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Christmas Eve Service - December 24th, 2018 - The Rev. Matthew Stewart

The Holy Family did not want to be traveling. Indeed the road they were put on was dangerous. Unsafe. Dark. Cold. Long. But they needed to make the trip because the powers-that-be forced them to do so. Their oppressors sought control and threatened violence. So, the family went, against their will. When they finally arrived at their destination, things weren’t really any better. Indeed, in some ways, they were worse. Some different political players and issues but the same degradation and repression. So, they had the constant need to look over their shoulders. The constant fear. It remained every day and every night. The Holy Family I’m referring to here is the family that lives in sanctuary here in Cambridge through the work of the the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition.

For those of you who don’t know about this, many folks here from St. James’s participate in this ministry of accompaniment. An undocumented Central American family lives at another church here in the city town and folks from this church go and spend shifts caring for them. Providing for their needs and creating as much of a sense of peace as they can in a world where you do not know what the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will do next. Hopefully, one day, this family will have their own home and live in peace. But for now we have to do our best to offer that. We provide the stable. We provide the manger. We provide the sanctuary.

The Christmas story… Mary, Joseph, and the baby… we misrepresent it quite a bit. Mary and Joseph are always well-groomed and well-dressed… looking down adoringly at the baby. They usually look like affluent white Europeans. Not the poor, stressed, terrified Jewish refugees that they were. The animals get portrayed as quiet and well-behaved. The animal food trough, known as a manger, where the baby is laid is somehow just full of clean hay. Everything is this pristine, anesthetized fairy tale. But that’s not it. It was messy and dirty and unpleasant. And more, in the Gospel of Matthew, we see that Joseph and Mary’s life gets threatened to the point that they need to flee to Egypt. Joseph and Mary were immigrants living under the thumb of a repressive empire, cast out by their own community because of an out of wedlock pregnancy, and fearing for their very lives. A Disney movie, this is not.  

And so, into this difficult world on that dark night in that depressing little stable, that is where Christians believe God came into the world.  The Christ Child, the Incarnate One, who millions understand as their Savior, he entered the world as an immigrant in sanctuary.

Over the weekend, the American government was partially shut down over the President’s desire to erect a wall along our southern border. Most folks in this room including me think that’s wrong. That it’s born of a racism and of a lack of compassion that is antithetical to the best American and Christian values of welcome. And I imagine there is also a minority in here tonight that disagree…

that have a sense that building a wall is a reasonable way to create security.  I’m not going to dig too far into this tonight beyond pointing out that, if God enters the world as an immigrant in sanctuary, then it invites us all to think differently about immigrants and walls and sanctuaries. That that is where God is. And that is where we go to meet God. That is where holiness and hope and healing can be found. That’s how we need to think about immigration. As the place where God is. And so the place we should be too.

But then, when we go, it is not just all about duty and responsibility. Going because we should. No, that’s when the wonder and the magic of Jesus sneaks in. 

Returning the Gospel story, I want to talk about the shepherds. So, they too get white-washed… both literally as well as metaphorically. We imagine them as these pleasant little men with their shepherd crooks. In reality, they more likely to be the other kind of crook. Shepherds were rough around the edge types… troubled enough that they were kicked out of the community… out to the wilderness, where the only work they could find was watching over loud, dirty animals. But it’s these guys who get called by the angels to come back to the community… to come to the sanctuary of the immigrant God. They probably thought they did not deserve this one bit. Their whole lives they had been sent away. They had no expectation of a return to community. But now they are welcomed back.

These guys are the first volunteers to work a shift at that sanctuary. And all they had to do was show up and live in the amazement and wonder of that holy moment.

We too are invited to come to the sanctuary. To stand and revel in the goodness and the love. And here’s the thing, Christmas.. when we show up... it’s a bit of a contagion. Christmas gets in us. Jesus gets in us. And then the sanctuary of the Christ Child becomes our sanctuary too.

Jesus provides for us the sanctuary which welcomes us even when the world (and maybe our own minds) tell us we don’t deserve to be welcomed.

Jesus provides for us the sanctuary where we can feel a deep friendship with God and with each other, especially when we find ourselves alone or when our relationships elsewhere are broken or hurtful.

Jesus provides for us the sanctuary that gives us strength and peace of mind when our health of body deteriorates.

Jesus provides for us the sanctuary which gives our life meaning when it feels like it doesn’t have a meaning, and shows us that we matter when we feel that we don’t.

Jesus provides for us the sanctuary where unconditional love isn’t just offered to us but it explodes into our hearts and souls and lives.

On this most holy of nights, we come once more to the sanctuary. Rejoice, because it will be for us and it will do for us more than we can imagine because it is the sanctuary of our God.