We're going to begin this morning with a little bit of show-and-tell. You may remember last year at this time, our denomination, the United Church of Christ, produce these yard signs. We had one out in front of our church. And it says, ‘This Christmas, we remember that Jesus was a refugee,” and a quote from Matthew's Gospel. One side is in English, and one side is in Spanish.
Now, I know a lot of people don't want to hear that. And they really don't want us to be talking about that in the weeks leading up to Christmas, because they want to focus on happier things. I know we want to look at the nativity set, and we want to see a happy, pretty little scene like something out of a Disney movie. But you know, the world into which Jesus was born, was not a happy one.
Jesus was born into a world of injustice and oppression, violence and fear. Jesus's mother was an outcast. She was a poor, dark-skinned teenager who found herself pregnant out of wedlock. She's the lowest level in society.
As an outcast, she and Joseph have to leave their hometown of Nazareth. They had to get on a donkey and travel four days to go to Bethlehem, because Caesar Augustus had called for a census. And after their four-day journey, when they get to Bethlehem, no one will welcome them. There's no room for them, no refuge. The baby has to be born in an animal stable. And the baby Jesus's bed is a manger. That's the trough where animals eat their food.
And just a few months after Jesus was born, when he was still an infant, Mary and Joseph had to flee with him into a foreign country. They were fleeing a terror campaign that was being waged by a power-hungry king, King Herod. Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus had to flee into Egypt, into foreign lands where they were strangers, a land in which people spoke a different language from them, and practiced the different religion from them.
The holy family were refugees.
Now, last year, many of our UCC churches not only displayed this sign, but some of them put nativity sets out in front of their churches. But they had Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in cages. And one of them had Mary and Joseph in one cage, and the little baby Jesus separated from them in his own little cage.
Now, this is a very jarring image, it makes us uncomfortable. We don't want to focus on that on the weeks leading up to Christmas. But it is important for us to remember that Jesus was a refugee. Now we hear today that Jesus came in the name of the Lord. That is what John the Baptist is proclaiming in today's Gospel reading for the second Sunday of advent, in which we focus on that second candle of peace. That is what the people of Jesus's day were expecting – the Messiah to bring them. Peace. Peace, meaning peace from an oppressive political regime. Peace from repressive religious authorities and laws, and peace from an unjust social structure that dictated which people were in and which people were out, which people were clean, and which people were unclean. That was the way of the world in which Jesus lived.
But Jesus came to usher in the way of the Lord. So what is the way of the Lord? Because that's what we're supposed to be doing these four weeks of Advent – we're supposed to be making way for the way of the Lord. So it would be important for us to know what that is. The way of the Lord is the way of peace. The way of the Lord is the way of love. And the way of the Lord is the way of justice.
So you know, Jesus Would famously say when I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was naked, you clothed me. When I was in prison, you visited me. And the followers of Jesus said, ‘Jesus, when did we ever see you any of those ways?’ And he said, ‘Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.’
So that's the question, my friends, we have to ask ourselves during Advent. I love that you're putting up Christmas lights, and you're baking cookies. That's wonderful. But the question is, what are you doing to make way for the Lord? What are you doing in these weeks leading up to Christmas, for peace, love, and justice?
Now, when I think back on the year of 2022, in the life of Douglas UCC, I am so moved, and inspired by all of you, and what you have done this year, in the way of peace, love and justice. So I see, for example, this year, that this church raised more money for the hungry, around the world, and locally in the crop hunger walk. We were the top three church in the entire United States. I see our collection boxes overflowing. Whenever we had a food drive this year, we're a clothing drive. Our collections are overflowing.
And when I think back on this year of 2022, in the history of our church, it's a very meaningful year, because our little church, as you know, welcomed an Afghan refugee family who lived this year on our church campus. And when they had their baby this summer, I received a picture of the family holding the baby. And when I look at that picture, I think that's what the Holy Family looked like. Because they too were Middle Eastern refugees.
Christmas, my friends, is about making way for the way of the Lord. So! When we feed the hungry, Christ is born. When we welcome the stranger, Christ is born, when we lift up the lowly, Christ is born. Now today, we are focusing on peace. And we know it's a famous slogan, ‘There can be no peace, without justice, No justice, no peace.’
But peace, my friends, isn't just the absence of war and conflict in the world. The Dalai Lama said, ‘There will never be outer peace until people have inner peace.’ And I've told you before about one of my great spiritual teachers, she was a woman known as the Peace Pilgrim. And she said something similar. She said, “World peace will never be stable. Unless we stabilize peace within us.”
You understand? Peace is an inside-out process, if you want peace in the world, well, have peace within yourself. I know a lot of wonderful people in this church and in this world, who are doing great things for justice. But they're lacking peace within themselves. They're people who are so filled with worry, and fear, and anxiety, and resentment. If you're filled with that, there's no room for the Prince of Peace to be born. Do you understand there's no room at the inn? The inn is your innermost being. You don't have room for the Christ child to be born in you because it's filled with all of those other tenants. Would you please in the weeks leading up to Christmas, evict those tenants, so that you can make room for the Prince of Peace to be born in you? Now thankfully, we have been given the gift of prayer and meditation. In the weeks leading up to Christmas find time each day to be still and know.
You know there's a place within you, you know that. Where all is calm. and all is bright. It's within you. That's where you need to dwell this Christmas season.
And so my friends in this season of Advent, let us continue to make way for the way of the Lord, to be born in us. Let us give our consent, as Mary did, to become filled with the light so that we can give birth to it in the world. And this Advent season, Let every heart prepare Him room
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
Rev. Crystal St. Marie Lewis
I had been taught that Jesus was uniquely God, and that humans lacked the capacity to achieve such a powerful union with the Divine. This perspective had made Jesus so unlike me that I could hardly relate to him at all. It wasn’t until I realized that Jesus would likely not buy into the Christian tradition’s effort to turn him into a superman of sorts. He himself said that those who follow his example would do “greater things” than what had been recorded about him in the Gospels. I began to view the incarnation story as “myth,” which Saint Stephanus described as “something that never occurred, but is always happening” — and I found that the incarnation was more powerful for me than ever when read as myth. The incarnation is a process that we can all participate in. When we do justice, act mercifully, stand up for the truth and fight to free the oppressed, those are acts of incarnation. Those acts are acts of embodied love, and where there is love, there is God. I no longer view Christmas as a commemoration of the day when a cosmic superman came to Earth. I now understand Advent as a time of renewed focus and commitment to the lifestyle exhibited by Jesus. During Advent, I try to determine if the Spirit of God is found in the way I live my life. Am I bringing justice, healing, mercy, love and acceptance to the world? And more importantly — Am I standing for truth? The story of God “coming down” to Earth reminds me that this world matters. For me, the narrative about Jesus being “born of a virgin” is now a symbol for how the Creator’s will for justice and mercy can be carried out by people of all walks of life, regardless of their social status, gender or age. And the miracles remind me that anything is possible in a world where people are willing to unselfishly empty themselves. I find this understanding of the incarnation more life-giving than any Christian doctrine I have ever known, and I am grateful for the change in perspective.
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