Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Advent Midweek Service + St. Nicholas Day + December 6, 2017
Reading: John 10:11-18
Our first story for tonight begins like a fairy tale or a romcom: with three women – three sisters — dreaming of being married. But these sisters held out very little hope of actually finding husbands, because their family was poor. This was the late 200s or early 300s AD, and they needed a dowry – a large gift from the bride’s father to the groom – in order to attract a good husband. Without a dowry, their chances of being married were slim; and if they were not married, these women had essentially no opportunity to earn money to support themselves and their family, and they would become a burden; they faced a very strong likelihood that their family would have to sell them into slavery – in our contemporary terminology, give them over to human trafficking — just so that everyone could survive.
One morning, one of the sisters was taking the family’s stockings down from the fireplace, where they’d been hung out to dry. One of the stockings was surprisingly heavy. She reached down inside, pulled out a small bag, and opened it to find a pile of gold coins. The family rejoiced at their luck, and soon the eldest daughter married.
Not long after the marriage, another bag of gold appeared mysteriously in the house, and the middle daughter was able to marry. Seeing the pattern forming, the father decided to start keeping watch at night, hoping to discover the person behind these generous gifts. He sat awake near the fireplace, night after night, until finally he saw a third bag of gold come sailing in through the open window. The father jumped up and stuck his head through the window, where he caught a glimpse of a local monk sneaking away. “Oh, Nicholas, it’s you!” the father shouted. “You have saved my daughters from disaster!” Embarrassed, Nicholas begged the man to keep his good deeds a secret, saying “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to your prayers.”
Stories like these form the legend of St. Nicholas – the ancient Bishop of Myra (in what is now Turkey) who has been remembered for centuries for living a life of remarkable generosity, for defending the innocent and the wrongly accused, and for protecting those in danger.
In one story, Nicholas appeared to be dozing off during a dinner at the Council of Nicea. In his sleep, he heard voices calling his name, and he left his body behind, following the sound of the voices out into the middle of an ocean, where a ship was caught in a raging storm. Nicholas raised his hands and the winds and the thunder and lightning hushed. When he awoke back at Nicea, another bishop said, “So much has happened while you slept!” Nicholas replied, “Yes indeed, a ship has been saved and many sailors rescued.” The bishops assumed he was speaking in metaphor: the Church was a ship, and the council had saved the church from heresy. But sailors have believed differently, naming St. Nicholas as their patron saint.
St. Nicholas even saved his people from the burden of high taxes. His people begged him to speak up to the Emperor about the taxation, and so Nicholas traveled to see Emperor Constantine and pled for his people. The emperor granted a large tax cut and gave Nicholas a copy of the order, so that Nicholas could return home with proof of Constantine’s decision. Before Nicholas could return home however, some of Constantine’s finance ministers convinced him that the tax cuts were a really bad idea for the royal treasury. So Constantine called Nicholas back and asked him to return the order so that they could change it to smaller reduction. “I can’t,” Nicholas said. “The order has already been put into effect.” Miraculously, Nicholas had already gotten the order all the way to Myra: he had thrown the parchment into the sea, and almost immediately it was found in the water back home and rushed right to the proper authorities. Faced with such divine intervention, Constantine allowed the big tax cut to stand.
For thousands of years people have continued to tell stories of St. Nicholas saving those in danger, even after his death. Sailors claimed that Nicholas pulled them up out of the sea after they were cast overboard; parents claimed that Nicholas saved their children from danger; others claim that he returned people home after they were kidnapped or put in prison. Some people in a Palestinian city claim that St. Nicholas protected their city from bombing in the 1940s, having seen a vision of St. Nicholas with his arms stretched out, catching the bombs. After a battle with Israeli soldiers in the 2000s, one Palestinian gunman claimed to have seen a man with white beard protecting the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church from bullets. Even if you maybe don’t believe stories like these, we can see the power of St. Nicholas’s memory and the devotion the stories of his life continue to inspire in people.
And of course St. Nicholas has inspired traditions throughout the world. In many countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, children leave their shoes out the night before St. Nicholas Day, often with a tray of carrots or hay for the saint’s horse, and in the morning they find candies, fruit, and other gifts tucked into their shoes. In a Mexican town named for St. Nicholas, his festival lasts for an entire week and includes a parade of his statue, fireworks, and music. The town of Beit Jala in Palestine is home to a cave where St. Nicholas supposedly lived around the time of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Greek Orthodox, Catholics, and Lutherans as well as many Muslims take part in St. Nicholas Day festivities there, which include a procession to the cave and concerts. The memory of St. Nicholas draws people from around the world to celebrate.
I can’t resist the pun here: so many people have flocked to St. Nicholas because he was a shepherd to his people in the same way Jesus was. The people of his time and place, and then people around the world and throughout the centuries, have seen in him the image of the great Good Shepherd. Jesus once said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” and when we hear that we think of Jesus’s supreme example of laying down his life for us on the cross. But we can expand how we understand that, too: the good shepherd must lay down his life for the sheep in both large and small acts every day, choosing to put his sheep’s needs over his desire to take a nap in the shade or run away from the wolf or spend all day by the village well, hoping that the young woman with the sharp wit comes by to draw water.
Jesus laid down his life in large and small ways throughout his life: he saw people in need of healing on the street, and he stopped to help them. He stood up to powerful people on behalf of those who were suffering under their rule. He fed the crowds who came out be healed and taught. Jesus death on the cross was the strongest example in an entire life laid down for the mission of God and in service to others.
St. Nicholas took the teachings and the model of Jesus seriously and laid down his life for God and for his people, too. When he was still young and his parents died, they left him a sizeable inheritance; and he knew right away he must use that money to help those who were in need. He spent time in prison when the Emperor persecuted Christians. He listened to his people and responded to their needs. He gave away money and food, he stood up for those being mistreated, and he saved those in danger. And he was always quick to point back to the God revealed in Jesus Christ as the one who inspired his good deeds, as the true source of the generosity and protection seen through St. Nicholas. As he said to the father of the three brides: “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts.”
As we remember these stories of St. Nicholas, and as we see in them the image of the Good Shepherd, I hope that we, too, may see the opportunities we have to lay down our lives for others, maybe especially in the small, everyday ways – in opportunities to put a loved one’s needs first, or to stand up for those who are mistreated, to protect someone else in body or in reputation or in fair treatment, even just to listen to another person’s story. And I hope that we also pay close attention to notice the ways that others lay down their lives for us, and catch a glimpse of the Good Shepherd at work in our family and friends and even in strangers.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray,that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 
 “Three Impoverished Maidens or The Story of the Dowries,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/three-impoverished-maidens/
 “Where Was Nicholas?”, St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/where-was-nicholas/
 “Tax Relief for Myra,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/tax-relief-for-myra/
 From “Around the World,” St. Nicholas Center; information from the particular pages of the countries named. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/around-the-world/
 Anglican prayer, “Liturgical Prayers,” The St. Nicholas Center. Online: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/liturgical-prayers/