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Of Kitchens and Christmas – Br. James Koester

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Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1: 1-12; John 1: 114

Memories are a powerful force in the human psyche. They have the ability to trap and imprison, but they have also the ability to liberate and free. They have the power to make one weep in despair or grief and to laugh with the delight of a child. They have the power to shape and mold a life and in hindsight to help make sense of all that was and is, and even is to be. As we all know, it doesn’t take much to trigger a memory: a sound, a taste, a smell, an image, even just a word or phrase and suddenly we are back there as if it were happening this very instant.

I have one such memory that crops up in my mind and heart on a regular basis and it happens many days at Morning Prayer. Had I known it at the time, the event itself was to be a harbinger of things to come. As a memory it continues to delight and console, and even assure me.

I couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 and my mother and I were alone in the kitchen. I can’t remember what we were doing, but we were doing something together and we were talking as a 9 year old boy talks with his mother, or at least as this 9 year old boy and his mother did. I was puzzled and I wanted to know something. The burning question I had, had something to do with church. We had just come from church and it had been a Morning Prayer Sunday (and if you have been an Episcopalian for more than 30 or 40 years, you’ll remember those) where we had sung the Te Deum. What I wanted to know that day, and what had puzzled me was what exactly did it mean when we sang: “When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.”1 I knew what all the words in that phrase meant except one, and I wanted to know what was meant by the word “abhor”.

To my knowledge, this was the first conscious theological conversation I ever had with anyone, and clearly it was all downhill from there. Once a 9 year old begins to ponder the meaning of “not abhorring the Virgin’s womb,” who knows where they will end up at 54, perhaps in a monastery, preaching on Christmas Day!

Now, virtually every time we sing the Te Deum, even in its modern translation: “When you became man to set us free you did not shun the Virgin’s womb”2 I am 9 once more, back in that kitchen with my mother, pondering the Virgin Birth and the mystery of the Incarnation.

If personal memories are powerful, memories of God are universal and primal and they have the power to shape not simply individuals but the whole course of human events. And that is what we celebrate today: not simply an adult’s memory of a young boy’s puzzle over a strange word, but the memory God who could, and would and indeed does play an active role in human lives and in the history of humanity: “and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”3

Christmas is about many things for many people. It is about Santa and gifts; about families and feasts. It is about cards and cakes; about songs and shopping. But the truth underlying all of this is that at Christmas we remember that God chose to intervene in the lives of one couple and in so doing intervened in the lives of all people in the form of a tiny baby, born in an obscure village in the middle of an occupied nation.

This is our memory of God and it lives on in the hearts and minds of people today because if God could act in that way then, God can certainly act once again in our lives today.

As I have said frequently before, everyone loves a baby, but Christmas is not about babies. Christmas is about the myriad ways in which God makes a home: in our hearts; in our homes and in our world.

Mary and Joseph were not an ideal couple. Mary was an unwed, pregnant, no doubt illiterate teenage girl and it was probably an arranged marriage. Yet when God “tookest upon [himself] to deliver man: [God] didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb”. In spite of pious legend, Mary and certainly Joseph did not come from an ideal family, just look at the scoundrels, thieves, schemers, foreigners and adulterers whom Matthew and Luke tell us where in his family tree.4 Yet when God “tookest upon [himself] to deliver man: [God] didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb”. Bethlehem was not an auspicious town and I have spent enough time in pig sheds and chicken coops to know that the stable where Mary gave birth was not an ideal place for such an event. Yet when God “tookest upon [himself] to deliver man: [God] didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.”

When we remember the story of Christmas, we remember how God intervened in the life of one less than ideal couple, and we look at our own lives, we have hope. If God can work in the life of Mary and Joseph, then he can work in my life too.

When we remember the story of Christmas and we remember how God intervened in the life of one family, and we look at our own families, we have hope. If God can work in a family full of scoundrels, thieves, schemers, foreigners and adulterers who make up Joseph’s ancestors, then he can work in my crazy and crazy-making family too.

