Christmas: The Fine House That Love Is

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

For most of us, Christmas is the emotional center of Christianity. Easter may be “The Queen of Feasts,” but Christmas hits us right here [hitting chest with a fist], tugging at our hearts in so many different and powerful ways, some of them unexpected, catching us off guard. Whether we choose to call it holy, regardless of who we are or where we have been or where we find ourselves now, even if we’re sitting outside on the grass rather than in the pews, this night brings back, unbidden, lots of memories of home.

Perhaps those are happy memories from your childhood — a Christmas tree decorated with silver tinsel or those giant, colorful, old-fashioned lights; wrapped presents that you shook to guess what was inside; that one special toy you held in your hands, which just seemed too good to be true.

I can still remember holding, in the late 1970s, a more-than-one-foot-tall action figure of a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. After putting in batteries, an eerie sweeping “eye” in the helmet could light up bright red. You might have your own version of a memory like that, even if you never share it.

Then there are memories of beautiful carols and candlelight in a church. Later, at home, did you get to place Jesus in the manger in a nativity set? Or were you the kid constantly rearranging the shepherds and their sheep?

Maybe some of you are thinking about how you took for granted the ways you gathered with family and friends a couple of years ago. I know some of us, including me and my family, canceled trips planned for next week, each of us praying for a light to shine on our path and show us the way. Sadly but understandably, relatives have canceled trips to come and see us too.

More than a few of us find our minds flooded with memories of the physical places that we or loved ones have called home — a house we still go back to visit now and then; a bungalow that was sold long ago; a neighborhood that has slowly aged with its residents, where adults rather than children now ride their bikes down the street; a grandparent’s farm; a divorced parent’s apartment; a large back yard where we played with cousins.

Or you might be thinking of experiences that happened in those places — the way your grandmother set the table in the dining room just so before you arrived for a feast, wanting everything to be special for you; that awkward time your Christmas gift for someone was, let’s be honest, a real flop; a parent who was filled with joy simply because you were happily lost in wonder; the warmth of the family you had to choose for yourself, perhaps from people in this church, perhaps people here tonight, when your own family seemed to shut the door on you in one way or another.

When we think of home on this night, we think of nearly as many things as there are people here right now. That word means something different to each of us. And what did it mean to Jesus, who was raised in the village of Nazareth, born on the road under less than ideal circumstances, hit the road as an adult after he was baptized in the River Jordan, named as his family — as his brother and sister and mother — those who do the will of God, and said he, unlike the birds with their nests, had no place to lay his head?

I believe the answer to that question has everything to do with this night, which I do call holy. Many of those around you right now believe that Love came down at Christmas in the birth of Jesus — Love with a capital “L” — for you, for me, for the whole world. And it’s not imprisoned in the past.

That Love was present not only in the events described in the pages of the Gospel of Luke but also in many of the memories of home you’ve brought with you this evening — the wonderful memories of when your life overflowed with abundance, hopeful things that somehow emerged out of the hard times, or maybe new traditions that don’t reflect your bad experiences of the past. Whether you think of home as one place, or many places, or no place at all, what makes it a home, what makes it your home, what makes this church our home is Love with a capital “L,” manifested not in wooden beams, not in bricks and mortar, not in stained glass windows, but in relationships through the years that go back to the manger.[1]

The Love that flows from one generation to another, however it finds a way to do that, even if it comes to you through the cracks and the brokenness of your life, has a divine source. And the babe in a manger, crying out in the darkness, is Emmanuel, God-with-us, even if you don’t believe that to be true. That’s what makes this night truly magical, in the sense of something that’s beautiful and filled with awe, something that continues to have the power to change the world, beginning with your own heart.

How would your life be different if it were true?

The poet Jack Gilbert has a short poem that acknowledges the passing away of things, and our weeping over them as they decline into the earth. But it celebrates whatever among those things is present with us in this moment, “what abounds,” as he puts is. Amazed by that daily, his last line refers to:

My fine house that love is.[2]

I don’t know what he means entirely by that beautiful phrase. But his use of the word love refers to God for me on this night, and on all the other nights of the year. Home is my fine house that Love has built, that God is building, for me and for everyone else created in God’s image. That includes you.

