Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
December 24, 2020
On this night, we join with Christians across the country and around the world to celebrate Christmas, remembering that God came into the world as the Christ child. In years past, I’ve enjoyed imagining what’s happening with the Pope in the basilica in Rome, and at St. Martin of the Fields in London, at night shelters and chapels all over the world. But that’s hard to do this year. This year, our rituals have been upended, our worship pushed online. Most family gatherings are small or aren’t happening at all. And for the first time since it was built in 195X, this sanctuary is not filled with sparkle and song and your beautiful voices on this holy night. Instead, it’s pretty quiet.
But I imagine that first Christmas was pretty quiet, too. At least, until the baby came, and the angels appeared in the night and sent the shepherds to seek the child in the manger.
And we are here, joyful, defiant. Trusting that Christmas will come, indeed, that Christ will come, no matter how quiet it is, and whether we feel ready or not. In our living rooms, in our empty church, Christmas will come. In the beeping woosh of the ICU it will come, in the weary fluorescent buzz of a jail cell it will come. In homes sparse of furniture, empty of gifts and full of worry, it will come. To our neighbors on the street and those safe at home. To the night shift, to the shelter, Christmas will come. It always does. Unclenching fists. Opening hearts. Sparking hope. Shedding light where it is needed.
And God knows we need some light, need some hope this year. Because this year – this year. It’s been a year of sickness and struggle. A year where we learned again what it meant to be afraid, where we lay awake with worry. A year of separation from family and friends and faith community. A year of ups and downs, a year of grief. A year that has laid bare the inequity and injustice that plague us. A year of finding our way through the dark.
It’s hard to walk confidently in the dark. You never know, you can’t tell what things are lurking, waiting for you to knock your shin, stub your toe, or cause you to stumble. We often feel less safe in the dark, on a lonely street or a shadowy parking lot. My friend Enio Lopez knew this.
Enio was the lightbulb king of Shawmut Street. At least, that’s what we called him.
He owned a white duplex on Shawmut Street in Chelsea, where he lived with his wife and teenaged kids. He’s Guatemalan-American, medium height, with a salt and pepper mustache. He often wore white K-Swiss tennis shoes, and a pressed button-down shirt. He was a leader in the neighborhood, the kind of guy who just seemed to know everybody.
Chelsea is an inner-urban suburb of Boston, a densely populated, poor immigrant community where I worked as an organizer for an affordable housing nonprofit after seminary. Shawmut was a long, narrow cross street that ran the length of the neighborhood, a street lined on either side with duplexes like Enio’s or triple-deckers, with a few single-family homes. Enio loved his neighborhood, but it wasn’t perfect – there were a lot of people packed in, living too close together, which brought some challenges. Drug deals, crime, car break-ins, and trash were common problems. There was enough turnover that neighbors didn’t know each other. I don’t feel safe, he told me.
So we knocked on some doors and invited his neighbors to dinner. Seems a long time ago, and unthinkable now. But we did. They came and ate, and decided to walk the neighborhood at night together. They realized the streetlight on their block was out, so they started to call public works and talked to their city councilor about it. In the meantime, their street was too dark, and no one was turning on their porch lights. So Enio and I wrote to a local store to ask them to donate some light bulbs and they did – boxes and boxes full, more than we could ever use. And so, bulb by bulb, porch by porch, house by house, we lit up Shawmut Street.
Enio was amazing. He was never without a lightbulb to offer, inviting you to join his campaign. “It’s energy-efficient!” he’d say. “Turn it on when it gets dark, and leave it on all night. Help make your street safe.” It won’t surprise you to learn that Enio serves on Chelsea city council himself, now, the first Latino to represent his district. That street light did, eventually get fixed. And I think we managed to give away all those lightbulbs, which have now probably long since burned out. But for a time, walking down Shawmut Street at night, porch after porch had a welcoming glow. Bright lights shone out in the dark, bringing a sense of safety, but not just that. Connectedness, camaraderie. A sense of home.
The gospel of John begins not with Mary or Joseph, not with angels and shepherds, and not with a babe in a manger. Instead, the gospel of John begins like this: In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
This year has been murky, dark, and difficult, but thanks be to God, there have been lights shining to help us find our way. Giving us hope. I’m sure you can name a few. Neighbors teamed up to deliver groceries to the elderly, food pantries changed how they operate to keep folx not just fed but also well. When flour and yeast were hard to come by, our old neighbor brought us bread, bless his heart. The concept of Mutual Aid grabbed headlines – the radical idea of people helping people, what we church folk have been doing for years! The courage of doctors and nurses, janitors and bus drivers and other essential workers inspired us. And, recently, picture after picture of friends and colleagues, doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains with their sleeves rolled up, receiving their vaccines – brings me to tears, and gives me hope that the beginning of the end is here.
Tonight, as we worship together but apart from one another, we bear witness to the good news that ours is a God who seeks us out. Who took on flesh to live with us. Who emptied themself of divinity to become a helpless baby, to walk among the neglected and forgotten, to bring every lost sheep back into the fold. Who sent angels to sing to those who had been shut out and left behind, to give the outcast and the poor the good news of salvation. Who still reaches out to us, despite our doubts, despite our frailty and failings, the wrong we have done and the good we have left undone – still seeks us out in unlikely places and people, in familiar rituals and in those surprising moments when the ordinary shimmers with sacramental light – when bread is broken, water poured, hands clasped, and love shines forth.
Proclaimed first on a dark hillside overlooking Bethlehem, the news of God’s redeeming love has reached around the world and through the centuries, and so like the shepherds we all come, each in our own way, to pay him homage. And we find our way, following the lights that shine out: acts of kindness, camaraderie, justice and love. Porch by porch. House by house. We follow the light, all the way home.