Quite in Spite of Ourselves
By Charles T Rush
December 24, 2000
Lk. 1: 39-56
got this from an atheist fraternity brother, who happens
to attend the Episcopal Church. It was titled something like Santa’s big job.
“There are approximately 2 billion children in the
world. However, since Santa does not
of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist religions, this reduces the workload for
Christmas night to 15% of the total, or 378 million. At an average rate of 3.5
children per household, that comes to 108 million homes.
Santa has about 31 hours of Christmas to work, thanks to the
different time zones and the rotation of the earth. This works out to 967.7
visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household, Santa has
around 1/1000-th of a second to park the sleigh, hop out, jump down the
chimney, fill the stocking, distribute the presents under the tree, eat
whatever snacks have been left for him, get back up the chimney, jump into the
sleigh and get onto the next house.
Assuming that each of these 108 million stops is evenly
around the earth we are talking about 0.78 miles per
household; a total
trip of 75.5 million miles...This means Santa's sleigh is
moving at 650 miles per second--3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of
comparison, the fastest man made vehicle, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a
poky 27.4 miles per second, and a conventional reindeer can run (at best) 15
miles per hour.” The article went on to calculate the payload of Santa’s sleigh
and how hard it would be to start and stop. It was signed- or it should have
been signed- The Grinch. My wife wrote him back, “So Santa is very busy, what
else is new”.
Santa unabashedly exists in our home. My wife never saw any
point in demythologizing St. Nick when the kids turned 9. Reams of evidence
have been presented in our home like the size of the jolly old elf and the slim
chute in our chimney. How could he get down that
thing? We had a coal fireplace at our
Princeton. Not even anorexic Santa could fit into. Complicated explanations
have been advanced for how Santa handles apartment buildings, homeless
children, people in hospitals, and even submarines. But there is also
mysterious evidence. There is the tell tale bite out of the cookie, the kids
always find before Mom and Dad wake up and the unmistakable sip
taken from the egg nog, two facts which continue to demand explanation. Despite
the onslaught of years of relentless skeptical questioning from our children,
my wife has held firm. And she won. My college kids, aged 20 and 21 both mailed
me letters this fall of possible gifts they needed for Christmas with a p.s.
“Please get this to Santa Claus. I know you know how.” And I do.
I once asked my wife about her commitment to Santa in that
way that spouses ask these things with a hint of suggestion that maybe a slight
change would be in order for the future. She said, “if God can work some good
through men like George Bush, Al Gore… and even you dear, She can work with St.
Nick.” I’ve decided to let that one go.
Our text today is a wonderful tale about God coming to the
absolutely ordinary, the people that don’t ever make the papers or the police
blotter, and enlisting them in the great revolutionary conspiracy of love that
will set the world on its ear.
Scholars are of a consensus that Mary was a young teenage
girl born into a patriarchal society where she had almost no power, very little
education, very few rights, just a step up from subsistence existence. Her
countrymen were occupied by the Romans, subjects in their own land to rather
brutal oppression. Those crosses that Jesus eventually died on lined the street
coming out of Jerusalem that led down the mountain. Mary was not only a very
side player in the great drama of human history, she would have been a
candidate for one of those wistful pictures in National Geographic of some
remote Bedouin in some far away romantic back drop.
But Mary’s reputation rose dramatically after she died.
Today, it can probably be said that she is the most influential woman in
history. So many millions of people have petitioned her for prayer for
everything from lotto numbers to an only child with terminal illness. She has
carried so many burdens. With the advent of the monastery, she became the
mother and feminine image of devotion for countless generations of monks that
were cut off from women altogether. So many men to nurture.
She is unquestionably the most popular woman in Art History,
without a close second. Giotto, Michaelangelo, Tinoretto and thousands of other
painters have venerated her with the most elevated attributes of piety and
womanhood. Indeed, as her reputation as a miracle worker advanced, artistic
depictions of her became down right angelic and other worldly. You can almost
track her importance in history by seeing her relationship to Jesus. Most of
the time, she is holding Jesus in her lap, but by the late middle ages (at the
height of her popularity), she and Jesus are almost co-equals, the King and
Queen on their thrones, with equal halo’s radiating around their heads.
I visited Ephesus a few years ago to look at the
archaeological excavation near there and I stopped by to see the house where
tradition holds that she died. She reportedly moved there with the apostle John
and died in a humble home in the hills. Ephesus is in modern day Turkey, and
the Turks do quite a lot to discourage Christianity and Christian historical
sites. Despite that, the day I went to her house, there were probably 5,000
Christians that waited patiently for their turn to enter, say a prayer, and
leave. Her stock grew almost miraculously after her death.
But that was later. Today, she is just a scared teenager
that God wants to bless with a child. She is anxious and afraid. The angel
comes to her and says, “Hail, oh favored one, the Lord is with you. But she was
greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of
greeting this might be. And the Angle said, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you
have found favor with God.’”(Lk. 1:29,30).
