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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 9:2-7 and John 1:1-5, 10-11, 14
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my home town. The plows got out in a timely manner when it snowed. It’s been up above freezing for couple days now, so only small patches of snow are holding on.

The ABS discussion group had their weekly meeting at the Chowder House yesterday. ABS stands for “anything but sports” and yesterday they were discussing fake news. They concluded that most of it is.

Mr. Willis went on one of his twilight walks on Tuesday. Mr. Willis’s habit was to hang around the house all day, but at twilight to venture out into the neighborhood to survey his domain. Of course, being so near to the solstice, that meant venturing out at around 3:30. The sojourns typically take an hour or so and end with Sydney standing on the back porch, shaking a small bag of cat treats and calling Mr. Willis’s name. On Tuesday night, Mr. Willis didn’t return. Several times that evening, Sidney stood on the back porch, shaking the treats, calling for Mr. Willis, but still there was not sign of him.

Wednesday was a school day, so Sidney couldn’t go looking until after school, when it was almost dark. Gathering flashlights, her friend Carol, and her mom, they started looking. Sadly, they didn’t have to look far. There, where their street dead ends at the woods, was the body of Mr. Willis. It was a violent death. Some predator, probably a coyote, had killed him and was probably scared off by cars or kids. It’s unusual for coyotes to go after domesticated cats, but with small rodents not being readily available at this time of year, it can happen.

Mr. Willis had been part of Sydney’s life, part of the family, since she was three, and this was the first time Sidney has lost someone she so dearly love. She’s a smart kid. She understands the predator-prey relationship. But this. This seems so cruel, so personal. She asked her mother, “Why?” knowing that there was no answer. And she asked if there couldn’t be another way, a way for coyote and kitten to live together. The shortness of the days, the length of the nights seem so reflective of how Sydney has been feeling these past few days.

As I think about the darkness Sydney and so many are feeling, I think about the promise we heard in the reading from Isaiah and the testimony we heard in the reading from John: That light shines in the darkness and that darkness cannot overcome it. Sometimes it feels like the darkness has. And yet …

I was introduced[1] to a poem by Thomas Troeger this week that speaks (to me, at least) about this hope, this promise. The poem is called “The Dream Isaiah Saw.”

Lions and oxen will sleep in the hay,
Leopards will join with the lambs as they play,
Wolves will be pastured with cows in the glade,
Blood will not darken the earth that God made.

Little child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Life redeemed from fang and claw.

Peace will pervade more than forest and field:
God will transfigure the Violence concealed
Deep in the heart and in systems of gain,
Ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain.

Little Child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Justice purifying law.

Nature reordered to match God’s intent,
Nations obeying the call to repent,
All of creation completely restored,
Filled with the knowledge and love of the Lord.

Little child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Knowledge, wisdom, worship, awe.

While Sidney feels as if she’s living in darkness, Peter Mueller[2] is feeling like some light is finally coming. Ten weeks ago, Susan Mueller had a brain aneurysm. The darkness began with three hours in the emergency room in Concord. One nurse grabbed a pair scissors to cut off Susan’s outfit. Another went to work getting her hooked up to some high-tech monitors. Someone drew two vials of blood. Once the lead surgeon managed to stabilize Susan, two techs rolled her off to the radiology lab. Five minutes later Peter stood behind a cluster of white coats huddled around screen images. Two of the physicians didn’t say word. Their silence signaled gravity.

The ER doctor determined that life-support was critical, ordering intubation for a ventilator before the airlift to Mass General. Within minutes, three air medics in blue flight-suits for wheeling Susan’s gurney out to the hospital helipad. Peter followed behind, carrying a plastic bag of clothing scraps.

As he watched the helicopter fly farther and farther away, he pinned his eyes to the sky as if that slender mechanical bird was supposed to circle back. What he was really staring at was a challenge old is Abraham standing over Isaac atop a woodpile, but as new to him as the emergency developments of the past three hours – the challenge of relinquishment. Would he be able to let go of Susan as a daily fixture in his life? Permanently? No one was around to advise him on these questions, though he had a hunch that an answer might be required of him that night.

Relinquishment became the question he contemplated during his drive south. When you are behind the wheel on a highway and your only passenger is God, you can cover a lot of spiritual ground. He went to work practicing relinquishment, at least in his head. God listened patiently.

The first three brain surgeries occurred soon after Susan arrived in the operating room late that night. It was a seven-hour ordeal that the surgeon warned would be extremely high risk. He offered no assurance that he could save Susan. Several family members joined Peter and stretched out on the couches in the waiting room pretending to sleep. You don’t really sleep in a situation like this. You listen to your stomach gurgling as you wait for some updates from the surgical suite you believe may arrive at any minute. Dawn is a welcome sight.

Susan spent a week in intensive care before being moved to the neurosurgical floor. By day, Peter and his family whispered prayers and told old stories and strategized ways to distract her from requesting more Vicodin than was allowable. By night, Chopin nocturnes play quietly on Peter’s laptop – better medicine than any pills in a tiny cup.

Something went wrong on day 21. Susan retreated into her mind and entered a particularly dark period. She became largely unresponsive. Dreaded vasospasms inside her brain – something doctors warned could happen – began to limit Peter’s expectations of how complete Susan’s recovery might be. When she stirred, her hands lurched for the electrode wires fixed to her scalp.

On day 27, Susan’s condition decline notably. It was becoming clear to their children, Jacob and Rachel, and to Peter that they might soon become a family of three instead of four. As aids rolled Susan’s bed down the corridor for her 11th CT scan, Rachel slouch to the floor outside room 5135. She cried. Peter sat down beside her and joined in the tears. Whether it was an attempt to comfort his daughter or a sudden wake up call to the faith he had practiced for so may years, he readied himself to say a few words. And a strange peace came over him.

