The Work of Christmas

This sermon was first preached on January, 5th at the UU Fellowship in Huntington. It looks at Epiphany, the day the Wise Men finally found the manger.

I was gifted with a hand-made scarf a few months ago. It’s bright, multi-colored, but not too over the top. Brian purchased it on-line at a site called etsy, where hand-crafters make a living. The scarf looks so good that people stop me on the street to say, “hey, that’s a great scarf!” In fact, I get the compliment once or twice a day, every day. It feels great – people smiling. Strangers – smiling.

It started to feel a little surreal later when I would wear it and go into NYC. It was one thing for suburbanites to stop me at the grocery store or at the coffee shop. It’s another for insular New Yorkers to stop their sidewalk arguments and turn to compliment me. I swear – I’ve had people stop in the middle of a fight to turn and spread the good word my way. And the folks that stop me on the City street come from every walk of life in fact. The magic scarf has turned urbanites gregarious.

Then. One time when I visited the City this Christmas, I was walking through Penn Station and a woman came up to me and asked, “did you get that scarf online in October? I think that’s my scarf. I made that scarf.” The knitter was, in fact, from the right state of origin – (Virginia) and was the right name – (Caryn.) I complimented her work, and passed on the word that every single random stranger seems to love it, and we went our separate ways. What followed was feverish texting to Brian to share the strange news, and confirm all the facts because I still didn’t believe it. But she checked out. What was the chance that the knitter was 500 miles from home and just happened to run into the new owner of her craft – at the right spot  – at the right time – in Penn Station to say hello – and I didn’t just ignore her and walk away…. It was a real Etsy Miracle on 34th Street!

Now when I think about how disconnected we can become in an age of the internet; with folks living further and further apart; with families across the globe and neighbors not knowing one another’s names; and unchecked electronic devices that can make us feel alone at a party or over the dinner table – this kind of story gives me hope and a little perspective. The absurdity of running into that particular stranger when we’re both away from home in a city that has 18 million people commute through it every day, tells me that it is in fact possible to live in this world full of humans and choose to maintain and strengthen our connections with the people in our lives. If I can run into that particular knitter, we can make or maintain just about any connection – if we’re committed to it. But often, we’re not.

When we moved into our new home, we got to know the two neighbors on either side of us. And at one summer BBQ, we got to meet a lot more of the extended neighborhood. But more or less, we are quiet neighbors that have busy work lives and with the onset of the winter months, the casual day to day sidewalk conversations have happened less and less. We live on a curve in the road where the road forks. Well, when it snows like this past Thursday, the neighbor across the fork helps out everyone he knows. And by “helps out” I mean he owns a bulldozer. We never got around to making the connection with them when we moved in this Summer, and so he didn’t include us in his clearing out of driveways. Alas.

It’s a small point – and it’s not the reason to make friendships or develop relationships with strangers. But there are some real benefits of living in community and putting real work into developing that community. We can’t always make it happen with everyone, nor do we have the energy to necessarily do so with everyone we may wish we could. But usually there are more connections we could foster or maintain than we otherwise do. One neighbor knows all the ins and outs of all the rules and schedules in town. Others are fire chiefs, or nurses, or police officers. And one has a bulldozer. There are things that we each are better at than the other, and when we’re generous with our gifts – when we give what we are best at – and everyone else does the same – the community thrives.

It’s the principle of socialist structures like “the fire department” or “the snow plowers.” There are a lot of things I’m rather good at in life – but if you’re relying on me to shovel out Route 25, or carry you down a ladder, over my shoulder, out of a burning house – it’s just not going to happen. There are better people to rely on for those services. And that’s true for each of us. We sometimes buy a little too deeply the myth that we can do it all alone. I have a hard time remembering to take the trash out on Wednesday and Sunday – I’d have no clue when to plow the fields.

This is one of the disciplines of religious community too. We all come here for so many differing reasons. We’re all at different stages in our lives, and we all have somewhat different needs. But in congregational life – the building up of community is one of those disciplines we have to put some back into. I hear many stories here of people caring for one another in times of loss or times of need. People hosting dinners for the holidays for those who can’t or aren’t traveling. There are those who help keep our roof up, and our floor safely on the ground around here, or who care for our kids when we’re not around. Sometimes things are really bad, and the help we give means even more.

