Note: Christmas at St. Paul's was simply amazing this year. The 5 PM service was filled despite the sloppy slushy cold rain outside. It was so wet outside that couldn't even put up the luminaries - which is a HUGE custom in Chatham.
Oh well! The sermon consisted of my sitting on the chancel steps with the kiddos and retelling the Christmas story as we put together the creche. No great lines this year, but one kid decided that, if he were going to be any character in that scene in Bethlehem, he was guessing it would be good to be one of the Kings. I have a friend who says that preaching a children's sermon is like "being thrown into a bucket of live bait." He's absolutely right.
The 11 PM turnout was surprisingly good - again, despite the weather - probably because the word is out that the music program is nothing less than spectacular. What a GREAT organist/choir director we now have! There's something really magnificent about singing all those wonderful old Christmas hymns with timpani and brass.
I'm going to try to reconstruct this morning's sermon, which was done without notes. I preached "from a prepared heart" - not something I do often, because it's so difficult. But, the service on The Feast of the Nativity is 'just the family' - less than 50-70 people who simply couldn't be anyplace else on Christmas morning than in church and with each other. I have my notes. I'll put them together later
For now, here's last night's sermon:
The Eve of the Nativity of our Lord – December 24, 2008 - 11 PM
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
It is always wonderful to be here with you on Christmas Eve – the eve of the nativity of Jesus. This is the night when the Light of God will shine into every dark corner of the world, bringing the promise of hope and joy and peace.
There are some pretty dark corners in our world – places of hunger, famine, war, and disaster. Some of us have felt backed into some dark corners – places of anxiety, fear, illness, death, and loss.
But tonight, tonight the Light shines into the gloom of our doubts and fears. Tonight, we are filled with hope that war will cease, that no child will go to bed this night hungry or thirsty, and that avarice and arrogance will be transformed into compassion and selflessness.
Tonight we suspend all reason, put aside our skepticism, and enter into myth and miracle.
Tonight, everyone is young again as we nestle ourselves into the very lap of God; and, as we sing familiar hymns and listen to ancient scripture, we find that we have entered once again into the story of the Nativity of our Lord.
The thing of it is, you know, is that it is not a very pretty story. The world was a very dark place, filled with the same doubts and fears, the same wars and rumors of wars, the same avarice and corruption.
“In those days,” begins Luke’s gospel, “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” You understand that this wasn’t for the purpose of gathering demographics for social-political analysis. The registration was being done so that Augustus could know if his empire was growing and, oh yes, to collect more taxes.
You understand that a census-taker didn’t come and knock on your door. This meant that someone like Joseph, “went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.” You also understand, of course, that Joseph could not buy a ticket on the Acela and make the journey in the business class comfort of Amtrak. This was a several-days journey, which was made on foot. Oh, but he had to take Mary, who was to be his bride, so they did have a donkey. Oh, and she was expecting a child. Any day.
In fact, the story is told that shortly after they arrived in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth but since there was no room anywhere because everyone was in the city for The Registration, she delivered her child in a manger which had been built for oxen and sheep.
“I am bringing you good news of great joy,” announced the angel to the shepherds. On one level, it makes no sense, absolutely no sense at all, that this should be a story of hope. On the surface, there seems to be no reason to join our voices with the angels and sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace and goodwill on the earth.”
And yet, we hear the story and we are become as little children – trusting, believing, hoping beyond hope that it might be true. That miracles do happen. That a miracle might happen in our very lives.
Well, here is the good news of great joy: Miracles do happen. Every day. In your life. Little miracles happen like little bubbles of oxygen which move invisibly and unnoticed through our lives and keep hope alive.
Here’s just one example: I don’t know about you, but it’s at about this point in the year when I need to be reminded of those little miracles. I begin to go into melt-down, secondary to sensory overload. I sometimes find myself in a bit of an identity crisis and I forget who I am. Am I a mother and grandmother? A priest and a preacher? A liturgical coordinator? A social worker?
