Sunday, January 19, 2014

Open Your Doors

[State-of-the-parish address; St. Andrew's, Kansas City; Jan. 19, 2014]

Welcome to annual-meeting Sunday and the state-of-the-parish address.  And here’s my annual warning: This will be longer than a standard sermon.  On the bright side, I won’t be giving a speech in the meeting downstairs….
In a nutshell, the state of our parish is mixed, honestly.  Some parts of our common life are strong and getting stronger; in others, we see red flags we’ll be addressing this year.  That’s not a surprise, given the huge changes underway, both in our parish culture and in our world.  Following our model of collaborative leadership, I’ll share with you where we are in terms of the parish’s spiritual affairs, and you’ll hear about the temporal affairs downstairs. 
We’ve had a very good year in terms of “equipping the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12).  Basically, we’ve spent a year strengthening our staff.  We defined a new leadership position, pastor for young adults and families; and we searched for and found Fr. Marcus – praise God for that.  We bid farewell to Dr. Sharon Hettinger in her retirement, redefined the music director’s job with a more missional focus, and called Dr. Tom Vozzella – praise God for that.  We redefined the roles of the children’s and youth ministry coordinators, making their work more collaborative with their commissions; and we found Kat Mercer and Mathew Berger, who’ve energized these ministries greatly – praise God for that.  We redefined our communications role to focus on marketing the parish internally and externally, and we’re very close to filling two part-time positions to get that work done.  Our talent pool is deep and getting deeper – praise God for that.
We’ve also built our capacity to stay connected with you.  Many of you remember Telecare, led by Chuck Sweeney – a ministry of calling everyone in the parish simply to check in.  Thanks to the leadership of Mtr. Anne and Deacon Peg Ruth, we’ve renewed Telecare and rechristened it “Sweeneycare” in Chuck’s memory.  We’ve also increased the number of parishioners visiting other parishioners for pastoral care, with 11 lay people now regularly doing that work.  At the other end of the age spectrum, Fr. Marcus, Kat Mercer, and Mathew Berger have been busy contacting our families to strengthen those relationships and invite them to join the fun.
And we’ve begun building our capacity to reach people who aren’t yet here.  With Take5, our Saturday-evening service, we’re offering a new, more relaxed approach to worship at a new time – and about 50 people a week are taking us up on the offer.  And Fr. Marcus is meeting people in neighborhood coffee shops and watering holes, building toward a regular series in a bar – relaxed fellowship and conversation about real issues, offering “church” in a new way.
But in other ways, as I said, the indicators aren’t so good.  For the year, our worship attendance is down.  Our sojourn in the undercroft during the nave renovation had something to do with that, and the addition of Take5 on Saturday evenings has increased our averages in the past seven weeks.  But still, attendance is down.  Also, our pledged income is basically at the same level as last year, which is good; but the number of pledging units has decreased.  From what we’ve heard in following up with people, many just forgot to send in their pledges or didn’t recognize the pledge mailing for what it was.  Still, we have some real work to do in engaging parishioners better and in making stewardship a year-round, spiritual practice; and we’ll be digging into that beginning with the Vestry retreat in a couple of weeks.
You’ll hear more about 2013 in the meeting downstairs.  But for now, let’s think about the big questions as we look forward:  Who are we, what is our mission, and what’s God asking of us in this moment?  The answers to these questions have everything to do with what’s coming in the next 12 months.
Our readings today tell us pretty clearly who we are and what we’re called to do.  The prophet Isaiah says, “It is too light a thing” for us simply to be people of faith.  Like the Israelites, we are called to be the Lord’s “light to the nations, that … salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6).  The people of God are by definition a missionary presence in the world.  The light of Christ shines through us.  It shines through the witness of our lives, our words and our actions.  That witness is both our greatest gift to God and our brightest beacon of blessing for the people around us.  And in that offering of ourselves, in our brokenness and in our giftedness, we are “called to be saints,” Paul says in First Corinthians:  We are holy and set aside for the service of God, and we “are not lacking in any spiritual gift” necessary for a saint’s work (1:7).  If a bunch of fisherman were good enough to follow Jesus and take his word to the world, aren’t you?  And in John’s Gospel, we hear that story, our story – the call of Andrew to call others.  He begins as a follower of John the Baptist, but he goes off to follow Jesus instead.  Jesus asks him what he’s looking for and invites Andrew to “come and see” (John 1:39).  We don’t get to hear what happened, but something clearly happened because Andrew couldn’t keep his saints’ light from shining.  He had to run off and find his brother, Peter, and share the news: that he’d found the real deal, the messiah, the real presence of God come to earth.  Andrew couldn’t help himself: He had to open the door and invite his brother in.
