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


Monday, December 31, 2012

Sermon by Rev. Cheryl Foulk (December 30) "One More Gift"


I gave my four year old grand daughter a gift on Tuesday,Christmas Day. I reminded her that we would see her again on Friday night. She asked me if I would give her another present when I saw her then!  I said that there would probably be one more gift...

Today we have “one more gift”  to add to those we have opened  during this Advent. Our nativity set reminds us of those gifts we have talked about: Mary with her sense of expectation;  Joseph with his trusting acceptance; the shepherds who found the gift of family; the innkeeper who gave the gift of himself; and the gift from God, Jesus, the world's hope. However, we are not quite finished with unwrapping presents.

This last gift has a fashion theme.  Speaking of fashion, have you noticed all the Christmas sweaters today in worship?  Some are quite unique. We do notice what people wear.  Sometimes we even become known for what we wear:  a bow tie, a hat, a certain kind of shoes. It becomes our trademark.

As followers of Christ,  we also have a trademark in our appearance. Paul writing  in his letter to the Colossians  provides us with a fashion tip.

We are “to put on”  or wear  compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness.  And to complete the outfit, he suggests putting on love.  These seven words are connected because they all have to do with relationships. Compassion is seen in an attitude of caring with mercy.  Kindness is evident in the way we look or speak to another person. Humility is having a self-contentment of heart.  Gentleness is an appreciation for how fragile another soul may be.  Patience is revealed in a persistent openness. Forgiveness is not seeking revenge or pay back. Love is seeking the best for the other person and desiring what God would want for them.

These intentional attitudes and actions are as obvious as the clothes that we wear.

Single mom Kim Kerswell thought getting into  a fender-bender was the worst thing that could have happened to her this December. It turned out to be something quite different. Kim works at a Panera Bread  outside Boston . She  rear ended another car in the parking lot which belonged to Sherene Borr.

As the two women exchanged information,  the young mom told Sherene  that she was struggling to make ends meet, and raising two kids on her own. Sherene felt that   that there was genuine need here and she wanted to respond.  Surprisingly, she sent Kim a text later in the day which said she wanted to help give her family a Christmas!

Not only did  she forgive any damages to her car, Sherene with other friends  is making  sure that Kim is stocked with groceries, gift cards, and toys and clothes for her kids. Both hope that their friendship will continue after Christmas . It sounds as if Sherene was wearing the right outfit of clothes that day: compassion, kindness, forgiveness. She had  put on all that was needed and had tied it up with love. 

Who is well dressed in God's eyes? What is your style?  To relate to other folks with love, to recognize them as children of God with their own dignity, to see them as worthy of our time and  actions  is quite a spiritual fashion statement. This wardrobe does not come naturally. We are  prone to be self-centered, distant, critical, and impatient.

Consciously we have to decide each day how we are going to treat each other. Allow God to pick out what we are wearing. In everyday encounters, we can be  signs of God's love in this world.

Nell Mohney is a motivational speaker, and writer. She was the author of the Upper Room Advent booklet we used here some years ago. In this  Advent collection  she wrote of experiencing the power of God's love through her family. When she was a  junior in high school, she had a Christmas season  job downtown and would window shop as she went to work. In the window of a dress shop was the most beautiful green coat she had ever seen and  she wanted that coat more than anything. One day she even tried it on and it just fit. The price tag was over the top. She shared about the  coat at home but with the family's tight  finances it was not going to be a reality. Each one understood that Christmas would be limited that year.
 
 On Christmas Eve when she passed by the store,the coat  was gone. She asked inside and was told  that it had been sold. She prayed that whoever got it would love it as much as she had. Her family had a subdued  opening of presents on Christmas morning. It became apparent that there was one more gift under the tree, and it was for Nell. Opening the box, Nell discovered  the  green coat! 

