Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

December 24, 2018: “Starlit Moments of Precious Magic”

Call to Worship (Rev. Denis)
Merry Christmas.

In just a few hours we begin the first of the twelve days of Christmas.

For the last few weeks, Christians around the world have been observing the season of Advent, the season of waiting for what they know will come: the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews, the Prince of Peace, just as the light returns and the days get longer. Advent is a season of hope and longing. The next twelve days are a time of cheer.

For many, and I don’t mean just Christians, this is also a time of difficulty, of stress, sadness, isolation. It’s particularly difficult for those who are observing their first Christmas after the loss of a loved one.
Too many among us are in just that position right now.

But here we are. Gathered together under this beacon of hope, amidst thousands of little lights, in our magical indoor forest. We’re ready to celebrate our joys as we comfort the lonely and the needy. Because ultimately, that’s what Christmas is about: sharing what we have.

Yesterday during worship, the children and some of the adults in our congregation presented the Nativity of Jesus as a pageant, as people have done for hundreds of years. In most traditions, holiday celebrations are built around retelling their origin stories, and Christmas is no different.

But this evening, we are not telling the nativity Story again.
Instead, we are sharing stories of Christmastime, stories that feel more secular than religious, but are just as holy. Stories of love, reverence, discovery and connection. Stories of wonder and belief. Stories of transformation.

The carols we sing in between though are decidedly Christian, celebrating the birth that took place on a clear moonlit night more than 2,000 years ago.

Reading Eric Waldman
“Why Not a Star?“ by Margaret Gooding

They told me that when Jesus was born a star appeared in the heavens above the place where the young child lay.

When I was very young I had no trouble believing wondrous things; I believed in the star.

It was a wonderful miracle, part of a long ago story, foretelling an uncommon life.

They told me a super nova appeared in the heavens in its dying burst of fire.

When I was older and believed in science and reason I believed the story of the star explained.

But I found that I was unwilling to give up the star, fitting symbol for the birth of one whose uncommon life has been long remembered.

The star explained became the star understood, for Jesus, for Buddha, for Zarathustra.

Why not a star? Some bright star shines somewhere in the heavens each time a child is born.

Who knows what it may foretell?

Who knows what uncommon life may yet again unfold, if we but give it a chance?

Please rise now, as you are willing, and able, for our next Carol, The First Nowell

Reading Bree Byrd
Sophia Lyon Fahs, a legendary Unitarian Universalist religious educator of children decades ago wrote “For So The children Come.” Twenty years ago, Jason Shelton set the last stanza to music.

This evening, let’s do this: I’ll read a verse of the poem, and you’ll respond in song with the words printed in your order of service. You can find the music at #1061 in your hymnal if you need it.

For so the Children come
And so they have been coming
Always the same way they come
born of the seeds of two people.
Each night a child is born is a holy night:
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping,
Each night a child is born is a holy night.
No Angels herald their beginnings
No prophet predict their future courses
No wise men see a star or show where to find
The babe that will save humankind.
Each night a child is born is a holy night:
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping,
Each night a child is born is a holy night.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night
Parents and families sitting beside their children’s cribs
Feel glory in the sight of new life beginning
They ask, “Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?”
Each night a child is born is a holy night:
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping,
Each night a child is born is a holy night
Each night a child is born is a holy night:
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping,
Each night a child is born is a holy night.
Each night a child is born is a holy night:
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping,
Each night a child is born is a holy night

Reading Rickie Beck
“Christmas, 1974,” by May Sarton

In the year of the darkness,
In the year of the words,
The millions of words,
Accusing, excusing, breaking,
Demanding, lying, refusing,
In the year of the desert,
In the year of the bombs
When hatred pollutes the air,
What we long for is silence.

There have been so many deaths
But no one funeral,
No way to mark the place,
Set terror at rest, say Finis,
No time for mourning,
No healing zone.

