The business of God is the salvation of the world. From the messianic message of ancient prophets to the glorious story of Jesus’ birth, to the life of faith to which God calls each of us, the salvation of the world is the work of God. Christmas is the central celebration in this work of God.
And what is this business of God? What is this divine occupation? This opus Dei? It is this, that God is seeking through love to save the world, even you and me. God is seeking to save us from perishing in spirit; to save our very soul from dying. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
We often think about, even dread, our physical dying. But we do not often realize that the death of the soul is a greater tragedy. We have all marveled at people of desperate physical circumstances but who have vibrant spirits of hope and courage. Conversely, we have known and grieved those with apparently “everything to live for” and a dead spirit or broken hope. For when the spirit dies in a person all else seems to die. This is true about the spiritual health of individuals, and it is also true of the spiritual health of a society. The individual or collective soul is dying when we loose character, dignity and the ability to be compassionate.
I wonder, today: Can you sense the soul of America dying? On Christmas 1998 as a nation we are rich in things and so poor in spirit. The moral apathy, the obsession with power, control and success over virtue and character. The symptoms of our condition are vivid at the extremes of our lives. In the inner-city streets of poverty young lives are being destroyed to accommodate vengeance or reputation or gang colors. Likewise in the national corridors of political power, on both sides of the aisle, political lives are being destroyed to accommodate vengeance, reputation or party colors. These are symptoms of a society whose soul is in peril. For whether in the streets, in corporate America, in religion or politics the quality of our spiritual health is measured by our character, our dignity and our compassion.
Like many, I am deeply saddened by what I have observed in Congress these past weeks. After the national shame of presidential scandal and his hard and painful road to genuine repentance we are now struggling with the shame of partisan retribution. Political power without grace always fails the people and purposes it would serve. Why? Because without grace political power assumes an aura of arrogance that seeks to control rather than to serve and, thereby, to diminish hope for healing and reconciliation. For whether in public or private life reconciliation and healing must be the ends of the search for truth and justice, or else integrity is lost no matter what else is gained. Lost of integrity is a spiritual death. Christmas reminds us that the love of God is present to save us from spiritual death.
What is God’s love? First, God’s love is about human dignity. As the poet Milton said, “in every gesture, dignity and love.” This is what I believe about God. For no matter who or what we are, God always deals with us with respect for who, essentially, we are: creatures created in the love and image of God. God sees our potential for lovelessness, hate and self-destruction. But the Christmas story is that God believes more in our potential to love, to heal and to be reconciled. God believes in the good of our humanity and came to awaken it, call it forth and save it. “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The witness of the incarnation is truth coupled with grace, unmerited love.
God’s incarnational love is also about compassion. Compassion is a word often used in the New Testament to describe Jesus in his dealings with others, whether rich or poor, Jew or gentile, men or women, little children or public officials. Compassion, sometimes translated as mercy, is a word with a Hebrew root meaning womb, as in a woman’s uterus. The implication being that we all come from the same birthing mother. Compassion demands that in all our doings there be a caring respect which grows out of a sense of kindredness. Archbishop Tutu said it well: “More than being my brother’s keeper, I must understand I am my brother’s brother.”
Compassion, as a maternal image of God, also teaches us something else, that incarnational love is vulnerable. Like a truly loving mother God is vulnerable to the free will of her children. We can grieve the heart of our mother; we can deny and reject her; and we can withdraw our affections from her, and break her heart by the way we live our lives and treat one another. But, we can do nothing to earn her love and nothing to destroy it. Those of us fortunate to have loving mothers know that no matter how wayward our lives become, nothing changes the expectations of a mother that we will one day be saved from our folly and become the people she knows we can be.
The Christmas story, then, is that God has come to us and is present as love. A love full of dignity, compassion and vulnerability. This love inspires faith in every corner of the world, transcending cultures, races and class. This is the glory of God, which fills the earth!
Beulah Sommers is a volunteer of this Cathedral. For many years her ministry has been collecting and displaying in this Cathedral hundreds of hand-made crèches (or nativity sets) from every corner of the world. It is her way of witnessing to thousands of adults and children alike that the joy and faith of the incarnation does fill the earth.
