Christmas Presence

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Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas is a time for stories because we begin again, at this time, to make the saving connection between our one story and the eternal story of Jesus Christ, our Christmas Presence.  You spell that presence.

When we were little, Jan and I lived out in the west, together under the Big Sky, though we did not know each other, she near Denver and I in Las Vegas, we were not to hold hands for another 15 Christmas Eves, nor to become engaged for another 20, nor for another 25 to construct a child’s play kitchen at 2am, opening the box marked, a frightful warning, “some assembly required”.  She was a toddler while her dad read Paul Tillich for a PhD dissertation in Denver, at the Illiff School of Theology.  He commuted from school to church on the train, reading a book with each eye as you do in graduate school. He went there, after a master’s degree in electrical engineering, on the strength of a Life magazine article titled, “They’re training a new kind of preacher in Denver.”  At the same time, I was a toddler in the desert sands of Las Vegas while my dad was a chaplain at the Nellis Air Force Base.  He went there, after undergraduate pre-medical study and divinity school in Boston.  They were leaders.  One the captain of the football team, the other the President of the senior class.  They came of age when leaders who wanted to make a difference headed away from engineering and medicine, and toward the ministry. All this was 55 years ago:  the cold war, Joe McCarthy, Elvis, the Mickey Mouse Club, Patti Page, and the hoola hoop.  And Tillich.

Paul Tillich is probably the last and only name of a modern theologian that more than 10% of contestants on a game show in our nation could recognize.  Maybe 5%.  His was one of the last great theological attempts, in simple yet systematic language, to connect the story of life with the story of Christ, and to do so in a way that would work, as Luke says, “for all the people”.   I smiled last week when I read again his forward to the 1957 volume:  “I hope to receive much valuable criticism of the substance of my thought, as I did with the first volume…But I cannot accept criticism as valuable which merely insinuates that I have surrendered the substance of the Christian message because I have used a terminology which consciously deviates from the biblical or ecclesiastical language.  Without such deviation, I would not have deemed it worthwhile to develop a theological system for our period.”

As Jan, at age 3, fingered the bulbs and lights of a tree in the parsonage of Onega, Kansas, her dad read Tillich, on the train home from Denver.    He read, I know he must have, how Tillich translated the old words about faith to words more current and true.  They are still true, and hearing them this morning can mean lasting health, real salvation.  Said he, we receive the Christmas Presence in three modes.  By participation.  By acceptance.  By transformation.

First, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story by causing you to participate in his.  This is the whole substance of Christmas, the reason for the season, and the reason you are here this morning, or listening on the radio this morning—and by the way, a special, personal Merry Christmas greeting to our faithful radio congregation today.  You are participating.  It is the reason the musician frets over carols, the ushers welcome you, the preacher offers a sermon, and in the beauty, the silence, the majesty of this one beautiful day within the great Day of God, you participate.  Christ has surrounded your hurt and desire, with his healing and love.

Second, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story, somewhere along the tough road of life, by whispering to you:  “you are accepted.”  If only you will accept the fact that deep in the heart of the universe, call it the Ground of all Being if you will, there is a happy acceptance of just who you are, the real you, the authentic only you, your one story.  God loves you.  God accepts you.   You have things you regret. Welcome to the human race.  God accepts all that.  You are not perfect.  Welcome to the human race.  God accepts that too.  You are prone to error and certain to die.  Welcome to the human race.  God accepts your error and mortality.  Because: God accepts you.  Someday you are going to feel, believe, trust, know, understand and ACCEPT your acceptance by God.  May it be this Christmas morning 2011.  You are in the region, first trodden by shepherds and lowly folk, near Bethlehem of Judea, when the news broke:  God accepts, God loves.

Today, we might say, you are connected.  I ordered a computer by phone one fall. Mistake one. “Whatever else, please make sure the machine has a modem in it.”  Of course, yes, it arrived–without the modem.  We spent fumbling days installing the wrong, then the right little piece, to connect.  We were connected, but we had to connect with our connection, to see what condition our condition was in.  You are connected, so connect with your connection.

