Sermon from the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017
Joy to the world. The angel says to the shepherds, “Behold I bring you good news of great joy.” The prophet Isaiah says, “You, God, have multiplied the nations, you have increased its joy.” Psalm 96 says, “Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad…then all the trees of the wood will shout for joy before the Lord when he comes.” Joy. Joy. Joy. If there is one word you remember from this Christmas sermon tonight, let it be this: joy.
What is this joy, though, of which the angels and prophets and poets speak? What joy does the world receive at the birth of Jesus in a lowly manger? Tonight we celebrate that God has come down to earth, heaven has taken up residence in human flesh. The divine has entered the world as an infant born of a mortal mother’s body. The joy received by the whole creation, the people and the earth and the trees of the wood; this joy is none other than the joy of God. God has given all creation a gift of heavenly joy, and now heaven and nature sing, heaven and nature sing, together.
Christmas reminds us that the world has been given the joy of God. Our response is to rejoice, but rejoice how? By coming to church and singing songs? By giving presents? By feasting and delighting in one another. Yes, yes, and yes, but when the trappings of Christmastide are put away, what does rejoicing look like? How are we to live as a result of the birth of Christ?
Episcopal priest and writer, Michael Battle, who will be with us in February for our Lenten Weekend, writes that when God inhabited our human flesh, heaven came to live on earth. An earthly body became a container for heaven. And that means that we are free to practice heaven on earth. Practicing heaven means looking at everything as a container of joy. Everything! As the hymn Joy to world says, “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains: repeat the sounding joy.” Everything: women, men, young, old, neighbors, strangers. When we practice heaven, everything and everyone can be a container of joy. God revealed this to us in Christ’s birth. God saw the mother’s womb as a place for joy to grow. God saw the baby’s body as a place for joy to cry. And then, God saw the relationship between mother and child as a place for joy to abound. But joy doesn’t stop at that relationship. God entered into human form to be in intimate relationship with all creation as Jesus breathed the air, drank the water, laid down to rest on the earth, ate the fruits of creation, was crucified on the hard wood of the cross and was placed in a stone cave. By being born, living and dying and rising again, on earth, God brought joy into the relationships of all beings, and we are now free to practice heaven on earth together in joy.
Of course, we often fall short of practicing heaven together in joy. We distort and twist relationships, using them to control and hold power over others. We hurt each other. We hurt God’s creation. We do not honor each other as containers of joy, and so instead of looking for joy in one another, we often look for trouble. We look with suspicion and fail to see. We retreat from one another into protective isolation. We even retreat from ourselves. How many of us just plow through life not paying attention to our bodies and souls, because we are so busy, because we are afraid of what we might find if we stop to listen to our hearts. This is, of course, why Jesus came to be with us, so that we would not be stuck in our blindness and isolation forever. Jesus was born because we do fall short, but through Christ we have the promise of a new heaven on earth. Joy to the world!
What does practicing heaven look like? It has many expressions. I would like to tell a story of one family who has showed me some of what it might look like. Alex and Liz James and their twin sons, Will and Matt, live in my hometown, Greensboro, NC. They are members of my home church there. When they first met and were married, Alex and Liz were living the dream of a prosperous life. Alex was a basketball star who graduated from Harvard and was working for IBM. He met Liz, an up and coming business woman from a successful Greensboro family. They had the twins and were the picture of a successful and beautiful young family. But not all was well with Liz. Around the time the boys were born, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or MS, a disease that would slowly rob her of her physical abilities and eventually her life. That was hard enough. But when the boys were three years old, they were diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Matt was also diagnosed with autism. They were not expected to live beyond their teenage years. What had seemed like a dream started to look like a nightmare.
But it wasn’t. Alex left IBM and went back to school to learn how to be a caregiver for his wife and children. A network of friends started providing daily support to the family: meals, companionship, caregiving of all kinds. These friends have found deep and abiding joy in being in community with this family, even in the unpleasant moments of taking care of people who cannot care for their bodies. Somehow, joy overcame suffering. I remember as Liz got weaker, she would use a walker and later a wheelchair to get to the front pew at church. Liz had grown up a proper Episcopalian, and I doubt she sat on the front pew (because few Episcopalians prefer the front pew) until her illness meant that she needed to be close to the front in order to make it to the communion rail. She would even lay down and bring pillows, even though it was not the proper thing to do. And in her weakened state she would find the energy to joyfully shout, “Amen” when the preacher said something she liked. Her suffering opened her heart to know a new joy. And her joy opened the hearts of that congregation in new ways. Even the most stodgy Episcopalians had to smile when Liz shouted “Amen.” Most everyone who comes into contact with Liz and Alex James and their two boys finds a holy joy.
The boys have defied the odds and are now 26 years old. I do not believe God has caused this family to suffer, but God has used them to reveal divine joy, joy that abides in the midst of difficulty. My father used to have breakfast with Alex and the boys once a week, and he would often tell me he thought Alex was a saint. Alex has often said, “From the outside looking in, my family’s situation may look tough, but from the inside looking out, my family sees the best in people.” That’s what practicing heaven looks like. And the group of friends I mentioned who support the James family and have made it a way of life for over 20 years, they gave themselves a name: Joy friends. They are all saints, and so are we.
I asked the question earlier, how are we to live as a result of Christmas? We are to live as joy friends. Joy friends with Christ, just as Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the angels were joy friends to the baby Jesus. Joy friends with each other. Divine joy has to be shared, otherwise is it not joy. Joy friends with all creation. I love the name of our local river keepers, Friends of the Rappahannock. They are Joy Friends. Joy friends find the beauty in everything and appreciate everyone. Joy friends live as though our neighbor’s story, our neighbor’s happiness is just as important as our own. Joy friends live so that “I” becomes “we” and “we” expands to include “them,” and none of us can be replaced. Joy friends practice heaven on earth. This does not have to look extraordinary. It might look just like every day life. As Alex James says, “We just live our lives, but there’s plenty of room for joy.”
Joy has come to the world, joy friends. The Lord is come. Let earth receive the joy of God in Christ. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy. And through our joy friendship, let heaven and nature together sing.