Text: Luke 2:1–20 (the birth of Jesus)
Christmas Eve on a calm, crisp night in a snow-covered and beautiful little town nestled in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. What could be better than this?
A few times over the past few weeks as I have driven down into Didsbury on an wintry evening and seen the lights of the town from Hwy 2A, a slightly modified Christmas Carol has run through my mind, and it goes like this:
"O Little Town of Didsbury, how still we see thee rise!" I hope people don't mind me thinking this or mentioning it! And to continue: "Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fear of all the years are met in thee tonight."
Could this be true? Bethlehem is where the hopes and fears of all the years are supposed to be met on Christmas Eve. But perhaps the same is just as true of Didsbury tonight as it was of Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago?
In Bethlehem that first Christmas, something unique and yet also very ordinary happened -- the birth of a first child to a poor young couple. Tonight we celebrate this event more than 2,000 years later. And yet I am struck that Luke's story, written almost 100 years after the event, did not reach what is now Mountain View County until about 1800 years after it had occurred. Luke's Christmas story of a stable, mother, child, angels, and shepherds -- a story so filled with mystery, beauty and power -- means the world to us. But for the people, known and unknown, who called this beautiful land home for the 1800 years between the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the news of that first Christmas, what does it mean that they did not know this story during those long ages?
I am also aware that it took hundreds of years -- though not as long as with Canada's First Nations -- for the stories of Jesus to reach my forefathers and fore-mothers. I assume that my ancient ancestors were Celts or Druids in the British Isles. And they encountered Christianity in the same way that Canada's First Nations encountered it: with the invasion of hostile armies. My Celtic ancestors were given a choice by the Roman invaders: to forget the sacred stories that had sustained their communities for generations and replace them with the Christian ones, or to be killed. Not surprisingly, my ancestors chose to become Christians, otherwise I wouldn't be here today! Over the centuries, each generation came to love the Hebrew and Greek stories of what had once been a foreign tradition. We made this tradition our own and used those stories to inform our character and help us walk the path of faith hope and love. Indeed, these stories have saved us. But what about the sacred stories that my ancestors were forced to forget? And what about the sacred stories that the First Peoples who once lived in these foothills were forced to forget?
One of the many things that I love about the United Church of Canada is the membership and involvement of many First Nations people in the church. I got a better appreciation of this involvement in a course I took in the summer of 2008.. It was called "Encountering Aboriginal Spirituality," and it was an intensive two-week course, with the second week involving five days and nights in residence at the church's Five Oaks retreat centre, which is about a 90-minute drive west of Toronto on the Grand River. Five Oaks, until this past August, was led by Mardi Tindal. Mardi is now on leave from the centre for three years after being elected the 40th Moderator of the United Church of Canada this past summer in Kelowna.
Five Oaks also houses what is perhaps the most interesting theological school in our church, the Francis Sandy Theological Centre. The Francis Sandy Centre trains people who want to become ministers in our church's many First Nations congregations. Our class of 13 from Toronto spent that week in a learning circle with six students from Francis Sandy as well as with 10 First Nations elders who are active in our church. I loved the experience and felt blessed and healed by that week.
The most prominent of the elders in our circle was the Very Reverend Stan McKay, who in 1992 became the first native person to be elected as Moderator of the United Church. Stan is retired now, but he still does a lot of work for the church. I am so happy that he helped lead our course that week. Others who have heard Stan speak will probably agree with the following advice: if you get a chance to hear Stan McKay speak, take it!
As the class learned about some of the abuses suffered by First Nations people both at the hands of the Canadian state and our churches, it became easier to understand why many Native People have left the church to return to native traditions. It also became harder to understand why people like Stan and so many other native people are still active in the United Church, though I am very glad that many remain.
One of the reasons people like Stan still remain members of our church must surely be the work the church has done over several decades to repent of some our past practices, and to work for right relations. One of the key steps came in 1986 at the United Church's General Council meeting. At that event, the Moderator, the Very Rev. Robert Smith, composed an Apology, which was presented to native leaders in Sudbury.
Here is what Rev. Smith wrote to the First Nations church members: Quote, "long before my people journeyed to this land, your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured.
We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ, we were closed to the value of your spirituality.
We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ.
We imposed our civilization as a condition for accepting the gospel.
We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted and blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.
We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God's creation healed." End quote.
Much work has been done and many words written and spoken since 1986, but I think the Moderator's apology was a turning point. It showed the leader of our church in an act of repentance. In repenting, Rev. Smith discovered a new depth in his own understanding of the Gospel. And like all such moments it opened him and our church up to new life. And that, I think is what Advent and Christmas are all about.
As I reflect tonight about my wonderful first four months here in Didsbury and how joining this community and working with you has seemed like a Sacred Gift, his evocative words came to me again. His words remind us how the Christ event and child are found in many traditions and places. They remind us of how we can find the Christ event and child even here in Didsbury, just as shepherds found him Bethlehem all those long years ago.
This week marks the end of my first half of my eight month student internship here. But if you want to hear the rest of this sermon about how the saving event of Christ is found not only in the baby Jesus but in all the babies born in love in our troubled and wondrous world, you will have to come to my final service here at Knox United on April 25, 2010. At that time, I hope to return to the Christmas story and relate my experience with Knox, with Didsbury, with the Foothills, wit the United Church, and with our entire faith tradition to the next 20 verses in the second chapter of the Gospel Luke, which follow our Scripture reading from tonight.
For now, I will simply leave it at this. Tonight in Didsbury AB, as Christmas 2009 arrives, let us sense again how silently, how silently a wondrous gift is given. It is the gift of salvation, and it is born in us today. I am sure that this gift is available down in the valley at Zion, up town at the Anglican church, and across town at the Lutheran church. It is also available in dining room tables filled with people who no longer attend church or who follow other faith traditions. It is a gift that has crept silently and graciously into the life of First Nations people for as long as people have known this beautiful land. The gift is the birth of the Christ child in hearts turned towards love on this night and any night. It is the coming of God as a child, a child who is both a helpless infant and a saving King. It is the mystery, beauty and power of our precious Christmas story. And it is available to each and every one of us tonight in this little town.
Thanks be to God, Amen.