So, for this congregation of “missionary zeal,” as the plaque to my left says – what do we hear in all this for us?  I hear God calling the saints of this place to open our doors and let Christ’s light shine.  It’s right there, in our parish vision statement:  “St. Andrew’s is a spiritual home to all, inspiring us to shine Christ’s light into our families, our city, and our world.”  So here are four doors we’re going to work to open in the next 12 months:
First, the doors of our hearts.  There are lots of ways our hearts might be opened to a deeper relationship with God.  But first and foremost, those doors are opened by worship; and within worship, it’s particularly music that turns the key.  Over the past year, we’ve been taking a few steps to differentiate the musical experience at our three weekend services.  Now, with Tom Vozzella here, that work will step up.  8:00 will still be an experience of the richness of traditional hymnody and classic composers.  At 10:15, we’ll keep exploring a greater musical diversity, including traditional hymns along with spirituals, more contemporary pieces, maybe music from other cultures.  And at Take5, we’ll keep moving toward a more inviting and accessible sound, giving people the chance to sing things they might hear on Christian radio, things they can sing with ease.  It’s all a work in progress, the musical “product” one week being influenced by your experience in the weeks before.  So please, talk with Tom, or with Mtr. Anne, Fr. Marcus, or me.  Let us know what’s working and what isn’t.  Because the point isn’t to create an interesting range of church music; the point is to open your heart to Jesus Christ, who’s standing at the door and knocking (Revelation 3:20).
So the door to our hearts is the first one to open.  Second, we’re going to work on opening the interior doors of our parish.  Of course, I don’t mean that literally; I mean the doors that sometimes keep us separated from other members of our church community.  Maybe the door is closed by physical difficulties in getting to church.  Maybe the door is closed by a habit of keeping to the crowd we know.  (I heard recently from a long-time member, and a ministry leader, that she’s never been invited to another parishioner’s home.)  Maybe that door is closed by forgetting to invite newcomers to get involved in something you’re involved in.  (We have a good number of people coming through our red doors; and even though they may not say it, they want you to “make the ask.”)  We’re going to work on opening each of these doors – increasing our capacity to get older and disabled people to church, creating new opportunities for fellowship and pastoral care, explicitly offering multiple entry points into the life of the parish.  In the city of God, scripture tells us, “its gates will never be shut” (Revelation 21:5).
Third, we’re going to work on opening the doors of our faith to our friends and neighbors by helping you tell our story.  We’ve made a good start, with parishioners putting out yard signs at Christmas and Easter, maybe even distributing some door hangers (probably in the dark and in other people’s neighborhoods…).  As Episcopalians, speaking about faith is our greatest growing edge.  Well, your new Communication Commission has been helping us find the words to say when the time is right to talk about what makes St. Andrew’s special.  On the back page of the bulletin, you’ll find the progress so far:  a statement of beliefs and values that encapsulate what differentiates us.  (Please don’t read it now; take it home instead.)  The commission isn’t finished, so look for more tools to help us share our congregation’s story.  Doing that, along with growing our capacity to market ourselves professionally, will open doors for people who never would have thought to seek God here.  As Jesus said, “Knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9)
Fourth, we’re going to work on opening the exterior doors of our church.  Again, I’m not talking about literally propping open the red doors.  I’m talking about opening the parish to the community around us, continuing our journey of reaching new people with “church” done in new ways.  As you know, for some time now we’ve been exploring what to do with our facility across the street, HJ’s, and whether we should conduct a capital campaign to celebrate our second century.  In November, we asked you those questions through a fundraising feasibility study.  The results were deeply encouraging.  We received more than 200 responses, and 88 percent of you feel this church is effective in meeting your spiritual needs.  That’s huge – exciting and humbling, all at the same time.  In addition, a clear majority supports replacing HJ’s with a new facility, and our consultants say we have a very high likelihood of raising the money to do it.  So the Vestry has voted to proceed with a capital campaign, and you’ll hear more about it downstairs.  For now, let me say this:  It’s an open question exactly what we’ll do with HJ’s; that decision is part of the campaign process.  But the building is not the point.  The goal is to create a new open door between our parish and our community – a place where activities like Youth Group and Scouts can grow and thrive; a place where fresh expressions of worship can happen; a place where neighbors can gather for art exhibits, classes, meetings, or events; a place where we can support and empower entrepreneurs working to improve the lives of people in our city who are suffering.  We want to build an open door through which parishioners and residents can come together, both to prosper our church and to prosper our community.  It’s the next step for the spiritual descendants of St. Andrew, providing a place where we, along with those not yet among us, can “come and see” Jesus as we gather together, opening the doors of the kingdom for people, like Andrew himself, who don’t even know what they’re seeking.
