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Redeem the gift card – Christmas sermon by Bishop Paul

Christmas Sermon by Bishop Paul Marshall
Cathedral Church of the Nativity
December 24, 2009

Last Christmas a loved one gave me a very nice gift card ... to Dairy Queen. I was grateful for their kindness but I determined to pass the card on to someone better able to metabolize an Oreo Cookie Blizzard. But also aware of my ability to lose things, I immediately put the card in a safe place until I could give it away. When I came upon it this Tuesday morning, I was startled that it was still around, having benefited or harmed no one. Besides realizing that I had stumbled across a sermon illustration, I began to wonder if there were other gift card scofflaws out there and so hit the internet. I learned that twenty-seven percent of people who receive gift cards lose them, accidentally throw them away, or just never get around to using them. In dollars, last year that casualness amounted to $8 billion out of about $65 billion worth of gift cards sold.

The sermon idea that occurs to me this Christmas is that there is much in the holiday that goes uncollected, or to use the delicious language of the fine print on the card itself, there is much that goes unredeemed.

Take time and relationships. Time is the one thing we cannot ever get back. Spending time with the people who matter to us is not a small thing, and every opportunity that is lost, is lost forever. Eventually people leave this life, too. So even though sometimes we may be frazzled by life and ambivalent about what goes into holiday gatherings, especially when we are young and have so much to do, this feast of the Incarnation is a time to enjoy people, enjoy their existence, if not their jokes.

Of course, if you never felt that anyone enjoyed your existence, if you ever feel undesired, tonight is your ultimate gift card, and it is worth everything to cash it in.

It is because God enjoys our mere existence that the Christmas story is told in the splendor of this night. It is because God delights in human flesh that Christ came as a totally vulnerable infant, putting himself into our hands. We cannot contemplate the crèche or imagine hearing the song of the angels and believe that God despises us or anyone else. The incarnation is permission to walk away from all those inherited forms of religiosity that do not honor every human being, and to walk more gently through life.

Tonight is the opportunity to cash in on freedom from anxiety. This first decade of shiny a new millennium has seen serious trouble on every level. Our lists of what is wrong may differ, but generally speaking there is plenty of concern individually, for our nation, and for the species.

For me at least, the situation invites a special kind of cashing in the gift card. I need to let myself enter the story of Christmas rather than watch it or hear it, a kind of nativity pageant of the heart and mind, the kind you can have every day. You can try out all the characters. I imagine myself as at least a shepherd, taking a place at the manger and looking into the eyes of the infant. When I let that happen I feel my all-too-pent-up love for God flow out of me, and I see in the pupils of those eyes, God’s love for me, which is so easy to ignore. God is with us; the God who saw Jesus through the worst of the worst is walking with us and will see us through whatever life brings. Jesus makes no promises for the material circumstances of our life except this, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” People who have appropriated the courage of that gift have joyfully lived meaningful and useful lives. Some have even been famous; most have not, and look ordinary but strangely calm.

So, I think, redeeming the gift card on Christmas is to enjoy each other as God delights in us. My wish is that each of us lets the loving gaze of the Christ child move us from anxiety to courage, and that we all may step into 2010 with confidence that God goes with us. Merry Christmas.

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