Written by Rev. John Gibbons
Christmas Eve 2017 Reflections
A Sermon on Saturday December 24, 2017
Delivered by Rev. John Gibbons
At The First Parish in Bedford, MA
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Into the bright circle of life and light, which is the Christmas season, we have come. Out to the routine ways of living, and the drab little ruts of habit, we have come to warm our hearts and minds at the cradle of the child. May something of the beauty, mystery, and promise of this lovely old story fall like silver rain upon the broken dreams, the hates, and the fears of all. Once again may we pause, look up, and in the far-off distances hear that old, old music, the music of hope, brotherhood, sisterhood and blessed peace.”
– ALFRED S. COLE
READING from the writings of Robert Fulghum
Ponder. DID YOU EVER DO THAT? I’ve thought about that word ever since I cam across it in the story of the birth of Jesus. “Mary pondered all these things in her heart” is what the Scriptures say. When you thing about what the phrase “all these things” refers to, it’s no wonder she pondered. Here’s a teenage kid who has just had a baby in the back stall of a barn, with some confusion about just who the father is. Her husband is muttering about taxes and the fact that the head honcho in these parts, Herod, has opted for infanticide. And if that’s not enough to think about, there’s all this traffic of visiting astrologers, sheep ranchers, and angels, who keep dropping by with questions and proclamations and chorales. To top it off, the animals who are jammed in there with her talk. Not many cows speak Hebrew, but that seems to be what was going on. It certainly would give a person something to do some heavy thinking about. I’d say “ponder” is the perfect word for what Mary was doing.
Old Job did a lot similar thinking once upon a time there in his ash heap. And Jonah. Sitting in the steamy dark, awash in a whale’s gastric juices and half digested squid. Those guys did some pondering, too, I bet.
And me, too, I ponder. Annually, three or four days after the beginning of the new year. When there’s nothing much special going on, which is why it is a special time. The first day when everything finally settles back into its normal routine state. The relatives have gone home. Christmas, too, has come and gone, and however it was – good, bad, or indifferent – it’s over. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are finished, and whether you whooped it up or just went to bed, that’s all done. The holiday mess is cleaned up, the house has been tidied, and the leftovers have gone out with the garbage. It’s too early to work on taxes, too soon to work in the garden.
It’s not a totally down time. A Sunday afternoon walk in your neighborhood will tell you that life is moving on. A close look revels the buds of another spring on the trees, and deep in their beds the daffodils and crocuses are feeling something moving in their toes. You know that because you feel vague stirrings in your own roots as well. And the days are already longer.
To ponder is not to brood or grieve or even meditate. It is to wonder at a deep level.
I wondered around for an afternoon this year on Ponder Day.
Wondering about the girls I used to love a long time ago. Where are they now? What are they like? Did I miss a good thing? What would happen if I tried to find them and call them up? (“Hey, it’s me!” “Who?”)
I wondered about all those people who don’t know it now, but who will not be there to ponder at this time next year. If they knew it now, would it help? And how about all those children who will be here this time next year, but who are just made up of parental desire at the moment? I wonder about all the people in prisons – especially the ones who are unjustly punished – tortured. Do they have hope?
Somewhere along the way of Ponder Day wondering, I begin to make secret pacts with myself. The kind of thing you don’t tell anybody because you don’t want to be caught doing something dumb like making New Year’s resolutions. You keep this stuff to yourself so you don’t get caught out on a limb and then not do whatever it is you said you were going to do (I once listed all the good things I did over the past year, and then turned them into resolution form and backdated them. That was a good feeling.)
As I pondered, I recalled high school days. Going back to school the first week after the winter holidays, swearing secretly to myself that I was going to do better this year. And for a few days I really did do better. I didn’t always keep doing better – there are a lot of distractions when you are young – but for a few days at least – a few days of hopeful possibility – I had proof I really could do better. If I wanted to.
Now, in the middle life, in thought that is more careful and vague and reflective of experience, I almost unconsciously promise myself the same. I could do better. The president and the pope and all the rest of humanity. We could do better.
I am reminded of a story I heard about a man who found the horse of the king and he didn’t know it was the king’s horse and he kept it, but the king found out and arrested him and was going to kill him for stealing the horse. The man tried to explain and said he would willingly take his punishment, but did the king know that he could teach the horse to talk and if so the king would be a pretty impressive king, what with a talking horse and all? So the king thinks what does he have to lose and says sure. He’ll give him a year. Well, the man’s friends think he is nuts. But the man says – well, who know? – the king may die, I may die, the world may come to an end, the king may forget. But just maybe, just maybe, the horse may talk. One must believe that anything can happen.
Which is why, when asked where I had been, I told my wife, “Oh, talking to a horse.” Gave her something to ponder.
