Hopes and Fears

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, December 24, 2016, Christmas Eve.

Text: Luke 2:1-20 


Seventy-five years ago tomorrow President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill attended Foundry Church for the National Christmas Service.  Churchill wrote, “The President and I went to church together on Christmas Day, and I found peace in the simple service and enjoyed singing the well-known hymns, and one, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ I had never heard before. Certainly there was much to fortify the faith of all who believe in the moral governance of the universe.”  This was just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II.  In those days of such uncertainty and grave danger, here at Foundry was found—at least by one account—“much to fortify the faith of all who believe in the moral governance of the universe.”  The hymn Churchill mentions, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” contains a phrase that has been echoing in my head throughout this season: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  What a thought…every human hope and fear “met” in that little town in the backwater of Galilee. 


We couldn’t possibly list the human hopes of all the years behind and ahead of us…because we don’t speak every human language or traverse every culture, because it is impossible to fully know what is in the heart of someone we know well, much less of those of another age altogether.  And yet I believe there are some human hopes that transcend time and culture:  to love and to be loved; safety for ourselves and our loved ones; sustenance for our bodies; to know that our lives are meaningful, that we matter.  Another, I believe, is our hope for a trustworthy leader—someone who will provide guidance and wisdom, someone we can follow with confidence that they—and what they are about—are worth our very best time and effort.  We want something to believe in.  The anarchists might disagree, but they have leaders too.  I looked it up.


Our abiding hopes as human beings are sometimes met and often not. And the “fears of all the years” rise up when our hopes are dashed or seem vulnerable or out of reach.  When we fear that who we are or what we have done makes us unlovable; when we fear that we will be alone, that we won’t have enough, that we will be attacked or fall ill or that our loved ones will suffer, that our lives—or life in general—has no meaning and doesn’t matter, that there is nothing worth living or dying for, that there is nothing to believe in and no one we can trust.


O little town of Bethlehem…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

And how did this come to be?  The response is found as the hymn continues, “For Christ is born of Mary…”  Because Christ is born of Mary, the fears of all the years are met with hope.  Because God didn’t abandon us, but instead drew even closer by, the fears of all the years are met with hope.  Because perfect love which casts out all fear was born in Jesus, the fears of all the years are met with hope.  Because Christ is born of Mary, we are given evidence of God’s steadfast love, abiding presence, and deep regard for us.  This allows me to proclaim with absolute certainty: You are loved, you are not alone, you are a person of great dignity whose life has meaning; you matter. 


We know that the birth of the child Jesus doesn’t erase the vulnerability of human bodies to hunger, illness, and harm.  Jesus was subject to all those incarnate, human realities. We know that the life we celebrate tonight doesn’t magically insure human leaders who are trustworthy, moral, and wise.  From the very beginning (and to the end) of Jesus’ life, human leaders responded to his presence in the most ugly and destructive ways.


But because Christ is born of Mary, we know what it looks like to live in love, mercy, peace, and justice; we know what it looks like to be truly human as God intends.  Because Christ shows us what God is like, we know the image in which we are made.  And that means that we know who we are and what we’re made for: we are siblings of Jesus the Christ, beloved children of God, created to love and live and serve for the sustenance, healing, and protection not only of ourselves and those we love, but of all people.  Because Christ is born of Mary, we know we are all one in the human family.  That doesn’t mean no harm is done in the world, but it does mean it is possible to live in a way that at least seeks to do no harm—and to live in peace.


Right now, regardless of our location in the political fray, I imagine we can agree it is a challenging time for our nation and world.  Just as it was when people gathered in this sanctuary 75 years ago, wars and rumors of wars proliferate, distrust is rampant, and the normal frailties of human life attend… Fear prowls like a hungry animal.  But on this night of holy remembrance, we are reminded that love and hope can appear anywhere and often do—taking shape in flesh and blood, through human beings who stand up to fear and do what is right, fueled by a power that flows from God’s own heart.  In Aleppo right now there are people risking their lives to save others.  In schools around the world there are people pouring themselves out to encourage and inspire children.  From Ferguson to Flint, in hospitals and rehab centers, on city streets and in forgotten hollers, in every place where there is human suffering and need, there are people of all faiths and none who are shining with the light of love and true humanity so perfectly revealed in Jesus.


Because Christ is born of Mary and not born of some famous, fancy person; because Christ is born in poverty, under the thumb of oppressive powers; because Christ is born as good news for the marginalized; because even from the manger Christ challenged unjust rulers; because Christ is born as a human like you and me, subject to all that we suffer and celebrate; because Christ is born for the sake of love, mercy, and peace and justice; because of all this and more, we can believe in what Churchill described as the moral governance of the universe.  Our God is revealed through Jesus as loving, merciful, generous, and just.  As human leaders come and go, our abiding hope for a leader worthy of our allegiance and love is fulfilled in Jesus. “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love.”[i]


Tonight, the fears of all the years are met with hope.  For Christ is born of Mary.  And Christ is born in every place where the spark of divine love bursts into flame and leads the likes of you and me to make hope real even in the desperate face of fear. May it be evermore so.



[i] “Joy to the World,” UM Hymnal #246