We long for home, we have a yearning for it, because we long to be accepted, embraced, and loved. That’s something each of us wants, even if we’ve never experienced it, or if we think we don’t deserve it. The story of Christmas is about the coming of God to those who least expect it, to those sitting in the shadows, to those who feel left out, to the shepherds you kept rearranging, with their sheep, in that old moss-covered nativity set.

In this place, among this people, on this night called holy, you are accepted and embraced and loved by the same Jesus whose birth we remember each Christmas, including this one. Jesus came to set us free from the things that keep us from accepting, embracing, and loving others. Jesus came to invite us to the feast at this Table, inside the fine house that Love is. There will always, always, always be room here, just for you. So welcome home.


BACK TO POST This whole discussion of home and what it means was inspired by an interview with Christian Wiman on the podcast For the Life of the World, “95. Christian Wiman / Finding Home Through Exiles’ Eyes,” November 27, 2021.

BACK TO POST Jack Gilbert, “Singing in My Difficult Mountains” in Home: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2021) 9.

Stoplights and Christmas PJs

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Advent III, December 12, 2021

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

As some of you know, Advent is my favorite season of what we call the Church Year — how we mark time on the liturgical calendar in our worship and in our prayers, which is different than how we mark time on a secular calendar in much of our day-to-day lives. Although one of the shortest seasons, Advent is really how we live most of our lives as Christians — looking back to what God has done in the past, crying out for God to come among us in the present, and watching, actively watching and waiting, for God to act and right all wrongs, not only around us but also within us.

And we’ll greet that Day of the Lord with joy, not fear.

Now having said that, I really feel like I need to confess something. I feel like I need to tell you that Christmas, which is surely coming and for which Advent always prepares us, is already sneaking a little bit into Palmer’s Rectory, where the Willards live, dispelling some of the shadows, here and there. I’m not talking about the lighting of our Advent wreath, hand-made with Topo Chico bottle caps, on which candles are gradually lit to remind us of the coming of Christ into the world. I’m not even talking about our beautiful Christmas tree, brightly illuminated and visible through one of the front windows. What that tree represents — family history, faith in Christ, fun and laughter through the years, and hopefulness — is what we need, what we all need, throughout this new Church Year.

No, what I want to admit to you today is that there was an explosion of Christmas pjs at the Rectory. I’m not going to say how many of us were wearing them. I’m just going to say that several of us were and that it was a joyful preview of the fun part of Christmas — like the storm clouds of the world around us parting and allowing a few rays of sunshine to break through for a moment. It sure seems like most of us — all of us, really — need a moment like that to surprise us, to lift our spirits, and to fill us with hope. Folks are stressed out at home, at work, and apparently at every intersection in Houston as drivers increasingly speed through red lights.

We want something to break through all of that, not like running a red light, but like a divine intervention. We want God to act. At the very least, we want God to explain why we keep taking two steps forward and one step back, even when we’ve tried to do the right things for ourselves and our neighbors over the last couple of years. Maybe there are also parts of your life where you feel as if you keep taking one step forward and two steps back. You want God to show up and help out. For you, Advent’s very real this year.

In a strange way, today’s reading from the Book of Zephaniah is like an explosion of Christmas pjs, however you want to imagine that or some other unexpected metaphor. That reading comes amid the traditional themes of Advent, which usually point us to some pretty weighty matters related to last things or God’s coming judgement. Surrounded by that heaviness, here is this super-rejoice-y fireworks display of hope, with God himself in our midst, as our redeemer, as a mighty warrior on our behalf who will renew us in his love and even break forth into loud singing over us.

But that’s not how the Book of Zephaniah begins. It begins with a warning about a disaster on the horizon, a judgement from God himself. The second verse of the first chapter puts it bluntly:

I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord.[1]

The prophet wants those listening to change their ways in the present, to stop speeding through all of the red lights on the crowded road to doom. All of that was meant to be heard before the catastrophe happened — change, change, change, before it’s too la . . . 

