Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015
Loosen a little our grip, O Lord, on our words and our ways, our fears and our fretfulness, that finding ourselves found in you, we may venture from the safety of the shore and launch afresh into the waters of grace with Christ, the Morning Star, as our guide. Amen.
I have a confession to make. Although I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, I have, in fact, watched “Antiques Roadshow” now and then on PBS. You know the program because you’ve probably sneaked a peek at it too. It’s where people bring in their unusual objects that were inherited or bought at a flea market or found in the attic of an old house in order to find out the true value of those things. Everyone hopes to have discovered a lost masterpiece of art or a rare item of tremendous historical importance. Needless to say, there are lots of disappointments.
Sometimes, however, the real treasure is hidden in the stories that come with an object that has been passed down from one generation to another. To know that a great-grandparent played with a toy as a child and loved it makes it priceless in the eyes of those who knew him or wish that they could have known him. Outside that context, it simply looks worn out and might even be starting to fall apart slowly. Yet it overflows with meaning because of the love that is passed down to children and grandchildren. Maybe you’ve been that child or that grandchild at some point.
Occasionally, someone brings a toy to an appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow” that’s unlike those worn objects — a toy that’s exceptional in appearance and nearly perfect. I’ve seen a couple of them on the show. One was a Kyser & Rex Monkey Bell Toy, circa 1880. It was cast iron and would have been pulled along by a small child to make a brightly dressed monkey in a red carriage ring the bell over and over again. Another was a Hans Eberl Toy Van, circa 1912. It bore the name of a real department store in Philadelphia and had a key to wind up the motor and make it go.
The stories behind those two toys were similar to one another and known to the owners who brought them. Each was a tragedy that led a mother or a father to put the toy away. An appraiser repeated the sentence that concluded one of those stories and explained what now seems so obvious but simply wasn’t obvious to me at the time. “They put the toy away. Often a sad story is involved,” he said, “when you find a toy in really, really nice condition.”
I was surprised how much that revelation affected me afterwards when I walked downstairs to the playroom in our house in Minnesota several years ago. That’s where I picked up a few of the wooden trains that my oldest son Rowan, who’s now seven, loved so much back then. This Christmas, for the first time, I had to go into the attic to find them. Each of them is like an old friend to Rowan and also to me.
They live, of course, on the Island of Sodor with Thomas the Tank Engine. Here’s Gordon (with his tender). He pulls the express coaches and is a little too proud of his own strength. Here’s James (with his tender). He’s rather vain and thinks about his appearance more than he should. And, finally, here’s Diesel-10. He’s got a scary claw, and, as most of you probably know, diesels can be devious.
In other words, these characters, created by a Church of England priest, are like a lot of people you know, like a lot of us here tonight with all of our imperfections.
When I picked up these little wooden trains, what I noticed — as though for the first time — were the worn edges. They’ve been played with for countless hours. They’ve endured, time after time, intentional derailments and falls from bridges. And they’ve been thrown into bins at the end of the day when it’s time to clean up so that new adventures can begin tomorrow.
My heart is filled with gratitude for the gift of love that can been seen, quite literally, in those worn edges. Diesel-10 is in rough shape because, like so many others on Rowan’s train table, it was given to us by another family. So it’s been played with by more than one child over the years and never been put away in a box for very long.
Those memories came back to me as I read about the recent third anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and similar tragedies that have followed it. In too many homes, a few toys will be put away forever this Christmas, just like last Christmas and the Christmas before that.
Those memories also reminded me of the treasure we have been given not only in the children here at Palmer, for whom this night is so magical and so special, but also in the love that has been poured into our hearts and overflows into the world.
The late Peter Gomes of Harvard’s Memorial Church once put it this way:
For those of us who believe that the greatest gift is the gift of love, Christmas is the ultimate and most intimate expression there is. The child in the manger . . . is the means whereby God’s love is presented to the people whom he loves.
“Christmas is God’s initiative,” he goes on to say,
. . . it is God’s work, when God begins to establish a relationship of love with us; and of this love Jesus is the sign, the substance, and the symbol. The gift of God for the people of God. The gift is the renewal of that love, and the maintenance of that love even against all the forces of this dark and cold and unremitting world.
Those who put toys away because of tragic circumstances have no choice in the matter. But you do have a choice about what to do with the gift of love that has been given to you on this holy night. You can receive it as an end in itself, treasuring most its perfection in the beauty of the prayers and of the carols tonight. That would be to put it aside intentionally in a little box and not to enjoy it again until next year.
Or you can receive that gift of love as the shepherds did. To those on the bottom rung of the ladder of power, poor shepherds at the margins of society and at the edge of an empire, the glory of the Lord was revealed. There, in the fields, in the darkness, it shone around them. There the shepherds heard the message of the angels, which they shared with Mary and Joseph in the presence of the Christ Child.
But notice what happens next in the familiar story of Christmas from Luke’s Gospel. The shepherds don’t stay beside the manger, but return to the fields where they spend their working days, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” The gift of love is meant to be shared with the world beyond these walls.
That gift has been given to people who are like Gordon and James and, yes, people who are like Diesel-10 too. When Rowan was four years old, the same age his little brother Ben is now, he and my wife Carrie had an interesting exchange about that.
Rowan said, “We need to talk about what to do about Diesel-10. He’s mean to the other engines on the Island of Sodor.”
Carrie said, “Well, we could teach him to be nice.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea,” replied Rowan.
“We could love him,” added my wife.
“Whoa. Um . . .” The four-year-old was left speechless.
For those who wonder if they, like Diesel-10, might be unlovable in this world, let me read to you something that was written by the late Austin Farrer, a priest and theologian in the Church of England:
How can I matter to [God]? we say. It makes no sense; he has the world, and even that he does not need. It is folly even to imagine him like myself, to credit him with eyes into which I could ever look, a heart that could ever beat for my sorrows or joys, and a hand he could hold out to me. For even if the childish picture be allowed, that hand must be cupped to hold the universe, and I am a speck of dust on the star-dust of the world.
Yet Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts his hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men, and the folly of God proves wiser than men. Love is the strongest instrument of omnipotence, for accomplishing those tasks he cares most dearly to perform; and this is how he brings his love to bear on human pride; by weakness not by strength, by need and not by bounty.
So I hope you’ll hear those words — I mean really hear them — and be able to receive anew this night the love that came down at Christmas. It is a gift that’s supposed to have worn edges as the years go on, having been given to you to be shared. It is a gift that’s not an end in itself but the beginning of a life with God.
That’s the best adventure of all.
1 BACK TO POST Revelation 22:16, among the last words of the Bible, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.”
2 BACK TO POST Noel Barrett, “Kyser & Rex Monkey Bell Toy, ca. 1880,” Antiques Roadshow, Public Broadcasting Service, originally aired February 23, 2009. Here’s the exchange that he had with the current owner:
[APPRAISER:] I notice on the box it says “Kenner Ferguson.” Who is he?
[GUEST:] Kenner Ferguson was a child that would have been my great-grandmother’s uncle.
[GUEST:] Unfortunately, he only lived to be three years old. He was born in 1881 and died in 1884. And they put the toy away.
[APPRAISER:] They put the toy away. Often a sad story involved when you find a toy in really, really nice condition.
3 BACK TO POST Peter J. Gomes, Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 195-196.
4 BACK TO POST Peter J. Gomes, Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (New York: HarperCollins, 2003) 196.
5 BACK TO POST Luke 2:20.