Matthew 15.21-28

Galatians 4.4-7

Leftover Morsels

First Sunday after Christmas

            The passage from Matthew about the Canaanite woman is one of the more intriguing stories in the Bible, because it is one of the very few that show Jesus in an ungenerous light.  We heard a woman pleading for her daughter, and Jesus’ initial reaction is to shoo her away.  It wasn’t until she became adamant and basically traps him with his own words that he relents.  It’s a rich text, one that I will preach on some morning, but not today.  Rather I chose it because of what she says to trap him:  “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”  Consider this morning’s sermon among those crumbs that have fallen from the table.   The seasons of Advent and Christmas provide a lot of material to work with, so it is inevitable that there will be some sermonic crumbs that fall off the table, or off my desk, or out of the sermon, because there just isn’t room for it all.  It’s like all those leftovers in your fridge after the holidays, the Tupperware neatly stacked up, food that was wasn’t consumed the first time around, but that, put together the weekend after Christmas, still adds up to a decent meal.  I hope and pray that this morning’s collection of sermonic table scraps are able to make a decent meal for us this morning.

            Advent began in darkness.  Not just in the darkness of the yet-to-be-lit advent wreath, but in the darkness of the readings that are prescribed for every single first Sunday in Advent.  If you were here that morning, you won’t forget the imagery:  Jesus said,

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes… there will be famines…  Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no and [there] never will be.”

What a cheery way to begin the holiday season, right?  One of the things I did not say about this passage at the time – and it appears in one form or another in Matthew, Mark and Luke – is that while all three writers agree that Jesus said this at some point in his ministry, no one can agree about exactly where in his ministry he said it, and that uncertainty remains even for contemporary readers.  In each of the three gospels it looks like the passage has been clumsily shoehorned into the text.  In fact, if you look closely, you can skip from the verse just before the passage – which is roughly a whole chapter long - to the verse just after it, and the story would still be seamless, as though Jesus’ dark words were never uttered.  So anyone who might have been a little unsettled by those words at the beginning of Advent, not only do you have ample reason, you’ve got lots of company as well.

            Two weeks later we heard Joseph and Mary’s holiday letter to their family and friends as they made their way to Bethlehem.  One element of their message was the menorah they carried with them, as their journey took place roughly around Hanukkah.  You’ll remember that they wrapped the menorah in some household rags to protect it along the journey, rags that were eventually repurposed as Jesus swaddling cloths.  A couple of you asked me if I thought that was really how it happened.  Well, I’ll confess this morning that the story of the menorah was little more than a Macguffin.  Those who remember the films of Alfred Hitchcock, or even his television series, may recognize the Macguffin, which Hitchcock employed regularly.  Very simply, a Macguffin is something that helps move the plot of a story along without necessarily being integral to it.  So I used the menorah in the sermon as a way to get the swaddling cloths from Galilee to Judea.  It was completely incidental to the story.

            Or so I thought.  Or so I thought.  If you were here on Christmas Eve, you’ll remember that the children helped me place baby Jesus and the shepherds in the manger.  You’ll also remember the story of the purple plastic Easter egg I found in the cradle a few weeks earlier.  You might say that the plastic egg was the Macguffin of the Christmas Eve sermon.  It gave me the opportunity to talk about Easter giving both life and meaning to Christmas.  We saw how Jesus’ resurrection was far more important to the early church than his birth, and how very little is actually said about Jesus’s birth outside the two nativity stories in Matthew and one in Luke.  One leftover I didn’t include that night was what the apostle Paul had to say about Jesus’ birth, so that’s why I chose this morning’s reading from Galatians, which is the most extensive description Paul gives to the event you and I call Christmas.  Here it is again in its entirety:  “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman.”  That’s it.  That’s the most Paul has to say about the birth of Jesus in any of his letters.  It just wasn’t important to anyone back then.

But there was something else about the manger on Christmas Eve, besides that purple plastic Easter egg, something that nobody, myself included, noticed as we placed Jesus and the shepherds and the sheep in the crèche.  Way back in the corner of the manger was this – the Macguffin – I mean, the menorah, which one of you cleverly placed in there before the service began.  And I am so sorry I didn’t see it until after church was over that night, because we could have done a lot with it.  Just think:  the menorah, the nine branched lamp that brings light to the eight days of Hanukkah, lighting the stable for Jesus, who is the light of the world.  And unlike the identity of the person who put the purple plastic Easter egg in the manger, which may forever remain unknown, I know who put the menorah in there.

Finally, speaking of Christmas Eve service, who were all those people?  I took a photo of all the kids who helped me with the crèche that night; and then, on the spur of the moment, I decided to take a picture of the congregation, first this side, then this side.  The next morning when I looked at the pictures, I was taken by how many people in those photographs I didn’t know.  Because we go outside to sing “Silent Night” at the end of the service, and people disperse right after that, I don’t get a chance to stand at the door and shake hands and learn people’s names on Christmas Eve.  So I don’t know if the Christmas Eve congregation was a lot of our own congregation that we only see on Christmas Eve, or if it was more members of the wider community who decided to come to our United Church that night.  But I do know that I recognized, at most, half of the folks who were here.  And that’s just fine with me.  Even if we only see some people once or twice a year, I’m grateful they know they can come and find their Christmas spirit here in this space.

So these are some of the thoughts I had left over from Advent and Christmas, each, by itself, probably too small a morsel to make a full meal, but maybe, all together, something that helps us look back one more time on how we came through the holidays together, and experienced them as a blessing in our own lives.

            Amen.

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