The Year without the Christ

Sermon preached on December 16, 2017
St. James Cathedral (Chicago, IL) 
On the occasion of the ordination of Joseph Butler, Shay Craig, Brian Prall and Scott Lybrand Zaucha to the Sacred Order of Deacons 

 What on earth are we doing here?  Scott, Shay, Brian, Joseph – why are you here? And you – all of you, all of us? Why are we here?  Surely you have heard the news: The Church is Dying.  We’ve all seen the headlines, haven’t we? “’Christian America’ Dwindling,”[i] “Americans Are Becoming Less Religious,”[ii] and my personal favorite: “Ordaining women has not saved the Church of England from impending extinction.”[iii]  And then, just this Wednesday in The New York Times, journalist Liam Stack pens this article: “Is Christmas a Religious Holiday?” in which he cites a Pew Research study of more than 1500 adults in the U.S. that found that “while a vast majority of Americans still celebrate Christmas, most find the religious elements of the holiday are emphasized less than in the past – and few of them care about that change.”[iv] Wait. What?

Now, there’s a movie that I loved watching around this time of year when I was a child. Some of you may know it – “The Year without a Santa Claus.”  It tells the story of the year when Santa came down
with a very bad cold and the doctor tells him he has to stay home on Christmas (by the way this is a very real fear many clergy have so please pray for us all). Anyhow, the doctor goes on to tell him that no one even believes in him any more so cancelling Christmas will really be no big deal.  So, sick with a cold and now spiritually deflated by his doctor, Santa cancels Christmas.  But Mrs. Claus will have nothing of that and she thinks up a plan to help Santa get well again for Christmas and to convince him that the spirit of Christmas is still alive.  She sends two elves – Jingle and Jangle – along with Santa’s
reindeer, Vixen, to Southtown, USA to find children who still have the Christmas spirit – who still believe in Santa.  Sadly, things just get worse, the elves get pulled over by the police for riding a Vixen the wrong way on a one way street and for wearing funny clothes on a Sunday (who know that was a crime?!), Vixen – with socks over her antlers for a disguise - is hauled off by a dog-catcher, and then the children tell Jingle and Jangle that they don’t care if Santa comes or not because “believing in Santa Claus is for little kids”. . . and, I don’t want to spoil the ending because, really, you should all watch this great movie complete with Heat Miser and Snow Miser, the two squabbling sons of Mother
Nature. But, as a child you can imagine my concern – Christmas without a Santa Claus?  That would be awful!
Well, who would ever have guessed that as an adult I’d be feeling anxious about “The Year without the Christ.”  And yet, here we are with a 9% decrease in membership in The Episcopal Church from 2012 to 2016, and an even greater decrease in average weekly attendance in our churches. [v]  And so again I ask each of us, “What on earth are we doing here today?”  The church is dying, the pews are emptying . . . . We don’t need more clergy! Supply and demand, my friends! What are we doing here? 

Don’t leave just yet. . . . Because, I think the passage from Luke that we heard this morning may lead us to an answer.  The dispute among Jesus’ companions as to who among them was the greatest takes place in the context of the Last Supper.  Jesus has taken the bread, given thanks, broken it and given it to them saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same manner he then took the cup of wine and shared it with the disciples. [vi]   Immediately after this, Jesus tells them that one of them will betray him.  And, in the midst of a conversation about which one of them would betray him, the disciples turn the conversation around and begin fighting about “which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”[vii]

Now, I am no psychologist but I think it is pretty easy to see how a conversation about who is the worst among us might quickly turn to a conversation about who is the best among us!  We are all about the rankings – football teams, colleges, Fortune 500 companies – we rank them all.  And that’s what the disciples attempt to do.  They want the break down – who among them is the best? Maybe they’ll settle for knowing the top 3! But the situation changes drastically as the evening goes on and the next days unfold.  Each is surprised by their own betrayal of Jesus – Judas with a kiss, Peter with his denials, Thomas with his doubts. 

And what about our churches? Don’t we occasionally do the same thing? Which church is bigger, which has the best choir, which has the best preaching, who has the largest endowment, whose youth group is the biggest?  [PAUSE] Who among us seeks out the church with few financial resources? Who among us seeks out the church with the leaking roof or the perpetual plumbing issues? Who among us seeks out the church where there has been a recent conflict?  Many of us have found ourselves in those churches at one time or another – perhaps even today – but who among us sought them out?   

