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A sermon preached at the Easter Sunrise Service in Niles Town Plaza,
hosted by Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 16, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 21:1-17 and Psalm 103:1-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my home town.  Howard Friend, the minister at the Mount William Congregational Church, was busy, as most pastors are during Holy Week.  At the beginning of the week, he visited Eloise Meaney in the hospital in Concord.  Howard always smirks a bit when he says her full name because it is so inaccurate.  Eloise has been one of the friendliest, supportive people in his church, and she seems to be the same way in the rest of her life.  Hardly a meanie.

Howard wondered if he was remembering accurately as he stood at her hospital room door.  Could it actually be that Eloise was in the same room her husband had been in all those years ago?  Howard had been at the Congregational Church only a few weeks when Joe was rushed to the hospital by members of the volunteer fire department.  Joe’s cardiac issues were critical and Joe sensed that he won’t be on the earth all that much longer.

Howard[1] was still a wet behind the ears minister and he wanted to talk about the weather, town gossip, politics, even the pending baseball season – just not what Joe wanted to talk about.  Joe wanted to talk about his memorial service.

Finally, Howard asked Joe, “Joe, doesn’t it bother you?  Aren’t you frightened?”

Joe smiled and said, “Preacher, I know I’m not going to be around much longer, but I’m not afraid.  I’ve taken a peek at the back of the book.”

“What do you mean?” Howard asked.

Joe said, “About 10 years before you came to Mount Willian, I had my first heart attack.  They called it cardiac arrest.  I can remember the medical team thinking I was dead.  I can also remember the tremendous feeling of being surrounded by God’s love.  I was revived by the doctors, but ever since that day I have been unafraid to die.  I’ve been there and it doesn’t frighten me.  I know that sooner rather than later I am going to die, but that won’t be the end.  I will, once again, be surrounded by God’s love.”

Howard has held on to that description, that hope, ever since.  And every time he is with someone who is dying, he imagines them being surrounded by God’s love.  And every time he works on an Easter sermon, he thinks about that conversation with Joe Meaney.

And I guess I agree with him – that Joe’s experience of what comes next is a way of making sense of the resurrection of Jesus – but I can’t help but wonder if Heidi Neumark[2] has a better understanding, or at least an understanding that impacts our living, not just our dying.

It’s been seven years since the washcloth incident, but Heidi’s regret is still fresh.  Her mother, Phyllis, moved in with them – Heidi, her husband Bill, and their son Jim – when Phyllis’s Parkinson’s disease had made it impossible for her to live alone.  They wanted Phyllis to stay with them as long as possible, so they managed to juggle their schedules with the needs of an aging parent, and when Phyllis’s health went downhill, they were able to pay for help, thanks to the sale of Phyllis’s house.  Phyllis knew who Heidi, Bill, and Jim were right up until her final night, and there was some comfort in that.  But for Heidi, on the other hand, there are still things that keep comfort illusive.  A big one is that she can’t forget that washcloth.

It was several months before Phyllis’s death, and the day had not begun well.  Heidi made the mistake of checking her e-mail before praying and thus began the morning with an angry message from someone whose nose was out of joint because they had been excluded from some e-mail discussion.  And instead of drinking coffee, she was cleaning up spilled urine that would not have spilled if she had just emptied the commode the previous night instead of letting it wait until the morning when the liquid sloshed over the top.  So, she dealt with all that and then, finally, Heidi went to take a shower up on the third floor where her bedroom is.

At last she was refreshed and ready to start the day over.  She was clean; the floor was clean; and the e-mail was sort of cleaned.  But her mother was not.  Phyllis asked Heidi for a washcloth, which was back up on the third floor.  Some people have to struggle to get an elderly parent to wash, and here was Phyllis asking for what she needed to be clean.  It was completely reasonable to ask for a washcloth.  But she might as well have been telling Heidi to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.  She couldn’t do it.  She was already late, and the fact that this additional task was expected of her made her suddenly furious.  Even in that moment, Heidi knew her fury was misplaced, but she was helpless before it and her mother took the brunt of the fury.

If Heidi was listening to a friend tell the story, she would offer the friend absolution.  She would, in fact, insist that her friend was forgiven.  But it’s been seven years, and Heidi still cannot access that word of peace within herself.  The tears still sting and slosh over her pail of remorse.

At some level, Heidi knows that if Phyllis could, she would grab that pail of remorse and toss it out the window.  Phyllis would forgive her.  In fact, Heidi is quite certain that her mother has forgiven her.  But in a way, that makes it harder.  Knowing of Phyllis’s unfailing love and grace makes Heidi feel worse about her own failure.  Of course, this happens most strongly when Heidi envisions her mother at her very best, now in heaven knowing as she is known and seeing her daughter with the eyes of God, and when Heidi is at one of my lowest moments.  What about God’s forgiveness?  God is always in a best moment and ever aware of our worst.  Does that divine forgiveness erase our regret or increase it?

Jesus’ first word to the disciples on the other side of the locked doors is peace.  This morning, Heidi imagined herself in that room, staring at his wounds and accepting the resurrection miracle.  She imagined embracing the improbable, exciting mission commended to her in the words that follow.  But peace?  Peace is another story.

After Jesus called Peter to feed his sheep, did Peter ever think back on that day around the charcoal fire when he denied the one he dearly loved?  Did Peter remember when Jesus yelled at him and called him a terrible name?  When Peter stood to preach on Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized in one day, did he go home and lie awake wishing he could take back his actions on another day?  According to the psalm, our transgressions are removed “as far as the east is from the west.”  If we accept that as true, then it seems that regret should not linger.  But in my experience, forgiveness does not erased regret.  At least not immediately, anyway.  At least not yet for Heidi.

This Easter morning, I am thinking that if our mind and heart are not yet in sync with what should be – with sin removed to a distance beyond my reach – perhaps mere inches matter.  We might envision regret like the giant stone that sits at the mouth of the tomb.  The stone is rolled aside, not away.  It’s still there, inches from the entrance, but it’s not blocking anyone’s resurrection.  The stone that’s rolled aside allows for feeding sheep, baptisms, and hopeful love of every kind.  The Easter angel does not make the stone magically disappear.  In Matthew, the angel of the Lord rolls back the stone and sits on it.  Does the angel prevent the stone from impeding us?  It’s still there, heavy as a regretful heart can be, but it’s not blocking anyone’s way forward.

