A Christmas Carol for 2020
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, November 8th, 2020
The poet Robert Frost writes:
I have been one acquainted with the night. I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain. I have outwalked the furthest city light. I have looked down the saddest city lane. I have passed by the watchman on his beat And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain. I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet When far away an interrupted cry Came over houses from another street, But not to call me back or say good-bye; And further still at an unearthly height, O luminary clock against the sky Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. I have been one acquainted with the night.
John, an exile on the island of Patmos, could have penned that poem. He could have used its strict iambic pentameter to have cried, “I have been one acquainted with the night.” John, though, chose a style different from Frost to talk about the night.
John speaks in the earth-shattering cadence of the apocalyptic, in the emotional genre of panic and imminent terror, in the aggregate fear of a world about to implode and evil about to explode. John speaks in the cadence of 9/11/2001 when as a nation we feared far more than imaginary things that go bump in the night. John speaks in the cadence of the 2008 economic crumble, when bright a future collapsed into a pile of worthless “futures.” John speaks in the cadence of Covid-19 that laughs at any attempt to make it a partisan virus rather than a virulent predator on the old and the young however they voted in this election.
I regret that John’s apocalyptic cadence prompts more people to steer clear of Revelation than to read it. It is worth a studied read, especially in 2020. Writing from the darkness of exile to a church trying to see a way forward in the dark of Roman suspicion and oppression, John speaks, in effect, “I have been one ‘acquainted with the night’.”
Last Sunday, as we prayed the necrology, naming those saints who have died in this past year and pausing to remember the now close to 240,000 saints struck down by this pandemic, it was poignantly clear that Cove and this nation is well “acquainted with the night.”
Frost writes, “I have looked down the saddest city lane.” I have done the same. I have looked down that sad city lane to see immigrant children separated from their parents and caged like convicted criminals or dangerous animals. I have seen long lines of desperate people flooding to food banks because in this public health crisis so many people have lost jobs or lost hours and cannot afford to put food on the table. I have seen friends when I lived in Atlanta who would wait in the alley outside our church on even the coldest night hoping for room to come inside and sleep on a thin, single mattress on our gym floor, a company of God’s children who are regularly ignored, children who are well “acquainted with the night.”
Earlier this week, I attended my final board meeting at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Each report given encouraged me of the faithfulness of the Seminary in such difficult times, but beneath each report, I heard the strain, strain on faculty and students trying to learn ministry via ZOOM, strain on the financial resources of the Seminary when students are not in residence, strain on those trying to recruit future pastors during such turbulent and terrifying times. Beneath all the encouraging reports, I heard from those well “acquainted with the night.”
I hear a similar lament when I speak with doctors and nurses, pastors, educators, and parents. I hear the recurring refrain: “I am exhausted. I am weary to the bone” and the common question is: “When will be able to stop living this way?” I am so grateful for every caregiver in this extraordinary time, professionals, parents, grandparents, but at the same time, I worry about the toll taken on those caregivers who are now intimately well “acquainted with the night.”
Stranded in exile for God knows how long, John of Patmos, pens a Christmas Carol for the embattled church to sing while living in the apocalyptic times at the end of the first century. I can think of no carol that we need to sing more in 2020. It is a song God invites us to sing on Thanksgiving morning sequestered in our safe pod of family or friends, to sing during the waiting days of Advent, to sing on the joyous eve and morning of Christmas, and to sing in every season on the calendar, every season of our lives.
John’s Christmas carol goes like this: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
Toward the end of her book, An Altar in the World, Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor shares an intimate moment between her husband, Ed, and her dying father. Longtime friends, Ed and her dad shared a deep love. Barbara writes, “Ed . . . stood up . . . leaned over to say something . . . in my father’s ear. ‘What was that?’ I asked when he came back to slump beside me again. ‘I asked him to bless me’, Ed said. ‘I asked him to give me his blessing’.”
Barbara goes on to argue, “Anyone can do this. Anyone can ask and anyone can bless, whether anyone has authorized you to do it or not . . . That we are able to bless one another at all is evidence that we have been blessed, whether we can remember when or not” (208-209).
“There will be no more night” are words in the blessed Christmas carol that John teaches us to sing even in this darkest night of public health, in this dismal night of economic duress, in this evil-lurking time of racial strife and in this bleak and dangerous time of political division, to sing in this undeniable time in which we are all far too well “acquainted with the night.” John’s Christmas carol invites us not only to sing of God’s blessed light in the deepest darkness, but to share God’s blessed light no matter how dark it is around us.
Now, at this point, you might fairly ask: “Gary, how do I, how do we, do that?” How can you and I sing John’s Christmas carol in such a time as this, when we are in no mood to decorate, and in no frame of mind to sing “fa la la”? I am still working on a good answer to that question, but I suspect part of the answer happens when you and I do something that I do not do well by myself. It involves stopping long enough to look around and see God’s blessed community at work, bringing light into the deep darkness.
When I pause to look around, I see sure signs of God’s blessed light in the darkness when I watch Gary Pelton head to Staunton each day to bring stability and care to troubled children and youth, and to do so for almost a year now under the relentless cloud of Covid. I see sure signs of God’s blessed light in the darkness when George Lindbeck and Kathy Jaquette, Ginny and Rebecca Anderson, Susan Goins Eplee and Amy Chenoweth, Tory Grisham and Claire Gentil don their protective gear and head back into the fire of contagious disease day after day. I see sure signs of God’s blessed light in the darkness when I watch Pam and Les and Libby, Beth Neville and John and Tommy Huggins, Chris and Emma Andrews and, Lynsie Steele, our newest Cove media friend, transform a baseball parking lot into a holy space for us to worship God safely and with joy.
“I have been one acquainted with the night,” may be the unique words of Robert Frost, but they capture the global reality of which you and I are a part. They do not, though, speak God’s final reality or desire or purpose. In John’s Christmas carol, we dare to sing that even the longest night will end, to sing: “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
If you and I sing that Christmas carol with our lives in November and December, in March and in August, just imagine what kind of blessing God can bestow on others through us no matter how dark the night.