Rev. John Gibbons, “Vúja Dé”:
I’ve had a realization, and I started to realize it a couple of weeks ago when I attended a top-level confidential national security briefing put on by a fellow from Harvard and he described the whole US/N. Korea mess and he said it was just like two freight trains racing pell-mell right at one another. And he said there is one American who knows more about this first-hand than any of the experts and that man is…Dennis Rodman!
My realization deepened when I noticed that I’d been inordinately and obsessively focused on the vagaries of electoral demographics in the state of Alabama.
And then, with the holidays closing in, I observed my colleagues in the ministry very nearly competing with one another as to who might compose the best Christmas Eve prayer utilizing the 7 words now banned by the Center for Disease Control. You know: “fetus,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
And then, as well, there’s been the long-overdue but daily difficult drumbeat of MeToo, MeToo, MeToo.
I have not yet mentioned the tax bill, though Herod and infanticide come to mind.
And then last week there was a Gallup report that declared – with our current profusion of maniacs, and perverts and Nazis – that 2017 stacks up as the worst year ever…though they also took note that it was pretty bad in the year 410 when the Visigoths sacked Rome!
For at least a year now, I have hung my ready-to-explode head in shame at the state of the human race!
And so here’s my realization: I have allowed myself to become over-informed, absorbed, drenched, and preoccupied with the dull realities of this world, and I have become ignorant of, distracted from, and oblivious to the brilliant and fully as real and vastly more important possibilities of the world that yet may be.
It’s not that the realities are unimportant (N. Korea and all the rest are damned important; and I bet there may be some hair-raising realities in your own private and personal and unknown-to-anybody else life as well!)
BUT if you are oblivious to the life-giving possibilities, the realities are gonna kill you. And if you are attuned to the life-giving possibilities, you can outwit the dull and stupid soul-killing realities.
If déjà vu is an awareness of the familiar in the presence of the new, vúja dé is an awareness of the new in the presence of the familiar. Now is the time for us to cultivate our sense of vúja dé! The life-giving new in the presence of the soul-killing familiar.
Now here comes the good news. I’ve been studyin’ up on these things (and I’ve got the footnotes to prove it) and the secret sauce to brewing up a batch of vúja dé is just exactly what Robert Fulghum prescribed, and that is NOT to brood or grieve or meditate (“It’s not what you think!”). Rather it is to wonder at a deeper level.
And that ain’t all, folks. The good news gets better. The key to pondering, the key to imagination, the key to creativity, the key to possibilitizing, the key to magic and mojo is…boredom, spacing out, procrastinating, and doing nothing! (I got the footnotes and the evidence-based science.)
Boredom and spacing out and procrastinating and doing nothing. Can you manage that, sisters and brothers and transgender cousins? Don’t just do something! Stand there! This makes brilliance possible!
There is no room for the holy spirit until we make room.
Now about those shepherds. That shepherding is boring work, and recently I told you that some say “there were shepherds imbibing in the fields, keeping watch of their flock by night.” But where were those shepherds looking? They didn’t hang their heads, looking down as if they were looking at their friggin’ phones (like everybody you see on the bus or the T or possibly some of you right now. Do you know that it’s estimated that by the end of their life the average American will have spent 2 years on Facebook?)
No, the shepherds and the wise men and all who seek after vision and hope and possibility are looking…UP! That’s vúja dé!
Perhaps, like Fulghum says, it’s too late – it’s Christmas Eve and you’ve got your plans and guests and hoopla and your holiday train has already left the station and maybe this will have to wait for a couple of weeks, but my wish for you this holiday and in the weeks and months to come is some boredom, some spacing out, some procrastination, some doing nothing. Look UP! Make room for creativity, imagination, brilliance, mojo and magic! Wonder at a deeper level. Make room for vúja dé!
Magic and mojo and Megan.
– – – –
Rev. Megan Lynes, “Magic”
“The key to magic is…boredom, spacing out, procrastinating, and doing nothing!” John says. But in our tumultuous world, it’s not easy to find the boredom, the spacing out moments, the pondering time, the magic. Or is it?
This week a parishioner recalled a time when she was able to move very slowly through her day, so slowly in fact, that time stood still. She had gone for a swim in a small pond on Cape Cod, one late afternoon in summer. The water was soft around her and the trees seemed to lean in, listening. Not a breeze rippled the surface. As she swam, a paddling of ducks eased up beside her and gave her a long sideways glance. Deciding her no threat at all, they took up swimming at her pace, making room for her, and companioning her all the way across the pond. The deepest peace filled her entire being, she said. She had been accepted by ducks!
The beauty of the natural world is all around us, and sometimes, whether we are pondering it, or not pondering anything at all, we are pulled into the awareness that we are a part of everything that is. Water and sunshine, skin and feathers. Fingers and beaks. That’s magic.
“If you are oblivious to the life-giving possibilities, the realities are gonna kill you.” John says.
