Sermon: Christmas Eve 2019

The podcast is available here.

Photo by Martin Sattler on Unsplash

A fella reports that his grandmother, a staunch Southern Baptist, had marched him off to Sunday school and church regularly. So when he switched to the Episcopal church after marriage, she challenged him: “What’s wrong with the Baptist Church, son?”… ”Well,” he explained, “my wife and I flipped a coin to see if we would go to her church—the Episcopal Church—or mine, and I lost.” … ”Serves you right,” said his grandmother. “Good Baptists don’t gamble.”

I am not a good Baptist, but I am a good Episcopalian, which means I don’t mind putting a few dollars on a pony, but I won’t gamble away the paycheck; however, there are some who will stack up all their chips and shove them into the pot, hoping for the big payday. When it comes to hard earned money, that is not for me. When it comes to living my life… well, let’s just say I’m a bit conservative, although I have been loosening up a bit here recently. But what about when it comes to faith—a relationship with God? Well, as a good Episcopalian, I would wager that even if we were 100% certain of our faith, there was solid proof of God’s existence, the pearly gates, and all that… If we were 100% certain, I would wager that most of us would still hold back some for ourselves, unwilling to give our entire life to God.

Everyone that knows me knows that I have a wealth of information about sports. For example, I know that Lebron Jones was a running back for the OKC Heat. Great hockey team. That said, I recently read a fascinating article about Shelly Pennefather who was a huge basketball star for Villanova during the mid-1980s. Following college, she could have signed a contract worth $200,000 a year with the national league in Japan, which would have made her one of the highest paid women athletes. Yet, in June of 1991, she drove to the Monastery of the Poor Clares in Alexandria, Virginia where she would be received as one their members, no longer known as Shelly Pennefather, but as Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels.

Unlike many monasteries where the nuns or monks are allowed to go out into the world, the one Sister Rose Marie is a member of is a cloistered community. The reporter writes: “The Poor Clares are one of the strictest religious orders in the world. They sleep on straw mattresses, in full habit, and wake up every night at 12:30 a.m. to pray [for those suffering in the world], never resting more than four hours at a time. They are barefoot 23 hours of the day, except for the one hour in which they walk around the courtyard in sandals… [Sister Rose Marie] gets two family visits per year, but converses through a see-through screen. She can write letters to her friends, but only if they write to her first. And once every 25 years, she can hug her family.” (Source) The occasion of the article was the 25th anniversary of Sister Rose Marie’s entrance into the monastery. On that day, she renewed her commitment and hugged her family and friends, she also hugged her 78-year-old mother for the first time in 25 years, realizing that her mother would need to live until she was 103 in order to hug her again.

Not only is the story fascinating, but I was also struck by the reporter, Elizabeth Merrill, who was struggling with understanding why someone with so many gifts would give it all up to… pray. Perhaps it was Sister Rose Marie’s friend, Father John Heisler who stated it best: “It’s a mystery to me too about why [the Poor Clares would] take somebody so talented, so giving, so energetic. She could help so many other young ladies to be women … to be strong, too, in their identity. Why should she be so hidden now? I’ve been really thinking … about the mystery of the stars. They’re so distant, yet they’re so beautiful.” The reporter couldn’t understand the “Why?” of Sister Rose Marie’s decision and neither could her friend, a priest.

I said I would wager that even if we were 100% certain of God that most of us would still hold back some for ourselves. We would be unwilling to give our entire life to God. So what was it that compelled a young woman with the promises of fame and riches to give it all up and lock herself away so that she could spend the remainder of her life praying for humanity? The answer is discovering that love is not about a Hallmark card, but about God, the Word that became flesh, and lived among us. And on this night, that love can be found wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

There are people like Sister Rose Marie who encounter that love in such a manner that nothing else matters. To them, that love is life itself, and in order to have it, to be near it and experience it, and to share it, these individuals will sacrifice anything and everything, for there is nothing greater. These are willing to say with my friend St. Josemaría Escrivá, “How little a life is to offer to God!”

Tonight, I’m not asking you all to run off and join a monastery. That life is not for everyone, but I would ask, what are you prepared to sacrifice in order to experience more fully the babe in the manger? What would you give for this love of God? And I ask, what would you do, what would you give, because although this love is freely given, it does not come without transformation. You are loved as you are, but God does not expect you to remain as you are. That wonderful poet and writer, Kahlil Gibran, wrote in The Prophet:

“When love beckons to you follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden. For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”

So, what would you do, what would you give, to experience this transforming love? What will you “gamble”? My recommendation to you is to not rely on yourself, your own strength and courage to make such a decision. My recommendation to you is to humbly kneel before the baby in the manger, Jesus, and allow the love that saved the world to bring new life to you. In doing so, you will discover what Sister Rose Marie discovered who said at the end of her once every twenty-five years visit with family and friends: “I love this life. I wish you all could just live it for a little while just to see. It’s so peaceful. I just feel like I’m not underliving life. I’m living it to the full.” Kneel before the manger. Be transformed. Live life to the full.

Let us pray: Lord our God, with the birth of your Son, your glory breaks on the world. Through the night hours of the darkened earth, we your people watch for the coming of your promised Son. As we wait, give us a foretaste of the joy that you will grant us when the fullness of his glory has filled the earth, who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen.

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