Homily by Meredith Ward
December 6, 2018
As we enter this season of Advent, these days of preparation and expectation, it is good to make time, as best we can in the midst of our busy-ness, to open our hearts to that true spirit of love and giving that is at the heart of the Christmas story – so that, as we race around buying gifts for family and friends (and maybe even ourselves) that our gift-giving feels less like a transaction and more like, well, like a gift!
Reflecting on the life of St. Nicholas, whose feast we celebrate today, is an opportunity to do that, to reclaim that spirit of gift-giving that our hearts yearn for. Because Nicholas dedicated his life not to acquiring things, but to giving them away.
Nicholas served as Bishop of Myra – a town in present-day Turkey – during the 4th century persecution of Christians, and in his role as bishop, he spoke out to those in power, demanding that they release the innocent from prison. Nicholas himself was caught up in the persecution, and was imprisoned and tortured because of his beliefs.
Probably the best-known story about Nicholas involves a poor man and his three unmarried daughters. The father didn’t have enough money to provide the girls with dowries, which meant they couldn’t marry and would likely end up as prostitutes. Nicholas walked past their house on three successive nights and each night threw a bag of gold through the window, providing dowries for the daughters and saving them from a life of prostitution. Because of his generosity and for other good works he did for young people, Nicholas became known as a protector of children – a reputation that is reflected in the passage we just heard from Mark’s Gospel (10:13-16).
Like the three daughters that Nicholas helped, the people who brought their children to Jesus were poor. Many had traveled far distances, carrying infants in their arms and dragging toddlers by the hand, just so that their children could receive whatever this blessing was that Jesus had to give.
But then the gatekeepers showed up. Somehow, in the midst of this love fest, the disciples decided it was their job to keep the children away. Maybe the crowd was getting too big to handle. Maybe people were surging forward, desperate for their child to receive just a single touch. Or maybe the disciples thought poor children weren’t important enough to gain access, that they were not worthy of receiving the blessing.
Boy, did they get that wrong. Jesus called them out immediately, and let them know in no uncertain terms that not only are they out of line, but if they try to prevent the children from coming to him, they themselves will never enter the kingdom of God.
This scene of poor parents and children being denied access may sound familiar. We know there are parents in our own city who are trying to secure food, clothing, health care, and education for their kids. Parents who are desperately trying to get their families out of the most dangerous places on earth. Parents, with little ones in tow, moving toward a dream of a better life – toward some unknown, but greatly desired blessing.
And then, just like in the Gospel story, the gatekeepers show up. There always seem to be a lot of gatekeepers. There are gatekeepers at our borders. Gate keepers in our education system. Gate keepers in our health system, in our employment. And, just in case you hadn’t noticed, there are even gatekeepers in our churches. Gatekeepers who decide who’s in and who’s out. Who gets access and who doesn’t. Who’s worthy and who’s not. We have plenty of gatekeepers. We don’t need anymore.
What we do need are more people like Nicholas. People who open the gates of possibility, who throw their own bags of golden opportunity through a child’s window. Like the teachers at the afterschool program at St. Ann’s Church in the South Bronx, who are fiercely dedicated to educating young children, personally escorting them to tutoring sessions every day, because the education the kids receive at the local public school is inadequate. Or the parents from war-ravaged countries who, at enormous risk, are desperately trying to get their families to a place of safety and security. Or the New Sanctuary volunteers – including some of our Union classmates, who are in fact today on their way to our southern border to accompany asylum-seekers and to stand in between them and the people with tear gas and guns.
Jesus does not call us to be gate-keepers. Jesus calls us to throw the gates wide open. Jesus calls us to be like Nicholas – to be protectors of the defenseless, and the hands that offer gifts and blessings to those in need.
And so, in this season of Advent, as we prepare the way for Emmanuel – God with us – let us throw open the gates of our hearts to welcome that lavish and life-giving love that God sends forth. Let us take time to cultivate, in these darkening days, those characteristics of children that make them the inheritors of God’s kingdom: humility, openheartedness, and faith in God’s abundant grace. And let us follow the example of Nicholas in sharing the love that we receive, by throwing extravagant gifts through open windows to those who need them most.