I once met two brothers who had been estranged for 20 years, on the day of their life changing unification. Only the threat of death had drawn them out of their separate futile resentments. Although richer, luckier, and seemingly happier, the younger brother had suddenly become very ill and was found to have a rare form of cancer. The quest began for a bone marrow match, which doctors thought might give him a chance to live, but the months stretched by. He grew weaker and weaker, and yet was unwilling to ask the very person who might be the most likely to have the same rare type of bone marrow that he needed. At last, though it was the hardest thing he’d ever done, he called his brother, and asked for help. Lo and behold, his brother’s bone marrow was an exact match.
I met the two men on the day of the transplant, on the oncology floor of the hospital where I worked as a chaplain. A nurse had asked me to come up to the patient’s room and bless the bag of cells. I’d blessed babies and elders, doctors’ hands before surgery, but never a jiggling warm orange bag of cells! When I arrived, the room was packed with a large Greek Orthadox family. Not knowing how else to conduct this blessing, I figured I’d treat the occasion like blessing a loaf of challah bread, and we all put our hands on the bag, or on one another’s shoulders. There was a moment of quiet. Then from across the room, I could hear some stifled sounds, and I realized a grown man was trying not to sob. The room turned to look at the two brothers, holding hands.
And then, surprising no one more than himself, the older brother mumbled, “This is my body, given for you.” Unexpected, jarring words, yet the most true version of them I’d ever heard. Certainly this wasn’t the challah blessing I was planning! The brother added, “I never thought that whether you live or die would depend on me.” And the younger brother replied. “No matter what, you’ll always be a part of me now.” And that was all the blessing we needed. People fell into each others arms hugging like the Titanic had sprouted wings.
Do not be oblivious to the life giving possibilities, or the realities are going to kill you. Part science, part intent, part mystery, part love. Their large family is all together for Christmas this year: both brothers, their wives, and all 8 of their children. That’s magic.
“Make room for creativity, imagination, brilliance!” John says. My earliest memory of magic, happened on Christmas Eve when I was nearly 6. I had already been asleep for ages, when I was awakened by my dad whispering in the darkness. “Meggie? Are you sleeping? Would you like to see the Nutcracker on TV with us?” he asked. I don’t think I knew what the Nutcracker was, but hearing the word “us” and his hushed excitement, I slipped my hand in his, and we tiptoed past my baby sister, who, (to my delight!) we did not wake. This offer was one of a kind. Never before or since do I remember my parents waking a sleeping child. In the living room the tree twinkled, and my mom patted the couch beside her, then tucked a blanket over all three of us.
The room smelled like a pine forest, Tchaikovsky soared and dipped, and on the screen tiny mice danced. When I looked closely I realized the dancers were real children dressed as animals. Children who knew how to do amazing things, leaping and pirouetting in perfect formation, their tails sailing along behind them.
I knew that my parents could have watched the ballet without me, but miraculously they had wanted me with them. I fell asleep between them as the music swirled, and woke in the morning knowing beyond a doubt at last, that my parents believed in magic! Just like me! The proof was right there: the sugarplum music, and midnight pine scent, holding hands with my favorite people, and all those tiny mice dancing, dancing dancing.
The magic of Christmas is that it lets us ponder the really good things all around us, even amid all the hardship in our lives. Even here, in 2017, a year with so much pain and anger and ruin, so much at stake for so many, there is this. The quiet of the snowy night, the warmth of companions in the pews, the french horns, the hope of our Christmas promises, the memories we make to keep, and our very, only lives.
– – – –
John: And the 7-words prayer winner is UU theologian Rebecca Parker, who prays:
We remember the Magi,?
Observers of stars,?
Who found their way to kneel before a baby.?
May we, too, kneel before life’s intricate mysteries?
Following the path of science-based searchers for truth
Megan: We remember Mary,?
Birth-mother of a revolutionary prophet?
The fetus in her womb a surprise,?
Her choice a decision to magnify her hope, ?
The birth difficult,?
Attended by a beautiful diversity of animals,?
And a rag-tag gathering of vulnerable people.?
May we too, kneel at the cradle of earth’s dreams for peace?
And dedicate ourselves to revolutionary love.
We remember Joseph,?
Who embraced the baby as his own?
Believing that every child has a God-given entitlement to love and care.?
May we too, stand by the women and children of this world?
When patriarchal privilege and power threaten their freedom?
And put their well-being at risk.
John: We remember the Angels?Singing in a cold night to the over-taxed poor,?
Promising peace and goodwill to all.?
May we echo their song in acts of solidarity and justice?
For all souls—refugee souls, green souls, disabled souls,?
Black souls, young souls, transgender souls. ?
May we join the bold, holy movement ?
To bring heaven to earth. ?
May the Morning Star brighten our hope for a new day,?
And may laughter strengthen all our prayers.