The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

CHRISTMAS IN THE CROSSFIRE

Delivered 12/18/05
Text: Titus 2:11-14
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Monday, a week ago, Christie and I came over from the manse to give blood - the regular bi-monthly Red Cross drive. It was the first time either of us could donate in over a year because of the restrictions on donations from anyone who has been in Mexico within the past twelve months, and, of course, we had. Malaria danger. We went through all the preliminaries - sign in, read the instructions, blood pressure, pin prick, health questions - then, finally, up on the table, arm out, tourniquet on, and voilá, the blood flows.

There are certain things one does not want to happen when lying there in such a vulnerable position. You do not want to here someone who is working on you suddenly say OOPS. You do not want to look at the face of the technician and see a reflection of horror. Suddenly, the technician speaks in a voice of barely disguised panic to one of her supervisors, "Could you come over here and look at this?" Uh-huh. Then the supervisor comes, looks quickly and calls to HER supervisor, "Could you come over here and look at this, please?"

Meanwhile, I am lying there more than a little curious. "What's the matter?"

"It's the wrong color."

Wrong Color? Well, I AM Presbyterian, so a certain tint of blue might not be unexpected. "Wrong color?" I asked. She held up the bag for me to see, and she was right - it WAS the wrong color. Fire engine red instead of the deeper burgundy that one would expect to see. On top of that, the bag filled up in seconds, not the several minutes it normally takes. It seems they had gotten an artery instead of a vein, and that was not supposed to happen.

I told them if I died on that table, one of them would have to preach this Sunday, another shock for which they were not prepared. One of the supervisors asked if I were the pastor here and, of course, I said yes. She turned to the technician who had initially taken care of me and said, "If you didn't have BAD luck, you wouldn't have any luck at all."

Well, as is obvious, they managed to keep me alive. They gave me instructions on what to do upon returning home, and if any problems arose, call 9-1-1. They also said that someone from the Red Cross office would be calling to check on me in the next few days to see how things were going. No problem, and no problems later either, except for a massive ugly bruise that they had said was likely. I thought no more about it, but I let Christie know that evening that I would not be able to help much around the house - doctor's orders, you know. She said, "You going to milk this for all it's worth, aren't you?" I just sweetly smiled.

A couple of days later, 7:15 AM, the phone rang. It was the Red Cross. This was the call they said I would get. They wanted to know if everything was all right, had there been any aftereffects, if there were anything they could do, etc., etc., etc. No, no, no - everything is fine. No problems at all. Finally, with relief in her voice, the conversation came to an end and she said, "Oh, and by the way MERRY CHRISTMAS. It just feels SO GOOD to say that." The sense of joy in her voice was almost palpable as she said something that, one would have thought, had been absolutely forbidden up till now. WOW! Merry Christmas!!! Sounded a little weird, frankly. I think I held the phone away from my ear a moment and looked at it before I responded, "Yes, and Merry Christmas to you too." And that was the end of it.

Of course, it was not the end of it, as this morning attests. I had told the staff at the blood bank that this incident WOULD end up as a sermon illustration sometime. After all, blood holds a prominent place in our faith. Some of the Bible's most important truths involve blood - the life of the flesh is in the blood (Leviticus 17:11); we have redemption through [Christ's] blood, the forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7); the blood of Jesus...purifies us from all sin (I John 1:7); just to name a few. Blood is a big deal biblically.

But that is not what got those anxious technicians into this morning's sermon. It was the almost joyous kicking over the traces of that wish for "...MERRY CHRISTMAS. It just feels SO GOOD to say that."

Well, it has always felt good for me to say it too. And, to be honest, I never worried much about it. I have tried to be somewhat sensitive and not extend the wish to my Jewish or Muslim friends. That would have made no sense, but I never felt particularly reluctant to say it. Did you?