While Peter’s head would turn to scriptures to find solace in a crisis, something inside him told him that Rachel didn’t need scriptures. She needed a dad. Still, a scripture rattled around inside Peter’s head, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

“Rachel, I know this is hard,” he said. “It’s really hard. I don’t like it anymore than you do.”

She kept pressing him. “Are we going to lose her?”

He told Rachel he didn’t know. And he offered more. “You know what I think we have to remember? As much as we love mom, we need to remember that we also love God. We love God very much. God is the one who will hold our family together whether we get more time with mom or not. That’s as good as we can have it. And, that’s pretty good.” They both cried some more.

Day 31 brought tough new developments. Susan state of mind moved into a rotating mix of catatonia, suicidal behavior, and dangerous psychotic activity. Posing a threat to herself into anyone close, doctors moved her to a lockdown unit. Every time Susan swung out in violence, the alarm sounded, aids came running, and four of them hustled her into a straitjacket.

As the team of physicians continue to size up her erratic behavior, it became clear that more drastic treatment measures were necessary. They proposed an experimental drug and treatments of electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. The idea of shocking Susan’s brain with electric currents for the sake of triggering seizures did not strike a warm accord in Peter. But the medical team convince the family that no other reasonable options were available. Susan was mentally alert enough for hospital personnel to require her signature on the waiver form, yet confused and belligerent enough to refuse to pick up the pan.

There was a humorous moment when Susan launched into an apocalyptic rant. The attending neurologist even turn theological when he asked, “Susan, is there any chance that you think you might be Jesus Christ?” She paused and looked at each of the people standing around her before offering a reply: “Well, someone does need to save the world.”

The physicians made it clear to Susan that they believed that she was incapable of making considered medical decisions that were in her best interest. They informed Peter that his best option would be to take her to court, and as absurd as it seems, that became the plan. Susan was assigned her own hospital appointed attorney; Peter enlisted his. The judge deposed the physicians and eventually ruled in the case. The evidence did not lean in Susan’s favor. Aids summarily strapped her to a gurney and wheeled her way to the ECT lab.

Two weeks after the ECT treatments, Susan was ready to be discharged. Electroconvulsive therapy was not without difficulty, temporarily erasing all of her memories. But she did come home. And some of her memories are starting to creep back.

Light seems to be coming, bringing back to life emotions once hidden away. And this morning, Peter turned from his pillow to hers and said, “I can’t believe you are alive.” To which she replied, “I can’t believe it either.” And they rose from bed and went into their day trying to be as grateful as possible, treating life is a gift to be share.

Ann Weems once wrote,[3] “The Christmas Spirit is that hope that tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful and announces in the face of any Herod the world can produce and all the inn doors slammed in our faces and all the dark nights of our souls that with God all things still are possible, that even now unto us a Child is born!”

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, the children go to Sunday school every week, and the light has come.

[1] I was introduced to this poem in a musical setting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FqhPh72kB0

[2] This story is based on (and sometimes quoting directly from) Peter W. Marty, “Holding each other loosely,” Christian Century, 2 September 2015 edition, pp 28-31.

[3] I’m not sure where she wrote this. A friend quoted it on Facebook without further credit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer,
based on the story, “No Room in the Inn,” by Katherine Paterson.[1]
Scripture:  Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2007, 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Warm, but quiet.  “Wearing sandals.  It’s a Christmas miracle,” my friend Steve Sarles posted on Facebook this morning.[2]  Of course, he lives in the south – you know, in the Boston suburbs.  But it’s plenty warm in Mount William.

I’m okay with the lakes not being frozen over and there being no snow on the ground at Christmas.  It seems like Christmases were either brown or a foot-deep in white when I was growing up.  Still, there should be little pockets of ice between the rocks along the shore in the lake coves that don’t get the winter sunlight during the day.  That’s just not happening this year with temperatures touching 60.  I’ve heard weather forecasters saying that the El Niño in the Pacific is causing – or at least contribution to – the warm weather on the Atlantic coast and even the tornados that struck the southeast yesterday.  How weird is that?

Speaking of weird, the Christmas card from Frank Dearborn says that he’s a grandfather.  I used to babysit that kid, and he’s grandfather now.  If he’s old enough for that, then I’m – there’s just no way that I’m that old.

When he heard the news that his daughter was pregnant, he called the Bed and Breakfast his parents used to run and made reservations.  Frank was determined to have a four-generation Christmas back in Mount William – and he’s made it happen.  Frank and Jill, their two kids, their kids’ spouses, and their granddaughter are at the Grove Hill Inn (the owners who bought out Francine and Ernest eight years ago changed the name).  Tomorrow morning, Francine and Ernest Dearborn will drive up from Nashua and the family will celebrate at what was once their home.

It was opening the door to the downstairs powder room yesterday that brought the memory back this time.  Frank has had plenty of meaningful Christmases – the first with his wife, the one when their daughter was 10 and she suggested they pool the money they would have spent on presents and give it to the food bank, the one when Jill’s father was so sick and still insisted on taking the family to the midnight Christmas Eve service.  But the Christmas of 1988 when Frank was 18 – this was one of the most transformative experiences of his life.

Begin born into a family that ran a B&B meant that Frank had a job from the day he would make hospital corners.  By the time he was a teenager, he was cleaning rooms and helping out in the kitchen, and he spent most of the summer cutting and splitting fire wood for the winter guests.  But that Christmas, the winter after he turned 18, his parents decided to give themselves a treat, to close down the Inn for the holiday and to take a trip to somewhere warm.  That meant that Frank had the old B&B to himself – no guests, no parents, a stack of movies that his parents wouldn’t let him to watch when there were guests at the Inn.