When we truly open our doors, we can’t predict just what will happen.  We can’t know exactly who may come in.  And that’s a good thing.  In fact, it’s the point.  Jesus is asking the saints who tend this house of God to open the doors of our hearts and the doors of our parish to the gift of new life that Jesus wants to give us. 
I want to close by reminding you of a story, something that happened here three and a half years ago now.  A parishioner and I were returning to the church after lunch; and as we pulled up under the porte-cochere, we noticed the door was propped open.  Directly in front of the doorway, at the threshold, there stood a dove.  It was minding its own business, with its back to us; and it was looking into the church. 
We sat in the car, watching to see what this symbol of the Holy Spirit would do.  And what it did was … nothing.  It just stood there, looking inside, weighing its options.  Finally, it jumped, spread its wings, and beat them hard to lift itself up and … into the building.  We took it as a healthy sign.  It’s always good when the Holy Spirit chooses to join us here in church. 
So my friend went back to work; and I went inside – where the dove was now flying around in the narthex, trying to make sense of a new space.  Part of me wanted to let it stay, to see where else in the church the Holy Spirit might choose to go.  But the practical side of me – the part that really didn’t want the dove to fly into the nave and roost in the rafters – that practical side of me intervened.  And I found myself in the dubious position of trying to corral this emblem of the Holy Spirit and drive it back out of the church. 
The dove had flown pretty far in, onto the small greeter table by the Wornall Terrace door; and I thought I should get myself between the dove and the Jewell Room so it wouldn’t fly around in there.  Slowly I walked around it, but the dove didn’t seem to care.  Instead, it seemed to be waiting for me to take my place.  Once I’d gotten behind it, the dove flitted over to the oblations table by the door to the nave.  I came along slowly, hoping it would keep moving toward the outside door.  It looked at me, hopped down from the oblations table, and flew over near the door.  Again I came along behind.  Finally, I watched as the dove beat its wings and flew out the open door. 
I was relieved but also a little disappointed by the role I’d had to play.  But then it hit me:  Who was leading whom?  Rather than me driving the Spirit out of the church, perhaps the Spirit had invited me to follow it.  The dove had come through the open door, and I had followed it in.  Then it had moved to its positions, and I had moved into mine.  Like dance partners making up the steps as they go, the dove and I moved in choreography that came as it needed to come.  I wasn’t herding or corralling anything.  It was the dove who was leading me out, just as the dove had led me in.
The same holds true for us.  The Holy Spirit has led us here, into this beautiful and sacred space, into this warm and welcoming family.  Now, the Spirit says:  Unlock your doors and open them wide.  Open your doors, that we might let the light of Christ shine through them.  Open your doors, that we might bring in people looking to connect with a power they can’t quite name.  Open your doors, that we might go out into God’s world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.  Open your doors, that the Spirit might use us to make the old creation new.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Be a Star

[Sermon from Epiphany (transferred), Jan. 5, 2014.]

