This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on Christmas Eve 2014. It looks at the story of the Magi and the origins of what it means to be grateful through gift giving.
There’s a comic making the rounds this year of the little drummer boy in the manger next to Mary. He’s about to give the only gift he has, playing his drums, when a harried Mary stops him saying, “Thanks, but please no. I just got him to bed.” I imagine many of us have been there before – with our own kids, or baby-sitting for friends or family. Or if you’re like me, with no kids of my own, but with a very industrious cat at 4am.
The Christmas hymn, “Little Drummer Boy,” always struck me as a little odd, even if it is quite beautiful, for this reason. The last thing an infant needs is a drum solo at bed time. But the song teaches us that we don’t have to have much in terms of worldly riches, to find a way to be generous. It’s a good message, and a helpful reminder, and yet, I think in some ways, it misses the mark for the holiday.
The gift giving scene in the Nativity is about a few markers. Kings of the world themselves, will bow down to this spiritual king in the manger. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were all associated with standard gifts befitting a king. Others would note their representation of Jesus’ respective roles of king, his priestly role and an omen of his later death. They’re appropriate gifts to signal his station and his purpose. And over the millennia, they’ve been the foundation for what has brought us to the consumer frenzy we see from Black Friday through Christmas, and the return sales to follow the holiday.
So the Little Drummer Boy does his yeoman best to move us back to one of the meanings of the season, calling across the centuries to turn away from the consumerism that pervades our lives these days. I’m grateful for that message. We need to hear it year after year. And yet, aside from the three kings’ gift of gold to a poor family sleeping in a manger, a late night drum solo is about as helpful to the baby, as frankincense and myrrh.
On this past Sunday’s youth-led service, our religious educator Starr Austin, asked us whether we more enjoy giving gifts, or more enjoy getting them. It’s an important lesson around generosity – not just for material things – but for all the talents we may share – whether they be drum solos, or helping those in need. Coming from a place of gratitude, gift-giving can be a holy thing, and when it’s from a place of our talents, may very well be the hope for the world we so desperately need.
But with the modern challenge around secular consumerism and it’s impact on this Holy day, I wonder something else too: When is giving gifts more for ourselves, than it is for the recipient? When do we give out of expectation, rather than desire? And what would the Christ-child really ask of us, if he could have spoken?
In our contemporary reading this evening, by the Rev. Lynn Unger, I think we have the answer in the words of the camels. “What would such a child care
for perfumes and gold?”… “We saw what he would need: the gift of perseverance, of continuing on the hard way, making do with what there is, living on what you have inside. The gift of holding up under a burden, of lifting another with grace, of kneeling. To accept the weight of what you must bear.” For me, these are the lessons of Christmas. These are the gifts I think Jesus’ parents would have hoped for him, and what they ultimately taught him.
For me, the heart of the Christmas story, is not about the gifts, or even about generosity – two things we often think of this time of year. It’s about the lessons of hardship that can be overcome. It’s about enduring what is necessary so that what might be, can become. It’s the story of a man that was gifted with power – not the worldly kind – who was in fact born into weakness and frailty, poverty and a migrant life, living in a nation that was held by foreign powers – and through a life of vulnerability — despite inherent power – showed us all another way: how to lift another with grace and how to kneel when it’s time. We adore this child, not for his cuteness lying in a manger, but for his awareness of when to hold back, despite the power he may have.
The story of Christmas is likewise about the recipients of that grace. If holding back our power at times is a a sacred act, helping to lift those who are vulnerable, is likewise sacred. We often hear misleading stories of people who deserve their poverty; we hear misleading stories that suggest it is not to us to be our brother’s keeper. The story of Christmas corrects these as well. Sometimes, we’re in a place where we have gifts to give. Sometimes we’re in a cold manger needing help. God is found in both these places.
The Holy is found in both these places. This is the closing lesson from our camels in our contemporary reading. “Our footsteps could have rocked him with the rhythm of the road, shown him comfort in a harsh land, the dignity of continually moving forward. But the wise men were not wise enough to ask. They simply left their trinkets and admired the rustic view. Before you knew it, we were turned toward home, carrying men only half-willing to be amazed.” Sometimes we come upon the holiday as these wise men, laden with trinkets and appreciative of the quaintness of it all. Sometimes, we come upon Christmas as the silent camels, staring in awe at the wonder of creation – no words to share or say – just the willingness to be amazed. That’s the inkling of the holy, that which the everyday mystics call us to witness. This too is the gift of Christmas; this too is the gift of life. To notice the baby reaching “for the bright tassels of our gear” and to not let it be lost before the humdrum of the world. To pause long enough to appreciate the precious moments of life.
All of this, held in care, is the message of Christmas. May it bear a print upon who we are, knowing that it is to us then, that we commit the life and teachings of Jesus into our lives. We are told he was born, and he lived, and he died for these teachings. To feed the hungry. To care for the sick. To clothe the naked. To lift up the poor. To remember those imprisoned – however they may be bonded. This is to keep Christ in Christmas. Tonight is the start of his story. Tonight, we renew our pledge to hold these ideals deep in our hearts. And to return, once more, to a world lit by such a glorious star, in the darkest of nights.