May I speak in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. Please be seated. Good morning St. James’s! Happy New Year to all of you and a prolonged Merry Christmas. It is great to be here today after experiencing my first set of Christmas Eve services at St. James’s. When I joined the Episcopal Church in high school, I found the Christmas Eve service to be one of the most powerful services I have experienced. The fact remains true for me even today.
Still, when I look back to when I was a teenager, I see myself as a young man searching for a place to put his hat. Perhaps that is why I always found comfort in the church? Yet, there were days growing up that I had a hard time articulating any profound connection or closeness to God. I read the Bible, but could not always see a connection between its stories of the past and my present life.
I would ask myself questions like: “Did God care for me or is God simply the cause of our universe and I should just be thankful to be here?” In high school, I spent a lot of time searching for answers or at least convincing opinions on the matter. But, it was only when I learned how to commune with God in my own way that I found an avenue to be close to God. This spiritual practice involved hiking.
As a West Virginia man, I lived in pretty bumpy terrain. I lived in a valley with a river below, surrounded by large hills and small mountains. Whenever I was with my boyhood friend, Peter Bess, or by myself, I often frequented the hills around my house. Every season offered their own gifts and challenges, but the result was always the same: elation. I felt joy to share a view that few get to see, joy to be quiet in a place bustling with life, and joy to get away from things that were distracting or harmful. I had these wonderful feelings every time I went for a hike near my home.
But, there was one particular time where I encountered a very powerful and spiritual moment near a large boulder that I lovingly call “my thinking rock.”
One time during the fall, right when the trees were shedding their leaves, from that rock, I saw an opening of the towns and cities below me. St. Albans, my home, was the first I could see. Further out to the left was the Kanawha River that separated it from Nitro, Dunbar, and the interstate that connected to Charleston. At an instant, I could see one landscape connecting all of the different peoples, with different school rivalries, jobs, and homes before me.
For an instance we were one. I felt a connection that one can rarely see through human eyes and I began to look at the things around me as a part of that connection. I stayed there quietly for a long time. I saw different animals and even stared closely at a leaf to look at the complexity of something so small and simple looking. During that visit on my thinking rock, in the hills of the Wild & Wonderful West By God Virginia, I thought to myself how infinitely lucky I was to be there; thinking of how small a chance we had to exist on this planet. To be surrounded by many complex life forms and diverse beauty showed me that even with the hardships of life, there had to be a meticulous God that cared, beard or not.
This was my starting point. This was the moment that my childhood faith entered into a more mature form. It was only after my observation of the world around me that I was able to look into the Bible as a person of faith and start to see the personal connections God was making then and now. The story that made the most sense to me involved Christ’s birth. As you know, it is not a story of a man with great earthly power and riches that few humans ever experience. Rather, it was a story of humble beginnings, a baby born in a small stable.
Today, the story goes on. We catch another glimpse of how God strove to connect with humanity and creation. One that causes me great joy, just like the times I spent in prayer upon my rock in West Virginia. In today’s gospel we see the shepherds depart from Mary, Joseph, and the child. And now, a little after a week had passed, we see the Christ-Child receiving the name of Jesus, which is a very big deal!
Now, when you had a child or knew of someone who did, can you imagine the time it took to pick a name for the baby? There are a lot of factors that tend to go into it. For instance, just as the angel who suggested the name Jesus, maybe you had a hovering parent pitching certain names, which made the whole process harder.
“Don’t you know that you had a Great Great Uncle named Hezekiah Riffee?”
“Awesome, moving on!”
Naming a child is important and is rarely an easy affair; even more so, for those of the ancient world. In the ancient world, many cultures imposed a waiting period for infants before providing them with a name. Jewish peoples often waited 8 days if not more and some Roman families waited 40 days before naming a child. There were so many risks involved in childbirth for both the mother and infant that there were really no guarantees that after one’s birth the child would remain healthy.
Now, it is here, at this point that I see another example of how personal God intends to be with humanity. Jesus, as Emmanuel, God with us, took the risk of not only coming into our world as a human, but also willing to face the dangers of a mortal life at every turn. There is no more vulnerable picture in our life than looking at the utter dependence infants have on others to thrive and survive. Yet, Christ took on this challenge, just like he dealt with adolescence and the challenges of growing up, as well as his experiences with poverty, fear, exhaustion, starvation, and frailty.
Christ’s story is the human story! There is no better way to see God’s desire to know us and for us to understand God than by looking to Christ’s life. For me, this truth is best summed up in the passage we see in Philippians 2, which states, “Though he was in the form of God…being found in human likeness…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.” That’s powerful! That’s love and you can’t beat it!
God willingly takes a fall into the world where there is hardship and chooses to live it in solidarity with the world. To top that God willingly takes another fall by subjecting his life to the cruel ways humans act toward one another. Christ lives it and all to say, “I am here and no matter what you do, I love you.”
To me, this revelation is both eternally sad and eternally heartwarming. As one who was able to find a way to commune more personally with God, I am at a point in my life where this passage in Philippians not only makes sense, but sets a fire in my heart. I feel the love within Christ’s life and sacrifice as one might for a loved one in their family.
I remember, however, that this was not always the case. There were times I wanted that connection, but it didn’t make sense. Luckily for me, God kept calling, while I kept searching and at the beginning of this New Year, I want to share that same joy with you.
If you have ever felt the same distance that I have felt about God, I want you to know that it is alright to question, it is alright to search, and when it comes to a relationship, it is alright to want more. So my challenge to you this New Year is not to focus so much on the typical resolutions that we set of decreasing caffeine intake, buying fewer shoes, etc. I want you to strive to look into your calendars and mark out time for yourself. Mark out time for your kids; they also need the break.
Mark out time to be alone and go do something different.
Do something that feeds you spiritually and look for Christ in that time. And though I’ve said it before, if you are open, you will in time feel connected, you will feel Christ close to your heart. In time, when reading or hearing the stories of the Bible they won’t simply be stories of our faith heritage, it will be a story that you are now a part of because you truly realize that you are God’s and you are loved. Amen.