I find some comfort in noticing that Easter seems to have come in inches for the disciples as well.  A week after that first word of peace they are back behind the same closed doors.  It seems that they have scarcely moved at all.  But there is nothing solid to hinder them, and soon they will head out.

After her own week of years, Heidi’s not in the same place.  She still hasn’t left the washcloth behind with the old grave clothes, but she hopes to.  And she is inching her way forward in the light of Easter.  And this year, perhaps, when she pauses to consider that familiar stone (or the wash cloth), her eyes will be drawn instead to the bright robes of the angel who keeps the stone in its place.  And the resurrection will continue to inch forward – in her life and in ours.

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

[1] Adapted from a story shared in an email from sermons.com (dated 11 April 2017), citing Robert L.   Allen, His Finest Days: Ten Sermons for Holy Week and the Easter Season, CSS Publishing Company.

[2] The rest of this sermon is adapted from Heidi Neumark, “Resurrection by inches: Living with regret,” Christian Century, (14 May 2014): 13.

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[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 9:28-43a
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  None of the presidential candidates came town this week and that helped.  The primaries are on Tuesday, so that’s a bit of a surprise.  Usually at least one of them will swing by the Chowder House to do some glad-handing.

There was an incident at the Chowder House on Wednesday.  Patty was quietly minding her own business, eating her soup alone in her booth, when a voice startled her from the booth behind.  “Not so loud!” the guy said.

“What?” Patty questioned, as she took another spoonful of soup.

“I said, ‘Not so loud!’” was his muffled reply.

Embarrassed at being told she was slurping her soup, she pushed away her bowl and started her grilled cheese sandwich.

“How was your day?” questioned the man from behind once again.

“Pretty good” responded Patty, confused that this stranger would care.

“Did you pass the exam?” came the next question from behind.

“I don’t know, I didn’t get my grade yet,” replied a thoroughly bewildered Patty.

“I’ll have to call you back when I’m out of here”, came the voice from behind once again.  “Some nut job is answering every question I ask you!”[2]

I’d say the weather is much nuttier than Patty.  A few weeks ago, everywhere between Delaware and Kentucky was buried in snow and that same storm system dropped not one snowflake in Mount William.  It’s been in the 40s and 50s this past week, though the temperature has dropped down to the teen this weekend.  Freezing – warm – freezing – warm.  No one has been able to do any ice fishing at all, and winter only has a few weeks left.  It snowed in Rhode Island and on up to Boston on Friday, but only a dusting fell in Mount William.

My goddaughter is grousing because, for the past five years, she and a group of here crazy friends have gone snow camping over Presidents Day weekend and it doesn’t look like they’ll be able to this year.  They would have to go to the White Mountains, and then they’d have to climb up to four or five thousand feet to get into deep enough snow – and at those elevations, the igloo they’d build would be for survival, not for camping.  Not quite the same things as driving their snowmobiles up Mount William along the old logging road turned snowmobile trail, then off the trail to a spot where one of them would say, “Here.  Let’s camp here.”

I called her and asked why this tradition is so important to her.  Her Presidents Day weekend sojourns (or snojourns, as I like to call them) are a strange combination of adventure and independence mixed with dependence and risk.  There’s the exhilaration of driving the snowmobiles up into the woods, the roar of the engines, the sense of power.  There’s the planning that’s needed to get away from the parents and the cooperation that’s needed to build the shelters.  There’s the challenge of getting a fire going.  And then, at night, in the cold, there is a stillness, a quiet that is deeper than most quiets because sounds are absorbed by the snow.  This quiet, she said, makes her feel both so small and so connected to the universe at the same time.

She didn’t use the word “awe,” but I think that’s what she’s getting at.  She didn’t use the word “holy,” but I think that’s what she experiences, what she’s afraid she will miss this year.  On a clear, quiet night, when the moon is out, the snow is a different kind of white, a holy kind of white, and the sky is a different kind of black, a holy kind of black, and they conspire to transfigure the bare tree branches and the evergreens and puffs of moisture that ascend with each exhalation.

As she told me about the teenage adventure she would miss this month, memories of feeling like my toes had frozen and broken off when I went cross-country skiing with my church youth group a hundred years ago flooded back.  Truly, the best part of winter is watching it from California.  But as her voice quieted, and she spoke of the quiet that descends at night, I thought about how it is in silence that I can most often hear God.

Maybe it was talk of being up on Mount William that brought back another memory.  Maybe it was thinking about God.  Maybe both combined, but when I got off the phone, I remembered an experience when God transfigured my sense of time as I walked in the mountains of the other side of the continent.

I know I’ve told this story before, so excuse me if you remember it.  The fact is that this experience from fifteen years ago remains one of those mountaintop experiences, one of those transcendent experiences that mark my spiritual journey.

I was up in the north Cascades at a Lutheran retreat center.[3]  One of the afternoon workshops offered that day was on meditative walking and it, logically, ended with a meditative walk.  The walk was along one of the more level trails that ran along the side of the mountains on one side of a canyon.  Praying ourselves into readiness and quiet, one at a time, we started walking down the trail.  After walking for several minutes, I came to a large boulder, maybe the size of a VW bus that had been taken off its wheels.  The boulder sat there on a shelf, the mountain raising steeply on my left and falling steeply on my right, beyond this shelf and the boulder.  It was obvious that this boulder had been there a long time.  Trees had grown around it and mosses were growing on decayed leaves and pine needles that had accumulated on the boulder over the years.

The boulder had been witness to much and so I approached it reverently.  I placed a hand on it, to honor it, and as I touched it, it was as if the boulder spoke.  “I’m moving,” it said.  This massive piece of granite (at least I think it was granite; I’m not a geologist) that had rested on this shelf for decades, perhaps centuries or longer, told me that it was moving.  And in that moment, my sense of time shifted.  Suddenly, instead of minutes or months or decades, I sense time at a geologic pace – and what the boulder said to me made sense.  From a geologic sense of time, this firm, steady boulder was falling down the mountain.  This experience of time transfigured lasted only a moment, but the memory of this mystical experience has never gone away.

Those mystical, transcendent moments, if we’re lucky enough to have them, never go away – even if we wish the would.  I remember another mystical moment when all around me was transfigured and I realized with painful clarity that I was being a selfish buffoon.  I think this was also the moment I began to grow up.

