11-29-15, Advent 1 (PR) Traditional, For Being Good

ADVENT 1                                               Luke 24:30-32
ST. PETER’S – NEFFSVILLE           Psalm: 25:1-4
DECEMBER 2014                                 2 Kings 22, 23:1-3

Stories are the fabric of human history.  They define who we are as a community.  They define who we are as families.  They define who we are as individuals.  Today’s story by Cynthia Rylant is titled, “For Being Good.”  It tells the story of Philip and a grandfather he knows only in name.  It asks Philip the question, “What is his grandfather’s story?” …. And thus what is Philip’s own story.

And it invites you to ask yourself the question, “What is your story?

            What Philip remembers about his grandfather are the big blue veins on top of his hands.  Philip hasn’t seen the old man for five years, since he was six, and he can’t remember his grandfather’s eyes or teeth or ears or nose.  Just hands with blue veins.

            Grandfather is coming for Christmas, flying up from Florida.  He is coming by himself because his wife, Philip’s grandmother, died, and since then he’s done everything alone, including celebrating Christmas.  But this year he is coming to Philip’s house.

            Philip isn’t sure he wants his grandfather to come, but he doesn’t know why he feels this way.  It worries him.

            In the three weeks before Christmas, Philip’s mother spends a lot of time shopping for Christkmas presents for his grandfather.  Sometimes she drags Philip along to the department store, and she squirts colognes up and down his arms, asking him to choose the best smell.  Philip can never tell one smell from the other, and so he just points to a bottle and says, “He’ll like that one,” and she buys it.

            But Philip isn’t at all sure what his grandfather likes.  He doesn’t know what the man likes in colognes, or ties, or socks, or pajamas – or boys.  He wonders what the old man likes in a boy.

            Philip’s father works for days fixing the guest room for the grandfather.  He knows the man wants a hard board under his mattress, so he takes care of that.  He fixes the broken runner on the rocking chair.  He gives the walls a fresjh coat of white paint.  And he brings some old pictures out of a box – pictures of himself and his three brothers when they were little boys and Philip’s grandfather was a young man.  He puts them in frames on the dresser.

Philip knows very little of his grandfather’s story.  He just remembers big blue veins.  He doesn’t remember what his grandfather looks like.  He doesn’t remember what he likes.  A prat of him is still drawn to the old man.  But it is a flat two-dimensional relationship.  King Josiah’s relationship with his God was a bit two-dimensional, too.  He was an honest king and a faithful king – bible historians consider him a “good” king.  But his relationship was incomplete – he too was somewhat unaware of his nation’s history.

Have you ever thought about those incomplete stories that may offer you more in terms of your relationships?

            It is two days before Christmas when the old man finally arrives.  Philip is afraid and he wants to hide in his room.  He is afraid to meet the man for whom they have been preparing so long.  He wishes his grandfather wouldn’t come.

            But just at dinner time, he does come.  The door opens and Philip’s father walks in, carrying a suitcase, and behind him stands the grandfather.

            Philip keeps behind his mother as they go to the front door.  He tries to smile.  He tries to look like a wonderful boy.

            The old man is tall.  But he is tired, so it seems a gentle, embarrassed sort of tallness.  He wears glasses.  He has wrinkles.  And underneath his hat, he is bald.

            What Philip thinks, when he sees him, is that the old man seems to keep behind Philip’s father as they stand inside the door.  He seems to try to smile.  And he seems to try to look like a wonderful grandfather.

            Philip thinks maybe he is going to like him.

            They all have dinner together, Philip’s mother and father talking too much, telling the grandfather about the work they’d done on the roof, the tomatoes they’d canned in the summer, the squirrel that always robbed the bird feeder.  Philip stays quiet, watching the old man.  And the grandfather smiles and nods and with his fork moves his food around on his plate.  He seems not to really be with them.  He reminds Philip of himself when his parents make him go to church on mornings he’d rather sleep.

It is a small thing that connects Philip to his grandfather.  He wants to be seen as a wonderful boy, and he thinks that the old man may want to be seen as a wonderful grandfather.  For Josiah, the Book of the Law seems like a small thing, too.  It is just a book found in a Temple restoration project.  Life is alrady good – the northern kingdom of Israel has fallen to enemies, but Judah, the southern kingdom still stands.  “What more can be done?” one might ask.

What are the small moments in your life, that open doors to transcendent moments that shape your story?

            After dinner, the old man goes to bed.  Philip helps his mother bake sugar cookies and he wonders if his grandfather would have liked to eat some of the dough.  He wraps a little ball of it in tinm foil and puts it in the refrigerator, just in case.  The next day is Christmas Eve and Philip’s parents are crazily running errands, as usual.  Philip’s mother always remembers one more person who might like some cookies or one more neighbor who might need visiting.  And Philip’s father always remembers one more gallon of milk, one more bag of birdseed, one more present for his wife.

            Philip spends half the day running with his mother, and the other half running with his father, so he hardly sees his grandfather at all.  Somehow he senses the old man probably wants it this way.

            In the evening they all go to church.   Philip loves church on Christmas Eve, the dark wood and the candle glow and the Christmas story.  And it is exciting to have his grandfather there.  The old man looks livelier, and as they head for a pew, he catches Phili’s eye and winks.  Philip thinks about that wink through the whole service.

            But when they return home, and as they sit in the kitchen together eating apples and drinking hot chocolate, Philip can see his grandfather’s liveliness disappearing.  He watches the old man slowly deflate like a leaking bicycle tire, and he doesn’t know why it is happening, and he wants to stop it.  He wants to puymp the old man up again, to see him wink, maybe laugh.  But Philip’s grandfather sags more and more until he finally goes to bed.

