Christmas Eve ~ Choral Eucharist (9:00 & 11:00), December 24, 2016
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
One of my favorite preachers, William Willimon, the former chaplain at Duke University and now the Methodist Bishop for the Northern Alabama Conference, began a December sermon in this manner:
I owe one of you an apology. Last Sunday at the close of the service you emerged as I was greeting people at the door and you quite innocently … with the best of intentions … said: Happy Holiday, Preacher!
And I grabbed you by the throat and I slammed you against the wall and I said, Ah, live a little … this is church … the ACLU can’t touch you here … go ahead, live dangerously … wish me a Merry Christmas, darn it. I said it in love, but you seemed to have taken it in the wrong way.
Well, we do not expect the Pastor to grab anyone by the throat … Pastors are gentle souls … but a lot of folks do get bothered about all the Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays that seem to abound these days … as if one might be going too far by saying … Merry Christmas.
Some of you may remember the great controversy that arose last year, when Starbucks decided to change their traditional red holiday cups. This grand purveyor of trendy hot drinks, beverages that have little in common with that old cup of Joe we used to get at the diner, dropped the snowflakes, reindeer, winking snowmen, and tree ornaments from their take-away containers.
Oh horror … blasphemy unbounded! Through some twist of logic this act was deemed an attack on Christmas. Suddenly a self-proclaimed Christian evangelist from Arizona launched a charge through social media calling for a … boycott of Starbucks. His posting on Facebook, which went viral, insisted that the coffee company had changed their cups … because they hate Jesus.
Well, I suppose Christmas Eve is hardly the time to have to say it but … Starbuck’s job is not to proclaim the Gospel or tell about the baby born in Bethlehem. That is our job. In truth, their job is to find a way to get me a cup of coffee quicker, so I do not have to wait for the guy who wants a double expresso decaf amachiata with a non-dairy creamer!
Starbucks, Target, and Abercrombie and Finch are in the business of marketing merchandise. If anyone has the responsibility to put Christ in Christmas … it is you and I, dear friends, and a lot of us are doing a lousy job because we are a little lazy and would rather just get mad at someone else.
I think it is a great irony that many of the very folks who get red-faced and moan about us losing the spirit of Christmas are regularly gathered in the malls on December Sundays, acting like Christmas was their birthday, a time when everyone in their family needs presents. I cannot think of a nice way to say this, people, but … Christmas is about Jesus’ birthday, not ours!
Well, somehow you all made it here tonight. That is no small thing! Coming here tonight is a concrete act on your part to Save Christmas. I know many of you are here with great joy in your hearts. You feel blessed and you have good reason to be thankful … for a good year, for good health, for the love of family and friends. Hopefully tonight will help you frame and express your gratitude.
We have in our congregation tonight many who are struggling to keep it together tonight. Behind the Christmas smiles many of you are hiding pain and fear and uncertainty … a health challenge, an estrangement in your family, anxiety about the future.
Some of you are dealing with the loss of a loved one or a radical disruptive change in your life. My wife Shannon and I have recently moved from our home of 32 years and we are experiencing the first Christmas ever without our children and grandchildren who are together halfway around the world in Hawaii. Retirement, relocation, and the loss of a partner ~ these changes can dramatically affect our experience of Christmas.
A few moments ago I read Luke’s timeless narrative: the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth. We love this account … and we would not have it changed or modernized. We want that reference to the Governor Quirinius left in.
We would not have approved changing swaddling clothes to bands of cloth … bad idea. We want the darkness … and the magic of shepherds and angels in the moonlight … and Mary pondering.
As Christian people we know that the greatest need in our confused world is for people to be told that there is hope … that life is worth living no matter how discouraged we may be with things that have happened in the past year or are happening in our troubled world.
We cling to hope because … Jesus was born, in a manger, in the fullness of time, to redeem those who are living in despair.
We cling to hope because … because God entered our world through a fragile child to proclaim that love conquers hate and truth will prevail over lies and falsehood.
So let us do nothing to fan the flames of the warfare over Christmas. If someone wishes you a Happy Holiday, thank him for his good will. That greeting may be the closest that person can come to speaking kindly when he may lack an understanding of or appreciation for the reason for this season. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
So let us have love in our hearts for everyone at Christmas. Let us not abandon any opportunity to point to the great reality that we celebrate … Jesus Christ, born this day, in the city of David … the Savior … Christ the Lord.
If people you know say that they love this special winter holiday … let us gently remind them that the word holiday actually means holy day.
If people want to observe Christmas at the level of yuletide songs and gifts, remind them that the songs of Christmas go back to the angels, singing on a hillside … that gifts of Christmas remind us of the Wise Men from the East who brought the first gifts to the infant Messiah.
If people just want to talk about Santa Claus, tell them there really was a Santa Claus, a Christian named Nicholas in the 4th century city of Myra, Turkey, who was known for his generosity to the poor.
Finally, let us never forget that Christmas need not be an isolated winter festival … a frantic observance at the end of the year. If we choose, we can help Christ come into our world again and again by shining God’s love into the darkest places in the world.
I close with a wonderful poem by Howard Thurman, entitled The Work of Christmas:
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 flocks,
then 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 the people,
to make music in the heart. AMEN.