It was snowing hard the day he drove his parents all the way into Boston to catch their flight to Florida.  He tried to look a little sad as he hugged his parents goodbye – his Christmas present to his mother.  The drive back to Mount William was slow with all the accumulated snow.  He was tired and hungry by the time he got to the village center, so he decided to stop of at Bessie and Winona’s Chowder House for something to eat.  He wasn’t much of a chowder fan, but Winona made a great meat loaf and the cup of coffee was bottomless.

The woodstove was crackling warm and the smell of meatloaf and homemade bread filled the place.  Ewell Biggs and Ames Whitehead were sitting at the counter drinking coffee when he got there.  They gave Frank the typical male New Hampshire nod and grunt of greeting.  Frank nodded back and sat down, waiting for Bessie’s usual “Hello stranger!”  But Bessie just stared at him sadly.  “It’s meatloaf tonight,” she said, as though that would be the last thing anyone would want.

“That’s fine,” Frank said, and then, “is something the matter, Bessie?”

“Bessie’s all worried about them Russians,” Ewell explained between sips of coffee.

“They’re Armenians,” Bessie said to him, and then to Frank, “I was just watching the news.  It’s over 20,000 dead now and about half a million people with no place to sleep.  And it’s cold there!”[3]

“It ain’t like a New Hampshire winter,” Ames said.  “It was 8 below in my barn this morning.”

“It’s cold enough,” Bessie insisted.  “I saw this old woman on TV last night.  They showed her hands.  She was kinda holding them tight like this” – Bessie clutched her hands together – “and she didn’t have any gloves.  She was just holding onto herself and shivering.  It killed me.  I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about that poor old woman.”

Frank thought Bessie was going to burst into tears, but she pulled herself together enough to get a huge steaming plate of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and beans, with three hot rolls on the side.  She knew how Frank loved her rolls.

Just then, he felt a blast of cold air on his back.  Everyone turned to look at the door.  A man was standing there – a stranger.  There was several days’ growth of stubble on his face.  He had on worn jeans and a flimsy baseball jacket and no hat or gloves.  He was not from Mount William, or Bessie would have recognized him.

“Take a seat,” Bessie said.  She only called people she knew ‘stranger.’  “Be right with you.”  Before Frank could ask for ketchup, she was back to the Armenians.  “And those children.  Did you see those poor kids in the hospital with their legs all crushed?  One little boy couldn’t even remember who he was.  The doctor didn’t know if his parents were dead or alive.”

Frank opened his mouth during a pause to ask for the ketchup, but by then she had turned to the stranger.  “Now, what can I do for you?” she asked.

He was still standing in front of the door as though he couldn’t remember what he’d come in for.  “Coffee,” he muttered at last.  “To go.”

“People who got though the earthquake are just freezing to death from the cold,” Bessie went on as she filled a large Styrofoam cup from the coffee pot.

The man looked puzzled.  “Armenians,” Frank said.  “She’s all upset about the Armenians.  There was a big earthquake over there.  A lot of people died.”

“And the rest are likely to,” Bessie said with a huge sigh.  “Right at Christmas.  I can’t get over those poor children.  Cream and sugar?”

“Yeah,” the man said.  “Both.  Double.”

Bessie pushed on the lid.  “That’ll be 63 cents,” she said as the man handed her a dollar bill.  “This mason jar here is for the Armenians,” she said, pointing to it.  “I’m taking donation – if you’d like to put in your change …”

The man took the change she held out and stuffed it into the pocket of his jeans.  “How far to Concord from here?” he asked.

“Usually about a half-hour,” Frank said, “but the road are really bad, so maybe an hour and a half or two.”

“Ah, they’ll plow soon,” Ewell said.

“I need gas,” the man said.

“Well, that might be a problem.  The Triangle Store is closed for the night and the next gas is in Concord,” said Ames.

The man shrugged, turned, and another blast of cold air was felt by all.

“Friendly fellow,” Ames said.

“Not too worried about your Russians, either,” Ewell teased.

“Armenians.”  Bessie looked sadder than every.

When he was ready to go, Frank stuffed his change into the jar even though he’d given her one of the twenties his parents had left him.  When he got back home, the first thing he did was hang out the “No Vacancy” sign.  He wasn’t likely to get any visitors on a night like this, but he wasn’t taking any chances.  He had the evening all planned.  First a roaring fire, then a large bottle of Pepsi and big bag of potato chips, and then start in on the pile of videos.

He had no sooner popped the first tape into the machine and settled back to watch when the doorbell rang … and rang … and rang.  There was nothing to do but go answer.  He put on the chain and opened the door a crack.  “Sorry, no vacancy,” he said, and then he saw the stranger from the Chowder House.

“How about if I stay in the garage?” he asked.  “Like you said, the roads are terrible and it’s freezing out here in the car.”

“Sorry, no vacancy.  You’ll have to try somewhere else.”

“Look I’m just asking to stay in your garage, so I don’t freeze to death.  You’d let a stray dog into the garage, wouldn’t you, on a night like this?”

Frank hesitated.  The man smiled – one of those shifty-eyed smiles that immediately makes you distrust someone.  “Just think of me as one of them Armenians,” he said.

He was right.  Fake smile or not, he would freeze to death in his car on a night like that.  “Okay,” Frank said.  “I’ll have to move the truck out to make room for your car.”  He closed the front door and carefully locked it before going out into the garage through the kitchen.  He backed out the truck and a ten-year-old Chevy with rusted sides drove into the garage.  Frank got an old blankets out of the cargo area, locked the truck, and hurried into the garage.