            Philip helps his parents clean up the kitchen.

            “He misses her,” his father says.

            “I know,” answers the mother.

            “Who?” Philip asks.

            And they both answer: “His wife.”

            Philip’s father looks sad then, too, and for the first time Philip remembers that his father is talking about his own parents, his own mother who is dead.

            “Well,” Philip smiles, trying to cheer him uop, “he’s got us.”

            His father hugs him and then drapes the dishtowel over his head.

            When it is time for Philip to go to bed, leaving his parents to “listen for reindeer,” he realizes he hasn’t been thinking about presents that much at all.  In fact, ever since his grandfather has arrived, he’s thought mostly about him.

            Halfway up the stairs Philip turns around and goes back into the kitchen.  He opens the refrigerator and takes out the foil-wrapped cookie dough.

The Book of the Law is a far more potent catalyst for renewal, than a small lump of cookie dough, right?  Even I recognize that.  But that cookies dough becomes a small window through which Philip initiates a deeper relationship.  It is one grounded in trauma, to be sure – the death of Philip’s grandmother.  But aren’t most relationships, ones that seek to overcome the griefs and the losses of life?  For Josiah, the Book of the Law announcs the judgment of Judah, also, because of the sins of their ancestors.  It is a death of a different kind – a death created through unfaithfulness, and one delivered through a foreign nation that will take Judah captive and exile them.  But Josiah, like Philip, chooses to not allow the trauma of the moment to drive him away.  But both seek to embrace the pain of their histories, and seek relationships with the ones they love … Yahweh, in Josiah’s case … the grandfather, in Philip’s case.

Have you thought about where your personal story has been shaped by trauma that you have embraced?

            Upstairs, he stands at his grandfather’s door and listens.  He hears the rocking chair squeak.  He hears the old man cough.  So he knocks.

            The door opens.  His grandfather stands in his pajamas, his bald head shining, his feet bare, his blue-veined hands clutching a framed picture.

            Philip holds out the foil.

            “I saved you some cookie dough, Grandpa.”

            The old man unwraps the foil, looks at the ball of dough, then pops it into his mouth.

            “Pretty good dough,” he says, and he smiles.

            Philip gives a little laugh.  He wants to say something, to talk, but he can’t think of any words.

            To his surprise, his grandfather motions him into the room.  He offers {hilip the rocking chair, then he sits on the edge of the bed.  He leans over and puts the picture into Philip’s hands.

            “That’s your father,” he says.

            Philip looks at the photograph.  It is a dark-haired boy, like himself.  He nods his head.

            “When he was a boy,” the old man continues, “every Christmas Eve he’d come climbing into bed with us, Florrie and me.  we never told any ofhis brothers, ‘cause you know how boys are.”

Philip grins.

            “He was embarrassed about it, being so scared and bervous at Christmas that he had to crawl into our bed.  Er laughed about it, but we never laughed in front of him.”

            The old man is grinning, too.  But then the grin begins to weaken.

            “Truth is, we liked it.”  He shakes his head.  “We missed having a baby in the bed between us, so we liked that little boy snoring in our ears every Christmas Eve.  It was a special present just for us, we told ourselves, just for being good.  Good to our boys.”

            Philip watches the old man’s eyes fall, his mouth go slack, and even the bald head seems to lose its shine.  He looks at the man’s big blue veins and doesn’t know what to say.  So he just says, “Good night” and “Merry Christmas.”

It is shared stories that so often solidify the relationships we seek – those places where we enter into covenantal love with another.  For Philip, his grandfather’s Christmas story, which is also his father’s Christmas story,  is the narrative that announces Philip’s own role and place in the story of his family.  For Josiah, it is the announcement from God, made through the prophetess Huldah, that announces Joaisah;s role in the story of his family – the people of God – God’s family.  For both, there is pain in these relationships.  Loss is still present … death is not reversed.  But each story intrinsically weaves Philip and Josiah into the fabric of their people, and the heritage of their communal stories.

I wonder about the communal stories into which your own story has been deeply woven, and how you respond to those invitations into be in covenant with others?

            In bed, Philip can’t sleep.  Though he thinks some about the presents ne might get. Mostly he thinks about the old man holding the picture of his little boy.  A boy who crawled into bed and snored into his father’s ear on Christmas Eve.  A boy who was himself a gift to his parents, who had been good.

            Philip lies awake and thinks about all this a long time.  Then he leaves his bed and, going past his parents’ door, he stands at his grandfather’s room and knocks softly.

            “Grandpa?” he whispers.

            Inside, the old man grumbles.

            Philip opens the door and stands beside the old man’s bed.

            “Grandpa,” he whispers, “can I sleep with you/”

            The old man mumbles again, then rolls himself to one side.

Philip climbs in.

            “Good night, Grandpa,” he says.

            “Good night, son,” is the answer.

All that is left is the consummation of the relationships into which both our heroes have been invited.  Josiah is told that he will be gathered to his ancestors in peace – the implied meaning is that he will live his full life and die honorably in that peace that is promised.  And Josiah responds by leading his nation in a covenant renewal ceremony.  Philip is gathered into the love of his grandfather’s life, by climbing into the old man’s bed on Christmas Eve, just as his own father had done years ago.  And Philip responds with a goodnight that blesses his grandfather, and hears a blessing in return, that renews the man’s deep love for both his boys.

What are your love stories … small and large … and who has invited your story to join into their story?


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Rev. Craig Ross

Senior Pastor

The vibrancy of life here at St. Peter’s makes my service on our staff a joy and privilege. Visitation, teaching and preaching are the ministries that feed my pastoral identity, as together our staff and lay members share in our missional calling … Building a community of faith by God’s grace.