Monday, December 31, 2018

Sermon: "The Unexpected Gift"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 24, 2018 – Christmas Eve

“The Unexpected Gift”

Have you ever received a gift that you didn’t expect?
I’m not talking about the time you asked your parent’s for a pony or an Xbox and you got socks and underwear instead.
And I’m not talking about the time you gave your sister-in-law a scented candle and some bath beads and the following Christmas she re-gifted it back to you – in the same gift bag you’d used the year before.
I’m also not talking about the time that you secretly longed for a certain special or sentimental or hard-to-find gift and then were reduced to tears when you actually received that gift.

The unexpected gift I’m talking about is the kind of gift that we did not ask for, had not longed for, and never in our wildest dreams expected to receive.
Because we didn’t realize how much we wanted it and needed it until it was given to us.

We all know the Christmas Story.

The story of a baby - born on a cold winter’s night that was so deep,
Surrounded by shepherds’ keeping their sheep.
When, what to our wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

Truthfully, we do have two Christmas stories woven together in our heads.
The story of the birth of Christ.
And the story of gifts raining down upon us in the night.

And while here in the church we often separate these stories and say the Christmas that we celebrate in here has little to do with the Christmas that we celebrate out there, there really is a connection between the two.

There is a connection between the wishing and hoping for something to fill us, to bring us happiness, to make us more than we are - 
and the sense of fulfillment, joy, and inspiration that we feel when we’re given such a gift.

The dis-connection happens when we fail to recognize that we’ve received this longed for gift -  when we peer into the manger on Christmas Eve.

At our 5:00 Christmas Eve service,
our children tell the story of the nativity with a Christmas Pageant –
and we do it with a real baby playing the part of Jesus.

It warms our hearts to see Mary and Joseph cradling a real baby rather than a plastic doll.   Or “stunt Jesus” as we call it.

But there’s always a moment of uncertainty when the mother of the baby steps into the scene and hands her infant to the little girl playing Mary.  
You can sometimes hear an audible gasp rise up from the congregation.
There’s concern that the little girl may not hold the baby correctly,
or not know what to do if the baby starts crying, or, God forbid,
what if the baby slips out of her arms and lands head first on the floor.
Thankfully, that’s never happened.

This year, the 10-year-old girl playing Mary and the 3-month-old baby playing Jesus happened to be brother and sister.
And after that moment of breathless uncertainty during the hand-off, it became evident that this young girl knew how fragile and precious this particular baby was, just in the way she held him and rocked him and gazed into his eyes.

When we enlist a real baby in the telling of the Christmas story the stakes suddenly become much higher – and the revelation that this baby is a precious gift becomes much more apparent.

But all babies are a precious gift –
what makes this particular baby born some 2000 years ago so special?
This baby is special, because this baby represents God’s desire to live in relationship with us.

We are finite creatures made of stardust and earthdust.
We have limited senses, perceptions, and intellects.
We are prone to mistakes, missteps, and misinterpretations.
We often are incapable of truly seeing –
unless something is right in front of us –
and even then we may dismiss, deny, or disbelieve that it’s even there.

To live in relationship with a creature like us is a challenge indeed.
We struggle to do it even amongst ourselves.

But our God can’t help but take on that challenge.
As the Creator longs to connect with its creation.
Just as creation longs to connect with its Creator.

So God became one of us.
To know what it is to wear skin and muscle and bone and move on the earth.
To know what it is to feel joy and disappointment, excitement and despair, fulfillment and rejection.
To know what it’s like be limited – and loved -
to be swaddled and placed in a manger, looking up and out,
at a world that is full of sharp points, jagged edges, and rocky landings,
but is also full of warm embraces, healing hands, and tender hearts.

The gift in the manger is that God became one of us so that God would better know us, and so that WE would better know God.
So we would know unending grace, limitless compassion, and unconditional love.
Not just in a “read about it in an ancient book” kind of knowing.
But in a seeing – feeling – hearing – touching –  
experiencing it for ourselves - kind of knowing.

Whatever you believe about Jesus –
Whomever he is to you –
Whether God-filled, God-inspired, or God incarnate.
He left his mark on our world in a way that has us still talking about him 2,000 years onward.
His teaching, his touching, his way of getting under our skin with his pointed tales about loving enemies, forgiving persecutors, and giving it all away – wealth, power, privilege – so that the least among us will also experience a life of abundance as God intended it to be.

Jesus embodied what it means to love kindness, to act justly, and to walk humbly with our God.
Jesus embodied what it means to be a vessel for unending grace, limitless compassion, and unconditional love –
- a vessel that continuously empties onto and into others.
Jesus embodied what it means for Creation to live in relationship with itself and with its Creator.

So every year, we celebrate his birth.
The silent night that he came into our world and set about connecting us to one another.
Teaching us how to be the presence of God for one another.
Showing us how to dull the sharp points and smooth the rough edges and create softer landings for one another.

Now, if this talk of softer landings conjures up images of helicopter parents or nervous nannies who wish to rid the world of all its hardness…
Know that this is not about removing all the challenges, difficulties, and uncertainties that push us and stretch us to be more than what we are.
The sharp points and rocky landings will always be there –
that’s the nature of our world.
The message that Jesus has for us is that the world presents enough challenges on its own without the need for us to contribute to it.
Instead, we’re called to be the presence of Christ for another -  
to lighten the load and lessen the blows in any way that we can.

To be shown how to do such a gracious and loving thing for others –
and experience it for ourselves –
This truly is an unexpected gift. 

The gift in the manger is precious.
It’s a gift we didn’t think to ask for, and didn’t realize we longed for,
until it was given to us.

It’s the gift of God showing us what it is to live into the image of our Creator.
It’s the gift of knowing that our God does not stand apart from us in our human experience – but knows that experience first hand –
and is with us in it.

The Christmas story invites us to reconnect with this precious gift,
and to lift up thanks for it, year after year.

The Christmas story invites us to hold this precious gift in our arms –
to marvel at its power and its fragility –
and to then hand it off to someone else.
Even as others gasp at the trust that it takes to do so.

My prayer for all of you on this Christmas Eve,  
is that when you peer into the manger,
you will find this unexpected gift waiting for you.

This gift of healing and hope, this gift of joy and peace,
This gift of presence…and love.
This gift of relationship with our God.

Merry Christmas to us all…and Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment