Leftover Pieces

Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. –Luke 2:19

The Reverend Dr. Luke Harris and his wife Sarah knew what the two men who came to their door would tell them that Sunday afternoon, Christmas Eve of 1967.

Sarah had seen them first.

“Here they come.” Her voice, calm and even, surprised her.

Luke opened his mouth to reply, but his chin shook, so he clamped it shut.

Sarah had sat in silence in the living room all afternoon with a book in her lap, but she had lost her place hours before. The room had darkened as evening fell, but neither she nor her husband had turned on a light.

Sarah was not sure how long she had been staring out the window when the men arrived. Walking in step between the snow banks on each side of the walkway, wearing dark uniforms with medals on their chests, they marched up the steps onto the porch. They halted at the door. They could not see her in the darkened room, but she saw them standing at the door in the glow of the porch light. One of the men, a corporal, probably not yet twenty, looked as if he had never yet needed to shave. He looked at the other one, the chaplain, and Sarah wondered, when she saw the way he looked to the chaplain for guidance, if maybe this was his first time. When the chaplain nodded, the boy raised his white-gloved fist to knock, then held it in position for a second. So quickly one might have missed it, the boy crossed himself; not a full forehead to umbilicus, shoulder to shoulder; just two fingers, up and down, side to side, like a prayer mouthed but unspoken, not even whispered.

Sarah, as Protestant as any, nevertheless joined him in silent prayer, her eyes wet, but open.

The boy knocked. Neither Luke nor Sarah moved.

Until I hear them say the words, David still lives, Sarah told herself. She and Luke sat in the darkness and kept their son, their only son, alive for just a moment longer until the corporal knocked again. Luke answered the door and their lives changed forever.

“Regret to inform you, . . . killed in action, . . . . sorrow for your loss . . . grateful nation,” the memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After they left, Luke exhaled. “Well,” he said, “That is that.” He donned his overcoat and gloves. He looked at his wife who had not moved from her chair. “Will you worship tonight?” he asked.

Sarah wiped her tears and looked up at him. “Yes, of course,” she said.

Luke preached the Christmas Eve sermon he had prepared in the days before the visit of the two men. The words he had written did not sound familiar, even as he spoke them. He knew then that his life would be divided in two: life before David’s death, and life ever after.

At the communion table, he broke the bread, poured the wine, and inhaled deeply the aroma of the elements before he spoke the liturgy. “broken . . . take, eat . . .poured out . . . drink ye all….” The memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After he had spoken the benediction and extinguished all the candles, he did not wait at the door to exchange Christmas greetings with his congregation. He did not want to put them in that position of saying two such incongruous things: “Merry Christmas, sorry for your loss.” He did not think he could bear it.

He hung his robe in the closet of the church study, closed the closet door, turned and looked around at the spacious room; the shelves of books, the oak desk and chair, and a cushioned chair where parishioners in need of comfort had, for a dozen years, found refuge in his counsel. He sat in the parishioners’ chair and could not remember if he had ever sat in it before. It was lumpy, not at all as comfortable as he had expected.

People would refer in the future to this moment as “his decision.” It was not a decision. It was a revelation. It was as if an angel appeared before him, but stood in silence, as if it had forgotten its opening line, “Fear not.”

Luke was sore afraid in the darkness of this revelation. When the curtain pulled back, he saw the place where his faith had lived, and it was cavernous and dark and hollow, like a sanctuary after a wedding, emptied of life after everyone has left for the reception.

It took him all of Christmas Day to pack his books.

He loaded the black Underwood typewriter into the car with the boxes of books. He returned to the study one last time and sifted through the drawers of the oak desk for anything that might be important. He found a plastic bag with some small black screws left over from the last time he had cleaned the typewriter, but he threw them away. He always seemed to have pieces left over.

By the end of January, he found a job teaching undergraduate Hebrew and Greek in a liberal arts college far from their upstate New York roots. Luke and Sarah settled in to a small town in the Texas Hill Country, not far from San Antonio. They began a new life together, the life Luke called, though only to Sarah, “the life after death.”

