Now What Do We Do? (A Post Christmas Message)

This morning, I would like to introduce you to someone.   I would like to introduce you to Marcel.   Marcel is a 12 year old boy, who lives not far from here.  Marcel is the type of child that can slip in and out of room virtually unnoticed.  

 He is well behaved, and he uses pleases and thank yous as if they were periods to sentences.  He is not loud,…   He doesn’t draw attention to himself.    When Marcel is left in a group of children playing by themselves, more than likely he will wonder off to some quiet corner and quietly amuse himself.

He is a shy boy, and prefers to take up residence in quiet corners.   It is precisely because of this, that he often moves without being seen.

Marcel lives with his Mother, Father and little sister.  His father lost his job as a shop foreman, a little over a year and a half ago.   He used to be employed as a machinist in a factory just over the border in Massachusetts, but when the economy turned south, the factory responded with cutting back hours.   What was once a 45 hour workweek, overnite became 30.    Soon that thirty became 20.    Then a year ago, last August the factory told Marcel there would be none.   He joined the hundreds of thousands of people in this country newly unemployed.

For Marcel’s family, it wasn’t bad at first.   The family had a small savings account and Mom had a job.   They were sure it would only be a few weeks before Dad would find a job.   The very first day that Dad was unemployed, he printed up his resume and went looking for a new job.  He told his kids not to worry,…things would work out.  Dad would take care of things.

 After two months, with their savings running dry, the job search became more frantic.   It didn’t take long until things started getting bad.    It was the perfect storm for Marcel’s family.   Four years earlier, with a loan from their parents, Marcel’s mom and dad purchased a home.    It was a small cape with three bedrooms, a garage, and a large backyard.    Together, they talked about how they would fix the house up over time.    They wanted to finish the basement, remodel the bathroom, and eventually build a playhouse for the kids in the backyard.

Like so many of us, the mortgage payments on the house were large, but with two incomes and a tight budget they could start building their dream.   For close to three years, they paid their bills,…and even managed to put some away for a rainy day.    Marcel’s parents did what all the experts said they needed to do:   buy a house to invest in themselves,…fund a 401k….put money into the bank for the future; maybe for college or maybe those improvements to their home that they dreamed of.

It took three months of unemployment before the 401K was gone…The savings account was empty…and the family started to charge food and utilities on their credit cards.    “We have to just live tighter” Dad said.   And live tighter they did.    They got rid of their cable,…they got rid of one of their cars….the after school activities were on hold.   They cut every corner imaginable,…including the $600 per month COBRA payment that kept their family’s health insurance.    They took their expenses to the minimum, and it looked like things were going to be okay.  They even managed to have a half way decent Christmas.

Then in January of 2008, Marcel’s little sister woke up in the middle of the night throwing up.    At first they passed it off as a stomach bug.   They gave her gingerale and saltines.   They rubbed her back, and told her in the morning she would feel better.    The next day, when the vomiting grew worse, they decided that she needed to go to the hospital.    After 20 minutes in the emergency room, they learned that the little girl was having an appendicitis.   Three days later, they left the hospital minus the appendix and with a $7000 medical bill…payable in thirty days.

It was the first of a series of unlucky events that hit Marcel’s family.    The transmission died in the car: $900.    Water pipes in their basement burst: $400.    They put it all on credit cards and prayed that their situation would change.    Dad even managed to get a part time job, at a local supermarket stocking shelves on the midnight shift.   They were so excited when they learned that he had landed the job.   “Its always easier to find a job, when you have one already” he told his kids with a smile.

He had only finished his third week of work, when he came home to a letter in his mail.   It was from the bank that financed his home.    His adjustable rate mortgage was being refreshed, and starting in thirty days his mortgage payment would increase $300 per month.  They managed two more payments before they started paying the mortgage short.   Is wasn’t long before a letter was received with big bold letters across the top that read “Intent to Foreclose”.    The bank took their home a short time later.    They moved in with friends and watched as most of their stuff was locked up inside their house.

Today, Marcel’s family has nothing.   They live in a one room studio apartment, and can not afford to make ends meet.    There is not enough money to fill the refrigerator, and their car sits idle in their driveway.   Although his parents try to keep things positive in their house, at night Marcel can hear his mom crying.    From his secret hiding spot behind the couch, he can hear Dad assuring Mom that they will figure things out…   He hears dad say this, but he can tell that he’s not sure.    A year and a half ago, this family had dreams, had a future, had a home, and had plans.  Today, they have nothing but each other.

This family celebrated Christmas this past year along with the rest of us.   Their Christmas eve dinner was macaroni and cheese.   After dinner, They dressed up and went to church to with the millions of other families in this country on Christmas Eve.   At night they hung their stockings, left a plate of cookies for Santa, and went to bed.

When Marcel and his sister woke up on that Friday, they scrambled to their small Christmas Tree.   With the Christmas lights casting strange shadows across the room in the predawn hour, the family stood speechless at the foot of the tree.    There were presents wrapped and waiting to be torn open.   There were full stockings.   Once Mom and Dad had their coffee, the festivities commenced and gifts were open.    Although their Christmas didn’t have all the excesses that ours maybe had…   It was real,…It was exciting,…and it was enough.

Marcel’s family was blessed enough to receive a little bit of help during their holiday.

Because of a Toys for Tots campaign, similar to Asbury Church’s Operation Toy Drop, their were gifts under Marcel’s tree on Friday morning.   For one day…   This past Friday,…   Marcel’s family was not poor.   This past Friday, Marcel’s family was just like you and I.   For a few hours, this past Friday, the family forgot, and Mom wasn’t crying.     It was a perfect Christmas.

