The first time I ever went to church was on a night like tonight; it was a cold and crowded Christmas Eve. My mother made me go. When she said through my bedroom door, “Get dressed in something nice, we’re going to church,” somewherea needle scratched clear off a record.
At that point in my life, the closest I’d ever come to church was with Kevin McAllister and Old Man Marley in Home Alone.
We’d never gone to church before. We sat far up in the balcony in some of the last seats left. From the discreet removal of the balcony, I learned “Silent Night” had more than one verse, and I discovered that the wise men, whom someone called magi, were conspicuously missing from the gospel lesson the woman wearing an “ugly Chrismas sweater” read to us.
I was a teenager.
And, I didn’t want to go.
Why would anyone want to ruin Christmas by going to church? I didn’t want to get dressed up. I didn’t want to sing songs that others knew better than me. I didn’t want to listen to a middle-aged gasbag preach at me and try to make it all go down easier by telling lame jokes and making tame pop culture allusions.
Now, I’m the middle-aged gasbag some of you are forced to endure and— fair warning— lame jokes are the only sorts of jokes the geezers will let me get away with on Christmas Eve, so don’t get your hopes up.
But, God got to me.
And I’m up here, now because years ago someone forced me to sit out there on a night like tonight, even though I felt so woefully out of place as to feel “unwelcome.”
My point is that I know firsthand how Christmas Eve is a night when all sorts of people gather from different places in life and do so for a variety of reasons. Whoever you are, from wherever you have come, and whatever the reasons that brought you here, “welcome.”
You might be an every Sunday regular listening for bits of sermons you’ve already heard. Welcome.
You might be parents of amped up kids with sugar in their veins and Santa on their minds; meanwhile, you’re sitting there wondering if you’re out of Scotch tape or AA batteries, and if the CVS and the ABC will still be open by the time the service is done. Welcome.
You might be a fingers-crossed skeptic, thinking you’re the only one here tonight with more questions than clarity. You’re wrong and you’re still welcome.
You might be depressed and feel no joy in you tonight. And that’s okay because tonight the joy isn’t about you, it’s about something that has happened outside of you. So, welcome.
Maybe you yelled at your wife on the way over here tonight. Welcome.
Maybe you’re like Alan Rickman in Love Actually and have a present hidden in your pocket that your wife thinks is for her. If so, A) Joni Mitchell never makes a good gift and B) Welcome.
Maybe you’re secretly relieved your sister won’t be coming this year. Welcome.
Maybe you’re giddy with spite that your ex-husband won’t see the kids this holiday. Welcome.
Maybe you’re terrified you can’t make it through another Christmas on the wagon. Welcome.
Maybe you can’t believe to see your Trump-loving neighbor here tonight. Welcome.
Maybe you can’t believe your Trump-hating neighbor is here tonight. Welcome.
Maybe all the images of the baby Jesus this season just make you think of Baby Yoda and, after five weeks and seven episodes of the Mandalorian, you just want to strangle that little green Benjamin Button.
Welcome to you too.
Tonight, all of you are as welcomed as the next person because, contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a club of good, pious, religious, moral people making their way up to God.
Christianity is about God coming down— God coming down in Jesus Christ— to people like us.
People whose goodness is inconstant.
People whose piety is imperfect.
People whose morality is convenient and whose faith is unreliable.
All of us—
We’re all guests tonight of the God who has come down to us in the flesh.
To dwell with us.
We’ve all been welcomed as God’s guests— just as we are.
Here, I’ve got a Christmas story for you.
Ellen Baxter is the founder of Broadway Housing Communities in New York.
In the 1970’s as a pyschology student at Bowdoin College, Baxter set out to discover a more humane way to treat the mentally ill.
As an undergraduate, she’d faked her way onto a pyschiatrict ward with a bogus diagnosis of dangerous depression, so that she could observe how the patients were treated.
She left convinced that American culture’s obsession with improving and fixing and changing ourselves had infected the mental health system, too. “We’re stuck on recovery,” I heard her tell NPR, “but when you fail to deal with people as they are, when you’re dead set determined to fix them and change them, you end up changing them for the worse, because you erode their humanity.”