Began to grow up, mind you.  It took me at least another decade to finish, and probably more, if I’ve made it there at all.

It must have been a Sunday afternoon because my parents and younger sister were at the family room table drinking tea and my father was working on the crossword puzzle in the Sunday New York Times magazine.  I had joined them, taking a break from the homework I needed to get finished so I could go off to youth group that evening.  My mother mentioned casually that something was planned for the next Sunday – I couldn’t tell you what it was.

I shoved my chair back and whined and snarled and complained.  I believe this had something to do with some vague plans of my own that were probably only half hatched and that I had, of course, told no one else about.

My father said something calm and reasonable.  I said something rude.  My mother gave me the sharp, cutting look that only a mother can do.  I said something breathtakingly selfish.  My sister said something conciliatory.  I said something sneering and angry.  And my mother put down her tea.  I can tell you exactly what happened, for time slowed down and everything was transfigured.  Steam rolled off the tea in the gray-blue tea mug with a handle of two circles, each one big enough for a finger.  As it lowered toward the round, white table, I became aware of the forsythia outside; I could see it through the windows in the door.  Its bright yellow blossoms radiated, pulsing.  I knew that when the tea reached the table, she would say something calm and blunt to me and cut the moment before it spun out of control.  And in that moment of the cup descending, I saw myself and realized I was being a fool.

It wasn’t a trumpet blast, there wasn’t a voice speaking from the clouds, but it was a clarity that was as shocking as my behavior – maybe more so.  It wasn’t that I was embarrassed (though I was embarrassed later).  It was that I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was.  I understood, in that moment – and I believe for the first time in my life – that I was being a fool.

I kept right on being a fool, of course.  You cannot escape yourself that quickly, not as a teenager, or later either, it turns out.  Often you keep playing the bad hand even when you know it’s a terrible hand and you should laugh and throw down your cards and say something self-deprecating and apologize and tiptoe into the next moment.  Often you stay inside the prison of your confidence and mock dignity even as you peer through the bars, mortified.

As I remember, I stormed off and the world spun on relentlessly through the stars and whatever was planned happened and we all grew older.  And eventually, the house was sold and God knows where that table is now (someone stole it out of my sister’s garage years ago).  Who knows?  It might be sitting in some family room and there might be a seething teenager sitting at it right now, facing a forsythia or some other bush, seeing a hint of who they might grow up to be, if they can stop being the fool.  With all my heart, I wish them well.

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

[1] The last third of this sermon is based on “A Fool’s Awakening,” by Brian Doyle, printed in the 19 February 2014 edition of Christian Century, p. 12.
[2] This joke was adapted from a joke on Family Friend Jokes, http://www.familyfriendjokes.com/jokes/jokes-for-the-teen/teenager/ (accessed 6 February 2016).
[3] The retreat center is Holden Village, a former mining town that is off the grid.  This past summer, Holden Village was surrounded by the Wolverine Creek Fire and, while the village was spared, much of the forest, the roads, and the trails were damaged.  I wonder what it will look like next time I go there.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 17, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 1 Samuel 1:11-18, 23b-28; 2: 18-20, 26
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown. Still waiting for winter to really take hold, people are hoping the forecast snows actually come later this week.

Eugene Paulson was in town, visiting his parents. These days, he lives in Mumford, Minnesota, a town a little south of Lake Wobegone, where he’s the pastor of the Lutheran church. That was not the profession anyone would have guessed Eugene would end up in back when he was growing up. He wasn’t a bad kid; not at all. In fact, I’d say he was an earnest kid. It’s just that his father was a butcher who ran his own meat market just a little off Main Street, and everyone assumed Eugene would eventually take over the business.

By the time he was five years old, Eugene was permitted to walk by himself the five or six blocks from home to the market and “work” for his father. Work at that time of his life consisted of accompanying Mr. Paulson across the street to the Chowder House. Mr. Paulson would have a cup of coffee with Winona and take down the order for the next day’s supply of hamburger, steaks, pork chops, sausage, and liver. The waitress always brought Eugene a donut and a glass of milk.

Mr. Paulson wore a white butcher’s apron, even when he went across the street to the Chowder House. Eugene wore one too. His mother made it out of flour sacks, identical to his father’s except for its size. She made him a new apron every year to match his growth. When he put on his apron in the butcher shop, he entered the adult world. And sitting on the counter stool in the Chowder House, being served alongside his father, was confirmation.

By that time he knew the story of the boy Samuel who had been “lent to the Lord” by his parents to live and work in the temple at Shiloh with Eli the priest. Samuel’s parents, Elkanah and Hannah, visited him at Shiloh every year. His mother made him a priest’s robe to wear, an ephod, as he assisted Eli. Every year as he added inches to his height, she would make him a new robe to fit his newly acquired stature. Eugene knew exactly what that robe, that ephod, looked like – didn’t he wear it every time he worked with his father? Didn’t he get a new one every time he had grown another inch or two? Eugene might have been the only person in Mount William who knew what an ephod actually looked like.

Shiloh couldn’t have been that much different from the Paulson meat market. The three-year-old bull that was slaughtered at Samuel’s dedication at Shiloh would become the hamburgers and sirloin steaks at the Paulson store and provided continuity between the shrine and the meat market.

I think it was then that Eugene started identifying himself as a priest.

As years went on, he graduated from the “work” of putting away the donut and milk that accompanied a business transaction to the beginner’s work of grinding hamburger and slicing liver. One of Mr. Paulson’s meatcutters would pick Eugene up and stand him on an upended orange crate before the big, red Hobart meat grinder, and Eugene in his linen ephod would push chunks of beef into its maw. The day he was trusted with a knife and taught to respect it and keep it sharp, he knew adulthood was just around the corner. He was started out on liver (it’s hard to mess up when slicing liver), but in a few years he was participating in the entire range of meat-cutting operations.

“That knife has a will of its own,” old Eddie Nordcrist, one of the meatcutters, used to tell him. “Get to know your knife.” If Eugene cut himself, Eddie would blame Eugene not for carelessness but for ignorance – Eugene didn’t “know” his knife.

Not so much by words as by example, Eugene internalized a respect for the material at hand. The material could be a pork loin, or a mahogany plank, or a lump of clay, or the will of God, or a soul, but when the work is done well, there is a kind of submission of will to the conditions at hand, a cultivation of what he would later learn to call humility. It is a noticeable feature in all skilled workers – woodworkers, potters, poets, pray-ers, and pastors. He learned it in the butcher shop.

