It is good to be gathered here with you on this beautiful night, the night that we celebrate the birth of a baby who will change the world.
Everything about this evening is special – the music that our choirs have practiced for so many hours; the beautiful flowers and altar, arranged and prepared by faithful and loving hands, the glittering candlelight that adds to the magic and mystery.
And so do each and every one of you. Whether St. Dunstan’s is your church and you are here every Sunday, whether you’re visiting from out of town, or whether you’ve not set foot in a church in years, yet somehow felt drawn to this place this night, we are glad you are here. Your presence adds to the joy of our celebration.
We are here tonight to hear the ancient story of God taking on flesh and blood in the birth of a baby to a poor, peasant couple in an obscure corner of the Roman empire. For almost 2,000 years people have gathered on this night to hear this story that has brought hope and joy and comfort to more people than can be numbered.
On this Christmas Eve I’m also thinking about another story. Many of you know that I was on sabbatical earlier this year, and part of that time my son and I spent in Tanzania.
One of the highlights there was visiting a village of the Maasai tribe. The Maasai are one of the largest tribes in Tanzania and Kenya. They were once known as fierce warriors.
Although the men still refer to themselves as warriors, they are now a semi-nomadic people, whose lives and economy center around their livestock, predominantly cows. All throughout the countryside you may see Maasai men and boys, dressed in distinctive red robes, walking with their herds.
It’s hard to overestimate how important cows are to the people. They sing to them; they give them names. The houses of the village form a ring around a fenced circle where the cows sleep at night. The cows are literally at the heart of the village.
To the Maasai, the cow is life.
The Maasai live what may seem to us as primitive lives, with little interaction with the rest of the world. Cell phones are changing that, but the story I want to tell you tonight happened before cell phones had taken over the earth.
It is the story of a Maasai warrior from Kenya, Kimeli Naiyomah, told by him and Atlanta author Carmen Agra Deedy.*
As a young man Kimeli came to America to study to be a doctor. He has been away a long time when he finally returns home for a visit.
When Kimeli arrives at his village he is immediately surrounded by family and friends, who begin clamoring for a story.
Kimeli has brought with him one story, which has burned a hole in his heart, a story from New York, the city in which he studies.
The village gathers under an acacia tree to hear him tell it.
“There is a terrible stillness in the air as the tale unfolds. With growing disbelief, men, women, and children listen.
“Buildings so tall they can touch the sky? Fires so hot they can melt iron? Smoke and dust so thick they can block out the sun?
“The story ends. More than 3,000 souls are lost. A great silence falls over the Maasai.
“At last, an elder speaks. He is shaken, but above all he is sad.
“’What can we do for these poor people?’ he asks.”
Nearby, a cow lows.
“‘To the Maasai,’ Kimeli says, ‘the cow is life.’”
The tribe sends words to the US Embassy in Nairobi, which sends a diplomat to the village. The diplomat is not thrilled about being sent to the remote village, accessible only by dusty, rutted dirt roads. But when he arrives, he gasps.
He is greeted by hundreds of Maasai in full tribal splendor, dressed in brilliant blood-red tunics and spectacular beaded collars.
“It is a day of sacred ritual. Young warriors dance. Women sing mournful songs. Speeches are exchanged.”
And then it is time.
“Kimeli and his people gather on a sacred knoll, far from the village. The only sound is the gentle chiming of cowbells.
“The elders chant a blessing as the Maasai people of Kenya present…14 cows for America.
Because to the Maasai, the cow is life.
“To heal the pain in someone’s heart,” Kimeli says, “you give them something that is close to your own heart.”
To heal the pain in someone’s heart you give them something that is close to your own.
Some 2,000 years ago God looked at the world God had created and saw pain all around. The Promised Land, once ruled by the great King David, was still home to the Jewish people, but it was now occupied by the Roman Empire, whose narcissistic emperor declared himself the lord and savior of the world, the chosen one.
It was a time of political and religious unrest, a time of great poverty for many of God’s people.
God looked at the pain of the world and knew that to heal the pain in another’s heart you give them something that is close to your own.
So God sent to the world what God loved best, a part of God’s own heart.
Scripture puts it this way: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son.”
And in doing so, God took on flesh and blood and came to dwell among us, slipping into a remote province in a far corner of the empire, born to a peasant couple on the road, begging for the crudest shelter in which to spend the night.
God gave a part of God’s own heart to ease the pain of the powerless, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the poor, the homeless.
God gave a part of God’s own heart so that God can truly understand what it means to be human, and can truly share in our pains and sorrows, as well as our joys and triumphs.
Generations of people around the world have been comforted, strengthened, and challenged by the birth of this baby two millennia ago.
Tonight, as every Christmas Eve, God looks at the earth and sees a world of pain.
God sees the pain of children torn from their parents and put in cages on the border of today’s empire, the most powerful country on earth.
God sees the pain of their parents, so desperate for their children to have a better life that they risk everything to come to that country, only to have what they love most torn away from them.
God sees the pain of families who don’t have enough to eat because their food stamps have been cut.
God sees the pain of refugees across the world, the pain of the hungry, the poor, the vulnerable and oppressed.
God sees the pain of countries ripped apart by war, whose people live in constant fear.
God sees the pain of those who have no one to love them, who suffer alone in prison cells and hospitals and nursing homes.
God sees the pain hidden in the hearts of those who present themselves to the world as successful and powerful.
And God’s heart breaks for them; God’s heart breaks for us.
Out of that great love and heartbreak, God once again sends us what God loves best, God’s only begotten son.
So with the angels and shepherds and people through the ages we rejoice.
For unto us a child is born.
Unto us a son is given.
And for us that son is life.
`* 14 Cows for America