A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 15, 2012
A few days ago, my wife and I were taking down and boxing up our Christmas decorations. Each of us sort of has our particular jobs when it comes to taking down the decorations. One of mine is packing up our nativity sets. We have several nativity sets that we have collected over the years, from very small miniature ones to standard size ones. Well, I was sitting in the floor packing up the last of our nativity sets, the largest one which is composed of white porcelain figures. The last piece that I wrapped in tissue paper was the baby Jesus in the manger bed. As I started to place the baby Jesus figure in the box, I spied an empty space in the corner of the box that seemed to fit just right. So carefully I tucked baby Jesus away in the corner of the box until next year.
And then it hit me, like an epiphany (we are still in the season of epiphany, you know, so it’s most appropriate). What an apt metaphor for life and faith. We go through the Christmas rituals. We celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, the Bethlehem Babe. And then when Christmas Day is over, we more or less tuck Baby Jesus away in the boxes of our hearts until next December rolls around.
Now, Christmas encourages the best in us. In spite of the economic crunch, in spite of the already numerous demands upon our time, we are encouraged during the Christmas season to be generous with our time and money, to set aside our own priorities and focus on others who are less fortunate. And we do so with glad hearts. The outpouring of time and gifts by our United Church members is heartwarming. We gave food to the poor. We gave Christmas gifts to needy children. Several of our members worked at the Ecumenical Storehouse in the month of December. And in addition to that, we may have contributed to the Salvation Army kettle or Knoxville Area Rescue Mission or some other charity. And we may have done it in the name of and to honor the Baby Jesus whose birth we celebrate on December 25. But now that the Christmas season is over, our other priorities have pushed their way back into our lives. And those priorities aren’t trivial, by any means. We all have job or family or community responsibilities that must be seen to.
But then along comes Epiphany. The season when we are called to get serious about our faith and take the Christ Spirit into the world. The Christmas season is filled with sentiment and glitter and wrappings and all kinds of stuff that stir our emotions and stir up visions of what the world should be and could be—peace, brotherhood and sisterhood, goodwill toward all, and so on. And we may resolve in our hearts during this time that we are going to take steps to change our lives for the better and do things to help make the world a better place. But then, by the time Epiphany rolls around, all the ornaments and glitter and wrappings have been put away or discarded. And all of our emotions and visions of what the world should be, and our good intentions to take steps to make a difference, may be packed up as well, along with the Baby Jesus in the corner of the box, as we return to the priorities of everyday living. But the truth is, our hopes and visions during the Christmas season are too beautiful to pack away. If we handle them carefully, perhaps they need not fade away.
And so, Epiphany serves to remind us that the work of Christmas is not over. Indeed, the work of Christmas has only just begun. Epiphany is about manifesting to the world what the Christ and what being a “Christian” is all about. But unlike the romantic scene of wisemen offering gifts to a baby, surrounded by an adoring mother and father and sheep, camels, and a donkey, we must meet the adult Jesus head-on. Epiphany is the time when we find practical ways to make visions of what the world should be become reality. Epiphany is the time to figure out practical ways to make peace, brother and sisterhood, and goodwill come to pass. Epiphany is the time to think about long-term changes that will result in the world being a better place. If we don’t, then we stand to lose the vision.
Who better an example to think about today than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who not only had a vision of how to make the world a better place, but devoted his life to making that vision become reality? Equal rights for all. Better working conditions for all. Justice for all, as Jesus intended it. Now, I think I have said it before: all of us can’t be Martin Luther Kings. And most of us probably wouldn’t want to be. I don’t think any one of us longs to be thrown in jail, chased by viscious dogs, have rocks thrown through our windows, and be taken out by a bullet at a young age. The struggles and ultimate sacrifice that Dr. King made are sobering. Any cause that finds itself in sharp conflict with the status quo, that goes against the power structure, is wrought with struggle and sacrifice that few people are prepared to make. Nevertheless, we can be inspired by Dr. King’s passion for bringing about needed change and the way he pursued a cause to make a positive difference in the world.
But, thankfully, the options are not just to give everything or nothing. Each of us can do something as we identify some issue or cause in the world where change is needed and where we can contribute at least a small part to making a positive difference in the world. In the words of poet Mary Oliver, “you too have come into the world . . . to be filled with light, and to shine” (“When I Am Among the Trees”).
There are numerous causes that provide opportunities to us to get engaged and make a difference: food for the hungry, the homeless, meals for the homebound, the environment, people who need someone to listen, children and adults who need to learn how to read, the list is endless. Thus, we can direct our passion toward volunteering at a local food bank, or the Salvation Army or Habitat for Humanity, or delivering meals, or lending our support to stop mountaintop removal mining, or volunteer for CONTACT Helpline, or become a reading tutor, or lend our financial support to any number of world charities like our Sunday school children have admirably done through Heifer International. They raised close to $300. In some ways, I feel I am preaching to the choir, as they say, since a number of our members are already committed to giving their time and talents to different volunteer activities in our community. You know who you are and what your passion is. And you know you are making a positive difference in the world. That’s what Epiphany faith is all about.
There is a beautiful piece by another African American, Howard Thurman, titled “The Work of Christmas.” It goes:
When the song of angels 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.
So, let’s not tuck Baby Jesus away in the dark corners of our hearts and forget about all the warm, fuzzy feelings and visions we had about making the world a better place until next Christmas. Epiphany is the season of “What if. . .” What if we didn’t tuck Jesus away, but encountered him head on? What if we took baby steps toward our vision of a better world, as each one of us identified and lent our passion and energies to at least one community or world issue throughout the coming year? And by so doing, we could continue the good work of Christmas and help make the world a better place for all. Amen.