Not long ago I was surprised to learn that the most popular American song ever written is Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” There seems to be something about that old sentimental tune that reaches deep into our spirits. Of course this time of year you can’t miss it if you turn on the radio or hear the muzak in the stores. But tonight, just for fun, I want to invite you to sing it again with me. (Don’t be shy…You don’t need the words…)
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones I used to know…
Berlin wrote “White Christmas” in 1941, and in many ways it became the theme song for American soldiers separated from their families a long way from home. It captures powerfully their longing for home. Minister John Vannorsdall remembers as a young Navy seaman riding a long train through the night from Boston to Cleveland in a packed passenger car thick with cigarette haze and the grit of coal smoke. They were all, he said, going “home for Christmas”—maybe the most beautiful words imaginable. “We were bound together,” he says, “by an overwhelming hunger”—for home.
Home. What an immense resonance that word has. “There’s no place like home.” “Home, sweet home.” “I’ll be home for Christmas.” In Robert Frost’s famous words, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” The word evokes a place, a sense of roots, as if to say “Here I belong.” We think of a childhood home, a place that has lodged in our memory as hallowed ground. It seemed permanent, as if it would go on forever, but now for most of us it exists only in old photographs and family stories.
For some of us it can be hard to come up with a single place that we can claim as home. I count seven homes in my first sixteen years and eight homes in my first ten years out of college.
A few years ago my parents sold the closest thing to a home I and my siblings ever had, the house that had first belonged to our grandparents. Now my parents were moving into a retirement home, and it was time to let go of the old house.
We decided to have a “Farewell to the House Party,” so that all the cousins, aunts and uncles, could gather with us to remember the life that we had shared within those brick walls. We jokingly called it “the last supper,” and in fact a sense of both warmth and sadness hung over the night as we talked and toasted and told it good-bye. Where is home?
At least in the lore of the Christmas season, many of our best memories are built around being home for Christmas. The air is thick with memories of Christmas trees, magical packages waiting to be opened, the old familiar Christmas carols playing on the stereo, talk of Santa Claus coming down the chimney.
But of course “home” at Christmas evokes complex associations for many of us. It’s a time when families reconnect, but that isn’t always easy. I remember reading some years ago a statistic that says something like 97% of all families are dysfunctional. Which I always thought was a number far too low. And so when families connect at Christmas home can feel like a very complicated place all over again.
In fact I remember a family therapist once speaking of how intense the grief is for many in this season. All Christmas sentimentality makes us aware of what is missing in our lives now, or what was never there at all. There are reminders of loved ones who are gone, of happy family times when everyone is together, and of the happiness that never quite happened.
And of course our world seems more and more a place of homelessness. Tonight there at least 2 million Iraqi people homeless, our own homeless American soldiers are putting their lives at risk for their country, there are countless refugee camps for the homeless in Darfur and Northern Uganda. And just blocks from here homeless shelters are filled with people who have lost their home.
In fact our own little planet is seeming less and less like a secure home all the time. We prosperous Westerners seem perfectly willing to continue our polluting ways until we have despoiled this fragile planet and left a chaotic and dangerous home behind for our children. We are a more hate-filled, alienated world than we have been in years. We seem a long way from being able to build a home on this earth big and generous enough to house every religion, nation, and people.
As one wise voice has put it, “The smallest survival unit in our time and henceforth is the whole human family and its environment.” In an age of melting ice caps and global terrorism, the consequences of failing to build this home are too frightening to imagine. We will flourish or perish together.
You know the Christmas story by heart. A young Jewish woman and her husband travel for days to Bethlehem to have their names enrolled for the Roman census. And when they arrive the inn is so full of other travelers that they have to stay in the outer room, where the animals are kept on cold winter nights. There the young woman gives birth to her baby.
Striking, isn’t it…. When God comes into our world, there is no room. The proud world of Empire treats them like refugees or immigrants. Not so different from today. Our world is busy with its wars and elections and worries about the economy. People are running so fast trying to grasp happiness, only to find it always a step or two ahead. We avert our eyes from the struggles of poor and immigrant families looking for home.
The Christmas story is about the God of the universe making a home here on earth. It tells of how that child became a man who showed an unstoppable love for everyone—his friends, but also the strangers he met, the least and the lost. Prosperous and poor, upright and sleazy, day laborers and rabbis—he loved and challenged and confronted them all, and on one terrible day, he died for them.
And, interestingly, the one nervous person in the whole Christmas story is Herod, the local Governor for the Roman Empire. He seems to have heard the message the angels declared, “Behold I bring you good news for all people, for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Good news for all people. News that God has come into the world to give everyone hope. To lead everyone to find a home. That can’t happen without the wealthy and powerful opening their hearts and their resources to build a more generous world. And that makes politicians nervous.
Christians came to see this Savior as the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Savior of the world. God had taken on human flesh, or as John’s gospel puts it, God had pitched his tent with the human race—to show us the way home, to the one home that will never fail us. By sending Jesus, God had in mind a massive remodeling of our home—making it wider, more welcoming, more open to absolutely everyone. And that remodeling was to start with a handful of disciples, and now with you and me.
Can you think of a time in recent decades when our world has been more charged with fear and division? When our own country has been so divided and distrustful? When the scale of human tragedy around the globe has been so vast? When the family in this country has been so at risk? When love has seemed so fragile? When the future has been so uncertain?
But God has taken on human flesh. God dwells in your life and mine and calls us to be part of building a home big enough for everyone. And Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is calling us to listen, to reach across the barricades that divide us, to work for peace, to feed the hungry, shelter the lost, and heal the sick.
Why are you here tonight? My guess is that it is because, like me and everyone else, you are longing for home, home for ourselves and for this lost and homeless world. And somewhere deep down inside we know that we can’t find that home ourselves; home is going to have to find us.
Which is why we are a glad-hearted people tonight. Tonight Christ will feed us with the bread and wine of his love. And then we’ll sing “Silent Night,” another favorite song of the season, softly and meditatively. And for a few moments here, with Christ and each other, we will know our real home.
Emmanuel. God with us. Home.