That butcher shop was Eugene’s introduction to the world of the congregation, which in a few years would be his workplace as a pastor. The people who came into the market were not just customers. Something else defined them. It always seemed more like a congregation than a store. Mr. Paulson in his priestly robe greeted each person by name and knew many of their stories. And many of them knew Eugene, in his priest’s robe, by name. Eugene always knew there was more going on than a commercial transaction. His father had an easy smile and was always gracious, especially with the occasional disagreeable ones: Alicia Conrad, who was always fussy about the leanness of the bacon; Gus Anderson, who made Mr. Paulson trim off any excess fat from a steak before weighing it. Everyone felt welcome. Mr. Paulson gave people dignity by the tone and manner of his greetings.

As I said, the way Eugene came to understand congregational life had its beginnings in the “congregational” atmosphere of the butcher shop. A congregation is composed of people who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them. A church can never be reduced to a place where goods and services are exchanged. It must never be a place where a person is labeled. Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly, in Jesus’ name. It is a place where dignity is conferred.

Eugene first learned that under his father priesthood in the butcher shop. He also learned something about work – something that could have destroyed him, something that he had to unlearn, with considerable difficulty as it turned out. It had to do with work, out-of-control work, work as a kind of painkiller.

The focal point of the unlearning was Saturday, the climax of their workweek. And no Saturday was busier than the day before Easter, Holy Saturday.

Large hickory-smoked hams held center position in the displays in Paulson butcher shop. Colorful cardboard cutouts provided by salesmen from the meat-packing companies of Armour and Hormel all showed variations on a theme: a father at an Easter Sunday dinner table carving a ham, surrounded by an approving wife and expectant children. Personally, I preferred steak to ham, but most of the beef was local and there was no company to create colorful advertisements, so the hickory-smoked hams held the focus.

Off to the side of these displays were stacks of the smaller and cheaper “picnic” hams (a picnic ham is not, properly speaking, a ham at all, but the shoulder of the pig). None of the packing companies bothered supplying pictures of picnic hams. They usually didn’t even put their brand names on them.

For the Paulsons, every Saturday was busy, and rather than calling the day before Easter “Holy Saturday,” they might have called it “Busiest Saturday.” It began early in the morning with arranging the great, fragrant hams from Armour and Hormel symmetrically in pyramids. Things only got more hectic from there.

On Holy Saturday customers crowded into the store, responding to the sale signs painted on the plate-glass windows fronting the street. Their purchasing patterns sorted them into upper and lower socioeconomic strata: the affluent bought honey-cured, hickory­smoked hams; the less-than-affluent bought unadjectived “picnics;” the truly poor bought ham hocks.

Penny Doyle is the only person Eugene remembers by name who bought ham hocks – gristly on the inside and leathery on the outside, but smoked and therefore emanating the aroma of a feast. Perhaps Penny thought the aroma necessary for Easter. Every Saturday she came into the store to make a small purchase: pickled pig’s feet, chitlins, blood sausage, headcheese, pork liver. On Holy Saturday, it was ham hocks.

The Paulsons were devout Christian that believed in the saving work of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But between these two polar events of the faith – Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection – they worked a long and lucrative day. Holiness was put on hold until Sunday. Saturday was for working hard and making money. It was a day when the evidence of hard work and its consequence – money – became publicly apparent. The evidence was especially clear on that particular Saturday, when they sold hundreds of hams to deserving Christians – and four ham hocks to Penny Doyle.

While Penny was making her purchases from the Paulsons and did whatever other shopping she did on that Holy Saturdays while she was in town, her husband and two of his brothers – who all lived out in the woods in some sort of communal encampment off of a dirt road off of a dirt road – sat on apple boxes in the alley behind the Pastime Bar and passed around a jug of Thunderbird wine. Several jugs, actually. As Eugene made his backdoor deliveries of steaks and hamburger to the Chowder House, he passed by these men who were almost passed out themselves. Late in the evening, Bennie Wells, son of the bar owner and not much older than Eugene himself, pulled these men into his dad’s pickup truck and drove them back to their encampment and dumped them out.

Years later, Eugene wondered how Penny got back home. Walked, probably. Carrying her small purchases, including four ham hocks. Back then, he would have been very surprised, and somewhat unbelieving, to have known that in the very town in which he worked furiously all those unholy Saturdays, there were people who were not working at all, not spending money, but remembering the despair of a world disappointed in its grandest hopes, entering into the emptiness of death by deliberately emptying the self of illusion and indulgence and self-importance. Keeping vigil for Easter. Waiting for the dawn.

You see, Eugene interpreted the meaning of the world and the people around him far more in terms of the hard working on Saturday than anything said or sung on Friday and Sunday. Saturday was the day for hard work, or for displaying its results – namely, money. If someone appeared neither working nor spending on Saturday, there was something wrong, catastrophically wrong. The Doyles attempting a hungover Easter feast on ham hocks were the most prominent example of something wrong.

It was a view of life shaped by “the Gospel according to America.” The rewards were obvious, and he enjoyed them. Hard work pays off. He learned much in those years in his father’s butcher shop, yet there was one large omission that set all other truth dangerously at risk: the omission of holy rest. The refusal to be silent. The obsessive avoidance of emptiness.

It was far more than ignorance on Holy Saturday; it was weekly arrogance. God was background to their business. Every gospel truth was maintained intact and all the human energy was wholly admirable, but the rhythms were off. Desolation – and with it companionship with the desolate, ranging from first-century Semites to 20th-century Doyles – was all but wiped from consciousness.

It took years for the memory of Penny Doyle and her ham hocks to do its work on Eugene. Eventually he saw in his memories not just the drunkenness and poverty. Eventually he saw in his memories their despair. The Doyles, godforsaken they supposed, drugged their despair with Thunderbird and buried their dead visions and dreams in the alley behind the Pastime Bar, ignorant of the God at work beneath their emptiness, an emptiness Eugene, too, felt but covered up with work. And when he saw this, Eugene was able to see God at work beneath his own emptiness. This is how he was able to clear the ground for God to work – not he. This is how he was able to allow God to be the center of his life. Inappropriate, anxiety-driven, fear-driven work would only interfere with and distract from what God was already doing. Eugene’s “work” assignment was to pay more attention to what God does than what he does. Eugene’s “work” assignment was to spend more time sitting at the counter being real with real people, eating a donut and drinking a glass of milk.