In the year of the failure,
The drying up of waters,
We have been stricken
One by one, as though by plague.
No one sleeps without dread.
Each struggles to survive
Alone, longing,
Deeply afraid in the night.
Even the whales are dying.
Who punishes? Who forgives?
What have we done?

Must we go to Bethlehem,
Make the hard journey again,
Dying of thirst as we are?
Must we go to the place of hatred?
And war without end?
Must it all be done again
From the beginning
After two thousand years?

Yes, sick at heart,
Plagued, lost as we are,
Let us make the hard journey.
Who can be sure?
But perhaps if we go there,
It will happen again,
It will happen to us,
An infant will be born again
Out of blood and on filthy straw.
How naked, how vulnerable,
How desperately in need
This breath between past and future!
The infant Hope.

Or shall we kneel again at last
In the healing hosanna
Of silence?

Yes, let us make the journey.
Perhaps it will happen again.

Reading (Judy)
“A Season of Peace, Real Inner Peace,” by Esther Harper

Every day is the same now; one more monotonous than the last. Get up, go to school, come home, work, sleep. You’d hope as the holidays come around that things would liven up and be all sparkly, but rather the opposite seems the case. Work gains importance as Christmas draws ever nearer and all else loses meaning.

I curled up under my quilt last evening and thought of how much more ‘real’ Christmas used to seem. Does all of the charm and excitement just go away as one gets older and get replaced by fear, anxiety and outside pressures? I used to think that being 18 would be the nicest age imaginable, but that is just as much of a childish fantasy as Santa Claus.

As I pondered this thought, it hit me. We always look to the future for answers, like the child who hopes their wish will come true under the tree. What about all those gorgeous memories? Isn’t that alone enough to make us yearn for the future? All of those wonderful noises and smells, of clattering dishes, out of tune carols, and salty roast potatoes and rich gravy; the compulsory family time.

With the toll our hectic lives take on communication, this should have been sheer bliss. Presents used to seem so exciting, tearing off the paper in shreds to reveal the gift below, but now the joy truly seems in the giving.

When I awoke this morning, I decided that to fully appreciate Christmas this year, I have to block out all the negative, and truly embrace the spirit; the spirit of waiting for wonderful things the future has to offer, of what the past has taught, and of the beautiful gifts God has given me.

This way joy radiates around, and you feel like you can conquer anything before the holidays arrive with all their beauty. I really can be a season of peace, of inner peace.

Reading Scott Wise
“The Crabby Lady”
Christmas is a time of giving. I would like to tell you a story of an inadvertent gift I received, that comes from a source nobody seems able to remember. But tonight I would like to pass that gift along to you.

It’s called THE CRABBY LADY.

I looked up and there she was… The Crabby Lady… one of the most unpleasant and
cantankerous people I had ever met.

I was just out of high school, and working as a cashier at the neighborhood drug store. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the line was long.

I looked up. She was next in line.

My co-worker, Vicky, saw her too, and suddenly went into slow-motion, dragging out her transaction so The Crabby Lady would have to come to my station.

And sure enough, it was my turn to check out The Crabby Lady.

She walked up, threw her basket on the counter and glared at me. As I rang up her purchases I glanced up and saw she was wearing an art deco pin on her jacket.

“That’s a very pretty pin,” I said. She looked at me and her face softened.

“It was my mother’s,” she said, and actually smiled.

I handed her change to her and put her purchases in a bag.

“Thank you,” she said. My jaw dropped.

From that day onward, she would make a point of coming to my register, sometimes letting people go ahead of her. She always smiled at me and was always pleasant. But just to me.

“Why is she so nice to you?” Vicky asked me one day.

“I don’t know,” I said.

I started to think about it. It all started with a compliment on the pin she was wearing.
And the thought occurred to me, what if she had no one else in her life who was nice to her? What if no one else ever said a kind word to her?

It was a startling revelation, and one of the biggest and best lessons I have learned in my lifetime.

