We didn’t know how to plan this Sunday, to be completely honest. I assumed morning attendance would be a bit sparse, that the rule of one would come in to play, the informal rule of our congregation that says people will come to the building once on a given day. If there is a cleanup on Saturday morning, the Still, Small Voice group will be low because people come once a day. And you can have an event right after Sunday service, but don’t try to get people to come in the afternoon because, people come once a day. So I assumed that most people would come to Christmas Eve services. Our minister of music had a performance opportunity this morning, asked to use a vacation Sunday and I said, “Go ahead” because, again, I figured it would be a small group that I could lead on guitar.
But then yesterday, I began to wonder if my calculations would be wrong. We have an older congregation and many people who don’t like to go out in the evenings. Maybe the morning service will have more people and the evening service will be an intimate group holding candles, their few voices overpowered by Christmas carols on the organ.
Now somewhere the Dickensian Christmas spirit of Herr Pastor circa 1950 is looking on the proceedings, waving a finger and saying, “They should come to both.” I could get all worked up and angry because people aren’t doing what I want them to do. But this is more how we imagine ourselves than how we live. A couple of years ago I wrote an article about when to cancel church in bad weather. I have always lived next door to my congregations so I can always make it. And there is a philosophy that would say we should never cancel because someone might make the drive. In my article I talked about the imagined little, old lady who was so dutiful that she would drive through the snow in order to make it to worship if we failed to cancel. It was that little, old lady for whom congregations made their cancellation policies. My experience is, if that little, old lady ever existed, she is no longer with us. In our community, if there is an inch of snow, that is enough to keep people off the roads. But we want to imagine she exists in our community because it makes the rest of us feel more faithful.
Yet that hasn’t been our reality for quite some time. My internship supervisor, Orv Lind told the story of how when he was in seminary in the 1960s, daily chapel services were supposed to be mandatory, but when he went to his approval interview it was noted that he wasn’t there all the time. “How often did you attend?” He answered, “About 75% of the time.” A committee member asked, “How would you feel if only 75% of your congregation came to church?” To which he replied, “That would be pretty good,” because even in the 1960s 75% attendance would be unusual.
In general, we like to imagine that we are more active than we are and more faithful than we are. One of the common reasons that people go to church is that it makes us feel like good people, makes us feel like the kind of people we imagine would go to church. On the flip side of that, one of the common reasons that people have expressed to me for not going to church is they don’t imagine that they are that good, that they are the kind of people that they imagine would go to church. You may have the relative or friend who jokes about being struck by lightning if they darken the church doors. What they are really saying is, “I am not good enough to go,” or “I am not interested in being around people who think they are good enough to go.”
The last idea is the more Lutheran response. In the Lutheran tradition, we proclaim that none of us are good enough, not on our own. None of us are as good we portray ourselves or even imagine ourselves to be. This is a source of all kinds of frustration in life. We know what we want to be and what we think we should be, and yet we are not. I want to be loving but often I’m not. You want to be generous but often it’s a struggle. We want to be good stewards of our time, but often find time slipping away.
The good news for us today is the story we are celebrating this morning and this evening is a story for the real us, the imperfect, the not good enough us. It is not a story of ideal people doing imaginary wonders. Instead it is the story of an ideal God disrupting the ordinary. Because the angel Gabriel does not appear to Caesar or Herod or even the high priest.; he does not call to the great people or the powerful people, the important people or the tremendous people. He appears to a young woman whom we would not know had it not been for this story, Mary, a young woman who also felt ill-prepared and unworthy. Yet she is drawn into the story of God’s salvation and God’s hope for humanity.
She is drawn into the story and inspired to sing the song that we sang in place of a Psalm today. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” a song that celebrates those not good enough and intimidates the tyrant and the bully. “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” This is a song that celebrates the imperfect, the common, the human, not the imaginary or the ideal.
As I have been saying, this year I am going to be focusing on the path of discipleship, and one the dangers of that discussion is it can turn into a discussion of ideals and perfection, forgetting that discipleship is more about the attempt to walk the path, than an eventual goal. We will stumble on that path as we often and always do. The story we hear this morning and that we will celebrate tonight is a story for the real us, the ones who make mistakes, the ones who choose to sleep in sometimes, the ones who forget to be kind and loving and patient, the ones who get distracted by shiny objects, the real us. God is interested in the real us, because it is only when we acknowledge the real us, who we are and where we are right now, that we can start to think about repentance, change and growth.
The story of Christmas, the story of Jesus is a story for the real you. You are worthy to hear it. You are worthy to be here in this place, not because you have avoided a naughty list, but because God is good. The angel Gabriel came to Mary because God is good. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because God is good. You are here because God is good. The story is for you, the real you, because God is good.