Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Merry Little Christmas


Christmas Eve

The 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis chronicles a year in the life of four sisters.  At Christmas time the children learn their father’s employer is sending him to work in New York City.  The family will be moving in the new year; news the children don’t take well.  Tootie, a spunky and spirited five-year-old, is despondent.  Esther, her older sister (played by Judy Garland), comforts her with a song:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,

  Let your heart be light.

  From now on our troubles will be out of sight.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,

  Make the Yuletide gay.

  In a year our troubles will be miles away.

Here we are as in olden days,

  Happy golden days of yore.

Precious friends who are dear to us

  Gather near to us once more.

In a year we all will be together,

  If the fates allow,

Until then,

We’ll just have to muddle through somehow

  And have ourselves a merry little Christmas now.

You’ll have to watch the film to learn whether or not the song helps Tootie cheer up.

Written by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is one today’s most popular Christmas songs and has been recorded by hundreds of different artists in every music genre imaginable.  And for all the reasons you can imagine, it has been on the minds of a lot of people this holiday season.

It seems like most every other year, we get to the Fourth Sunday of Advent and say something like, “I can’t believe Christmas is already here.”  We are so absorbed in the preparations and the parties and the present shopping the days just slip by.  This year, however, feels so different.  Yes, we are still saying, “I can’t believe Christmas is this Friday” but we are saying it because it just doesn’t feel like at all Christmas.  We won’t be going to Grandma’s house (or anywhere else for that matter).  There won’t be a packed candlelight service in the church.  And we won’t be getting together with friends from far and wide.  This year, Christmas is more like a Friday than it is like Christmas.  Ah, but next year… what might Christmas 2021 be like?  Well, I am not ready to give up on Christmas 2020 yet.  I think it has something good in store for us.  Something sure is blowing in.

The birth of Jesus looked nothing like how we celebrate it today.  There was no tree, no stockings, no presents, no decorations, and no fancy meal.  Mary, Joseph, and Jesus did not have matching pajamas to wear nor was there a crackling fire in the fireplace for warmth and atmosphere.  They were alone, without family or friends.  They did get to travel on that first Christmas day, but not by choice.

In all the years I have preached on Christmas Eve I don’t think I have ever focused a sermon on the setting and circumstances of the stable and manger.  I’ve always focused on Christmas’ bigger and grander themes.  Perhaps this is the year for us to spend some time with the Holy Family in the humble stable.  If you catch yourself feeling down tonight or tomorrow, use it has a prompt to ponder how Joseph or how Mary was feeling on that day so long ago. 

I wonder what it was like for them to be in such a meager setting, alone and vulnerable with their newborn.  And I wonder what they made of the shepherds’ starlit visit as they pondered the angelic story in the light of the new day.  And I wonder how these polar opposites might speak to us on a day and in a season when we have so much to be sad about while at the same time have much to celebrate.

For Mary and Joseph, that first Christmas day was as dark as what I suspect many of ours will be like this year.  Still, they had the one thing necessary for Christmas – the Light of the World had come into their lives.  So may it be for each of us.

This year, a merry little Christmas may just turn out to be more special than we anticipate.  Here is something you may find interesting: antonyms for the word merry include sad, miserable, and unpleasant; antonyms for the word little include overkill, kingsize, and insane.  Against these, merry and little don’t seem so bad, do they!  Do you know what the antonym is for Christmas?  There isn’t any!  Christmas stands alone as a day which cannot be undone.  It may be different, but it cannot be undone.  So hang a shining star upon the highest bow and have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Mission Possible


Advent 4 / Year B

I recall vividly the moment in early 1991 when my wife told me she was pregnant with our first child.  We had been married for two years and were living in our first house, which we purchased several months earlier.  Because we were actively trying not to have a baby, my initial reaction was bewilderment.  Like Mary, I said, “How can this be?”  As the shock dissipated, secondary emotions began to fill the void – panic and fear. 

We had a lot going for us back in the day.  Educated and employed, our careers came with demanding and quirky schedules.  We were married, but didn’t have a lot of family around able to offer critical support.  We had a home, but needed two incomes to pay the mortgage.  I did not feel ready to be a parent and could not imagine for the life of me how it was all going to work out.  I remember a wise parishioner telling me we are all born into families whose parents had doubts, yet they made it work for us, so too I would make it work for my child.