The Samburu people of the Serengeti have a way of greeting. They stand still and look at each other. One of them says, ‘I see you.’ Connecting through the eyes, the other replies, ’I am here.’

Christmas is a season of giving. But so is every day. There is a gift you can give to anyone, no matter what their age, at any time, no matter what the season.

And you may be the only one
to give it.

A kind word.

A smile.

An “I see you”.

Reading “Favor Johnson,” by Willem Lange (Rev. Denis)
Snow was falling softly past the street lamps in the village,
muffling the sounds of the occasional car and the rattle of the brook down behind the post office and the general store. From almost every chimney, smoke drifted up through the falling snow. A few houses were hung with wreaths and colored lights around the front doors. Through the front windows gleamed lights on Christmas trees.

Just after seven o’clock, a pair of shaky headlights came slowly down the Three Mile Road, and an old blue pickup truck puttered into the light of the street lamps. The truck stopped at the first house.
A man in overalls and rubber boots got out, reached back into the front seat for a small package, and trudged up through the snow to the kitchen door of the house. He knocked, the door opened, and he went inside. A few minutes later he came back out again, with the sound of voices following him. “Merry Christmas!” someone called, and he waved.

He got back into his truck, drove to the next house, and repeated the routine. Then to the next, and the next, all the way down through the village. Shortly after ten, he turned the old truck around,
drove back up through the village, and disappeared into the night, his single red taillight glowing through the snow. Favor Johnson had delivered his Christmas presents again.

In every house where he’d stopped, there was now a small cylindrical package wrapped in aluminum foil and decorated with the Christmas seals that come in the mail. When these packages were unwrapped, they revealed tin cans with one end removed and a fruitcake baked inside. For single folks and couples, it was a soup can; for families of up to five,
a vegetable can; and for larger establishments, a tomato can — all of them full to the brim with the most succulent fruitcake you could imagine. Mixed up with homemade butter and studded with hickory nuts, candied cherries and pineapple, citron, raisins, and currants, it was flavored with Favor’s own hard cider.

Where old Favor had paused only momentarily or gone only as far as the doorstep, there remained the scuff marks of his boots in the snow, where he’d shuffled his feet nervously. But where he’d gone inside and chatted,
or perhaps shared a bit of cheer, the distinctive odor of cow barn lingered faintly in the air, a further reminder of who had brought the foil-wrapped package for which each family was already making its special plans. And always some child would ask, “Why did Mr. Johnson bring us a fruitcake?”

“Well,” a mother or father would answer, “it’s just his way of saying ‘Merry Christmas.'”

“Does he do it every year?”


“Does he take one to everybody in the village?”


“Has he always done it?”

Well, no he hadn’t. And so the story of Favor Johnson and the flatlander doctor and the fruitcake would be told again.

Favor and his sister Grace had been twins,
the only children of a hardscrabble farmer and his wife a couple of miles above the village. They’d gotten their names from an old Baptist hymnbook. Leafing through it for inspiration, their mother had come across the hymn, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven, and had been struck by the line, “Praise Him for His Grace and Favor to our fathers in distress.” So Grace and Favor it had been.

When the old folks gave up farming, during the Thirties, they stayed on in the house and split the farm between the kids.
Grace and her husband built a small house on their half, and Favor lived with the old folks.

When the Second World War began, the Army said Favor was too old to fight, but they made him a cook. He’d never cooked before in his life, but he turned out to have a talent for it. He became mildly famous in his outfit, even when they were in combat in France. Staff officers often commandeered him for their special dinners.

When Favor came home from the war in 1945, he took up farming again, and surprised everybody by marrying and starting a family. But his wife’s health wasn’t robust, so the one child, a daughter, was all they ever had. About the time the daughter graduated from high school, Favor’s wife died. The daughter married, moved away, and didn’t keep in touch. Grace and her husband sold their half of the farm and moved south. The old folks had died during the war. So Favor was left alone.

