The Three Rs of Christmas

Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Lauren R. Stanley, preached 12.24.21, Pine Ridge Episcopal Mission/St. Katharine’s, Martin, South Dakota

Do you all remember, way back when, when educators talked about school, they always mentioned the “three Rs”? You know, the three basics of what school was supposed to be about: reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic? 

Heaven help you if you — like me when I was but a child of about 6 years — questioned your teacher the nun, wanting to know why the three Rs weren’t Rs, because even at that age, I was bold enough to declare,  writing starts with a W, not an R, and arithmetic starts with an A,  not an R. “Just what kind of education was I getting?” (Note: The nun did not take that question well — not at all!)

Well, today, this holy day when we celebrate again the coming of the Christ Child, I want us to talk about not the three Rs of education, but the three Rs of Christmas.

They are, quite simply:

Remembrance: This is the time each year when we remember this great thing that God did, Emmanuel, God with us, God choosing to be with us.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

  (Verse 1, Love Came Down at Christmas, Christina Rosetti, Hymn 84, Hymnal 1982)

We have to start with Remembrance, because on this cold, dark night, in the midst of a cold, dark world where coronavirus continues to rage, where death is all too common, where famine and war and in-fighting and out-fighting seem to be the rule of the day, we need to reach back into our memories and remember that indeed, Love came down at Christmas …

Theologian Madeleine L’Engle puts it elegantly in her poem First Coming

He did not wait till the world was ready,

till men and nations were at peace

He came when the Heavens were unsteady

and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.

He came when the need was deep and great.

He dined with sinners in all their grime,

turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came

to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame

He came, and his Light would not go out. 

He came to a world which did not mesh,

to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.

In the mystery of the Word made Flesh

the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane

to raise our songs with joyful voice,

for to share our grief, to touch our pain,

He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

(Madeleine L’Engle, “First Coming,” published in The Ordering of Love, 2005)

• When the going is tough, by remembering, we are Reminded — reminded that once that love arrived on Christmas — in the form of a baby born in a stable to parents who were not rich, not famous, just plain old ordinary folks — that love isn’t going anywhere! As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “God is not finished with the world yet.” (The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Christmas Message 2021, published 17 December 2021)

“Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, Love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?”

  (Verse 2, Love Came Down at Christmas, Christina Rosetti, Hymn 84, Hymnal 1982)

Michael Gerson, a political columnist for The Washington Post, and political consultant in numerous presidential administrations, published a column on Christmas Eve, disclosing for the first time publicly that he has cancer and that treatments might be coming to an end. In his reflection on Christmas, with this knowledge, he wrote:

He is a God who goes to ridiculous lengths to seek us.

He is a God who chose the low way: power in humility; strength perfected in weakness; the last shall be first; blessed are the least of these.

He is a God who was cloaked in blood and bone and destined for human suffering — which he does not try to explain to us, but rather just shares. It is perhaps the hardest to fathom: the astounding vulnerability of God.

And he is a God of hope, who offers a different kind of security than the fulfillment of our deepest wishes. He promises a transformation of the heart in which we release the burden of our desires, and live in expectation of God’s unfolding purposes, until all his mercies stand revealed.

(Michael Gerson, “This Christmas, hope may feel elusive. But despair is not the answer,” The Washington Post, Dec. 24, 2021)

This is the reminder we need, this day and every day, that God does go to ridiculous lengths to seek us, and the God is a God of hope who transforms us and everything around us, because God isn’t finished with us yet.

• Once we remember that love indeed came down to live among as one of us, once we are reminded that no matter how hard life seems, how dark it is, that same love isn’t going anywhere, we are led to the third R, Response.

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and neighbor,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

  (Verse 3, Love Came Down at Christmas, Christina Rosetti, Hymn 84, Hymnal 1982)

Theologian, educator and civil rights leader Howard Thurman in 1973 wrote “The Mood of Christmas,” which represents what our response to this great gift can and should be:

When the song of the angels is stilled, 

When the star in the sky is gone, 

When the kings and princes are home, 

When the shepherds are back with their flock, 

The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

(Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas, 1973)

This is how we are called to respond to this great gift that came to us, that comes to us, that will always come to us … to go into the world and do all that God asks us to do.

By doing the work of Christmas, all that Thurman listed and even more, can take place, can become true. 

God came to be with us as one of us in order to fulfill all of God’s promises. 

As Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman taught us in her poem for the inauguration last January,

    When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.

    The new dawn balloons as we free it.

    For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

    If only we’re brave enough to be it.

(Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb,” poem for the Inauguration of Joe Biden, Jan. 20, 2021)

Love indeed came down at Christmas, and if we remember that, if we are reminded that that love isn’t done with us yet, if we respond by doing the work of Christmas every day of our lives, then, I pray, we will be the light that God is calling us to be.


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Go ahead: Buy. Hope. Prepare. It’s Advent!