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

[1] Most of this sermon is quoted directly or modified from “My father’s butcher shop,” by Eugene H. Peterson, publish in the 22 February 2011 edition of Christian Century, pages 28-33. The article itself is excerpted from the book The Pastor: A Memoir, reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins. © Eugene H. Peterson.

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 the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a noisy week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Thanksgiving is usually a quiet day, and in the days preceding, if one really wants noise, one needs to go to a grocery store.  But this Thanksgiving was noisy, mostly with the sounds of snowplows and chain saws and Public Service line trucks beeping as they backed up in the great challenge of restoring power to most of the town.

Over a foot of wet snow fell on Wednesday, bringing down tree limbs and power lines.  Most of Mount William was in the dark all of Wednesday night and well into Thursday.  Anna and Bruce Renee had planned to do Thanksgiving dinner at their home, but with no power for the oven, cooking was a bit of a challenge, so they carted the turkey and fixings and their three teenage kids to Anna’s parents’ apartment in the retirement community that they moved into nine years ago.  It was the first time the smells of roasting turkey filled the small apartment, a smell Sylvia Spengler, Anna’s mom, had missed for all of those nine years.

Feeling like she was coming to the rescue filled Sylvia with a giddiness that continued right up until the moment she looked into the little galley kitchen in her apartment and saw what cleanup would entail.  Suddenly she remembered one of the reasons she and Bill had moved into the retirement community.

The Renees were not the only family that had to make emergency Thanksgiving dinner plans.  While few Thanksgiving gatherings went off as they had been planned weeks earlier, just about everyone thinks it was a great Thanksgiving.  There’s something about a manageable crisis to draw people together, and that’s really what most families want on Thanksgiving: to draw their loved ones together.  Well, that and some really yummy food.

It wasn’t a quiet week for Howard Friend, the minister at the Mount William Congregational Church, either.  His disquiet was more internal than external.  He had had some vacation in August and he decided to do something quite out of character for him.  He decided to go to Ferguson, Missouri.  There were so many conflicting stories about the death of Michael Brown – accusations and counter accusations.  And there was so much anger.  And there was so much violence – both the attention getting rioting of a small contingent of the protestors (interesting how the New England news media ignored the peaceful protests) and the militarized police response.  And underneath it all was the putrid stench of racism.  He needed to bear witness to the need for an open and fair examination of the facts of this case.  He needed to challenge the power of racism in our culture.  And he needed to confront his own complicity in the racism that permeates our society.  So he used some of his previously-schedule vacation and went to Ferguson.

His summer experiences came flooding back when the announcement was made that the Grand Jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.  All week long, the news continued and Rev. Friend found himself processing it.  He wondered how he would react if his church building were to be burned to the ground the way the Brown family’s church was this week.  Far from the centers of violence, one can’t help but wonder who is really responsible for this arson.[2]  Earlier in the week, he had read something that challenged his attitude toward Darren Wilson.  He had forgotten the emotional and spiritual cost Darren Wilson was paying, not because of the scrutiny his actions on August 9th were garnering, but because he had shot and killed another human being.  What moral injury was he suffering?  Rev. Friend found a surprising compassion growing inside him.

While several of his colleagues read – devoured – the various documents and reports from and about the grand jury,[3] Rev. Friend couldn’t go there.  He didn’t want to second guess the grand jury’s decision.  He didn’t want to get into the finger pointing and the blame game that seemed to surround him.  Instead, he needed to reflect on and process his memories of his days in Ferguson.

He remembered walking with a group of clergy, singing, “We Shall Overcome.”  As they finished the verse, “We are not afraid,” he realized it was a lie.  He was afraid.

He knew that this group would encounter the police at some point in the evening, but nothing prepared him for the sheer number of police officers.  The clergy had gathered at dinnertime in the parking lot of a grocery store miles from the protest site.  Nonetheless, by the time there were four clergy gathered, there were four squad cars in the parking lot and they were told to leave.

They drove to a high school, parked their cars, and began walking to the county prosecutor’s office to present a letter with their demands, including an expedited grand jury process run by someone other than county prosecutor Bob McCullough.  Although they were far from the site of Michael Brown’s death, the route was guarded by scores of heavily armed officers.  Squad cars drove slowly beside them, and there were SWAT teams and barricades.

They were not being guarded in the sense of being protected.  They were being guarded against, as if this group of clergy were an extreme threat.  A skinny white man from New Hampshire, Rev. Friend had never experienced being policed in his way.  It was unnerving.  Could a couple hundred clergy walking together really pose such a threat?

When they got to the country prosecutor’s office, the prayed together and delivered their list of demands.  It was a single sheet of paper, wilted in the humid heat, but the officer acted as if it might explode and hesitated to even take hold of it.

Earlier, they had gathered in a church that was a sort of home base for the protesters.  One folding table held a jumble of first-aid supplies.  The other held makeshift gear:  bottles of water, spray bottles with solution for washing tear gas out of eyes, paper masks, and swim goggles for eye protection.

The leaders were a group of twenty-somethings thoughtfully engaging in the disciples of nonviolent protest.  They wanted this group of clergy to know what they would encounter on the march.  There were important rules to learn:  no sudden movements; if you carry a water bottle, hold it high so the police officers can see what it is; if you take tear gas equipment (a mask or goggles), don’t let it be seen until it is needed, or you will be targeted.  This group of twenty-somethings were being so protective of these middle-aged newbies.  One of the twenty-somethings asked a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Friend was pretty sure her name was Shannon, if she had a group to walk with; he didn’t want her to go out alone.  They didn’t want any of them going out alone.

And then – it seemed so strange to Rev. Friend at the time – this group of young protesters prepared to face hundreds of heavily armed officers by reciting poetry.  “These leaders are the fiercest hope I have ever seen,” Rev. Friend thought.  He was amazed by it, humbled by it.  And he found himself feeling very protective of these young men and women who embodied it.

The clergy were divided into teams with a trained organizer for each team.  They memorized each other’s names, agreed to be responsible for one another, and wrote an emergency phone number on their skin in purple Sharpie.  The captain of Rev. Friend’s team asked them what level of danger and violence the were willing to face.  “Will you leave when the tear gas starts?” he asked the group.