“Here’s a blanket in case,” he yelled as he set it on the garage floor, pushed the button to close the garage door, and went back into the kitchen.  He tried to stop thinking about the man in the car in the garage as he settled back down by the fire and the TV.  “I’m sure not gonna let him inside,” Frank thought to himself.  “People get robbed and beaten up for that kind of stupidity – murdered, even.”  Frank turned up the volume of the movie to try to drown out the thoughts.

He didn’t know how long the knocking had been going on when he finally heard it.  “Yeah?” he yelled through the door to the garage.

“Daddy said, could I use the bathroom?”

A child’s voice.  It startled Frank and he opened the door.  Sure enough, there stood a dirty, skinny, red-faced kid.  “Daddy said you’d let me use the bathroom.”

Frank opened the door wider and let him in.  What was he supposed to do?  Tell the kids to go out in the snow.  Sheesh.  He shut the door behind the boy and led him to the downstairs powder room.  “Don’t use the towels,” he warned.

He waited outside the bathroom for what seemed like ten minutes.  What in the world was the kid up to?  Finally, he came out, walking tall and straight-backed like a little prince.  He didn’t say a word, not even thank you.

“You’re welcome,” Frank said loudly as he let the boy back into the garage.

Frank sat down on a kitchen chair.  The guy hadn’t said anything about any kid.  He was thinking about calling the police or child welfare or somebody when there was another, softer knock at the door.

This time, he just opened it.  “You’ve been to the bathroom already,” he stated to say when he saw it was a different kid – a stringy haired girl with a runny nose rubbed raw.  “Where did you come from?” he asked.

She whispered something.

“What?”

Again he heard the word “bathroom,” so he shut the door and pointed her to the powder room.  He didn’t even bother to warn her about the fancy guest towels. Somehow, he knew it was going to be a long night.

Before the girl had left the bathroom, there was another knock at the door.  This time there was a woman standing there, holding a baby in a filthy rag of a blanket.  Frank couldn’t believe it.  This was like one of those circus acts where people just keep coming out of a car.  “Would you warm it?” she asked.  Frank looked down; she was handing him a baby bottle half filled with frozen milk.

“You’d better do it,” he said.  He got out a saucepan, filled it with water, and turned on the burner.  “The kid – the little girl’s in the bathroom,” he said, nodding in the direction.  He waited, as patiently as he could, for the woman to test the milk on her wrist and shove the bottle into the baby’s mouth, and for the little girl to finish wiping her grubby little hands on all four of the embroidered Irish linen guest towels.

“Now,” he said, “I’m very sorry, but you’re going to have to go.”

“It’s cold out there,” the little girl whined as he gently urged her out the door.

“I know,” he said grimly, going out with her to the rusty Chevy.  The man was sitting behind the wheel with all the windows rolled up.  Frank went to the driver’s side and tapped, but the man didn’t roll the window down.  He looked straight ahead.  Frank banged louder.  “You’re going to have to go.  This isn’t going to work.  You didn’t tell me you had kids with you.”

The man turned slowly and opened the window a crack.  He gave Frank a look – it was the most sarcastic expression Frank had ever seen.  “Just pretend we’re some of them Armenians,” he said and rolled with window up again.

Frank stood there for a minute, trying to figure out what to do next.  It was so quiet he could hear the soft sounds of the baby drinking its milk.  The little girl was watching from the other side of the Chevy with big scared eyes.  The woman hadn’t moved.  She was till standing in the doorway, the baby cradled in her arms, a dark silhouette against the light streaming from the bright kitchen.  “All is bright ’round yon Virgin Mother and Child.”

A shiver went through Frank.

An unheated barn was no place for a baby.  And then he heard himself:  “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.”  No room in the inn, not for two thousand lousy years.

“Look, why don’t you come into the house.  It’s freezing out here.”

The man smiled grimly.  “Thinking about the Armenians, huh?”

“No,” said Frank, “I was actually thinking about someone else.”

Frank led them into the living room to the fire.  He turned off the TV and went to call Bessie.  He knew he needed help and he was sure she would come.  He’d just tell her he had a houseful of Armenians.

That’s the news from Mount William, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.
[1] Katherine Paterson, “No Room in the Inn,” A Midnight Clear, (New York: Minna Murra, Inc, 1995), 68-82.

[2] Steve Sarles, Facebook status update, https://www.facebook.com/steve.sarles/posts/10205196950825559 (posted and accessed 24 December 2015).

[3] On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m. local time a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook northwestern Armenia and was followed four minutes later by a magnitude 5.8 aftershock. Swarms of aftershocks, some as large as magnitude 5.0, continued for months in the area around Spitak.  Twenty-five thousand were killed and 15,000 were injured by the earthquake. In addition 517,000 people were made homeless.  http://welcome.warnercnr.colostate.edu/avprojects/98proj/world_volc/web_docs/armenia.html (22 December 2007).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown. Sure, there’s been plenty of last minute Christmas shopping and grandparents have been called in to provide childcare reinforcement since school was out all week, but most people seem to have fortified themselves against the demands of the season and have managed to focus on their families and community.

The chatter at the Chowder House has been about Christmas – Christmas plans and Christmas hopes. Some have been hoping they won’t argue with the in-laws this year. Some have been hoping the turkey isn’t too dry. Some have been hoping they’ve found a good present for that person who they love but who is so difficult to shop for. Maggie John had been hoping that she would be able to round up a group of old high school friends to go caroling.

After her divorce, music has taken an important role in Maggie’s life. She joined a community chorus that rehearses in Concord back in September and she’s found healing in the music, the singing, and this new community of friends. Maggie hadn’t sung in a chorus since she was in high school. It was at a rehearsal of her new chorus that she got the idea. They were singing a movement from The Messiah and it brought back a flood of memories from those days over 30 years ago.