When we remember the story of Christmas and we remember how God intervened in the history of one town, one nation and he did it in the noise and smell and filth of a barn, we have hope. If God can be born in a barn 2000 years ago, then he can be born in the chaos, and violence and uncertainty of our world today.

What I did not understand when I was 9, but which I understand more and more at 54 is that it was not just Mary’s womb that God “didst not abhor”, but Mary’s life and her family and her world.

We celebrate Christmas year after year, not just because we love the food or the carols or the tradition but because year after year we are reminded that just as God did not abhor the Virgin, neither does God abhor us. It doesn’t matter that our lives, or our families or world are not perfect. What matters is that we make a space, not matter how small, for God in our hearts. When we do that, God will do the rest and Christ will once more be born in the Bethlehem of our lives and the mangers of our hearts.

Memories are a powerful thing and the memory of God taking human flesh and living among us is perhaps the most powerful memory of all, because it reminds us that just as God loved Mary enough to make a home in her womb and in her heart, so he loves us enough to make a home and a manger in our hearts as well.

Christmas is about memories, and the memory we celebrate today is the memory of God’s love. In the craziness of our lives, our families and our world today, remember one thing: that God really does love you and wants to make a home in your heart just as he made a home in that stable so many years ago.

 

1 Te Deum; Book of Common Prayer, Canada 1962

 

2 Te Deum; BCP, 1979, page 96

 

3 John 1: 14

 

4 Matthew 1: 1-17 or Luke 3:23-38

 

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19 Comments

  1. Donice Gilliland on December 25, 2016 at 17:14

    Brother Koester, thank you for this beautiful Christmas Day message. I have to admit it spoke to me personally, because at this Christmas Eve midnight service, like every one I’ve spent before, I have had a degree of discomfort over the phrase “he abhors not the Virgin’s womb” in “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. And I’m not 9 years old and pondering, but rather a 62-year old woman trying to make sense of it through the lens of feminism and other modern cultural influences. It helped me at least move beyond my consternation somewhat by reading your words that God loved Mary enough to make a home in her womb and her heart, and loves us in a like manner. That is THE important message I should have been receiving and I thank you. Merry Christmas!

  2. Christopher on December 25, 2016 at 13:19

    Thank you for the wonderful reassurance of Gods love for sinners. I have found similar comfort in the Revelations of Divine Love.

  3. Christopher on December 25, 2016 at 11:25

    What a Blessing it is to Celebrate the Birth of the Christ Child again. We too are Blessed on this day, to be with family, to be with our 4 year old grandson, our daughter and son-in-law. The Delight of a 4 year old grandson is our Delight just as the Delight of the birth of the Christ Child is the Delight of the World.

  4. Elizabeth Hardy on December 25, 2016 at 09:22

    Br James: I dreamt last night (Christmas Eve) that I was coming out of a liturgy in a major cathedral. I saw a young man trying to wrangle a bunch of children. I picked up a tiny baby in a blue outfit and was keeping him warm until the mother came out. As I saw her approaching, it was someone for whom I hold a great deal of antipathy. While I was waiting for her I took the child for some food.
    All to say when I woke this morning I sent her a text wishing her a Merry Christmas and telling her that whatever 2017 brought to her and her family I hoped that the surprises would be manageable and filled with joy. What a relief to let that antipathy go. Thanks be to God who really wants to dwell in our hearts if only we will give Him some room. Thanx for this message and all the Advent messages. Blessings and Peace to you and all the Brothers for 2017. E+

  5. Rhode on December 25, 2016 at 09:03

    This is the Christmas story I needed to read this morning: about a less than perfect couple who birthed the Savior of the world in a dirty stable. Who heard the angels sing? only poor Shepherds undoubtedly listening for predators. Hope was born that day and today in my heart as I realize anew what the birth of Christ means for this weary voilent dirty world and for me: less than perfect, messy but hopeful, praising God for Jesus and for not abhoring us.

