I am up super-early this Christmas. I think this happens to me most years. My reverend mother says that when I was kid I was sick every Christmas morning because I was so excited during the week before. It is probably true. I am not sick this year (yay!) but there is a lot running through my head so I thought I would spend the restless time trying to put my 5pm Christmas Eve sermon notes into a readable form. Folks really seemed to like it and I enjoyed delivering it to a packed sanctuary of friends and visitors.
Unfortunately I was basically a hinderance to the readers at the--more formal and traditional--7pm worship, getting lost in the order of service a couple of times and nearly skipping the offering! The formats and style are different for each. Still, maybe I should have just preached this twice. Anyway, here it is! I am going to console myself with Facebook posts of other pastors who had similar hiccups on the way to the morning. We are reminding each other that Christmas still comes no matter how many balls we drop.
My youngest will be up soon in any case. He takes after me. Perhaps he will let me help him empty his stocking.
The Work of Christmas
Rev Adam Tierney-Eliot
December 24, 2016
So, I was going through an archive of old Christmas sermons in preparation for this evening and I found a script to the pageant we used here at Eliot when I first arrived. Now I realize that some of you probably remember it (and some of you were no doubt in it). For the rest of you, let me just say that it was...different from the way we do it now. After all, back then it began--oddly enough--with this exchange between Mrs. Claus and a reindeer.
“Santa” says Mrs, Claus “You need to get busy. There’s so much to do to get ready delivering presents!”
Then the Reindeer--mostly innocently--says “Is that what Christmas is all about--delivering presents?”
“Not really,” says Mrs. Claus “Santa [she says while turning to her husband] while you are getting up, why don’t you tell us the real story”
Now, these days our pageant tends to go straight to the “real” story. However, we still are able to recognize the tension this pageant exchange reflects. We do, after all, understand the young reindeer's confusion. We see and feel the tension ourselves between the call toward the spiritual birth and rebirth that this time has represented (on the one hand) and the excuse for consumption and acquisition--an engine for the economy (on the other hand). It is this second group of activities that dominate much of our surplus time over Advent.
I certainly know this to be true. Every year I try and fail to avoid the chaos of the malls and shopping centers of route 9. Every year I try to cut back on my purchases, too. In fact, I even more or less succeed at the cutting back. However, I still end up feeling like I should have gotten a couple more things for a few folks on my list.
This commercial element of our culture is pervasive. Our understanding of this time is deeply connected to the exchange and display of material goods. So it isn’t all that hard to see how someone like Ebenezer Scrooge could downplay or ignore the religious and ethical obligations of the season.
In Dicken’s classic Christmas Carol, his nephew, Fred, tried his best to set Scrooge straight. At one point he describes the holiday as “The only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women...think of people...as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Still, it isn’t hard to imagine--given all the noise that can surround the sentiment of the season--how that message can be missed. After all, in the song of Mary she sings that “God has scattered the proud...and brought down rulers..and raised up the humble. Has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with nothing”. Yet nothing in our observation of the holiday this year seems to indicate any great victory on that front.
This Advent it has been difficult to accept the idea that our fellow-passengers do in fact take the message of Christmas to heart. The birth of Jesus, like any birthday can be an excuse for a celebration. However, it feels like the meaning of his life, death, and teachings has fallen on many unheeding ears.
Together this Advent we have had our hearts broken by the news from places like Syria. We have journeyed together through a contentious and demoralizing election cycle. We have had our hearts injured again by stories of bigotry and discrimination here in our own towns and in our own neighborhood.
So, Mindless cheerfulness is pretty hard to maintain given the current situation. Like the Grinch there are times we wish to escape to the hills, or like Scrooge maybe even to our counting houses. It is enough to make some of us build walls between ourselves and the love we yearn to share and receive.
But...here is the thing.
Specifically because it is so hard to put on the usual festive veneer, many of us haven’t really tried! Instead we have put our energy elsewhere this December. Sure, maybe our Christmas trees and our lights went up late. Maybe our gift list is still a shambles and there is nothing we can do about it by tomorrow, but we took the time and energy we normally spend on these things and put it somewhere else.
That’s right. We put it somewhere else. Looking out into the troubled world of 2016 we have chose to find ways to help. We did this for the of others. We did it for our own sakes, too. For example, this church took on the Christmas Open Door community meal this week, which is no mean feat in the midst of everything else. We also went caroling at Riverbend Nursing Home.
In addition, many of us have found some healing in the work of Natick Is United. The rainbow “Peace” flag campaign, the marches and vigils, the joint statements and all the rest have drawn our minds away from despair and into action. Then through action we have been drawn back to hope.
Hope, is, after all, what this holiday truly is about. It is about Hope for a light in the dark, a light that is kindled by our fellow beings through the exercise of a broad, dynamic faith
And an all-encompassing love.
This year we are learning to live into the words of the civil rights leader Howard Thurman.