Back in high school, some of her chorus buddies made attending the annual Messiah sing at First Congregational Church in Concord a tradition, and they followed it with Christmas Caroling around Mount William. At the rehearsal, as they sang, “And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be re-e-e-e-ve-e-e-ealed,” Maggie was suddenly transported back in time and she could see herself standing in the snow in front of a white clapboard house singing about figgy pudding, stomping her feet to try to get them warm again. In her mind’s eye, she could see the others: Susan who harmonized on alto so well; Laura who was always suggesting which song to sing next; Jeremy who had a beautiful tenor voice, and beautiful eyes, and a beautiful smile. That really was a hard crush she had. And wasn’t he Jewish, at least nominally? Why was he out Christmas caroling?

Anyway, this fond memory grew into a hope that she could round up enough friends from decades past to form a little choir to go caroling again.

Somehow she managed to pull it off and Sunday night some old friends, their spouses, and in a few cases children and even a grandchild joined her knocking on doors, singing Christmas carols they knew and loved. It was a fun evening, even though there really wasn’t much snow on the ground.

Christmas seems to be filled with traditions. Each family has their own and they can be so strong kids are often surprised when they learn their friends have different traditions. All those traditions are gone for Maggie. It used to be that her family would spend Christmas Eve with her now-ex-husband’s family and Christmas Day would be spent at her parents’ home. That whole schedule has been tossed on the trash heap because of the divorce. She’ll still go to her parents’ home tomorrow, but her children will be with their father in Florida this year.

Christmas started to take on a new meaning for Maggie, what with the change in her family system. To her surprise, Christmas is taking on a religious meaning for her, and she blames that on the singing. One of the songs her chorus sang is a contemporary, fairly complex setting of an ancient text. Once she started getting the music down, she started paying attention to the lyrics.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Between an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.[1]

“What an amazing way to look at the birth of Jesus,” Maggie thought. “And what an image of Jesus – a dancer, a lover – who doesn’t come to judge us, but who comes to dance with us, to woo us – who comes to dance with me.” Maggie had to wipe a tear away as she continued rehearsing. And now, Maggie is looking for ways to dance with Jesus.
Chester Banks has also undergone a bit of a transformation. It happened on the bus ride from New York City last Friday. Chester is spending his junior year of college studying in France, and he flew home for Christmas. The cheaper fare was to New York, so he decided to spend a couple days there, and then to take the bus to Concord where his mother picked him up.

About three hours into the seven-hour journey – well, it’s scheduled to be a seven-hour journey, but with traffic – Chester started getting impatient and bored. He can’t read in a bus without getting carsick and his iPhone had been dead for half an hour, so his mind started wandering. Images from the hours he had spent in museums over the past four months flashed before him. The bus reminded him of how nice European train travel is, at least comparatively speaking. That made him think about his trip to Belgium, which brought the Royal Museum of Fine Arts to mind, which brought Pieter Bruegel’s The Census at Bethlehem to mind.

Chester’s journey from New York to Mount William was something like two and a half times as far as the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, he figured. If his phone had been working, he would have asked Siri how long it would take to walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Days, he figured, and when you factor in “marauding bandits, deep rain-washed wadis cutting through the path, inns with no room, or full-term pregnancies,”[2] he wouldn’t be wrong. Who was he to complain about a seven-hour bus ride that covered more than twice the distance?

“And what idiotic government bureaucracy,” Chester muttered aloud, thinking both about Caesar’s order for families to return to their ancestral home to be counted, which made him think about the hours he’d be spending at the DMV next week to get his drivers license renewed.

Chester had learned in a religion class his freshman year that there is little historical evidence of this census. But then, for “Luke, the mandate from Rome and the journey of two peasants from Galilee to Judea are not primarily geographical or historical matters but theological ones. The question for Luke is where hope might be found for people like Mary or Joseph. They are, like poor and defenseless people everywhere and in ever time, at the whim of whatever caesar or mindless bureaucracy or uncaring machinery of state happens to lash out in their direction. Caesar issues a decree, drinks another glass of wine, eats a cluster of grapes – and Joseph and Mary pack provisions and head out on the Roman road to Judea.”[3]

Chester’s mind drifted back to Bruegel’s painting. Bethlehem looks very much like a 16th century northern European village in the painting and it’s not obvious who Mary and Joseph are. They are just part of the peasantry filling the village. “They have disappeared into the anonymity of the powerless. The irony is that while Joseph, Mary, and their unborn child are heading to Bethlehem to be counted, in fact they do not count, not to Rome anyway. They are faceless nobodies under the boot of an uncaring empire.”[4]

Suddenly a detail popped out – not from Bruegel’s painting, but from a display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Under a grand Christmas tree, there’s a grander, 18th century nativity scene. “In many ways it is a very familiar scene. The usual characters are all there: shepherds roused from sleep by the voices of angels; the exotic wise men from the East seeking…; Joseph; Mary; the babe – all are there, each figure an artistic marvel of wood, clay, and paint.”[5] But behind the holy family, so subtle he had almost missed it, Chester remembered there were crumbling Roman columns.

Chester grinned as he thought about the juxtaposition – the power of Rome crumbing before the vulnerability of a baby. He looked out the bus window at nothing in particular, holding this thought.

The bus pulled off the highway and into a city. Chester wasn’t sure which one. Heck, he wasn’t sure if they were in Connecticut or Massachusetts at that point. He noticed how bus stations seem to almost always be in a more depressed part of town. “These are Jesus’ people,” he thought. Then he thought about the crumbling columns.

