The first Christmas was such a surprise that no doubt most people missed it. No one was expecting the Incarnate One to be born to a frightened young couple surrounded by a stable of animals. It was far from the royal entrance that most expected. The story of Christmas, both the first Christmas and today, is a reminder that God’s love, God’s generosity shows up in the most surprising ways, often in ways that we least expect. I had just such a surprise just a few weeks ago.
My wife, Holly, and I recently spent the weekend in downtown Chicago to celebrate her birthday. On that Sunday morning we walked from our hotel to St. James Episcopal Cathedral to worship. Our path through some of the downtown streets took us by several men, who by all appearances, looked as if they had not slept inside for a very long time. One of them approached us for money and we nodded, “No”. We had made a decision long ago to support organizations that serve those in need rather than give direct support when asked, believing that the money would be wisely used to best serve the people just like these men. It was still hard to walk past them however, especially, in this case, as we were on our way to church. We felt very conflicted!
Well, God certainly has a sense of humor because as it turns out our wrestling with the right decision regarding directly supporting a person in need was not over! We arrived at the historic cathedral twenty minutes early and went in to find a place to sit in one of the beautiful, dark pews. As we walked into the church I pointed out a sign that said “no solicitation allowed on church premises” and we used that message as tacit support for our decision to not give money to the men we had passed on the way to church.
We had only been in our pew for a few minutes when a man who also appeared to have not slept inside for some time came and sat right behind us. As soon as he sat down he leaned forward and tapped us both on the shoulder. “I really need five dollars right now. Do you please have five dollars you can give me. I really need it.” See what I mean about God’s sense of humor? We both looked at this man with his soft, sweet eyes, and then looked at each other, and although we didn’t say a word, we were both thinking, “How can we say, ‘no’ sitting right here in church!” I opened up my wallet and gave the man a five dollar bill. He shook our hands and thanked us profusely.
Soon after the man received the five dollars he got up and walked out of the church. I cynically thought to myself, “See, he is going out on the street to buy some drugs or alcohol–I knew it!” He returned just as the worship service was starting and once again sat in the pew behind us, a few feet to our right. When the sermon started he left again, only to return fifteen minutes later. He stayed for the remainder of the service.
When it was time to exchange the peace at the midpoint of the service, our new acquaintance greeted us more warmly than anyone else in the now fairly full church. He thanked us for the five dollars, explaining again that he really needed that money today. Right after the exchange of peace comes the offertory. This is when the ushers walk down the aisle and pass collection plates up and down the pews for people to place their donations. We put our money in and then I turned to my right and out of the corner of my eye I witnessed something I will never forget. The man sitting behind us pulled out the five dollar bill we had given him, smiled at us, and put the money in the collection plate. I have never seen a more cheerful giver in my life!
After the service, our new friend explained that this was why he really needed the money. He said he always likes to be able to put something in the collection plate when he comes to church and that he is thrilled when he can give as much as five dollars. And here my Grinch-like heart had thought he wanted the money to waste on drugs or alcohol, when in fact he wanted it so that he could give it to the church. Others may have given more money to the church that morning, but none gave more than this man, because he gave all that he had.
Holly and I will no doubt receive other gifts this Christmas, but we will never forget the gift this man gave us. He reminded us yet again of the abundant, generous, surprising Spirit of God’s love that is the essential meaning of Christmas.
Merry Christmas to all of you. May our hearts and souls be open to the surprises of God’s love that surround us all every day.