Too Good to Be True

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019

Jesus, the Morning Star, our souls’ true light, tarry not, dispel our night. Amen.

Christmas always comes as a surprise. Don’t worry: I am not, as a priest, unaware that December 25th is marked on calendars as Christmas Day. I’m talking about the mystery, the majesty, and, yes, the magic of the story itself. No matter who you happen to be or what has brought you here tonight, even if it’s the emotional force of your mother or of baby Yoda from The Mandalorian series, there’s something wonderful about this night.

And we’re never really prepared for it, are we? I mean, that’s honestly true for all of us. Over the last several weeks, some of you have been watching for God, praying that a light would shine in the darkness, listening to music that lifts your hearts to heaven, and coming to church to ponder the coming of God. Some of you have been overwhelmed by the flood of national news that washes over you from your car radio. Some of you have been worried that the house or presents won’t be just right or that those who are coming home might not appreciate or notice the care and love that’s made them just right. Some of you have stopped looking for God because of difficult things going on in your life. And some of you aren’t sure God exists, or if God does, you aren’t sure he cares for the world, you aren’t sure he cares for you.

In the midst of all of that, each of us hears again, right here, as though for the first time, the story of the birth of Jesus. We hear once more the good news announced in the middle of the night to shepherds in the field. Those shepherds were, in many ways, like us, with their different and conflicting ideas about God.

But however it was that they expected God to act in the world, and argued about it among themselves, this wasn’t it. The Lord was high and mighty, enthroned upon the cherubim, not where sheep had been grazing. And yet that’s what makes this night so wonderful — that God would appear where we least expect to find him, in a way that seems beneath him, but when we most need him. That’s the miracle.

And that’s how a woman named Auburn Sandstrom received a glimpse of salvation in her life. 27 years ago, she found herself on the dirty carpet of a cluttered apartment. She was curled up there on the floor, in withdrawal from the drug that she was addicted to. She felt like she had been having a constant panic attack for the previous five years. Had it been possible, she “would have jumped out of [her] own skin and run into the streets.” She would later describe that moment, saying,

I’d never been in a more dark or desperate place as that night.[1]

Surely this woman never imagined she would end up there. After all, growing up, she took opera lessons and could speak French fluently. She was given an expensive college education, took a year abroad, and earned a master’s degree.

Then, like a modern-day friar, in solidarity with those who never had those kinds of privileges, she threw all of them away. But rather than helping others rise up, her life took a tragic turn. She met a man whom she would eventually marry and through whom she’d be introduced to the drug that threatened to destroy her life.

That worst night of her life, she was on parole, her husband was on probation, and their baby boy was asleep behind her. Sandstrom laid there on the floor holding an old folded up piece of paper. Written on that piece of paper was a phone number. It was a phone number her mother had sent to her at some point in the mail during the years they weren’t speaking to each other. Her mother thought that since her daughter wouldn’t call her, maybe she would call this person, a counselor who also happened to be a Christian. Neither the counseling part nor the Christian part meant anything to Sandstorm, but she was so desperate that she called the number.

It was about 2:00 a.m. when she heard a man on the other end of the line answer and say, “Hello.” And she replied, “Hi, I got this number from my mother. Umm, do you think you could maybe talk to me?” Sandstrom heard the man pulling sheets away from himself and turning off a radio in the background.

She said that she felt like he just became very present as he said to her, “Yes, yes, yes. What’s going on?” Sandstorm “hadn’t told anybody, including [herself], the truth for a long, long time.” But she did tell this stranger the truth — about being scared, about her failing marriage, about the fact that she might have a drug problem.

Sandstrom said, “This man didn’t judge me. He just sat with me, and was present, and listened, and had such a kindness, and such a gentleness. ‘Tell me more. Oh, that must hurt. Oh.’” And he stayed on the phone with her through the rest of the night. By sunrise, she felt calm enough to believe that she would be able to splash some water on her face and probably deal with that day. She eventually asked this man how long he had been doing this because he was so good at it. And she was surprised by his answer because he told her she’d called the wrong number.

More than two decades after that encounter with a complete stranger, whom she never spoke to again and whose name she never learned, Sandstrom reflected on everything that had happened, saying:

I need to tell you that the next day I experienced something that I’ve heard called peace that passes understanding because I had experienced that there was random love in the universe and that some of it was unconditional and that some of it was for me. And I can’t tell you that I got my life totally together that day, but it became possible. . . . This is what I know: In the deepest, blackest night of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in.

Many of the people sitting around you tonight believe that to be true. They believe — we believe — the words of Isaiah, written long before the birth of Jesus, a promise that was read to us this evening, a message of hope for everyone here, a message of hope for you: “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. . . . For a child has been born for us . . . and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”[2] This, we believe, is Jesus, who comes unexpectedly to save us, who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus was present to people just as that stranger was present to Auburn Sandstrom. He accepted them, embraced them, and healed them. He even forgave them, something that only God can do. And he forgave them freely and extravagantly, just as he forgives us. It seems too good to be true. Yet it is true. And that’s what makes this a holy night for Christians around the world from generation to generation.

The German pastor and 20th-century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words about Christmas, about this night when God reached out to touch humanity:

Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety — that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous.

And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. . . . God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in.[3]

My friends, to that, I say, “Amen.” And to you, the people
for whom the Christ Child was born, I say,

MERRY CHRISTMAS

BACK TO POST The quotes of Auburn Sandstrom and my retelling of her amazing story comes from her own recollection in the recording at the end of this sermon.

BACK TO POST Isaiah 9:2, 6.

BACK TO POST Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 22.

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