Love, Peace, & Healing in the Uninvited Guest

Christmas Eve Sermon

Preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson on December 24, 2021 for Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church Saint Paul, MN

Over 25 years ago in a small village in Southeast Alaska, my hometown, a place on the edge of nowhere, as far from the center of it all as you can possibly get, raised the first totem pole ever raised there in modern times. It was a huge event! The carver, Stan Marsden, an elder in the Tsimshian tribe, began work on the pole a year after the tragic death of his son to a drug overdose. He tells the story that following the death of his son he was racked with grief, and plagued by a splitting pain in his heart. The work of honoring his son by carving a pole, brought some measure of relief. He began to heal. He invited the community, white and native alike, to join him in his project. Those who had never carved a moment in their life were given a space on the pole, and set to work. Strangers with lives so different they’d never spent more than a passing moment together in the small town grocery store or diner began to unlearn the divides of a racialized society. 

As they worked, they began to share stories and to connect more deeply and authentically with their own griefs and struggles. Shadows that had long plagued the community had light shined on them. A mother shared of the loss of her newborn son at two days – how honoring another parent’s grief allowed her to share her own. A father and a son found new connection and healing over their shared struggles with depression and addiction. Stan began to share vulnerably about his own struggles with substances and abuse, families were brought together, traditions were reclaimed, and the healing spread. Stan titled the work the “Healing Heart Totem” – and dedicated it to the young people of the community, in hopes that it would stand as a reminder of just how much we all needed each other, across all the divides of race, class, gender, and the traumas and pain we all carry. He hoped that by sharing this art, his own grief, that other families might be healed and spared the tragedy of losing a child to addiction. 

The pole itself was composed of four traditional images – a killer whale, raven, bear, and frog, each telling part of the carver’s own family lineage – almost as if he were exploring and reclaiming his own identity. But there was still a significant amount of unused space on the pole. Not wanting to waste any part of the tree, Stan pondered what could go there. Ultimately he settled on the image of a person, a representation, he said, of the uninvited guest. In Northwest Native culture, the idea of hospitality and welcome is central. In the gap between the guest’s arms, was yet another blank space, a flat spot on the pole, where a visitor to the carving tent one day left a vase of roses. Stan was inspired and the carving was completed with a basket of roses. At the totem raising roses were given to each visitor, inviting them to be placed in memory or honor of loved ones at the foot of the pole, a reminder that each of us carries within us, in our common humanity, the reminders of painful grief, trauma, and loss, and the possibility too of liberation and new life. The roses came to symbolize love, peace, and healing.

The story of the Healing Heart Totem echoes with the truths of the Nativity which we have heard tonight so beautifully acted by our own children, a story too of love, peace, and healing. It is a story we need in our lives. In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus… We begin in the halls of power, in the glowing center of the empire, the sophisticated and wealthy are the subject, and their actions hold sway. But, then the scene shifts, swings widely out over the Mediterranean, to a far flung corner, a forgotten and lonely place, to the edge of the empire, to a little village where something is about to happen. This is a place, not unlike my hometown, only regarded in the wider story of empires and powers, when it has some utility to give, resources for the economy, land to be exploited, men to be conscripted into wars, and food to be harvested for the rich. The wounds here are deep and painful. Humanity seems to be subsumed in the story of empire. 

Yet, if we are to trust the words of the Angels and the eye witness accounts of the Shepherds, what happens here is like the inbreaking of love, peace, and healing. A baby is born, the most fragile and vulnerable of humans, and this small, seemingly normal, and unimportant event, represents the coming of God among us, the Messiah. We may not all be as familiar with that term, but those caught under the oppressive reality of an all powerful empire understood that it meant liberation, freedom, and healing – finally peace on earth, peace for people at the edge of nowhere. The Angelic messenger is unequivocal on this point – “I bring YOU good tidings of great joy”.

We who gather here tonight, in this space, and still many more out there in our homes, online, and distanced around the city and beyond, may not feel as though our lives are at the very edge of empire. But, the losses and struggles of almost two years of a horrific pandemic, compounded and underscored by the terrible unveiling of how much our world is divided by race and structured for inequality and injustice, leaves us feeling deeply wounded, disconnected, isolated, and alone. The past more than 20 months have shined light on our common humanity, and what we have come face to face with, is that in many places we are not well, we are not whole, and we are not at peace. For a few months it felt as if the world had stopped, ground to a halt, and the ensuing silence gave us time to pause and consider just how inhumane life on our planet had become, that our bodies and our minds were stretched to the breaking point. 

Sadly that moment passed, and there has been an inexorable pull back toward “normal” toward productivity and striving. The images of an inhumane world went uncorrected – as if we did not see the tears of the exhausted nurses and doctors, the image of George Floyd or Daunte Wright, the stories of the jobless and homeless, the hungry and those striving to cross borders to find a better life. Many of us did not or could not hear the cries of our own bodies, yearning for rest, seeking for healing, and peace. The Christmas story speaks a clear and decisive word of good news into this our present reality. For, unto you, yes, all of YOU, this night, is born a savior who is Christ the Lord. Into our broken and wounded world is given a healer, one who embodies and models what it means to be truly human. In Jesus we are given the example of one who is fully and completely who we were created to be – vulnerable, peaceable, loving, and whole. We yearned for a savior who would come from without, to slay our enemies, and put the world aright by strength. Instead we have been given an uninvited guest, who is born among and within us, calling us to be at peace with one another, to be at peace with ourselves, to share and receive love, and to be healed by God’s grace.

And, on Christmas, the amazing inbreaking of God, the truly human, into our midst as one of us, became the moment of hope for a renewed and healed humanity in each of us. Around that manger and around the child Jesus, the story goes, gathered lots of uninvited guests, shepherds, and likely animals, and later magi from the East, and then a motley crew of fishermen and peasants, the poor and the sick, all drawn by the possibility of love, peace, and healing.

The weekend of the totem raising out there in my hometown, at the edge of nowhere, the world seemed shot through with possibility, and there were signs and wonders. In a place that rarely hears thunder or sees lightning, there was a great thunderstorm a few days before the raising. Lightning struck twice: once at the place where sweat lodges were to be built at the edge of town, sites of spiritual renewal and preparation for the work of the totem raising, and once on the site where the pole itself was to be raised. Later, a fisherman caught sight of a pod of killer whales passing through the waters near the village. It was much too early in the year for such a sighting, and the carver Stan was not surprised being of the Killer Whale clan – “I invited all of my family”, he said, even the ancestors came. The elders regarded all of these happenings as blessings. 

Tonight we hear of angelic messengers, the appearing of a heavenly host, and later we will hear about a star resting over the holy family – signs and wonders that out at the farthest reaches of empire, in the broken and lonely places, at the sites of injustice and oppression, healing is made possible – peace and love are made known. 

This Christmas, here at the edge of a pandemic, in a nation still coming to grips with racism and a legacy of injustice, we are invited to shift our gaze from the glowing center of empire and toward the far more human and humble Nativity scene, to the person of Jesus, the uninvited guest, whose life and story bring us up close and personal with what it means to be truly and fully human. 

Let heaven and nature sing!

Merry Christmas!

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