She found out later that her mother had sold her watch and others in the family had agreed to cheaper  gifts  in order that she could have this coat. She wore the coat for many years. It represented such sacrificial love from her  family. When she wore it, she felt wrapped in her mother's love and in a greater sense, by God's love that was hard to comprehend. Her soul was nourished for life by  that love.
 
Love is a frequent verb in the Scriptures. We are to love God, we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we are even to love our enemies.  We are to treat others  as we would like to be treated ourselves. Paul considers love as the greatest action over any other gift.

At the end of the Gospel of John,  we have the story of Peter, Jesus' disciple,  being  questioned about his love by Jesus. He answered”Lord, you know I love you.  Jesus said “Make it visible by feeding my sheep.  Take care of  one of my children , may they realize my love through you.”

When we are in the midst of irritating situations with difficult people, perhaps this is where God is provoking us into seeing  how much more we need to grow in our love for one another ! In those moments where our patience is stretched and our kindness runs out, it becomes apparent that we need God to refresh  the wardrobe of our hearts, to give us a makeover.  God has been so generous with love. What are we doing with the love God gave us?

A man was reminiscing about his childhood. He said: “The saddest words I remember from  holidays came in my grandparents living room- when all the presents were unwrapped, the cleanup nearly done and my dad tapped me on the shoulder to say” Son, let's go; Christmas is over” .

However, he said, we know that isn't true.  We know better. Christ came to be with us, to “abide with us.” , to be Emmanuel.   After all the presents and the food, when we are back in the routine, (at work ,at school) when life is back to normal, Christ is with us.

Christ is here filling us, guiding us, “dressing us”,empowering us to express the message of Christmas every day of the year.  With each encounter with another person, his love can be visible. Christmas is not over.

So I guess we have one more present to open and need to see what is in the box!  

(Present is opened to reveal a Christmas sweater. On the back is the word “Love”.)

Love may sometimes feels like it is the wrong size, scratchy, or not appropriate, or even embarrassing, out of place,but it is our trademark.

Listen to the reading from Colossians once again:

From The Message: Every item of your new way of life is custom made by the Creator. With his label on it. All the old fashions are obsolete.  So chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It's your basic, all purpose garment. Never be without it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Sermon (Christmas Eve) - "Outside the Box: Open the Gift of the Christ Child"


     I want to draw your attention to the large Christmas box that is up here by our altar.  Each Sunday during the month of December, we have opened a new Christmas gift based on different characters from the nativity display that we have been placing on the altar.
     We first opened the gift of expectation.  And the symbol for this Christmas gift is Mary, the mother of Jesus.  For those months of her pregnancy, Mary was filled with the expectancy that God’s promises for Israel and for the whole world were about to be fulfilled through the birth of her son.  This gift of expectancy is what prompts us to look for signs of God’s kingdom through our day to living.  It makes a difference in our lives when we know that God is at work in the world in new and exciting ways.
     The second Christmas gift we opened was the gift of acceptance.  The symbol for this gift is Joseph.  God was asking a lot from Joseph.  Joseph had been busy making wedding plans and all of the sudden he needed to accept a new reality that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit.  This was a lot for Joseph to accept in a short amount of time, especially since he knew that nobody would believe him.
     When we receive the Christmas gift of acceptance, like Joseph we sometimes just need to accept the reality of the situation we are facing as well as how other people will respond.  We can accept our present reality when we know that God is with us even when we may feel alone.
     Then we opened up the Christmas gift of family.  The shepherds are the symbol for this gift.  They were the unexpected guests at the manger scene since they were viewed as outcasts in their society.  God chose to include the unlikeliest of people to gather around the manger there in Bethlehem.
     Whenever we feel outside of God’s family, it’s so good to know that God’s invitation is always being extended to us.  A couple of months ago, someone who attends our church wrote these words about what makes our church special.
     “My beloved church is always there whether I’m there or not.  No matter how long I’m gone or how quickly I return, the door is always open.”
     The shepherds remind us that God’s door is always open.  There is always room for us.  Shepherds symbolize the gift of family.
     And then this past Sunday, the Christmas box was empty.  It was empty because we are the gift.  The innkeeper who isn’t even part of the manger scene, symbolizes this gift because we’re not sure whatever happened to this person.  Sometimes we get so busy preparing for Christmas that we forget to see ourselves as part of the manger scene.  Christmas is about opening the gift of yourself.
     So these are the four Christmas gifts so far in the month of December – the gift of expectation, the gift of acceptance, the gift of family, and the gift of yourself.  But we do have one more gift to take out of the Christmas box.
     Representing our youth ministry, I’d like to invite Joshua & Jacob Nicholson (5:30) McKenzie Huff (8:00) Gabby Smith (11:00) …to do us the honor of opening this Christmas gift that is meant for each and every one of us.
(Opening of the Gift)
     The gift is the Christ Child!
 
