(Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2017, “The Name of Jesus,” based on Luke 2:15-21)
It’s been kind of a rough week for our family. My 93-year-old mother went into the hospital Monday afternoon and ended up spending two days there. She was unable to eat or drink anything, because her esophagus had constricted and some food had gotten stuck in the opening. On Monday night she assured me that it was okay for me to go home, so I went to say good-bye and hug her. The thin hospital gown had slid down her shoulders, and I could feel how thin she’s become: literally, skin and bone. Of course, I knew she’d lost weight the past couple of years, but with the usual layers of clothing stripped away, I was suddenly struck by how vulnerable she seemed…. I know some of you might be thinking, “Well, duh! She’s 93, and she’s not well, so of course she’s vulnerable! All of us are vulnerable when we’re not feeling well!…” And you’re right! But what I’m getting at here is something deeper: In order to understand what I mean when I say I was struck by how vulnerable my mother seemed in that moment, you need to know something about how she presents herself and about how I’ve come to see her over the years…. My mom was born in England in 1923. Her dad died in 1937, and her mother had to go to work cleaning houses in order to make ends meet. My mom and her siblings grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression and World War II…. At the same time she and her sisters were learning to put on their lipstick, they also learned to put on a stiff upper lip, because they had to. And whenever they got dressed up, as they loved to do, they knew they were never fully dressed without their steely veneer. My grandma was like that, too: a proud, feisty little English lady—4’11” if you stretched her!—but nobody messed with Grandma, oh no!… So, you see, I come from strong stock: a tribe of “badass” women—and I mean that mostly in a good way! I come from a clan of women who survived and made a life for themselves and their family out of rubble and ashes….. So, now maybe you can begin to see why it was such a shock for me to see my mom with the layers of clothing and toughness peeled off: both the layers she put on herself and the layers I’ve put on her, as a result of my relationship with her all these years….
I share this personal reflection with you, because it occurs to me that the layers we put on ourselves and on others get in our way in a big way! Those layers get in the way of our relationship with God and with each other, and they can prevent us from receiving the gift of abundant life God desires to give us…. My friends, when the time was right and humankind was ready to receive the gift, God showed God’s love by coming to us as a tiny baby boy, born into this world just as we are: naked, helpless, and utterly dependent on others for love and care. Like all babies, he was wrapped in “swaddling cloths,” aka diapers!, and that was the only layer he had upon him: a simple layer to keep him warm. The holy child was named “Jesus,” a name meaning “he will save.” It was an impressive handle for a baby, but God had promised to do great things through him, and, as we know, Jesus grew up and grew into his name. In all that he said and did, Jesus strove to peel back layers wherever he encountered them: He peeled back the false layers that we humans use to try to hide our sin—layers that only serve to separate us from God and from each other…. Because Jesus always saw past the surface layers, he never looked down on anyone he met, whether it was a desperate prostitute dressed in rags or a destitute leper covered in sores; instead, he always stooped down to lift up those who were in need. Because he could see past the surface layers, he saw with compassion: that is, he saw others with love that strips everything else away and embraces our mutual human suffering…. That’s who Jesus was, my friends, and that’s what he came to reveal to us: He came to reveal God’s undying love for this whole dying world, and he came to show us that God’s love is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, our origin and our destiny. Love is who we’re meant to be…. Jesus saves us by calling us to strip off the armor and trappings of this world and come back to our true identity as naked, newborn children of God who love as God loves: without condition and without end….
You know, most of the world has moved on from Christmas to revel in New Year’s celebrations, but here in the church we’re still in the middle of the Christmas season; today is, in fact, the eighth day of Christmas—as in “eight maids a’milking!” (Your earworm for the day!… You’re welcome!) J Seriously, though, we’re still celebrating the birth of the Christ child, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than for you and I to fully unwrap the gift God has given us and embrace this Jesus as our own…. When I say we need to “fully unwrap” God’s gift, what I mean is this: It seems to me that over the centuries we Christians have wrapped Jesus up in way too many layers. For example, over the centuries, some have tried to wrap him up in flags and ideology, but the real Jesus always, always throws off those layers and calls us back to the manger and the cross, where we see him in all his naked, God-with-us-and-for-us humanity…. Over the centuries, we Christians have also taken the One who was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, layered him in fine robes, and set him up on a golden throne. Indeed, the church has layered Jesus with so much divinity that in a very real sense we’ve lost sight of his true humanity: We’ve lost sight of the fact that even though Jesus was the Christ, God’s deepest self-revelation yet to humankind, he was also fully human, just as you and I are! We’ve lost sight of the fact that Jesus suffered, just as we do, and that even though he was the Son of God, his journey of faith wasn’t any easier than ours is….
Dear sisters and brothers, as we celebrate the festival of the Name of Jesus today, we also mark the beginning of a New Year. It seems to me that this is a good time for us to make a New Year’s resolution that we can actually keep, though only by the grace of God!… Beginning today, let’s resolve to strip away the layers that separate us from God and from each other. Let’s resolve to see ourselves, other people, and all creation as God sees everything: with eyes of love, because how we see others is how we see God. To say it another way: If you and I don’t love others—especially the unlovable and the unlovely—we can never truly love God. Of course, none of us can do this on our own, and that’s precisely the point God is trying to get across by sending us the gift of the Christ child!… Franciscan priest and author, Father Richard Rohr, offers some words of wisdom to help us understand this:
“It seems God gave us a commandment that we could not obey. Perhaps this is so we would have to depend upon the Holy Spirit. This is the greatness, the goodness, the wonder, the impossibility of the Gospel, that it asks of all of us something we—alone, apart, separate—cannot do! Only by living in love, in communion—God in us and we in God (see John 17:20-26)—do we find, every once in a while, a love flowing through us and toward us and from us that is bigger than our own. And we surely know it’s not “we” who are doing it!”
Dear friends in Christ, as we go forth into this New Year, let’s bear Christ’s name with compassion and courage, and let’s share the Good News of God’s love in all we say and do, because that’s the only way to peel back the layers of sin that separate us from God and from each other, and it’s the only way to bring light and life to those who walk in darkness. Amen.
 Richard Rohr, “The Greatest Commandments,” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, Dec. 27, 2016.