie. I promise I won’t offer any spoilers if you haven’t. But there is a great scene that I want to share with all of you. Part of the premise of this latest installment of the series is reinstituting the religion of the Jedi. In the film, the order of the Jedi has fallen by the wayside. However, a prodigal daughter figure emerges, and goes back to an original disciple, who has long since abandoned the way of life. He is surprised and frustrated with her presence, seemingly dealing with his own spiritual state. She persists, and refuses to leave until he has shared some of his wisdom. In a fit of frustration, the spiritual giant turns on her and demands, “Why are you HERE?”

In this moment, the “here” that he refers to is a nearly deserted island, one of the most difficult places in the galaxy to find. The prodigal daughter is wise enough to realize there is something about being with this disciple that is worth her time, despite his best attempts to ignore her.

And, consider this question phrased with a slight change in emphasis, “Why are YOU here?” As the plot progresses, the emphasis of his question shifts from one of personal inconvenience, to one of individual curiosity. He learns of her giftedness and the potential she has to be a transformative leader. The focus shifts from the history of his leadership, to the future of hers.

Tonight, on this most holy of nights, I beg of each of you the same questions. First, why are you HERE? Lay aside for a moment the feeling of potential obligation to a parent, or respect to another family member. I intend the question from a larger, ethical perspective. Why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on an annual basis? What was it about this man who lived over 2,000 years ago, in a place far far away, who deserves a birthday celebration beyond what you or I will ever receive?

It was his capacity to love. Jesus loved in a way that changed the lives of those whom He met. He loved those who were deemed unlovable. He loved those who were not easy to love. He loved those who didn’t love him first. Yet, perhaps greater still, Jesus changed the paradigm of what it looks like to love. The original intention of religion has always been to love God and to love one another. Yet, humans constantly get in the way and corrupt that which was intended.

Jesus disrupts the very focus of religion at the time, and offers a return to the true meaning of religion, religare, to be “bound” to God. This binding, rather being tethered from obligation, is rooted in love and generosity. Jesus’ capacity to love changed lives, and continues to be the single deepest aspiration of our discipleship.

Yet, the event of Jesus’ birth is significant for another important reason – the gift of His very presence in our midst. In the gifting of Mary with a child, God makes an extraordinary show of empathy. For thousands of years, God had been in relationship with humanity. The Hebrew Scriptures give us story after story of God’s covenants with His people. Despite his people’s turning away from him, despite their lack of faithfulness or willingness to follow, God constantly returns to humanity to bind what has been broken. In a move of utter determination or desperation, God shares his very own heart in the annunciation. God’s son will be born of a woman, and come and live among humanity in hopes of communicating the love which God has for us, that we couldn’t quite seem to grasp.

When seeking to strengthen the relationship between two beings, there is nothing more empathic than perspective taking. Brene Brown is a professor who has done decades of research on courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. Throughout her research, she has found that empathy is a vulnerable choice that requires that I connect with something deep inside myself that knows of the feeling you’re experiencing.

The challenge is that once I connect with that feeling – whether it’s heartbreak, loss, or foreboding joy – I don’t try and fix your feeling, because I want for you to be better, or because I’m uncomfortable. Rather, I simply dwell with you in that reality. Truthfully, it is rare that any form of a response can make such a situation better, which is what we find in sympathy – well-intentioned sentiments that often never penetrate below the surface. Connection is the only thing that can make our suffering better – and not because it solves the problems we face, but because we realize we are not alone.

God’s gift of Jesus is the ultimate empathic move. Jesus does not solve all of humanity’s problems, nor rid us of the evil that plagues our society, even temporarily. Rather, Jesus stands with us in the muck of this world and grieves with those who have been cast aside, weeps with those who have lost loved ones, and mourns with those who are brokenhearted. Sharing of God’s self in the form of Jesus is a risky move!! God stands to lose a powerful reputation, and yet this choice of love over power is exactly where God wants to be. In the person of Jesus we experience what theologian Sam Wells would term a shift from “for to with.”[1] While God has been for humanity all along, we discover a new dimension of God’s love when God comes to be with us. Wells posits that “with” is the most important word in all of the Gospels. When Jesus arrives to be with humanity, God communicates empathy for the human condition.

Which brings me back to the second form of my original question. Why are YOU here? What meaning does a virgin birth all those years ago bring to your life? Jesus’ presence shapes the kind of life God calls us to lead. Sharing love that is rooted in empathy is the calling that permeates our very being as God’s creatures. Or in the more eloquent words of Dean Wells, “It is being with that is the most faithful form of Christian witness and mission, because with is both incarnationally faithful to the manifestation of God in Christ and eschatologically anticipatory of the destiny of all things in God.”[2]

I am here tonight to carry the message of empathetic love that we find in this surprised young mother, distraught unmarried father, displaced family, and misunderstood child to anyone who will listen! In this gospel story, we find our story. We find the story of God’s love for humanity that is more complicated and yet overflowing with love, than we might care to believe.

I hope you are here because a part of this story speaks to your story. I hope you are here because you’re curious about this completely audacious gift of empathic love. Whatever brought YOU HERE tonight, we love you! We are so glad to be with you. Most importantly, know that God loves you enough to come and be with you!

The Rev. Beth Magill

[1] The Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God, 2015.
[2] Wells, Nazareth Manifesto, p. 23.
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