Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 66:1-13+Psalm 103:1-17+1 Peter 1:22-2:3+Luke 2:1-20

One of my nieces is a nurse-midwife at a community hospital in the Bronx. Suzannah has crammed far more into her few-years-shy-of-40 life than most do in twice as long. Born in French-speaking West Africa, living in Rwanda up to the time of the genocide, joining the Peace Corps and serving in Niger and Liberia, working for the International Rescue Committee in Baghdad and for Partners in Health in Rwanda, she realized that women’s health was where her heart lay, so she went to Yale School of Nursing and got herself licensed as a nurse midwife. She graduated a couple of years ago and was thrilled to find a position in a hospital that serves mostly low-income people of color and immigrants.

When Suzannah was in the Peace Corps in Niger, a 98% Muslim country where women had little agency in managing their health, she learned to speak Hausa, which is the principal language for almost 50-million people in Central Africa. As I understand it, Hausa is a really hard language to learn, but she did it because she lived and worked among people for whom that was their only language.

Back to the Bronx. Early in her time working as a newly certified midwife, Suzannah was working on the labor and delivery floor when she overheard a man who was there with his pregnant wife, and they were speaking Hausa. Without even thinking about it, she began to speak with them in their own language. I don’t think she even realized she was doing it.

Now, Suzannah is a blond-haired, blue-eyed white woman, and I am quite sure that this couple was shocked to hear familiar words coming out of her mouth. Less than 1% of people in New York speak any kind of African language, and they certainly don’t look like her.

Yet this unexpected encounter must have come as such a grace, such comfort, to this couple. Here was someone who understood them, who met them where they were, understood their need, perhaps their fear and uncertainty, greeting them with warmth and care in a way that they could understand. And Suzannah delivered that baby, her very first in her new job in the Bronx.

The prophet Isaiah tells us of a “high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy,” (57:15). This is a God who has never been seen. Even Moses only saw God’s backside (Exodus 33:18-20), and the great prophet Elijah only heard that still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-13).

Yet for us, this child is born, Emmanuel, God with us. God coming to us in a language we can understand, in flesh and blood and full humanness. It is a shocking and unexpected thing, like a young white woman speaking Hausa to an unsuspecting couple in a hospital in New York City.

We were a lost people. We erred and strayed from God’s ways like lost sheep, (paraphrase of the confession, BCP 41, etc.), and maybe God just got frustrated with it all and said, “Here, let me show you.” In the most unprofound way imaginable, in an insignificant town to insignificant people, amidst the livestock and in a feeding trough, God came to us. Any midwife could tell you that, even in the most pristine and well-planned circumstances, childbirth is a messy business. And God came to us in that mess of blood and bodily fluids and excrement and said, “this is what love looks like.”

It has been almost two years since we first encountered the word “coronavirus” that has so disrupted and distorted our daily lives, sickening more than a quarter of a billion people and killing more than five million around the world. We have all been touched by this pandemic in some way, and there is, at this time, no end in sight.

And yet, God still comes to be with us. In the muck and mess of our world, God comes to show us just how broad and deep and wide divine love and mercy are.

The Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor once described the role of the preacher as being something like Cyrano de Bergerac,

…passing messages between two would-be lovers who want to get together but do not know how. The words are my own but I do not speak for myself. Down in the bushes with a congregation who have elected me to speak for them, I try to put their longing into words, addressing the holy vision that appears on the moonlit balcony above our heads.  Then the vision replies, and it is my job to repeat what I have heard, bringing the message back to the bushes for a response. (Brown continues) As a preacher I am less a principal player than a go-between, a courier who serves both partners in an ancient courtship.[1]

But on this night, the message needs no go-between. Like an unexpected voice speaking a language we can hear and understand, Love came down to be with us. The deepest longing of my heart is that you all feel that, hear that, experience that, and that you then share that good Good News with those near and far in words they can hear and understand.

A blessed and joyful Christmas to you and all those you love and pray for.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 78.

ASEPSermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas