I Corinthians 13:4-7; I John 4:7, 11-12
The Rev. Tom Herbek
December 11, 2016
At this time of year, I believe the world is again holding its breath. Theologian and novelist Frederick Buechner says it in his own way:
The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.
The Salvation Army Santa Claus clangs his bell. The sidewalks are so crowded you can hardly move. Exhaust fumes are the chief fragrance in the air, and everybody is as bundled up against any sense of what all the fuss is really about as they are bundled up against the windchill factor.
But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.
- Goodness and Light
It is at this time of year that we all hold our breath, hoping against all of the bad, tough experiences in the world around us, that the love of God will show itself again, the presence of God will be revealed in stronger ways, and we will hear –each of us personally – some powerful Good News.
Maggie Fogarty felt called to find a way to bring some good news to some poor shepherds in Bolivia:
My husband and I and our two young children had been living in Amachuma, Bolivia, for about two years when I had an experience that enabled me to recognize what calling really means. It was Christmas time, and a local church had organized a Nativity play for the children in our village. Everyone was thrilled. There would be costumes and hot chocolate and the whole village would be there to watch the play.
On the morning of the play, three little boys came to my door. “Hermana,” they said, “we are shepherds in the play, and we need your help for our costumes.”
“What do you need?” I asked them.
“We need the towels we’ve seen drying on your clothes line. We need the big ones for our bodies and the little ones for our heads.”
“But Juanito,” I said to the oldest boy, “you are already a shepherd. Every single day, after school, you take your family’s thirty sheep to pasture, and you wait with them to keep them safe from thieves and hungry dogs. And then you bring them home; you give them food and fresh water; and you put them in their shelter for the night.”
And to Carlos I said, “Do you remember one morning last month, when you brought a newborn lamb to my house?” The lamb had been born on a frosty morning, and was freezing to death on the hard ground. Carlos had thought to pick up the lamb, stiff with cold, and run to our house because he had seen us use a portable gas heater in our kitchen. “You saved that little lamb, Carlos. You held it in your arms by our heater until it was warm and kicking to life. That, my friend, makes you a smart and wonderful shepherd.”
Now, I don’t think my words had much impact on these dear ones in that moment, and they probably wondered why I had tears in my eyes. After all, they were taking their acting roles very seriously and they wanted to look like the shepherds they saw in the pictures of their church’s illustrated Bible.
And they would feel more appropriately attired in my dish towels and bath towels. So of course, I sent them along, with armloads of towels and a promise that we would be there to take their pictures and applaud for them.
And as we watched the play that night, I knew that if I did nothing else in our time in Bolivia, I would find ways to say to these beautiful children that they are already good enough, that their experiences matter, they know more than they think they know, and they know more than they’ve been told they know. And they don’t need anybody’s dish towels to tell a story about God being born in the world.
To be in mission is to find a thousand ways to say, “You are beautiful, you are wise and powerful, your ways are wonderful, you are marvelous just as God made you.” The good news we proclaim is that those we encounter can show us a path to peace and love.
It is good news for all of us.
- Goodness and Light
To be in mission does not mean we must travel to some far away country or live in poverty ourselves. Sometimes that helps us to see things that we could not see in our ordinary lives in Canandaigua, NY. But the truth is that there are many in our ordinary lives, people we meet each day, who need to find out that they are loved just as they are. And we need to hear it ourselves, once again, that we are marvelous just as God made us. Some have said that it is all about feeling grateful for what we have – and that is part of it. But there is more to what life is all about.
Writer and pastor Lillian Daniels writes the following, in her book entitled, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough. She describes a father telling her how proud he was of his son:
Listen to what my son wrote, he said. “Children are starving with empty bellies in faraway lands. They have nothing to eat. All around them they hear the sounds of gunfire and bombs going off. And it made me realize that we are so lucky. We are so lucky to be living here and not there.”
“I had tears in my eyes when he said that,” the proud parent explained. “I was blown away and I realized, he gets it, he really gets it. It was gratitude. That’s our religion- gratitude. And at that moment, when he recognized all that suffering and how fortunate he was, I could not have been prouder.”
When belief stops with gratitude that we are better off than others, then something crucial is missing. Daniel continues:
Never been prouder? I thought. Really? I mean, I can see being proud that your kid watches the news. I can see being a little proud that he understands himself to have privileges in this country that other people do not. I can see being a little relieved that he knows not everyone goes to bed with a full stomach, that he can at least imagine the fact that war causes unimaginable pain. But then what? The punch line from the religion of gratitude: “We’re so lucky that we live here instead of there.” Really? That’s it? Never been prouder?
What’s missing from that worldview- and this is no fault of the teenager- but what is missing from that worldview is the perspective that you might get involved in a faith community that would take you from lucky to actually doing something about it. But this kid didn’t get there. Or if he did get there, his dad didn’t care enough to make it part of the story.
I am guessing that this family gives to charity and has a good supply of PBS tote bags. But when you witness pain and declare yourself lucky, you have fallen way short of what Jesus would do.
When you witness suffering and declare yourself to have achieved salvation in the religion of gratitude, you have fallen way short of what God would have you do, no matter what religion you are called to.
And by the way, while I think God does want us to feel gratitude, I do not think God particularly wants us to feel lucky. I think God wants us to witness pain and suffering and, rather than feeling lucky, God wants us to get angry and want to do something about it.
The civil rights movement didn’t happen because people felt lucky. The hungry don’t get fed, the homeless don’t get sheltered, and the world doesn’t change because people who are doing okay feel lucky. We need more.
I am so proud of this church family. I don’t think anyone in this church family would hear about or see suffering and not want to do something to alleviate it. If anyone says to me, “Your church is always asking for money or time or donations to help someone,” my response is, “Yes, isn’t that great?”
We offer so many different ways to make a difference. And each one of us gets to get involved in those opportunities that fit who we are, and how we’d like to respond. Food, victim advocacy, comfort care, hats and scarfs, coats and Christmas presents. This church always comes through to help!
Several years ago, a church in Winston-Salem, NC, had an opportunity dropped on its doorstep – literally. Luckily a woman there responded and she recruited her church family to respond to this extraordinary challenge. She describes it this way:
“On a cold, dreary December evening, several hundred people gathered at a large downtown church in Winston-Salem to celebrate the Christmas season. I had gone down a long hallway to help a small boy who was pushing against massive oak doors trying to get outside. The boy appeared to be about 2 years old. He was crying as if his heart would break. I picked him up, thinking he belonged to someone at one of the Christmas parties. Investigation, however, revealed nothing. I rushed outside and spotted an old-model car speeding away in the darkness.
Gradually, it began to dawn on me that the child had been abandoned. I made a few calls, and soon the church was filled with people wanting to help in any way they could. Within moments, the local TV stations interrupted their usual programs to ask if anyone knew the identity of the little boy. The next morning, one of the city’s newspapers had the child’s picture on the front page. The headline was: “Someone Trusted the Church Last Night and the Church Came Through!”
We never know what may be dropped on our doorstep. In the months to come, there will be people who will have special and crucial needs, and they will trust this church, and we will need to find creative ways to come through for them. The opportunities may come from unexpected places, and we may feel overwhelmed by the need. But we must not forget that we are not alone. We know our limitations, each of us, and we may be stymied and overwhelmed as we try to understand the needs.
Yet we are also a part of a church family, fellow journeyers in life, who have been touched by God’s love for us, and who believe that it is our privilege to be God’s hands and feet and voices on this earth.
As the writer of I John wrote so long ago: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”
The spirit of Christmas is many things, but mostly, it is about love. May the love of God be in our hearts this Christmas, and may we respond in love to those around us this Christmas in new and special ways!
And when that happens, that is a why someone might truly believe that God is love!