“Humor is about two disjointed ideas coming together, like Christmas and July; humor is about hope and joy, and we need to remind ourselves to bring it throughout the year,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday Ecumenical Service of Worship and Sermon in the Amphitheater.
Her sermon title was “It Wasn’t Exactly a Silent Night,” and the Scripture reading was Luke 2:1-7.
“You will be getting six sermons, back-to-back, about Christmas in July,” Sparks said. “You have never had six back-to-back. This will come in three stages, like Santa Claus. You know: You believe in Santa, you don’t believe in Santa and you are Santa.”
Her theme for Sunday was silence. Monday through Thursday, she will focus on the Advent themes of hope, peace, love and joy, and on Friday she will talk about taking down the tree.
“I want this journey to be for all of us, even though I have framed it through a Christmas lens,” she said.
The congregation sang “Silent Night” before the sermon.
“That carol is so pastoral, ‘all is calm, all is bright,’ ” she said. “But how accurate was that? It was not exactly a silent night.”
Caesar Augustus had called for a tax on everyone. Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
“That is about 90 miles; it is like going from Chautauqua to Niagara Falls on a donkey,” Sparks said. “And they went from below sea level to almost 2,000 feet above sea level, a total climb of 3,000 feet.”
Sparks said she was going to attempt to reproduce the barnyard noises that might have been there.
“Over in this corner was the donkey that carried Mary,” Sparks said, and then tried to bray as a donkey would. “In another corner was Joseph snoring; that’s a sound I know. Then the sheep were ‘baaing’ over in the corner because Joseph was keeping them awake. There was a camel spitting and some chickens clucking. And there was a woman having a baby, and without an epidural, there might have been a few sounds like — ‘Joseph!’ ”
Sparks said it was not a silent night.
“That is not an alien concept in the 21st century,” she said. “We are living in the chaos of a barnyard.”
In our personal lives, she told the congregation, “we have job stress, money worries, family conflicts, health concerns and all manner of heartbreak that shout at us from all sides.”
And there are conflicts all over the world, she said.
“We have immigrant children separated from their parents at the (U.S.-Mexico) border, we have 1.2 million people in chains through sex trafficking, we seek justice for LGBT people and we see the door of economic opportunity closing for people of color,” Sparks said.
Sparks said these conflicts are underscored by much “yelling.”
“Our own citizens are yelling, ‘Send them back’; Republicans and Democrats are yelling at each other and we are circling the wagons,” she said. “We are living in a barnyard, and the noise is deafening.”
There is good news, though. After the cacophony, there is one last sound, a tiny baby crying.
“The barnyard gets real quiet, real fast,” Sparks said. “No one said anything and nothing was heard, but everyone knew that the world had changed. The Prince of Peace was born out of chaos.”
Sparks said the transition from chaos to the everyday quiet is an invitation from the Prince of Peace.
“The Prince of Peace gives us a sense of the peace, love, hope and joy that dwells in each of us.” she said. “Unless we tap that peace, we will never heal the chaos in the world and in our lives. We can go from barnyard to beauty, from chaos to quiet.”
But this transition is not easy, and Sparks wondered: If people had the internet in Biblical times, would they have missed the holy moment?
Sparks turned to the YouTube series, “If Bible Characters Had iPhones,” hosted by comedian John Crist, with his friend Trey Howard.
“One dude says to the other, ‘Did you know Joseph’s brothers were selling him? Is that legal?’ ” Sparks said. “ ‘Oh, there’s David liking Bathsheba’s spring break photos.’ ‘Did you know Saul changed his username to Paul?’ ”
Sparks’ favorite was a hypothetical post from Mary and Joseph.
They tried to get a hotel through Priceline, but all they got was a rustic barn through Airbnb.
“The electronic revolution has destroyed our ability to tap into our own holy place inside,” Sparks said. “When we turn on these devices, all we hear is the chaos of the barnyard.”
Adam Alter, a professor at New York University, wrote a book called Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
“The average adult, (Alter) wrote, spends 11 to 15 years of their life looking at a screen,” Sparks said. “Alter calls smart phones ‘an adult pacifier.’ This addiction has affected our ability to connect with the holy inside, not out there.”
Sparks has an app called Sanctuary, which is a virtual sanctuary that helps you sit in a pew, light a candle, listen to music and write a message on the wall near the candle.
“I tend to use it in my own sanctuary,” she said. “We don’t know how to be silent because it is not expedient or productive. ‘Useful’ is a word that destroys the spiritual life. Silence is a problem because it doesn’t produce. You have to do more to have more, and you have to have more to win.”
God is in the beauty of silence, the holy is in the silence within, even the music of silence, she said.
Beethoven wrote his ninth symphony and included the beautiful chorus that turned the symphony into an opera.
“One of the soloists had to turn him around to see the applause from the audience after he conducted the piece for the first time,” Sparks said. “He found magis in the silence, and we can, too. In silence, the beauty of the Holy One dwells.”
Preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “The last place we look for the holy is right under our feet.”
“We can’t see the red ‘X’ because we are standing on it,” Sparks said.
Sparks told a story of a custodian in a New York City church who set up the nativity scene for Christmas and left for lunch.
When he returned, he found a baby, still with its umbilical cord, wrapped in purple towels and in the manger. Video surveillance showed a single teenage mother in a dollar store nearby buying the towels.
“The church named him Emmanuel, God with us,” Sparks said.
The Holy One “is in us, with us, for us,” Sparks said.
“This is what we are going to talk about all week: the hope that lifts us up, the peace that brings reconciliation, the love that acts on faith and joy, the one thing that might truly change the world,” she said.
The noise in the barnyard is not the end of the story.
“At the height of the chaos, a baby cries and all turn toward the manger,” Sparks said. “Nothing needs to be said; out of the chaos the Prince of Peace is born. The angel said, ‘Unto all of you is born a Savior, Christ the Lord.’ And the people said, ‘Amen.’ ”
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, presided. Lisa Gierszal, executive assistant in the Department of Performing and Visual Arts and project manager for Chautauqua Arts Education, read the Scriptures. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Chautauqua Choir. Willie LaFavor, piano, Rebecca Kemper Scarnati, oboe, and Orin Jacobs, bassoon, played Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon, FP 43, “ii. Andante con moto,” by Francis Poulenc for the meditation after the morning prayers. For the offertory, the Chautauqua Choir sang “Angels We have Heard On High,” arranged by Mack Wilberg. The organ postlude was Toccata in F, S.540, by Johann Sebastian Bach. The Harold F. Reed Sr. Chaplaincy and the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.