Sermons

Love Came Down, by Rev. Roger C. Peltier

posted on December 3, 2017

It happens every December. In the flurry of activity we call “the holidays” something always arrives, leaving me surprised. Along with way too many Black Friday sales announcements—there was this one piece of mail that caught my eye. In handwriting the wrapping said, “Love Came Down!” The CD inside was someone’s favorite collection of music about holidays and holy days—replete with smarmy sentimentality.

I thought it was a good gesture and a great gift but what surprised me most was the return address on the wrapping. This holiday gift had come from Andrew French. “Wow, I hadn’t heard that name in so long!” I thought. I was kind of excited to be getting mail, a present with my name on it, but I was kind of confused, too. Because I was never especially nice to Andrew French. It isn’t that I was not nice; it’s just that I was never especially very welcoming of Andrew’s presence.

When we met Andrew was a friendly and vivacious and (I thought) a somewhat needy kind of guy. I shied away. Then he disappeared. I hadn’t thought much about Andrew since then;
not until I read his passionate note inside the CD:

“Each year when I begin to put these albums together, I go through a process where I interview songs. It’s quite an odd thing to start inundating yourself with holiday music in June, when the world speaks nothing of sleigh bells, silver bells, frosty snowmen, or roasting chestnuts on open fires. While it may be sunny and warm, and the days are long, what the world does speak of is a great need for healing. We are living in a time where the human habit has become to hurt as many people as possible. So, as I interview the music, I try to listen for some sanity or the echo of human conscience. It is becoming harder and harder to find.” [1]

I read those words over and over again, and in a not so smarmy way, I teared up. In some way, I was challenged by Andrew’s words and by their implication for the state of our world and our hearts.

I never knew Andrew was such a deep or thoughtful person. And I felt more than a little guilty for not taking the time to get to know him better, for not discovering his sensitivity. Suddenly, I missed him. Listening to the music on his CD, something uncomfortable woke in me…something related to regret and even longing. I couldn’t wait to get in touch with Andrew, to know him better, not so as to feel less guilty but because reaching out to him would probably help me become more of the person I want to be.

As a child, I learned that the weeks preceding Christmas are the time of waiting for the long hours of December’s darkness to become lighter and brighter. My Mom (whose name is Gloria) called this the waiting-time; and we did: sometimes in silence, sometimes in song—experiencing in our bodies and in our very souls, it seemed, an ancient longing for the advent of hope, peace, joy and love.

These December weeks are the time to celebrate the arrival of all those things we imagine are imbued in a tiny, vulnerable baby in a manger—O come, Emmanuel. But this season is NOT much of a celebration for everyone. There are those who suffer this season: in abuse, addiction, mental and physical pain, or with the unbearable loneliness of being different. There are those who are needful of healing, who are needful of welcome, who are needful of love. There are those missing loved ones very acutely right now.

Over the thanksgiving break I was singing “The Little Drummer Boy” from the CD, cracking up as I remembered how the young me used to think was the lyric, come and rub-a-my-bum.
Until the other day I hadn’t seen the accompanying TV show since I was a little kid. As it turns out, for all these years, I had kept the story of the song in my memory: In the song, the story is told of a boy that finds the true secret of happiness when he serenades a Bethlehem babe with his tin drum. But that’s not so in the original 1968 Rankin & Bass hi-tech, clay-mation cartoon (featuring the Vienna Boys Choir no less!).

That story tells us that the Drummer Boy, Aaron, was once, indeed, a happy and carefree lad who had vowed “to hate all humans.” Remember that Aaron saw his Sheppard parents murdered, all their sheep stolen, and his family home burned by a pack of desert bandits. As if that were not enough, the orphaned and homeless, Aaron was abducted by vagabond court players and forced—with a painted-on smile—to play his drum for the masses to secure the wealth of the players. Aaron gained his freedom only by surrendering his beloved, pet camel as ransom. [2]

Like many of our favorite Christmas stories, the longing in our lives may be in sharp contrast to the songs we sing or the lives we get to live. Come to think of it most holiday stories are like that: Kris Kringle longs to bring joy and cheer to children who have been forbidden to play;
Frosty longs to be human; And what about poor nerdy and needy little Rudolph, excluded by the other reindeer, surely “on the outside looking in,” as my Mom would say. Kind of like Andrew French was with me.

As we approach the coming Season and its greetings, I wonder: how many of us will wear painted smiles? How many of us will be longing to fit in somewhere? How many of us will suffer—trying our best to just make it through the day? How many of us shy away from the need of others?

As I’ve often remarked, especially of Christmas: We live in a fast-paced world of buy more, get more, do more—and we do want and do more. Yet, even with the excess of the season we can’t help but hear the world’s cry for help; Like the hungry in Africa and India, and right here.

I don’t think it’s by accident that our Christmas stories are as filled with heartbreak and drama as they are with love and celebration. And we need stories like these. Not just for their timeless holiday appeal, but because to even imagine that we could heal the world, and let them know it’s Christmastime, we have to know-and-tell again and again the story of hope born anew.

One of my colleagues describes how it happens in his family:

Without a word of instruction, the evening’s Christmas ritual begins. One by one we grandchildren made our way to the stairway and ascended to sit beside one another, filling them from top to bottom. We, who were twenty in number then, took our places no matter what our age.

Once we were seated, my grandmother would walk over to what was for us the sacred ark of her home: an old washstand that had belonged to her mother. We watched with total reverence she removed from underneath it the object she sought: our family Bible, the one with all our pictures pressed in its pages.

Gently, ever so gently, she carried it to the table, and silence would once again fall upon that house as she turned its crisp, age-worn pages to the Gospel of Luke, it was passed up the stairway, together with a flashlight, just as these were passed every year.

All of the lights in the house were then dimmed. But even in that darkness, each of us knew just what was expected. With flashlight and Bible in hand, the first grandchild would begin: And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…

Then verse by verse, grandchild by grandchild, every line of that story was shared. Twenty verses for twenty grandchildren: a fact that assured each of us of the completeness that we brought into our grandparent’s lives. Grandchildren who could read, each in turn did so. Those who were not old enough to read, but could talk, were told what to say. Those who could not yet speak had their verse read for them.

As the glorious story of the miracle birth was retold, that Bible would make its way down the stairway, shimmering in the one light, as if the Wise Men themselves were descending down the mountains to follow the star toward Bethlehem… [3]

For my colleague’s family, more than a simple Bible story descended from each stair. For each person there, love came down as it did year after year. And that made its coming all the more meaningful.

And isn’t that what we are all waiting and longing for, really, for love to arrive? And somehow something always does—often with just the simplest gesture…

Having no gift to offer the babe in the manger, Aaron, began to play his drum. And we’re told that all the world began to dance, even the ox and lamb kept time. With each and every beat of his drum, Aaron’s broken heart was broken open. And, that night, Love was born in Bethlehem.

My Friends,

We are living in an age where the human habit has become to hurt as many people as possible.

Contending with war, with political tension, with bombs and shootings, with floods and hurricanes, it is good in the December of the spirit to remember there is always being born a champion of our old dreams of equity, justice and peace.

In the words of the late Rhys Williams: “Blessed are they who have vision enough to behold a guiding star in the dark mystery which girdles the earth; And, blessed are they who have compassion enough to love this needy kind of world.” [4]

Let every heart prepare. Amen.

[1] French, Andrew “Love Came Down” (CD liner-notes.)

[2] Rankin & Bass, The Little Drummer Boy (1968).

[3] Breugler, Ronald, When Love Came Down (quoted and paraphrased.)

[4] Williams, Rhys, Christmas Beatitudes (excerpted.)

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