To me, Christmas is a time for stories – maybe the best time for stories. I remember, as a little boy, sitting in my family room on Christmas Eve. The grown-ups were waiting to go to Midnight Mass, having a few drinks and telling stories – some old, some new, all filled with joy. In my memory, those loud, cascading stories were followed by my mother standing up and reading the story, that grand story we just heard, the story of Mary and Joseph crossing Judea to reach a stable, and angels crossing heaven and earth to reach the shepherds. For all I know, it was a one-time thing, my mother deciding one year that the revelers needed a little reminding of what the holiday was all about. But in the memory of my heart, we did it that way every year.
So, since Christmas is a time for stories, I want to tell you three stories tonight. Two of them may not seem to have much to do with Christmas, but hang with me for a few minutes.
Here’s story #1. A couple of weeks ago, two parishioners, a married couple, were driving south on Holmes on a dark December night. They had come to about 75th Street when suddenly they saw something in front of them and had to swerve to miss it – a figure walking in the street. The person was dressed in dark clothes and wearing a hood, and the couple had nearly hit her. Recovering from the shock, the wife remembered that in the back seat, she had a reflective sash like nighttime joggers use. So the couple circled back around to meet the person one more time and offer the reflector.
Getting out, the wife greeted the person, a middle-aged African American woman, and said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but we nearly hit you as we came by. We’d like you to have this,” she said, handing her the reflective sash. “Why were you walking in the street, anyway?”
The woman replied, “I just got off work, and I’m walking to the bus stop. The sidewalk is so broken up, it’s not safe in the dark. But neither is the street, I suppose.”
The wife offered to drive her to the bus stop, but the woman said it was only a couple of blocks away. Then the husband said, “Well, where do you live?”
“39th and Woodland,” the woman said, “but you don’t need to do that.”
“What are cars for?” the husband asked, with a smile.
Now, behind his smile, the man was a little worried. Working as a hospice nurse, he’d gone to see patients in the Ivanhoe neighborhood several times, and he remembered someone advising him it was best to come in the early morning “because then the junkies are still asleep.” But the man and his wife drove the woman home anyway.
Things were quiet for a while, but as they crossed Troost, the boundary of Kansas City’s racial divide, the woman started narrating the journey. She told about how she and her husband had lived in their neighborhood 15 years and how pleased she was to see it making a recovery now. She talked about raising their kids there and how their next-door neighbor is her husband’s best friend. She talked about the storefront community center on the corner and how proud of it she was – how it had become the center of the neighborhood’s life. Dropping off the woman at her home, the couple found their perception had changed. No longer did they feel they’d crossed a boundary into a foreign and foreboding place. They’d simply crossed into a different neighborhood – and began a relationship along the way.
* * *
Here’s story #2. On Monday, I was blessed to join literally scores of St. Andrew’s people serving at the Free Store downtown. As you know, this was much more than a meal and a clothing distribution for poor people. The guests were welcomed into the cathedral for live music and a chance to get warm. They were brought into the large parish hall for lunch, where volunteers took their orders and brought them plates filled with ham, turkey, potatoes, dressing, corn on the cob, green beans, and other delights. Sitting at each table were members of our Order of St. Luke, there simply for the ministry of pastoral listening and presence. After lunch, the guests came downstairs to shop at the Free Store for coats, hoodies, socks, gloves, and a host of other items.
Among the volunteers at the store were a few of us there just to hang out and talk with people. It was in one of those conversations that I met Kevin. Kevin could be my brother – about my age, about my height, about the same amount of gray in his hair. Where the similarities stopped was with his hands. I shook Kevin’s hand, and it didn’t feel right. His fingers were red and swollen, and the skin was cracked and peeling. He said he’d felt embarrassed at lunch because the volunteer sitting at the table had been looking at his hands – dirty as well as damaged. I asked what had happened, and he explained it was frostbite. He’d gotten frostbite, Kevin said, because he lives in the woods.
“In the woods?” I asked, thinking I’d misunderstood.
“Yes.” He said he camps under a rickety lean-to with a few other guys – not nice guys, guys who steal your stuff and, in Kevin’s words, “abuse” you if you fight back. He said he had everything he needed to stay warm – a new thermal sleeping bag and plenty of blankets. But, he said, “It’s only good if you can stay dry. That’s how I got frostbite.”
I asked him what he needed, and he said, “I need a tent – and I need to get away from the guys in the camp. I don’t pretend my problems are anybody’s fault but my own,” he continued. “I have screwed up over and over again. But I can’t make any better choices where I am. I need to get free.”
Now, I was there to listen, and offer pastoral presence, and refer people to the human-services agencies that were there to help. I was just supposed to let Kevin know that God loves him, that people at the Free Store value him as a human being, and that someone from ReStart or the United Way could help him find a place to stay. But Kevin is a loner; he wasn’t going to avail himself of that help, and I knew it. So I arranged to meet him later that afternoon, just the two of us; and I went to go buy him a tent.
Now, I have no delusions that the tent is anything but a short-term solution to a web of problems I can’t begin to untangle. It may or may not have been the “right” thing to do; but because I crossed that boundary, at least Kevin was dry as it rained that night. Maybe the next night, too.
* * *
Here’s story #3. Two thousand years ago, an unmarried couple on the move came into a city where they didn’t know anyone. Because of the crowds, they camped in a cave next to someone else’s animals, in hay that no doubt hadn’t been mucked out anytime recently. She was very pregnant; and as bad luck would have it, the baby came that night. Nine months earlier, the young woman had been visited by an angel who’d crossed a boundary between heaven and earth to let her know the boundary-crossing had only just begun. This was not just an inconvenient pregnancy with the worst-timed delivery ever. This was the ultimate in boundary-crossing: This was God-With-Us, divinity in the flesh.
God had looked at that young woman, and the millions of other nobodies like her; and God said “yes” before Mary ever got her chance.
God said, “Yes, I will do what I’ve never done before.”
God said, “Yes, I will take the risk to become one of you.”
God said, “Yes, I will put myself into the drama of salvation, and propel the story in a way that Israel’s kings and prophets could never have imagined.”
God said, “Yes, I will heal the separation between you and me, between you dear, unruly, broken people and I who formed you in love; and I will forgive whatever awfulness you decide to perpetrate on me.”
God said, “Yes, I will cross the boundary between the common and the holy, and I will redeem even the dirtiest straw, and the vilest cross, into a throne fit for a king.”
God said, “Yes! I will be made flesh, and I will move into the neighborhood, and I will save you from the inside out.”
* * *
There are no guarantees when you go and cross a boundary. Once you’ve committed the trespass, you can’t step back and undo it. You don’t know what’s coming when you drive into a distant neighborhood or promise to meet someone whose behavior you can’t predict. But with everything I have, I believe Jesus would say, “Yes, cross the boundary anyway.”
And on Christmas, when angels break into the shepherds’ silent night and the entire heavenly army resounds with God’s praise – on Christmas, I believe Jesus would say, “Begin that boundary-crossing with the boundaries of your own heart.”
If this service tonight is just an obligation, a nod to tradition or the family’s demands, then Jesus would say to you, “Surprise! In prayer and song, in bread and wine, I am here.”
If this night feels empty, the joy of Christmas buried deep under layers of pain and heartache, then Jesus would say to you, “I know that pain, and still – I am here.”
If the angels’ news feels old and tired; if faith feels like nothing but a nice ritual with nice people in a nice building, then Jesus would say to you, “Let me rock your world – let me rule your world – because I am here.”
To each of us with longing hearts, Jesus says, “I have crossed the boundary; I have come to stay; I have said the words you can’t take back – I love you.”
So what do you say?