Some of my parishioners have been asking me to post my sermons (I call them my reflections) on line. In order to meet their request, I’ll now make a habit of posting my reflections under my Sunday postings. Here is the reflection I gave on December 21, 2008.
I’ll never forget one of the first battle wounds I picked up in my practice of ministry. It came during the very first internship I ever did during my seminary years. Let me set the battle scene up for you by giving you a little background.
My first full day on the campus of my seminary, I saw an advertisement for a position at a church in a northern suburb of Denver. The job description said the position’s primary duties involved working with a community meal program. I interviewed for the job a day later and found myself clicking with the pastor. Four days later I was hired, and I began my work at the church immediately.
I spent most of my first two months on the job orienting myself to the church and getting to know the people of the community.
By the time that first quarter of seminary ended, I was convinced that I had already learned everything I needed to know about the practice of ministry. In fact, I was looking for exciting new challenges, so I approached the pastor and asked her if there was anything extra I could do for the church over the holidays.
“Sure,” she said without missing a beat. “We’ve gotten most of the planning done for the kid’s Christmas pageant, but we haven’t done anything with the adult Sunday school class. Why don’t you talk to “Steve” – their leader - and see if they’d be interested in helping out.”
Steve was the long-time leader of the adult Sunday school class. He was the son of a Methodist pastor who had spent his life working as an engineer. He was a brilliant man who was probably one of the best-read people I have ever met. He knew more about biblical studies, Christian history, and theology than most of my professors in seminary!
The only drawback I had in working with Steve was that there was an attitudinal barrier that I would have to overcome. You see Steve looked a little bit like a human version of Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh. And he had even less energy and enthusiasm than Eeyore! In the 10 weeks I had worked there, I had never seen him smile even once. I think there was a time there somewhere in October when I think Steve made eye-contact with me, but I couldn’t swear to it. Steve’s usual habit was to stare at the floor when he talked.
“This’ll be a good chance for me to put on the old Peterson charm and win him over,” I thought to myself.
Little did I know...
“So Steve,” I began, “the pastor asked me to see if I could get the adult Sunday school class involved in the Christmas pageant this year.”
“Oh really,” he mumbled.
“Yep,” I replied.
“That’s odd, because she knows I hate Christmas.”
“Oh…” I said – as my voice cracked a little. “And why do you hate Christmas?”
“Actually, I misspoke a second ago. I don’t hate Christmas. I just hate what people in the church have done with it.”
“Such as…” I said - buying myself a little time to think.
“Such as the way they distort the story in order to create a Hallmark card. Take the time of the year we celebrate Christmas. Every reputable biblical scholar knows that Jesus was probably born in the spring and not in December,” he said – warming up. “But the early church leaders had to co-opt other faith traditions and moved their celebration closer to winter solstice.”
“And that description of Mary that folks are so fond of. Much of the language about her ‘status’ is the result of a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’. People have messed it all up.”
“Uh, huh,” I said nervously – not sure where he would go next.
“And don’t even get me started on the so-called three wise-men!”
“I won’t” I blurted before he could finish his rant. “Let me see if I can talk to the pastor and get back to you with some ideas that might work for you.”
And with that, I staggered away from my encounter with Steve licking my first battle wounds.
While I could appreciate Steve’s all-consuming passion for truth, I couldn’t help but feel that he was missing out on something in his experience of the Christmas story.
As I was trying to put my finger on what Steve was missing out on this week, I stumbled upon a wonderful sermon titled “Have I Got News for You!” by a colleague of mine named William Self who helped me understand my frustrations with Steve.
In discussing the importance of one’s approach toward telling a story, Rev. Self pointed us toward the events surrounding the construction of a railway bridge in 1943 over the Mae Klong River in Thailand. Most folks know about these events because they were first portrayed in a book written in 1952 which was later turned into a movie. The title of that Oscar-winning film was “The Bridge On the River Kwai”.
Fewer folks, however, are aware of another version of those events as written by Ernest Gordon – a theologian who later served as chaplain at Yale University. Gordon’s book was titled “Through the River of the Kwai”.
So what made Gordon’s account of those events different from its more famous counterpart?
You see instead of focusing exclusively on the interaction between the British and the Japanese antagonists, Gordon’s focused on something else: how the British prisoners interacted with one another during their time of imprisonment. The prisoners’ faith was a huge piece of Gordon’s story.
When the British prisoners first realized they weren’t going home anytime soon, Gordon remembered, they began to develop a more active devotional and prayer life. The depth of their spiritual lives, however, was limited. “We knew that the thrust of our praying was to be delivered from this prison camp and that was it.”
Over time, however, things began to change.
“We began to pray,” Gordon noted, “about how we could relate to one another in those bad situations. No longer was our prayer, ‘Why God?’ but it was, ‘How should we act God?’”
The most defining moment in their spiritual growth came on Christmas Day 1944. That day the British prisoners had unexpectedly been given the day off from their forced labor and a little extra food for their meal that afternoon. As the prisoners milled around the work yard, the men sensed something was different. From one of the barracks, the most unexpected of sounds arose: a soldier started singing a Christmas carol.
The sound of that carol cut across first the infirmary and then across the entire the camp. Those who heard it and were able to walk dragged themselves to the parade field where they sat in a circle and continued to sing some of the beloved carols of their faith.
That day – that Christmas Day – Gordon wrote three words that have come to define the Christmas experience for me this holiday season: God touched us…
As I put Gordon’s words down, I finally figured out what was missing from Steve’s assessment of the Christmas story in our encounter nine years ago.
You see Steve had experienced the Christmas story on one – and only one – level. He had engaged it as if were simply a journalistic piece of writing whose sole purpose was to communicate – to borrow words from the lips of Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet – “the facts, just the facts ma’am.”
But is that really the purpose of the Christmas story? Or could its purpose have been something more.
As I re-read the Christmas story this week with Ernest Gordon’s words in mind, I realized that the story was filled to the brim with ways that God touched us.
I thought, for instance, of Elizabeth and her husband Zachariah and the way that God touched the barren couple through the birth of their precious son John – the Baptist.
I thought too of the young woman named Mary and the way that God touched her through the unexpected arrival of her beloved son – Jesus.
Everywhere I turned in the Christmas story I saw God’s fingerprints evident in the lives of those who had been touched.
Even now – as I look around the sanctuary this morning – I see those whose lives have been touched by God and who themselves have been drawn into the Christmas story.
Friends, over the next four days we have the chance to celebrate a story that had the power to reach across 1,944 years and touch the hearts of beleaguered war prisoners and transform their lives. The only work we have left to do then this holiday season is to answer one simple question: will we open ourselves to the power of the Christmas story and let God touch us as well?