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GIFTS FROM THE BLUE
The Church did not always celebrate the day of Christmas in its calendar. Easter and Good Friday were the original two big days because they captured the essence of Christianity – God died and rose in Jesus for us. Next came the celebration of Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit, because without the spirit there is no belief that God came in Christ, died and rose for us.
Christmas fills in the trinity of big holidays only after Emperor Constantine became a Christian and required everyone in his empire to do so, too. December 25 was chosen for two vague reasons: it had been celebrated before Christianity as the birth of Mythra, the patron of the Roman Army’s religion; and because it marks the first noticeable increasing of daylight from December 21, the Winter Solstice. The sun was coming back, and a celebration was appropriate.
We do not know the exact date of the birth of Jesus. We don’t even know the year since it is pegged to King Herod, who died in 4 B.C. Tradition puts the event in Bethlehem (the City of King David from 1000 B.C), but all his life Jesus is known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, a small town way in the north hinterlands, nowhere near Bethlehem. The two Bible birth stories (one in Matthew, a different one in Luke, none in Mark or John) cleverly weave these two cities into the incarnation of God into Jesus, but in different ways.
Alas, God does many things about which we are not totally sure.
Although we all know the baby Jesus and his mother are the chief figures of our Christmas holiday; the celebration of Christmas was first associated with St. Nicholas, the Greek Bishop of Myra (then Greece, today Turkey). He lived from 270 to 343 AD. His day is celebrated on December 6 – prior to Constantine this was, in effect, “Christmas”. He was known as a giver of secret gifts to the needy in his diocese – putting coins and treats in the shoes people left outside their simple homes as part of their custom of leaving their dirty shoes outside their otherwise cleaner homes. St. Nicholas was one of the Bishops at the Council of Nicaea, who signed the original Nicene Creed.
In Europe St. Nicholas somehow morphed into the Dutch Sinterklass. Like his Greek original, he was associated there with random gift giving to the poor and needy. In his case, in snowy Holland, by tossing coins down chimneys. How St. Nicholas and Sinteklass became associated with the celebration of Christmas 19 days after his day is not quite clear; but, it is easy to see how random, gracious, unmerited gift giving can be associated with the unmerited gift of his Son by God to us at Christmas.
The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, first published in 1823 but attributed to Clement Clark Moor (a New York doctor whose home is still marked on 9 Avenue) in 1837, depicts St. Nick as an elf-like tiny person, in a “miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer” bringing small presents to children by descending down their chimneys. The presents are still “out of the blue”, because no mention is made of the children being good or bad.
The point of all of this is not gift giving to children based on whether they were naughty or nice (the 1934 song written by John Coots and Haven Gillespie for Eddie Cantor’s radio show added the concept of behavior and merit); but all people (particularly the poor and needy) receiving gifts from God, out of the blue.
That’s what we Lutherans call GRACE. Grace is God’s love for all people in spite of their sin. Grace is God choosing Abraham and Sarah, an elderly childless couple, and making them the parents of all Israel. Grace is God choosing David to be the greatest King of Israel, in spite of him being the last of several brothers, the most puny, with wandering eyes for Bathsheba. Grace is God coming in Jesus Christ to suffer and die for us. Grace is loving the unlovable. Grace is gifts placed in our shoes when we need them most. Grace is gold dropped down our chimneys out of the blue. Grace is God bringing presents to rich and poor alike. Grace is God healing sick children, or taking them to himself when healing is not the best solution. Grace is what we celebrate at Baptism. Grace is what we celebrate at Holy Communion. Grace is the simple one word summary of every good sermon. Grace is what every tiny child represents. Grace is what every elderly person will receive from God in due time. Grace is what will get us our of the Covid dilema.
Christmas is the celebration of God’s unfailing, unalterable, faithful grace.
Grace is not God giving us everything we demand (the Lexus with the bow, a new flat screen TV), but everything that we need. Grace is not God going against divine principles to manipulate lives and history, but remaining consistent so ultimately science, education and technology can cure disease and correct human problems. Grace is forgiveness in the face of sin, not rampant destruction of sinners here and now. Grace is patient.
May the Grace of God fill you as we celebrate Jesus’ gracious entry into our un-gracious world. Naughty or nice, Grace is God’s gift to you at Christmas. Pass it on.
THE RICH AND THE POOR UNITED IN HOPE.
Our four gospels, none written before 70AD, narrate Jesus as speaking predominantly to the poor, the outcast, those not included in the religions of the day. With these people, who gathered on the street corners and outside the Synagogues, Jesus delivered a message that God did include them in the Lord’s plans for humanity. He proclaimed the presence of the Kingdom of God, for them, and the good news, for them, and that God changed them. He emphasized values other than wealth and fame - mercy, reconciliation, love, sharing. He taught them that God did care for them, that God had a great future, an eternal future, for them. In their difficult and often short lives, Jesus proclaimed that God understood, that God was present. Jesus gave them hope.