“Why is the world still like this? Why hasn’t God changed things?” he found himself asking. He didn’t think these questions were a prayer, but apparently they were, for Chester felt an answer welling up in him. “While I’ve been waiting for God to act, God’s been waiting for me to act. No wonder nothing’s happening.”[6]

And I’m pretty sure that Jesus was born again in that very moment.

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] These are the first three verses of this ancient song that tells the life of Jesus from his point of view. They are quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomorrow_Shall_Be_My_Dancing_Day (accessed 24 December 2014)

[2] Thomas G. Long, “Living By the Word,” Christian Century, 10 December 2014, p. 21.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas G. Long, Something Is About to Happen, CSS Publishing, quoted in an email from sermons.com, dated 16 December 2014.

[6] This insight is actually from John Dominic Crossan that he has published in at least two books: The Greatest Prayer and The Power of Parable.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  The temperature has been bouncing all over the place.  We had a white Thanksgiving and then two more snowstorms came through.  Saturday, it topped 50 degrees even though there are still about three inches of snow on the ground.  Tomorrow, it’s not supposed to get above 18.  The cold days got me thinking back to the year Andy and Pamela Wilson moved to Mount William.

That was long enough ago that real estate was down right inexpensive.  The Wilsons moved to Mount William after the family farm in Ohio went bust.  For three generations, Wilsons had owned and run a small but profitable farm – until Andy took over.  It was the year he bought a new tractor and planted soy instead of wheat and the rains didn’t come and … and the house and land had to be auctioned off.

So the Wilsons took what little they had and moved to Mount William.  They rented a tiny cottage owned by a second-cousin-once-removed of one of Pamela’s high school friends.  They figured Andy could get a job in New Hampshire and they could start over and build a family and … and it was tight that first year, really tight.  The only job Andy could find was as a night watchman in the Manchester Jordan Marsh, and that didn’t pay very well.

That year, he volunteered to work on Christmas Eve.  He really didn’t want to go home empty handed.  Pam would have understood.  In fact, she probably would have insisted on it.  She was upset if Andy spent money on anything other than food, and even there, they scrimped.  Whoever heard of a hungry farmer?  But Andy wasn’t a farmer any more.  He was a night watchman – blue uniform, holster and gun on one hip, a flashlight the size of a baseball bat on the other.  He thought the revolver was a silly part of his uniform.  His father had stopped taking him hunting when he was 15.  “You couldn’t hit a bullet with the side of a barn,” his father told him, “let alone the other way around.”

Well, the boss paid double time for Christmas Eve and between that and not wanting to face his wife without some sort of gift, Andy jumped at the chance to work.  The store closed at 3:00, so it was going to be a long shift.  The sun set by 4:30.  By 6:00, Andy was on his third cup of coffee in the quiet, empty, cavernous building.  He turned on a radio and found a station playing Christmas music – carols, not “Santa Claus is coming to town” – the Christmas music he liked, the Christmas music that reminded him of his childhood.  “That’s what Christmas is all about,” he thought.  “Jesus being born in a barn – and it wasn’t one that belonged to his daddy either.”

Not that Andy was blaming God or anything.  He figured it was his fault, and he started rehearsing his long list of “if onlys.”  But truth be told, Andy wasn’t so big on God that year.  Back before they lost the farm, Andy had done a lot of praying.  He couldn’t believe God wanted for them to lose the land, but that’s what happened.  And Andy could see it coming.  Like watching a car accident in slow motion, you can see that the cars are going to hit and there was nothing he could do to stop it.  All he could do was pray.  So that’s what he did.

First, he prayed for rain.  It didn’t.  Barely any rain for two years.  Then he prayed that the John Deere dealer would buy back the tractor.  He wouldn’t, not even for half of what Andy had paid for it.  Then he prayed for the price of soy to go up.  It seemed as if the bottom fell out of the market.  Then he stopped praying for a solution he could design and just prayed for a miracle.  “Just gimme a doggone miracle!”

And here he was, walking around the store, listening to “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night,” thinking about when he had to sell of his small herd of sheep.  Maybe it was a mistake to start the sheep herd.  His father wouldn’t have sheep; too dumb for him.  But Andy liked the sheep.  He liked the face of some old ewe as she looked at him worshipfully, trusting him with her whole silly life.  Andy could still go for a miracle.  It’d only need to be big enough that he could keep a few sheep.  “How about it, God?  How about a miracle?” he said out loud.  His prayer echoed through the department store.

The only other sound was the pinging and groaning of the heating system as it came on and turned off during the night.  His first night on watch, he darn near peed himself the first time the furnace turned on.  By December, he had figured out where most of the sounds came from, though figuring out the clicking of the flaps on the vents in the ladies room took a while.

Sometime in the wee hours of that early Christmas morning, Andy heard a sound that was different, new.  It came and went, but it made him turn off the radio and prick up his ears.  When it came again, he started hunting for it.  It sounded like it was coming from the back of the building, a weird sound.  Maybe it was the hymns, but it reminded him of a lamb bleating for its mama.  Or maybe he wanted an image that would calm his nerves.

Shaking his head to make sure it wasn’t cobwebs, he started out in the direction of the noise.  The lights in the store over night are low and spooky.  They cast strange shadows, and as Andy walked toward the back of the store, he noticed he was sweating.  “Pull your gun,” he thought to himself.  “Don’t walk toward any strange sound with your gun in the holster.  You won’t have time later.”  He was quoting his training instructor without realizing it – not that the training amounted to much: a half-day seminar and then a couple nights shadowing another night watchman.

He pulled the gun out.  The noise was louder now, coming from the loading area, where crates were piled.  Anybody could hide there.  As he started imagining possible dangers, he had to wipe his face so he could see where he was stepping.