Over the next two Sundays, most of our congregations will hear the words of the The Song of Mary, the Magnificat or as it is called by our Orthodox friends, The Song of the God-bearer: 
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
   my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
   for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
                  the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
   in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
                  he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
   and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
   and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
                  for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
   to Abraham and his children for ever.[viii]

So, again I ask, who among us seeks out the lowly, the hungry, the downtrodden? Who among us seeks out the church with few financial resources? the church with the leaking roof and the problem plumbing? the church riddled with conflict?  The answer, my friends, is Jesus.  Jesus the Christ seeks out the broken, the hungry, the poor. Jesus the Christ comes to a dying church and breathes new life into each of us. 
And with that breath of new life - that breath of Jesus’ Good News - you and I are given an amazing opportunity – for we have Good News to share with a broken world.  And isn’t that what we are doing here today?  Isn’t that why we’ve come here today to ordain 4 new deacons for God’s church?  We have Good News to share with a world desperate to hear that Good News.  And so we begin again the work of preparing ourselves and one another so that we can be God-bearers, sharing that Good News in a way that can be heard as Good News.  This in a world where many people only know of Christianity through the lens of the media – a media singularly focused on one expression of Christianity, an expression of the faith that many of us do not even recognize as Christian. And so we must prepare ourselves and one another to be God-bearers, sharing the Good News that is truly Good News – that God has come to cast down the mighty from their thrones and to lift up the lowly – that God has filled the hungry with good things. 

And we need to prepare ourselves and one another to be God-bearers to this world by talking about our own lives in the context of the stories of scripture, telling our stories of death and resurrection – stories of betrayals, denials and sorrows – alongside the stories of God with us in unexpected and magnificent ways and stories of God with us in the ordinary routine of daily life.  This is the work we must do – all of us – lay and ordained for all of us have good news to share with this broken world.  We really do.  

Every day, I see homeless men and women come through the doors of my church giving thanks for the good things that God is doing in their lives. Fully aware of the hardships they face without a roof over their heads and yet they give thanks. I am part of a fellowship where men and women share their experience, strength and hope even in the midst of chronic illness - chronically ill and yet filled with strength and hope. We have Good News to share, stories of God with us in our daily lives.  But we must equip one another to tell these stories and to connect these stories of daily life with the stories of our faith. Together we must relearn the grammar of our faith. And every one of us here today – all of us ordained through the waters of baptism must re-enter the deep drama of the gospel through our worship and our study of scripture to reawaken our senses to the connection between our baptism and our daily lives so that we might be God-bearers, sharing God’s Good News in all that we do.  
Shay, Scott, Joseph and Brian, we give thanks this day that by the grace of God and with the consent of the people of God, each of you has said yes to God’s call to be God-bearers, serving God’s church as you proclaim the Good News and teaching us through your words and your example how to do the same in our own lives – in our churches, in our communities, and throughout God’s world.

Yes, the headlines in our newsfeeds may proclaim that this is “The Year without The Christ,” but we know better.  In a short while, during communion, we will sing these words: “Mothering God, you gave me birth in the bright morning of this world.”  My friends, we know that our Mothering God gave us birth in the bright morning of this world. And we know also that She is working within us today and nurturing us so that we might have new life again. When we leave here today we need to be about the business of being the Church again – Go and proclaim the Good News and let these new deacons guide us on that journey.

[i] Kimberly Winston, “ ‘Christian America’ dwindling, including white evangelicals, study shows,” Religion News Service, September 6, 2017, accessed December 14, 2017.
[ii] Kasey Leins, “Americans Are Becoming Less Religious,” U.S. World and News Report, April 11, 2017, accessed December 14, 2017.
[iii] Dorothy Cummings McLean, “Ordaining women has not saved the Church of England from impending extinction,” LifeSiteNews, December 13, 2017, accessed December 14, 2017.
[iv] Liam Stack, “Is Christmas a Religious Holiday? A Growing Number of Americans Say No,” New York Times, December 13, 2017, accessed December 14, 2017.
[v] Office of Research and Statistics, “Episcopal Domestic Fast Facts Trends: 2012-2016,” The Episcopal Church (New York: Executive Office of the General Convention, 2017), accessed October 24, 2017.
[vi] Luke 22:19-20.
[vii] Luke 22:21, 23-24.
[viii] “Canticle 15: The Song of Mary, Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55),” BCP 91-92.

All images are from IMDB