by Benjamin M. Stewart
Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Director of Advanced Studies
It was on this day, St. Nicholas Day, not so many years ago when my wife and I overheard our younger son get shoved not so willingly into a new phase of his life.
We heard, from the other room, our older son, in first grade, deliver the logical syllogism to his younger preschool brother, in terms that were as devastating as they were clear:
- “St. Nicholas is a saint.” (minor premise).
- “Saints are dead.” (major premise)
- (inevitable heart-rending conclusion) “St Nicholas… is dead.”
In the silence that followed, Beth and I thought we heard a great tree in the forest of our son’s imagination come crashing to the ground. (Actually, after a few hastily convened conversations and some decent children’s books about the real St. Nicholas, our youngest was fine. And, frankly, he seemed relieved not to have to worry about the odd relationship between caribou and gravity, or the physical accessibility of certain local chimneys.)
St. Nicholas is in fact buried in the city of Bari, in Italy, where his bones were brought in the 11th century by Italian sailors. These sailors took the bones from Nicholas’ grave in his birthplace of Myra, in what is now Turkey, when Myra came under Muslim rule.
Today, both Myra and Bari draw pilgrims to visit the land of St. Nicholas, and both sites have ancient-looking statues and images of a serious looking Mediterranean bishop, now oddly interspersed with larger-than-life likenesses of a jolly, rosy-cheeked, overweight Scandinavian elf… who looks wildly overdressed among the palm trees.
The tourist demand has been so great in Myra that—despite Turkey’s Islamic identity—the government of Turkey has demanded the return of Nicholas’ bones, to be buried again in Myra (now known as Demre). Maybe both sites—Myra and Bari—with the statues of the shopping mall Santas standing over the burial ground of the fourth century bishop, may serve as a symbol of how something deeper and richer may be buried just below the surface.
One of the church’s most re-told stories about Nicholas recalls that when Nicholas heard that three sisters were about to be sold into prostitution by their father because he could not afford a dowry, Nicholas like a thief in the night threw three bags of coins into a window to pay the family’s debts, in order to keep these sisters free, (and perhaps to get them away from a father who would have sold them into slavery), the good bishop like a shepherd feeding and protecting his flock, feeding them with justice.
Some of the stories say that one of the bags of coins that Nicholas threw dropped into a stocking hanging near the window. You can see the connection to the more familiar aspects of the St. Nick traditions—the stockings hung by the chimney with care. But it’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it, that the church’s most treasured story about St. Nicholas, the gift-giver, involves the giving of gifts that are given essentially in order to prevent people from being sold into slavery. The original stocking-stuffers, according to the story, were in fact tools to set real people free and to undermine a dangerous and demeaning system of oppression. Nicholas’ strategy to welcome the reign of God and undermine human trafficking, in this case, the story goes, was the strategic deployment of gifts.
Now what our son heard on St. Nicholas day years ago is indeed true: saints are dead. A headline from the BBC News just last year read “Turkey seeks return of Santa Claus’ bones.” (Keep that one off of the coffee table when the neighbors’ kids come over.) Saints are dead. But there’s more to a saint than just bones. Saints also allow us to see in their lives signs of the dying and rising of Christ, in his body, the church.
According to our few little stories about Nicholas, what seems to have gotten the church’s attention about St. Nick is that he used gift-giving not as a predictable social nicety, but as a force to set people free, to challenge oppression, and to confer dignity.
In this kind of gift-giving, we do see the risen Christ. Jesus himself made his whole life such a gift. Even when Jesus’ life was being taken violently from him, he turned it into a gift even for his enemies—one that would ultimately undermine the very violence and vengeance that would take Jesus’ life. It as if Jesus says, “you would break my body? You would pour out my blood? Then take and eat; drink of it all of you, this is a new covenant for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus’ life, his body, becomes a gift that is no social nicety, but a kind of change in diet for the whole world: that we might come to feed on mercy as our nourishment, our daily bread. I know that what has drawn me to this place is a hunger for that food, and a desire to be part of serving it, offering it freely, to others. I think that is why many of us are here.
In this secular season of consumption, St. Nick, servant of Jesus Christ, may remind us that some kinds of gift-giving can change the world. On a funky little integrated Christian communal farm in rural Georgia in the 1960s, a few people started inviting folk to give a really simple gift: to help out hammering some nails, painting some walls, or donating some building supplies to help build homes for poor folks. From the very beginning these founders of Habitat for Humanity believed that this kind of simple gift-giving would help people be converted to a vision of the Reign of God in which all people–everybody—has a safe and affordable place to live. 350,000 homes later housing more than 1.75 million people, the gift keeps on giving, and people continue to be converted to a vision of the reign of God’s justice for all.
You may know the little fair-trade gifts like the ones that Lutheran World Relief and the organization SERVV partner to provide for sale to congregations: chocolate, coffee, locally produced handicrafts from resource poor communities. They’re nice gifts. You may have also had the chance to meet, through our church partnerships, some of the farmers and artisans who produce these gifts. If you have, you may have learned, as I did, that these sisters and brothers are happy for us to enjoy their work, and they’re grateful for the fair wages and working conditions our partners guarantee. And many of them understand their labor to be also about converting those us who purchase their work toward building system that no longer holds their neighbors and relatives in unsafe working conditions, with low wages, leaving the land, air, and water poisoned—much of this by companies headquartered here in the U.S. and answerable to our laws. Those little gifts exchanged, these farmers and artisans hope, are no social nicety, but are in part an attempt to move us all (and our economic and political systems) toward social justice.
Coming to seminary is many things. One way to think of it is preparing to offer our lives as a gift. Because this is a seminary of Jesus Christ, we seek to be gifts that are not simply social and religious niceties that leave current systems of oppression intact, but rather gifts that set others free.
The gang down in Georgia used hammers and nails, St. Nicholas apparently used bags of coins. Some of our sisters and brothers are using chocolate and coffee. The Spirit that has called you here has given you gifts that you get to carry into the Reign of God. I wonder which ones you’ve discovered so far, and which ones are still left to be revealed. How will God use your hands, your service at the table, your praying at the hospital bed and the grave, your teaching and preaching, even your singing voice, to set God’s people free? How will you give the gift of your life? In the church it is more clear than elsewhere that everything we have is gift: almost nothing that we do or offer comes with a price-tag. Our ministries, our vocations, our lives, offered as gift! As church, we offer gifts and are sustained by gifts. Of course that’s true everywhere: it’s all gift. From everything traded on Wall Street to the glaciers to the oceans to our cities of glass and steel and concrete. All of it is a free gift from God to be handled as if we do not own it, and that God wills that it be used to set God’s creatures free from every kind of slavery and oppression.
St. Nicholas, from what little we know about him, gave his life as a gift, freely given, to set others free. As a saint, he is now dead. You can read about it in the paper.
But we can close with the words of poet Mary Oliver:
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life
(From “The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems, 1992, Beacon Press, Boston, MA)
Ezekiel 34.11-16; Matthew 24.24-27