A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holiday Message (December 19) - Lancaster Kiwanis

     Thank you for the great lunch and for inviting me to be with you today. 
     I was asked to share a holiday message today which creates a bit of a dilemma for me. We preachers feel the pressure to offer our very best sermons on Christmas Eve and so I really need to save my best stuff for then. 
     Christmas is a huge deal in our culture.  Great crowds of people come to church on Christmas Eve.  Christmas Eve is when a lot of unchurched people seek out a church.  We have to set up several rows of chairs in a room next to our sanctuary to accommodate the large crowds.
     At our 11 o’clock Christmas Eve service a couple of years ago, I stood up to welcome everybody.  And in the middle of my welcome, I was taken aback by a stray dog that had somehow entered our sanctuary and was coming down one of our center aisles.
     It was one of those moments when you question if you are really seeing what you are seeing.  But sure enough, it was a dog loose in our sanctuary.  The dog decided to stop at one of the pews and was enamored by one of our worshippers.  A kind hearted church member decided to grab the dog by its collar and take it back outside. But it got loose again and came down a different aisle.
     Eventually, we helped the dog to find its owner here in the neighborhood.  That Christmas Eve, we had a total of 1,402 people in worship; 1,403 if you count the dog which of course I did.
     Christmas is a huge deal in our culture.  I read an article by the National Retail Federation that forecasts that the US will spend over 586 billion dollars this holiday season.  They have also predicted that up to 625,000 temporary workers will be hired to meet the demands of this holiday season.
     Sociologist and activist, Tony Campolo critiques our fascination with Christmas and the holiday season by saying, “It’s all about producing more stuff. We buy and buy.  At Christmas, we buy things nobody needs for people who already have everything.”
     Christmas is getting to the point where it is less about the true meaning of the season and more about the retail dollars that are needed to maintain a certain economic level.  Has Christmas become too big?
     It wasn’t always this way.  I’d like to offer a brief historical sketch of Christmas to help us keep this holiday season in perspective.
     I recently came across a book by Dr. Bruce Forbes entitled, “Christmas: A Candid History.”  Dr. Forbes is a professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He’s also an ordained United Methodist pastor.  He offers a big picture of how the celebration of Christmas has evolved over the centuries.
     In his book, Dr. Forbes reminds us that the way we approach the holidays today with spending and decorations on every street corner is a far cry from its humble beginnings. From a religious perspective, it may be surprising to note that the church did not even celebrate Christmas for the first two hundred years after the time of Christ. It wasn’t until the 4th century, that Christians began celebrating Christmas on an annual basis.
     Jumping ahead several centuries to the time of the Puritans in England, the celebration of Christmas even becomes illegal because of the Puritans’ concern that the church was missing its true meaning.  Not celebrating Christmas was strictly enforced to the point where town criers would go around in England on Christmas Eve shouting, “No Christmas! No Christmas!” 
     The Puritans downplayed Christmas for about a 150 year period.  There are some historians who have scoured through the London Times between 1790 and 1835 to look for any references to Christmas and to their surprise, they discovered that over half of those years had zero references to Christmas.  This just goes to show how Christmas wasn’t seen as that special of a day in that long time span.
     Many of our early colonists here in the New World didn’t make a big deal about Christmas since the culture of that period had been influenced by the Puritans.  It’s hard to imagine a time in our country when schools and businesses were all open on Christmas day. It was business as usual for early colonial America on Christmas day.
     I think of my own Methodist history.  Since the Methodist denomination came out of England many of the early Methodists deemphasized Christmas as well.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was an Anglican Priest in England.  He preached over 40,000 sermons and not one of those sermons was a Christmas sermon.  In contrast, this Christmas Eve will mark my 26th Christmas sermon.
     One of the reasons the Puritans were against the celebration of Christmas was because Christmas had become increasingly associated with parties than with the birth of Christ. I’ve been wondering what the Puritans would think of how we celebrate Christmas today.  I’m trying to picture a group of Puritans walking through River Valley Mall or shopping at Target or eating at the Cheesecake Factory in Easton.  I just can’t get that image in my mind.
     It wasn’t until the mid1800s, that Christmas began to become the popular holiday that it is today.  This was due to the Victorian Age which brought us the tradition of the Christmas tree. Around the same time, Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” was becoming very popular and the reading of the Night Before Christmas gave St. Nicholas a modern day makeover that remains with us to this day.
