Written by Rev. John Gibbons
“Joy to the World! You Gotta Be Kidding!!!”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
Delivered on Sunday, December 10, 2017
At the First Parish in Bedford, MA
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“Christmas is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject;
a drunken, disorderly subject; a wasteful disastrous subject;
a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous and demoralizing subject…
on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath
of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it
would be turned into a pile of greasy sausages.”
—George Bernard Shaw
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
by Anne Sexton, from The Awful Rowing Toward God, 1975
Three Unholy Readings
From Christopher Durang:
I wrote about my parents’ troubles in my unabashedly biographical play The Marriage of Bette and Boo, and I ended up playing myself (more or less) when Joseph Papp produced the play in 1985. My character (whom I called Matt in order to get some minor distance from playing myself) had this speech about Christmas:
Holidays, an essay by Matthew Hudlocke. Holidays were invented in 1203 by Sir Ethelbert Holiday, a sadistic Englishman. It was Sir Ethelbert’s hope that by setting aside specific days on which to celebrate things – the birth of Christ, the death of Christ, Beowulf’s defeat over Grendel – that the population at large would fall into a deep depression. Holidays would regulate joy so that anyone who didn’t feel joyful on those days would feel bad. Single people would be sad they were single. Married people would be sad they were married. Everyone would feel disappointment that their lives had fallen so far short of their expectations.
A small percentage of people, sensing the sadism in Sir Ethelbert’s plan, did indeed pretend to be joyful at these appointed times; everyone else felt intimidated by this small group’s excessive delight, and so never owned up to being miserable. And so, as time went on, the habit of celebrating holidays became more and more ingrained into society.
Eventually humorists like Robert Benchley wrote mildly amusing essays poking fun at the impossibility of enjoying holidays, but no one actually spoke up and attempted to ABOLISH them.
From George Bernard Shaw:
I am sorry to have to introduce the subject of Christmas. It is an indecent subject; a cruel, gluttonous subject; a drunken, disorderly subject; a wasteful, disastrous subject; a wicked, cadging, lying, filthy, blasphemous and demoralizing subject. Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press: on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages.
From “The Littlest Jingle Bell”:
Once, two Christmas seasons ago when you were still a child, there was a Jingle Bell shop. Now this shop had big jingle bells, that went “jingle jingle jingle“. And it had medium-sized jingle bells, that went “jingle jingle jingle“. There were also normal jingle bells, that went “jingle jingle jingle”. And there was one, the very smallest of all the bells, and it tinkled “jingle jingle jingle“! In it’s tiny merry little way.
So, every day, people would come in preparing for Christmas. They would pick up the big jingle bells, that went “jingle jingle jingle“. Then they would try the medium-sized jingle bells, that went “jingle jingle jingle“. After that, they would listen to the normal jingle bells, that went “jingle jingle jingle”. And when the picked up the very smallest of all the bells, and it tinkled “jingle jingle jingle“! In its tiny merry little way, they would say: “It’s too small. I cannot hear it ring.” And they would put it back.
Now, Christmas by this time was nearing closer. People would try the jingle bells, and they would take either the big jingle bells, the medium jingle bells, or the normal jingle bells. When they shook the very smallest of the jingle bells, and it tinkled in its very tiny little way, they would put it back, saying “It’s just too small.” This made the littlest jingle bell very sad. He thought he was too tiny to be wanted, and so his tiny jingle pealed out in one little sob.
At this time, Santa was flying over the little town where the jingle bell shop was. Just as the shop keeper was placing the key in the lock to close up for Christmas, St. Nick alighted from his sleigh to the ground. “I have lost a bell from my sleigh,” he informed the shop keeper. “I need a new bell to place on my reindeer harness.” “Well,” thought the shop keeper, “I do have a bell. However, it is the tiniest of all the bells, and no one wants him.”
“Perhaps that is just what I need,” said Father Christmas. “After all, I do not wish to wake the children with loud bells on their roofs. Maybe this little jingle bell will be perfect.” So he strode into the shop and picked up the smallest jingle bell.
He shook it next to his ear, and it jingled “jingle jingle jingle“! in its own, tiny, merry little way. And Santa listened, and a small smile came across his face. He rang it one more time. “Jingle jingle jingle“! Then, he spoke.
“You’re right, it’s too small.”
I am in a ministers’ study group that meets at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury for a few days after Thanksgiving and again after Mothers Day. We pick a theme and we read a novel, perhaps some essays or poems, and we talk about them. And we write a brief paper that we share with one another; and we eat, and oh yes, we take naps. We call ourselves The Stone House Group (named for a place we used to meet) but we are known among colleagues as The Nap Group.
Two weeks ago, our theme was Joy. To which I said, “oh joy!” When Sue learned of this theme, she quizzed me, “When was the last time you felt even a twinge of joy?” It’s been a while. This fall, there’s been Megan’s evil plan, though my grief has metabolized to melancholy and then to wistfulness and, yes, we’d all best jump for joy now that Lisa Perry-Wood has signed on as our Acting Parish Minister. I am very happy about working with Lisa.
But joy for many of us these days is a stretch. Not to mention our decidedly unjoyful thoughts and emotions when we read or hear the daily outrage perpetrated in Washington, D.C. or Alabama or Nigeria or the Middle East or the California wildfires or the shrinking polar ice cap…. Where are we going and why are we in this hand basket? I cannot say how I truly feel from this pulpit because that would be undignified. Some say, “Joy to the world!” I say, “You’ve got to be kidding!!!”
The Bizarro comic in Friday’s newspaper shows an unhappy picture of Santa behind a Fox News reporter saying, “Christmas was abruptly canceled today as three more elves and two reindeer came forward with allegations…” And the caption, “When you thought it couldn’t get any weirder.”
You know, Ben and Cynthia had been planning to perform a duet of the old standard, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” but, uh, in the current environment – and perhaps in any environment, that song has become cringeworthy. Blue Christmas is much safer!
So, anyway, at the Wayside Inn, to the theme of Joy, we read a much-praised novel titled Imagine Me Gone about a most dysfunctional family of five, of whom two would take their own lives by the end of the novel…that is, if due to the sheer toxicity of the subject, one managed not to abandon the novel way before the end.
And we read a number of poems, including that with which we began: Anne Sexton’s “Welcome Morning” … “There is joy in all…the hair, the towel, the eggs, the spoon, the chair….The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, dies young.” As, by the way, did Anne Sexton who took her own life at age 45. Oh joy.
And then, at the Wayside Inn, on the Tuesday morning after Thanksgiving (this happens every year) our group is banished to the nearby Martha and Mary Chapel because a hundred ladies from nearby Womens and Garden Clubs descend on the Inn and they proceed to ornament and tinsel and spread artificial greenery and roping and sprigs and red berries on every doorknob, mantel, and banister until the entire Inn is fortified by seasonal joy.
In the movie Elf, Will Farrell as the elf says, “First we’ll make snow angels for two hours, then we’ll go ice skating, then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie-dough as fast as we can, and then we’ll snuggle.”
Folks, most of our holidays aren’t like that!
You know, at our house the entirety of our holiday decorations usually consists of one New Yorker cartoon on our refrigerator, depicting an aging couple in their living room, he in his easy chair, and she dancing before him wearing only an ornamented Christmas tree skirt. She is topless with holiday lights strung about her neck and chest, holiday earrings and some sort of tree crown on her head with a star on the top, and brightly she says, “I told you we didn’t need a tree!” This year, a few more baubles have been added to our home, mainly because our son and his husband will be coming to visit.
All right, this is the sort of sermon where Brad and perhaps lots of others will afterward ask or at least think, “Is John OK? Are you depressed?” And so, you’ll be glad to know that I’m about to make a turn and come out of this funk, but not too quickly, because the conclusion of our study group – and my conclusion today – is that joy is or can be present in all our lives but that joy is very much woven fine with that which is not joyful, but possibly even despairing or dispiriting. “Joy and woe are woven fine.” Those are William Blake’s words and let’s read them together. They’re at number 17 and we sang this a few weeks ago but today let’s just read the words aloud.
Every night and every morn some to misery are born, every morn and every night some are born to sweet delight. Joy and woe are woven fine, clothing of the soul divine: under every grief and pine runs a joy with silken twine. It is right it should be so: we were made for joy and woe; and when this wee rightly know, safely through the world we go.
So joy and woe are woven fine; moreover, joy is rarely self-evident or easily apparent; one must look to find it; and most often joy is in unaccustomed places, unusual and unexpected.
I read to you that unholy essay on holidays from the Christopher Durang play. “Holidays were invented in 1203 by Sir Ethelbert Holiday, a sadistic Englishman.”
Durang’s play is largely autobiographical about his parents’ difficult marriage and his unhappy childhood.
“Holidays,” he says in an interview, “were hellidays.”
His parents divorced when he was a teenager and as he got older his view of holidays also changed.
In the interview Durang says,
“My mother was a lovely, vibrant person, and she wanted to enjoy Christmas when I’d come home. I just didn’t have the stomach for it much of the time. During my Freshman year at college, I did decorate the tree with her. But during my Sophomore year at college – a bad time for me, in retrospect I was in a debilitating depression that did not lift for two years – I just could not bear “trimming the tree.”
This disappointed my mother, and so I said – look I don’t want to do a traditional tree, let’s do a Dada tree. And I started to hang kitchen utensils on it – spatulas, and slotted spoons, and pot holders, and socks, and a wig she had, and Lord knows what else. My mother kind of got into this nutty version of tree decoration almost immediately, without a moment’s hesitation, and we rather bonded over making this silly, highly untraditional tree. It was, oddly, a sort of good negotiation between us of how to have fun.”
(On the cover of your order of service, by the way, is a dada Christmas tree.)
For some of us joy is to be found by doing holiday things – decorating, baking, gift-giving – exactly the way we’ve always done them. But for others seeing things differently and doing things differently can access joy.
With the nap group, besides the depressing novel, we also read an essay by David James Duncan, titled “Wonder; Yogi; Gladly.” Duncan says that the earliest conception he had of the meaning of the word ‘wonder’ was “a feeling that would come over me, as a little kid, when I pictured the shepherds on the night hills over Bethlehem. Even when these shepherds were made of illuminated plastic, standing around in Christmas dioramas on my neighbor’s lawn, their slack-jawed expressions of wonder appealed to me.” “Wonder,” he says, is my second favorite condition to be in, after love.”
In the section titled “Yogi,” he recalls his delight at the sayings of Yogi Berra. You know, things like: “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” “When his lifelong friend, Mickey Mantle, had died, Yogi was offended, he said, ‘cause the Mick and me always promised to attend each other’s funerals.’” “Of Yankee Stadium, Yogi said, ‘It gets late early there.’” “To the players he was coaching, Yogi said, ‘All right you guys, pair up in threes.’” “He said, ‘The future just isn’t what it used to be.’” “’When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’”
Duncan also tells a story about his sneaking into a church with a few friends when he was 12 years old and, on the church’s big grand piano, playing the Ramsey Lewis version of “Hang On Sloopy,” until he was accosted by a Seventh-day Adventist man “veiny with rage,” who threw him out of the church, roaring, “THIS IS GOD’S HOUSE!”
“I have never felt the truth of what that man did,” Duncan says.
You know I’m a big fan of wonder, which is why I love having folks from the Boston Circus Guild join us from time to time. And there’s something unexpectedly cockamamie, even joyful in Yogi Berra-isms, and in playing “Hang On Sloopy” in church. I think that’s why here in church we laugh when we can, why we’ve got a disco ball, and a gargoyle, and an advent “Jesus, Always Welcome” sign: there is unexpected joy in the unexpected.
The final section of the essay, titled “Gladly” is an exposition on the old biblical confusion of “Gladly the cross I bear” being misconstrued as “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.” The name of the bear being, of course, Gladly…the cross-eyed bear.
Which reminds me of mishearing the word ‘abiding,’ and changing the gospel to “And there were in the same country shepherds imbibing in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Believe me (I know shepherds) and they are imbibing in the field. Believe me!
And speaking of imbibing, I purchased a new book titled, “Christmas: A Biography” (I have one of the largest collections of holiday books, from the sublime to the ridiculous, because each December I try to figure out what this whole rollicking jumble is all about.) This new book reviews the traditions, the recipes, the gifts, the greenery, the music and dancing, the carnival and riot…. It’s nice to be reminded that Santa was once half-goat and half-demon and ate bad small children; and that revelers would regularly wear goat skeletons on their heads, and sneak up on neighbors’ homes and shoot guns and run away. Through all the centuries and layers and bizarros of December, alcohol is probably the central, timeless, most beloved and vexatious continuity.
There’s a good section in this book about the growing popularity of Christmas in non-Christian cultures, such as Japan, where Christmas is interpreted as the equivalent of Valentine’s Day for young couples, accompanying ads for champagne and chocolates. Silent night holy night “has come to mean an evening when couples go out for dinner, exchange gifts and stay overnight at a hotel.”
Oh, and this book even chronicles matters of Christmas religion and ritual, though these things have become so tangential and convoluted, pretty soon we’re back to shepherds imbibing in the fields and Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.
It’s been mostly an afterthought to put Christ in Christmas, a fact borne out last week when my UCC colleague in Burlington lamented on Facebook (of course) at the difficulty of finding religiously-themed Christmas cards, even though, she acknowledged, “there are only five of us who want them.”
My conclusion, however, is in no way cynical. We live in a woeful world, and – in public and private – we can be discouraged, disillusioned, despairing and dispirited. Which is precisely why we must seek, take, conjure and imagine joy. The Christmas biography concludes with this wisdom: “…Ultimately, Christmas is not what is, or even has been, but what we hope for…..the meaning…is in repetition, but a very particular form of repetition, a repetition of forgetting and remembering, of remembering and misremembering… When people say they miss the old holiday traditions, few mean that they miss people creeping up on their home and firing guns in the middle of the night. Or that they miss wearing goat-skeletons on their heads. Or that they miss Christmas being the one day in the year that they can afford to eat meat….At the central core of the holiday is not the lives we have, but the lives we would like to have.”
On Friday, the day I wrote this sermon, there were movie reviews in the Boston Globe. A review of the film “The Shape of Water” concludes, “the filmmaker believes in fairy tales, and in these parlous times, that’s a position both unfashionable and necessary.” Fairy tales are necessary! A review of the new Churchill movie “Darkest Hour” concludes ‘it is comfort food for an era that needs reminding what great men looked and sounded like.” Now more than ever, we need to be reminded what great men and women look and sound like. And, if we but pay attention, we may be so reminded. And, finally, a review of the film “The Other Side of Hope” concludes, “The other side of hope is not despair, but decency.” In this season, may we appreciate fairy tales and greatness; may we practice hope and decency.
I’ll give Mary Oliver the last word about joy:
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.” ( from “Don’t Hesitate”)
Joy is not made to be a crumb.
The old prayer:
I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present moment. Take Peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy.
(attributed to Fra Giovanni, 1513)
And take a nap!
And, Robert, for the postlude you’re gonna do Hang On Sloopy, right?