Sarah found a church, but Luke rarely attended. He spent his Sundays gardening when the weather allowed, and reading when it did not. The wheel barrow he bought at the hardware store shortly after they arrived in Texas came in a box. After assembling it, he wheeled it around to the back porch where Sarah was reading in the sun. “Only two pieces left over,” he said, unable to hide the pride in his voice.

The wheel wobbled, but Luke did not mind. “That’ll have to do,” he said, and for eight years it did.

It came to pass that on Christmas Eve of 1975, Luke had two things he was required to assemble:

One of them was a sermon, and the other was a bicycle.

Why he had agreed to preach on Christmas Eve, he could not fathom; but, he had begun to suspect that it was a conspiracy between his wife and his friend. His friend Ian, who taught biblical studies, had set him up.

“Immanuel is a small congregation between pastors,” Ian had said. “I would preach there myself if I hadn’t already committed to Kerrville.”

“I don’t preach anymore,” Luke said. “I don’t even know what I believe anymore.”

“For God’s sake, Luke,” Ian said. “You know you don’t preach your own faith. You preach Christ’s faith. Just read the story. Tell them what it says. Throw in a Greek word here and there, it will impress them.”

“I just don’t think . . .” he objected, “that I would be up to it. Especially on that night.”

Ian interrupted him, “Pull out an old sermon. Touch it up, if you want. This congregation is a handful of saints so solid in their faith you can’t do them any harm. Just tell them the Christmas story, light the candles, celebrate Communion, and sing Silent Night. They have it all memorized by now, they just want to hear it again.”

Luke opened his mouth to object again, but Ian stopped him. “I would be eternally grateful,” Ian said.

Whatever Luke did or did not believe by then, he did believe in doing things for a friend, especially a friend who had done so much for him; who had warmly welcomed Sarah and him, even with their Yankee accents and Northern reserve.

He had only one more objection. “I don’t have a robe anymore,” he said. Luke had left his black Geneva gown in the church closet back in New York.

Ian waved his hand as if brushing away a bit of dust. “I have one you can borrow.”

And so, Luke sat in his home study at his old Underwood typewriter on Christmas Eve morning and stared at a blank sheet of paper. By the time Sarah brought him lunch, the paper had begun to stare back at him, blankly.

At two in the afternoon, he opened his Bible to the Gospel According to Luke and began to type. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus . . .” He hit the return handle on the typewriter and the carriage flew off of the typewriter across the room and landed on the floor.

He stared at the carriage lying in the corner, then looked back at the remains of the typewriter in front of him, and the black inky ribbon that floated to the carpet between one and the other. Had it been red or green, he thought, it would have been festive.

A memory emerged, like a dream that returns in the middle of the day: a little plastic bag with two small black screws. The leftover pieces had caught up with him, even as he knew they would.

Luke opened his file cabinet and found an old Christmas Eve sermon manuscript. He folded it up and stuck it between the pages of his black leather Bible.

“It’ll have to do,” he said, because he still had to go back to his office and pick up the robe Ian had left for him.

And, since it was Christmas Eve, he had to go downtown and buy a Christmas present for Sarah. It was not that he had procrastinated; no, it was part of his plan. She wanted a bicycle, she had pointed to a bicycle in the window of Treadwell’s hardware shop, and that is exactly what he planned to buy for her–not a boxed up bicycle from the back that he would have to assemble, but the very bicycle in the window.

When he arrived at Treadwell’s it was nearly four o’clock on Christmas Eve, so he delivered the pitch he had prepared: “I’ll give you $20 extra for the bicycle in the window already put together.” The young sales clerk, a girl named Maria who lived down the street from Luke and Sarah, said, “I don’t really have the authority to do that.”

She called Mr. Treadwell at home. He stood firm. “That’s a man’s bike in the display. Luke needs a woman’s model for Sarah.”

So, instead of a bicycle, Luke bought a big box full of bicycle parts.

“Don’t worry,” Maria said. “I put together the bicycle in the window. It only takes a couple of hours.”

Luke sighed with a prayer too deep for words as he loaded the box into the trunk of the Monte Carlo and headed for his office. He found there the robe Ian had left for him; Ian’s extra robe; his white robe. And, Luke had not thought about the fact that Ian was over six feet tall and Luke was not. Their students exaggerated, but only a bit, when they called Ian and Luke “Goliath and Zacchaeus” whenever they walked across the campus together. The robe would swallow him, but when he tried it on and looked in the mirror, he sighed, “It’ll have to do.”