Ellen Baxter’s research through old medical journals and pyschology articles led her to a modest village in Belgium named Geel (pronounced, “Heil”)
According to those dusty journals, Geel had the highest success rate of recovery for the mentally ill.
At the center of Geel is a church dedicated to St. Dymphna, who was martyed in Geel in the 7th century.
St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the mentally ill, which is why, beginning in the 8th century, Geel became a pilgrimage destination for the mentally ill.
Five centuries later, starting in the 13th century, the residents of Geel began boarding those pilgrims into their homes.
Geel became a place where everyday people (farmers, bartenders, blacksmiths) welcomed insane strangers into their homes no questions asked, just as they were, no matter the risks, welcomed them “like they would a beloved aunt or uncle.”
By the 19th century, this practice of hospitality earned Geel the nickname, “Paradise for the Insane.”
And by the turn of the 20th century, this Christian practice became a public system where doctors place patients into the homes of hosts, who have no idea what diagnosis their guests bring with them.
By 1930, over a quarter of all the residents of Geel were mentally ill— about 10,000 people.
According to Ellen Baxter, the average length of stay for a guest with a host family— and notice, they call them “guests,” not patients— is 28.5 years; meanwhile, a third of all the guests stay with the same host family for almost fifty years.
They take these broken, crazy guests into their homes, and they live with them and they die with them.
Ellen Baxter won a grant fellowship to spend a year studying in Geel.
She describes going from house to house in Geel, interviewing host families, asking the same questions and always getting the same answers.
“Do you find it to be a burden?
“Do you find it tiring?
“Do you find it painful?
It’s just life, a bus driver told her.”
“Over and over again, I heard the same responses from the host families I would visit. Host families would shrug their shoulders and reply that “crazy” is just part of normal life. It made me wonder,” Ellen Baxter says, “if I had stumbled upon a race of angels.”
But, Ellen Baxter says she still didn’t understand why the villagers of Geel were so successful at rehabilitating guests— more successful than modern medicine and these are peope with serious mental illnesses— until she met the “buttons guy.”
The buttons guy was a middle-aged man, a boarder, who, every single day, would twist all the buttons off his shirt, nervously twirl them off slowly every single day. And every single night, his host mother would sew all the buttons back onto the buttons guy’s shirt.
Every day he twists them off.
And every night she sews them back on.
“What a waste of time,” Ellen said when she first heard the host mom describe what she did in order to live with the buttons guy, “You should sew the buttons back on with fishing line so that way he can’t twist them off.”
And the host mom reacted with offense,
“No! No, that’s the worst thing you could do. This man needs to twist the buttons off. It helps him— to twist the buttons off every day.”
“You don’t understand,” the host mom explained to Ellen Baxter, “In order to accept mentally ill people into your home, you first have to accept what they’re doing. You have to accept their oddness and their idiosyncracies. You’ve got to let them take their buttons off. Being with them is the first step in being able to do anything for them.”
And that’s when Ellen Baxter stumbled upon what she calls “the solution of no solution.”
Once she knew what to look for in Geel, she saw it practiced from house to house.
What freed guests for healing and rehabilitation was the way their hosts refuse to treat them as people with problems to be fixed.
Instead, they just welcomed them into their homes to share life with them. The hosts’ acceptance of their guests without any expectation of changing them is, in itself, the elixir with the power to change them.
Ellen Baxter calls what she found in the homes of Geel “the strange healing power of not trying to fix the problem.”
In the Church, we call it grace.
And it’s why we call this story that gives us Christ Gospel.
It’s good news!
John doesn’t give you the Christmas story the way Matthew or Luke tell it. John doesn’t mention Caesar or a census or a star over the city of the shepherd king. There’s no manger, no donkey, neither a Joseph nor an angel. John gives you his Christmas story by telling you that the Word which spoke the stars into the sky “became flesh and dwelled with us.”
The Law— God’s expectations for who you should be and what you should do and how you should change and fix yourself— came through Moses, John announces as excitedly as the angel Gabriel in those other Christmas stories.
But, the strange healing power of not trying to fix the problem has come through Jesus Christ.
The Word became flesh and lived with us, John writes.
