Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jesus' Wish List

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 21:1-4.  This series was based on A Different Kind of Christmas by Rev. Mike Slaughter.

Next week, according to the online auction site eBay, they will have a million extra items on their site, as people seek to purge themselves from presents they have received that they don’t want.  But in the wonders of corporate jargon, this isn’t simply a form of re-gifting; instead, according the eBay spokesman Richard Kanareck, this is re-homing.  Even though 62% of adults, according to a recent survey, claim that spending time with family is the most important thing to do at Christmas, or what they most looked forward to, compared to only 2% who said it was receiving presents, it seems that most of our focus, year after year, is on the very things we know that won’t bring us true happiness, that will in fact distract us from what truly matters, and cause us to be paying bills in January that we’d rather not have, and we miss the very things that we want to be focusing on.  Year after year we continue to treat Christmas as if it is our birthday, rather than Jesus’ birthday and we spend even less time wondering what is on Jesus’ wish list.

One year my father played Santa Clause for a department store in Phoenix.  Now some of you have met my father, and so you know how perfect that is for him, and for those of you who haven’t seen my father, one year I got him a shirt that says “Santa’s Stunt Double” which will tell what he looks like.  As he prepared for that assignment, he came up with a list of what he, as Santa would want for Christmas.  To his great disappointment no one ever asked him, but his wish  list was very similar to the song popularized by Amy Grant entitled, Grown-Up Christmas List, which says “So here's my lifelong wish, my grown-up Christmas list, not for myself, but for a world in need: No more lives torn apart, that wars would never start, and time would heal all hearts, every man would have a friend, that right would always win, and love would never end, this is my grown-up Christmas list.”  Perhaps that is also closer to Jesus’ wish list as well.

We began this series in looking at a different way to do Christmas three weeks ago by hearing Jesus’ first sermon, the message that kicks off Jesus’ ministry for Luke.  Jesus, picks up the scroll from Isaiah and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  To proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.”  And then throughout the rest of Luke, Jesus continues to do exactly that, and we have spent three weeks looking at how God’s scandalous love works in the world, and how as disciples of Christ we are expected  to pick up our cross, how often?  Daily.  And what are we supposed to do with it?  Follow Christ.  Pick up your cross daily and follow me, Jesus says, and when we do that we have to give up on perfect because when we give ourselves, give our lives full over to God, we are going to be led into the imperfect because it is in the imperfect where God is found.

The nativity story is not perfect, the story of the cross is not perfect, our lives are not perfect, and our Christmas’ will not be perfect, because even that first one was not perfect.  But what God says to us is that we are called to work in the midst of the imperfection, because it is in the imperfect situations where God is needed most, and it is there that we are called to be disciples of Christ to proclaim a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of joy and a message of love, the very things we have been proclaiming each week as we light the advent candles, and we are called to see what Jesus would like to receive for his birthday, but what Jesus asks us to do, what Jesus tells us to do is not to get something for him, but to give something to the world.

One day as Hannah Salwen, who was 15 at the time, and her father were driving through Atlanta, where they lived, as they stopped at a light, she noticed a Mercedes stopped next to them along with a homeless man sitting on the curb, and she said to her father, “If that guy didn’t have such a nice car, then that guy could have a nice meal.”  Hannah’s father Kevin was on the board of Habitat for Humanity for Atlanta, so they were already involved in working  with people in need, but Hannah’s statement led to a greater conversation about what they family had versus what the family needed, and how they might be able to give back.  “We stopped and paused and thought about what are the things in the world that could really make a difference… in the world,” Kevin said.  Initially they thought about selling their cars or other things, but then Hannah’s mother Joan suggested selling their home, moving into a home half the size, and giving half the proceeds to those in need.

No one really expect Joan to be the one to make that suggestion, because this was her dream home.  Built in 1912, it was 6500 square feet, had five bedrooms, eight fireplaces, a cooks kitchen, and even an elevator to take you up to what was Hannah’s room.  “I have to admit,” Joan said, “I loved living in this house.  Does that make me an evil person?  I hope not because it’s a beautiful place.”  But selling the home was a challenge.  “It was a test, almost to see: How committed are we?”  Joan said.  “I mean, how serious are these kids about what we should do?  And they all nodded and there we were.”  And so the Salwen’s put their home up for sale, with an asking price of 1.6 million, they were able to donate $800,000 for charity.  Their money ended up going to help 30 different villages in Ghana, where it was used to build clinics and schools, and to teach the villagers sustainable farming practices.  Jon Coonrods, who is vice president of the Hunger Project, the charity the Salwen’s choose to receive the money, said that in the end the money may help as many as 20,000 people in Ghana.

