Harrowing Of Hell
December 24, 2021

Christmas Eve and Raccoons

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good evening. Merry Christmas. It’s lovely to be with you whether you’re here in person or online. We gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a day where the light of God comes into the world in a personal and wonderful way.

This is the way in which God articulates God’s cosmic project, incidentally. And that is what I want to talk about tonight… God’s cosmic project; with the point and purpose being love; and Jesus being born to clarify how this project plays out, and to remind us that this project includes all people. God has a project. Its purpose is love. It includes all people. Everyone here and also, those who aren’t here; those who aren’t Christians; those who don’t believe in God; those who sin; those who are holier than thou; even the choir. The project is fully inclusive, and life is more joyful when we own our part in this cosmic plan. That is the big idea I want to invite you to consider this evening. 

Now this big idea didn’t begin with the Christmas story. This God/love project began way, way back in the beginning, creatively articulated by the Genesis story at the beginning of the Bible: with its light and dark, night and day, water and land, plants and vegetation and animals; and then humanity; all bound up in this creation story, as if ornaments on a tree. And indeed, in the beginning there was a tree, the tree of life, but I’ll say more about that in a bit.

I also want to remind us that Jesus was there, in the beginning, as well. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). I’m not talking about baby Jesus, I’m talking about the cosmic Christ: “The Word was with God in the beginning, and all things came into being through him” (John 1:2), including you and me. 

And while evolution rightly suggests that the order of our appearance in this created realm came later than say plankton or platypuses, just as the Word existed prior to all things, so too did you and me, alive, dancing in the imagination of God; characters, pieces, partners necessary for the unfolding of God’s cosmic project.

I was thinking about these things, this project of God, and love, and Jesus as we decorated the Christmas tree in the Conn household.  As I absentmindedly put up decorations, I came across this one. For those of you in the back, it’s a raccoon. It was given to me many Christmases ago by a parishioner who still goes here. He thought it was very funny. I don’t know how funny it was, because every year when I hang this raccoon on the tree, I harken back to a project I undertook many years ago. 

We refurbished our backyard, and part of that project involved sod. In the morning I would get up and go out to water the sod. One day I found one of the corners had been peeled back, like a Christmas gift someone had begun to unwrap. I couldn’t figure it out. Some of you know this story. I’ve told it before. But at the time I was stumped. I rolled it back into place and stepped on it.  Next day, the same thing. So, I rolled it back and stepped on it. Next day, the same thing… now I’m really confused.  

So, I stayed up all night to see what was going on. And what I discovered were demonic, evil, sod-rolling raccoons… looking for grubs. And so, I stay up again, this time armed with a water hose, pressurized and ready to fire. They came, and I sprayed, they ran up a tree… I kept at it, and so they settled in, mocking me, as they washed themselves.  Next, I set out a life-sized dummy of a man sitting in a chair. That worked for a few nights, but that’s all. They figured it out… vermin. 

Finally, I struck upon a brilliant idea. I lay very thin, plastic netting over the grass, staking it at the corners. Genius! Mission accomplished. Project completed. Raccoons stymied by the ingenuity of the human mind. 

And life moved on to the next project. Summer turned to fall, so, I began to rake the leaves… and the epitaph to my human genius is that as I’d drag the rake over the leaves, every so often a prong would snag on the netting that the grass had grown into, and I would pull up big chunks of sod… and it is still happening to this very day.

God might have done better choosing raccoons as God’s partner in the cosmic project. But if that was the case, Jesus would’ve come as a raccoon and not a human being. 

The value we, humanity, bring to this project is not necessarily our capacity to implement the project perfectly, as seen through my single sample size, but because of our capacity to love. That is a distinguishing function, and the most important thing we bring to the table… our capacity to love.

And so, as I hang this little raccoon vermin on my Christmas tree, I am reminded of two things:

  1. that we have the ability to mess things up, even when we think we’re doing the right thing, but
  2. despite our capacity to make a mess of our own backyard, we are still ornaments on God’s Christmas tree; because we are designed with the blessed capacity for redemption and reconciliation and love. 

That is the unique and critically important function that we bring to this cosmic project: redemption, and reconciliation, and, especially, love.

This is a season of love. There can be no more poignant symbol than the birth of a child. Think about holding an infant, or if children are not part of the pattern of your life, think of a pet, a dog or a cat there in your arms, its little beating heart against your body, and sometimes there is just a swell of love. It is an awesome feeling. 

Now think further about how holding this being is part of God’s cosmic project. How God designed you with the capacity to hold and serve and love another life beyond your own life. And as you hold this soul, like Mary held baby Jesus, like your parents or caregivers held you, God sees, God watches, God smiles; and yet, it is important to understand that what God is seeing is not that feeling swelling up inside you, rather God is seeing your actions. God is seeing the gentle, protective way you are serving a vulnerable life with your own life.  

That is love. Love is an action. That is the guiding principle of God’s cosmic project: that love is an action. That is the big idea—That love is an action.

As we read the stories of Jesus, and listen to his teachings, we can guess what he might have been feeling, but that guess is always drawn forth from the actions we witness in his words and deeds. Because love is an action, and that is the message Jesus came to share; it is the message that is mission critical for carrying out this cosmic project of God.

Whether you feel a warm fondness for the beating heart you’re holding or not, the fact that you are holding this being in safety, care, and protection is what God witnesses. It is this action of love that reveals our participation in the sprawling range of God’s creation…from loving one another, to loving this very planet we walk upon, and its creatures; from plants to birds to fish, to maybe even raccoons. Care for creation is core to this cosmic project, and it is best carried out through actions of love.

That is what Christianity is designed to do, incidentally. It is what happens here at Epiphany. This space is literally designed for that purpose. Here is the framework; There is the cross. It represents our absolute freedom to choose to accept or reject God. God allows freedom, even to the point of disbelief, even to the point of God’s own death; because God understands that for love to be generative and powerful and effective and real it must be freely chosen. Which means there must be a real option for the rejection of God as well. Freedom is mission critical to God’s cosmic project, and the cross symbolizes human freedom.

But after the cross comes resurrection, and that symbolizes God’s freedom. Resurrection is God’s response to human rejection. Resurrection is God saying: “I love you more than the finality of death.” Resurrection is God saying:“I love you so much that I will never leave you.” Resurrection is God saying: “I am here for you, always, no matter what, because you are an important part of this cosmic project.” No matter what, you are an ornament made to adorn God’s tree of life.

That is what the Christmas Tree represents: the tree of life found at the beginning of the Bible, the book of Genesis, upon which our faith and our foibles both hang, upon which shines our failed projects as well as the joys revealed when we partner with God in this cosmic plan… Both the good and the bad hang on that tree, because the fullness of who we are is fully loved by God. But the hope, the purpose, the point of this cosmic plan? It is love. And love is an action —and that is the big idea.

As I conclude, I want to invite you to own your place in this cosmic plan. I want to suggest that the pay-off you’ll experience is the joy of God, our resurrected God’s, present, in your life. That is a palpable pay-off: The presence of God. Here. Real. In the world. Incarnate. JESUS.

That is what we celebrate today. Merry Christmas.