  6. Michael on December 24, 2015 at 08:31

    It one of my major concerns regarding religion- people trying to bolster or tear down someone’s else idea. The sermon is for us to mull over and make what we can or it. Whether it fits into our understanding is for us to decide. Think about what was said and consider it with compassion and then simply move on incorporating it into your thinking or not.

  7. Marta E on December 24, 2015 at 06:47

    I think the image of Bro. K and his mother in the Kitchen, talking about the meaning of the world “abhor” is similar to the Stable in which Jesus was born, the confused and conflicted relationship of Mary and Joseph in their World, as a baby comes into the world with pain, messiness, and sometimes conflict, and the World into which He comes as invited into our Hearts. And, yet, He Comes, and there is no other way.
    Welcome, Jesus, into my heart, too.

  8. John McCausland on December 29, 2014 at 16:55

    Just the word I needed to hear. Whenever I find myself feeling that if I can’t do something big then I can’t do anything at all, I need to remember the little things and little people through whom God works his great wonders. Thank you, James.

  9. Drane K. Haw on December 29, 2014 at 11:09

    Well, God does work in mysterious ways indeed! I was trying
    to unsubscribe b/c I don’t think I have time every day to get your
    messages, and now that I’ve read the sermon, I know I don’t
    have time Not to 🙂 Are you all Episcopal or RC ?
    I am the former. Blessings on you All!

  10. judy on December 29, 2014 at 11:02

    This gives me a goal for the New Year and for my remaining years to come; to awake each day as it is Christmas day and that Christ is born in my heart and, thus, into the world by all I think, say, and do.

  11. Carole on December 29, 2014 at 09:27

    Thank you very much for this sermon. I found it so wonderful that I read it again. Very meaningful to me with my finite mind as a human. I need constant reminders of God’s love, how he works through all of us, how it is a MUST that I stay quiet and just listen and observe what he is doing for us. I am one of those that races through life UNTIL I get wonderful reminders as this is to stop racing. Thank you…….once again……for all you all do for us. Carole

    • David Cranmer on January 16, 2016 at 13:15

      Carole, I too am one who needs those constant reminders of God’s love for me. I too tend to race through activities and need to slow down and listen for God and look for Him in the people around me, David

  12. Rick Woollacott on August 13, 2014 at 19:32

    Nice sermon Brother James. Yes God came here on earth as Jesus in order to save us. He will totally change our hearts, if we let Him. He will make a home there and coming to Him is a daily commitment.
    Nothing we did,He took care of it on the cross.
    What a loving God!

  13. Martin Wheeler on August 13, 2014 at 11:21

    Jesus is born again in us each time we open ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us. God is present or can be in each loving and compassionate gesture we muster. When we open ourselves in prayer we give permission for the Holy Spirit to make entry and thus the Christ makes entrance, again, as if for the first time.

  14. Ruth West on August 12, 2014 at 22:26

    Br. James, this is an excellent sermon. Re: Ms. Fernandez remarks, I am not smart enough to define “pejorative,” so I resorted to the dictionary.
    I see nothing in your sermon which is pejorative.
    When God sent His son to the earth in human flesh, it is so significant that he came as one of us who could relate to Him. John 3:16. Praise be to Jesus, our Savior, our Deliverer!

  15. Polly Chatfield on August 12, 2014 at 10:04

    God is born again in us every time we realize God’s love and presence, every time we say “thank you for this new day, for giving me another moment to be and to learn to love.”

  16. Bob on January 2, 2014 at 17:39

    Jim Wallis says:” “Hope is believing, in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change.” He was talking of Nelson Mandela. It is pretty good. Margo

  17. Margot Fernandez on January 2, 2014 at 13:36

    Your comment of January 2 makes no sense. Pejorative remarks about the setting of Jesus’ birth are stereotyped and the idea that God will “be born” again today is, I would think, contrary to Catholic teaching.

    • Robert Shotton on August 12, 2014 at 05:58

      I see nothing pejorative anywhere in the sermon, and I am sorry that anyone could do so: Also I think that the notion that Jesus could be born again in our hearts is quite valid.

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