     The nativity display wouldn’t be complete without baby Jesus in the manger.  Yes, this is the gift for us to receive.  The gift of Jesus is why Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the innkeeper found themselves together in the little town of Bethlehem on that holy night.  And the gift of Jesus is what has brought us here tonight.  It’s a gift that we are invited to receive in a new way every Christmas.  It’s a gift that is meant to be opened again and again and again.
     For a little girl named Jessica, it was a perfect Christmas.  She got every single gift she wanted.  Her favorite cousins were there to share the holiday with her.  She had eaten her favorite foods all day long.  As her mother tucked her in for bed, she looked up and smiled and said, “Mom, I sure hope Mary and Joseph have another baby next year.”
     The gift of the Christ Child is meant to be opened not once, but every year.  Why else do we decorate our homes and set up the nativity display each year?  It’s because we know deep down that there is something very special about this gift that God is offering to us.  We want it to last and to be with us always.
     Speaking of Christmas presents, I received a really nice present one year.
 
     A lot of you remember the electric football game, 1970’s style, right?  It was so much better than today’s Madden NFL.  So much better!  Those of you who are in your 40s and 50s know what I mean.  Did you have an electric football game when you were growing up? 
     It was awesome!  The technology on that thing was genius.  With a flick of the switch, your carefully lined up tiny players would vibrate on this metallic surface.  But the players would never ever go in the direction that you had them pointed. It was a miracle if the player went five yards in the correct direction.
     All it took was the slightest piece of dust or fuzz on that sheet of metal and your prize running back would turn a promising fifteen-yard gain into a gut-wrenching thirty-yard loss.  It was sooo frustrating.  Lucky was the kid, who ever had a plastic player vibrate straight down the field for a touchdown. 
     I remember one time, my little running back man made it all the way to the one yard line, which in reality was literally three millimeters and something caused him to do a 180 and run the whole way to the other end zone for a safety. It was the worst feeling in the world.  In that regard, Madden NFL is a lot better!
     So anyway, Santa gave me this electric football game for Christmas one year.  I was so happy.  Best Christmas present ever!  My brother and I played it all day on Christmas.  The next day, the day after Christmas, my neighbor came over and we were playing with my electric football game.  And you won’t believe what happened.
     My little vibrating plastic man went the entire length of the field and scored a touchdown.  He never turned around.  Nothing stopped him.  He avoided every single piece of lint and fuzz between him and the end zone.  He went like Chris Berman says, “HE –WENT-ALL-THE-WAY!”
     To celebrate this once in a lifetime achievement, I did a handstand next to the field, but I couldn’t keep my balance.  I flipped over and my body landed on my new electric football game.  I put a dent near the sideline around the forty yard line.  I was never so crushed in my life!  I could still play a game on it, but if the players were anywhere near that side of the field, the gravity would pull them into this dent every single time.  I tried to fix it by pushing up the dent from underneath the field, but then the players couldn’t make it over the little hill that was formed.
     My favorite Christmas present was broken.  My favorite Christmas gift ever was broken. But when I was in my twenties, my brother came to visit us for Christmas one year.  And guess what he gave me for Christmas that year?  A brand new electric football game, just like the one that I had damaged so many Christmases ago. 
    Christmas is a time to remember that God specializes in making all things new.  God is more than able to take the dents and the brokenness of our lives and give us a new future.  Old Christmas gifts can be transformed and made new.  We can be made new.  Every Christmas is a time to receive God’s gifts of new life.
     Like Mary, we can receive the gift of expectation.  Like Joseph, we can receive the gift of acceptance.  Like the shepherds, we can receive the gift of family.  And like the innkeeper, we can receive the gift of ourselves and take our place around the manger scene.
 