What brings it to mind this year is this bizarre concern that some people are supposedly feeling about being prevented from wishing folks Merry Christmas. Apparently, it all started again last year when Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly started a "Christmas Under Siege" campaign to call attention to the fact that many businesses were not wishing shoppers "Merry Christmas" upon the completion of their transactions, but rather something innocuous and non-specific like "Happy Holidays." (By the way, I say "again" because the ultra-right wing John Birch Society said the same thing in the 1950's - they said it was a conspiracy concocted by the Godless United Nations.) Meanwhile, Focus on the Family's James Dobson now has something called the Alliance Defense Fund which is running a project with the motto: "Merry Christmas. It's OK to say it." Jerry Falwell has launched a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," with promises to file suit against anyone who spreads what he sees as misinformation about how Christmas can be celebrated in schools and public spaces. He says he has 750 lawyers who are ready to pounce if, for example, a teacher is muzzled from leading the third-graders in "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Of course, those 750 lawyers do not come cheap, so your tax deductible contributions are most welcome to insure the success of this important venture.

Now, one of O'Reilly's compatriots at Fox News, John Gibson, has published a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Huh? I am a liberal, and proud of it, but the only thing I have been plotting this Christmas is how to survive without going into bankruptcy.

Even Fox News's favorite president has been taking heat. This year, as every other year, the Bush family sent out 1.4-million cards wishing friends and supporters "best wishes for a holiday season of hope and happiness." How terrible! In the words of William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil rights, "This clearly demonstrates that the Bush Administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture."(1) Say what? I thought he was supposed to be President of all the people, not just Christians.

Truth is America has a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who despised it and considered the celebration un-Christian. They could not find December 25th in the Bible, which was their sole source of religious guidance, and insisted that the date simply derived from Saturnalia, the Romans' wintertime celebration (which, as I have explained before, is NOT correct). On their first December 25th in the New World, in 1620, the Puritans worked on building projects and made an ostentatious point of ignoring the day. From 1659 to 1681, Massachusetts went even further, making celebrating Christmas "by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way" a crime.

The concern that Christmas distracted from religious piety continued even after Puritans faded away. In 1827, an Episcopal bishop lamented that the Devil had stolen Christmas "and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting and swearing." Throughout the 1800's, many religious leaders were still trying to hold the line. As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on December 25th because "they do not accept the day as a Holy One." (Hmm. Maybe some of the mega-churches could have used that excuse in announcing that they will be closed next Sunday.) On the eve of the Civil War, Christmas was recognized in just 18 states. It did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

Christmas began to gain popularity when it was transformed into a domestic celebration, after the publication of Clement Clarke Moore's "Visit from St. Nicholas" and Thomas Nast's drawings in Harper's Weekly which created the image of a white-bearded Santa who gave gifts to children. The new emphasis lessened religious leaders' worries that the holiday would be given over to drinking and shooting and swearing, but it introduced another concern: commercialism. And we have been battling that ever since with a notable lack of success and to the great relief of the nation's retailers who do their best business of the year just prior to Christmas.(2)

This year's Christmas "defenders" are not just tolerating commercialization - they are insisting upon it. Shop at the places that will wish you MERRY CHRISTMAS, not just Happy Holidays.

One of my cyberfriends, a colleague in an internet sermon preparation service, recently wrote, "A friend of mine's daughter just got out of college and is working as the manager of a retail store. Her clerks were wishing people 'Happy Holidays' but some 'Christians' were so offended that the clerk did not wish them 'Merry Christmas' that they tore into the clerks and left several of them on the verge of tears. They have now been instructed to politely thank the customer and make absolutely no reference to the holiday season whatever. This is the kind of behavior that is getting press as being representative of the Christian faith."(3)

Some of you heard Martin Marty this summer at Chautauqua. He is an elder-statesman of American theologians. This week in his "Sightings" column, he wrote, "Already fifty years ago, when I began to moonlight in journalism, we were worrying about the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. Now the debate revolves around its politicization. Listen carefully: It is less about religion than about politics, about who "belongs" and who sets the terms in America. Enough."(4)