“Probably a cat,” he thought.  “Please be a cat!”  He knew there were cats behind the A & P grocery store, digging through the garbage most nights.  All they had on the loading dock at Jordan Marsh was cardboard boxes from items that had been put out on display, but what does a cat know.  He pushed the door out gently and sneaked through, gun in one hand, flashlight in the other.  Then boom! he was sprawled out on the loading dock, flashlight rolling off in one direction, the gun skittering in another.  Luckily, the gun didn’t go off; Andy had forgotten to release the safety.

“Who’s there?” he yelled as he tried to regain his footing.  Then the box under his legs started to squawl.  Andy knew it was no lamb.  After gathering up his gun and flashlight, he looked into the Zenith AM-FM stereo carton and saw the pinched-up, bright red face of a baby – a little baby, probably not even a month old.

“Hey you,” he yelled at the refrigerator cartons.  “You come back here and get this kid!”  The refrigerator cartons didn’t answer.  Nor did the stove boxes or the dishwasher crates.  “I mean it!” he yelled, shining the beam around.  “You can’t just walk off and leave your kid like this.  It’s against the law!”  He wasn’t sure about the “against the law” part, but it sounded good in the moment.

Andy kept shining his flashlight around the loading dock, looking for some sign of life, but everything was still – everything except the Zenith AM-FM Stereo box, which had started squawling and shaking so hard the Zenith logo looked like real lighting.  He gave up shouting at the empty loading dock and took the box inside.

In the movies, when somebody leaves a baby on a doorstep, there’s a note.  So he poked around in the box for a note.  All he found was a bottle, about half full, and one extra diaper.  Not what you’d call long-range planning, but hopefully enough to get Andy through until 6:00, when his shift ended.

Once they got inside, Andy’s nose told him he’s have to use that lone extra diaper right away.  That’s how he found out the baby was a boy.  It got Andy thinking about his father and their relationship – how difficult it had been. “Maybe the men in my family don’t do so good with sons,” he thought.  But there was this little guy, legs churning like a fullback’s and yelling his little head off.  And Andy could feel something in his throat the size of a baseball.

The bottle was ice cold, of course, so he put the bottle in the Mr. Coffee pot, which still had a couple inches of coffee in it, to warm up the bottle.  It didn’t take too long and after testing it on his wrist (maybe bottle feeding those lambs prepared him for this moment), he gave what was left of the bottle to the little boy.

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Why didn’t he call the cops?”  I asked him that once.  He said he could have given me a bunch of reasons, but the real reasons was pretty simple:  it never occurred to him.

The last few hours of his shift flew past, and at 6:00 it was time to punch out.  No one was there to open the store, of course; it was Christmas, after all.  Management didn’t think the store needed a day watchman on Christmas day, so Andy made sure all was secure and headed home.

After a 15 hour shift, you’d have thought Andy would have been bone tired, but as he opened the door to his home, Andy was feeling the same type of excitement he felt about Christmas morning when he was a little boy.  The little home was dark and he didn’t want to wake up Pamela, so he went to the rag box and pulled out some retired undershirts.  They would suffice as diapers for the day.  And the patchwork laprobe Pam’s mother made for them when they were first married would be the baby blanket.  Once the baby was swaddled up, Andy tiptoed into the bedroom.

Pam stirred.  “What time is it?”  She always asked that when Andy got home.

“Merry Christmas.  Look what I brought you.”

Pam groggily rolled in the bed, looked at the baby, and sat bolt upright in bed, eyes as wide as a flying saucer.  “What in the …?”

“I was praying for a miracle,” Andy said, “and here comes this baby.”

She made him explain what had happened.  “Why didn’t you call the police?”

Andy didn’t want to admit it never occurred to him, so he said, “Why?  The kid didn’t do anything wrong.”

“You know what I mean,” she said as Andy placed the baby in her arms.  “Andy, you know we can’t feed a baby.  We can barely feed ourselves.”  But she wasn’t looking at Andy.  And Andy watched her fall in love.

Andy didn’t know how they were going to do it, but they were going to make it legal, and they were going to figure out how to feed him.  And he was going to figure out how to be a better father to this boy and his father had been to him.

But all that would wait for another day.  That morning, as the sun rose and began to pour light into their bedroom, Andy felt close to knowing what it’s all about for the first time in his life.  “I prayed for a miracle and God sent me a baby,” Andy thought as he stroked the little boys head.  “I guess that makes sense.  Isn’t that what God did that other time?  Isn’t that what all the cheering has been about all these year?”

That’s the news from Mount William, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.


[1] This story is based on “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night,” by Katherine Paterson, printed in an anthology of her Christmas stories, A Midnight Clear (New York: Lodestar Books, 1995), 42-52.  Following the lead of Garrison Keillor, I have created my own fictitious hometown of “Mount William, New Hampshire.”

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            When I think back to that day – that day that made me think everything was changing – and when I really try to remember how I was feeling as it all began, one word comes to me:  tired.  In fact, I had been tired for several days – all because of how crazy that week had been.

You hear about Bethlehem in the scriptures, so I suppose it’s famous, but it’s really not much of a town.  Back then, there were maybe 300 to 1,000 people living there.[1]  I guess Caesar wanted a more accurate number, because he ordered a census be taken.  But for some reason, instead of just counting us where we lived, the order came down that we all had to return to our ancestral homes.  Maybe it had something to do with Jewish inheritance laws or our clan identifications?  You know that we Jews descended from the 12 sons of Jacob, and according to the Torah, each tribe, each group of descendants from each of those twelve sons is assigned an area, a territory.

