“With all of the people on our holiday gift list, there is one person missing,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday Ecumenical Service. “That name is the first six letters of Christmas — Christ.”
Sparks’ sermon title was “What Are You Going to Get the Baby Jesus for Christmas?” and her Scripture text was Micah 6:6-8. The Advent theme was love.
There was an 80-year-old woman in Sparks’ congregation who came to her with a terrible sin. The woman told Sparks she had been using “LOL” in cards, thinking it meant “lots of love.” She had just found it meant “laughing out loud.”
“I did not see what the problem was,” Sparks said. “Then she told me she had been putting it on condolence cards.”
This was the third sermon in her Advent series, representing the third Sunday in Advent.
“This is close to Christmas, and we begin to think about things like, ‘Are the cards out?’ ‘Is the tree up?’ ‘Have I bought all the gifts?’ ” Sparks said.
She continued, “In a comedy club, the acts are scheduled tightly together so at the end of 9 minutes and 30 seconds, a red light goes on in the back of the club. It starts flashing at 9 minutes and 45 seconds, and they pull you off the stage at 10 minutes precisely. The third Sunday of Advent is like that — that light is flashing.”
She called it a time of intense consumerism and commercialism.
“It is ironic that the baby Jesus gets ignored on our holiday list because it is a celebration of his birth,” Sparks said. “What are we going to give? I noticed in the Bible, he got frankincense and myrrh, and I went online and found a lotion at Walgreens with frankincense and myrrh in it. I think we can do better for the baby Jesus than a lotion. He wants us to act from our hearts, to give of what we have at the moment.”
Sparks recalled preaching at a convention at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.
“Think of it, Baptists in Vegas,” she said. “When the offering came forward, there were poker chips in the plate.”
The best gift guide for baby Jesus is found in Micah 6:6-8.
“‘What should I give?’ the prophet asked; the answer came back pure and clear and simple,” Sparks said. “Say it with me — do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. These are the things Jesus loves more than lotion.”
Kindness is harder to act on than we think, she told the congregation.
“A consumer survey said that one of the top 10 stresses of the holiday season is ‘having to be nice,’ ” she said. “What would kindness look like? Like Diana Ross said, ‘Reach out and touch someone.’ ”
A Santa in a store learned sign language to be able to communicate with children from a school for the deaf. Speak to people, Sparks said, “like bus drivers, store clerks, waiters and waitresses and wait for an answer.”
Reach out to the lonely, drop by a senior care center and just visit someone for half an hour. Some people are even donating Alexas to nursing home residents.
“You can drop a card to someone who is lonely,” Sparks said. “It is a gift that could change someone’s life. It doesn’t take a lot to do kindness.”
Humility, she told the congregation, “is not thinking poorly of ourselves, but empowering ourselves for service.”
“Lao Tzu said that true power comes from lowering ourselves in service,” Sparks said. “He said that rivers and seas lead 100 streams because they are skillful at staying low. They lie in low land so the water willingly flows to them.”
Leaders and people in general, Sparks said, need to be more like a conductor who listens to everyone. John C. Maxwell in Leadershift: The 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace, wrote that most leaders are stuck in the soloist mode, where everyone serves them.
Sparks recalled that Pat Summitt, the former head coach of the Lady Volunteers basketball team at the University of Tennessee, did not go into the locker room at half time and talk at her team. The team would get out a white board and talk about what went right, what went wrong and what needed to change.
“Once the team had talked it out, then Summitt would speak,” Sparks said.
Sparks and her husband, Toby, took a bucket trip on Thanksgiving — a train from Chicago to Los Angeles.
“It was as romantic and adventurous and fun as we thought it would be — on the first day,” she said. “By the third day, it was getting cramped.”
While her husband went out for coffee, she decided to fix her hair and put on some makeup.
He returned to their roomette, looked at her and said, “Why are you so angry?” Sparks looked in the mirror and saw what she had done.
“Never draw your eyebrows on a moving train,” she said.
She continued, “God forbid we should show vulnerability. People’s faces tell us a lot, and we need to listen.”
The third present for baby Jesus is to do justice, not just imagine justice, like a John Lennon song.
“Don’t sing about justice, don’t think about justice — do it now,” Sparks said. “The world is in pain, broken and burning. I think about the children and brothers of color taken by gun violence, the way people look at our Muslim brothers and sisters with suspicion, the hunger, poverty and homelessness all around us.”
One step taken by one person can move everything toward change. Rosa Parks said she was just trying to get home from work when she stayed in her bus seat.
Sparks said one Sunday, her deacon board gave everyone in the congregation a $5 bill.
“They could not use it on brunch, or go to a movie or buy a Powerball ticket,” she said. “They were to pay it forward, use it to lift someone up.”
One person bought wings for a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk with a sign that said, “I’m hungry.” Another bought mittens for a family that was struggling. Another gave money to a street vendor who suffered a loss when fruit was stolen from his cart. An artist in a train station, a homeless man who needed an umbrella, a woman in Afghanistan who needed a micro loan to learn tailoring, all benefited from these gifts.
“It’s like blowing dandelion seeds into the wind,” Sparks said. “This is the power of kindness, humility and justice to change the world. It is the truth. As Margaret Mead said, ‘a few caring people can change the world.’ ”
Sparks closed her sermon by telling congregants to “reach within yourself.”
“Find what you have to give, cultivate kindness, humility and justice and put the baby Jesus first on your list,” she said. “As the Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet said, ‘I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.’ And the people of God said, Amen.”
The Rev. Natalie Hanson presided. James Denvil, a proud citizen of Baltimore, and an attorney who married into a seven-generation Chautauqua family, read the Scriptures. For the introit, the Motet Choir sang “What Gift Can We Bring?” by Jane Marshall, arranged by Benjamin Harlan. The Choir sang “Chautauqua Anthem,” by Paul Moravec. The anthem was commissioned by the Chautauqua Motet Choir in honor of Jared Jacobsen’s more than 20 years of service to Chautauqua Institution. Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, conducted the choir. The Harold F. Reed Sr. Chaplaincy and the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy support this week’s services.