“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (A Schweitzer, QHJ, 389).
In 1978, barely married one year, Jan and I were living in a tiny apartment, too small even for a piano, under the wings of Riverside Church NYC. Jan worked as a secretary in the Interchurch Center, the ‘God Box.’ To help finance the operation I was working at night as a security guard, studying for my afternoon classes and making rounds from 11pm -7am, then sleeping until noon. Near Christmas, Jan had a day off, and went shopping, by accident leaving our apartment door ajar. I awoke about 11am to see a poor street woman standing over me, with a knife and rosary beads. Somehow she had passed the receptionist and found her way in. I hoped the rosary beads meant more to her than the knife. But seeing her I shouted. She promptly raced into the bathroom and locked the door. About noon Jan came home to find police cars and a crowd outside McGiffert Hall. ‘Your husband was down here in his pajamas’ one said. ‘Really?’, Jan replied. “Police are up in your apartment’ one said. ‘Really?’ Jan replied. ‘There is a woman in your apartment too’ one said. ‘Really?’ Jan replied. ‘She is taking a bath up in your bathroom’ one said. ‘Really?’ Jan replied. That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, vivid reminder of the poor—the street cast, the mentally ill, the drug harmed, the urban lost—the poor. The poor, like the Shepherds abiding in the field.
In 1980, with one child asleep upstairs, and one on the way to his birth three months later, we sat down in a small Ithaca parsonage for a Christmas Eve dinner. Services were over. Snow was falling, heavy, snow on snow. The hillside Warren Drive was all white. The baby grand piano sat silent next to us. Jan went up to check the child. All of a sudden, a large four-door sedan careened down the hill, turned sideways, nearly flipped, and smashed into the guard rail, just feet from our dining room. Out stumbled three natives of the subcontinent of India. Waiting for a truck, they sat with us, and ate a little and drank some tea. ‘They look like the three wise men”, Jan whispered. Dark, darker, and darkest—Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. It takes a while to get a truck on Christmas Eve. When he did arrive, the driver gave evidence of Christmas cheer. He was a jolly, happy soul. ‘They look like wise men from the east’ he said. That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, vivid reminder of the globe—the 6 billion siblings on 7 continents and myriad tongues—the globe. The Wise Men 3, bowing before the Christ.
In 1983, on Christmas Eve day, in the drafty living room of the Burke NY parsonage, an hour south of Montreal, with two children asleep for nap, and one on the way to his birth seven months later, we stood beside the baby grand piano for a wedding. A farm hand and his girlfriend, living up the road in a trailer, with the minister’s wife as witness, musician, caterer, and greeter, took their vows after carols and before cookies. As the rings were exchanged the two ostensibly napping children peered out from the stairwell. Leaving, he gave me four dollars. They were going for lunch to celebrate at the Cherry Knoll diner. They had nothing, and they had everything. It was a sort of Norman Rockwell scene—and aren’t these all? Rockwell has finally come into his artistic kingdom, this year, 2013, at last honored as real artist. But that Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime reminder of the mystery of marriage against a background of rural life—farm work, cattle, livestock, milking, the good earth—farm life. Mary and Joseph and the utter mystery of birth.
In 1988, 25 years ago this weekend, we left our children by the piano with a sitter, and went by foot, through the snow, to see the Syracuse Orangemen play basketball. The game was interrupted with the stark announcement of a new tragedy, the crash of Pan Am flight 103 in Lockerbie Scotland. Neighbors of ours, students, and other students from other schools perished in what in retrospect was a harsh harbinger of further such acts of violence to come in 1995 and 1998 and 2001 and 2013. I looked again at the Christmas sermon preached later that week, an offering drenched in sorrow. SU Chancellor Melvin Eggers I believe never really recovered from the crash. Maybe none of us has. Twelve years later, dropping our son off for college at Ohio Wesleyan, I chanced to meet a man with deeply sunken eyes, who, as it happened, was the head of SU study abroad that year. That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a warning about the way the world would change in the decades to follow, and a call to gentleness in an age of violence. Rachel is still weeping for her children.
In 1992, we wrapped presents beside the piano, to give to a father and children on Dell Street, in the Westcott Street neighborhood, assigned to our church by the rescue mission. The dad we knew as a pizza deliverer. The 6 year old was in our son’s class. Both were names Stanley Grobsmith, senior and junior. Our son had been to a birthday party in their very modest home. We had left him off for an hour or two. Dad brought his three children to worship, sitting in the back pew, those weeks near Christmas. He was a boxer, a single father. That winter he was arrested for murder—I pass over the gruesome details—and hung himself in jail. We were committed to city ministry, to work with the urban poor, to rebuilding a city church, to teaching in city schools. But we were chagrined to realize the danger we had placed our son in. That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, bone chilling reminder of violent evil—murderous, wild, ever present, harsh, sinful wrong—violent evil. Herod on the hunt, from whom the wise fled, going home by another way.
In 2005, on Christmas Day, and following 5 Rochester Christmas Eve services and 1 Christmas morning, Jan and I stopped up the street to visit Lucille Burke. She had been in surgery mid-week, and now was home, we were told. A round faced, elderly, Bible studying, daughter of a Methodist minister, she would stop sometimes and listen to the piano lessons in our living room. I saw Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels on her shelf. With wide eyes—hers and ours—she told us her hospital experience. On the day of surgery, she heard her name called, prepared herself in body and spirit, lipstick and prayer, and saw the stretcher coming. It came right to her room and then went right on by, to the room next door, inhabited by a non responsive patient. They took her in place of Lucille, even though Lucille rang bells and waved and called out. Fortunately, before the wrong knee was replaced, someone saw the confused woman’s wrist band, and brought her back, and took Lucille up for surgery. That Christmas morning we offered a prayer of thanks and talked about malpractice. I thought, walking home, about the rarity of physicians’ malpractice and how at most its effects last one lifetime. I also thought about metaphysical malpractice, bad theology as opposed to bad surgery, and recognized it lasts three generations at least. That Christmas I think I was meant to receive a lifetime, sobering reminder of metaphysical malpractice, and its multi-generational endurance. Sober John the Baptist, winnowing fork in hand, separating theological wheat from spiritual chaff. More on this in the sermon coming January 26, 2014.
At Christmas we are reminded to learn with the Shepherds about the poor, with the Magi about the globe, with Mary and Joseph about the mystery of marriage, with Rachel about weeping, with Herod about violence, and with John the Baptist about metaphysical malpractice. We learn from our own experience. We learn in our own experience. Christmas is about incarnation, about divine presence, about the word made flesh, about spirit in life. We learn from our own experience, as, one Christmas, Albert Schweitzer did say:
He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word, ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.’ (QHJ, 389).
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel