Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Borden, OHC
Christmas 1 B, Sunday, December 28, 2014
I had a pretty clear idea what I wanted to say in a sermon this Sunday – until just a few days ago... And then something else presented itself to me causing me to think – now there is a good idea for a sermon... but I already knew what I wanted to say... So I've decided to do the thing you are never supposed to do... I will preach both sermons. I'm sure that is a good idea... Don't worry – both sermons will be short.
|Mouse, Br. Scott's cat|
The idea that presented itself to me just a few days ago was in the form of a cat. A cat named Mouse to be specific. Mouse has been a monastery cat for several months now. She spent the first several years of her life as a Rectory cat, so this is a new job for her. And she takes her work very seriously.
She is a social sort of kitty and feels a need to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the second floor of the enclosure. She tends to lurk outside the bathrooms, which would be creepy if she were not a cat... and she likes to lead folks on walks and hold rather loud conversations. But for all of that friendliness, she has not really been very affectionate.
Then on the morning of Christmas eve, she decided it was time to sit in my lap. This was really a first. And she sat quite happily for more than 20 minutes... I was, to say the least, please and honored. Cat affection, when offered, is always sincere, because a cat really can't be bothered to try to butter you up.
So as Mouse sat in my lap, letting me rub her face and purring quietly, I thought to myself – what a lovely Christmas gift... And that is the sermon that threw itself at me... It is a lovely gift. And all she had to do was simply show up and be present. It made me extremely happy and joyful.
I am quite convinced that cats (and I suppose I have to admit other animals as well) teach us a great deal about God. Cats, for example, teach us about unconditional love, not because they offer it, but because they accept it. What I realized, as Mouse sat quietly in my lap for those wonderful 20 minutes, is that the joy I felt is, perhaps, a reflection of what God feels when we show up and are present.
I think of those shepherds who showed up and were present at the manger... and I think of those disciples the garden at Gethsemane who couldn't stay awake – couldn't be present. Showing up and being present – a gift we dare not underestimate. That is the first sermon...
Now the second sermon... the one I first wanted to preach... started with with something else that caught my attention. I saw a posting from a religious organization of some sort or other that boldly proclaimed that “Jesus is the very best present of all...” illustrated with a picture of a lovely bright red box wrapped with ribbon and bow... and my reaction was different than my reaction to mouse...
This message just seems wrong in so many ways... It reduces Jesus to some sort of gift-wrapped notion stuck under the tree by God's little helper – Santa... It reduces the Word that becomes flesh and dwells among us to something that fits in a box – albeit a very nice box. That is a small Jesus indeed. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords... but Present of presents... not so much.
I have become increasing fascinated by the dual nature of Christmas... there is Sacred Christmas, built around the mystery of Jesus. And then there is secular Christmas – built around an orgy of shopping. Secular Christmas needs to blur the lines between the two – so that it can rub some of the beauty and wonder of the Sacred on itself.
Christmas trees and manger scenes intermingle with candy canes and mistletoe and reindeer and gingerbread houses and toy soldiers... Figuring out what, if anything, these might have to do with the Word made flesh is, shall we say, difficult...
Perhaps it is a good that secular Christmas seeks to rub against the sacred. Secular Christmas is not an evil thing – its just shallow. Even the most secular of people can be touched by Christmas – they can, even if they hardly know it, be touched by the Word.
But I'm not done disparaging the Jesus as present concept. I've saved the worst for last... Secular Christmas teaches us absolutely that we are entitled to presents that we want and that make us happy.
Some presents will fall into that politely named category of “unfortunate.” Many retailers assure us that we can give the perfect gift, because the recipient can return the “unfortunate” gift, no questions asked, for something they actually want... Secular Christmas has succeeded when I get just exactly what I want...
Jesus is many things, but Jesus, to be honest, is not just exactly what I, or any of us, really want. Jesus challenges us, questions us, makes us uncomfortable.
The disappointment with Jesus is quite clear in his lifetime. It leads to crucifixion...
Many of the faithful of Jesus' time wanted a powerful savior, a super hero if you will, who would come and crush the Romans. They didn't get what they wanted. According to the rules of Secular Christmas, they will have to get in line to see customer service for an exchange...
Many of us have ideas about who or what we would like Jesus to be. There is the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus who is sweet and nice all the time – gift exchange... There is Jesus who loves me so very much that he wants me to be extremely rich – gift exchange... The Jesus who causes my favorite sports team to win... The Jesus who tramples my enemies under his feet... The Jesus who cures cancer... The Jesus who feeds the hungry so I don't have to... When it comes to Jesus as present, I'm afraid we all have something to take to the customer service window... We're all in line for the gift exchange.
The Word does not become flesh to make us happy. Jesus doesn't seek to make us over into better versions of ourselves – Jesus comes to make us new... Encountering the Word made flesh transforms us, and not necessarily in the ways we want.
But if Jesus in just the greatest present of all, than we don't have the Word made flesh – we have flesh made into word. We are making God over into what we want, rather than being transformed by our encounter with God.
So that is the second sermon – the one I first wanted to preach... and Mouse gracing my lap with her presence you may recall was the first, which threw itself in front of me second...
But they aren't, really, two separate sermons... I hope you don't feel suddenly cheated.
All creatures on earth – and above the earth and in the oceans and beneath the earth – all creatures are part of creation and, undeniably an expression of their creator. I think Luke, in his telling of Jesus birth, underscores this by the presence of the animals. This is their creator. This is their manger. The Word is made flesh and dwells among them too. All things come into being through the Word of God.
Mouse can teach me about God because she is an expression of God's holy Word. Don't tell her that... she already believes she is queen of her universe.
Secular Christmas is part of Christmas – it may be the part that is most in need of redemption – but that is why Word becomes flesh. God doesn't come to visit because we are just irresistible and always fun to be around... God dwells among us because we need to be touched by God... because we need redemption.
Emanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh makes us whole. Secular Christmas has only happiness to offer – which is simpler and can fit under the tree...
But the real gift is that we show up and are present just as Mouse did a few mornings ago... We show up with those who are hungry, with those who are being treated unjustly, with those who are sorrowful, or unpleasant, or powerless... in this way we encounter Jesus, the Word made flesh. And so we are transformed.