Offered to the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, OH
December 24, 2012
For as long as I’ve been paying attention to Christmas sermons, my dad has chosen some kind of focus object. He’ll keep his eyes and heart open as he wanders grocery and big box store aisles waiting for something to “speak” to him. He’ll take that object as an inspiration for his sermon. He’ll use it as an object lesson or as a metaphor and weave together an interesting and often very topical homily. Last year, some of you might remember Frosty the Snowman, a sermon I didn’t hear, but read later. Father Funston suggested that Frosty, a secular holiday hero if ever there was one, was actually a Christ-like figure with a holiday message of self-sacrifice. Other years he’s talked about frogs with Santa hats and misspelled holiday banners, including the year when a JOY banner included as the “J,” a backwards candy-cane.
Well, I’m going to carry on the tradition, but my object doesn’t have any outward Christmas significance. I tried to find something on the shelves this year, but I couldn’t get away from an object that came to the forefront of my mind at Thanksgiving. Everything I tried to endue with Christmas meaning paled in comparison to the object which first implanted itself into my mind:
Now, I didn’t know such a thing existed until about 5 years ago. My mom told me yesterday that they own two stones, but I never saw a pizza stone in the Funston house while growing up. I don’t blame my parents… we’re Irish-Germans from southern California… pizza isn’t in our cultural milieu… Tacos and Enchiladas, maybe. Not to say we didn’t eat pizza, but pizza was something to be ordered from an outside source.
That changed during my second year of seminary when my friend David Romanik’s girlfriend Sarah Beth moved to Virginia and Michael and I started eating dinners at her apartment. David and Sarah Beth love to make pizza and found it to be something that we appreciated. David and Sarah Beth would make crust and sauce from scratch. We’d have two pizzas usually, a pepperoni pizza for David and Sarah Beth and a vegetable pizza for Michael and me. Over time, David discovered that it was best to sauté and spice the vegetables ahead of time to aid their cooking.
In many ways, pizza became something that we could just count on doing with the Romaniks. We celebrated birthdays with pizza and finals with pizza.
So this Thanksgiving when David and Sarah Beth came to Kansas to spend the holiday with us, we celebrated Black Friday with pizza. And it was on that Friday that I caught my first glimpse of how a pizza stone could convey a Christmas message.
For several days, we’d been working on this awful puzzle they’d picked up on their way through Oklahoma. This disaster of a puzzle was a lighthouse on a rocky edifice with a thunderous sky above and churning waters below. As you can imagine, the sky and water looked exactly the same. Add to this that the puzzle was unlike any puzzle I’d put together: It wasn’t built on a grid; each piece was irregularly shaped with neither rhyme nor reason.
David had given up on the puzzle very early in the process and instead devoted himself to the kitchen. On Friday he was working on the pizza.
At one point, Sarah Beth, Michael and I were working on the puzzle just a dinner was supposed to be ready when we heard David’s booming voice from the Kitchen uttering words and sentiment completely inappropriate for a priest of God’s church. Assuming the worst, we all ran to the kitchen led by Sarah Beth to figure out what had happened. Had David sliced off his finger? Had he dropped the simmering gallon of pizza sauce?
What we discovered was that David, as good an amateur pizzaman as I’ve ever met had neglected to put enough corn meal onto the pizza peel before he’d attempted to get the pizza onto the stone. What resulted was an entire pizza’s worth of ingredients coming into direct contact with the pizza stone: vegetables and cheese sizzled onto the stone and burned immediately. Like a champ, Sarah Beth came to David’s aid and pulled the stone out of the oven (with appropriate hand-gear) and they attempted to salvage as much of the pizza as possible. Together they put the pizza back together, spread copious amounts of corn meal onto the stone and baked the pizza.
Unfortunately, this pizza would never reclaim its former glory. Its fall from grace had been too much for its doughy body to handle. What ended up coming out of the oven several minutes later was the culinary equivalent to a town demolished by a tornado. One side of the crust was thick enough to be loaf of bread, the other side barely a thin-crust pizza. All the mushrooms were gathered into one corner of the pie while the cheese-covered broccoli claimed the rest. We couldn’t figure out if the pizza was shaped more like an amoeba or a human brain. I tried to clean the stone, but you aren’t supposed to use soap on these things.
The “pizza” was ugly, but you know what? It was delicious.
And the pizza stone is now ugly, but you know what? It still works.
As I ate that “pizza” and looked at this stone, I thought to myself: This is a lot like Christmas.
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, though a beautiful holiday carol, has the most ridiculous line in all of Christian hymndom:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
And in the same verse it continues:
No ear may hear his coming,
This line has always irritated me because it doesn’t align with anything I’ve been taught about Christmas night. Mary gives birth in a stable and places her Son in a manger while animals watch. But think about this: A 15 year-old girl, after having been kicked out of an inn, gives birth in an barn and places her child in a feeding trough. First, there’s no such thing as epidurals or painkillers. Jesus Christ may be divine and Mary may have been as close to perfect as any human being before or since, but I guarantee you that Mary made some noise. I’m also pretty sure that Joseph was making some noise too, encouraging Mary in her birth and probably freaking out. And babies cry when they are born… even the Son of God. And animals don’t like loud noises, so they were probably making their frustration known. It wasn’t a silent night.
And it was gross. It was a barn! Probably it had a dirt floor. Dust and manure were all over the place! She put him in a feeding trough with straw and food particles.
In short, the Birth of Jesus Christ could be nothing but ugly.
But you know what? It was wonderful.
On that Christmas day, God entered fully into humanity. Jesus Christ was born into the filth of the world to save us. His birth might have happened in one of the lowest places on the earth, but it happened. The life Jesus would come to live would show us how to live and the death he would come to die would save us from our sin.
God finds beauty and purpose in places where we are can’t. God sees potential where we see failure. Tonight it’s a filthy stable in Bethlehem. In 30 years, this baby will sanctify lepers and prostitutes. Later, he’ll take bread and wine and consecrate them as his body and blood. And shortly after that, tonight’s baby will die on a trash heap outside of Jerusalem covered in the same blood and muck as he is covered in tonight.
God experiences a life like you and me. He enters into this world and experiences the same hardships as you and me. And God is better for it and we are better for it.
We become holy because Holiness became us.
I’m almost done, but let me say one more thing about the pizza stone and why I think it symbolizes Christmas. The symbolism doesn’t end with the ugly yet delicious pizza David created. You see, that pizza stone was actually given to us by Romaniks when David and I graduated from seminary. For them, our pizza dates had become a symbol of what our friendship was. More than any other gift that could possibly be given at that time and place, the pizza stone represented all that had come before and showed us that they cared about and honored the time they’d spent with us. One might even say that the pizza stone incarnated the relationship that we had with the Romaniks.
Really excellent gift-givers like the Romaniks consider what a present says about the relationship. A great gift says, “I know you.” This pizza stone was a nod from the Romaniks about all the time we had spent together in seminary.
This kind of thoughtfulness is the thing we celebrate at Christmas. God had such a great understanding of his relationship with humanity that he gave us the best gift he could think of: himself. God knows us and wants us to know him.
And God doesn’t care if we’re as messy as an ugly pizza either. God’s incarnation sanctifies us and makes us holy. By giving us himself this Christmas, God physically enters into our lives in a real and tangible way. God makes our imperfect lives taste delicious.
And so this Christmas, we thank God for his love for us. And we honor God’s love for us by seeing with God’s eyes. By seeing beauty and potential in the ugly and offering our lives to God because he first offered his life to us.
We may be ugly, but you know what? We are wonderful.