If you’ve been coming here for a little while now, or casually for years, challenge yourself this new year to make a new connection here. Coffee hour is a good start, but it’s not for everyone. Read through our laundry list of announcements when you have a chance and check out any number of the activities, services and groups we have open to all. You never know whom you’ll find who’s a mean knitter or owns a bulldozer just when you need. (And if you find the latter, get me their number.)

In the Christian calendar, today traditionally marks Epiphany Sunday. It’s the 12th Day of Christmas, as the carol goes, and it marks the day the Wise Men finally reached the Manger with their gifts after a long road from the East. They didn’t quite know what they’d find, and they didn’t quite know where they were going, but they were committed, and despite all the absurdity of it, they somehow managed to find that manger in the middle of nowhere. And the really, really absurd part of that story is after trekking through the desert on a road to nowhere, they came ready to share their gifts, not quite knowing who they were giving them to, or what would come of it. But they shared their gifts anyway – knowing deep down – that this sign mattered. Their story is the paragon of commitment and generosity. Two thousand years later, we still mark their journey, with celebrations, in our songs, and in our pageants. We teach our kids this combination somehow matters – it’s somehow noteworthy.

We often don’t focus on them though at this time of year. The Christmas season is over. We’ve absolved ourselves of the battle and let the stores redefine the season with toy-giving almost being the point – or certainly the high-point – of the holiday. I saw friend’s photos on-line showing drug stores on December 27th whose aisles already were ready for Valentine’s Day. Pack up one holiday and prepare ye the way to the next. But if we remember the magi story – we’re a people that have heard of the birth of a prophet – and now – now -we’re on the road to change our lives in light of the teachings that will come of him.

The core of those teachings we’ve heard once more in our chalice lighting and our choir songs. Howard Thurman’s poetic rewriting goes again “When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among brothers, To make music in the heart.” The first of those five things are the core of Jewish and Christian teachings, and you would be hard pressed to find any disagreement about those teachings in Islam (which also sees Jesus as a prophet), Buddhism or Hinduism. The ethical drive in our religious tradition is to care for those in need. Whether they are sick, hungry, without shelter or warmth, and to free those who are bound.

That is the work of Christmas. That is the reason for the season. We celebrate the birth of this prophet because of the impact of the teachings of this prophet. And in commitment and generosity we honor the life of this prophet by doing our best to tackle these challenges. Like building relationships with those in our community, we may not be able to help with each of these, but our religious life calls us to try for at least some of them. This congregation has a strong, on-going and long-term commitment to many of these – as a congregation. Our community-based commitment to cold-weather shelter for homeless or migrant men – HIHI – is addressing a major need for shelter, food and clothing. This is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. Likewise, the other community based clothing drives that seem almost perpetual are addressing a major need – whether due to poverty or the all-too many families still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. This is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. Although individuals may be working on prison reform – personally I feel this is another area where are congregation has room for growth in our ministry to the community. This too is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. 

We can’t do it all, and sometimes we’re at a place in life where we can’t do one more thing. Or maybe we’re going through a time of crisis and need the help ourselves. There’s nothing to be ashamed about that. We all need help at times. We all fall under bad luck at times. If you feel like you’re in need of help, please reach out to me. This congregation will help as best as it can. This too is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. It’s not about gift-giving. It’s about community building. And it takes all of us.

  This month’s theme is commitment. I encourage you to use the new year to stretch in the best ways you can. To care for yourself a little better. To care for the world around you a little better.  And if you’re not in a place to take on one more thing – use this time to deepen your ties to the community that takes each of us to build up. Our congregation becomes more resilient the more each of us supports one another. Maybe we individually can’t take on the wrongs of the world – but in caring for one another maybe you’re giving another person the strength and resources they need to do so themselves. Religion is a team sport. Community is a team sport. Sometimes we make the goal. Sometimes we make it possible for another to make the goal. And when the stakes are health, wholeness, compassion, shelter, and justice – it only matters than someone makes that goal. Commitment to those goals. Commitment to building our neighborhoods – one relationship at a time.

And by the way, after I finished this sermon, I went out for our third round of shoveling to finally clear the driveway. We had about 1/3 more to go. The neighbor with the bulldozer saw us, took pity on us, and in 30 seconds cleared out what would have taken us 30 minutes. Sometimes we don’t do anything, and people are just plain kind.

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