The work of Christmas begins he tells us
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 brothers and sisters,
to make music in the heart
Our lives--and hopefully the lives of others--will be better for this work, so tonight we remember. We remember that the birthday we are celebrating is not our own. We remember that we are called to walk the path of faith. We remember we are called to walk the path of justice.
When I was a kid, this machine shed was a big part of my life. I painted it (twice). I helped reshingle it after the world's largest raccoon tore racoon-sized holes in the roof. I learned to sharpen various dangerous farming implements in its back room. I learned to "grease" vintage hay rakes that I would then pull behind a 1948 Ford tractor when I was learning to drive. Perhaps most importantly, it was the base of operations for my grandfather's Christmas tree farm and--therefore--one of the most formative elements in my understanding of how to celebrate the holidays.
You see, even then Christmas and Advent were part of my job. I would spend my summers up on the side of those hills as a teen swinging a machete along the edge of a young tree in long, diagonal, downward strokes. I would try (and fail) to avoid the poison ivy, sunstroke, and angry critters who lived at the base in the underbrush. I did manage to not cut myself, which was an achievement considering how much I enjoyed sharpening things. Planting was the worst. It was heavy, boring work and there was no way to pretend you were fighting trolls. Thankfully my little brother, Dan, started to come down with me after a couple years. Then I had a friend and ally in my misery.
At some point we would head back to school and family in Maine. Other relatives (cousins mostly) would help Grampa look after the trees along with the rest of the farm until we could come back around Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving meant tagging and counting the trees, mowing one last time between them, and decorating the machine shed to attract families from Poughkeepsie and New York looking for "authenticity" in their holiday rituals. It also meant dragging the immensely heavy antique sleigh onto the porch of the house. Everyone helped with that.
The day after Thanksgiving we would cut one of the largest trees and put it in the front hall of my grandparents' house. The day after that we would cut one for ourselves. Usually it was slightly ungainly and unlikely to sell otherwise. Then we would tie it on (or put it in) the car to drive six hours north to our home.
Yes, it was a bit "coals to Newcastle" to bring a tree from Dutchess County, New York to Maine. but we weren't the only ones! It was part of our family tradition. It was something from the ancestral home. Eight generations of our family had lived and farmed there. It was something that made my mother happy, a part of her childhood that we would keep in the house for a couple months until it was just too dangerous to comprehend.
I don't do any of that now. When I became an adult and lived in places like Chicago and Detroit we had a plastic tree. When I served churches in northern Maine we went back to sawing one down at a place where you left a $20 bill in a can by the road. However, when we finally moved to the 'burbs I had a sudden realization. I am still deathly allergic to poison ivy. We persisted cutting our own for a while but after a year or two of me preaching my Advent sermons like a goblin on Benadryl we resigned ourselves to picking one up at the local "mom and pop". They are nice folks. I also get my turkey and pumpkins from them. Still, I do think about what it was like back in the day.
Life moves on and the rituals of the season remind us of that. Climbing into the attic to fish out the lights and the decorations is easy in the years when memories are mostly good or if bad ones feel distant and the future seems bright. Other times it is a rough go. Either way, we hold on to the acts that make this time special. Putting a tree in your house can be a simple thing that you do because you always have. It can also be an act of resistance. It is a strange activity when you really think about it. This is why we often wait until the time feels right.
It took a while for us to get one this year.
Years ago as a blade-wielding teenager in the hot sun I wondered who would end up with the tree I was preparing. What place would it hold in the celebration? What sort of family would it witness? It always seemed worthwhile to give it the attention it deserved both then and now. Be mindful, whether you are handling tools or hanging lights.
I have been both busy and mindful lately, just not with trees. I have been fortunate that my present includes the promise of Christmas Eve services and Advent candles. There is still holiday stuff for me to do. It is still part of my job. These days that job is quite a bit less isolated than raising trees can be. Besides, there are other rituals that help bring meaning and underline the specialness of the season. This year the idea of a small, hot flame in the cold dark has been more compelling than the festive pine with its promise of Christmas morn.
Back on the first Sunday in Advent we held a rally against racism on the town common. After the recent election there has been a rash of racist activity in the area that needed to be addressed by our community. Our interfaith clergy association was among the groups that stepped up. We lit candles. We stood in a group. We held our lights near each other to push back the dark. I said a quick prayer at the mic that I do not remember and as I stood, listening to various colleagues say (and pray) their piece, I felt a different sort of spirit. I was reminded that even as we walk through hard times in our lives we are not alone. There are friends and strangers to hold us up. There are people for us to lift up, too. I value them and am grateful for them all. It was another chance for mindfulness.
Anyway, we got the tree up this evening. We bought it at supper time so it sits in its stand undecorated for now. Tomorrow the house will smell like coffee and evergreen. Eventually we will put up those lights. Then we will go up to attic.
After that we will continue to live in hope and love for another season.