Luke arrived home just in time to change clothes so Sarah could drive them across town at six o’clock for the seven o’clock service. Luke went through his mental list: Bible, old sermon manuscript, church address, robe. He plowed through that nagging feeling that he had forgotten something, and got in the car.

Sarah drove as night fell and a light fog settled over everything. On their way, he remembered. “I was supposed to bring communion bread,” he said. “That’s what I forgot.”

Sarah sighed. “I’ll go get some bread. You go sit down in the church and get focused. Go pray until the service starts. I’ll be back soon. Something is bound to be open.”

Luke stepped out of the car at the corner and watched the taillights of the Monte Carlo fade into the foggy night. He did not wait until he was sitting in the church to begin praying because when he looked up, he saw the choir already gathered outside the front door. He heard organ music. He prayed, “God help me, I thought it started at seven!” and ran across the church yard, pulling on his long white robe at the same time.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said, as he pushed through the choir and took his place at the front of the procession. The choir broke into “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the procession moved into the church and the man next to Luke, eyes wide, asked, “Who are you?”

Luke began to introduce himself, to say, “I’m the preacher tonight,” but when he looked at the man next to him at the front of the procession and saw that he wore a robe and an intricately embroidered stole, his words caught in his throat. He looked up at the front of the church and saw a statue of the Virgin Mary.

This, he realized, is not a Presbyterian Church.

The question still hung in the air, “Who are you?”

That was when the first miracle of the night arrived. His sense of humor, long buried in a fog of grief, returned.

“I am an angel of the Lord,” he told the astonished priest, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” By this time, they had reached the chancel and Luke spotted the side exit. As he glided toward it, hoisting his flowing white robe to keep from tripping over it, he turned and called to the priest, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.” With that, he dashed out into the night. He crossed the street where the plain white prairie gothic church stood waiting. The sign in front announced candlelight and communion at 7:00 pm.

Stepping inside, he caught his breath and greeted the puzzled man who handed him a worship bulletin and a candle. The man stared at him from windblown hair to white robe that dragged on the floor, and back up to the sleeves that covered his hands.

“Merry Christmas,” they said to one another in unison.

When the service began, Sarah had not yet returned. Luke preached with an eye on the communion table which had a chalice and pitcher, but no bread, and an eye on the door at the back, where, any minute, he knew, he hoped, he prayed, Sarah would walk through with the communion bread.

He spoke slowly and drew out each dramatic pause to give her more time.

When he reached the end of the sermon, the congregation sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As the last chorus began, Sarah stepped in, carrying a basket of bread, and came, faithfully, down the aisle and up to the communion table where Luke took from her the basket with bread wrapped in a white napkin.

As the congregation sang, “O come, let us adore him,” and Luke placed the bread on the table, Sarah mouthed something to Luke. What was she saying? “Took the bus?” He wondered if the Monte Carlo had broken down and she had to take a bus and that was why she had taken so long.

When he lifted the cloth from the bread, it came to him. She had not said “took the bus.” There were no busses running on Christmas Eve. There were, in their little town, no grocery stores open after 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve. She had gone all the way back to their house and found the only bread they had, far back in the freezer, left over from summer.

She had said, “hot dog buns.”

bread-and-wineThough she had cut them into neat little cubes, she left one of them sitting on the top, unbroken. The second miracle of the night arrived when he looked out over the congregation and recited the invitation to the table, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God.” Something fell into place; something fell back into place that had been missing since the two men had visited that Christmas Eve eight years before. It began with an overwhelming sense of gratitude when he looked at Sarah with her mischievous smile; it grew into his own barely stifled laughter when he looked at the neatly cubed hot dog buns on the communion table and thought about the befuddled priest across the street.

All the absurd pieces of his life, and his son’s death, came together for just a moment when he broke the bread and poured the wine and he knew, deep in his bones, that this story was for him. God had become flesh and blood. And though Luke had long ago memorized the liturgy of the table, it did not feel rote. The words did not run together, but instead they soared around the sanctuary and landed somewhere deep within him.

