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Christmas Day B-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Have you opened gifts yet? I got off easy this Christmas. I installed a closet clothing rod in Joe’s room before he came home.

Other years, I’ve assembled a bicycle, a free-standing basketball hoop, and an outdoor playhouse. And, of course, many things from Ikea. There’s a storage unit in our home that shall go unspecified in which one the shelves is upside down.

Why do we do it? Why do we put up with the aggravation? Because without the assembly –it’s just a bunch of junk in a box.

You and I are sort of like that too. In John’s gospel today we learned that we are made for each other.

Old-timers will remember when we went from a green hymnal to a red one. Among the many changes the new red hymnal made was to substitute the word ‘Assembly’ where the old green book used the word ‘congregation.’

Assembly is required because we cannot worship alone. We must be gathered in order to consecrate Holy Communion. In the body of Christ, the hand cannot decide to move apart from the foot. The heart cannot survive without the head. We are knit together in mystical oneness with one another and with God by our baptism into Christ.

This is what has been so painful for Christian worship in this pandemic year. Christians may be forced to by circumstances to be apart but like two magnets we feel the constant pull to be together again. Like a thunderbolt we follow the path of least resistance in order to reach common ground. We must find connection any way we can even if it is only here in virtual space.

Can cyberspace become holy ground? We have all been living that question for the past ten months, haven’t we? I think we are learning—yes—that it can, especially when we are virtually gathered, like this morning, in real time even if not in actual space. As I understand it, this is the heart of the debate about when and whether it is ever appropriate to have online communion. The jury is still out on that one. The gears of church theology and liturgical practice grind slowly which makes our tradition trustworthy. For now, I am very glad it is possible for you to be here and that we are gathered –at the same time I am mindful of those who cannot reach this space because they can’t afford a computer, or good internet, or just can’t manage the technology.
In the beautiful stained-glass window over the altar at Immanuel we read the words:
God is with Us. It’s a beautiful statement of the incarnation. But what we often miss is the ‘us.’ Over the centuries, Christians have drawn the circle of who is included in the ‘us’ smaller and smaller until it includes only baptized Christians, or only Christians of a certain denomination, or only me and my family and hang the rest.

We have made the circle of inclusion small in other ways too. We take Jesus’ words to heart. ‘Each of you, beloved, is of more value than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:31) Yet where did we get the idea that God doesn’t care about all sparrows? We treat human life as if it were the only life that matters.

Then, drawing the circle smaller still, we create, participate, and help to sustain a culture that values some human beings more than others, as though what it means to truly be a child of God is to be white.

Out in the streets this year, we heard the call to ‘say their names.’ George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Philando Castile. It goes on and on. We say their names in order to humanize them. We shout their names to say to ourselves and to everyone that all lives do not matter until black lives do. But there are many in this country that we love today who prize whiteness over the U.S. constitution, or the balance of powers, or even more than democracy itself.

People of faith, people of the Christian faith, will gather in communities around the world this morning in the tens of millions who will not question how they may be excluding people of color, or non-human life, or people of different faith traditions. Somehow, they will listen again to the familiar stories of the birth of the Christ child and will feel themselves affirmed but not convicted.

Hear again, the gospel of John: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-4) The incarnation of grace did not become flesh in the little town of Bethlehem and no place else. But what has been revealed in Christ Jesus is the spirit of life and love that is in, with, and under all of creation—now beyond the stars, in every creature, reflected in every human heart.

For the incarnation to happen, assembly is required. It can be quite daunting to look the piles of pieces we have strewn about us and try to make something out of them. It’s like trying to furnish an entire apartment with furniture from Ikea. How do we restore broken relationships? How do we begin to repair the breach in our cities and our nation? How do we bring civility back to our civic life? How do we put together the human family? How do we restore balance between human life and all life? It feels overwhelming. It truly is too big for any one of us.

Like any project, we do it best if we begin with the instructions. We’re not in this alone. There is wisdom we can draw upon. We can learn from the hard-won experience and good counsel we find in each other. Most especially, we lean upon the grace of God. We pray. We meditate. We worship—so that our hearts and minds may be centered upon God as we set out to re-assemble the world.

Over the years, poets and mystics have described the miracle of the incarnation in many ways. One of my favorites is attributed to several people but may have originated with Blaise Pascal, “God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Another is handed down from Angelus Silesius and recently made famous by composer Ana Hernandez: “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth then God will once again become a child on earth.” For the incarnation, assembly is required. Yet it is not so much work that we must do, so much as it is something we are drawn into participation with. Love incarnate has come as a gift for you again this Christmas. Let it affirm you. Let it convict you. Let us join our hands, hearts, and voices and say Amen!