Bishop Perry’s 2018 Christmas Sermon

“Our faith is troubled the most by incarnations of evil. The only thing that will answer an incarnation is another incarnation. And that is what God did on the first Christmas.  He answered the incarnation of evil with the incarnation of Good.”

Chicago Christmas


The Good, the Bad, the Beautiful and the Ugly

Bishop Joseph Perry
Considering the protracted debate these days about access to guns, licensure and gun violence, you notice pop culture still holds a fascination with Gothic Westerns.  I know I do.  How consistent this is can, of course, be critiqued by some smart people.  But then who says human nature is consistent in the way we think and behave!

I think of the iconic 1966 Spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, by famous director, Sergio Leone, and starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.

I mention this because it seems to be a good starting place for our thoughts this Christmas.  I would add one word quoting that movie title as a launch for the inspiration of the evening. At this midnight mass, I invite you to think with me for a few moments about “The Good and the Beautiful, the Bad and the Ugly.”  We have seen much of it this year locally and around the world.

Both of these realities are present in our world and caught up in our thoughts here tonight.  They were also present that first Christmas.  A tiny baby held securely in the arms of his mother Mary, Joseph standing by to protect and provide, angels singing in the night sky over Bethlehem and simple shepherds searching for their Savior – all of these events were good and beautiful. But, they were not the entire story, we know.

In far away Rome was a man named Caesar Augustus whose word was law in virtually all the known world back then.  Outside the stable in Bethlehem were Roman soldiers marching the streets who enforced the will of Caesar by the power of the sword or the scourge of the cross.  The will of Caesar was the reason why the Savior ended up in Bethlehem to begin with. 

Just a few miles away in Jerusalem was a deranged king named Herod who would soon seek to destroy a bunch of children because he felt threatened by this particular Child, spooked out as he was by prophecies quoted to him in scripture.  What a strange mix of the good and the beautiful, the bad and the ugly.  How like our God to arrange the cries of an infant entering the world-mix of horror and tragedy of varying descriptions.

Our world is still like that tonight: elongated war in Syria and Afghanistan, nervous goings on between Russia and the Ukraine, outbreaks of terrorism around the world, violence in our streets, mysterious suicide rates among our youth, shocking incidents of racism described during assaults on a church and a synagogue, the various addictions that grip the lives of people, family dysfunction and divorce, crises in church leadership, devastating miscarriages of nature, widespread moral upheaval, the unsettling issues of immigration which have succeeded in working divisive tensions. 

Way back, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a beautiful poem for the season, titled, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. The third verse of that poem reads this way:  “In despair, I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth I said; for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men.

There is not a thoughtful person here tonight who cannot identify with that feeling of sadness. We hope for and dream of a good and beautiful world but the bad and the ugly always seem so dominant. But, in the midst of all of this we are inspired to remind ourselves that the good and the beautiful are just as real as the bad and the ugly. 

Notice, whenever we speak of the real world too often we have in mind the sordid side of life.  Crime, dishonesty, selfishness, greed, corruption – these are the things that we cynically dub the real world.  And they are real, tragically so.  But our vision is faulty if we see such ugliness as the only reality. In writing the script of the salvation story, God decided to intervene in our mess.

King Herod was real. His lust for power was real. Roman soldiers marching the streets were real. The brute force of Roman authority was real. But none of those things was one bit more real than the baby in the manger this night.  Jesus is a fact of history but He is more than that. While the Roman Empire is gone and virtually forgotten, the babe in Bethlehem, the Christ of Christmas continues to live in the hearts of millions upon millions of his followers for sure.

God keeps trying to get through to us.  Someone once said, “every infant who opens the womb and lives is a sign yet that God has not given up on the human race.”

Our judgment is flawed if we call the bad and the ugly real and think of the good and the beautiful as if they were Aesop’s Fairy Tales.  I have little doubt that somewhere in our city this very moment, an individual or a group of people are up to no good.  Somewhere in our country someone plans deeds of violence and hatred and profound hurt perpetrated upon someone else. 

I don’t know the location of that nor who they are. I only know that such things are a real part of our world. But, I stand here tonight and look into the faces of a different group of people who are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ this quiet beautiful night.  This is a powerful meeting because He is here with us. The purpose of our meeting tonight is peace and friendship, religious faith and solidarity. And, this meeting here in this place is every bit as real as that other meeting. I am telling you that the things which this meeting represents will still be alive and well when the plans and purposes of that other are dead and gone.

These days we encounter challenges that call for a vital faith in God. But such faith is sometimes difficult to achieve and is no less difficult to maintain.  The discouraging factor is not so much theoretical arguments against God.  We have heard most of those and they do not greatly disturb us for we know better.

Our faith is troubled the most by incarnations of evil. We look at the wickedness that walks through the world in human form. And all of it seems to deny the very idea of God.  How can we believe in a loving God in this kind of world?  I don’t think we can answer the question with an argument. The only thing that will answer an incarnation is another incarnation. And that is what God did on the first Christmas.  He answered the incarnation of evil with the incarnation of Good. That is far more persuasive than any argument could ever be.

