Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Agents of Grace

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
Christmas Day, 2007 – RCL 2

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

Agents of Grace

It’s good to be at Grace Church at Christmas. There’s been so much going on – so many services, so much preparation, so much beautiful music – so much Grace! For many of us it’s been just about all grace all the time.

And now this morning we’ve come to the heart of the Christmas season – Christmas Day itself. It’s good to be here, because it would be very easy for Christmas Day to be an afterthought. It would be easy for us to be like the rest of our society and already impatiently move on to the next thing. I don’t need to tell you that the society’s calendar is a little different than the church’s calendar. For the world, Christmas began back around Halloween and as of this morning Christmas is officially over. I am sure the TV commercials are already running encouraging us to take advantage of the big after Christmas sales. (I’m actually a little surprised that stores aren’t open today…)

But that’s the world’s calendar. Let’s remember that the church calendar is very different. For us, this is not the end of the Christmas season, but just the beginning. But, if we’re not careful we can get swept up with the rest of the society and really miss out on Christmas. If we’re not careful we can miss out on the whole point. If we’re not careful we can miss the grace that God gave the world that first Christmas – and the grace that God continues to give us here and now.

It’s good to be at Grace Church at Christmas. It’s good because Christmas truly is the season of grace.

Grace. It’s the name of our church. And for some it’s their own name. But what exactly is grace and why is Christmas the season of grace?

Well, the catechism in the prayer book gives us a great definition of grace: “God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”
Grace: “God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved.” Christmas truly is the season of grace.

And we sure do need grace. It’s pretty obvious that something has gone terribly wrong. Life, the world, was not supposed to be this way. In the Bible we have the description of God being so very pleased with creation. But then something goes horribly wrong. Human beings, represented by the Adam and Eve, turn away from God, reject God, hide from God. And so pain and suffering and sadness enter our lives.

God could have just given up on us. Instead the Bible tells the story of God over and over reaching out to humanity – making covenants, trying to be in relationship with us. But, you know the story – over and over human beings follow the example of Adam and Eve and turn away from God – over and over we reject God’s offer of friendship.

And so we come to Christmas. Christmas, the ultimate act of grace. Christmas, the supreme gift of grace. Christmas, unearned and undeserved. Christmas, when God reaches out in the most extreme way by becoming one of us in this newborn child – this Jesus – born in the middle of nowhere, born to a couple of nobodies.
But, God couldn’t do this on God’s own. God needed the people we’ve been hearing about in church over these past few weeks. God needed the people we saw in the pageant yesterday. God needed agents of the grace.

God needed Mary to carry Jesus inside her. God needed Mary to set aside her doubts and fears. God needed Mary to take the risk, to risk the gossip and the snickering, to risk her marriage to Joseph, to risk her life itself. Mary could have said no. Instead Luke recalls her saying to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The prayer says Mary was “full of grace.” But more than that by saying yes to God, Mary became an agent of grace.

God needed Joseph. As Mother Lauren pointed out in her sermon on Sunday, Joseph was an extraordinarily honorable man. Greeted with the news of Mary’s pregnancy he could have rejected her and even had her stoned to death. Instead Joseph says yes to God, stays with Mary, and raises Jesus as his own. By saying yes to God, Joseph became an agent of grace.

God needed John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus. We don’t really know how John got from the comfortable life of a priest’s son to the life of a prophet out in the wilderness preaching repentance and forgiveness. We can be sure that like the other prophets before him he received a call from God and was given a choice. John could have said no and remained in relative comfort but instead he said yes to God. By saying yes to God, John the Baptist became an agent of grace.

And the same is true for the rest of the cast. The shepherds could have shaken their heads in disbelief – maybe the wine they had drunk that night was stronger than usual – after all why would an angel appear to them? And who sees angels anyway? And who sees angels who say that the Messiah is born to a couple of nobodies just down the road? Instead the shepherds say yes and become agents of grace.

The wise men could have taken a pass on the long trip following a star to Israel of all places. Because of our faith we tend to think of Israel as being a very important place, but most of the rest of the ancient world saw it as no place important – a backwater – noteworthy only for its odd religious belief in one God. But the wise men said yes and so they too became agents of grace.

So Christmas is the story of God’s grace. It’s the story of God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved.

And Christmas is also the story of ordinary people saying yes to God and becoming agents of God’s grace.

So you know what the question is. We can skip right over it and move on to those big sales tomorrow. We can skip right over it and start thinking about the next thing – vacation, New Years Eve, whatever. We can ignore the question but this Christmas, this festival of grace, this Christmas will we say yes to God? This Christmas will we say yes to God and become agents of grace?

The truth is God is asking us for help all the time. God is asking us to be agents of grace. The request may not be quite as dramatic as what Mary and Joseph and the rest received, though you never know. But today and everyday God is still asking the question. Will you help me?

Sometimes God’s grace can come very suddenly – we tend to call that a miracle.
Usually, though, God’s grace can come over a very long period of time. Think of how many centuries God reached out to humanity before that first Christmas. So it can take a long time and usually God’s grace takes the form of a series of nudges in the direction God knows is best for us.

Certainly for me Saturday’s ordination was a day of extraordinary grace – unearned and undeserved. But as I’ve thought and reflected on it, that day was the result of God’s grace nudging me and guiding me through all sorts of mistakes and detours until God finally got me where I was meant to be. It took a long time and required many agents of grace to get me here. And I was so happy that so many of those angents of grace were in church on Saturday.

I want to tell you one story of grace from that day. I have an uncle named Jimmy who was always sort of the wild child in my mother’s family. He married his high school sweetheart and they had two kids, a daughter and a son. For a time things seemed to be going pretty well for them. Jimmy had a good job; they had a nice house in the suburbs, and all the rest.

Unfortunately, Jimmy had a problem with alcohol and drugs. To make a long and horrible story short, Jimmy ended up losing everything – his job, his home, his family. He has not had any contact with his children in sixteen years. Ten years ago he was working at a gas station and each night he went back to his apartment and drank until he passed out.

That life took its toll. He had a stroke and without money he ended up in a nursing home in Newark – where he has lived ever since. Slowly he has recovered; building a new and sober life for himself – but still the loss of contact with his two kids was an open wound.

Some of my relatives tried to figure out a way to get him to my ordination but logistically it just wasn’t possible. And so on Saturday while the rest of my family was here in church Uncle Jimmy was in the nursing home in Newark, as usual.
And then his phone rang. And it was his daughter calling. It was his daughter. He had not seen or spoken to her in 16 years. But she had kept his phone number and after all this time she was reaching out to him. It took a long time but through agents of grace God had nudged her enough so that she was able to take this huge step and begin reconciliation.

Let’s stop there. Just as in today’s gospel we leave Mary and Joseph with their newborn child let’s leave Uncle Jimmy on the phone with his long lost daughter.
And let’s reflect on all the grace that has brought them all to this moment. Let’s all reflect on all the grace – unearned and undeserved – that has brought us all here this morning.

And on this Christmas let’s say yes. Let’s say yes and be agents of God’s grace.