Saturday, December 24, 2011
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
One of the best Christmas stories I’ve heard in a while didn’t happen at Christmas time, at least as far as I know. It is a story told by my colleague Rev. David Blanchard about a friend who was a volunteer teacher in an African country for a couple of years. At the end of the friend’s teaching time, a young boy, one of the teacher’s students, wanted to give a gift to his teacher before she left the country. The boy had no money with which to buy a gift and there were very few local options in terms of anything to buy anyway. But the day before the teacher was to leave, the student presented her with a huge and very beautiful seashell. They lived quite a distance from the ocean and the teacher asked the boy in amazement where he could have found such a beautiful shell. The boy named a certain bay many kilometers away and told her he had gotten the shell there. The teacher was startled, knowing this child would have had no way to get to the bay except by walking. She said to the boy,”It is a wonderful shell but I can’t believe you walked all that way just to get a gift for me.” His eyes brightening, the boy answered, “[The] long walk [is] part of [the] gift.” [This story is from the sermon Long Walk, by Rev. David Blanchard, printed in Quest magazine, December 2008]
The long walk is part of the gift. This year I have been thinking about all the long walks that are part of the Nativity story as told in the Gospel of Luke, which is the gospel with most of the details. The Nativity story begins with those familiar words,”In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is 80 miles. Needless to say, this is a long walk for someone in her ninth month of pregnancy, even if she got to ride on a donkey for some of it.
A little while later, a strange, bright angel appears to the frightened shepherds who are up on the mountainsides in the hills of Judea and the angel tells them to go and find a baby lying in a manger in Bethlehem. And so they walk down from the hills into village of Bethlehem to find the baby. And the magi, or wise men from the East, described in the Gospel of Matthew, come from as far away as Persia. Their trip to Bethlehem may have taken as long as two years. In the story of Jesus’ birth, there is a lot of hard travel. There is a lot of seeking, a lot of searching that surrounds the birth of that baby. The long walk is part of the gift. No one gets to the manger quickly or easily. No one gets there without risk, without bearing some hardship. And so it is with everything that is meaningful and important in our lives.
Tonight we gather to celebrate the ancient and improbable story of an infant born in a barn who grew up to bring such light and hope and truth into this world that we remember him still. Tonight we gather to light our small candles and to pass a tiny flame to the person standing next to us. Tonight we will stand shoulder to shoulder, side by side, and hold up our hundred tiny lights against the darkness, the darkness of this night, the darkness in our own spirits perhaps, the darkness in our world.
They are fragile things that we share here tonight: words and songs and small, impermanent lights in the darkness. They are fragile things but they matter because love always matters. The story of a baby born on this night long ago in Bethlehem is a story about love, about hopeful, courageous love. It is a story about the uncertainty and risk of birth, the uncertainty and risk that comes with the birth of every child, but also the uncertainty and risk that comes with life itself, and especially the kind of life that Jesus grew up to live. He grew up to live a life that was all about compassionate, inclusive and unlimited love, especially for the people that his society and culture, much like our own, did not value: the most vulnerable, the outcast, the marginalized, the poor, the mentally ill, the homeless, the disenfranchised.
I suspect that part of why we are here tonight is because something in us yearns to be reminded that love like this is possible. Jesus brought it. We can bring it too but the kind of love that Jesus talked about and taught about and demonstrated with his own life is a love that will change us. It is a love that will cause us to question all of our assumptions about who is acceptable, who is worthy, who is or is not deserving of forgiveness and compassion and tenderness. Jesus said there is no one outside of that circle. There is no one outside of the circle of compassion, and if you start to live as if you really believe this, you will be changed, and your life will change. The kind of love that Jesus talked about and taught about is a difficult gift, difficult and beautiful and ultimately life saving.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that love is not easy. It is not supposed to be. Sometimes we forget to look beyond the surface of things. We forget that what is hard or painful may also bring huge gifts. We forget that the beauty of a thing is sometimes hidden underneath. As Brother Giovanni wrote 500 years ago, “Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you.”
In our church community the past year has been a time of finding the gifts in the long walk. We had many hard losses last spring, and through this long series of difficult and painful deaths we have had to learn our own strength. And this has been a gift. We have also learned the gift of keeping one another company, the gift of showing up for each beautiful and painful memorial service, the gift of bringing food, the gift of bearing suffering and helping others to bear it when we thought it was unbearable. We have received the gift of being held in prayer by the congregations around us and we even received the tangible gift of a prayer shawl from the UU congregation in Chelmsford, which now hangs on the organ rail. You can slip it on your shoulders tonight or any time you come here and feel in need of a little comfort. Through a season of sorrow, we have both given and received the gift of generous, hopeful, courageous love in ways we could not have imagined.
Last spring a beloved member of our congregation, Georgess McHargue, was coming to the end of her life after dancing with cancer, as she put it, for many years. In June, we held a combination birthday and goodbye party for her here at church. Neither Georgess nor I had ever really heard of doing such a thing, kind of like a memorial service in advance. What happened was that several years ago she and I were talking about her memorial service and I don’t remember this but apparently I told her what she wanted to do for her memorial sounded so wonderful, that I didn’t want her to miss it. She remembered the conversation and last spring she told me, “I don’t want to miss it, let’s have the celebration while I am still here.” So we did. And it was quite a party. There was wine and beautiful food that everyone had brought, and tons of flowers gathered from people’s gardens. There was a lot of wonderful music, and Georgess got up and sang with several of her close friends. Her grandsons serenaded her and there was a lot of laughing and a lot of crying and a lot of kids running around everywhere and a huge cake with roses, her favorite flower. People stood up and read poems and letters they had written for Georgess. There were hilarious tributes and heartbreaking ones. People spoke about how knowing Georgess had changed their lives for the better and how much her friendship had meant to them. Her daughter, Mairi, and her husband, Michael, were there of course – strong and honest and deeply loving – so much like Georgess herself. And Georgess just shone through the whole evening. She was already so tired but she was just transcendent that night, fully present and enjoying herself hugely, though it was also clear she was already on her way to someplace else. It was so joyful and so heartbreaking, so full of life, so generous. I kept thinking about what an incredible gift we were being given.
David Blanchard writes, “When Christmas has been tidied up and packed away for another year, the gifts acknowledged, many already forgotten, the New Year stretches in front of us. What will get us through those months, with all that they hold, will not be the things in the boxes.” It will be the deep love of those whose gift to us is the “long walk” they have been willing to take with us, or for us, as companions for our days. The long walk is part of the gift.
Victoria Safford reminds us: