This piece on finding hope in a community of interfaith families was originally featured in Rev. Samantha’s Christmas Eve message. View the message below.
Luke 2:1-7: In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
John 1:1-5: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
“Zoo Lights, here we come!” This is what my husband Matt announced as my family stepped off the train into D.C. last Saturday. Our toddler, Javi was grinning wide with delight. This was going to be his first big night on the town and we exhausted, but pretty cool parents were not going to miss the chance to take him to see the holiday lights at the National Zoo – no matter how late it was.
Ok, I confess, it was only 5:00pm, but it was dark out and cold. And any of us who have been parents of young children know that to simply get a coat on a child and move from one place to another is a literal miracle. Can I get an Amen?
Well, as some of us may know, Zoo Lights is this wonderous experience where the trees at the zoo are wrapped with green, blue, purple lights and then there are these life-size glowing lanterns that look like different animals – giraffes and pandas and flamingos.
Holiday light experiences like this are magical, right? They can reawaken our dormant inner child. With our eyes agaze, we forget about everything else going on. We’re totally present – grateful for the hand we hold, for the breath we breathe. That’s how I felt anyway, looking at those lights last weekend.
Well, as the evening went on, we found ourselves walked towards this huge shiny cheetah lantern. Just then, I noticed an older child getting very close to it, investigating the wires and terrain. Perhaps he was wondering: “how does this thing work?” “What makes it glow?”
Suddenly, the cheetah went dark. Apparently, his investigation had gone a bit too far, and a plug or two had been stepped on or pulled. In the pitch black, he and his parents scrambled to figure out how to turn the light back on, but with no luck.
Now, instead of being mesmerized by this bright work of art, we found ourselves standing silent in the dark night.
These days, it can feel like we have been navigating the darkness for far too long. Uncertain of how to get that light back on, to see the path toward a brighter today…a brighter tomorrow. Our family struggles and worries are many. We are in mourning. We are in pain.
Not to mention the world around us…
A global pandemic, exacerbated by other illnesses,
The political climate that continues to divide neighbor from neighbor,
Racism, sexism, homophobia, still so entrenched in our systems
And there are troubling acts of antisemitism occurring way too close to home.
As well as wars and conflicts across the globe.
These days, it can be hard to soak in every headline, to know how to process it all, channel it for it good. It can be a real challenge to live out the golden rule – to know how best to love one another, or how best to guide our children through this.
Standing out in the cold and the shadows, we can be left wondering if God’s light (God’s hope, peace, joy and love) can and will ever find its way to us.
And then we catch a glimpse of the Christmas story…..
Mary and Joseph knew a little something about trudging through the darkness. As Jewish teenagers, living in a time when they had few rights and opportunities, they were going to find contentment in the simple things: settle down, open up a nice, little carpentry business, have a few kids. But God had other plans for them far grander than their wildest dreams. God chooses Mary and Joseph – this unlikely, penniless pair to be the parents to Jesus: God’s miraculous expression of love for the world.
The story goes that obeying a decree from the emperor, meant to ensure that all subjects are registered – in order to be taxed – Mary and Joseph are forced to leave their town and travel nearly ninety miles to Bethlehem – by donkey and by foot. Mary is nine months pregnant and in no condition to travel.
As they journey deep into the night, suddenly her labor pains begin. That first wicked contraction. Where are they to go?Time is of the essence. And the pain is only increasing.
A candle burns in the window of an inn. Surely this is their answer to a prayer! But we know that when they knock on the door, they are turned away. Sent back out into the dark night to fend for themselves. All hope seems lost. But then….
Just a little down the road – a dim light shines from a barn, a manger.
Perhaps the animals are getting their last feed for the night.
They hesitate. They wouldn’t dare. And yet…it’s the glimmer of hope they desperately need.
Shelter. Safety. Light.
And so, in this most unexpected, humble of places, Mary, without a midwife or a real bed, gives birth to a child, whom Joseph names Jesus, Emmanuel – God with us.
It is a scandalous, world-shifting story from which I hope we can all draw inspiration.
The very notion that God would choose to come to us not as a mighty tyrant or powerful king, not when we are most successful or feeling worthy, not when each day feels brighter than the last.
No, God chooses to come to us in the most unlikely way…
through the innocence of a babe lying in a makeshift bed of hay,
in the arms of the impoverished, in the middle of the frigid night.
That’s when hope, peace, joy and love dare to enter in.
It’s astounding! When we least expect it or even believe it’s possible,
when we feel rejected and dizzy with pain,
that’s when a light shines from a barn: saying “Come, rest your head for the night!”
That’s when we hear the cries of a newborn Emmanuel, saying “God is with us – here and now.”
I wonder if you have ever felt alone in the darkness.
Who or what offered that unexpected glimmer of light?
How did it feel to encounter peace and joy once again?
The truth is dark nights are an inevitable part of the human experience. But this story, like so many stories throughout our sacred Bible, teaches us that we are not meant to suffer and wander alone.
Whether we are slaves in Egypt, or an exiled people,
whether we are wandering in the wilderness, or alone in a room,
God shows up, love shows up, often in the most unexpected, wonderous ways,
as God always has, as God always will, because God wants nothing more than to be with us.
A light in the darkness. A glimmer of hope.
And so often, God shows up through the kindness of strangers, through the goodness of friends.
Mary and Joseph and Jesus are not alone with the animals for long.
Soon, unexpected visitors: shepherds and wise men, and choirs of angels pour in.
This little manger suddenly becomes a full house – a noisy sanctuary.
Cows mooing. Shepherds asking to hold the baby. Wise men laying gifts at his feet.
And in this chaos, I imagine Mary and Joseph breathe a sigh of relief. They now know that no matter how uncertain or terrifying the road ahead, they need not fear: they will not be on this journey alone.
The Interfaith Families Project is an unlikely refuge. Perhaps before finding it, you and your family felt like you were wandering in the night, knocking on doors, hoping there might be room for you in the inn.
As the product of an interfaith home myself, there have certainly been times in my life when I’ve felt that way: unsure of where I fit in, uncertain if I could be my full self. Let’s face it, in seminary, I didn’t know any other soon-to-be Presbyterian ministers, who identified as both Jewish and Christian. And growing up, I didn’t know many other families who were raising their children in two or more traditions. And then me, you, we all found this community called IFFP. This light in the darkness, a place to rest our heads and feel at peace.
As we know, our beloved project doesn’t usually meet in a sanctuary like this. The place where we gather has no stained-glass windows, no ornate bimah or pulpit, no pews whatsoever. But week after week, we work side-by-side to put the pieces together – to build a dwelling place for us to call home.
It’s not magnificent and then it is. It’s a place of welcome. A place of acceptance. A place of interfaith goodness. And most of all, it’s a community promising to be with one another, as we seek to make the world just a little bit brighter.
We know there is much work ahead of us, but imagine what could be possible if we keep the faith(s), and use all that we have to bring healing and hope to our aching world.
Friends, the magic and wonder of Christmas is that no matter how dark or uncharted the path, God is with us. There is always a glimmer of light to be found. There is always hope, peace, joy and love ready to be born.
Sometimes it’s just down the road.
Sometimes it’s in the most unexpected of places.
Sometimes it takes a friend to show us a way.
Sometimes it takes us to ignite it.
So, what are we waiting for?
Let’s step out into the night and let our light shine.