These days I am all these things. I become the things I do not necessarily who I really am. Sound familiar to anyone here?
But then, something will happen in the midst of all the insanity and a little miracle will break into my life. It happened just this morning.
A priest from an inner city parish called and requested some assistance for a family in his congregation. They are Haitian immigrants. Mom and dad both work as personal care attendants. They have three children - an 18 month old, a 3 year old and a 6 year old.
When I asked him what they needed, he said, "Furniture."
"Yes, well, I understand," I said, remembering my time in the city, "but this is for the children. We can work on the furniture later, but right now, let's work on Christmas for the kiddos."
Again came a long silence. "They don't have beds," he said softly. "The baby doesn't have a crib. The boys sleep on newspapers that have been crumpled up to cushion them from the floor, covered over by a sheet."
"And food," he said, "they could use some food because most of their income goes to pay for the rent and transportation costs to get them to and from work."
Oh, God, I thought. Oh, God.
"Look," I said, trying to regain my focus. "Let me do this: I'll give you some gift certificates to Shop Rite so they can get their own food, and I'll leave a check for you and you can do with it what they want. If buying beds for the boys and a crib for the baby will make them happy, then that will be Christmas enough."
That is against all my guidelines about ‘charitable giving’. It’s about relationships, I say. It’s about ministry, I preach. But, what to do when there’s no time and the need is so great? Charity is the least we can do in the face of the impossible demands of poverty.
I know what he's going to do. He's going to get some beds and bedding for the kids. I understand. So, I called a friend to helps to coordinate a local "Toys for Tots". He’s a great bear of a guy with a HUGE heart.
I got him to set aside three presents for the kiddos. He called earlier this morning. He was going to deliver them himself to that inner city church around 10 AM.
Food, toys and a place for these little babies to lay their sweet heads away in a shabby inner city tenement apartment owned by a heartless man who lives in Brooklyn.
Merry Christmas, Jesus. When we do things for the least of these, we do them for you.
I hung up the phone and went back to my own personal 'to do' lists. I started the Baked Ziti for tonight and began to marinate the meat for tomorrow. I made a chocolate cream pie and finished this sermon (one of five I will have written in less than a week's time).
Somewhere in the midst of it all, a miracle happened. I remembered my true identity: I am a child of God, a new creation in Christ Jesus, born again by the power of the Spirit in the humility of the ministry God sends me.
This happens every year. I lose myself and find my true self again as I kneel before the newborn Jesus I see in others. I am all those things that define me and some things I have yet to discover about myself.
I know my true identity will unfold and be revealed to me in the midst of the frenetic pace of the holiday, but it is always a surprise and a miracle when it happens.
It's not so much about what we get, but what we can give.
It's the paradox of Christmas: It's not about you, but it can't happen without you.
It's about the incredible privilege of having God working through us, flawed and faulted as we are. It's not about us, but it is in knowing that it can't happen without us.
We are, each one of us, God's Christmas present to the world. We are just waiting to be unwrapped with the great joy of the miracle of life to discover the true humility which can bring lasting peace to the world.
It's the most amazing gift of Christmas.
You are. I am. Because Jesus is.
I think the Nativity Story brings us hope because intuitively, we know that hope is an impossibility wrapped as an unexpected gift.
The gift of hope, when it is true, humbles us and stirs gratitude deep within our heart.
Hope leads us to dream, to think beyond that which is possible or our carefully constructed guidelines and rules.
Hope inspires us to reach into the darkness of the improbable, searching the heavens to follow a star, that we might find the miracle of The Light that makes all things possible.
“Behold, I bring you good news of great joy.” “Glory to God in the highest, and peace and goodwill on the earth.”
Merry Christmas, dear friends. Merry Christmas.
May the Babe of Bethlehem bring you Joy,
May the Youth of Nazareth bring you Hope,
May the Man of Galilee bring you Strength,
May the Risen Lord of Jerusalem bring you Love,
And the Blessing of God Almighty,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Be amongst you and remain with you always. AMEN!