Now I will admit that the Salwen story may be a little extreme, as I don’t know anyone here who lives in a house worth 1.6 million, and I am not telling you to go sell your homes, but it is an example of the over excess with which many of us live in this country.  “We as American’s have so much,” Kevin Salwen said.  From those who have much, much is expected, Jesus’ said, although that’s not a quote we hear being bantered around much lately.  But we don’t have to give a lot for our gift to have meaning and importance either.

Jesus is watching people place their offerings into the offering box at the temple.  He sees people who have plenty to give, and are doing so, and then he sees a widow who puts in two small copper coins, and he says that she has put in more than any of the others, because those who were wealthy gave from abundance, but she gave everything she had.  To truly understand what is happening here, and what Jesus says, you have to understand what she has contributed.  A denarius was a Roman coin that was equal to one day’s wages for a common day labor.  A denarius was made up of 128 lepta, or a small copper coin, and the widow puts in two lepta, in other words it’s almost a meaningless quantity, and yet hers is the amount that Jesus holds us because she has given what she has.  By what standards do we judge ourselves and others?  We lift up the stories like those of the Salwen’s because of what they give.  We name buildings after those who give a lot, but Jesus recognizes the smallest gift that everyone else would overlook because of its importance.  Small gifts are easily overlooked or ignored all together, but sometimes that are the ones that make all the difference in the world.

How often do we down play the small acts we do, or that we might do, because we think they are unimportant, that they don’t measure up to what people are really concerned about, that they are too small to even pay attention to?  This week I read a story of a security guard at Disneyland who kneels down in front of every little girl who is dressed up like a princess and asks for their autograph.  Such a simple act, but what do you think those little girls will remember from their trip to the happiest place on earth?  It doesn’t take selling a 6500 sq ft home to make a difference in the world, but how many people overlook what that security guard does?  By singling out the gift of the widow, Jesus highlights the insidious effects of claiming that those who give more are more important, or even better people, than those who give small gifts.  But the importance is not in what we give, but how we give and what the gift means in relation to who we are.  Do we give from abundance, that we can give without it making any difference, or do we give sacrificially, and does our gift match what Jesus has called us to do in the world?

Every year, without fail, as I talk about rethinking Christmas, of calling us to do Christmas differently, someone will accuse me of not liking Christmas, of being the Grinch who wants to ruin people’s traditions.  But, nothing could be further from the truth.  I love Christmas, which if you’ve driven by our house you might see, and I have spent the last seven weeks listening to the 225 Christmas Cds that I have in our personal collection.  Santa will be visiting our house this year, and we will be giving and receiving presents, but we do thinks a lot differently then we have in the past, and I hope that Christmas is becoming more meaningful for us and for our children.  It’s not the presents we give or receive it’s the time we spend together, and the memories that we create, the experiences we have, and how we experience Christ and how we offer Christ to the world that make a difference.  Giving presents is important, and learning how to be a grateful receiver is also important, but it’s a question of priorities and what the giving and the receiving mean and why we are undertaking these activities.

Jenee Woodward has impacted your worship experience nearly every week even though most of you have probably never heard of her.  She was studying to go into the ministry when she and her husband gave birth to a son who was severely autistic, and so she gave up her career to stay at home to care for him.  But what she could do was create a website which provides resources, enormous amounts of resources, for preachers. A number of years ago she wrote this story.  She says “Our family learned to slow down at Christmas a number of years ago when [our son] 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.

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 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.

One 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 - 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."

Christmas has nothing to do with us, and it has everything to do with.  Christmas is not our birthday, it is Jesus’ birthday, and we celebrate God’s greatest gift to us, we are recipients of God’s gracious and scandalous love, and we are called to give up on perfect and instead to dream God’s dreams and to be God’s agents of change in the world, to proclaim the Christmas miracle not only in our lives but for the lives of the world.  We are called to pick up our cross daily and to follow Christ and to live into and live out Jesus’ wish list for the world.  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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