“Why would we willingly walk into tear gas?” Shannon, the Presbyterian minister asked.

“To get the young people out,” he responded.  “They will keep going, so some of us go back in to pull them out.”

Rev. Friend tried to get his mind wrapped around the response.  He didn’t think he could stay if the tear gas started.  His noble motives aside, this was getting scary and this was the first time he had ever done anything like this.

When they reached the protest area, the street was closed to traffic and the parking lots were filled with media people and hundreds of police officers.  They were allowed to protest as long as they stayed on the sidewalk, kept moving, and did nothing that could be interpreted as aggression.  At one point a kindly police officer gave them a minute before asking them to move along.  “If I make an exception for you,” he said, “I have to make an exception for everybody.”  The clear implication was that he would let them stop if he could.  Rev. Friend was torn between enjoying this favor and realizing that it was this very distinction that he was there to protest.  Did the group seem harmless because of their clergy collars or because some of them were white?

As the night wore on, Rev. Friend’s fear deepened.  Every night so far, the police had responded with tear gas, or flash grenades, or rubber bullets.  “What will it be tonight?” he wondered.  They passed one person who appeared to be intoxicated and another who appeared to living with a metal illness.  All the marchers he could see were peaceful, but it was clear to him that it would only take one wrong move to set off the officers.

At one point, as the night wore on, a young black man came by and asked, “Are you a group?  Can I walk with you?”  This was the moment, as Rev. Friend recalled, where it all came into focus.  He wanted to tell this young black man, “No.”  He didn’t want this young black man with his red t-shirt pulled up over his head, effectively masking him, to walk with him and his fellow clergy.  Perhaps the shirt thing – he’d seen other protesters doing it – was makeshift protection against the tear gas, but Rev. Friend didn’t want this young man to march next to him because he feared his presence might spark a violence response.

Then the young man turned and Rev. Friend saw on his torso a phone number scrawled in purple Sharpie.  He was one of the young people from the church, one of the young leaders that Rev. Friend had been so eager to protect.  He had gone from hoping that his clergy collar would protect this young man to not wanting him near because he didn’t want the protection of his clergy collar and white skin and graying hair to be disrupted by his presence.  Hope in the church had turned to fear on the street so quickly.

Hope is always frightening.  It opens us to disappointment.  Hope is frightening in another way for those of us who are privileged in the current state of affairs.  “I want a better world,” Rev. Friend thought as he remembered his days in Ferguson, “but I am afraid to give up the security I have in this one.  Hope threatens me, even in its abundant promise.  I guess for me, part of the challenge is not to fear hope itself.”

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

[1] This sermon is based (often quoting directly or changing the quote from first person to third person) almost entirely on a reflection by Shannon Craigo-Snell, titled, “Fear and Hope in Ferguson: Marching into danger,” published in the 1 October 2014 edition of Christian Century (pages 10-11).

[2] Wesley Lowry, “The Brown family’s pastor tries to make sense of the fire that gutted his church,” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-brown-familys-pastor-tries-to-make-sense-of-fire-that-gutted-his-church/2014/11/28/15520f3e-7711-11e4-a755-e32227229e7b_story.html (posted 28 November 2014; accessed 29 November 2014).

[3] If you’re interested in reading some of the documents, you might want to check out http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/11/25/366507379/ferguson-docs-how-the-grand-jury-reached-a-decision.

A sermon preached at Niles Town Plaza, Fremont, California,
at the sunrise service
on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Mark 16:1-8
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a holy week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown. On Wednesday, the teachers, students, and parents gathered in the elementary school lunchroom for the annual Victorian Tea. I think they should hold it on a Thursday so it can be billed as a Throwback Thursday event. But it’s always held on the Wednesday before spring break. I think that’s because spring break almost always is the week after Easter, that would put the Victorian Tea on Maundy Thursday, and there are enough families and teachers who attend Maundy Thursday services … So, the Victoria Tea has always been held on a Wednesday.

I don’t think it will be as much fun next year as it’s been since it started, next year after Ginny Spinola retires. Each year I’ve been amused by how seriously Ginny takes the Tea. Since the very first year it was held, she has made sure everyone in her fifth grade class dresses up for the event. Boys in shoes that pinch their toes and neckties, even though they can’t keep their shirts tucked in. Girls in spring dresses and ribbons in their hair, some even wearing white gloves. It didn’t take long for the parents and the lower grades to follow suit, and now it reminds me of what church looked like in my childhood on Easter.

There is something that happens to us when we get dressed up. The tradition of getting new clothes for Easter actually has roots in the early church. Baptisms were celebrated during the Great Easter Vigil. Those who had spend Lent preparing for baptism would step into the waters of baptism as naked as the day they were born.[1] When they emerged from the waters, they were given a new robe, new clothing to symbolize their rebirth as a new creation.

Baptism is a reenactment of the Easter miracle. We die to our old selves, are buried in the waters with Jesus, and we rise to new life with Jesus, transformed, a new creation.

Dylan Manetti witnessed a transformation this week.[2] The prison guards at the State Prison know Dylan not just as a lawyer, but also as a spiritual person, so they asked him to try to get through to a depressed convict. Dylan simply sat with the prisoner and told him that he believed with all his heart that God already dwelled in this prisoner’s heart. That was all – no sermon, no extensive prayers. The prisoner began to weep.

Dylan understood what this prisoner did not understand: that his life was already in Christ. Perhaps his life was so deeply hidden beneath all kinds of mistakes, crimes, and sins that few could see this truth either, including the prisoner himself. But Dylan saw it and he revealed the great mystery of God’s love and the prisoner was overcome by a glimpse of it.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is a contemporary setting of an ancient hymn of the church, O magnum mysterium.[3] The translation begins, “O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!”[4] The mystery of Jesus is not just that farm animals were the first to see him. The mystery of Jesus is the depth of love his life and death and resurrection reveal, a love that embraces even the people our society throws away – and that embraces even us.

The youth group at Mount William Congregational Church had a discussion about the expansiveness of God’s love last Sunday. Somehow the conversation drifted and one of the kids started talking about efforts to criminalize homelessness, something about anti-sitting laws and rules that say you can’t hand out food on the street. Some of the kids got pretty heated and the next thing the youth group leaders knew, a group of the youth were planning on going in to Concord sometime during spring break to hand out food. They decided they didn’t care if it’s illegal. If people are hungry, we should feed them.