For a moment, the space thinned between heaven and earth. That vast emptiness between this broken war-torn world where death reigns and God’s new creation where love conquers all, filled with hope, and peace and joy.

That night, after Sarah fell asleep, Luke rose quietly from bed, padded out to the garage, pulled the box of bicycle parts from the trunk of the car and went to work assembling Sarah’s present by the light of the Christmas tree.

Maria of the hardware store had not been far off. After two hours, Luke had assembled a bicycle.

With only two parts left over.

One of the parts looked like a heavy-duty bobby pin and the other resembled a thick paper clip. Luke considered his old mantra, “That’ll have to do,” but the vision of his typewriter in pieces haunted him.

It was midnight when the third miracle of the night arrived.

Luke read the directions, all forty-two steps.

He found that he had put everything together just as the directions described. At the very end, after step forty-two, Luke read, “When the bicycle is fully assembled, you will have the two parts pictured, a cotter key and a chain clip, in duplicate. Place them in a safe place where you can find them when the original pieces wear out.”

Luke sat by the Christmas tree with the leftover pieces in his hand, and remembered the story he had repeated that night in church. He remembered how the words of the shepherds amazed all those who had gathered around the newborn baby Jesus. Nobody, including Mary, knew quite what to make of the words of angels and shepherds that night in Bethlehem.

But Mary kept all these things, these absurdities, these puzzles, these leftover pieces, and treasured them, pondered them in her heart.

Turning the World Upside Down

Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2014. To subscribe, click here.

Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. —Luke 1: 46-55

Turning the World Upside Down

Our Advent journey leads us today into the hill country of Judea where we find two pregnant women conspiring to take over the world. I have been thinking this week about John Williams’ description of the difference between the four Gospels: how if you asked them how to get to Dallas City Hall from here, Mark would send you straight down Highway 75 to IH 30, take the Ervay Street exit and you’re there. Get there, get there, get there.

Matthew would take you in a fairly direct route, but he would keep stopping along the way to tell you why each street is named what it is, who they were and why that matters.

John would take you in a space shuttle; or, just answer, “City? What exactly is a city?”

Today, our tour guide is Luke. Luke will not hurry the journey. All around us, the world is getting ready for Christmas, but Luke says, “Wait, let’s walk slowly here and meet some people; not just the people who have Closeup5streets named after them, but also the people sleeping on cardboard sheets under the eves of old buildings. Let’s take a tour through Deep Ellum and Oak Cliff, Swiss Avenue and that renovated Park Street warehouse across from First Presbyterian where Robert Johnson recorded the blues. Luke would say, listen to the songs, both music and lyrics.

Luke would say that we find God and the Gospel not just in the people who had streets named after them: Herod, Emperor Augustus, and Quirinius governor of Syria, but with these two women: Mary, a young girl from a backwater town in Galilee, and her cousin Elizabeth, the wife of a priest and a woman who describes her life so far as one in which she has endured the disgrace of her people because of their childlessness. Both of them are country people, far from the seat of power; and yet, we find them here singing about turning the world upside down.

More accurately, of course, we hear them singing about God working through them to turn the world upside down.

Luke began this Gospel by telling Theophilus that he has set out to write “an orderly account.” And, Luke does that: this happened, then that happened, then another thing. But Luke is not opposed to some poetry along the way.

In an oppressive system like the late first century Roman empire, poets are dangerous. Those who attack the Empire directly, through editorials and pamphlets or armed uprising will be dealt with directly.

But how will the Empire strike back against poetry and song? How will the Empire suppress metaphors that seep into the cracks of power and slowly degrade the political infrastructure, and reveal its weakness and fragility?

When Luke gets to the part about Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies, he revels in the metaphor: the world is pregnant with revolution. God has struck the match, lit a candle, and started the fire not with a battle cry, but with a baby’s cry.

To all outward appearances, the cry has not yet been heard. When Luke’s first readers looked around at the world, Rome still ruled with a brutal hand. If God was at work in the world, it was not altogether visible.

And yet, Mary sings in the past tense.