And I say AMEN! Christmas is just getting caught in the crossfire. We are living in a nation that, I am convinced, is not nearly so divided as some folks who have been exploiting us want us to believe. The vast majority of us AGREE on the vast majority of issues - social, political, theological, whatever. There are some FRINGE issues about which we might disagree, but so what? We do not have to agree on everything to successfully live and work together - ask any husband or wife. My advice is simply this: do not get caught up in these controversies. They are not worth it, they serve no purpose except to those who are trying to exploit them and us, and they certainly do not reflect well on us as Christians.

All I want for Christmas this year is GRACE. Just GRACE. Why grace? Because somehow, over the course of my life, I have seen what appears to be an inexorable shrinkage of the pool of grace available in our world. It is getting meaner and meaner and meaner out there, and I know you have noticed. For goodness sake, even the mortgage companies and bankers offer a bit of "grace" when things get tight, but other than that, no one seems willing to cut anyone any slack. We are a society that wants WHAT it wants, WHEN it wants it, and the WAY it wants it. And heaven help anyone who would dare to disappoint us, even inadvertently. If someone fails to meet our expectations, they should be fired or sued or boycotted. History may look on ours as a "civilized" society (although that could be open to question), but we have become a not very "civil" society, haven't we? Where is the grace anymore?

Let it be right here, OK? The story of Christmas is, after all, at its heart, a story of grace. The coming of Jesus Christ into our world 2,000 years ago is the affirmation of God's unmerited favor to us. Scripture is clear. Our brief epistle lesson from Titus, chapter 2, is regularly read at this time of the year. Paul writes, "For the grace of God that brings salvation...Jesus...has appeared to all..." Grace - the essence of Christmas.

Someone has suggested that love is like the Bible's loaves and fishes - it works best when given away. I think it is the same with grace. Perhaps we will have a more grace-filled society if we in the church who have been the recipients of God's marvelous grace in Christ Jesus will take it upon ourselves to begin giving it away, and to encourage our Christian friends to do the same. I can promise it will make a difference in everyone of our lives.

You remember Dr. Suess' wonderful story of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Inside a snowflake exists the magical land of Whoville where live the Who's, an almost mutated sort of munchkin-like people. All the Who's love Christmas, yet just up the hill, in a cave on Mt. Crumpit overlooking the village, lives the Grinch, a creature with "termites in his smile" and "garlic in his soul," and with "a heart two sizes too small." The Grinch hates the thought of the village having a happy time celebrating Christmas. So disguised as Santa Claus, with his dog Max made up to look like a reindeer, he raids Whoville to steal all the Christmas things - ornaments, decorations, presents, whatever. It becomes the personal goal of little Cindy Lou Who to try to show the Grinch (and everyone else) what Christmas is really all about. Finally, the citizens of Whoville, now bereft of gifts, wreaths, trees, and candy, realize that there is more to the celebration than just stuff - they join hands in a circle and sing for the sheer joy of it. The point, of course, is that Christmas cannot be stolen by anyone, regardless of what some of today's commentators might lead us to believe. In the end, the Grinch's small heart grows three sizes, he rescues all the Christmas goodies from plummeting off the side of the mountain and graciously saves Cindy Lou. Good for the Grinch.

Grace. That is what I want for Christmas this year...GRACE. You too? And I want to be a grace-giver to you...and you and you and you and you... because I know that will begin to make this world more the place that the gracious God who sent us Jesus wants it to be. Oh, and Merry Christmas. It DOES feel good to say it.

Amen!

1. Alan Cooperman, "Taking Christ out of Xmas," Washington Post, 12/10/05

2. Historical details are from an article by Adam Cohen, "This Season's War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else," New York Times, 12/4/05

3. George Reed, pastor in the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, via e-mail, 12/8/05

4. 12/12/05

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