It is always incarnations that enable us to believe in anything good.  We believers are responsible for those incarnations.  Studies for the priesthood and my work as a priest and as a bishop have exposed me to all of the philosophical arguments about God, pro and con.  I am grateful for them and think taken together they are strongly on the side of theism.  But the deep sources of my faith lie elsewhere.  I believe in Jesus Christ and the people that have caught His spirit. They are not arguments but incarnations. God can be seen in and through these kinds of people. Where beauty and truth, goodness and neighborly regard are found, God is… the most persuasive of proofs, mind you.

In this universe there appeared a divine life, not simply to be argued about but to be seen. It became visible at Bethlehem. In the words of St. Paul “When the designated time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman.”  I believe in that. You believe in that. That’s why we’re here tonight.

There is another objection we often run up against. Not only is God often vague to us but He can also be unattractive and unappealing to people of these times.

We are commanded in Scripture to love God with all of our hearts… indeed with the totality of our human construct.  Jesus defined that as the first and greatest commandment. But, let’s be honest. Loving God is not an easy thing to do. Often we are not even sure what it means. When we think of this vast universe with its profound mysteries, how is one to love the God of it all? 

Arguments have sometimes presented a God who is so terrible that people have feared Him more than anything else.  Others have denied His existence.  It is not surprising then that many of us stumble at the thought of a loving God in face of our experience.

Our response changes, however, when we again reflect on Bethlehem.  A baby was born in midst of the world’s chaos and evil, quietly appearing and unassuming, a baby in all its delicateness and charm.  How easy it is to love a baby. This baby we honor this evening is a unique glimpse of the God we worship.  That baby says so much about Him if we would pay attention.  Then we are immediately forced to rearrange how we define God and free Him from the shackles of our logic.

That baby grew into a man who was also easy to love and the human race has found it difficult to resist Him.  Those who do not want to be fascinated by Him had better keep their distance.  He has a way about Him. A charm is there that often haunts people who do not wish to be haunted; nudges people forward who do not wish to be nudged. Christian faith counsels a way of living that grows out of devotion to this attractive God-man.  In Jesus Christ a divine life has come that we can love.
One last problem that many of us have with God is knowing where and how to find Him.

We look for Him and He does not seem to be there with us. But, when we again reflect on Bethlehem that problem is completely reversed. The event that took place there tonight is not about our seeking God but about Him seeking us.  Friends, that is a unique point of view about God, one that we desperately need these festive days.  It confronts us with a different sort of question. We start off asking, ‘how can we find God?’  But the real question is this:  ‘How can we get away from Him? God is all over the place!

Francis Thompson put a great truth into earthly language when he called God “The Hound of Heaven.”  God keeps after us night and day tracking us down wherever we may go.

We pine after the good and the beautiful, definitely.  We look every which way for these.  We discover the beauty of living the Christian lifestyle and affirming others especially the stranger; we are treated to the beauty experienced when we come together to remember the Lord in worship making sure that we aid and abet the beauty and goodness of life by all that we say and all that we do.

We Christians are called to bridge the gap between heaven and earth in our lives. This means bringing the values and the ways of heaven into the way we treat ourselves and others.  Heaven happens on earth when we bring love where there is hatred and anger, justice where there is exploitation and greed, hope where there is fear and despair.

Reflecting on what happened this night two thousand years ago changes everything. God is no longer a vague theory but a life that can be seen and heard. God is no longer a fearful thought but a Person easy to love. God is no longer an elusive shadow but a pursuing Spirit who will not let us go. Such a God will see us through the anxieties of the present and the year that lies ahead. 

These days when civil authorities have valid reason to call church leaders to account, due to reports that have uncovered methods of years past responding to accusations of the misconduct of certain clergy, that the ways of dealing with those situations were inadequate, to the detriment of others.  Public commentary on the seriousness of sins and mistakes of clergy has taken on a new urgency and rightly so.

Methods the church uses to respond to these incidents have changed and have been operative across the country officially since 2002, if not before in some places. Bishops continue to be resolute in their application now and for the future.  In all things we are held to a higher standard, and rightly so.

Recognizing that many of you often stand in defense of our faith and in the position of making sense of the sins and failures of others, even that of leadership, we see that we are at a moment of great learning and insight and healing.  With this in mind know that we acknowledge and appreciate your daily dedication to the Church and your faith and hope that is always and everywhere truly admirable and for which we thank God.  Let us together be instruments of His grace and a part of the renewal of the Church in these times.

When the agonies of life exceed our power to meet them with our own strength, we pray the Lord will open our eyes to perceive His presence so that we may know that we live not by ourselves but by the power that God continually gives us.

We can trust Him with all our days and all of our tomorrows, come what may… the good and the beautiful, the bad, the ugly.

 

Chicago Christmas