Poor Sally and Jim. This was not the youth group meeting they had planned, but they knew they were witnessing something special. There was a passion in these kids’ hearts, something different, something transformative. But what should they do about it? They decided to talk with Howard Friend, the minister at Mount William Congregational Church, about it, but it was a particularly busy week for him. Not just because it was Holy Week and he was preparing for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter services, but he was also spending a lot of time at the hospital with Sheila Peck.

Sheila[5] was a Congregational minister and, when the Congregationalists merged into the United Church of Christ, she became a UCC minister. She retired 21 years ago, moved to Mount William to be near her grandchildren, and joined the Congregational Church. Three years ago, she started to disappear into the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

This past week, she was not wearing the black Geneva robe she wore for decades during Holy Week. This past week, she wore a blue hospital gown. Rev. Friend was there every day this week. She had been a friend, a sort of mentor who didn’t muddle, when Howard arrived in Mount William and started his ministry, so he went every day to the hospital. And on Thursday, after the Maundy Thursday service, he headed back. He kept vigil with the family that night. The end was very near.

Howard has been with people when they’ve died before. This time it was different. This time he was there for the duration, and with that much time, he didn’t know what to do, so he and the family started reading Psalms.

He wasn’t sure which Psalms to read. Psalm 118 might have been a terrific choice. It celebrates God’s victory over death, calling us to celebrate the steadfast love of God and to rejoice in the day that the Lord has made. But maybe she needed a psalm of lament, such as Psalm 22. “My tongue clings to my jaws” – how often had the family moistened her parched lips with a sponge? Or a Psalm of confession, since she knew she depended in life and in death on God’s mercy.

They decided to read through the Psalm. They trusted that God’s Spirit would be at work as needed and that the fullness of Sheila’s life with God – joy, lament, confession, and all – had not been defeated by tangles and plaques in her brain.

They were long past Psalm 23 when Sheila stepped into the valley of the shadow of death. Rev. Friend and the Peck family watched as she made her transition from this life to the one to come. Just before she died, Sheila opened her eyes and seemed to be staring off into space. But Howard was certain that she was seeing something that the rest of them could not see.

When Howard got home to get some rest he found himself wanting Sheila to be there to tell him what she saw. But she can’t be there, so she won’t tell anyone anything.

One of the things I love about the Gospel of Mark is its abrupt ending. The angel tells the women who’ve come to the tomb that Jesus has been resurrected and that they should go tell the other disciples. But they “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

I can’t help wondering if Howard will end up telling others what he saw in Sheila’s eyes in the early hours of Friday morning. I wonder if Sally and Jim will tell Howard or the parents about what they witnessed in the youth group meeting – not so much about the plans the youth made but about transformation they witnessed in the lives of the youth. And I wonder if Dylan Manetti will ever tell anyone about the transformation he witnessed at the State Prison.

“Bright is the day that dawns with new life, casting death’s grim shadow from the garden. Bright is the future for even the most humble soul, rising up in the arms of angels. Bright is the promise to all the Earth, sharing peace among the children of light. Let every voice sing this shining song, for we have been set free, we have been ransomed from our own history, given a chance to live again, to hope again, and to see the healing of God spread like sunlight into the rooms of time.”[6]

The resurrection, it seems to me, is happening all around us. Will we notice it? And if we notice it, will we tell the good news about it?

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

[1] See, for instance, http://nudebaptisminearlychristianity.blogspot.com.

[2] This character and exchange with the prisoner is based on a story told by David Keck, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century 16 April 2014, 20.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7ch7uottHU&feature=kp.

[4] Translation from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Magnum_Mysterium.

[5] This story of Sheila’s dying is adapted from a story told by David Keck, op. cit.

[6] Bishop Steven Charleston, status update on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/steven.charleston.5/posts/10204044984111911 (19 April 2014).

A sermon[i] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 12, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 3:13-17
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

For context, you might find it helpful to read my Christmas Eve sermon available here.

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Most of the chatter at the Chowder House was about the weather.  The temperature’s been bouncing all over the place.  Days of frigid cold.  Snow enough to close the schools.  A few days warm enough that the snow doesn’t bother melting; it just goes right to vapor.  “Subliming” I remember my high school chemistry science teacher calling.  Is there something sublime about the snow disappearing without leaving a puddle?  I don’t know.

There is something sublime about water, especially when it’s used in church.  This morning, Jessica Wilson-Russell was baptized.  Now you probably don’t know who Jessica Wilson-Russell is.  That’s not too surprising.  She’s a brilliant, beautiful five-year-old who is still pretty new to Mount William.  But you may know one of her fathers.  And I think you know that father’s mother and father.

Andy and Pamela Wilson are the couple who moved to Mount William from Ohio after their farm went bust a few decades ago.  They came seeking a new start.  The start they got didn’t go exactly to plan.  Andy had that job as a night watchman at the Jordan Marsh in Manchester when he worked the 15-hour shift on Christmas Eve and came home with a baby boy that someone had abandoned on the loading dock.

A Christmas miracle, he was sure, and it only took a few moments for Pamela to fall in love with the baby.  Her heart was nearly breaking when she called the Manchester police to report what had happened.  She would have called the Mount William police department, but he was home with him family celebrating Christmas Day and she didn’t want to disturb him.

“My husband found an abandoned baby on the loading dock at the Jordan Marsh early this morning,” she explained to the police sergeant.  “We’re taking care of him just fine, but thought we should make an official report.”

All the detectives were off duty, so the sergeant said that someone would come out the next day.  The detective came and took their statements and the box that Andy had found the baby in.  By the time the social worker from the Department of Children, Youth, and Families showed up, Andy and Pam had started calling the baby ‘Joshua.’  They wanted a name associated with Christmas, but ‘Jesus’ seemed a bit presumptuous to them.  ‘Joseph’ wasn’t right; that was Andy’s job.  They imagined the teasing the poor tyke would get if they picked ‘Melchior,’ ‘Gaspar,’ or ‘Balthazar.’  ‘Joshua,’ they thought, was somehow related to the name ‘Jesus,’ so they tried it out and it stuck.

