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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sermon[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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