Pastor's Comments

Pastors Comments

ALONG THE PATH
December, 2018

Pumpkins have moved on. Pies are a-baking. Daylight takes to hiding earlier. Leaves are taking a final bow. Turkeys are in the oven, ham has been salted and cured. Pecans have once again been delivered to the church. Hallelujah! Signs of the Christmas season are upon us. Tucked away cardboard boxes, filled with bells, bulbs, extension cords, tinsel and lights have been resurrected. And if you dare go Christmas shopping the old-fashioned way in a department store instead of through Amazon, how wonderful it is to know we now have permission and authority to once again say Merry Christmas!

The birth narrative according to the gospel of Luke is revealed a package of surprises. Read slowly, look ever so closely at how St. Luke unwraps this event within his narrative, keeping faith and witness to this surprising activity of God. The beloved couple, Mary and Joseph are forced to hop over to Bethlehem to be registered, fulfilling the decree from Emperor Augustus. It’s like they have to show their papers of legitimacy. Apparently, the word came out at a palace news conference, and with full authority, he announced “that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). Therefore, Luke notes: “All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also 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” (Luke 2: 34). And all of a sudden, a surprise comes forth. The importance of his authoritative decree takes a back seat, as “Breaking News” suddenly scrolls across the valley. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child” (Luke 2:6). Yes, just like that, “while they were there,” of all places, when least expected, God enters the world. As they say, timing is everything, and I am sure this is not what they had expected right there in Bethlehem, while on a business trip.

There are more surprises revealed in the story. According to St. Luke, Mary and Joseph arrive unannounced, without reservations, hoping to find lodging. I doubt a lantern had been lit for their arrival, unless there happened to be a fire near the entrance of the Bethlehem Inn, particularly for those who could not find a place to lay their head. Due to the decree for everyone to register, it must have been very crowded. The Bethlehem Inn was probably a popular spot, maybe with a pub on the side, too busy for anyone to hang the “No Vacancy” sign in the window. And of course, there were more surprises.

Shepherds who are as common in neighboring fields as pigs in a pen, really do not have much to brag about. And suddenly out of nowhere, another surprise! “… the Angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’” (Luke 2: 1011). And then another surprise, the shepherds leave the fields, yes, they actually leave the fields “with haste,” finding their way, discovering the child in a manger. Everyone was amazed at the words coming out of the mouths and from behind the beards of the “we don’t say a lot” shepherds. When they return, Luke notes they finally had something at last to talk about. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them (Luke 2: 20). At last, a surprise had been revealed to the unlikely, and ever since, there has been something to talk about. Lest we forget, this surprise is powerful and life changing; its influence upon us is behind our gathering for worship every Sunday morning.

Perhaps in a subtle way, the surprise elements laden in Luke’s gospel invite us to embrace wonder, beauty and grace with great joy, particularly within this holy season. I am continually amazed at how in the midst of the difficult circumstances surrounding the birth of our Lord, these simple words of this being a time of “great joy for all the people,” made its way into this text and has withstood time for centuries. And thus, within our hymns and prayers at church, beautiful narratives and carols, Christmas cards sent and received, the sharing of baked goods, cookies, cakes and pies, and Bing Crosby still having a few moments on radio or television singing White Christmas, there is always a grand surprise of God’s love waiting to be revealed unto all of us.

The Christmas season, perhaps more than any other time of the year, gives allowance, good cause and purpose for “drop-in” times. I remember this time of year as being a season of “drop-in” excursions with my family. Without a schedule, an appointment or an advance text, we always found ourselves welcomed into the home of our relatives who lived up the road, in the country. Our Christmas day always made its way toward Gloucester Point, further up Route 17 toward “The Courthouse,” Ark, Woods Cross Roads, Harcum and Mathews. There was a time when these hamlets were akin to the tribes of Judah, rather hard to find on a map. Nonetheless, we found our way, dropping in to spend time with cousins, distant relatives and grandparents. I really miss these days, remaining blessed with wonderful longstanding memories.

On Saturday, Nov. 3, I had a spontaneous and surprising church family “dropin” moment, when our Chestnut United Methodist Women welcomed members of the Virginia Conference United Methodist Women for their annual meeting. The parking lot was full and I heard everyone was pleased, wanting to return.

Making her way home following a walk with Mr. Dozer, Chris Coverston told Elaine that two members attending the event were from one of my former congregations. With curiosity, I immediately called Chris. She told me they were from Graham Road, the church of my first pastoral appointment where I served from 1981 – 1983. I am sure by now you have heard the story, it was at Graham Road when I first met our current church members Gary and Chris Coverston. I asked Chris if these two former members would have time to make their way to the parsonage for a “drop-in” visit and sure enough, in just a few moments, Gary walked Doris Douglass and Janet Keener “up the ramp” through the front door as I greeted them on my “knee walker scooter.”

Like the return of the prodigal, we hugged and embraced each other the moment they walked in the door. And needless to say, it was a wonderful reunion. It has been 35 years since I preached at Graham Road. And yet, in the passing of time, there was a great spirit of Christmas surprise, wonder and joy for me, seeing these church family members of mine after all these years. Much like a longstanding gospel account, they were as joyous and wonderful as I remembered them; same spirit, same interest, same laughs. As if we had seen each other just a few days ago, within a few minutes, we remembered, we recalled stories and life-changing events from so many years ago. This was a wonderful surprise, indeed heartwarming for my spirit, a week after surgery. I was so delighted they were able to “drop in” even for just a few minutes.

Within the last month, I have been blessed with much kindness, surprise gifts of encouragement by most everyone toward healing and good health. The installation and hard work behind a “jet ramp” at the parsonage. Three church members wheeling me into my room upon my return home from surgery. While Elaine was teaching, hitching a ride with a church member to the doctor’s office for a post-op visit. Get well cards and hand-made cards by our children; a beloved church member “just doing it;” surprising us with a couple of unsolicited dinners. Also, a last-minute VIMS “mission project,” installing a needed fixture in the bathroom; good souls holding doors open for me; people offering the gift of themselves and their willingness to help. I am humbled to be a part of this church family, continually receiving the Christmas gift tucked within tidings of good news and “great joy,” akin to what St. Luke is getting at. At Chestnut, I see this activity of God continually being unwrapped before me, and I must confess, I am not all surprised.