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24 December 2014


My friends,

When I began thinking about today’s homily, New York City was in the middle of the transit strike. Seven Million people were stranded without their trains and buses, and that included me. The hospital sent out buses to pick up us employees, but just once a day. At 5 AM. I got up at 4 to meet the bus at 5, and then worked from 6:30 AM to 5 PM, a 10 ½ hour shift.

The end of the day found me in the hospital lobby that was a make shift bus depot. It had all the charm of the Transit Authority Bus Station as hundreds of employees waited for their buses to Staten Island, Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.

My thoughts were supposed to revolve around a Christmas Homily, but I was not in a good mood. Not at all. I was not in a Christmas mood. I was not in the mood of thinking about Christmas, to be quiet of writing about Christmas. I worked all day, then suffered through the interminable lines for the bus, got home, went to sleep and at 4 AM the whole silly circus started all over again. It was hard.

Then finally, after three terrible days, the strike was over on Thursday night. I didn’t have to work on Friday, and was so much in need of rest that wherever I sat down, I promptly fell asleep. During the day, I tried to think about the homily on and off, but there was not much energy for it, and I didn’t feel like being serious about it. That Friday night, I went to the piano.

I was exhausted, and definitely not in a Christmas mood, but I thought perhaps I could seek refuge in my usual ritual for the nights before Christmas Eve. For several years, my ritual has been to go to the piano at the end of the day and to play all the old German Christmas Carols, to get me into the mood and hope of Christmas.

It had always worked, but it didn’t work this Friday night; I didn’t feel like playing Christmas Carols. It seemed oddly fitting that the piano was out of tune. I too was out of tune. The chords I played were dissonant and gloomy, not because the piano was out of tune, but because I was. I thought everything I played sounded angry and miserable and just plain crabby.

Since sometimes it helps when I keep playing whatever comes to mind and heart, I kept playing. I felt unhappy, and the sounds I played matched the mood. But then out of the midst of dissonant harmonies and outlandish chords, despite the fact that the piano was out of tune, along with me, there was something new. There were bits and pieces of a hymn I had learned in Children’s Choir in Germany.

The sounds of the hymn rang out, and I was amazed how the tune came together. I began humming it, and little by little the words came back. The text sounds like a psalm; a rough translation of the words is:

Earth and Heaven shall be singing
For the Lord of Majesty,
All the world shall sound with gladness
Praise be to the Lord at this time!

I had no idea whether or not this was a Christmas Hymn, but somehow it belonged to this strange night before Christmas Eve, and to my irritable mood. The tune took over my gloomy playing and made me feel oddly connected. Connected not so much with Christmas, but with God.

I stopped playing and began talking to God. It was not one of those beautiful prayers you see printed in a book, but I was praying alright.

I grumbled. I growled. I complained. I said, “Oh God, how can I even think about Christmas after this week.” I said, “I don’t want to write a Christmas homily.” I said, “I can’t do it; there are so many problems everywhere.”

But the song kept intruding into my gloomy thoughts. Earth and Heaven shall be singing … I tried to ignore the song and went on, “Don’t you see, Lord, what sort of year we’ve had? We are still at war in Iraq and our soldiers keep on dying, and now our president had to admit that his reasons to go to war were based on bad information.” The song kept on playing, Earth and Heaven shall be singing …

My prayer became a dialogue. It was as though every time I brought up another complaint and another growl, the Lord spoke quietly but firmly, “I know, Child, now join the song.”. No matter what my next objection was, the Lord’s answer was always, “Hush, just sing.”

No matter what I came up with, the song kept playing in my head, “Earth and Heaven shall be singing … and the message was always gentle, “Hush, just sing.”

There’s no other way to tell it: God wore me out that night, and God won, and I stopped arguing. And when I stopped fighting, I found peace. I kept on humming the song until I feel asleep that night.

As the transit strike and my gloomy thoughts about the year 2005 had made it hard for me to get to Christmas, life itself is just plain hard, and the fact that life is hard won’t stop just because it’s Christmas. Each of us has their own story, and a big chunk of it is adversity, suffering and trouble. So getting to Christmas is often hard.

Howard Thurman, the mystic, preacher and teacher of Dr. Martin Luther King, knew a thing or two about this; he wrote:

Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes,
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed,
Christmas is waiting to be born:
In you, in me, in all mankind.

When I argued with God about the terrible things that seemed to be in the way of my getting to Christmas, the tune that kept on “intruding” was all about creation’s song about the majesty of God.

I discovered that another version of that old hymn is in our hymnal under the title, Of the Father’s Love Begotten. We have sung a few stanzas of that old mysterious hymn just a few minutes ago. Somewhere in the middle it says this:

O ye heights of heaven adore Him; angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him, and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent, Every voice in concert sing,
evermore and evermore!

There is a sense that the song keeps on going. And because all creation sings that song, including all of our loved ones who are now sainted, there is also a sense of community. If we are able to join that song, we will not be alone.

My friends, as your journey goes on from here, as you find yourself back at work next week, or back in the usual rhythm of your life, as the next year comes with all its frightening newness, when you get afraid and depressed and grumpy like I was on Friday, remember you are coming from Bethlehem.

Remember you just come from the manger and from that child that changed the whole world once and for all:

- When you get discouraged and think you cannot muster the heart or brain or courage you need, let God himself touch you and whisper to you, “Hush, my child, just sing.”

- When you start grumbling and don’t think you can ever make it through the next day, to be quiet of figuring out who you are or where you are going, let God himself touch you and whisper to you, “Hush, my child, just sing.”

- When you are sad and dejected and wonder what good you are for anyone and feel as though you are not amounting to anything, let God himself touch you and whisper to you, “Hush, my child, just sing.”

All creation sings that song, and we are invited to join in. Joining the song doesn’t mean all our troubles are over, but it means our troubles are shared; we are not alone anymore; we are in good and holy company when we join the song.

My friends, the fact that God wore me down -- despite all my grumbling and complaining -- suggests that God can wear you down as well in his endless and reckless love. God is the beginning and the ending, and everything in between is God as well. Nothing is greater or more powerful than the love of God. Nothing, nothing, nothing!

Of the Father's love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
evermore and evermore!

The world is God’s, and we are God’s, and there’s nothing on earth or in heaven that is not God’s. We are invited to join the chorus of every voice and every tongue.

When the going gets tough, God is there to speak to you in all sorts of ways, but I imagine now and then it’ll sound very close to what I heard: “Hush, my child, just sing.” AMEN.

(preached on Christmas Day 2005)

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