Sermon: Seasoned Reason
In Chicago, I did my field education assignment by living in a retirement hotel, an upscale independent living facility. Everyone had their own separate apartment, each floor had daily maid service, and we ate our meals together in the dining room. It was a lovely place to live, and I was the youngest resident. In fact, I was 60 years younger than the average (and the average included me). We had over 250 residents of all different faith backgrounds, and my job was to trouble shoot cultural and religious issues. For example, I had to regularly explain to the kitchen staff that it wouldn’t work to offer our Jewish residents a choice of crab salad or a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch. I taught classes, played the piano on Friday evenings, and I met with the Director to discuss how to address the larger issues facing the community.
My second year there, she told me that their biggest problem over Winter was that we had a staggering number of deaths between December 26 and the end of January. It seems that many people, when sick, hold off the death process until they reach a major milestone. “I just have to make it until my 90th birthday.” “I just have to have one more Hanukkah.” But the other issue was that so many of our residents, along with the rest of the world, became depressed after the holidays. Dinner table conversation was about how disappointing Christmas or Hanukkah was. “My kids were only here for an hour.” “They didn’t take me home with them.” “It wasn’t what I expected.” So the residents become depressed and it makes them weaker. They end up passing away, in part from a broken heart, and then the people around them feel the loss and they get depressed. The whole winter was a disaster from then on. It happened every year.
Charlie Brown says, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”
This is a joyous season for a lot of people, but it also an incredibly difficult season for many others. It’s the first Christmas without a loved one, or another Christmas without a loved one. It’s hectic and expensive. Our kids want more than we can afford. People give us gifts we didn’t expect, and we feel the need to return the favor. Credit cards get maxed out while people lose jobs. It’s another Christmas spent in a war zone. It’s the time of year when we realize that our families are strung across the country or across the world. The gap between those who have and those who have not is never wider than in the holiday season.
I can hear Linus’ words echoing, “Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” It is a problem for so many people, but we still try to go into it with high expectations. It’s Christmas. Everything will be perfect. Families won’t fight. Dinner won’t be tense. The treeskirt will be loaded up with presents. The children’s program will go off without a hitch. The electric bill won’t be that high. We won’t get snowed in, and if we do, hey, we’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas.
Even if we have a knot in the pit of our stomachs, we try to make every Christmas just like the last, only perfect this time. It’s a lot of stress, keeping up these high expectations.
When the Director of the Retirement Hotel and I had discussed how people try to be Linus during Christmas: the positive one who has the highest expectations of the holiday while inside they’re Charlie Brown: realizing they just don’t feel like they’re “supposed to,” we came up with this idea to get people to lower expectations. Who does that? I mean, seriously. I went out to the community with the mission to lower the residents expectations of the holiday. We had a well-attended class where we discussed family traditions, seasonal expectations, past realities, and healthy expectations. Each week, I asked the residents in the class to go to their dinner tables and discuss these same ideas with their table mates. We made my mission to lower expectations to realistic proportions their mission as well. Over the course of four weeks, almost everyone in that hotel had a discussion with a friend about keeping their expectations for the holidays reasonable. And do you know what happened? Nobody died between December 26 and January 30 that year. Not a single resident. It was a record.
If you have high expectations for the holiday because your holidays are always great, that’s great. If your heart or stomach are churning over the holidays, that’s okay too. Because this season is the reason for Jesus.
I said that wrong, right? The sweatshirt says that Jesus is the reason for the season. A pastor friend from Chicago suggested recently that maybe the sweatshirt has it a little mixed up. She has lived through a lot of seasons, and she has realized that it is exactly when our expectations are mixy, our stomachs our churning, our bank accounts are in jeopardy, when people are cold and hungry and stretched too thin, when we can’t tell if we’re coming or going… this season is the reason for Jesus Christ. This kind of human turmoil and stuff… this is why God sent his only son to be born as one of us, live like one of us, die like one of us, and rise so we could. This season, these frustrations, these weird expectations… they’re not God’s doing. They’re ours. We were getting a little twisted up as human beings, so God sent himself to become one of us so that we would realize Emmanuel, God with us, and get untwisted.
God seems to have realistic expectations of us. God tried the whole, “I told you what to do, now do it” but it kept getting twisted. So, God tried “I’ll show you how much I love you.” For all our twists, all our expectations, all our failures, all our churns. And he sent the first message of this to shepherds in a field. Shepherds! These were not the high class high rollers. These were the guys that had to stay out all night away from everybody else. They had no great position in society, no wealth. God sent the message to the Charlie Browns of Israel.
So go watch “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.” Hear Linus tell the story and be a shepherd on the hillside. Merry Christmas, Charlie Browns.