OK, here’s the thing:

Come Sunday, we will be in the season of Advent. The season of waiting. The season of preparing. The season of hope.

One of the biggest complaints you hear in the Church is that society in general tends to skip over Advent and move right to Christmas, that Black Friday is more important than anything the Church has to offer, that somehow, we’re taking the “Christ” out of Christmas.

And yeah, in some ways, we probably are.

But I am wondering, right now, if in condemning those who focus on Christmas in Advent, we are missing the point.

If you and your significant other were to be expecting a baby on Christmas Day, wouldn’t you be preparing?

Wouldn’t you be out there, rushing around to get the last-minute supplies?

And go to the baby showers?

And paint the room?

And lay in the food?

And buy, buy, buy, buy?

Wouldn’t you?

So … if it’s OK to do that for your baby, why isn’t it OK to do for God’s baby?

I mean, yeah, some people do miss the meaning of Christmas, and it does become a thing about buying for the sake of buying, and partying for the sake of partying.

But even then, are they really missing the point? Aren’t they focused, at least in some little way, on relationships?

Because isn’t that what all this frenzy is about, in this season of Advent? Aren’t we going nuts because of relationships?

I mean, what if the presents we are buying are the ones that people actually need?

Or what if the presents are the kind that help others – you know, the gift cards that help bring clean water to the thirsty, and food to the hungry, and clothing to the naked?

And what if, in attending those parties, we are celebrating relationships? Community?

And what if, in going to see family for the holidays, we are doing the same thing?

So, here’s the thing:

Be careful what you wish for.

Telling people they can’t celebrate Christmas in Advent means that in reality, we are telling people they can’t prepare.

And last time I checked, that’s what Advent is all about: preparing.

After all, isn’t that what John the Baptist kept crying: Prepare ye the way of the Lord!?

So forgive me if I’ve reached the age when I feel it’s OK to get a bit worked up about Christmas. When I say I’m going to a “Christmas” party, and not an “Advent” party. When I let slip with a “Merry Christmas” on occasion.

And forgive me for getting excited about the fact that there’s a BABY coming!

And forgive me for spending a lot of time thinking about what gift I’m going to get for each of my loved ones. I put a lot of thought into this, and a lot of work as well. Will the gifts I give be the biggest and the bestest? Hardly. But they will be thoughtful, and they will be loving, and I will enjoy giving them, and pray that my loved ones will enjoy receiving them.

So go ahead. Go a little nuts if you must in this season of Advent. Because remember: You are preparing.

If you really want to know what Advent is all about, look at this video, Advent in 2 Minutes.

And then remember: Advent? It’s about preparing. And hope.

So go on … go prepare. And hope some, too.

That’s the spirit.

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Occupy God!

Luke 2:1-20

                   In the summer of 1992, I was blessed to go to the Barcelona Olympics, to serve as an editor at that great sporting and cultural events. To do my job properly, I had to lug along one whole extra suitcase filled with reference books not for sports, but for the world – because this was in the days before the Internet, when Google wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s mind.

The summer of 1992 was the culmination of some of the wildest three years in history. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Germanies were united, and the Soviet Union had collapsed. The map of the world was changing so fast we could barely figure out who was competing for what country, how old that country might be, which flags and anthems went with which new country, and who led each new nation. I swear to you that I was the only editor present who knew that Nursultan Nazarbayev was the president of the new country of Kazakstan.

Revolutions had made the world go crazy. Everything we knew – everything we had grown up with – was topsy-turvy, and it took that extra suitcase of books just to be able to edit a basic sports story.

We thought we would never see the likes of this confusion again.

Until this year.

When once again, the world turned upside down. Starting with the death of a vegetable-cart owner named Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, we have seen the people of numerous lands rise up, dictators fall, civil wars break out – and in some cases, end – and, just like the late 1980s and early ’90s, confusion reigns.

The world once again has gone crazy with revolution, which eventually landed on our own shores, in the form of Occupy movement that started on Wall Street and spread like wildfire from city to city and across the ocean to London and cities throughout Europe and even, shockingly, to Russia.

The one thing that all these revolutions – those two decades ago, and those this past year – all have in common?

The dream of a better life.

The knowledge that life indeed can be different, that all it take is the unwavering conviction that if enough of us stand up, if enough of us band together, if enough of us can occupy the attention of the world, the attention of the powers and principalities that be, if enough of us work for the common good, we can change the world.

And isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Changing the world?

Isn’t that why Jesus came? To show us that the world can be different, that life can be different, that it doesn’t have to be dog-eat-dog, I’ve-got-mine-and-I-don’t-care-if-you-ever-get-yours, that life itself can be better?

This is Christmas, my friends, the night when we celebrate anew the fact that God decided to become one of us. This isn’t like the 4th of July, when we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of the Independence. And it isn’t like a celebration of a birthday, where someone asks, “So … what’s it feel like to be (fill in your own age)?”

We aren’t just remembering an event that took place long ago!

