Sunday, December 25, 2022


Christmas Eve 2022
Community Church of Durham, UCC
Saturday, December 24, 2022

Luke 2:1-20


In the early, early days of the movement, before the Christians were even called Christians, their elders would serve bread and wine at every gathering. Remembering Jesus’ birth. Recalling his teachings. Grieving his death. Rejoicing in his resurrection from the dead. Always bread and wine. And not a formal, rehearsed ritual either. They’d break the bread gladly, share it around freely, and drink the wine from the same cup. A common cup, they called it. One cup for Jews and Gentiles alike. One cup for the poor and enslaved, and for the wealthy and privileged too. And they’d eat and drink and sing and pray. Again, not a formal thing, but a celebration. And every time, their communion filled them—head to toe—with a sense of Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ grace, Jesus’ commitment to them all. As if he was there.

In Antioch, north of Jerusalem, the elders offered special instructions. And get this. As that common cup came around, passed from hand to hand, they suggested believers dip their second and third fingers into the wine; and then wipe the residue—their moistened fingers—first across their lips, then down the slope of their noses, and then inside their ears. Seriously. This is where we come from!

The idea, as you can probably imagine, is that this particular Child of God, this particular Baby born in Bethlehem, this Prince of Peace comes (every time) to transform our senses, literally; to rewire our communication skills; to shake us loose from complacency and habit. On Christmas. On Easter. And every day between. Think about it. That old tradition—the moistened fingers, the Spirit of Jesus across their lips, running down their noses, pooling in their ears: it has a certain genius to it. Right? In Christ and by Christ, we are made instruments of his peace. Instruments of his peculiar peace: aroused and alert to the news of it; filled to the brim with the promise of it; humbled enough to speak of it.

You see, Jesus comes into our lives, into our churches, into every corner, every alley, every warzone of our world—to liberate a language of love between us. He comes that we might speak to one another of mercy, of hope, of imagination and grace. He comes to open our ears to the music of angels, to the drumming of the divine, to the voices of the vulnerable and holy among us. He comes to shake us loose from complacency and habit.

And most importantly, most urgently, Jesus comes into our lives to name us as his beloved, to claim us as his friends, and then to call us to discipleship. “Come, come, come,” he says, in every language, in every generation. “Come and follow me.” With Jesus, it’s always, always about discipleship.


One of my favorite characters in 20th century fiction might be Zorba the Greek. Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. You can watch Anthony Quinn’s Zorba in the 1964 film. But the book, the book sings with guts and grace. And Zorba’s like a spiritual omnivore, devouring wisdom and grace and truth everywhere he goes and from everyone he meets and loves.

Looking back at his life, how he came to live as he does, Zorba tells his companion this story:

“Look, one day, I had gone to a little village in Macedonia. An old grandfather of 90 was busy planting an almond tree, earnestly setting the infant tree in the ancient land. I exclaimed, ‘What, old man! What, grandfather! How does planting an almond tree at your age make any sense at all?’ And the old man, bent as he was, feeble as any man of 90 might be, turned around and said to me: ‘My son! I carry on as if I would never die.’ And I replied—the young Zorba replied—'And I carry on as if I am going to die any minute at all.’ And upon telling his companion this story, Zorba then asks him (and us): ‘Which one of us was right, boss?’”
Which one of us was right?

Now I’m not going to ask you to do this finger business with the cider tonight…I’m not quite that crazy…but I won’t stop you either. I might just blush if I see you reaching from your cup to your lips as we sing and celebrate. But I won’t stop you. Because I kind of like the idea that Christmas is something like a radical rebooting of our senses, a curious rebirth of our capacity for wonder. Christmas is the old grandfather in Macedonia planting an almond tree for his neighbors and their children, and their children and theirs. Christmas is the refugee couple seeking asylum in our midst, trusting us for hospitality and care, and then offering to serve us warm bread and cider in church. And Christmas is the kind of love that hangs on tight when dementia strikes a friend so suddenly, the kind of love that surrounds frailty with fidelity, and grief with gladness.

It's a radical rebooting of our senses, a curious rebirth of our capacity for compassion and wonder. “Joy to the World, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!” So why not with the cider on your lips, and running down your nose, and pooling in your ears? So why not invite Jesus into the broken parts of your own heart, and into the mortal dreams of your own flesh, and into this spectacular world of wonder and woe? Why not plant almond trees into your 90s, and carry on as if you will never die?


You see, the gift of Christmas, the promise of Christmas is not that we become invincible characters in a Hollywood epic; and it’s not that we develop heroic skill so as to vanquish our every enemy and overcome our every weakness. That’s not it at all. That’s Hollywood, not Bethlehem.

No, the extraordinary promise of Christmas is that we can live deeply, bravely, tenderly into our own humanity, into our own humanness, into all the ways human beings can care for one another’s hurts, and make space for one another’s hopes, and invite one another into friendship and communion. There are no heroes in the Christmas story, you see, but there are all kinds of human beings—human beings like you and me aching for freedom, human beings like you and me risking it all for one another, human beings like you and me surviving war and all kinds of violence; human beings chasing down stars, human beings singing with angels, and human beings giving birth in caves and mangers.

I might even say that when we give up on making heroes of ourselves, and rising above our ordinariness, and making epics of our lives; when we yield at last to our fragility, our imperfections, indeed our humanity in all its glory—that’s when the joy of Christmas, that’s when the wonders of faith, that’s when the gift arrives in our hearts. 
For God so loves the world, that God gives us a Child who loves us as we are, and as we can be.  When we give up on making heroes of ourselves and epics of our lives, we return to our neighborhoods and churches to find all that the world has to offer.  All the grace.  All the brokenness.  All the wonder and need.  And that’s when the magic really happens.  That's when we find Emmanuel.  God-with-us.

So whatever you decide to do with the cider tonight—you will leave this evening with this blessing, this promise, this good news. That your very human, very fragile, very ordinary self is called into this great circle, this holy and human circle of wonder. Whatever the burden you bear right now in your heart. However broken your dream, however fragile your hope. Like the rest of us, like the whole, wonderful, wildly weird and wacky human family—you are called to chase down stars with shepherds and sing love songs with angels and even give birth to God’s delight in the middle of a dark New England winter.

Again, it’s Zorba the Greek who says, “The highest point a human soul can attain…the highest point a human soul can attain is not knowledge, or virtue, or goodness, or victory, but something even greater…Sacred awe!”

And that sounds just right to me tonight. Sacred awe! What we receive tonight, all over again, on our lips and in our ears, is sacred awe! What we cultivate tonight, in our drumming and our singing, is sacred awe! And what we offer to the world tomorrow—in our ministries, in our families, in our trips to the forest and our snowshoeing in the hills—what we offer to the world tomorrow is sacred awe! Sacred awe is the beginning of every movement for human rights and peace. Sacred awe is the beginning of every campaign to dismantle bigotry and oppression. And sacred awe is really the only way we’ll get a handle on climate change and ecological healing across the planet we call home.

And here’s the thing: Every one of us, every single one of you is wired for this. Every one of us, every single one of you is created for it. Sacred awe. To see beauty in one another. To hear angels sing in the night sky. To remind a friend in need of the grace that transforms ordinary moments into sacraments of peace.

Friends of God, seekers of light and promise. The bread is sweet, the cider’s divine, and Christmas is a promise that God will always keep.

Join me for a Christmas feast!