     And tonight, we are invited to receive the gift of the Christ Child. Picture yourself around the manger scene with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds.  As you look upon this baby, what will your response be to this wonderful gift that God is offering us tonight?
     Years ago, a young man was riding a bus from Chicago to Miami.  He had a stop-over in Atlanta.  While he was sitting at the lunch counter, a woman came out of the lady’s rest room carrying a tiny baby.  She walked up to this man and asked, “Would you hold my baby for me? I left my purse in the rest room.”
      He did.  But as the woman neared the front door of the bus station, she darted out into the crowded street and was immediately lost in the crowd.
     When he finally calmed down, he went to the Traveler’s Aid booth and together with the local police, they soon found the child’s mother.  The woman who had left him holding the baby wasn’t the baby’s biological mother. She had taken the child from someone.  Maybe she took the baby to satisfy some motherly urge to hold a child or something else.  No one really knows.  But we do know that this man breathed a sigh of relief when this baby’s mother was found.  After all, what was he going to do with a baby?
     In a way, we’re all in the same sort of situation as this young man.  Every Christmas, we’re invited to hold this baby.  The Christ Child is placed in our arms.  And we are left with the question, “What are we going to do with this baby?”
     It’s Christmas.  It’s time to open our gifts and be made new.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sunday Worship Preview - December 30

Sunday, December 30 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services, Corner of Wheeling & High Streets) & Wednesday, January 2 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "One More Gift"

Features - 1st Sunday After Christmas Day, Christmas Sweater Sunday, & Holy Baptism (9:00 am)

Scripture - Colossians 3:12-15 & Luke 2:41-52

Theme - During the season of Advent and Christmas Eve, our church has been opening a Christmas gift each week.  What Christmas gift is left for us to open on this first Sunday after Christmas Day?

Happy Anniversary, United Methodist Church & Merry Christmas!


Christmas Eve marks the anniversary of the formation of what is now know as the United Methodist Church. Below is an historical summary of the historic Christmas Eve conference held in Baltimore, MD in 1784.  A member of my church gave me a beautiful ceramic of the original Lovely Lane Meeting House where the conference was held.  Merry Christmas and Happy Anniversary, United Methodist Church!

The Original Lovely Lane Meeting House was built in 1774. Ten years later, the Methodist Societies hosted the famous Christmas Conference at Lovely Lane Meeting House, where a new denomination was born: the Methodist Episcopal Church.

John Wesley had reluctantly agreed to the American Methodists’ desire to organize their own church. He sent Thomas Coke to supervise the process and to consecrate Francis Asbury as “general superintendent” of the Methodists in America. When Coke and Asbury met at Barrats Chapel in November 1784, Asbury refused the appointment unless the preachers elected him. The meeting was scheduled for the next month, December, at Lovely Lane Meeting House in Baltimore.

Freeborn Garrettson was sent “like an arrow,” in Coke’s words, to contact as many preachers as possible to meet in Baltimore. Garrettson recorded in his journal: “My dear Master enabled me to ride about twelve hundred miles in about six weeks; and preach going and coming constantly. The conference began on Christmas day.” More than sixty preachers (and numerous visitors) responded to Garrettson’s call.