Once again this morning, we’ve been blessed to see the power of the star of Bethlehem.  We’ve watched the three wise visitors from distant lands as they join us in coming to a peasant’s shack to marvel at the impossible, impoverished king they find there. 
There’s a lot we don’t know about these traveling wise people.  But the Gospel story makes one thing very clear:  It’s the star that draws the magi to Jesus – which makes sense, given that “magi” means astrologers, observers of the sky, the proto-scientists of their day.  In a sense, the star is the main character in this story, powerful enough to draw learned people from foreign lands, powerful enough to make King Herod quake in his boots, powerful enough to reveal precisely where God has come to take up residence among us.
We know this story so well, we may be tempted not to notice how strange it is and how many questions it raises.  For example: Why did these particular wise people see that particular star?  Of all the court astrologers out there, why did these magi notice this star and care enough to follow it?  If the star was so striking, why didn’t all the astrologers of the ancient Near East flock to Bethlehem to see the baby king?  Well, maybe they did – the Gospel story never says there were only three.  Or maybe other wise people followed other signs intended for them, just as the star guided these particular astrologers.  After all, think about the shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks:  They got a battalion of the heavenly army singing to them in the middle of the night.  That’s a pretty clear sign. 
And these are just the stories that Luke and Matthew record.  Who knows how many other people might have received their own signs of the divine wonder: that God had indeed come to save them but in the last place they would have thought to look, in a common shack.  Maybe what the stories of the shepherds and the magi really reveal is the double-barreled nature of this Good News:  first, that everyone’s included in the scope of God’s love, whether you’re a Jewish shepherd or a court astrologer from a distant land; and second, that God is endlessly creative in finding ways to let us know that this love is real, and present, and there for the taking. 
Now, if we’d been scripting this story, we might have written it differently to make sure everybody got the message.  We might have had God’s voice booming from heaven, announcing the news of the king’s birth to everyone on the planet at the same time:  “We interrupt our regular programming to bring you this special news bulletin….”  This was pretty amazing news; you’d think God might have wanted to broadcast it.  Interestingly, God went for narrow-casting instead – crafting the message for each audience.  As today’s reading from Ephesians says, God’s intent is “to make everyone see” (3:9) this amazing truth that God wants to bring all people together in love – “no longer strangers and aliens but … members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19), erasing differences like gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, and social class.  That’s what the church is here for, Ephesians says:  to reveal “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” (3:10).  We are here “to make everyone see” that in God’s eyes, every last person is valuable, every last person is blessed, every last person is desired in God’s kingdom – no exceptions.  Whether it takes an angel’s trumpet or a shining star, God wants the news to get out there.
So how does God reveal this wisdom to wise men and women today?  There are endless possibilities, everything from dramatic life events, to glorious sunrises, to unexpected blessings.  But mostly, I think it’s … us.  It’s you.  You are the star pointing to God’s love made flesh.  You are the light revealing this truth that’s still so hard to believe – that under the reign and rule of God, you’re in, no matter who you are.  Everyone’s a member of the household, regardless of past experience or past perceptions.  God’s family is there “to make everyone see” that God wants everyone to be part of it. 
And the medium is the message:  Particular stars shine for particular people.  Not everybody followed the star of Bethlehem; it was intended specifically for those “wise men from the East” (Matthew 2:1), and it got the job done.  By the same token, none of us has to reach everyone, but each of us is here to reach someone. 
I want to share with you three examples of what I’m talking about.  Here’s the first:  You’ve heard our senior warden, Steve Rock, speak about his friend Deck Murray, who’s been struggling with cancer and who entered the next chapter of his eternal life just this week.  Deck spent most of his adult life actively not being a person of faith.  What he knew of church wasn’t about authentic relationships but about judgment or institutional promotion or self-aggrandizement.  Over the course of Deck’s illness, Steve has been present to his friend in all kinds of ways – and among them has been a quiet but relentless witness, in the literal sense of that word, about the power of a church community to bring healing even in situations that can’t be cured.  And here’s the fruit it bore:  As Deck neared the end of his life, he got deeply involved in a church family, along with his wife; and it’s that church family that will celebrate his life in a couple of weeks.  His connection with God, through a church, happened because Steve let God’s light shine through him for the person God needed him to reach.