And the word John uses there for “Word” (logos), is the same word the Old Testament uses for the tabernacle, the make-shift tent the Israelites pitched as they wandered in the wilderness.
As God’s people journeyed for forty years, from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, God journeyed with them in the tabernacle.
The word in Hebrew is dabar.
It’s the same word the Bible uses to describe the ten words of God, the Commandments, sealed inside the ark. It’s the word the Bible uses when Moses hides himself in the cleft of a rock in order to catch a glimpse of God’s glory. And it’s the word the Old Testament uses for the holy of holies in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem— the place Jesus will call his Father’s House. The holy of holies was where God lived.
The dabar was where God met man.
But not just anyone could meet God there at the curtain into the dabar.
We’re too broken by sin, the Bible says, even to come close let alone be welcomed in the place where God lives.
Only the high priest of Israel on behalf of all his people could venture near the dabar and even the high priest first needed to be made acceptable. Even the high priest had broken too many of God’s expectations, God’s Law. The high priest first needed to fix his own sin problem through ritual purification. Only then did the high priest dare come near God’s home.
Mary’s womb is the holy of holies and in her baby, the dabar became flesh and lived with us, John tells us in his Christmas story.
And notice, there’s no high priest in this Christmas story.
Nothing’s been required to render you acceptable first.
Ellen Baxter describes a guest she met in Geel named Des.
Des suffered terrors every night that bloodthirsty lions were about to pounce through the walls to eat him.
“It wouldn’t work to tell him the lions aren’t really there. It wouldn’t work to try to convince him that he should change and be not afraid,” his host, Toni explained.
Instead, every night, Toni and her husband would rush outside banging pots and pans and roaring like lions themselves to scare the lions away.
“And that would work every time,” Toni explained, “He could rest. And then, eventually, one day Des wasn’t afraid of the lions anymore, and then one day the lions weren’t there anymore. But, this is important, making him unafraid of the lions, curing him of his terrors, was not our goal. Our goal was simply to welcome Des into our home, just as he was, and to share our life with him.”
Maybe you don’t twist the buttons off your shirt day after day.
And you might not think bloodthirsty lions are about to leap out of the walls to eat you.
But we all suffer delusions. And we all hear voices in our heads.
Some of you may be crazy enough to think that you’re basically a good person and, therefore, you don’t need Mary’s boy to live for you the life of perfect faithfulness that God requires of you.
Some of us could be so insane we actually think the sins we’ve sinned are somehow too great for Jesus Christ to have forgotten them forever in his grave.
And, some of you just might be deluded enough to think that you’re bad, that your resentments and jealousies, your broken relationships and bitter strings of regret, somehow put you beyond God’s mercy— now that’s just plain crazy.
Some of you actually may think that, because you tweet the right opinion or post the right position on Facebook, you’re righteous; meanwhile, some of you really think that you’re the only person here tonight who doesn’t have it all together.
You might think you’re the only person here whose family is a disaster or whose marriage is a trainwreck.
Or, you’re the only person here who doesn’t believe most of what I’ve preached and, therefore, it doesn’t apply to you, too.
We all suffer delusions.
And we all hear voices in our heads.
Voices telling us we’re unlovely or unloveable. Voices that tell us we’re inadequate or unforgiveable.
Voices that never tire of pointing out all the ways we fall short of a standard that exists only in our heads.
Voices that never quite go away and quit their whispering that the Gospel news is too good to be true.
If I have one Christmas wish tonight for people like you— people like us— it’s for you to see what John wants you to see:
that in Jesus Christ, in the humanity of God,
God has welcomed you into his home— this is paradise for the insane.
In what the Church calls the incarnation, God has taken you into himself not as a patient (to be changed) but as a guest (to be welcomed).
God has welcomed you into the home that is Christ’s body and wrapped you in the gift of Christ’s own perfect righteousness, to live and die with you, without any expectation or need for you first to be fixed.
In Jesus Christ, God dwells with us, sewing our buttons back on and banging away our imaginary lions until all is calm and bright and we can rest.
John, in his Christmas story tonight, calls that grace, and even an unbeliever like Ellen Baxter can testify to its strange healing power.
Merry Christmas and welcome home.