Friday, January 8, 2010

The Mayor's Christmas Present

I preached this sermon on the Sunday after Christmas. Your feedback is welcome!

The Mayor’s Christmas Present

A sermon preached at Wesley Church UMC, Medford, MA, December 27, 2009

Text: Matthew 1: 18-25

As we continue celebrating Christmas, I wanted us to hear the account of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel according to Matthew. The usual telling of the Christmas story, as you probably know, is a tapestry woven from bits and pieces of the account of Luke and the account of Matthew. When we take the time to read Luke’s and Matthew’s stories separately, though, we find some interesting differences. One of these differences is illustrated in the story we just heard; it concerns how it is that God communicates with us.

In Luke’s Gospel, people receive visits from angels, in the middle of the daytime, or in the middle of the night-time; the glory of God shines out with lots of special effects. When we look closely at Matthew’s Gospel, written for a Jewish audience rather than a Greek-speaking one, we don’t find so many special effects. There is the star, of course, that leads the Magi, but that star is a sign that is only understood by those few. Messages from God still come from an angel, but they come by way of dreams. The presence of God comes in a subtle way, a very ordinary way.

Sometimes we look for wonderful signs that convince us that God is with us. My mother, God rest her, was a devout Christian woman. About twenty years ago, she made a pilgrimage with her sister to a town in Bosnia called Medugorje, a place where it was said that the Virgin Mary was appearing in visions to three young people. Mom told me that she had seen the miracle: she had seen the sun change colors, had seen silver rosary chains turn to gold. I was a bit skeptical, and I’m a little sorry to admit that I sort of teased her about it. I said that I was glad that she had the chance to see the miracle, but that I didn’t have to go all the way to Europe to find miracles -- I regularly saw miracles only a block away from my home. This morning, I’d like to tell you about one of those miracles, one that came in the form of a very unexpected Christmas present.

It happened when I was in graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I spent seven years at UC Santa Barbara working on my Ph.D., and like many graduate students, I spent quite some time stuck... and procrastinating. For me, that procrastination consisted of spending my energies volunteering with poor and homeless people in my neighborhood.

I lived in a neighborhood next to UCSB called Isla Vista, or I.V. for short. Isla Vista was not just a student neighborhood. It was also a place where poor people lived. There were street people and old hippies, some of whom would be out every day panhandling the college students. There were also Hmong Lao refugees, newly settled in the U.S. and doing whatever they needed to (including gardening on the parklands) to survive. Increasingly, there were Latin@ immigrants, working for minimum wage jobs and doubling up in Isla Vista’s relatively inexpensive apartments. In short, many of my neighbors were people who went hungry. A Catholic friend of mine, named Joe, one of Joe’s friends, and the local Methodist minister finally called a meeting in response to the sight of people picking through dumpsters to find food. The result of that meeting was a non-profit organization called “Let Isla Vista Eat” or, LIVE for short.

My friend Joe soon roped me into volunteering with LIVE and, I have to say, it changed my life. We offered a free breakfast of cereal, hard-boiled eggs, and toast every weekday. We hosted distributions of USDA surplus foods. At Thanksgiving and at Christmas, we put on turkey dinners at the University Religious Center for whomever wanted to eat -- usually 200 or 300 people. And for two winters, we opened the Center at night as a temporary shelter for those who were homeless and (at least relatively) sober.

The homeless people, the street people, were an interesting mix. I remember E., who didn’t seem to have a job and who lived off whatever castoffs she could find. There were some like R.-- or to use his street name, Leprechaun -- who had a warm and dry place to sleep but not much else. Leprechaun would earn some pocket money -- well, really, beer money -- sweeping sidewalks, and made it a point to flirt with all the college women. And then there was The Mayor.

His given name was D., but everyone called him “The Mayor” -- I guess because he acted as if he owned the town. D. could usually be seen every afternoon sitting on the steps of a local store, drunk, looking scruffy, and playing a boom box at full volume. D. didn’t flirt with the college girls, the way Leprechaun did. He didn’t flirt with anybody. He ranted, and he scowled, towards anyone who came past him or, maybe more to the point, to nobody in particular. In short, nobody much hung out with the Mayor. I know I didn’t. I was afraid of angry drunks. I was so afraid of encountering D. that I would even cross the street to avoid being where I could hear him.

Every year, as Christmas time came around, my friend Joe went through his usual routine of inviting all the folks on the street to come over for Christmas dinner. We would of course expect to see our usual breakfast crowd, folks like E. and Leprechaun, but Joe also made it a point to invite everyone who was on the street, maybe especially the folks who were usually too drunk or wasted to come around for breakfast, at 8 AM, clean and sober. In this particular year, lo and behold, two days before Christmas, the Mayor came over for breakfast.

D. had shaved and cleaned up, and he was sober and polite. I somehow got up the nerve to greet him -- which, after all, was my job. He spoke pleasantly and intelligently to me -- something I had never experienced from D.. He came the next day, too, and the following day, for Christmas dinner. One one of these days, as I was standing in the lobby of the building, Doug came up to me with a brown sweater in his hand.

“Here,” he said. “This is for you. I found it in the Free Box”-- which was a place where people put their cast-off stuff for others to claim -- “and it looked like it might fit you, so I took it home and washed it. Merry Christmas.”

I was astonished. I don’t remember what I said -- probably something like, “Thank you, D. That was really sweet of you.” I took the sweater home with me that night. As it turned out, the sweater was a little small on me, so I didn’t wear it much. But I kept it for a very long time. It was the most unexpected present I had ever received. I had thought of myself as being well off, as doing something for people who didn’t have what I did, but here was a guy who spent his days on the streets... and found a way to reciprocate the gift he had received.

It was a miracle that D. had shown up sober for those days up to and including Christmas. Sadly, it didn’t last; alcoholism is a disease that takes years to develop and is not healed overnight. In the coming weeks, I would again see D. the Mayor holding court on Embarcadero del Mar, playing his music loud, and scowling at the passers-by. And since I was still too afraid of angry drunks to come near D., I went back to trying to ignore him. But I remembered that for a few days, he had been a sociable and agreeable human being. His few days of sobriety were among many miracles that I witnessed during my time with LIVE -- miracles that came about because one human being had treated another human being with love instead of contempt, had been kind and thoughtful instead of dismissing a street person as lazy, sick, or disposable. Miracles that came about because of the generosity of one or two people, given for no other reason than that the love of Christ impelled them to pass on that same love.

By the end of this week, I am quite sure, most if not all of the stores will have removed their Christmas merchandise. By the end of next week, I am willing to bet that some will already have Valentine’s Day merchandise on display. The business of America will have moved on to the next thing. The business of followers of Jesus Christ, however, is precisely to stay on this one thing: that Infinite Love became one of us, and is with us still. The Christmas story teaches that through Jesus, God became one of us, and in so doing made our lives holy. Not just your life, or my life, but every one of the six billion - odd lives on this planet. All the people who have been, and all the people who will be.

My wish for us, as we complete this Christmas season in the next week or so, is that we will remember the healing power that can come from even the smallest act of kindness. Especially in a year such as this one, when so many people are hurting economically and so many more are afraid of what might happen, actions of kindness and mercy are even more important... and more powerful.

The world may return to business as usual. For those of us who are pledged to follow Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, however, our task and our call remain the same all year round. We are called to see with the loving eyes of the infant Jesus. We are called to love with the generous heart of the Holy One who gave one hundred percent of Godself, to us. When we see each other through those eyes, when we love each other through that generous heart, we will know that there are still miracles on earth. So may it be.

Merry Christmas, and a very blessed and miracle-filled New Year, to you all.

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