Regulations weren’t as tight then as they are now.  The Social Worker was able to name the Wilsons as temporary emergency foster parents, so Joshua stayed with the Wilsons while the investigations took place.  The police had to do their investigation to try to figure out who had abandoned the baby at the Jordan Marsh.  The Department of Children, Youth, and Families had to investigate the Wilsons to see if they could be permanent foster parents to the child.  Pam and Andy decided they wouldn’t talk about adoption to anyone official at that point, but the next Sunday the three of them were in church and before they knew what had happened, the Women’s Fellowship had a baby shower arranged.  Before the week was over, there wasn’t a baby item the Wilsons needed to buy.  And by the end of January, the congregation was praying regularly that the Wilsons would be allowed to adopt Joshua as their own.

“He’s not ours,” Andy said to Pam one night.

“I know he’s not,” she said.  “But if they don’t find the mother –“

“No, that’s not what I mean.  I mean he’s not only ours.  The whole church seems to be adopting him, too.”

That’s how it was that whole year.  The congregation was there for the Wilsons that first week, and all year long it seemed Joshua had 29 grandparents.  They would drop by with a new onesie or a case of formula – at least that was the official reason.  Pamela was pretty sure they really came by to pinch Joshua’s cheeks.  When the doctor said there was a mole on Joshua’s shoulder that would become cancerous if it wasn’t removed, the church rallied ’round the Wilsons.  It wasn’t a simple nip, tuck procedure.  A skin graft was involved.  And this young couple who didn’t have any family around had a huge family around them.

Andy and Pam were named permanent foster parents in just a few months, but it wasn’t until November that the search for the baby’s birth parents was abandoned and Joshua was declared eligible for adoption.  The Wilsons immediately started the adoption process, and once they started hearing noises that the judge would probably rule in their favor, Pam said they could talk to Rev. Friend about the baptism.

Pamela had grown up in a Disciples of Christ church and wasn’t baptized herself until she was 12.  But there wasn’t a Disciples congregation anywhere near Mount William, so they went to the Mount William Congregational Church, and at the Congregational Church, they baptized babies.

Pam had insisted that they not baptize Joshua until they were at least made permanent foster parents and were on the road toward adoption.  She really wanted to hold out until the adoption was final, but Andy pressured her.  “He’s not only ours.”  So they spoke with Rev. Friend who was only a year into his call at the Mount William Congregational Church.  They picked the first Sunday after Epiphany, the day the baptism of Jesus was celebrated, as the day for Joshua to be baptized.

Rev. Friend got through most of the baptismal liturgy pretty well.  But when he saw this little baby in his father’s arms and he came to the words about being adopted into the family of God – he was done with words.  No one offered to take over for him, so the congregation just worshiped a while with tears as silent prayers of gratitude.  And then Rev. Friend poured the water of holy covenant across Joshua’s head.  Everyone was a mess.

In Matthew’s gospel, we don’t hear Jesus speak until his baptism.  And he doesn’t speak to the crowds.  John is used to speaking to the crowds, but here it’s just Jesus and John talking to each other.  Oh, and then there’s one more voice:  the first person of the Trinity, claiming Jesus as beloved child.

Don’t know if the sky opened and Joshua saw God descending like a dove, but the congregation heard God’s voice loud and clear speaking within themselves, “This is my beloved son.”

I don’t know if it was the voice or if it was that in the Wilsons the whole congregation could see the pathos of the world – or perhaps it was because they all knew that they all had issues and that somehow in that water they saw God’s love flowing out over them as well.  What ever it was, just about everybody’s baptism was reaffirmed with the waters of their own tear ducts.

In the legal adoption, Joshua was being made an heir of his parents.  No one in the congregation missed the metaphor.  Perhaps that is why they went to pieces when they saw the water poured out and splash across Joshua’s head and into the baptismal font.

Joshua didn’t ask to be adopted.  He didn’t earn it or deserve it.  He didn’t know enough to want it or to object.  It just came as a grace that changed him from an orphan to a son.  That’s the way grace works – it’s free, unmerited, and unexpected.  But then it expects a lot from us.  We don’t make changes in our lives to get adopted; we make changes because we have been adopted.

That’s how it is in church.  Every time we baptize a baby or a believer, we are launching that child of God on this journey through the issues of faith and life.  We receive the grace of God, but we then spend the rest of our lives learning how to respond to it.  And maybe that’s why we have churches:  to give us the language of faith, to teach us faith’s great traditions, to inspire us with holy missions for our lives, to constantly point us back to the gospel for our healing, to help us learn how to respond to the grace of God.

Joshua Wilson is married now and he and his husband Ken Russell have been going through the adoption process.  Jessica came into their lives this past spring and the adoption was final on December 23rd.  They live in Mount William, not far from Pam and Andy.  Joshua is a firefighter in Concord; Ken is taking a leave of absence from his teaching job in the next school district.

And today, the first Sunday after Epiphany, when the baptism of Jesus is celebrated, Jessica Wilson-Russell was baptized.  Rev. Friend, who is still at the Mount William Congregational Church, did the honors.  And this year, when he got to the part in the baptismal liturgy when he talks about being adopted into the family of God, everyone was smiling.

Pamela still thinks her son and son-in-law should have waited until Jessica was old enough to decide for herself to be baptized.  She reminds me of the old joke about the Baptist and the Episcopalian who were discussing religion.  The Baptist asked, “Do you mean to tell me you really believe in infant baptism?”  “Believe in it?” the Episcopalian replied.  “Why I’ve seen it!”[iii]

Once again, the congregation watched God’s grace poured out on a little child and on themselves.  And during the sermon this morning, Rev. Friend told the story of the Christmas miracle that brought Joshua into the Wilson home and into the home of the Congregational Church, and of the first baptism he performed there.

During the sermon, Missy Albertson leaned over to her husband.  “Steve, I love you, but you bring home a Christmas miracle like that and I’ll shoot you.”  The Albertsons are still negotiating with Missy’s parents on a date for the baptism of their triplets.

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


ENDNOTES

[i] This sermon was inspired by, and I paraphrase from, M. Craig Barnes, “Faith Matters: After adoption,” Christian Century, 25 July 2013 edition, p. 33.

[iii] Bruce Trammell, “Pretty Good Jokes,” A Prairie Home Companion, http://www.publicradio.org/applications/formbuilder/projects/joke_machine/joke_page.php?car_id=1015126 (11 January 2014).

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.”

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