In the name of the God of mess, and stench, and plans gone wrong. Amen.
A few weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, Michael and I were preparing for our oldest nephew to visit us and spend the holiday with us. He goes to school in Pennsylvania, and the trip home to Mississippi was too long for him for such a short break, so we were delighted to welcome him here.
We’d spent weeks planning. He’s an eighteen-year-old soccer player, and we knew he was capable of eating us out of house and home, so we’d been pre-buying whatever groceries we could. We’d scheduled the menus. We’d set out a timeline of what was to happen and when. When we would be going to the grocery store to get the perishables that couldn’t be purchased in advance. When we would do preliminary decorating so that we’d be ready to turn on the Christmas lights on Thanksgiving evening. How we would front-load as much work for our jobs as we could, so we’d be free to give him all the attention we could. When we would do the various tasks of cleaning the house to make sure all would be set when he arrived on Wednesday, the evening before Thanksgiving.
The plans were set. We were ready and on schedule.
Then Brooks called on Sunday morning. “My classes are canceled. Do you mind if I come early? I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Suddenly everything was turned on its head. Our well-constructed plans had become less about an ordering of things, and more a way of reminding us about all that was now impossible. We weren’t ready, and the whole thing felt like a huge mess.
Of course, in this case, our excitement about welcoming him into our home helped to soften the blow. But we had to quickly shift our priorities and expectations. Some things just weren’t going to be ready before he came. In some ways, the messiness we’d been trying to manage and control was just going to have to be the reality.
One of the really beautiful and moving things about the Christmas story is the way that it deals with messiness. It was a messy story. Mary was an unwed mother. The social structures of the day said that that was messy and undesirable. Joseph didn’t cast her out. That was messy. They couldn’t even be at home – they were stuck traveling to comply with an inconvenient government order. Messy. And then, when they got there, there was no place to go and they had to take shelter with the livestock. They were literally surrounded by mess.
But even in the midst of all of that – even in all of that undesirable messiness, in the midst of all of those plans that went wrong – even then, God found a way to be there. To be with them there in the mess, and even to use the mess to bring God’s will to life.
There’s comfort in that. We don’t have to be perfect.
There is this sense in large parts of the culture that to be a part of this faith, or to be a part of a church, a person must somehow clean up their act first. Or they need to achieve some level of “good enough” in order to participate.
But the stories of our faith tell us over and over again that that simply isn’t how God works. God doesn’t need our lives to be orderly or for us to color inside the lines. There is no purity test required to embrace this faith.
Throughout my life as a priest, I’ve heard people say hundreds of times, “I’m sure if I tried to go into your church lightning would strike and burn the place to the ground.” But you know what? It’s never happened.
Church isn’t a place for the perfect people to get together and celebrate how wonderful they are. If it was, I sure as hell wouldn’t fit in here. I’m the leader of this group, and I’m no kind of perfect. Sometimes I use salty language. Sometimes I get angry. Sometimes my ego gets in the way of my calling. I’m sure if you were to ask my husband, he’d rattle off a long list of my shortcomings.
But that’s not the point. We aren’t supposed to be perfect. In the tradition I grew up in, a popular saying was that we were to be “striving on toward perfection” – acknowledging that we weren’t perfect, but that we were trying. The truth is, I don’t think that’s even really the goal.
Look at the way God interacts with the world – perfect is nowhere on the radar. I think the bigger point is that we’re trying to be open to letting God in to our lives. We’re trying to be open to letting God use our imperfections and our shortcomings for something greater than we can be or even imagine on our own.
If anything, I think a big part of the message of Christmas is recognizing the reality that God can work with anything. Even us. Even in our messiness. Even in our failure to come up with plans that meaningfully reflect reality, and not just our idealized visions of what we think reality should be.
Christmas shows us that no matter how screwed up we are, no matter how messy we are, no matter how far from the ideal our lives really are: it doesn’t put us out of reach of God. God can use us. In fact, that’s very often the way God wants to use us.
Think of a livestock pen. Think of the smell of manure. God saw that and said, “I’m in.”
I promise you: you are better than the stench of manure. When God sees you, got wants in. God wants to be present in your mess. God wants to use the landscape of all of our messiness to show Christ to the world. This Christmas, I pray that we all try to be a little more open to letting God in. Amen.