The yard and the house slowly grew shabby, the barn ramshackle. Favor sold most of the stock, keeping only two or three milkers. He ran a few chickens and a couple of pigs, kept a horse to haul firewood, and did a little sugaring in the spring. He must have had forty cats around the place, and one dog, his constant companion, a spotted hound named Hercules. Favor kept pretty much to himself and rarely had occasion to speak — except, perhaps, to Hercules.

Then one year the selectmen decreed a reappraisal of all town property,
and suddenly Favor’s farm was worth a lot more money. His taxes went up far beyond his meager means. So he decided to sell his view.

Above his house was a ten-acre field, and the view from the top to the south and west was magnificent. Real estate agents had pestered him for years to let them sell it. Now he had to.

The field was bought by a surgeon from Massachusetts, a Doctor Jennings. The doctor and his wife hired an architect,
and the next summer Favor’s field was capped by a magnificent, glass-fronted house where the Jenningses said they hoped to retire someday.

The Jenningses were good people, solid and predictable. Favor would hear their Mercedes diesel coming up the road almost every Friday evening, then roar as Doc downshifted for the driveway up to the house in the field. They’d stay till Sunday afternoon and then go back home for the week. Saturday mornings,
Doc Jennings would wander down to Favor’s yard to chat, buy eggs or milk, or talk about mowing the field.

One early winter afternoon — on a Christmas Eve — Hercules failed for the first time in his life to show up at the barn door during the evening milking. Favor went to the door and called and whistled. No Hercules. Then Favor remembered he’d heard rabbit hunters in his swamp that afternoon. So after milking he took a flashlight and started for the swamp. It was dark and beginning to snow.
As he headed down the hill, he heard Doc Jennings downshift for the driveway, and remembered that it was Friday.

Hours later, after wandering all through the swamp calling for his dog, he heard a whine coming from a tangle of alders, and found Hercules. He’d been shot. Favor scooped him up and headed back toward the house, stumbling in the thick brush. His flashlight finally faded and died.

Just as he scrambled up onto the shoulder of the road with the dying dog in his arms,
he heard the sound of the big diesel coming, and the lights of Doc’s car swept across him. The car skidded to a stop in the gravel and Doc jumped out. “My god!” he cried. “What’s happened?”

Favor told him.

“Come on!” said Doc. “I’ve got a blanket in the back. Let’s wrap him up and get him to a vet!”

“Nope,” said Favor. “I don’t want to do that. He don’t look like he’s gonna live, and this is the only home he’s ever known.
He’s gonna die, oughtta be right here.” Tears mingled with the sweat on Favor’s red face.

“All right,” answered Doc. He shouted toward the car. “Honey, run back up to the house and get that first aid kit in the kitchen. Come on, Favor, let’s get that dog in the house!”
Doc was all dressed up in a three-piece suit. He and his wife had been headed for the midnight church service. But as he and Favor entered the kitchen, he threw his suitcoat over a chair.
He rolled up his sleeves, told Favor to put Hercules onto the porcelain-topped table, and began to examine the weakly-panting dog. “Heat some water, will you?” he asked. “And I’ll need a candle and a sharp knife, some tweezers if you’ve got ’em, and a pair of sharp-nosed pliers.”

In a few minutes Mrs. Jennings came back with the first aid kit. Doc told her to go on to church, but on the way back to stop at the hospital emergency room and pick up some things he’d order by phone. She left, and he and Favor went back to work on old Hercules.

His jaw was broken. Some teeth were missing. One shoulder had been torn open by the blast. The flesh was full of shot. He was too weak to struggle. He only moaned as Doc, whose sensitive fingers had probed the tissues of the rich and famous, worked on him under the flickering fluorescent kitchen fixture.

“I don’t know if it’s proper to pray for a dog, Favor,” he said, “but it can’t hurt. This old guy’s not in very good shape.”

