A sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered (via Zoom) on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020
The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Bedford, MA
A Family Christmas
My father told me this story. It occurred in the early twenties in Seattle, before I was born. He was the oldest of six brothers and a sister, some of whom had moved away from home. The family finances had taken a real beating. My father’s business had collapsed, jobs were almost non-existent, and the country was in a near depression. We had a tree for Christmas that year, but no presents. We simply couldn’t afford them. On Christmas Eve, we all went to bed in pretty low spirits. Unbelievably, when we woke up on Christmas morning, there was a mound of presents under the tree. We tried to control ourselves at breakfast, but we rushed through the meal in record time. Then the fun began. My mother went first. We surrounded her in anticipation, and when she opened her package, we saw that she had been given an old shawl that she had “misplaced” several months earlier. My father got an old axe with a broken handle. My sister got her old slippers. One of the boys got a pair of patched and wrinkled trousers. I got a hat, the same hat I thought I had left in a restaurant back in November. Each old cast-off came as a total surprise. Before long, we were laughing so hard that we could barely pull the strings on the next package. But where had this largesse come from? It was my brother Morris. For several months, he had been secreting away old things that he knew we wouldn’t miss. Then, on Christmas Eve, after the rest of us had gone to bed, he had quietly wrapped up the presents and placed them under the tree. I remember this as one of the finest Christmases we ever had.
– Don Graves, Anchorage, Alaska
A few weeks ago, I was with a small group of minister friends and we had given ourselves the assignment to write short papers on the topic, “Where do you find hope in this time of pandemic?” This is what I wrote.
Where do I find hope in this time of pandemic? The question makes it sound like “there’s got to be some hope around here someplace! Was it mislaid, like my glasses or my Swiss Army knife or a mismatched sock? Where did I put it? A couple of months ago, I bought some groceries at a little market in Concord. There were only a few things and I figured I didn’t need a bag so leaving the market, a bit haphazardly, I dumped everything I had purchased in the back seat of my car. After taking things home, I could not find a pumpkin spice muffin I had purchased on impulse at the checkout. These muffins cost something ridiculous like $3.50 (hey, it’s Concord) but they’re good comfort food. At home, I looked all over the kitchen, then I made multiple trips out to the car. Four trips maybe. High and low I looked: I moved the driver’s and passengers’ seats all the way forward and all the way back. I looked under the pile of cloth grocery bags I keep on the floor behind the driver’s seat and I looked under the gym bag I haven’t opened since March. I don’t know why but I looked in the gym bag. I looked in the way back (you know, wayback…by the hatch), thinking maybe the wayward muffin had bounced over the back seat.
Eventually I gave up but later that day and the next I also revisited the parking lot outside the Concord market, half expecting to see a squashed muffin had it fallen out of the car when I put my stuff in the back seat. The next time I went in the market I even commented to the cashier, “You know I think I left a muffin here a few days ago…musta forgotten it by the cash register.” The cashier smiled but had no recollection and did not offer to replace my muffin or my $3.50.
And then it was maybe a week ago that I couldn’t find my gaiter – my face mask. Like this one. I bought it on the internet: 20 bucks at least; easy up/easy down; multiple layers; a draw-string closer on the back so I can make it good and tight and not fog up my glasses.
I usually keep my gaiter (and other masks) in my cluttered cubby by the door of the mud room at home. After much searching, it wasn’t there. So…back out to the car. Multiple times. High and low: front, back, wayback. No gaiter.
But, then, when I went to close the rear side door, behind the driver’s seat, something caught my eye in the door itself. You know how there are molded plastic holders in car doors these days, here, there, and everywhere.
Now, please forgive me: this is a digression but the newest model Subaru is called the Ascent (mine is an Outback not an Ascent) and among the Ascent’s many marvelous features are 19 cup holders. 19! The most of any car. I mean, did an engineer say, “18, that’s not enough. 20, well that would be too many!” What a wonderful world.
So as I say, searching for my precious gaiter, something caught my eye as I started to close the rear door and indeed, eureka! it was my two-month-old pumpkin spice muffin…which had indeed bounced from the back seat where I’d put it and into the nifty plastic holder in the car door where it eluded me for two months.
Three dollars and 50 cents covers the cost of some serious ingredients, including preservatives. And I’m here to say that the muffin tasted, well, a little dry, but better than you might expect two months after the date of sale.
It required only another trip or two to search the car for the umpteenth time before my gaiter was also apprehended beneath the driver’s seat.
There are more days of late than I care to admit that I do not know where to find hope. Where did I put it? Where did it go? Could it be in the way back, or maybe I foolishly absent-mindedly left it at the cashier’s counter. That I have lost hope is probably my own damn fault. If I were a more faithful minister; if I had only brushed up my spiritual discipline. If, as my friend Harold’s Maine-accented father famously admonished his son, “If you were smaht…” If I was smaht I wouldn’t have lost hope in the first place.
When I started to write this paper I thought maybe I’d end up saying something about hope not being a thing that gets lost in a cluttered cubby or in the back seat of the car or left absent-mindedly at a cashier’s counter, or, we dread, falls out and gets crushed in a parking lot. I thought maybe my big finish tonight might be that old preacher’s sleight-of-hand that “hope is not a thing or a noun – it ain’t got feathers – but rather hope is a verb, an activity, a practice…..” Ministers have all preached that way; you’ve heard those kind of sermons preached about love, right? Love is not a noun; it is a verb. “Love,” I know I’ve pontificated to you, “requires loving.”
Well, now at the conclusion of this paper and Christmas Eve homily, that’s not where I end up. Hope is elusive, that’s for sure, and we can go quite a while without finding any hope. We even may give up on finding it and harbor doubts that we’ll ever find it again.
And then again, if we’re lucky, some day when we least expect it we may catch an unanticipated glimpse out of the corner of our eye. Even if we’d given up looking or don’t know what we’re looking for. Hope may be far off and it may be inexplicably absent; and then again hope may not be far from that place where last it was seen or known or felt.
This Christmas may we want what we have. Though so much has been lost, much still abides: the gifts of quiet and seasons and solitude, and even sorrow; the gifts of glee and grief and grit and grace; the gifts of outrage and agency; gifts of love; the gifts of surprise and sameness and sleep.
May we want what we have. May it be so. Amen.
Deep calls unto deep, joy calls unto joy, light calls unto light. Let the kindling of this flame rekindle in us the inner light of love, of peace, of hope. And “as one flame lights another, nor grows the less,” we pledge ourselves to be bearers of the light, wherever we are. (Gordon B. McKeeman)
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May we, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
“¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!”
The people, united, will never be defeated!
(Slogan of the 1970s Chilean resistance).
Now raise high your light, switch to gallery view, and look around at the surrounding light. With your candle before you, make a Christmas promise to yourself. And when it is burned upon your heart and when you are ready to carry its flame within you, blow your candle out.
“Going to Bed” by George Bilgere
I check the locks on the front door
and the side door,
make sure the windows are closed
and the heat dialed down.
I switch off the computer,
turn off the living room lights.
I let in the cats.
Reverently, I unplug the Christmas tree,
leaving Christ and the little animals
in the dark.
The last thing I do
is step out to the back yard
for a quick look at the Milky Way.
The stars are halogen-blue.
The constellations, whose names
I have long since forgotten,
look down anonymously,
and the whole galaxy
is cartwheeling in silence through the night.
Everything seems to be ok.
Often I conclude this service by yelling, Go home! But, well, you’re already home. Stay out. Want what you have. And good night.