Any person who does not receive the news of pregnancy – at least the first pregnancy – with an element of hesitation and doubt does not fully understand (understandably) the implications.  When I do premarital counseling I tell couples I am not going to attempt to describe the challenges of being a parent for the first time because there is no way to express it adequately.  I just say to them, “After the birth of your first child, let me know if I could have said or done anything to prepare you for it.”  To a person they have come back to me and said “No!”  Parenthood is a daunting challenge, even in the best of circumstances, and yet we all find a way to make it work. 

This morning we read the story known as The Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she has been chosen to give birth to God’s Child.  I am not sure which is more frightening for her, being in the presence of an Archangel or the message he conveys.  Surely both are overwhelming for a young, unmarried woman in her early teens.  The text tells us she is “perplexed”, but Gabriel picks up on something deeper: “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

Gabriel is allotted the bulk of the dialogue in this brief passage.  Mary has but two lines to speak, still they are memorable: “How can this be, since I am still a virgin” and, once Gabriel lays out the plan, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  The Archangel’s clinching argument is this: “With God, nothing is impossible.” 

What at first appeared to be mission impossible becomes mission possible through God’s activity and Mary’s consent.  Her willingness and cooperation have made Mary a model of Christian devotion and openness to God’s plan for one’s life.  When in your life have you had this kind of experience – a movement from mission impossible to mission possible?

The truth is life is filled with a lot of occasions feeling like mission impossible, some are more significant than others.  It may be as commonplace as wondering how you are going to manage everything on the day’s ‘To-Do’ list.  But of more significance, it may involve figuring out how to embrace parenthood.  I have known people who have gone through this shift during a job or career change; either voluntary or on account of termination.  I see it in folks who receive devastating news from a doctor.  I sense it in people who must learn to live after a divorce.  And I recognize it in those who find themselves alone after the death of a spouse.  Each feels impossible and each is… apart from God.

If, prior to any of these kinds of things unfolding in our lives, Gabriel appeared to announce what was about to happen to us, I suspect we (like Mary) might say, “How can this be?”  How can we get to a place where we (like Mary) can say, “Let it be to me according to your word”? 

I think the ability to see into the future would be a frightful thing.  When I look back over my life and consider the many ways I have been blessed, if I could have seen all of this when I was starting out I would have felt unworthy.  And when I consider the many hardships, disappointments, hurts, and pains I have experienced, if I could have seen them coming in advance I never would have been able to get out of bed in the morning.  You see, the thing missing in being able to see the future is the sense of how God equips us to manage what at first feels unmanageable, how God sustains us in moments of need, how God makes the impossible possible.

Think about how you felt on Thursday, March 12 – the day all in-person worship and parish activities were shut down due the pandemic.  Within days everything stopped – schools, jobs, all non-essential events.  Back then we thought it might be a two-week ordeal.  And while things have eased and opened a bit sense then, these are still challenging and difficult times.  Back in March, who would have thought this is where we would be at Christmas and who would have thought it would be possible to endure all we have been through?  Praise the Lord, God is in the business of making the impossible possible.

And now we turn our attention to Juniper Mae who is to receive the sacrament of Baptism.  Her very presence here this morning is a testimony of God’s desire to make the impossible possible.  I suspect every day her life will bear witness to this truth.  She truly is a miracle child and more than once, when being given an update about her natal activities, I said, “How can this be?”  Well, because with God all things are possible. 

I began this sermon by reminiscing on the birth of Ellen, my first daughter.  By coincidence, she and Juniper’s mother - Christa - were born on the same day… September 5, 1991.  Christa has already done much for St. Paul’s: acolyte, nursery, vestry, administrator.  Christa will be the first to tell you I love to give her a hard time… which is not all that hard to do.  But I hope she knows I think of her as being a surrogate daughter.  Given this, I lay claim to being Juniper’s surrogate Grandfather.  I can’t wait to see her in a Nativity Pageant, bringing a beloved pet to be blessed, receiving communion at the Altar Rail, searching for leprechauns, hunting for Easter eggs then sitting on the tower door steps with me for a bazillion pictures, standing on the Chancel steps and singing “He’s got the whole world” led by Sarah Blake, running up to me after church showing me what she created in Sunday School.

Christa, Josh, always remember God makes possible what seems impossible.  And always remember to remind Juniper she is the most powerful, most profound, and most poignant example of this hope and truth I have ever known!