Generally, we call Jesus’ associates (including his Disciples) “outcasts”. There were lots of outcasts in those days - in fact more who were excluded from society than included. [That’s why we need to be concerned when we read about the polarization of our country today - very rich and very poor, but a shrinking middle class.]
In Jesus’ day all single women were subjected to strict regulation as to where they could go and with whom. Anyone who was what we call today “handicapped” (born or later became blind, crippled, deaf, etc.) was considered a sinner and excluded from society. Synagogue worship was for men only, and those who had paid their fees to get in, and had the right clothing to wear. Finally, those who weren’t Jewish, including the half-Jewish Samaritans [descendants of the former “northern Kingdom” of Israel wiped out by the Assyrians in 722BC.], and the hated Romans, were considered unworthy of normal interaction. They had no hope.
The Biblical picture of The Jesus of the Poor, while encouraging to the Mother Theresa’s and Salvation Armies of today, is often hard for us “mainline” religions to understand since we don’t have very many of today’s “outcasts” sitting in our pews. Are we, like the religions of Jesus’ day, exclusive clubs, not open to everyone? Are we part of Jesus’ followers, or do we represent exactly those groups that opposed Jesus, and that he seemed to speak against?
We need to learn hard lessons from the realistic study of what Jesus taught, from realizing who “hung out” with Jesus, and from understanding Jesus’ message’s appeal to outcasts. Are we giving hope to all we meet? Although our churches are officially open to everyone, who really comes? Have they voluntarily not come, or is it difficult for them to come for some other reasons. How can we make it easier for church outcasts to come in and receive our message of hope?
We need to study Scripture carefully. Jesus wasn’t really against wealth - only when it obscures our relationship with and dependence upon God. Jesus didn’t choose to speak only to outcasts, but was over and over again rejected by the religious leaders (in fact it was they who ultimately had him executed).
In Matthew 19:23-26 we read:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, "Then who can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible."
Salvation, Jesus proclaims to rich and poor alike, is by the grace of God - not because of our money, or poverty; our fame, or infamy; but because of God’s love.
We recently read from Luke’s gospel that God seeks out the lost - lost rich people as well as lost poor people:
So he told them this parable: Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
We need to be sure that our struggling church reaches out to everyone in our community. So we participate in the Maureen's Haven Homeless Meal and Shelter Program, every Third Thursday at the Presbyterian Church. So we contribute food and school supplies to C.A.S.T. And we continue to look to new ways to be Christ to the outcasts who are all around us - to bring hope. Have we done enough?
We realize that even though we may not be the same kind of outcasts that followed Jesus, we are none-the-less humans in need of the message of God’s love. Some of us may drive fancy cars and live in nice houses, but still we worry about sickness, unemployment, emergencies and disasters. Floods and hurricanes destroy fancy houses as well as poor people’s shacks. Even the little we have can obscure God from our views. We need to focus clearly on the gift of salvation from God. We who are in the church need the gift of hope as well as those who are outside.
Particularly, those of us who are regular church-goers need to avoid thinking that the act of attending worship somehow merits us for salvation. Salvation is by God’s Grace, only, nothing we do effects that. So when we meet someone who is not a “regular” we need to not look down our noses at them, but to look them straight in the eye with words of welcome and encouragement. They stand before God the same as us, and God gives them Hope in the presence of Christ.
Maybe Jesus hung out with outcasts because the “in crowd” didn’t like him, didn’t feel the need for his message, didn’t want to be seen with such a strange person. Would we welcome Jesus if we saw him today - if he came to church?
We are united not by our social status, our money, our race or ethnicity; but, we are united by our Baptism into Christ, and in the holy hope of eternal life.
THE ORDINARY BECOMES HOLY
Earlier this year, our gospel was John’s story of the miracle of the making of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. For John’s gospel, this is the first miracle of Jesus. In John’s gospel miracles aren’t deeds of practical necessity - curing a sick person, feeding a lot of hungry people, walking on water to catch up with Disciples - they are deeds designed to show forth Jesus’ glory. How appropriate during this Epiphany season when we think that God not only came to our world, but God told everyone about it, too.
Although any wedding in ancient Israel was a big deal - the entire town showing up, meat being eaten for once, lots of wine to drink, dancing all night - the people in the tiny village of Cana had probably been to many weddings. Perhaps some even didn’t want to go. A wedding was a time to show off the new couple - the bride and groom. It was a time of celebration so everyone put on their best and came.
If you were not the servants who filled the large jars with 120 gallons of water only to then serve the water to the person in charge of the feast as finer wine than had been served and totally consumed first, you might not know what had happened. By the time of this miracle the guests were all totally drunk, and probably didn’t even notice the new wine. But Jesus’ followers noticed it.
