Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saved by Beauty

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 25, 2011

Christmas: The Nativity of Our Lord
Isaiah 62:6-7, 10-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20

Saved by Beauty

As usual, Christmas has been just so beautiful here at Grace Church. The church looks great, yesterday’s pageant was as charming as ever, and somehow Dr. Anne and the choirs keep topping themselves with gorgeous music.

Surrounded by all of this beauty reminds of a line from a character in a Dostoevsky novel. The character says, “The world will be saved by beauty.” “The world will be saved by beauty.”

Actually, for Christians that’s half-right. The world will be saved by beauty and the world is already saved by beauty – by the beauty of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the holy one whose birth we celebrate this morning.

Now, often the world doesn’t seem very beautiful at all. But, sometimes during times when we’re really paying attention, when we’re really mindful, we can see clearly the beauty that saves the world, the beauty that will save the world.

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where most births – though sometimes quite difficult and painful - are moments of great beauty.

A couple of months ago close friends of ours had their first child. Although she was a little early everything went just about as well as possible. After a short labor a healthy baby girl with a thick shock of dark hair on top of her head was welcomed joyfully into the world.

My wife Sue and I went to the hospital a few hours later to see the new parents and to meet the baby. I was moved by the beauty of what we found in the hospital room. The new mother’s eyes glowed with joy as she held and nursed her newborn daughter. The father was excited and proud to show off his daughter while also busily working the phone – calling and texting to spread the good news far and wide. Other family members and friends arrived, relieved and overjoyed.

“The world will be saved by beauty.”

Now, before you think I’ve gotten all sentimental, I also noticed a starkness to the beauty of the scene in that hospital room. There were deep lines under the mother’s glowing eyes. Even an easy birth takes a physical toll. And I glimpsed a dawning recognition in both new parents that this was as real as it gets: their daughter is really here, beginning that day a life that, like all of our lives, will be filled with some mixture of sadness and joy, failure and success, fear and hope.

It was a big moment. And that day in the hospital with our friends and their newborn child I saw the beauty that will save the world.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had a different kind of hospital room experience where I also saw the beauty that will save the world.
As many of you know, after a valiant effort, the doctors reached the conclusion that there was nothing more that could be done for our beloved parishioner Phyllis. Her two sons honored her wishes by not keeping her alive through extraordinary means.

When the time came to disconnect the machines, with Phyllis unconscious and comfortable, we had a short service at her bedside and shared communion. Then her sons stood on either side of her bed, each holding one of her hands, and began to tell wonderful stories from their childhood. There were tears and there was also laughter.

Although unconscious, in her last moments in this life Phyllis was surrounded by love and laughter. And in the midst of pain and sorrow in her family’s love I had the privilege of seeing the beauty that will save the world.

This morning we heard Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s a story that remains beautiful no matter how many times we’ve heard it, no matter how familiar it’s become.

There’s the beauty of the angel appearing to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. There’s the beauty of the heavenly host singing their great hymn, “Glory to God in the highest heaven!”

There’s the beauty of the shepherds seeming to drop everything to go see for themselves the newborn savior and then later returning, “Glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

But, there’s nothing sentimental about this story. There’s a stark beauty to the story of Jesus’ birth, too. Mary and Joseph seem to be alone in the world. Although hospitality was an important practice in the ancient world, no one in Bethlehem seems willing to welcome Mary, Joseph and the child. Instead the Messiah enters the world humbly, primitively, placed in a feeding trough meant for animals.

Most of us can only imagine the terror of heartbreakingly young Mary, maybe just 13 years old, giving birth to her son in such harsh conditions. And then later, maybe while resting and beginning to recuperate, she and Joseph receive a visit from the shepherds telling them – or reminding them – that their child is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

And then there is the beauty of young Mary treasuring all of these words and pondering them in her heart.

I’m sure Mary didn’t yet understand that the world would be saved through the beautiful life of her son. We who know the rest of the story see this beauty in Jesus’ teaching – his call to love God and to love one another. We see this beauty in the parable of the prodigal son whose father rushes out to welcome him home, no questions asked. We see this beauty in the feeding of the multitudes – the overflowing abundance of God that fills everyone - and there are even leftovers. We see this beauty in the parable of the Good Samaritan when it’s the outcast who shows mercy. We see this beauty in Jesus’ bold declaration that in God’s kingdom it’s the poor and the hungry and the mourners who are blessed. We see this beauty in Jesus’ command to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us and to pray for those who hurt us.

The world is saved by beauty.

We can even see the beauty of Jesus’ life in the horror of the cross where he completed his life of love by asking God to forgive what seems most unforgivable.

And, at last, the world is saved by the beauty of Easter morning when God does the most beautiful thing imaginable by doing what God always does, turn death into life.

The world is saved by beauty.

It’s Christmas morning and right now we are surrounded by beauty.

Yet, for some of us here and for lots of people out there the world doesn’t seem beautiful at all – and lots of us don’t feel saved at all.

So, God’s work continues. And God calls us, invites us, to be part of the ongoing salvation of the world.

We’re called to be beautiful – to love each other like brand new parents love their child and as children love their dying mother.

We’re called to be beautiful – to offer hospitality to all the Marys and Josephs who are out there right now, alone and frightened in the world.

We’re called to be beautiful – to forgive one another especially when they – or we - seem most unforgivable.

We’re called to be beautiful – to give of ourselves without counting the cost and expecting nothing in return.

Dostoevsky’s character got it half-right. The world is already saved by the beauty of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And now that work of salvation continues through us – through the Body of Christ on earth – through all of us here at Grace Church - through whom the world will be saved by beauty.

Merry Christmas.