Here is my sermon from our Blue Christmas service. The text was Luke 2:8-20:
Tonight I’d like to share two stories with you. The first comes from Jenee Woodward, who runs a website called Textweek.com, which gives complete resources on the weekly lectionary readings. Jenee was a lay minister planning on a career in biblical studies, when she gave birth to Philip, who was severely autistic, requiring to put her career plans aside, although her ministry now takes place through what she does. Here is her Advent story:
“As many of you know, my son Philip has autism. He is 10 years old and is severely handicapped by his disability. Our family learned to slow down at Christmas a number of years ago when he was unable to tolerate *any* of the celebration. He could not handle the changing scenarios - the twinkling lights, the changes in grocery store displays, the changes in the sanctuary at church, presents appearing under the tree, the tree ITSELF, and the moved furniture. He would fall on the floor and scream, unable to move, afraid to open his eyes, almost constantly from Thanksgiving until well after Christmas when it was all over. We carried him through that time his head covered with his coat so we could get through the grocery store, or sat with him huddled in his room, carefully ordered EXACTLY the same since summer, with no Christmas trappings.
Of course our neighbor across the street was one of those folks who bought every new outdoor Christmas display. My son slept on the sofa in the living room for two Decembers, trying to stay awake so he could make sure that all of the lights across the street (on the whole block!) were functioning correctly. If one went out, or if the lights came on or turned off outside the proper times, he would scream and cry in panic until it was fixed. (I spent an hour one cold night on top of a neighbor's garage, replacing ONE BULB in a Santa display so the boy would stop screaming and sleep!)
Worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was over-crowded and yet hushed, not a good combination for an autistic child. Christmas celebrations at home were a nightmare. Phil would scream and cry as each package was moved and (gasp!) unwrapped. As frightened as he was when each new thing appeared, he was equally frightened when it changed or disappeared. We'd try to find him a present he'd enjoy, but he'd merely scream and cry in panic at the intrusion on his carefully ordered world, and the gifts would sit ignored until he outgrew them and we gave them to some little boy who could appreciate them.
He wanted nothing. He would look straight at toys we thought he would like, and he would not react at all. He asked for nothing. He anticipated nothing. He just screamed and cried at all of it. It is no bliss to have a child who doesn't get it - who doesn't want anything and doesn't want to have anything to do with Christmas commercialism - or it is only bliss in some romantic fantasy. In real life it is a surreal nightmare.
This year, right around Thanksgiving, we once more asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas. Our 14-year-old daughter sat down and made out her list. And our 10-year old son, for the first time in his life, answered the question. "PlayStation 2," he said. "I want PlayStation 2 Christmas." We just about fell over. His sister gave him a piece of paper. She wrote "Phil's Christmas List" at the top. He wrote, "PLAYSTATION TOW" under her heading. "At Sam's," he said. "Go to car."
So, we drove to Sam's. He has never looked at anything there, never seemed to notice that Sam's has anything he might want. But he led us right to the PlayStation 2 sets, picked out the bundle he wanted and put it in the cart. "Open at Christmas," he said. He watched gleefully as we wrapped the package, and then he solemnly placed it under the tree. So, a PlayStation 2 game set sits there, wrapped, with his name on it, and he waits to open it. "December 25," he says. "Open PlayStation 2 December 25."
Last night we'd returned from yet another Christmas rehearsal with our daughter, Phil found a Best Buy ad in the paper and turned immediately to the PlayStation games. He circled "Harry Potter" and "John Madden Football", handed the ad to Bob, and said, "I want Christmas." There were tears in my eyes. It's such a small thing, but such a truly amazing thing. It's one more bit of hope that he will be able to function in some semblance of society as an adult one day - that he might be able to live just a BIT more independently, and one day want the things he needs to survive enough to work for them. (Not a foregone conclusion with autistic folks, which makes them particularly unemployable, no matter their intelligence.) Consumerism might be "the enemy", but a kid who understands none of it is only a hero in a Chicken Soup For The Soul story.
This Advent season I am grateful for being able to appreciate what complexity and miracle is involved in such small "selfish" acts as wanting something for Christmas and expressing those wants to another person. I'm grateful that my son is able to enjoy some of the commercial cultural trappings of the holiday this year instead of running from them screaming. I'm grateful for the many ways Phil helps me stop and look again, even at my most "Christian" conclusions. And I'm especially grateful that my son helps me see Christ's humble birth, over and over again, even in the midst of nightmares and worries I could not have imagined 10 years ago, even in the midst of Advent.”
The second story is my own. At the Christmas Eve service at the church where I was doing my internship during seminary, as I was greeting people at the door following the service, I head a loud crash come from the area where people gathered for coffee. As it turned out the son-in-law of one of our members had been asked to carry a bowl of hot cider out to the table following worship, and as he was exciting the kitchen the bowl literally exploded in his hands.
The worst part was that his three-year-old daughter Hannah ran over to see him as he exited the kitchen and the majority of the cider poured over her. She was rushed to the emergency room, but because she had second and third degree burns over 18% of her body, she was transferred to the Shriner’s Burn center in Boston for treatment. When they arrived and taken to the urgent care unit, a nurse came in with a basket of toys for Hannah to play with while the doctors treated her wounds, which took most of the night.
As they were being discharged at around 6 am Christmas morning, her parents asked Hannah to pick up the toys and asked the nurse where they should put the basket. The nurse said, “oh no, that basket it yours to keep for Christmas.”
As it turned out, several years before another family like Hannah’s had also spent Christmas Eve in the burn unit at Shriner’s and because they were so grateful for the treatment they received and for their daughter’s recovery they pledged that they would bring in a baskets of toys every Christmas eve to be given to families who were going through what they had gone through. Hannah recovered from her burns, and other than some slight scaring on her arms there is no indication that she experienced what she did.
Now the title of the message is Christmas Miracles, but these are not miracles the way people normally think of miracles. There were no miracle cures or last second reprieves. Philip is still severely autistic, and Hannah does still have scars as well as the memory of that horrendous night, those have not gone away. But the miracle occurred in the small things that happen.
In the darkest of times, there was still a bright light that shone through that darkness, there was a feeling of being blessed, of feeling hope, and yes even joy, during the darkest of moments. There was Philip, reminding his mother of Christ’s humble birth, causing her to question everything that she took so much for granted, and being joyful and hopeful about the future, and in creating a new way to be in ministry to the world she has touched all of you, even if you didn’t know it before tonight. And there was Hannah, going through a nightmare scenario that none of us want to imagine, being given toys by some people that she has never even met because they too had been there, and they decided to reach out and give their love to others, not knowing who they are but knowing that in the darkness the light of God is necessary, and knowing that it is at times like these that that light can shine the brightest and mean the most.
That is the Christmas miracle, it is the experience of God’s love and Christ’s light even when we didn’t think it was possible, even when we felt as if God might be a million miles away, even when we did not think that anything could reach us. Whatever it is that you are feeling or needing this year, I pray that you remember that there is no darkness which can overcome the light of Christ nor is there anything which can separate us from God’s love. Even in the darkest of time, Christmas miracles are out there. Let me close with this prayer from Ted Loder:
O God of all seasons and senses, grant us the sense of your timing to submit gracefully and rejoice quietly in the turn of the seasons.
In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of endings;
children growing, friends leaving, loved ones dying,
O God, grant us a sense of your timing.
In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of beginnings;
that such waitings and endings may be the starting place,
a planting of seeds which bring to birth what is ready to be born—
something right and just and different,
a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love—
in the fullness of your time.
O God, grant us the sense of your timing. Amen