How many things happen all of the time in our lives that are ordinary to us; but, on deeper thought are miracles. Every night of the week from October to March Maureen’s Haven or John’s Place feeds and houses about 30-40 homeless people. Our people gathered last Thursday to help do just that. It seemed so ordinary - familiar faces gathering roast pork, pea soup, veggies, noodles, desserts, etc. to feed some people in a church basement. But this event wasn’t ordinary - for God was at work there. This service provided a warm meal and a warm bed for people who would otherwise be cold and hungry.
God is at work in churches through the world when a tiny wafer and a small amount of wine are blessed and shared in remembrance of Christ’s love and sacrifice, and in celebration of our Lord’s resurrection. When we eat that tiny meal, Christ is with us, in with and under, the wafer and wine. God is at work forgiving us, renewing us, giving us joy - celebrating along with us his great feast of victory.
When we take our newborn children during their first year of life to the doctor for their “shots” which will prevent pneumonia, measles, whopping cough, tetanus, mumps, and polio; God is at work there. For thousands of years children died of any of those diseases - now thanks to the work of doctors and researchers, they no longer suffer. God is at work again.
God is at work in all the world, in the ordinary - in our daily living. When we call our elderly neighbor before we go shopping and ask if she needs something - God is at work. When we gather our children and grandchildren to come to worship on Sunday - God is at work. When we visit a sick friend in the hospital - God is at work. When we share our food through C.A.S.T. by putting a few things in the box in our lobby - God is at work. God cares for the world - through us, through ordinary life.
When God is working, the ordinary becomes holy.
Pastor Speaks on 50 years of Ministry
Shortly before I was ordained, on May 26, 1968, one of my favorite Professors gave some advice to the graduating class. He said, “It is not necessary that you be successful, only that you are faithful.” For a long time I didn’t understand those remarks. I though our job was to build bigger and wealthier churches. I though we had been trained to do things even better than the previous generation, and so to cause the church to take on new ventures. I thought the achievement of “success” was a critical reason for all those classes, readings, field work, and lessons.
50 years later I understand exactly what Dr. Heineken meant by that. Even though he was an old man by my 1968 judgment (he was probably the age then that I am today) he could see the future. The age where numerical and financial growth marked “success” for a pastor or a congregation, was over by 1968. The time when a aging Pastor’s life was marked by how he spearheaded a new pipe organ installation or steeple construction at one church, and a new gymnasium venture at another church, and how he brought in 100 new members to yet another church, was, in 1968, in the past. These should never have been criterion for judging ministry, a congregation, or a pastor in the first place.
One of the insights of our founder, Pastor Martin Luther, was that the goal of the church is not to amass wealth and power, not to force people to faith, not to threaten them with eternal damnation - but, to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments.
The word of God given to us through Jesus Christ is the Gospel of Grace. Simply put, God loves you - God loves us all - not because of what we do, or say, or even believe, or think, or achieve, but because of his Son’s death on the cross and glorious resurrection on Easter. Thanks to Pastor Ogilvie who preached that Gospel message so boldly and emotionally from the pulpit on Sunday.
On May 26 1968 I was Ordained to a ministry of Word and Sacrament. As the world goes I don’t think I have been very successful - but I have tried always to be faithful to our God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to administer Baptism and Holy Communion in regular, public ways, so as to make clear to people the loving presence of God.
At the service and dinner in Honor of my 50th Anniversary many people got up and spoke well of me - so much so that I wish I could meet the person of which they spoke. But the kindest things they, especially our Spiritual Son Pastor Kevin Ogilvie, said were that I tried my best to be faithful.
When I first came to Advent, in March of 1970 (48 years ago) I was told by Synod officials that they had great hopes for Advent under my leadership: growth and eventual financial independence. The area they said would soon be a new Levittown, with houses, malls, development - and even a bridge to Connecticut. They offered to help support us for three years, but knew in that time we would be way up on our own feet. The same time they sent me to Advent, they opened a mission in Wading River, so powerful was their faith, if not in God, at least in success.
Well, Advent has not experience great growth and financial progress. But we are here - the Gospel is, and has been proclaimed and the Sacraments administered for lo these 48 years. We have tried, as a congregation, as a team, to be faithful. What has been done has been done as a team, not by me alone. What we have done has been by God working through the Holy Spirit. We shall let God decide if we have been successful.
In 1974 the Synod, shortly after it abandoned and closed the mission in Wading River, said our time was up and they would no longer support us with $3,000 a year towards our $15,000 budget. That same year the People of Advent offered special pledges of $3,600 to make up for that loss. We’ve never become wealthy, but we have always been faithful and god has always been there.
The age of rapidly growing suburbias, the age of wealthy city churches with tall spires and fancy pipe organs is over. Every church struggles. But we continue to be called by God to be faithful to the Good News or reconciliation with God, of peace, and of hope. As the church did under Luther, and through all ages, we will change and adapt by the power of the Spirit to do what needs to be done for the sake of the Gospel, not human visions called “success”.
I am grateful to God that you, the People of God at Advent, and all my family and friends and ecumenical comrades, who met together last Sunday, have stood together all these years in faithful proclamation of God’s Word.