First Sunday after Christmas Day
December 29, 2019
The carols have stopped playing. The neighbors have turned off their Christmas lights. The poinsettias are dead. It’s back to reality. This is the worst part of Christmas, isn’t it? You have to un-decorate the tree and write thank you notes for gifts that you may or may not have wanted. Back to the real world with its problems and its heartaches. For a few days we’ve put all that on pause and now we must face the “real world” again.
The real world is in trouble, as it has always been. You do not need me to tell you that the next year, an election year, will be tumultuous. Add that to the list of woes – environmental degradation, violence at home, corruption abroad, deceit everywhere. In our own lives, it seems that no matter how much we have, how much we own, how much we save, it’s never enough for the “real world.” We must have eaten too much over the holidays, so we’re getting blasted with advertisements on gym memberships. Our vacations weren’t as glamorous as our Facebook friends’ were, so we’ve got to find something even bigger and better for next year. And the world tells us to simply add it on to the list of credit card bills. Back to the bleak “real world.” The joy of Christmas lasts but a few days.
Now, the powers and the principalities of this world would prefer us to be joyless because joy is free. The world tells us that we have to buy our way out of sorrow into happiness, out of fear into security. And once we buy into that fear, we are hooked, and we keep on buying. We have bought so much of the world’s manufactured fear and outrage and cheap distinctions that we have come to believe that is reality. We have been deceived into thinking the world with all its woes and debts and sorrow is the “real world.” The darkness is awfully compelling.
As we stand here on our last time together for this decade, and as we reflect on this most recent chapter in the life of this parish, we will be tempted to think of all the darkness we have been through. In a sense, we will be tested to “go back to reality;” to think on all the broke things, the sad things, the hurts. People have left, people moved away. Our beloved brothers and sisters have died. For a while, it didn’t rain at all. Then it rained too much. Tax Day, Memorial Day, Harvey, Imelda. Many of our homes have been damaged by the flooding, including my own. The Palmer Drug Abuse Program, who had been partners on the Holy Comforter campus for decades, closed their facility. We hosted the Archway Academy for high schoolers struggling with substance abuse. In their time here, one of their students died by his own hand. And then their program closed. There were things the parish was doing that we stopped doing, too. The Parish Hall was shut down for a month because a pipe gave out and wrecked the restrooms. The septic lines leaked into the parking lot on one Palm Sunday, of course, the one Sunday we march around in the parking lot. I don’t even want to think about the number of air conditioning units we’ve had to replace. This is the narrative that the world would have us dwell on. The evil one would be more than happy for us to tell ourselves that this has all been joyless and dark.
But we will not let that one win. Today I call us back to the real world, to God’s reality. The reality of God is that yes, there is darkness out there. But God’s reality is that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. God’s reality is grace when the world would charge us. God’s reality is truth when the world would deceive. God’s reality is a community that is free, called the church, where the world would make us pay for a membership fee. The real world, the world that God has created, is one of abundant joy, the joy of Christmas. Everything else is just something cheap the world is selling us. As John tells us, we have all received, grace upon grace. Grace, a free gift of love given to us by God. A gift that we didn’t earn and can’t buy. That is God’s reality. Grace upon grace.
Indeed, that has been our reality at Holy Comforter over this last decade. We have received grace upon grace. And even when it seems we didn’t have enough – enough people, enough money, enough vision – God has provided us with more than we could ask or imagine.
In our life together we have celebrated more baptisms than funerals, that’s a good thing. There was a stretch a few years ago in which we were doing more quinceaneras than weddings. The number of pledges to the church have more than doubled. We have anywhere between 75 and 100 people worshiping in our assisted living communities every weekend. That is bigger than the average Episcopal church on a Sunday. Our choir has grown, our Vacation Bible School has hit its maximum enrollment. Our Drive-Thru Ashes has been so popular that we’ve become the stock footage for all the local news channels on Ash Wednesday. On Sundays, the Education Building is at capacity – with our parenting class and the whole slate of children and youth Christian formation. We helped train Rhonda Rogers as our seminarian. We’ve adopted a school. We had parties for ourselves, and we’ve fed the hungry.
And oh yeah, on top of all that, we built a church. We raised over $800,000 for this project and we received grace upon grace, $2.2 million from the Great Commission Foundation of the Diocese of Texas. And now our parking lot is full, again.
I’m not trying to do a self-congratulation tour or pat ourselves on the back. Not everything over this last decade has been great. But I believe that, when weighed in the balance, we have received grace upon grace. Don’t buy into the narratives out there about how the Episcopal Church is dying. That’s what the darkness would have you dwell on. The light and life of Jesus Christ has pierced the darkness. This is our reality.
I have heard it said that because I work in the church, I don’t know what the “real world” is like. Some have scoffed, because I don’t have any “real world experience.” But I say the church is more real than anything the world offers. For in our ministry together, I have been in the hospital when babies were born and I’ve knelt at the bedside of those who were dying. We’ve talked about all the real things of life – about cancer, about bankruptcy, about addiction, about divorces, about the hopes and fears for your children. If you ever want to experience the fullness of human life and emotion, commit yourself to the church and you will know the real world. This is perhaps the most radical thing the church can say, that this is reality. What we do here in church on Sundays is reality, everything else is not the real world. Because the grace, the mercy, the gifts from God that we receive in this place are the realest things you will ever know.
See, I think the world is actually jealous of us. The world is jealous of us because we know that we are loved beyond measure. The world is jealous of us because we know that we have been adopted as God’s daughters and sons. That’s why the world tries to drag us down. Bullies are bullies because they are insecure about their own lives. The evil one and the bullies of this world would have us believe that darkness is reality. When in fact, the true reality is the grace and the light and the love of Christmas. Christmas doesn’t last one day, or only twelve days, Christmas is real life.
So when you go back out there, into the world, you can go with confidence. Because you have seen, you have experienced real life in this place. You have received grace upon grace. And with boldness, take that grace out there, into the other world, so that they will look on you and see the light and love of Jesus Christ.