Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Saint Nicholas

Preached in Middle and Upper School Chapel at St. Andrew's Episcopal School.

1 John 4:7-14; Psalm 145:8-12; Mark 10:13-16

It's a scene many of you know quite well.  There he is, sitting just a little apart form the crowds.  Parents bring their children, although sometimes the children are shy to meet him.  He gently lifts them up into his lap, and smiles as they settle there in his arms.  Believing in him, they whisper to him the desires of their hearts, and he nods to let them know he has heard every hope-filled word...

So.  Who do you think I'm talking about?

In chapel, the answer is supposed to be Jesus, right?  We just heard Mark's story of the time people brought their children to see him.  The disciples were sure he had better things to do than babysit, but Jesus told them in no uncertain terms that children were his business, and that they had better be the disciples' business, too.  Or didn't they remember how to be wide-eyed and filled with wonder, how to trust with all their hearts, how to giggle on God's knee?

Maybe I'm talking about Jesus.  There he is, sitting just a little apart from the crowds.  Parents bring their children, although sometimes the children are shy to meet him.  He gently lifts them into his lap... Who do you think I'm talking about?

Santa?  Maybe... We haven't been to see him yet this year, but every December children whisper to him the desires of their hearts, and Santa nods to let them know he has heard every hope-filled word.

Jesus?  Or Santa?  Sometimes Christians worry that we get so wrapped up in stories of reindeer and rooftops and sleighbells that we forget the story of how angels sang and stars shone and a baby was born on a silent and holy night, how God became Emmanuel, God-with-us, Love-with-us, love all lovely, love divine, in the words of one old hymn.

Every year on December 6th (we're just a few days early!) we remember the story of someone who was grateful for the gift of Emmanuel, someone whose heart's desire, whose deepest hope, was to love God's children.  All of them.  His name was Saint Nicholas, and he lived in the 4th century in what we know as Turkey.  Nicholas was the child of a wealthy family, with enough gold to impress even a Gringott's goblin.  But he climbed into Jesus' lap at a very early age, preferring to settle there than in the lap of luxury.  Nicholas became a priest when he was nineteen, and a bishop not long after that.  He devoted his life and his inheritance to acts of kindness toward those who were most vulnerable in his communities, most helpless, most neglected, most preyed upon by those who insist on taking every toy under the tree for themselves.

We all become children again, wide-eyed and wonder-filled, when we hear of his legendary compassion.  How Nicholas, when a devastating famine struck, fed his people from a small sack of grain that never emptied.  How Nicholas, returning by sea from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, prayed during a violent storm and calmed the wind and waves.  How Nicholas, having learned that a poor man could not afford to pay his daughters' dowries, tossed sacks of gold through the open windows of the poor man's house.  He tossed sacks of gold down the chimney as well, or so the story goes, where they landed in the girls' stockings hanging there to dry overnight...

Years ago, I heard someone say how wonderful it would be if Santa Claus was a verb as well as a noun.  Then, whenever we felt the urge to do something really kind, something really generous, we could say, "Hey, let's go Santa Claus today."  It could be fun...but what are we really talking about?  Because the thing is, we already have a word for doing something really kind, something really generous.  That word is love, which we heard no less than fifteen times in the short reading from First John a moment ago.  Beloved, dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God.  God is love...

This isn't the sentimental kind of love we feel for our favorite ornaments on the Christmas tree, but love that is fierce and relentless and hope-filled, love that is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.  The Lord is loving to everyone, the psalmist sang, and his compassion is over all his works.  Since God loved us so much, the writer of First John said, we also ought to love one another.

We Santa Claus pretty well around here.  We bring our dollars for dress-down or dress-up days.  We collect pennies for peace.  We're even bringing sacks of toys for children whose Christmas trees would otherwise be bare.  We volunteer down the street, up the road, and halfway around the world.  We love. We show compassion.  Peter Gomes, a Baptist preacher and theologian at Harvard's Divinity School, defines compassion as "kindness in the face of the opportunity to do otherwise."

Whatever our faith, whatever lap we choose to climb into, Saint Nicholas stands before us in this and in every season when we have the opportunity to choose how we will treat God's children - which is to say, everyone - and he urges us to choose love.  Nicholas reminds us that in even our smallest acts of generosity and kindness and compassion, God's saving presence comes into the world, not just at Christmas but each and every day.

Sometimes we can give a sack full of gold or grain or toys.  Sometimes we can find the cure, erase the debt, create new public policy, right the wrong, correct the injustice.  Sometimes all we can do is climb up into God's lap and whisper our heart's desires and trust that God hears every hope-filled word.

How will you Santa Claus today?  How will you choose kindness, especially when choosing otherwise would be easier or safer or more convenient?  How will you show compassion?  How will you love?

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.  Amen.

Artwork: "Jesus and the Children," by Michael D. O'Brien; "Bishop Nicholas," by Emanuele Luzatti; "Saint Nicholas Wonderworker," by Laura James.