This year there is a soap stone carving from Kenya; a wood carved set from the hill country of Bangladesh; an Ecuadorian nativity made from bread dough; a crèche from Singapore made from waste grounds of a cinnamon tree; a Honduran set made of assorted seeds, pods and palm leaves. Many of the sets have adapted the scenes to their native realities. A set from Guyana includes animals of the rain forest: a parrot, anteater and alligator. Whatever the origin or circumstance of those who offer each crèche, it is an effort to share with their neighbor or the world the joy and saving grace of the incarnation.
This is important because ultimately the Christmas witness is not simply what God has done for us but what God can do through us in sharing the good news. Therefore, my security, or my professional success, even my being a believer does not, in itself, complete the work of God. It is my willingness to be the love of God for others that completes the work of God..
Now, I know that there is a lot of “success gospel” going around, especially on television. There are many who teach that God is concerned about you and your material success. A young corporation officer once said to me, “If you have taken care of your future and provided well for your family, that is all God expects of you; not to be a burden on others is all God expects.” The assumption is that the central work of life is personal success and a sound financial portfolio. But the great heroes and heroines of the faith are those who, having accepted the wonder of God’s love for themselves, became God’s love for others.
Throughout this Cathedral there are many windows and statutes depicting faith heroes and heroines in many sectors of public life. Perhaps my favorite is the statue we call “the praying Lincoln.” President Lincoln once said, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” On his knees Lincoln came to see and believe in the inescapable connection between the dignity of all people and the integrity of a democracy.
But you and I know of those not enshrined in stone or glass, everyday people, unsung Christian heroes whose works of compassion inspires our faith. I think of Betty Finney who fought in her small community for the compassionate care of those living alone in the debilitating stages of AIDS. Or of the Wenners who, as foster parents, have been the love of God to over forty children, some very hard to place. I know you have your own stories of those who live the incarnation in special and inspiring ways—ways that save us from cynicism, inspire our faith and give us hope.
Most recently I met the Rev. Geoffrey Brown of Boston at a Harvard conference on urban ministry. Rev. Brown is co-founder of the “Ten Point Coalition,” a national program concerned with inner city youth. He told of how the gang problem had become so bad in his community that he and a few ministers decided to take the risk of walking the streets at night. Their hope was that by coming to know these violent youths they might find a way to bring peace to the community. After many frightening experiences and street corner conversations, the gang leaders finally invited a small delegation of ministers to meet with them.
The ministers arrived at the house of meeting, filled with anxiety. There was a guard at the door. He was the enforcer, the hit man, and he never spoke; he just stood at the door, vigilantly watching the street. Rev. Brown said he had never seen such empty eyes in his life. They talked with the gang leaders, and as the ministers were leaving the boy at the door looked at him and said, “Reverend, can I talk to you?” The minister said he wanted to say no, he was so afraid. But he was God’s love for others. And so as his colleagues left, the door was closed and he and the young gangster stood in the darken hallway. The boy said, “Reverend, I have done some terrible things, you don’t even want to know what I’ve done. But what I want to know is, can I ever get my conscience back?”
This was John 3:16! He was asking, “What can I do that I should not perish, but gain my eternity, my soul?” Because these ministers were willing to be the love of God for others—frightened vulnerable love, a lost young man had an opportunity to find his soul, to search for the image of God within himself. There are those who would be so vindictive that they would rejoice in this young man’s torment. But the gospel still says, “God so loved the world (even a murderous gangster) that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever would believe would not perish but have everlasting life.” This is the business of God, and as Christians it must be our business as well. We must become the incarnation of God’s love to others.
There is a scene in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol when Scrooge is confronted by the spirit of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley is sharing his deep regret that as a Christian he had not reached out to others. Scrooge replies with great disbelief that there could be any truth to this sentimental Hum Bug. “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob Marley,” said Scrooge. “Business!” cried Marley’s ghost, wringing his hands…. “[Humanity] was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my [career] were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of [what was] my business!”
The Christ child of Christmas reminds that he is the love of God for others. The Christ child stands with his arms outstretched to all the world; the rejected, dangerous, the poor and marginalized; and those rich in things but poor in spirit. The Christ child of Christmas is the vulnerable love of God reaching out to us all. We who claim faith in that child must, in some way, also become the hands of God reaching out—the love of God for others. For God’s business must truly become our business. Amen. </P