My family is part of the tribe of Judah; I’m part of the clan of Ephrathah, so when we were told we all had to go back to our ancestral homes, I didn’t have to go anywhere.  I was fine right were I was.  In fact, I live in my great-great-grandfather’s home.  He passed it down to his eldest son, who passed it to his eldest son, who passed it to his eldest son (my father), who passed it on to me.  Over the generations, my family has added to the house and now it’s actually pretty big – bigger than I needed for my family back then.

I decided that, since it was bigger than my family needed after my father died, we could make a little extra money by opening my home as an Inn – not that there was much call for an Inn in Bethlehem.  We would get the occasional traveler who stopped for the night on their way to somewhere else, but Bethlehem wasn’t exactly a destination city.

In addition to using the house as an Inn, we made a living off of our small farm outside the town and I had a pretty sizable flock of sheep whose wool made me some money – enough that I could hire shepherds to look after them.  These shepherds – hirelings, really, and quite a smelly lot – lived with the sheep in the fields, venturing into town from time to time for provisions.  Through some of the year, I had them pastured up in the fields on the hillside around Bethlehem. That’s where they were that night when …

So I had a flock of sheep, my small farm, and my house as ventures to make a living, and we were doing quite well – when we weren’t taxed too much by the Roman occupiers.  Then Caesar announced this census – which I was convinced was really another method of raising taxes to pay for the so-called “privilege” of having Roman soldiers around to oppress us.  At first, I thought, “There goes this year’s profits,” but then came this decree that we had to go to our ancestral homes to be counted.  This meant that I might actually make some money from the Inn.  And sure enough, people came to Bethlehem because they were of the tribe of Judah and somehow related to King David.  Since they didn’t have any family here anymore, lots of us with bigger homes opened them to the travelers.

The night before everything changed, a family came, knocking on the door.  Everything else was full, they said.  Wasn’t there some way I could accommodate them?  I’m not quite sure how we did it, but we managed to squeeze in a few more people, but that was it.  There was no way I was going to be able to accept any more guests.  From before sun up to well after sun down, all we did was care for our guests.  My wife and daughters spent all day making food and cleaning.  My sons were busy looking after the extra animals that were now stabled in a cave out behind the house – the common practice.  The cave was pretty crowded, too.  I tried to keep on top of everything.

Then, at twilight, another couple showed up, knocking at the door.  They were looking for lodging and there simply wasn’t any, anywhere in town.  The woman, poor thing, was pregnant out to here, looking like she was going to pop at any moment.

What was I to do?  There really wasn’t any room left in my Inn, but I couldn’t turn these poor wretches out to fend for themselves on the streets.  So I told them they could stay with the animals.  We would make a nest for them in the straw.  At least they would be off the streets and warm for the night … and, with any luck, they’d get a little sleep.  I guess sleep was not on God’s agenda – not for them, not for my wife, not for me, and not for my guests.

I told you this girl was ready to pop?  Well, she did.  Because they were out back in the cave we used as a stable, we didn’t even find out it was time until the baby was born.  I don’t know why Joseph (that’s the father’s name) didn’t come get us when the labor began.  It must have been intense and fast, and once the baby was there, he came back to the house to get me and my wife.  There was no point in getting the midwife, so we went back to the cave.

Sure enough, Mary (that’s the girl’s name) had given birth to a baby boy.  By the time we got to the cave, the boy had be swaddled and – I thought this was resourceful – she’d put him to bed in the manger.  Mary was amazing, just amazing.  Joseph looked like he was going to burst with pride and fall over from exhaustion at the same time.  I don’t know why he was tired; Mary did all the work.

And then there were the animals.  I usually think it’s ridiculous when people claim that animals are thinking something or feeling something.  But I swear, that night, these first witnesses to the birth of this baby boy were aware of something.  It was as if they knew that something particularly special was going on.  And it seemed that their awareness rubbed off on me.

I believe that every birth is a beautiful miracle of God’s grace, and I was overjoyed at the birth of each of my children, but this was different.  This was sacred in a deeper way.  God was doing something, and the donkeys and horses and our milk cow and her calf knew it before any of the rest of us.

And then the shepherds – of all people, shepherds – confirmed this.  In the middle of the night, when shepherds are supposed to be keeping watch over the flocks, protecting them from predators, they showed up at our door.  They insisted that angels had told them (told them, can you believe it?) that the savior of Israel had been born and they had come to see him.  More noise; more commotion; less sleep.  In they tromped to look at the baby.

These shepherds – I mean who knows what goes on in the head of shepherds.  Like the rest, of us they were hoping the Messiah would come, so maybe they imagined the whole angel thing.  But then, I think of the witness of the animals.  They didn’t have any political agenda.  They simply knew some divine sacrament was taking place.  Could it be that the savior was born at my house?

That was 20 years ago, and I remember it as if it was yesterday.  And I remain convinced God was up to something.  But it was 20 years ago.  And I keep wondering what was God up to and when are we going to see the results of it?

My children are grown now.  The house is filled with grandchildren.  No longer any room to make it an inn.  With each birth, I wonder if God might be up to something.  And I remember that baby boy in the manger.  And I wait.  And I wonder.  In so many ways, it’s all a great mystery to me.


NOTES

“O Magnum Mysterium” is very old Latin text, dating to at least the 16th century when it was used as a responsorial chant for Matins on Christmas.  Its translation is:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.
Alleluia!
The inspiration for this sermon is a contemporary setting of this text by Morten Lauridsen.  You can hear it here:
.

[1] No one knows for sure what the population of Bethlehem was when Jesus was born.  This estimate comes from http://www.bobmay.info/dec142001past.htm (posted 14 December 2001; accessed 23 December 2012).

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