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I preached this sermon on December 24, 2012 at St. Paul United Church of Christ, Old Blue Rock Rd., Cincinnati.

What is love?

When we think about love, we often think about romance, even falling in love.  We think about the love that a parent passes along to a child, grandparent to grandchild.  Our mind goes to the most-familiar love scenarios: two people falling in love.  A marriage ceremony.  The birth of a child.

But from what I see from the Divine, God is all about shining love in the least likely places.

Here we are at the stable, a non-conventional place for any child to be born.  At this little manger, a new spark of love is born into the world.

If you look at Luke’s account which was just read, in Jesus’ first few hours and days of his life, he was surrounded by love. And not just by his parents, but shepherds appeared adoring the baby.  After leaving the stable, Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. While they were at the Temple, Simeon and the prophet Anna showered Jesus with love and gave glory to God for the experience of being with Jesus.

I believe this experience with love from the least likely people at the beginning of his life helped Jesus to truly understand the presence of God around him and within each of us. And I believe that his experience with love in the first few days of his life gave Jesus that extra persuasion to preach love.  Already born with the spark of the divine within him, Jesus grew in love, knowing that nothing else was greater than loving God, our neighbors and even ourselves.

We just never know who we’re going to interact with in our lives, and how this love will ripple into the world.  Through these interactions, Jesus felt love in his earliest days, and, to me, helped him grow in love.

Throughout the ministry of Jesus we see scenes of Jesus bringing compassion to the sick and those deemed unclean by society.  We see him having dinner with those who were the outcasts.  And they experienced divine, unconditional steadfast love that we see in Jesus.  Two thousand years later, the love that was given to Jesus and the love that Jesus gave to so many can still be felt in our world.

But how can we love when someone has hurt us so horrifically?

Earlier this year, a car pulled in front of James Moore, not giving him enough time to stop.  He slammed into the car.  While he was not at fault in the accident, the driver of the car, Zeke Stepaniak was killed and another passenger injured.  James had a heavy heart.  Even though it wasn’t his fault, he still felt so much guilt for the accident.  Soon after the accident, Zeke’s family, who are from the Colerain township area, contacted James in love.  While both families were reeling in anguish, they started praying with one another.  And on the day of the funeral, James Moore walked in with the family of Zeke Stepaniak.  Through their tragedy, they had adopted each other as family, putting grace and love above anger and hurt.

From this story, we see that love showers us with grace.

Have you seen the film Love Actually?  The opening scene begins at Heathrow airport, where people are blissfully meeting their loved ones at the arrivals gate. Then the prime minister states this:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion… love actually is all around.”

So love is all around?  Love is in those in-between moments?  It’s hard to see hope, peace, joy and love after the tragedy happens. The events in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago gave us each a heavy heart. We know some of our sisters and brothers will be dealing with so much pain this Christmas, pain from grieving, depression and conflicts.

Often it’s difficult to see love when so many that we care about are truly hurting.

But then we open our eyes a little more. We look around at what is happening around us. People are sitting with someone who’s ill or grieving. People we don’t even know are praying for us. We see love going beyond races, genders, sexual orientations, religious beliefs, family structures, political views.  Love is the universal truth that we as Christians experience in Christ.

Bad things happen in our lives. There’s no way to avoid all suffering in our lifetime. But, again, we meet love in an unlikely place as we walk the horrible road of suffering.  Love has the potential to take a very bad situation and make it less painful and lonely. Love is contagious, and once we experience the greatness of love shared with us we can’t help but pass it forward.

From what we often see, love is always present, love is around us during moments of pain and moments of bliss.

From the recent tragedy in Connecticut, journalist Ann Curry tweeted “imagine if everyone could commit to doing one act of kindness for each precious life lost.  An act of kindness big or small.  Are you in?” The theme #26acts represent many of those whose lives were lost in Newtown.  Now people are posting their acts online hoping to influence more and more people to do the same.  A seven year old bought coffee for eight people with his own money.  Someone else bought books for a child in need.  This is how love trickles into the world.

And then the spirit of love keeps nudging people to pay it forward. People are creatively finding ways to bring love and comfort to the lives of their fellow neighbors.

How are we living into this theme of active love?  Just yesterday we collected presents for local children in need.  We collected food for those at Washington UCC.  In the past month, we’ve gone Christmas caroling, took cookies to our neighboring businesses and held a community dinner.

The love of Christ has touched so many hearts in this congregation, and we can not help but pass this along to our neighbors.

From this example, we see that love is not only a feeling but an active part of our lives.

Each little experience with love impacts us. From the time we are young into our later years, each time we meet love somewhere, we experience the presence of God. The more we share that love, the more others see God in their lives.

And that is what God is calling us to do this Christmas and throughout the entire year.

Part of our congregation’s vision statement is Carrying Christ Love to All. Our love a church family is an active part of our faith.  To us, love means having open tables and open hearts to all as we are all part of the Body of Christ.  Through our church’s vision of mission, nurture, laughter and inclusiveness, we have faith that people in our church and community will experience God. Through our involvement in this community, we pray that others will see the unconditional love of Christ in their midst.

How is God challenging you to love outside of the box today?  Maybe it’s extending love to someone who has hurt you.  Maybe it’s giving grace to yourself for making a mistake so many months ago.  Maybe it’s opening your eyes to a new way of loving.  Maybe it’s sharing your love with someone in pain.

Two thousand years ago, from simple beginnings, a baby was born.  With that birth came hope, light and love that has rippled into our world.  As we go forward, let us remember that love happens in the least likely places and ways and between the least likely people.  And today we see this in that least likely place: far away from home, surrounded by animals and strangers in a drafty stable.