[Announcer’s voice:] This ruin is brought to you by idolatry and oppression.[2]

That’s the Cliff notes version of the Book of Zephaniah.

But maybe there’s still time to change the channel, to watch a show with different sponsors, like righteousness, like humility. The prophet urges them — and us — to seek those things in order to be hidden from the wrath that will wash over everyone like tidal wave.

Well, spoiler alert, not much, if anything, changes and the bad things do happen — not a natural disaster, like those devastating tornadoes, at least 30 of them, that bulldozed through six states on Friday night and Saturday morning. That was awful. What the Book of Zephaniah described was awful too, but it was brought about by the rulers, the judges, the priests, and the prophets — most of the other prophets, that is — false ones.[3]

The part of the Book of Zephaniah that was read this morning is the last part — the final and most surprising words. They were probably meant to be heard while the catastrophe is unfolding, or perhaps afterwards, while looking in the rear view mirror and seeing the destruction in its wake.

It’s a different kind of message for a different kind of landscape — a landscape that has been altered. But it turns out that not everything has been swept away from the face of the earth. Those who had been oppressed and those who had suffered, the lowly and the outcast — they’ve been saved and gathered together as the remnant of Israel, and the Lord will bring them home and dwell in their midst. So they are told they should rejoice.

It’s not unlike the words of Mary’s song, known as the Magnificat, from the Gospel of Luke:

My soul doth magnify the Lord . . .
He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away.[4]

It’s not unlike the words of today’s collect — that prayer which collects our thoughts for this particular Sunday:

Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us . . .[5]

That used to be the prayer for the last Sunday of the Church Year — a prayer for God to stir things up throughout the coming season of Advent. In the Episcopal Church, we now pray it during Advent. It’s always a timely prayer, no matter what day of the year we cry out, pleading with God to stir things up, to come among us, and to help us . . . now.

But are you really expecting something to happen? Are you expecting a highway in the desert, a bridge over a deep divide, the restoration of a friendship, the rebuilding of your faith, however slowly, or the renewal of the gift of joy and wonder we ask God to give to those newly baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah?

Here, whenever you share with others the peace of Christ, if there isn’t anything that’s being overcome in that moment, in that experience before we gather around this Table, then it’s not really the peace of Christ. You don’t need the grace and forgiveness of Christ to overcome something that isn’t a problem, isn’t difficult, isn’t too much for you to handle.

That isn’t to say everything will suddenly be ok on the other side of the passing of the peace. I mean, let’s face it, sometimes only Jesus himself is able to make that a true moment. And it is true because we’re not the sponsor of that moment, Christ is. But that’s the point of the Advent season. We need help, and we need it right now, and our redeemer has be God.

Advent also reminds us that we need not be afraid when the Day of the Lord is at hand and Christ comes again, with power and great glory. Standing with those in the shadows who are suffering and excluded and broken-hearted and world-weary, we know the One who is coming will bring mercy, healing, and forgiveness, causing the shadows to flee.

In the meantime, how are we to live now, especially if we’re not looking in the rear view mirror at the chaos behind us but intensely feeling chaos surrounding us in the present? I like something the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota wrote recently, something which I’ve continued to ponder as part of my own Advent reflections this year. He said:

As followers of Jesus, we don’t need to see the whole map of the rugged landscape before us, we simply have to take the next step, which is always loving the next person, saying the next prayer, turning outward toward God’s outrageous promises, because God is faithful.[6]

My friends, the promises of God are indeed outrageous, as outrageous as an explosion of Christmas pjs amid the seriousness and the heaviness of Advent, amid the seriousness and the heaviness of world in which we’re living. Holding firmly to those promises — or rather being held by them — and knowing that mercy awaits us, we can say, with hope,

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.[7]


BACK TO POST Zephaniah 1:2.

BACK TO POST Zephaniah 1:4-6; 3:3-4.

BACK TO POST Zephaniah 3:3-4.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 65.

BACK TO POST The Book of Common Prayer (1979) 160.

BACK TO POST Craig Loya (@MinnesotaBishop), Twitter, November 28, 2021.

BACK TO POST This popular saying is based on Revelation 22:20.