Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Homily: "The Work of Christmas" (Delivered 12-24-09)

[As you probably know, we got hit by an ice and snow storm on Christmas Eve. Even though some hearty souls made their way “over the river and through the snow,” many members of the congregation remained at home “hanging stockings by the chimney with care.” For those who were unable to join us, here is my Christmas Eve homily.]
When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
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,
to make music in the heart. (by Howard Thurman)

I have only been back from my sabbatical for three weeks, but I want to tell you about three things that have happened in this church over just this short period of time.

On my very first Sunday back from sabbatical a member of this church pulled me aside and asked me to make an announcement about where people could drop presents that they had bought after taking cards off of the giving tree the previous week. Following the service I beheld an enormous pile of bags and boxes and envelopes that were donated to support families that are served by the Interfaith Hospitality Network, an organization of which our church has been a part for more than five years. Following the service I helped two members of the church carry large, overflowing food baskets that the children had prepared for these families as a “Service is Our Prayer” project.

The very next day I received an invitation from the organizer of our congregation’s quilting and crafting guild to join them as they delivered an enormous stack of hand-crafted quilts and blankets that would be given to children at the Rose Brooks domestic violence shelter. Some of these beautiful works came from our quilting group and others were lovingly made by church members who spent hours at home stitching and sewing their fabric projects for Rose Brooks. When we went to drop off the quilts and blankets I was surprised to find my neighbor working the booth where donations for Rose Brooks are received. My neighbor was there as a part of a corporate volunteer day at his company. He told me later that the volunteers had been tremendously impressed by both the volume and the beauty of our donations. They were especially impressed by a monster truck themed quilt that had been donated.

The next Saturday I went as a guest to a volunteer recognition luncheon in midtown Kansas City. Anne volunteers with an organization called MOCSA, an organization we had supported financially with a “donate-the-plate” Sunday last spring. MOCSA’s executive director saw my name and immediately made the connection, thanking us profusely for our contribution. Over the past few years I’ve had an experience like this at least a dozen different times. I will be out attending some community function and the director or development officer or outreach coordinator of an organization we’ve supported will realize that I serve as the minister of this church and they will tell me how much what we have given to their non-profit organization means to them. They tell me how touched they are. They tell me about the impact that our gifts allow them to make in the community.

I don’t think any of us fully understand the full impact we make on our community. Sometimes we don’t really see it, or really hear about it, or fully realize the significance of it. It is too large for me to comprehend and I like to think that I have a pretty good idea of what is going on around here. I hear about some of it. But you should hear about it more than you do. I don’t think the members of the congregation hear enough about the good that you do. You should hear about it more than you do. I should tell you more often. So, thank you for doing this work. Thank you for doing the work of Christmas.

The work of Christmas. In the reading with this title, the great theologian Howard Thurman juxtaposes the fantastic stories about Jesus with the great moral teachings of Jesus. The stories cannot mean anything if we do not try to live by the teachings which counsel us to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to heal the sick, to comfort the bereaved, and to work for peace on earth. This is our work. This is the work that we do. This is what we do.

When the offering is given and received tonight, we will have the opportunity to combine the celebration of Christmas with the work of Christmas. Our collection this evening will be split between three different worthy causes:

Our church sits just a couple of blocks away from Head Start of Shawnee Mission. I have had a wonderful time volunteering with them each of the past four years on their annual “Cat in the Hat” Dr. Seuss day. I know a number of members of our church work and volunteer there. Head Start serves so many children and families in our community. They have an enormous waiting list and serve so many children whose families face significant hardships. We will be donating to a fund that they use to assist families with significant need.

Another organization that part of our Christmas Eve collection will go to is Southwest Boulevard Family Health Care. This progressive, direct-care organization serves the underinsured, uninsured, and indigent in our greater metro area. Some of our members have been deeply involved with this organization. As you can imagine, at this time their need is great.

Finally, part of our collection this evening will go a new project that I have started. There is a story that goes along with this:

I began my two month sabbatical in South America by spending a few weeks in Quito, the capitol city of Ecuador. I stayed each night at a small hostal run by a couple of young men. As I walked the streets of Quito during the day I found myself passing large groups of young children dressed in colorful school uniforms. One day I returned to the hostal in the early afternoon to enjoy a short siesta and saw the housekeeper and her ten year old daughter changing sheets and running loads of laundry. The next day was the same thing. I came back for my siesta and discovered the ten year old girl sweeping the floors instead of attending school with her peers.

I pulled her mother aside and asked, in the best Spanish I could muster, if her daughter went to school. She didn’t have the money to send her daughter to school. I asked her how much it would cost. It would cost $35 per month. It was a no-brainer. I did the moral math in my head. A full year of schooling for this lively and spirited ten year old girl costs $350. That is less than the hourly rate I charge other congregations when I accept a speaking engagement. Heck, a year of school for this girl was far less than I had forked over earlier that morning to reserve a spot on a tour of the Amazon rainforest. The next day Tatiana was in school and I plan to continue to support her schooling. It was my way of saying, “This is how I want to be as a guest in this city, in this country, a guest of this people, a guest of the world.”

In returning to the United States I wanted to find a meaningful way to continue that connection. I’ve decided that in addition to providing for this girl’s education I would like to create a scholarship program at the school she attends and build a computer lab for the school. Part of our offering this evening will go to launching that program and, if you cannot help financially, perhaps you can help by finding some businesses willing to donate laptop computers.

All of this, all of this, is the work of Christmas.

Unitarian Universalist Association president Peter Morales has expanded upon these ideas, reminding us that our work has a spiritual component to it as well as a justice and service component. Morales has spoken poetically of our moral obligation to find the spiritually lost and heal those who have been harmed by religion. It is our task, Morales urges, to feed the spiritually hungry and house the spiritually homeless. I might add that it is also our task to release the religiously imprisoned and to work to bring peace among the world’s religions. In bold language that I think a lot of people have misread, Morales claims that expanding the reach of Unitarian Universalism is a “moral imperative” and the “moral equivalent of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless.” Let me be the first to note that there is a difference between equivalence, which has to do with analogy, and the idea that things are equal, that they are the same.

Howard Thurman tells us that the nativity story, the story of a poor and needy family that is denied the comfort of the inn and must take up shelter in the stable, is connected with Jesus’ moral teachings about giving shelter to the exposed, food to the hungry, comfort to the weary, and care to the sick. Jesus’ ministry goes beyond that, reaching out to those who are imprisoned by bars and those who are imprisoned by a crisis of faith. In the Gospels, Jesus feeds those who are hungry for bread and fish and those who are hungry for hope. The wine quenches literal thirst and the metaphorical thirst of those parched for community and communion.

Understanding the work of Christmas is a simple thing, even if it is wrapped in the ornate and lovely wrappings of story and scripture and song. We know the work of Christmas. We know it is not only for the days of December. We know it is not the work of a season but the work of a lifetime.