Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free. From our fears and sin release us. Let us find our rest in Thee. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In his song, Anthem, Leonard Cohen famously wrote,
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
Everything has a crack in it. That’s how the light gets in. It’s fair to say that all of us, as we come toward the end of 2020, have cracks and are brokenhearted. So much loss, so much grief, so much suffering that’s ongoing. How can we not be brokenhearted? And yet, it is through those cracks that the light gets in.
As we come toward Bethlehem—we’re a few days out—to welcome the Christ child and as we come toward the end of 2020 and the beginning of a new year, I believe all of us long to repair those cracks and to heal our broken hearts. We know it won’t be easy. There’s much work before us. That’s been made clear. But as we reflect on 2020, let us not lose sight of the grace notes and the miracles and the light that’s come through the cracks, even in this challenging year.
Who would have imagined that we would be, some nine months after we learned about coronavirus, having vaccines that will take us to a new place where we can finally defeat this devastating virus? No one could have imagined that we would have been able to come to this point so quickly. It happened because scientists all across the globe came together for a singular purpose – to save lives. It’s not just a grace note, it’s a miracle.
So, as we approach a new year with new possibilities, I want to invite you, with your cracked and broken heart, to consider something totally counter intuitive. When we are most afraid and in pain, so often we hunker down and we try and protect that which hurts. I’m going to invite you to break that heart wide open. Let all of Christ’s light and life and love fill you and heal you and prepare you for a new year with new possibilities.
Qualitative researcher Dr. Brené Brown gives us some basis for this counter intuitive approach. As she is wont to say, as a qualitative researcher, she loves to be able to control and predict, but she learned in her exhaustive research that how people become wholehearted was totally contrary to what she imagined. What she learned after years of research was that the people who evidenced the most wholeheartedness and full living with courage and wisdom were people who were vulnerable and struggled. Totally counterintuitive. If you don’t believe it, watch her TED Talk. It’s been viewed by over 51 million people, so she obviously had something important to say.
As we look at vulnerability and struggle, consider our gospel lesson today. There’s Mary, a teenager, and a young one at that, whose life trajectory seems fairly predictable to her. She’s going to marry Joseph and she has a sense of what her life will be like. Yet there, in the middle of nowhere—she’s minding her own business—a messenger of God, in the form of Gabriel, appears before her and gives her the most extraordinary message. “Mary, have I got news for you! Your life’s about to change.” Then Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to do something that no one’s ever done, and no one since ever has. Mary couldn’t have been more vulnerable. We know from Scripture, she struggled. She pushed back a bit. Now, I would have asked a lot more questions personally, but that’s another sermon for another day. Gabriel reassures her: I know this may not make sense, but nothing is impossible with God, nothing. With that, Mary says, yes. Her life was changed forever and, as a consequence, so is ours. When in your life have you said yes to God? How did that change things?
It’s been a tough year; there’s no arguing that. But what might 2021 look like if we, too, are vulnerable, if we, too, struggle—but we do it together, in common purpose? For nothing is impossible with God. So often in challenging times, I find that if I can reflect on history, I find some helpful transferable concepts. I want to invite you to go back 52 years, tomorrow, as a matter of fact. It was 1968, an incredibly difficult year in our country. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated and there were race riots all across the country. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Vietnam War was raging and there were anti-war protests all across our country. The Cold War was at a fever pitch and people were terrified. It seemed at the time like our country was coming apart at the seams. Tensions were high. People were divided and pitted against one another.
Then, on December 21, 1968, what had seemed like the impossible, came together to do something that had never been done. I’m speaking about Apollo Eight: three astronauts—shoulder to shoulder, in a capsule that was 11 feet by 13 feet—sat on top of a Saturn Five rocket to be thrust out of Earth’s orbit into space, into, hopefully, a lunar orbit, traveling 25,000 miles an hour. It was preposterous, but scientists came together. They took what had only been a dream and made it a reality. For you see with God, nothing is impossible. On December 24, millions of Americans and a billion people worldwide tuned in to a Christmas Eve broadcast. When the three astronauts had seen the earth rise on the far side of the moon, what they could see was the gray lunar landscape in the black of space. But this teeny tiny globe, blue and white in that dark sky appeared, and it was Earth, 240,000 miles away—so small that Jim Lovell remarked that he could take his thumb and move it and see it and move it and cover it up. They were filled with awe. What they saw was beautiful. What they saw was God’s creation. What they saw was a planet that had no borders, that had no walls, that had no red states and blue states, or us and them.
They quoted Scripture that night: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” They read through the first part of Genesis where everything was pronounced good by God. Then they wished people all across the world a Merry Christmas, and they blessed them, all of them, on the good earth. It was a grace note and light in the darkness of a difficult year. You see, when we come together in a common purpose, miracles can happen, for nothing is impossible with God.
On Friday night, I had several epiphanies as I worshiped with many of you watching our Gospel Christmas service. It was prerecorded and I was so looking forward to it because I knew what a beautiful offering it was intended to be, praising God, and by association, offering worship and praise to you. As I began to watch the service, I saw and heard that we had a sound snafu. I was brokenhearted. I knew how hard all of my Cathedral friends and family had worked to offer their very best to God, and, by extension, to you. I started to follow the chat and it was clear from what I read that so many of you were disappointed and that broke my heart.
Then I began to pray—this is part of the epiphany. One of the very special moments toward the end of that service was a young woman, Madison Butler, a teenager, who had the most beautiful solo:
“Shine your light, shine your light,
Shine your light on me, Jesus.
Shine your light, shine your light,
Shine through me, Jesus.”
I thought about the courage it took that young woman to sing that solo in this great cathedral. She had our own beloved Imani-Grace behind her and other singers helping to back her up. That would have totally intimidated me. She was so sweet and it was such a beautiful offering that I began to pray to God that the sound wouldn’t be distorted for her piece because it was an early Christmas gift to me. Furthermore, I was so concerned that the disappointing chat might touch this young woman.
I prayed and I prayed and my first epiphany was reflecting on how that made me feel. I had no intention of offering this this morning, but God put it on my heart in my early morning walk. So, stay with me because I’m trying to be faithful to what I thought God led me to do and that causes me to be vulnerable. But in watching that chat, I realized what a difficult year this has been for so many of us and, at times, it’s caused us to be cranky. Let’s just face it. I began to reflect on those times this year when I’ve been too quick to criticize or too slow to give someone or a situation the benefit of the doubt. I asked God in that moment to forgive me and I ask you, all of you, to forgive me.
Here comes the second epiphany. I realized, in watching that service that people had worked so hard to offer—the musicians were here till 11:30 at night—that one of the realities of this virtual time is that the services that we offer are worship for all of us. We’re together, creating them and we are worshiping God. We hope that we are offering that worship and praise along with you. But when you’re at home watching it on a screen, I realized that sometimes it can feel like a performance and I want to assure you, it’s not. We’re all people of faith. We’re trying to use the gifts God’s given us to the best of our ability, but we are humans and we make mistakes, and our equipment fails.
So, I want to follow an epiphany and confession with the invitation to a gift. The sound has been fixed. You can go back and watch that service in the beautiful way in which it came together. But if you only have five minutes, pick up the Gospel Christmas link and fast-forward to about 45 minutes in the service and listen to Maddie Butler. Let Christ’s light shine through her. It’s so obvious watching her and listening to her that she said yes to God a long time ago. Trust me, if you’re not in the mood for Christmas, that will take you there. Because you see, we may all be cracked, but it’s through the cracks that the light gets in.
My brothers and sisters, Christ is coming. Let us be glad and rejoice. Amen.