Here’s example 2:  I was at the Free Store distribution on Dec. 20, when the cold-weather items you donated were offered to the people who eat at the Kansas City Community Kitchen.  One part of our work that day was different than usual:  Three of us were there not to hand out coats and hats, but to listen.  We asked people there if we could talk with them, and then we got out of the way and let God work.  I was blessed to overhear one conversation Pete Vogt was having.  He was listening to a man named Eric.  Eric had once been a cook, but he’s been living out of his car for four years now.  He suffers from epilepsy and deeply painful rheumatoid arthritis, which I’m sure isn’t helped by living in the cold and which limits his ability to stand for any length of time.  Pete listened to him, and asked him questions about his life, and encouraged him to get available help with medications.   But then, Pete took it one step further.  He asked the man if he could pray for him.  And then Pete offered one of the most beautiful, authentic, personally specific intercessory prayers I’ve ever been blessed to overhear.  Despite his challenges, Eric walked away from the Free Store with a lot more than a coat.  Pete had let God’s light shine through him for the person God needed him to reach.
Here’s example 3.  I try not to fall into the preacher’s trap of using stories about your own kids as sermon illustrations.  The kids didn’t sign up for that just because their dad went to seminary.  But I do want to mention something you may not know about my son, Dan.  He’s a great kid in all kinds of ways that don’t reveal themselves publicly.  But there is one fairly public thing about Dan that I truly admire.  In the past year, he’s invited at least seven people to come to church – friends of his and their family members.  There may well have been more, but I know of at least seven people who’ve come as a result of his invitations.  Given that the average Episcopalian invites something like one to two people to church in a lifetime, Dan’s done pretty well this year.  How does he do it?  He follows God’s lead.  He has real conversations with his friends about things that matter, and sometimes that ends up in an invitation to experience God in a new way.  It’s not rocket science, it’s relationship; and he’s good at it.  Dan’s been willing to let God’s light shine through him for the people God needs him to reach.
I don’t know specifically what Steve or Pete or Dan said to the people they touched.  What I know is the effect of their words and stories and presence on the people around them.  Each of them let others know they were part of God’s family even if they hadn’t realized it yet.  Each of the people they reached came to see God’s love in a unique way, through a unique vessel.  That’s how incarnation works:  God shows up in us, in you.  To people who may not even have known they needed saving, a savior takes flesh and dwells among them. 
So, you might have guessed this was coming:  What is one way that you’ve seen and known God’s surprising, reconciling, healing love in your own experience?  That’s your star.  God will give you the opportunity to speak it or show it to someone – maybe even this week.  Give it a shot.  Take that light you bear, and let it shine.  The star of Bethlehem didn’t attract every Gentile; it attracted those particular wise people from the East.  There is someone in your universe who’s searching for a sign of God’s love in a way that you, particularly, can offer.  Pray about it, speak it, act it – and then let God do the rest of the work.
Years ago, the first President Bush (a good Episcopalian, by the way) talked about offering “a thousand points of light” to the world.  There’s divine wisdom in that.  As Ephesians says, the church is here to make known “the wisdom of God in its rich variety,” the inclusion of all in God’s loving embrace.  One star doesn’t enlighten the world – not even the star of Bethlehem.  But thousands do.   Take your experience of divine love, and let it shine through you for one person dwelling in darkness.  That’s all it takes to be a star.

A New Birth of Freedom

[Sorry for the late posting, but here's the sermon from Christmas Eve.]

Tonight we gather in the beauty of this hallowed space, singing songs we’ve sung for years, hearing a story many know by heart.  It’s Christmas Eve; and after our long Advent wait, we can finally say it:  Christ is born. 
But as we’ve been exploring throughout the weeks of Advent, that claim is not enough on its own.  For a good number of us here tonight, we come with deep questions, maybe deep suspicion.  We come wondering, “Christ is born.  So what?”