About one in the morning Mrs. Jennings brought the supplies Doc had ordered over the phone. She brewed coffee and heated some sweet rolls she’d bought at an all-night convenience store. About three o’clock Doc finally took his last stitch, swabbed the wounds with antiseptic one last time, and gave the exhausted dog a shot for the pain. He and Favor lifted him gently and laid him on his mat beside the kitchen stove.

“That’s all I can do,” he said, washing his hands at the kitchen sink. “Now we’ll have to wait and see.”
“Thanks, Doc,” said Favor. “He sure looks a lot better’n he did. What d’ I owe you?”
Doc Jennings put both hands on Favor’s shoulders. His own shoulders sagged with weariness, and his eyes were moist.

“Owe me? Why, nothing, Favor. There’s little enough you and I can do for each other, and this was the most, I guess, that I can do for you. I know you’d do whatever you could for me if I ever needed it. I’ll be down around ten to take a look at Hercules. You’d better get some sleep. Oh! I almost forgot. Merry Christmas!”

When Doc came down later, Hercules was too weak to raise his head in greeting. His long tail thumped softly on the mat beside the stove. He was going to be all right.

Doc had brought a gift with him, a fancy, boxed fruitcake from an expensive mail-order place somewhere. Favor thanked him again for saving Hercules, and for the fruitcake.

But later, tasting it for the first time, he gagged. “Pfah!” he said. “I can do better’n that!”

And that’s how it started. He made just one that first year, for Doc and Mrs. Jennings, and then a few the next year for some old friends. The response was so tremendous that within just a few years his list had expanded to include the whole village.

And the whole village responds in kind. During the two weeks of the holiday season his bedraggled dooryard is hardly ever without a visiting car or two, and his kitchen is piled high with gifts that he savors and enjoys all through the long winter.

There’s a little group of ministers priests who meet in the Heights every Friday night for dinner. We’re not all clergy, but enough of us are that it gives the gatherings a certain kind of feel. My husband Joe and I are affectionately called the Heathens by the Catholic priests. I embrace that label.

A couple weeks ago, after dinner we invited everyone back to our house fo coffee, and the priests saw our very lean Christmas decorations, and laughed over the glowing sign that says “BELIEVE.”

“You don’t believe in Christ,” one of them chuckled.

I tried to be as deadpan as I could in my response. “I may not believe in the trinity, in the divinity of Jesus,” I paused for dramatic effect. “But I believe in the holiness of the birth that brought to the world a baby who would become a radical prophet, someone so radical that he’s true followers would still, to this day, dedicate themselves to feeding the hungry,
giving shelter to the homeless and itinerant, and provide healing to the sick. I believe in those things.”

“Okay,” fair enough, “ he smiled.”

I may be a heathen, but I’m an ethical heathen.

The truth is, I believe in a lot of things that are worth celebrating this Christmas.

I believe that we never really know what it is that shapes the lives and dispositions of other people, and listening to them can bring about more love and care.

I believe that blocking out the negative, if only for a little while, can bring about real, more permanent change. I believe that you really can fake it til you make it.

I believe that when the world feels the most chaotic, violent and grief stricken, children are still born, and that can open hearts.

I believe that every time a child s born, it’s a miracle, and that children thrive in families and communities where they are nurtured and loved.

I believe that strangers can take care of one another in times of need, even when those strangers seem like they should be from opposite sides of the culture war.

I believe that no matter how little we may think we have, there is always something that we can share, some resource, some reserve of compassion.

I believe that everyone in this congregation wants to be a strong a vital part of this community, and to share what we have with the needy among us, and the needy among our neighbors.

And so this evening, we have the chance to help those in need, who come to our door seeking financial assistance. This evening’s collection will be shared with the minister’s discretionary fund, so that when anyone — a member, a friend, or a neighbor … an individual, a family or an organization — asks us for help, we can give it. So please, give as generously as you can.

I believe you can.