Monday, December 8, 2014

Advent II - St. Nicholas and True Peace

Advent 2 - December 7, 2014
Mark 1:1-8

Today our Gospel reading shared with us a glimpse into the life of St. John the Baptist. John was someone who prepared the way for justice, liberty and true freedom. He came before Jesus and he used his entire life in order to reveal to people the ways of God. The means with which he used to carry for his message of Divine forgiveness and Divine acceptance was not the typical way endorsed by the religious of his time. John did not preach from high places in the temple nor in the local houses of worship wearing regal robes and using lofty rhetoric. Instead, John preached from the desert using simple language and actions to bring about meaningful change for the many lives he touched. John was not about validating himself or his own needs, John was about offering hope to those who felt they were forsaken and forgotten by the religious system and even by God. John pointed to the one who was to come after him, to the one who would offer a baptism of fire that could change one’s entire existence and outlook on life. John was about offering the hope of lasting change, redirection and true peace. Not a facade of peace that exists when we ignore our own issues and the issues of the world but a true peace that exists when we seek to make a difference through our lives, deeds and words.

Today, we celebrate the feast of a bishop who lived long ago and, like John the Baptist, he sough to create the opportunity for lasting change and true peace in the lives of all those who were found in need. His name was, his name is, Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. You might know him as St. Nick or Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was born in Asia Minor in the year 270AD to a wealthy Christian family. Nicholas was a lucky little boy, you might say. However, while he was still very young a horrifying epidemic washed over the land killing countless lives including the life of his mother and father. After his parents’ untimely and unexpected death, Nicholas was raised by one of his uncles, who happened to be a bishop in the church. Over the years, Nicholas grew in love for God and everyone around him, so much so that his very own uncle ordained him a deacon and priest when he became an adult. Later on, due to Nicholas’s ability to offer hope and the love of God to many, he was ordained a bishop. There are many stories that surround the life of St. Nicholas, some are likely true and some are likely legend. Regardless, they all have beautiful meaning, they share with us great insight into life and humanity, and, finally, they invite you and I to participate in our faith with similar engagements.

One story tells us there was a great famine in the land. People were starving everywhere and food could barely be found. Famine often brings out the worse in humanity and we can understand why. We become grumpy if we miss a single meal, imagine often missing meals for days at a time. It is said three small children were out searching for food when they came across a butcher’s business. The butcher invited the children to come in but instead of offering them shelter and food, he took their lives and prepared them to become food for others. I know this causes us to squirm in our seats and in our hearts, we don’t want to hear such stories and yet deeper down do we not know that such injustice happens in many parts of the world? Simply because humanity cannot share its resources with one another, people are practically forced by our inaction to take measures that are never acceptable and yet not without some understanding. Thankfully, the story goes on to tell us that Bishop Nicholas was making pastoral visits, seeking to bring solace to those who were starving and sharing what he had. He came to the butcher’s business where God revealed to him what had occurred to the three starving children. The butcher was approached by Nicholas for his deed and was about to flee his business when in a miraculous turn of events the three small children were brought back to life. The butcher fell to his knees, repented and was granted forgiveness through the love of God and the compassion of the children and the good bishop. Now this story may seem far-fetched to many of us and yet does it not ring true for our world today? Does hunger not pervade the lives of so many causing them to become criminals, even if in less horrifying ways? Does our selfish culture not perpetuate this horror by seeking to imprison those who starve instead of seeking to eradicate the hunger? St. Nicholas calls you and I this day to remove ourselves from our comfortable places of ignorance and blindness and to become aware of the atrocities that are committed simply because human feel they have no other choice in order to survive. Just as John the Baptist called out in the wilderness for a change in society, St. Nicholas calls out to us reminding us of the words of Jesus, “Feed my sheep!” This holiday season will we seek the sheep that are starving, will we aid those who feel they are have no choice but a life of criminal activity in order to endure or will we remain shut up in our homes satisfying our own needs alone? Bishop Nicholas could have remained in his comfortable and secure bishops’ house, apart from the struggles of his community. Instead, he entered into the trouble that surrounded him, he took action, and he became a tool of God’s mercy and peace instead of an accomplice to deadly ignorance.

Another story tells us of Bishop Nicholas’s awareness of social injustice and classism that existed 1,700 years ago and exists today all around us. A poor man, on the fringes of society, was said to have three daughters who were old enough to be married. In Nicholas’s time a woman could only be married if her family had a dowry, a certain sum of money, they could give away with her on the wedding day.  I doubt I need to explain to this congregation the sexism that exists in such marriage arrangements. Regardless, a family who could not afford to have their daughters married often witnessed, in horror, as their daughters became prostitutes due to no other means of employment and caring for themselves. Bishop Nicholas heard of the fate of these women and quickly acted making use of his parent’s fortune to provide a dowry that each of the women might be able to marry and have financial and life security, maintaining self-worth as was meaningful to them.

How Nicholas performed his act of mercy varies depending on the account you read: some say he did so secretly, as to not publically embarrass the family, by leaving the dowries in the stockings of the three women leading to our modern day use of Christmas stockings. It matters little how St. Nicholas provided for these women, what matters is that he was acutely aware of the struggle of those around him, he was aware of the classism that existed in a society that deemed poor people worth little if anything. He was aware of the cultural belief that minorities must suffer the hand dealt to them and it was their burden alone to carry. St. Nicholas once again placed himself in the midst of an unjust system and created lasting change through his action. Nicholas’s gift giving undoubtedly distressed some in the community. Many likely felt that poor family deserved what was coming to them; perhaps they had made poor financial decisions in the past or failed in some respect. Nicholas did not look at the past nor care what had brought this family to their current crisis; he cared only to bring relief and peace to them. He was willing to place himself in the midst of unjust system and cry out: NO LONGER!

On this second Sunday of Advent, you are I care called to bring peace to the earth through our cooperation with the ways of God. However, we often presume peace to mean being quiet and still, not rocking the boat and attempting to get along with everyone. St. Nicholas demonstrates for us that true peace comes not through silence or hiding away but through concrete action inserting ourselves into any and all system of oppression, injustice and ignorance. This Advent season we are surrounded by famine, death and oppression.

The World Food Program, sponsored by the United Nations, made its biggest cutback ever in the history of the organization as it ceased to offer food to 1.7 million Syrian refugees simply because of a lack of cash flow. The organization’s director said this concerning the cutback, “A suspension of W.F.P. food assistance will endanger the health and safety of these refugees and will potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighboring host countries.” Lord, have mercy. Today, we are no better than the butcher in the story of St. Nicholas as we essentially offer up the innocent to be victimized, criminalized and slaughtered because of their starvation.

We witnessed the ongoing systems of racial oppression, which are allowed to flourish in our country, as a New York Grand Jury refused to indict a police officer regarding the homicide of an unarmed black man. Eric Garner lay dying in an illegal chokehold as he was heard to say again and again, “I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe.” Eventually, no more words were heard coming from Eric’s dead body offered up on the altar of societal ignorance and racism.

Where are the John the Baptists’ and the St. Nicholas’ of our time. Where are the men and women who will stand up and become a voice of difference, a voice of radical calling demanding change and a voice that will only be silenced with death and not with the comforts of selfishness and ignorance? How will we honor the memory and the ever-living presence of St. Nicholas, of Santa Claus, in our lives? How will we seek out those who discover they have no choice but to end their life or the life of another? Who will we seek out those who live in fear, this holiday season, because they have no means to care for themselves and their children? How will we fight systems of oppression, classism, racism and bigotry that allow the poor, the minority, the disfranchised, the “other” to fear for every moment of their life?

Yes, today we light the candle of peace and we call forth God’s peace on earth but it comes not through silence and cowardness. True and lasting, life altering, peace comes through action and becoming the voice calling out in the wilderness of life, “Prepay the way of God! “

Lord God,
as you led St. Nicholas to feed your sheep by his word,
and guide them by his example,
give us grace to keep the faith which he taught,
and to follow in his footsteps:
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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