Sermon, December 24, 2021: Giving Gifts
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
So Christmas has come again, this year. Except it hardly looks or feels like Christmas. The reality of this pandemic and the rise of the new variant - perfectly timed to disrupt holiday gatherings - has again wreaked havoc on our plans. I’m sure you, like me, had every anticipation of a return to normality by now. Instead, we’ve had to cancel the gatherings, cut the congregational singing, and our families are staying home. (And the weather isn’t helping us out much, either.)
And yet, the miracle of Christmas still transcends our dismay.
The Christmas nativity story which we recite tonight is like the story that has launched a thousand ships. This in-breaking of God into the world though an infant child, this incredible act of divine love and trust in humanity, this fulfillment of a promise to raise up the lowly and speak to the forgotten in a shepherds field; this tremendous reversal of the expectations that we live by continues to capture the hearts and imaginations of us all, when we leave ourselves open to it.
Last Saturday, as a small group of our congregation packaged up some holiday meals and supplies for a few families who could use them, I was thinking about how giving sometimes surprises us. We told stories about fond Christmas memory and I shared a what I realized was a Christmas parable, a story within a story - a gift within a story about giving. And with apologies to those few who have heard it before, I’d like to share it with you.
Once upon a time, in a town about 4 hours away in Nebraska, there was a not-very-reliable church goer who was both brilliant and challenging - from a ministerial point of view. He had been on quite a faith journey himself and had some wisdom to share, written in the form of musical. He approached the (young, energetic, charming pastor) with a request to debut the musical that he had written, which was something of his own creation, modeled after his childhood memories of a story his mother used to tell him about a woman and her Babushka. (A Babushka is a head scarf that is tied under the chin, worn in old Poland and Eastern European countries.) His mother had a favorite story that she told at Christmas time, but which was pretty unrecognizable to me.
My church member asked if he could offer a performance of this musical which, he mentioned, had been adapted to touch on political issues of the day. He had never shared it with anyone before, let alone performed it with a cast, and wanted our church to be his guinea pig and give him the chance.
I had my reservations - how would the performance go, what kind of politics would fit into a children’s Christmas story, will anyone come to see it - and if they did, will they be amused? Will they be offended? Will they be horrified? I hadn’t even heard the man sing before. But we decided to be open to the possibility of a Christmas play.
The night of the performance came, and the story sort of mirrored the wise men. As the story goes, 3 men encounter an old woman who wears a Babushka and spends most of her time worrying about her lack money and sweeping her tiny home. She hosts these three men, in need of lodging for the night, and they tell her about their journey following a star that is leading them to a child that will redeem the world. As they go to leave in the morning, they invite her on their journey but she declines, saying she is old and poor and has to stay home and clean her home - and besides, she is afraid of the world outside of her doors. There are strangers in the wilderness outside of her town, and she has heard many bad things about them.
However, a few hours after they leave, she suddenly has a change of heart. She decides to follow them and goes to pack, but realizes she has basically nothing of value to bring to the Christ child - all she can find is a flamboyant ribbon, a wayward button, an empty jar. But she grabs them and shoves them into her bag and takes the biggest risk of her life - and sets off on her journey.
Once she’s in the wilderness, she has to face her fears of those she’s heard rumors about. She meets some homeless children and learns they aren’t menacing delinquents at all, just young and alone kids trying to survive in the wilderness. She wants to offer them something from her belongings, but when she digs in her bag, she only pulls out the old button. “Perfect!” says one of the children, who has been in need of a button to fasten his clothing for some time. “Thank you!” he says as he hugs her, and the old woman in the Babushka is astounded not just to have something of value to offer, but to sense how much this child seeks to be loved.
Then she meets a migrant family, a foreign family on the move from their homeland to one where they might find safety and work. She had heard these people were too different and scary to be trusted, but they invite her to sit and eat with them as they take a break from their journey. When they are passing around the drink, she fishes out her empty jar and uses it as a cup. The family asks to keep the jar, as they’ve only had a canteen, and she finds herself surprised that her meager possessions are exactly what they needed.
Lastly, she encounters an LGBTQ community living in an empty field, on the margins where they have been exiled. They tell her that an angel had appeared to them in a field, to tell them that the Savior has been born, one who would love them as they are, and redeem all the forgotten people of Israel, and restore them to wholeness and standing within their society. They welcome her into their evening celebration and share their wine and the presents they were exchanging, and she dug into her bag but knew she only had one thing left, a lonely ribbon, but as soon as she pulled it from her bag it was snatched up by a long haired Queen who was desperate for some flair to accent her outfit. Once again, the poor, old woman in the Babushka had underestimated the value of what she had to offer to those around her.
As the old woman says her goodbyes to her newfound friends, she finds she is filled with new energy that comes from having made new acquaintances, and a new spring to her step to continue her journey to follow the light to find the Christ child. And she gives warm hugs to all as she makes her exit, confident in a way she never was before that she had more life to live, more adventures to experience, and more value to give to others than she had ever suspected.
And as I sat there watching a remarkably well composed, beautiful and delightful musical, I found myself marveling at this gift that my church member had offered to our congregation. Because here was what we didn’t know we needed. Here was a message that was speaking deeply to many of the struggles we were facing. In a church that worried that it was too old, too small, too scared of the future to take risks, I saw the message of the musical speaking directly to the faces of the congregation who had assembled to spectate on this debut performance, and I pondered this gift in my heart.
Christmas surprises us with its gifts. Christmas surprises us with its generosity, and that’s the spirit that continued to transfix the people and the storytellers around the globe. And the Christmas story continues to surprise us with its gifts. - And often, our gifts come in very surprising packages. And so sometimes we are reluctant to receive them, Sometimes we are confused, or doubtful, or reluctant. The elements of this Christmas tale - the inspiration that moves people to take chances to give and receive the experience the light of God, is not just the story of the Babushka. It is, ultimately, another rendition of story of the gift of Christ himself.
The gift of the Christ child is a gift of love, of unconditional, sacrificial love. The gift of the Christ child is one that underscores our lives. In his life this infant, called Jesus, will grow up to be a teacher and a leader; a brother and a prophet; a healer and a redeemer; a threat and a promise; a king and a sacrifice. In a world that encourages us to hoard, this man shared. In a world that encourages us to exclude, this man invited. In a world focused on earthly matters, this man was focused on heaven. In a world that encourages us to receive, this man gave all that he had. The reason this man is remembered is because of his sacrifice, a sacrifice that only God could offer. This holy gift was so divine that it inspired more sacrifice. All who came in contact with him were touched, and the existence of this gift inspired incredible acts of sacrifice for centuries. Throughout the generations his praises were repeated, his story told, his purpose reenacted in every lifecycle. The sacrificial love, made incarnate in Jesus the Christ, is the glue that holds our humanity together as we offer our gifts to others in love. His life, and death, and resurrection, continues to inspire peace, love, joy and hope through kindness, generosity, and sacrifice, even 2000 years later. This gift is priceless.
The infant we greet on this holy night brings with him a love that knows no bounds, no limits, and no end. And that gift inspires us to follow suit in our own lives, gifting others with our own kindness, generosity and sacrifice. May we join together to praise to God for this holy gift of unending love, reborn again tonight. Amen.