This night, my friends … this night is about God making a revolution in our lives!

This is the night when God comes down to occupy the world, to occupy us.[1] As the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, said recently,

Christmas doesn’t commemorate the birth of a super-good person who shows us how to get it right every time, but the arrival in the world of someone who tells us that everything can be different. [2]

Everything … can … be … different!

That’s the true meaning of Christmas … that God is occupying us, whispering in our ears, “Life can be different, my child. Life, my beloved, can be better.

God is willing, despite our faults and shortcomings and willfulness, to occupy us … because God loves us … each of us and all of us, wildly, incredibly, inexplicably and eternally.

It doesn’t make much sense, when we look at the world around us, when we look at how we treat that world … when we look at each other and look at how we treat each other some days.

But … despite every indication to the contrary, God still comes to us … this night … in a revolution of love, to occupy us.

And all God asks in return is that we occupy God.

Jesus came to be with us … as a little baby boy … born in a manger (which, I have to tell you, was not and to this day is not, that unusual) … so that we could, at last, see God in the flesh, see God living and moving and having his being among us as one of us, so that we could, through God’s incredible Occupy Movement, know that indeed, the world can be a better place.

If only we are willing to occupy God.

Now, I warn you, occupying God is not an easy thing to do. God occupying us? Piece of cake. God has occupied us from before time began, God is occupying us right this very second, in this very place, and God will continue to occupy us … whether we like it or not, know it or not, acknowledge it or not … until the ages of ages.

But us …. occupying God?

That’s a whole ’nother bailiwick.

Because to occupy God, we have to be willing to set aside all our own wants and needs and desires and demands. We have to be willing set aside our version of truth, and claim God’s version of truth.

If we want to occupy God, we’re going to have to let … go …

If we really want to see the great light that is shining upon us, if we really yearn to increase our joy, if we really desire to experience the endless peace that comes only from the Lord of hosts, we are going to have to move out of the darkness that envelops us – and Lord knows, in this day and age, with revolutions happening all around us all the time, we are engulfed in darkness – if this is what we really want, we are going to have to leave that darkness behind, and embrace that Light that God is sending into the world, into our lives, right here. And right now.

The salvation we so desperately desire in our own lives does not come from us. It is not ours to decide, ours to give, ours to take away. Salvation, we know – and in our best moments we do know this – salvation comes from God alone.

So on this night, when God comes to occupy us in the form of a little baby boy, on this night, this is what I want you to do:

I want you to look around at the people gathered here tonight … at your loved ones and your friends, at the people sitting next to you and in front of you and in back of you and across the church from you, at the choir and acolytes and lay ministers up here, at the ushers in the back … I want you to look at each person here.

I want you to look for God Incarnate – for Jesus, for the Christ child – occupying every single person here.

Go ahead.


Do you see the Word that became flesh among you? Do you see God occupying not just yourselves, but each other?

If not, look again.

And again.

And yet again.

I want you to look until you do see Jesus … occupying each and every person here.

And when you leave this place tonight, I want you to look for God occupying every single person you meet … the other people on the road, scurrying to or from a service. The FedEx and UPS folks, hurrying to deliver one more present … the clerk at the store … the neighbor whose name you do not yet know …

I want you to look at every single person you meet, every person whose path you cross, not just this night, but every night, and I want you to see God Incarnate in each one of those people.

Only when we spend our time looking for God Incarnate – for Jesus – occupying each other, only then do we truly occupy God ourselves.

It is a revolutionary thing to occupy God as God occupies us … greater than any revolution in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union three decades ago, greater than any revolution taking place this very day.

Because when we decide to occupy God, we … change … the … world. We worry less about ourselves … and more about each other. We give grace … and we get grace. We see God’s love in each other … as we give God’s love to each other … as we receive God’s love from each other.

This is Christmas, my friends, the night when more than any other night in our lives, God comes to occupy us, in the form of the Christ child.

Look for that Christ child occupying each other, look for that occupation and honor that occupation, and I guarantee you, we will indeed be occupying God.

And when we do occupy God, I guarantee you this as well, the world will be a better place.

Let us pray:

How may God’s Love take shape in our world?

                  In dreams which move us to risk compassion for each other …

                  In a vision of a community whole and peace-filled …

                  In hope, which leads us to work for peace …

                  Lord of Hosts, King of Kings,

                  Occupy us … wholly, fully, eternally,

                  So that we may occupy you … wholly, fully, and eternally in return.



Christmas Eve 2011 sermon preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Burke, Va., 5 p.m. service (a variation of this was preached at the 3 p.m. service.)

[1] “God’s occupation of the world in Jesus Christ.” The Rev. Michael T. Sniffen, priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn, New York, arrested Saturday, 17 Dec 2011, at Duarte Square (the property owned by Trinity Wall Street), along with a retired bishop, numerous other clergy, and scores of laity for trespassing. (via The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Keaton, “No Time For Anglican Circumspection,” Telling Secrets,

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