As many of you know, I grew up in Springfield, Missouri – “the buckle on the Bible Belt” – so religious messages were everywhere.  One of them stays with me particularly tonight, a billboard on Highway 13.  On the sign, in huge letters, was the claim we come here tonight to celebrate:  “Jesus Saves!”  In my less-pious years, I often wondered, “Saves us from what?”  What’s the threat from which Jesus delivers us?   What do you mean, he’s a “savior?” 
In the readings tonight, and especially in Luke’s familiar story of shepherds and angels and the birth of the baby, we hear that claim made in a way that would strike us as preposterous if we hadn’t heard it so often before.  Isaiah had set the stage, proclaiming that God would deliver the Jewish people through the birth of a king, a ruler of the house and lineage of David.  This king would save Israel from its oppressors, the foreign powers that had been invading and destroying and carrying people off into captivity for decades.  Luke then picks up on this promise 700 years later and tells the story of another new king’s birth.  He was a peasant child born into Roman oppression – an absolute nobody, like all the other Jewish people trying to remain invisible to the brutal authorities who would kill a bothersome peasant without a second thought.  Yet despite the hopelessness of that situation, messengers from God tell the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy,” for “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:10-11). 
For Jewish people longing for someone to deliver them from their oppressors, this news of the coming of the Messiah would have made all the difference.  But what about us?  Tonight, as we celebrate the coming of the Christ child, God-With-Us – what difference does Jesus make?  This “Savior, who is Christ the Lord” – what does he save us from?
Often on this holy night, preachers find themselves recounting heart-warming stories to flesh out the true meaning of Christmas.  I’ve heard sermons involving A Charlie Brown Christmas, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or A Christmas Carol.  Tonight, I want to step out on a limb of the Christmas tree just a bit and tell you about a story you may have seen at the movies recently.  That story is Twelve Years a Slave.  OK, it’s about the least likely “Christmas movie” ever.   But bear with me.
Twelve Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup, based on his memoir of the same name.  Northup was a free African-American man, born in New York state and living in Saratoga Springs with his wife and two children.  Deceived into traveling to slave-holding Washington, D.C., he was kidnapped and sold, eventually shipped to the plantations of Louisiana.  There Northup endured the frighteningly normal horror of slave life, being regularly beaten and almost killed after striking back at a brutal overseer.  He was later sold to a sadistic master who liked to quote Scripture nearly as much as he liked to whip people.  The repeated violence kept Northup from sharing his true identity.  The one time he took the risk and paid a white field hand to smuggle a letter to friends in New York, the field hand betrayed him for a few pieces of silver.
Where this tale becomes a Christmas story is in Northup’s salvation from the nightmare his life had become.  Bound in despair I can’t even begin to imagine, Northup met a wandering stranger – someone who really had no business even being on a plantation in the depth of slavery’s hell.  That stranger was Samuel Bass, a journeyman carpenter from Canada.  He worked his way through several states before coming into the heart of the slave kingdom.  Even more unexpected than his location was his willingness to speak out against the deep injustice he saw in slavery – and the odd fact that he was able to get away with it.  As Northup describes Bass in his memoir, “He was that kind of a person whose peculiarity of manner was such that nothing he uttered ever gave offence.  What would be intolerable, coming from the lips of another, could be said by him with impunity.”1  Bass frequently confronted his employer, the sadistic plantation owner, forcing him to justify such grotesque exploitation of other people – which the master did by arguing matter-of-factly that non-whites were not people.  Hearing Bass argue passionately against slavery, Northup took the risk of confiding to him the truth of his identity.  Unbelievably, risking nothing less than his own life, Bass agreed to help Northup; and he sent letters to Northup’s friends in Saratoga, asking them to forward Northup’s “free papers” to the authorities in Louisiana and arrange his release.
Picking up Northup’s own account in his book, here’s what he wrote about Bass:  “He overwhelmed me with assurances of friendship and faithfulness….  He spoke of himself in a somewhat mournful tone … that his life was of little value to himself, and henceforth should be devoted to the accomplishment of my liberty….”2  A few days later, Bass left the plantation long enough to write the letters to New York.  Weeks and then months passed with no responses; and eventually Bass finished his construction work and had to move on.  But on Christmas Eve, Bass returned to the plantation.3  (Now, the movie doesn’t say much about this happening at Christmas, but that’s how Northup’s book describes it.)  Then, on Christmas morning, Bass came to talk with Northup.  Unfortunately, the news was not good:  No replies had come to Bass’ letters.  Northup despaired, lamenting that he would die a slave after all.  But Bass had a different plan:  He pledged to put his own life on the line and journey to Saratoga Springs himself.  He said, “I’m tired of Slavery as [much] as you.  If I can succeed in getting you away from here, it will be a good act that I shall like to think of all my life.  And I shall succeed….  Cheer up!  Don’t be discouraged.  I’m with you, life or death.”4  Not a bad Christmas present.
But the trip to Saratoga wasn’t necessary.  On Jan. 3, 1853 – still within the 12 Days of Christmas, by the way – Northup’s liberation came.5  Miraculously enough, Bass’ letters had reached Saratoga, and they’d had the desired effect.  Officials from New York appeared on the plantation early that morning and redeemed Northup from the hand of his oppressor.  
In the end, the wandering carpenter had achieved the slave’s freedom.  At incredible risk to himself, giving himself up to the very real possibility of death, the carpenter came into the life of a man who simply could not save himself.  The carpenter willingly entered into a place of deep darkness, a place where evil held sway; and he defeated the powers of sin and death from the inside out.  At Christmas.
Now, I wouldn’t dare to equate much of anything in our lives with the lived experience of plantation slavery.  Nor would I compare our lives with the experience of Jewish peasants living under the bloody terror of Roman occupation.  But I would say this:  There are still powers that seek to hold us in bondage.  There are still ways in which we are enslaved.  Some of us are held by the power of addiction or obsession.  Some of us are held by the power of narcissism and indifference.  Some of us are held by the power of materialism and greed.  Some of us are held by the power of prejudice and self-righteousness.  Some of us are held by the power of a hobbled sense of self that can’t even imagine being worthy of another person’s love. 
And yet, in our bondage, we, too, are blessed with visits from unexpected agents of salvation.  Through people we’d never have imagined as bearers of God’s presence, we find ourselves liberated from the powers that seek to hold us back.  Maybe it’s a sponsor in a recovery group.  Maybe it’s a stranger who shares his story, revealing strength and capacity you never imagined in someone “like him.”  Maybe it’s a sufferer who teaches you how rich your life is in comparison with hers.  Maybe it’s a spouse or a partner who sticks with you when you clearly don’t deserve it.  Maybe it’s a teacher who empties himself to prove that you are capable of more than you ever believed.  Maybe it’s a friend who shows you that, indeed, you are absolutely worthy of love.
Through those people who walk into our struggles, into our places of despair – through them, the dear Christ still enters in.  They are God-With-Us in the same way Samuel Bass was the presence of Christ for Solomon Northup.  Through them, God saves us from forces we can’t overcome on our own.  The “so what?” of Christmas is nothing less than this:  that God loves us enough to step into our places of deepest bondage and confront them from within.  God does not stay aloof from our struggles, setting the world in motion and sitting idly by.  God takes flesh – flesh that will be risked, flesh that will bleed.  God literally has skin in the game, entering into the powerless, humiliating, shameful places of our lives and inhabiting them with us.  That’s the difference Jesus makes:  In him, God takes the risk to walk alongside us.  And when that walk takes us through the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear because God is with us – comforting us, yes; but also leading us up and out of the valley, out of the grip of bondage and into a land of new birth.
Unto you is born this night a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  Look for him in the people and the places you’d least expect.  Look for him where you can’t find answers.  Look for him where you’re afraid.  Look for him where your heart hurts most.  Because where your bondage is most brutal, where your despair is at its depth, where your weakness is most withering, that is precisely where Jesus steps in, and walks alongside you, and speaks the words of a new birth of freedom:  “See, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5) 

1.        Northup, Solomon (David Wilson, ed.).  Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana.  New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1855.  Electronic scan available at:  264.
2.        Northup, 273.
3.        Northup, 279.
4.        Northup, 281-282.
5.        Northup, 287-288.