“Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas.”
My favorite Christmas movie is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This is the one that starts with Clark Griswold’s dream of an idyllic family Christmas, which is quickly ruined… by family. Two sets of grandparents visit, simultaneously. A cousin and her unusual family make a surprise appearance (“Oh, Eddie – If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am now.”). An elderly (and confused) aunt and uncle are added into the mix for the Christmas Eve meal, which ends with a SWAT team crashing through the doors and windows… you know, just a typical Christmas dinner.
It’s odd how the stuff that’s so hilarious in movies can have little humor in real life. Many people have just been to real-life family dinners with a toxic combination of distant relatives. Everyone awkwardly crowds around a table, hoping they don’t have to sit next to Uncle Ralph with his racist jokes, or between Aunt Sally and Cousin Brenda who haven’t been on speaking terms since 1992. When the meal is over there isn’t an over-the-top SWAT team and a chorus of laughter, but a sigh of relief.
Sometimes a church family can feel like one of these families: gathered together out of obligation, carefully choosing seats near those we prefer, and avoiding topics that trigger arguments.
Not your church, I’m sure. Definitely not my church. Just other churches.
Well… maybe, sometimes, this can be our own churches. I’m a United Methodist, and one of the gifts of our denomination is that the “fowl lines” are really wide, so to speak, meaning that there’s room in our theology and doctrine for a wide variety of people. For example, funny man Jeff Foxworthy and scary man Stephen King – both Methodists. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush – Methodists. But also Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Walter Mondale – yep, they’re Methodists, too.
Can you imagine a Christmas dinner with all those folks at the table?
In every United Methodist Church, I’d venture to say, you have a potentially-explosive level of diversity. There, under the same roof on Sunday mornings: Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, pro-choice and pro-life, for gay marriage and against it. How in the world do we hold it together? We even look pretty happy to be together. Is that real, or are we faking it?
Sometimes, in some churches, we’re faking it. But at our best, it’s a genuine sense of harmony. And here’s why:
We follow in the tradition of the wise men.
We know this part of the Christmas story well: the wise men who travel from the East to see the baby Jesus. They aren’t from Israel. It sounds like they were astrologers, of all things. From a Jewish perspective, they may be the equivalent of that person you don’t want to sit next to at dinner. So how do they know where to go? How do they know who to seek?
By following a star that leads them to the right place with the right people.
We don’t have a star to follow today, but we are still following something together – something that unites us and leads us to the same place.
Or should I say, someone.
When this baby Jesus grows up and starts his ministry, he invites people to participate in it with these words: “Follow me.” Over and over he asks people to do this. “Follow me.”
This is metaphorical, of course, but let’s take it literally for a moment. Imagine Jesus as the head of a game of follow the leader. In line behind him might be all sorts of people, of all kinds of colors and backgrounds and political parties. As long as they are following Jesus, those differences don’t really matter – they’re going the right way.
How do we come together for our weekly, sometimes-awkward, potentially disastrous Christian family gatherings? By following the same person. If we are genuinely following the same Christ, we will find ourselves led in the same direction.
This applies not just to us as Methodists, but more importantly to us as Christians. Some of us ordain women and some do not. Some of us worship on Sunday and some do not. We baptize differently, sing songs differently, vote differently. Despite all those differences, if we are truly following Christ then I know Christ will lead us to the same place together.
On Sunday, during worship, we shared in our Christian family meal of communion. We got up from our seats and came down to the same altar. We ate from the same loaf and drank from the same cup.
As the one privileged to serve them this meal, I have to tell you:
In that moment of kneeling and receiving, they all looked wonderfully united to me.