Friday, December 24, 1784: …” It was agreed to form ourselves into an Episcopal Church, and to have superintendents, elders, and deacons. When the conference was seated, Dr. Coke and myself were unanimously elected to the superintendency of the Church, and my ordination followed …We spent the whole week in conference, debating freely, and determining all things by a majority of votes… We were in great haste, and did much business in a little time.” Francis Asbury, Journal.

Besides organizing a church and approving Asbury and Coke as their leaders, the members elected twelve preachers as “elders,” Wesley’s suggested term for fully ordained clergy. The conference also formally adopted The Sunday Service, Wesley’s abridgement of the English Book of Common Prayer, as the new church’s liturgical guide.

In 1786, the Lovely Lane congregation relocated to nearby Light Street, and the original site was later occupied by the Merchants Club, whose building now houses the Baltimore International College (now 206 E. Redwood St.).

Today the Lovely Lane name is kept alive by the continuing congregation, formerly First Methodist Church, and now again Lovely Lane United Methodist Church.

NOTE: This article can be found at http://lovelylane.net/home/history/

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hoping for the End of the World...

 
A friend of mine in the church offers this very insightful take on today's "end of the world" prediction:
 
Here we are on December 21 and so far the prediction of the end of the world doesn’t seem to be accurate. I hope they are right about the end of the world if they meant this:
 
1. The end of a world where grieving parents thank those who mourn their murdered children
2. The end of a world where people with mental illness can’t find the help they need to function
3. The end of a world where political preferences become rigid dogmas that destroy relationships and the hope of compromise
4. The end of a world where people stop seeing the suffering around them and ignore those in need
5. The end of a world where families are fractured by addiction, violence and hate
6. The end of a world where faith is a scaual and inactive part of our everyday lives
7. The end a world where despair covers hope in darkness an the end of a world where we forget that Christmas is a day to rededicate ourselves to living our lives in such a way that a new world of hope, love, forgiveness and constant striving to build a world of justice and peace is our focus.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dave's Deep Thoughts - What Santa Really Wants to Say

 
Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.
 
What if he does check the list?
What if he really does checks it twice????
 
Recently,
some friends of mine
shared with me a Christmas tradition from their household.
Each Christmas,
the children would write letters to Santa.
Nothing too unusual there.
 
It would seem
that Santa not only had time to bring gifts to each household on planet Earth,
but he had time to write responses back.
 
Here are some letters to and from Santa that I read
and my interpretations as
I read between the lines.
 
Dear Santa,
We have been very good this year.
I have a present for you.
My brother likes you.
My sister wants a cupcake doll.
Mom wants peace and love.
Dad wants happiness.
The cookies and milk are for you.
The carrot is for Rudolph.
The pan of water is for all the reindeer
Love, the oldest child
 
My translation........
 
Dear Santa,
Being the oldest sister, I am not like my younger sister,
who wants things. I am a giver.
As for my brother, I believe he is psychologically wired
to give affection only based upon what he receives in return.
Mom needs a trip to the spa.
Dad really needs to take a long golfing trip without the kids.
Rudolph is our favorite reindeer so who cares what the others have to eat.
 
another.....
 
Dear Santa,
Please enjoy the cookies and cider we put out for you.
How are you? Have the elves got the sniffles yet?
I know I have a cough.
Are we the first or second half of the world you are covering?
We think we have been good but we might have acted bad
but you probably think we have been good though,...
 
My translation.......
 
More high calorie snacks for you.
This won't help your probably already high triglyceride levels.
If you haven't gotten sick yet, you are screwed
because I have a major cold and am highly contagious.
I just wondered if we receive the best gifts
or just get what's leftover.
As for our behavior this year,
who are we kidding....
 
A response from Santa.....
 
Dear children,
I know that all of you have been very good this past year.
I was surprised to see that you have a new puppy this year,
She was very friendly after I gave her a chew treat.
Your other pets really look well cared for.
I was pleased to see such clean cages
(except for the fish aquarium which looked a little dirty)
Try to do your best in school this year.
Oh, I almost forgot. I understand that sometimes you have a hard time
hearing your Mom and Dad so I left a few Q-tips for cleaning out your ears.
See you next year,
Santa Claus.
 