     From the middle of the 19th century on, there has been a rapid fascination with a feel good Christmas spirit and the whole Santa Clause gift giving frenzy.  Just listen to this long list of how Christmas has taken off over the past 150 years.
·       1843 – First Christmas cards printed in London.
·       1872 – First carving & painting of soldier nutcrackers.
·       1879 – Department stores begin setting up Santa workshop displays.
·       1882 – First electric Christmas lights are sold.
·       1920 – Candy canes begin to be packaged and sold.
·       1924 – For the first time, Santa rides on the last float of the Macy’s Parade.
·       1930s – Kids start leaving milk & cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.
·       1939 – Santa’s 9th reindeer, Rudolph is added to the Santa’s team.
·       1950s – We began tracking & reporting on Santa’s flight patterns & we began buying first non-green artificial Christmas trees.
·       1994 – First Christmas e-cards are delivered thanks to the computer.
·       Last Decade – Demand for Christmas fad toys reached new heights.
     Christmas and the holiday season have become a huge industry and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.  The truth is that there’s always been the commercial component of Christmas as far back as the mid 1800s.
     Or we could go back to the Puritan days and make the celebration of Christmas illegal but that would probably create another huge fiscal cliff for our economy to overcome. And personally, for the most part, I don’t mind the festivities and build-up of the holiday season.  These celebrations are a way to for us to offset the shorter days and the colder temperatures.
     But here’s what I think we can do in keeping with the spirit of this season. We can offer our gifts and words of hope to the people of our community.  And I want to thank this organization for all of the many good things you are doing and for being a light of hope in our community.
     The commercialization of the holiday season may be with us to stay, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t live out the spirit of Christmas.
     For the past two and a half years, people in our church and from the community gather at our church’s Crossroads facility on W. Fair Avenue from 8:30 am to noon on the second Saturday of each month.  Our mission is simple.  We want to be a blessing in our community. We call this our Second Saturday outreach ministry.
     We have painted several of the city’s fire hydrants, painted over graffiti on bridges, serve as volunteers for charity events, helped with house repairs, laid new flooring at Foundation Dinners, given away quarters to people at the Laundromat, helped residents at a nursing home play bingo and chair volleyball, taken bags of fruit and cookies to first time responders and to people who are shut-in, raked people’s yards, helped with the Habitat for Humanity resale store, made warm blankets for nursing home and hospice patients, helped build a tree house for the students at Forrest Rose, along with some other projects just to give you an idea of what Second Saturday is all about.
     A couple of weeks ago, we had fun assembling and wrapping Christmas presents for several needy families in our community.  I am terrible at gift wrapping and even I ended up wrapping several gifts that passed inspection.
     One of the people we helped for Christmas is a man in his 50s who shared this note with us.  Here’s what he wrote:
     “I receive disability and both kids live with me right now.  Me and my wife separated a year ago and in February, we learned that our son who was 5 at the time was being sexually abused by a cousin.
     My wife had a mental breakdown and had to stay in a hospital for a while and we both agreed that it would be best for the kids to live with me but while my wife was in and of the hospitals, me and the kids were homeless and we stayed in a shelter for a couple of months and recently received help to get me and my kids into an apartment.
     From April to July, me and the kids have lived in a tent, took baths in creek water, cook food over an open fire. Community Action helped us get into an apartment.
     In September, I had a heart attack and found out I have a big blood clot in my heart.  They say I have not got much time so I hope that this Christmas will be a good one for me and the kids. The kids and I don’t have much but at least we have a home thanks to people who have helped us.”
     I recently called this dad to let him know that I received his letter and that our church was glad to help them for Christmas. I offered him words of support and shared in a prayer with him, reminding him that God was with him and that God loved him.
     Has Christmas become too big in our culture?  Probably.  Has it become too commercialized? No doubt. But this time of year also seems to bring out the best in us. 
·     It will even get us out of bed on an early Saturday morning to deliver Christmas presents to a dying man and his young children,
·       split wood out in the cold rain so that a disabled veteran can heat his home this winter,
·       make blankets for people nearing the end of their lives,
·       and take bags of fruit and cookies to the homebound.
     Thank you for having me today. Merry Christmas!

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