St. Nicholas

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 Generosity of the One Percent

by the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee

Chapel of the Good Shepherd
General Theological Seminary
St. Nicholas' Day, December 6, 2011

"Grant to little children visions bright of thee; guard the sailors tossing on the deep, blue sea."

Those words by the nineteenth century hymn writer, Sabine Baring-Gould, might have been inspired by St. Nicholas of Myra, the patron saint of children and of sailors whom we remember today.

The story of Nicholas is shrouded in legend. The facts are sketchy. Historians believe he was born in the year 270 and died in 326. He was the only son of wealthy Christian parents who died young and he was raised by his uncle, a bishop, also named Nicholas.

He was a lifelong Christian, disciplined in his piety from an early age. We may infer from his parentage and the fact he was raised in his uncle's episcopal home that he was a child of privilege.

The legends about him center on his generosity. The best known story is that Nicholas once learned of a poor man with three unmarried daughters whose chances of marriage were slight since their father could not pay dowries for them.

So Nicholas, to maintain his anonymity, threw three bags of gold into the poor man's window, providing the dowries. When the story was retold in the cold climates of Europe, the bags of gold came down chimneys into the stockings of the daughters. In icons portraying Nicolas, the three bags of gold often became three golden balls. In cold Northern Europe, oranges imported from Spain became symbols of the gold, and oranges were given especially to children on St. Nicholas' Day.

The association of Nicholas and gift giving emphasizes the anonymity of his gifts. So when children were given gifts when the giver chose to remain anonymous, the gifts were said to be from St. Nick.

Nicholas was bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey. In his day, it was a Greek-speaking province of the Byzantine Empire.

More than 700 years after Nicholas' death, when Moslem invaders threatened to engulf the area, in 1087, Italian seamen took Nicholas' remains from Myra and brought them to the Italian city of Bari where they remain today. Nicholas' icon with the three golden balls was popular in Bari which became a center of pawn broking, and the three golden balls are now a symbol of pawn broking.

In our time of the Occupy Wall Street movement, its useful to remember that in his time Nicholas was probably part of the one percent of the wealthy who used his wealth to help others without drawing attention to himself.

In comparison to most of the world's people, you and I are part of that one percent, even though in comparison to the one percent in our own country we are among the ninety-nine percent.

The church has been blessed by the one percent who accepted the vocation of generosity.

Sabine Baring-Gould, the prolific English hymn writer who wrote of children's visions bright of thee and sailors tossing on the deep, blue sea, was on one of those talented, generous one percenters. Beside his hymns, including "Onward, Christian Soldiers," he wrote a 16-volume lives of the Saints, and at one point in the nineteenth century more books were listed under his name in the British Museum's library than any other English writer.

He was an archeologist, a writer, a country priest. In 1880 he inherited his father's 3000 acre estate which included, which is frequent in rural England, the right to appoint the rector of the parish. When next the position was vacant, you guessed it, in 1881, he appointed himself rector of St. Peter's Parish, Lew Trenchard, Devon. He restored the church as well as the Manor House.

How Baring-Gould had the time for his writing and his restoration work is a fair question since he and his wife had 15 children, all but one of whom lived to adulthood.

We have our own history on this Close of a one percenter with a call to generosity. Eugene Augustus Hoffman was dean from 1879 to his death in 1902. He inherited and married wealth. He and his family led the way in giving that created the east and west quadrangles. His mother gave this chapel.

As the late Powel Mills Dawley reports in his sesquicentennial history of the Seminary, "the full amount of Hoffman's personal munificence will never be known, for there are many gifts noted as coming 'through the Dean' or 'from a friend.' Such phrases offered modest concealment of the generosity of Eugene Augustus Hoffman." (Dawley, p. 260)

This is my last homily before I leave the Seminary for my next interim position in Paris. My first word is to thank especially the students for your generous welcome to Kristy and to me. We have experienced God's generosity in your welcome.

God's generosity is a sign of God's abundant love for all that God has made. As the first letter of John teaches, "whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love."

To embrace and respond to God's generosity is to affirm our identity as God's children in God's kingdom. When Jesus teaches that "whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it," Jesus is calling all persons of all ages to the childlike wonder in God's generosity.

That childlike identity is the fulfillment of the baptismal prayer that we may be granted "a spirit to know and love (God) and the gift of joy and wonder in all (God's) works."

So on this St. Nicholas' Day, my final word as you receive the gifts of oranges from the children when you leave the altar is to center your lives and ministry on the generosity of God, thanking God for all God's blessings, and caring for one another as this seminary rebuilds its common life to shape us all into witnesses to the generous love of God.

By the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, Interim Dean, General Theological Seminary, New York, New York. Used by permission.

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