Sermon: The Work of Christmas
It’s only fitting that at the beginning of a new year
we read the words of John that start with
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 He was in the beginning with God. ….”
This scripture reminds us that Jesus has been with us
from the start of the universe.
It sets up the concept of the Trinity,
that Jesus, the Creator and the Holy Spirit are one
and have been since the beginning of time.
This quote from John just packs a whole lot of theology
in a few succinct lines of beautiful poetry
even though John can be hard to understand sometimes.
But it is a story of beginnings:
how the world began with Christ.
So, today on our first Sunday of the new year
we can take some time to think
of how we can begin our year with Christ.
Do we dare plan our year ahead?
Based on 2021 we are smart enough to know
that planning the next 12 months is kind of a gamble
the way things are going.
But we live on a planet that operates in a cycle
and our year has cycled around to a new beginning
and we have an opportunity to make new year's resolutions
or fill a new calendar or make different choices.
And in a remarkable circumstance,
our new year falls exactly one week after Christmas
so that we get a new year right after the birth of our savior,
Could we have planned this any better?
Maybe if we had a new calendar year the week after Easter
it might have been more meaningful.
But we re-start our secular lives this week.
This might be an opportunity to re-start our sacred life, also. January, 2022 could be a new beginning for us,
for our spiritual lives.
About ten years ago I heard a poem that stopped me dead in my tracks.
It’s printed on the cover of our bulletin today.
And called The Work of Christmas.
You are able to read it for yourself.
I can tell you it has become one of my favorite poems.
It’s majestic in its simplicity
When the song of the angels is
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
And it’s been around in so many different forms
that I’m not quite sure in which form I first heard it.
I’ve seen it on a greeting card
and heard it in an elaborate choral arrangement
sung by none other than the Meadows School of Fine Arts at SMU.
The words came from to the Rev Dr Howard Thurman who died in 1981.
I had never even heard of Howard Thurman until recently
but it turns out he was a much-respected clergyman and quite a busy guy. He wrote about 20 books, one of which,
Jesus and the Disinherited,
is usually required reading in at least one class at most seminaries.
He ended his career as the dean emeritus of the chapel of Boston University and was generally considered to be the mentor of Martin Luther King
and the one who convinced him to follow a path of non-violence.
This last fact caught me by surprise
since I had always been under the impression
Dr King had come up with the idea
of using Gandhi’s non-violent approach on his own
but it turns out that it was Howard Thurman who talked him into it.
As my year of 2021 developed,
I kept hearing Thurman’s name in Zoom meetings
and Facebook posts.
He showed up quoted in sermons and special worship services.
So, getting back to the poem, how do we begin our work of Christmas?
We can start anywhere we want.
We can use our imagination,
or we can borrow an idea from someone else.
One of the most fun ministries I’ve ever taken part in
started out with the memory of a ministry
my friend Linda remembered when she was in college
that her home church in Missouri had done for her
as a student far from home.
She remembered getting a care package at Halloween every year
and suggested that we could do that for the kids at our church.
One of the other women in our circle of friends
took the idea and added to it
and it turned into an annual tradition
that went on for probably 20 years.
One of the women in the group was the church secretary
so we always had the most accurate address for all the kids
without having to ask anyone.
She made up the address labels
that only gave a return address of the church that read
“the angels of First Presbyterian church”.
I had access to free UPS shipping through the company where I worked
so we were able to send some pretty big care packages at no cost.
And the best part about it was that outside of the roughly six or seven women in our group who participated, no one in our church or the kids ever knew who was sending the packages. The kids just knew that they could depend on it.
One year, I was at a joint meeting of the deacons and elders
when they were discussing the various committees and their duties
and someone mentioned the Halloween boxes.
One of the elders said something about
“the boxes the deacons send off at Halloween”
and the moderator of the deacons said,
“We don’t do that; I thought y’all did that.”
There was a majestic silence around the table
while the leaders of the church realized
there was a ministry happening that none of them knew about.
I never said a word that night
and was content to leave the ministry anonymous.
I'm of the mind that there still needs to be some mysteries in good deeds.
But the beauty of it all, and the moral of the story is that
When we go looking for the work of Christmas
We don’t have to come up with anything new
The Halloween boxes was an idea we got from someone else
We didn’t have to invent it on our own.
Now, when we read the book of John
It can be a discouraging endeavor.
So much of it is poetry
and has simple words written in a beautiful way.
But it can be hard to understand.
It’s appropriate at the beginning of our year to read,
“In the beginning was the Word….”
But then we usually become discouraged
when we can’t understand the rest of what John is saying.
I know I do.
John is hard to understand.
Even the great preacher, professor, and author
Barbara Brown Taylor admits this.
When we understand that God’s word
became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ
then we can begin to understand that our next step is Thanksgiving.
Or, as BBT tells it,
In other words, we can bring the word of the bible to life
through our own actions….
through our own lives.
our own flesh.
The work of Christmas is
Finding the lost, feeding the hungry
And just when I thought I had said it all
and there was nothing new to say
my friend Linda sent me an email
(This was another Linda....like most of us, I have about 3 friends named Linda)
that she had found something else that Howard Thurman said.
She found something he must have written
in one of those 20 books he wrote.
He wrote one called “The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations.”
So she sent me this poem:
The wise men that visited Mary, Joseph and the baby
The bible tells us they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Today we still bring Jesus gifts.
How do we do something for Jesus when he’s not here?
When he is not a physical presence on earth today?
It’s as simple as that one line in Matthew:
“When you do these things to the least of these, you do them to me…”
What can we take the Christ child?
What new thing will we bring to this new year?
How can we attend to the least of these?
The hungry and the thirsty?
The refugee or the outcast?
listed in the Matthew 25 scripture
How can we travel with the wise men of old?
What gift can we take to the child
At the dawn of our new year?
Perhaps we will take him a new self
A healthier “me” who takes better care of myself?
One who eats better and exercises more
A person who prays more and spends time listening for God’s voice?
We can put flesh on God’s words
We can put our own flesh on God’s words.
Let the work of Christmas begin.
Our Benediction for the day also came from Howard Thurman, from his book "Meditations from the Heart":
A Prayer For The New Year
Grant that we may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. There will be much to test us and make weak our strength before the year ends.
In our confusion we may often say the word that is not true and do the thing of which we are ashamed. There will be errors in the mind and great inaccuracies of judgment.
In seeking the light,
We shall again and again find ourselves
walking in the darkness.
We shall mistake our own light for Your light
and we shall drink from the responsibility of the choices we make...
Though our days be marked with failures, stumblings, fallings,
let our spirits be free
so that You may take them and redeem our moments in all the ways our needs reveal.
Give us the quiet assurance
of Your Love and Presence.
Grant that we may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. Amen