When God draws near, the first word spoken is ‘fear not’. We
need that. Do you remember Jessica McClure? She was the child that disappeared
in her back yard. I think she was right around 2 years old, walking in her back
yard in Texas, when she slid into a very small hole that was the entrance to an
abandoned section of pipe from some kind of mine. A huge task force of hundreds
of neighbors were mobilized and eventually she was freed from something like a
hundred feet below ground where she was stuck. That rescue effort was organized
in two parts, which got my attention. The first part wasn’t actually to rescue
Jessica. They worked to get someone down near her, as close as they could get,
so that they could talk to her and keep her calm. They knew that people in
crisis situations can panic and do something stupid that accidentally injures
them. How true that is. How simple, yet profound that God comes to us and
before we are commissioned, God first allays our fears. God calms us down.
A good friend of mine was telling me about one of his
She was a very talented lawyer. She volunteered on many community boards and at
his church. She was organized and gregarious. She was also one of those lawyers
that when she put a suit on and entered the board-room was capable, in his
words, of ‘kicking butt and taking names.’ He’d seen her do it a couple times.
She had four boys, great athletes, solid scholars. Her youngest one was a
consistent underachiever, except in partying, where he had quite a reputation
around town. He was the only child to attend the local college, rather than
Duke where she and her husband went to school. She used to say that she
probably nursed him too long. Things had been testy the last couple years of
High School and she was glad to have him out of the house at college. There was
still some distance and frustration and carping at this kid, none of it to any
My friend gets a call from his secretary that he’d better
head over to the hospital because this kid was involved in some fraternity
prank that ended in people getting seriously injured. Alcohol was involved-
surprise. And the police were in on this.
He gets to the hospital emergency room. As he pulls up,
Action News 4 is outside and a reporter is roaming the hall. The kids mother is
talking to the police, who are filing a report. No one is quite sure what
happened but some laws were broken. Several people were seriously hurt. The kid
has spinal injuries and injuries to his head. He will probably make it, but
She wasn’t able to reach her husband who was on a business
flight to Dallas. In addition to talking to the police, the reporters from the
TV want to talk to her and she almost feels like she needs to do a press
conference to set things straight. There she was doing what she does best,
managing a crisis even-handedly and she was at the center of this one. In the
middle of these conversations, she leans over to the Minister and says, ‘I keep
trying to punch the damn rewind button and it doesn’t do anything… it just
doesn’t do anything.’
He looked at her, really looked at her. She was good to go
for a press conference if she had to do one. Business suit, great hair, poised.
But he knew her very well. He kept his focus on her eyes and in her eyes he
saw fear… not just the worry and
anxiety of a mother, he saw the fear of a little girl. He asked the officer for
a moment, walked her down the hall to an open office door. He said, ‘hey’ and
he opened his arms and gave her a hug. She sobbed so hard he almost had to hold
her up. Over and over she said, “I just want one more chance.” They just stood
there for a while crying, crying… for everything.
Sometimes that is what we need to do for each other. The
angel said, ‘do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.’ Hugging
usually says the same thing far more effectively.
I bet that some of you this morning are feeling just a bit
frazzled right now. There are still a bunch of things that have to be done. You
are feeling like you need to get the holiday right and that is going to take a
big push between now and tomorrow. And some of you are worried about stuff in
the back of your mind- about family members that aren’t getting along, about
work situations that are more than a little tentative, about romance that isn’t
going so well, about people you love that are sick. You are worried that stuff
may not turn out all that well and it makes you nervous putting together a
holiday celebration. You want to be jubilant but it is not coming naturally.
I’m glad you started your morning here. I want you to
remember that the most important thing about the Holiday is
We celebrate the birth of the One who came to invest in people, who showed us
how to open ourselves and love others.
I want to remind you that it is going to be okay, that God
can use you to bless other people. God will use you to bless other people,
quite in spite of yourself. God took Mary, an ordinary teenage peasant girl and
blessed her, and through her she blessed so many other people that today she is
the most recognizable woman in world history. All she did was say ‘yes’ to God.
It is not about you, your talent, or lack thereof. It is not about your
patience or lack thereof. It is about God. Say yes to God; open yourself to
being filled with the Spirit of God’s love. For the next 48 hours I want you to
see yourself as a conduit of grace to other people- affirm them, empower them,
respect them, let them bloom, bless them.
And the strange thing is that it will all come back to you.
Reinhold Niebuhr once said that in Christianity, self-fulfillment is a
by-product of the fulfillment of others. He got that right. Jesus taught us to
be focused on meeting the needs of other. About ourselves, he said not to worry
too much about what we shall wear or how we shall dress… for God knows what you
need. But the curious thing is that it does come back to you, maybe not
directly, not from the people you actually empower and heal. But somehow, some
way, when you need someone to stand you up and hold you, they will appear. The
angel said to Mary “Hail O favored one. The Lord is with you… Do not be afraid,
for you have found favor with God.” My brothers and sisters, Merry Christmas.