With Jesus growing inside of her, the victory is won, she sings, as only a poet can say: the hungry have been fed; the oppressors have been thrown down; the lowly have been exalted.

In Mary’s song, we hear the promise of God to anyone who lives under oppression: that all unjust systems of power are doomed.

Pregnancy, of course, is uncomfortable. Or so I have been told.

Shannon Kershner told the story of her parents coming to visit their grandchildren shortly before Christmas one year, and bringing a Christmas story book for Shannon’s five-year-old.

Her mother and her daughter began reading it together. It told a very sweet version of the Christmas story–beginning when the Angel Gabriel came to tell Mary what was going to happen in and to her. The book said, “and when the angel told Mary she was going to have the baby Jesus, Mary was very happy.” At that point the five-year-old stopped her grandmother: “Well, actually, Nini, that’s wrong. Mary was afraid.”

It’s the kind of reply you get, I suppose, from a child whose mother and grandfather are Presbyterian ministers.

And of course, five-year-old Hannah was right. Mary was afraid and perplexed, and she ran with haste from her parents to her cousin Elizabeth. She ran out of there as quickly as she could and went to the only place she thought might be safe; after all, Gabriel had told her that Elizabeth also was pregnant with a child miraculously conceived.

And so, when Luke brings us to the blessing from Elizabeth and the song of Mary, “from now on, all generations will call me blessed,” the blessing comes into a world full of fear. In Mary’s pregnancy, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Where do your hopes and fears meet? In pregnancy, yes, for some families now. In the waiting and hoping for all to go as planned.

And, for other families, the hopes and fears meet in a hoped-for pregnancy and the fear that it will not happen.

And, for some, hopes and fears meet in the hope for a better life for their children, and the fear that they cannot provide it.

And, for all who work for the justice Mary proclaims in her song, the hope is clear, but the fears are real, even in the face of love that casts out all fear. Love does cast out all fear, but not all at once, and not on our timetable.

Today our youth group gathered around the Advent wreath and lit the candle of Joy. The song of Mary, even when sung in the minor key that foreshadows the birth pangs to come, bursts with a joy so unrepressed that we’re not entirely comfortable with it.

Isn’t it a bit too exuberant for grownups? Isn’t exuberance over a world into which God is breaking in with justice a bit premature in a world where wars rage and, well, Ferguson, Missouri.

A friend told me that when he was driving around after a snow storm, he saw an old man with a piece of cardboard for a sled, riding down a hill with a huge grin on his face and his hands raised above his head. He was all by himself, no children or grandchildren in sight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf it had been a young person, it wouldn’t have been such an unusual sight. But, as we grow older, even if we can preserve our bodies from broken bones, our joy somehow gets mashed down. An adult, a grown man or woman, laughing or singing in unrestrained joy, becomes an unusual sight.

The self-exposure, the fear of looking like a fool, the fear of getting hurt emotionally if not physically, maybe that’s part of it.

But the other part is that as we grow older, we see the world’s sorrows. We lose people we love to disease and death. How can we have joy in a world in which teenagers walk into a school and gun down children and teachers; a world in which war claims not just those who abuse power, but the innocent, the children caught in the crossfire, and the would-be peacemakers who go hungry?

How can you read the news and be joyful? How can you live for even a handful of decades and hold on to joy?

Here’s Luke’s bottom line: Joy is not the same thing as happiness, or fun, or pleasure. All of those depend on good conditions, health, happy family, financial security, lots of toys. Joy is something different.

Joy comes from the awareness that we are walking a path God has set before us, and that God walks it with us.

Joy doesn’t happen when we get what we want. Did Mary want what happened to her? It is much more likely to happen when we do not get what we want and we find ourselves laughing instead of crying, because God’s ideas are so much better than ours, only we have a hard time seeing that until our own wishes have crashed and burned.

Joy in the face of loss–that’s how you know God is present–because nobody else knows how to make life out of death. No one else knows how to come into a dark room and turn on all the lights, surprising everyone inside with the last thing any of them ever expected.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. The Gospel story of this pregnant moment tells us that our fears, however real, can be met in the cold and darkness of winter, by the light of Christ.

The light has come into darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.

Thanks be to God.

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