The miracle that this family experienced on Christmas came at the hands of their neighbors.   Strangers added their names to their shopping lists and bought board games, and sweaters.    Marcel and his sister, likely had a construction paper Christmas ornament with their name and clothes size on some Christmas tree in some anynomous church or in the lobby of some business, and because someone chose to reach out, there was a Christmas morning in that one room apartment.    Although Mom and Dad didn’t exchange gifts, they didn’t need too.   For a few hours on that Friday, things felt normal.  It felt like what life did when there was a job, a car, and a house.

I don’t know about you, but when Sophie and Annie walked down the stairs on Christmas morning, and they stood breathless infront of a loaded Christmas tree,…I felt blessed.    When Grandma, Mom and Dad had their coffee and tea,…and the presents were sorted there was a warmth, and a blessing that was palpable in my home.    I thanked God, that despite whatever challenges my family had come through over the years, we had moments of magic and miracles like this.

For us it was the end of the roller coaster ride.    It was a months preparation finally at its climax, and I was feeling truly blessed.     Honestly,…that feeling wasn’t one that just arrived at that moment, I felt it all through the past month.   I enjoyed finding that perfect gift on the shelf, buying it, bringing it home, and wrapping it. Granted it wasn’t all about the blessing.  Sure, I got lost in the frustration of the crowds and the to do list at times…But I managed to not lose sight of our blessings for long.  

Not only were we able to buy the things the girls wanted,…but I even managed a few extras along the way.   I actually bought a snuggie…Nothing says extra and frivolous than a blanket with sleeves;  it’s truly the gift that keeps giving.  Come on! You can lie on the couch, wrapped up in your snuggie and change the channel with your tv remote!   A blanket with sleeves!  Pure Genius! 

(I cant wait to bring it out for some concert at my girls school…   Can you picture the embarrassment factor that this will provide? I am sure that the girls cant wait for that.)

In the end, amidst all the gifts, all the food, and all the laughter of Christmas, I never lost sight of how lucky and truly blessed the Masters’ family is.   I also found myself throughout the day, thinking about families like Marcel’s.    I was wondering how many families were too proud to ask for help….or questioning how many families there were that didn’t know there was help to be had.

And today, I wonder what happens now.    What happens to families like Marcel’s, once the Christmas Tree gets taken down.   What happens to families when the season of giving is over?    What happens when we role into February?

Certainly that Friday was magical for many families because there were people who were willing to give to others in need, but was their Saturday just as magical?  What happened the next day, when the mail starts back up…and the collection agencies start calling?  What happens tomorrow, when Marcel’s dad picks up the Keene Sentinel Newspaper, and sees no jobs that he is trained to fill.   What happens now?

Last year I read an article about charitable giving.   It said that that the greatest month of giving to charity was December, and that certainly is a given.  It also said the lowest month of giving is January.   I imagine that is not a surprise either.    What was most compelling about the article, was what else the statistics showed.

The researchers gathered statistics on holiday spending during the month of December.   It showed those years that holiday purchases were greatest, giving to charity in the months that followed were also at record levels.   They inferred that the more we purchase during Christmas for ourselves, the more we attempt to offset it with our giving.  

They suggested there was a guilt factor involved in our giving.   I personally don’t take such a pessimistic view, but I cannot explain another set of figures presented.   They showed that the more we give in December during the holiday season,…the greater the period of reduced giving in the months that follow.   Those researchers suggested that in these periods of reduced giving the general population says I gave my fair share in December,…Let someone else step up.    

If that is the case,…shame on us.

What happens now that the season is over?   What happens now when the giving trees are removed from our sanctuary and our supermarkets?   What happens when the goodwill and holiday cheer is replaced with the everyday rat race?    What happens to Marcel and his family on Monday morning?

Are we ready to forget Christmas?   Are we ready to pack up the Christmas message with the Christmas ornaments.  

I remember a sermon illustration that has stock we me.   It tells the story of how a family the baby Jesus from their nativity scene.   It was a beautiful porcelain set, that had the chips and dings from years of being at the center of their family Christmases.    On Christmas morning, the year it went missing, their youngest daughter had taken Jesus from the crèche and was playing with Jesus along with the toys of Christmas.  

The child was called away, or her attention shifted and Jesus was left amidst the toys and empty boxes.    It wasn’t long before dad came with the giant trash bag, sweeping up remnants of wrapping paper and bubble wrap.  

Unfortunately, Jesus was swept up in the mess, and promptly taken to the garbage can.   Luckily the family realized porcelain Jesus was missing in action, and they retraced his route from the coffee table to the garbage can, and were able to rescue him before his fate was sealed.

Today, I implore you to do whatever you can, to insure that Jesus doesn’t get swept away.     The message that we have celebrated in the place for the last month, was that of a new hope, and a new promise.    We talked about, sang about, prayed about, and marveled about a God, that came to earth in the most humble and lowly of ways. 

We are reminded that a new world, a new economy, and a new love is possible through God.   We are reminded that we can be greater, we can be more, and we can be whole,…if only we allow him back into our lives again.  We were reminded that the joy and hope of his return to our lives can carry well beyond December 25th.    We can continue to experience him throughout the year, if we are willing to keep him at the center of our families, our homes and our lives.

We believe.   We believe that on that morning, 2000 years ago, a baby was born.   That moment, has become the very center of our faith, and we have just spent the last month celebrating that very fact.   We need to remember what James told us this morning in our scripture lesson:  Faith if not accompanied by action is dead.     If that moment, the moment of Christ’s birth, doesn’t lead to action, doesn’t lead to a change in purpose, a change in focus, or a change in action…  What point is all of this.

Together we can make a difference.   We can change things for ourselves and for families like Marcel,…if only we embrace the action that began here in this place during this past Christmas,…and fight to keep it at our center.   I for one, refuse to let Jesus be swept away, and I will continue to ask of myself,..and of you…   What Now?

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