My translation.....
 
Why didn't you tell me about the new dog?
She almost bit my leg off before I diverted her attention
by throwing her a piece of raw steak.
Unless that aquarium gets some attention,
I am going to tell your parents to boycott your birthday gifts.
Let's hit the school books a little harder, okay?
Oh, and regarding your inability to hear,
you aren't fooling anyone.
 
Another Santa response......
 
Dear children,
You are three of my favorite children in the whole world.
I have received no calls to check up on your household this year.
Oldest sister,
please try and be patient as you can with your younger sister.
She really looks up to her older sister.
Brother,
I heard that you like hockey, which is one of my favorite sports
up here in the North Pole.
Younger sister,
I really liked your Christmas Bear you were sleeping with tonight.
I have one just like it.
See you next year!
Santa Claus
 
My translation......
 
Hey, the three of you.
You need to know that your parents will narc on you
if you don't behave.
Oldest sister, I know the youngest cries all the time.
Deal with it.
Brother,
I guess you wanted a hockey stick. Sorry, All I had left was a basketball.
Youngest sister,
you need to know that I was in your room while you were sleeping.
Don't bother with a home security system.
I'll still get in next year.
Santa Claus
 
And one final letter from the oldest child.........
 
Dear Santa Claus,
I wish I new (sic) what you looked like. This is my list of what I want.
I want a brown dog like my pink one.
Santa, I have a question.
Could you put my presents in my room?
Here are directions.
Go up the stairs. When you get to the top
you should see a room with pink carpet. Go past that one and you
should see a room with orange carpet. Go into that room and you should
see my Christmas tree.
Oh about my list,
I want it to snow.

 
My translation.......
 
Dear Santa,
Do you really wear that red jump suit?
I think you would look better in fuchsia.
When my dog got skunked this year,
I bathed him in tomato juice to help get rid of the stench.
All that did was make him pink.
Please get me a new, non-stench dog.
I plan on playing with my toys without my irritating siblings.
Please bring all gifts directly to my room.
Here is how you get there...........
Oh, my wish list now includes meteorological demands.
Let's get this snow thing going....
 
My guess as to Santa's response to the last letter....
 
Dear little girl,
no need for directions to your room.
I have staked out the house and am quite aware of where you all sleep
(see next to last letter........)
That should keep you awake at night.
 
We all have our wish lists.
The reality is that for most people
prayer life is often more like a child's letter to Santa
than a beloved child's conversation with their heavenly Father.
 
What if prayer came down to finding out who is naughty or nice?
Who among us would pass that test ??
(See Isaiah 64:6 or Romans 3:10)
 
What if our prayers were only for ourselves or those whom we love?
How close would we be to seeing things the way God sees them?
(See Matt 6:13)
 
What if prayer came down to the things that we want?
How close to the heart of God would it be?
(See Mark14:36)
 
What if we prayed for His will to be done,
in our thoughts???
in our actions???
(Matt 6:10)
 
What if as we hold our candles
and sing Silent Night,
we see our loving Father
who wants nothing but the best for us,
and that the best for us is simply to more fully know His heart?
 

How different would things be?
 
Your Christmas may or may not be white......
it certainly wasn't snowing in Bethlehem.
 
It may or may not be merry......
there was very little that was merry about
the Holy family escaping the region before Herod's raging.
 
My hope for us all this Christmas,
is that our hearts indeed prepare Him more room than ever before.
and in doing so,
we give up on naughty or nice,
and instead embrace his holiness.
.
How silently, how silently
 
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming
but in this world of sin,
where meek so will receive Him,
still the dear Christ enters in.
O Little Town of Bethlehem verse 2
words by Phillip Brooks

 
a special thanks to my dear friends for giving me permission to share their letters
and to offer my interpretations

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!