Third, the story of Christ grasps and embraces your story, over time, by transforming your life from one of self-centered striving, to one of centered selfhood, that frees others and loves others and gives to others.  From self centered to centered self. You will be surprised how steadily this transformation develops, which has occurred in potential by virtue of your simple participation this morning, and whose power is felt in your own acceptance, and your accepting your acceptance, and may that be this Christmas morning, too.

There is something new, loose in the universe, a Christmas Presence Who saves us by causing us to participate, by freeing us to accept, by changing us into loving people.

And maybe, after he assembled the tricycle at Christmas in the mid-50’s, Jan’s dad made a sermon note:  joy of participation!  Joy of acceptance!  Joy of transformation!  Peace, good will to all.

That same Christmas, a few hundred miles to the southwest, the midnight communion service on the Air Force base in Las Vegas was ending early on Christmas Day.  After the last candles were dosed, a humbler, perhaps truer, quiet ritual of Christmas Presence began.  It was the determined habit of the provost marshal on that base to spend Christmas eve and the wee hours of Christmas morning visiting those lonely airmen who walked the perimeter guard, around Nellis Air Force base.  This particular night was a crisp, starlit Christmas eve, but very cold out in the desert.   Robert Redford’s Desert Bloom beautifully depicts the location.  The provost marshal asked the chaplain to go along.  They took with them in the VW van canisters of coffee and cocoa and cookies baked by the major’s wife.  Interestingly, someone left two such canisters and four tubs of casserole in the chapel yesterday, an anonymous gift from an anonymous giver to an anonymous recipient. Through the night they drove, all around that base, a site then for nuclear testing during those early cold war years.  They were still at it, when dawn came on Christmas Day, as it has this morning.

They visited 18 posts.  At each the routine was the same.  The major offered the refreshments to the men (only men then) and then shouldered the man’s weapon and walked off into the desert to take the man’s turn at walking the half mile along the perimeter.  The provost marshal walked each man’s post, while the chaplain talked to the airmen.

You know, the old English root of the word “believe” is “to be near to.”

I had heard this story many times growing up, but I had forgotten it until a few summers, when my Dad and I were talking about the North Star, a sign of promise, and our experience with the night sky.

That night was a beautiful night.  The stars beckoned from horizon to horizon.  And cold!  You forget how cold it gets out on the desert after the sun goes down.  Finally the base marshal and the chaplain, my Dad, came to the flight line.  Well past midnight, they drove on by acres of airplanes worth millions of dollars.  Jets, prop planes, all.

Along the fence, guarding these millions of dollars worth of government machinery, there stood a 19 year old airman second class.  The major repeated the procedure—offering refreshment, shouldering the weapon, and walking off into the cold desert, leaving the chaplain alone with the young man.

It did not take long for the chaplain to discover that this particular 19 year old was not going to be easy to talk to. The chaplain tried everything—a joke, a question, a comment, a verse of scripture, everything he could think of to draw him out.  Nothing worked.  Probably the chaplain in a First Lieutenant’s uniform, and being a little older, was intimidating to the boy.  So, they just stood there.  In the silence.  In the cold.  In the silent still cold.  The chaplain shivered, the airman second class drank his cocoa, and there was black, dark quiet.  They gazed at that remarkable sky, as the dawn was coming up, and shivered and sipped….

Until, at last, the boy began to talk.  First a little information.  Then a little more about his family.  They some of his dreams for the future.  Then a word about his mom and his dad and his younger brother and his baby sister.  And there was moment of communion, I and Thou.  A hand on the shoulder, a word of prayer, a moment of participation and a little acceptance, and the beginnings of transformation, out in the desert.

What a blessing that lovely starry sky, the warm beverage, the cookies, the two older men and airman second class!

Now, 55 years later, I know that what Jan’s dad read in Denver is the gospel truth.  I have seen it with my own eyes.  The Christmas Presence changes people beginning with participation, continuing into acceptance, and completing us by transforming us.  Now 55 years later, I know the meaning of that Nevada story, and I know its truth.  The Christmas Presence heals us, beginning with participation, continuing into acceptance, and completing us in transformation.

I just have to ask you, here in the joy of Christmas morning:  can you accept your own acceptance?  Can you connect with your connection?

Mild he lays his glory by

Born that we no more may die

Born to raise us from the earth

Born to give us second birth

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Glory to the New born King

-The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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