On the park bench, Christmas Eve

(This was my Christmas Eve meditation a few years back.  Generally, I don’t think most sermons have much staying power, and maybe I’m being a little sentimental, but I think I may have gotten something right with this one.  A blessed Christmas, and gracious holiday to you.)

park-bench-1340697334wtQThere once was an old man whom, this evening, we will call Joe. Joe was single, never married, didn’t date much. He was an only child and his parents were gone, and he was a bit crotchety, which is to say he was all alone in the world. He had long since retired from a job which brought him a modest income, a few acquaintances, and no friends.

In his retirement he spent his days as he pleased – checking the morning headlines, washing up the coffee cup and cereal bowl. He’d run the few errands he had, get the daily special soup at the diner counter, run a few more errands. Late afternoon would find him on a park bench, alone. It was always the same bench, in the northwest part of the park, near a sidewalk but blissfully far away from the children’s playground. He would sit there, all alone, and with a fair amount of disinterest, he would watch the world go by.

Most days, that was enough for old Joe. Once in a while he would break his routine – he’d give a smile to the cashier as she handed him his change, or he’d bark at the server who overfilled his coffee cup. Most days his routine was enough. But every so often as he’d sit all alone on that park bench, a terrible melancholy would overtake him. That happens sometimes at dusk – babies instinctively cry and the colic worsens, or harassed parents, home from work, stress out as they try to transition from employee to chief cook and bottle washer. Every so often, as he sat on that bench at dusk, Joe would be overcome by a sadness he could not name, and all he wanted, in those anguished few moments, was for someone to come sit next to him. They didn’t have to talk, process feelings, make a plan to have dinner. All he wanted was company, a companion to sit with at dusk after years of going through life all alone.

As the seasons changed, Joe would change his routine ever so slightly and unconsciously so that he was always on the bench at dusk, be it a winter’s 4:00 or summer’s 8:00. The years passed, and the spasms of melancholy grew more frequent, and Joe, already so miserable in his aloneness, became all the more brittle, and a little desperate. He tried ways to make the bench inviting. He’d move the newspaper he’d been carrying around, as if to say, this seat isn’t being saved for anyone. He’d brush off the leaves. Once he even wiped off the residue from the pigeons – all to no avail. For whatever reason, no one ever sat by Joe.

Maybe passers-by feared that his loneliness was contagious, and they hurried past him so as not to catch it. Maybe after years of trying to smile and say hello only to be rebuffed, people stopped trying. Maybe after sitting on that same bench in the same park at the same time, year after year, Joe became invisible, the way the guy on the corner with the cardboard sign “Will work for food” becomes invisible. Whatever the reason, no one ever sat by Joe.

He could’ve died on that bench, so deep was the melancholy, so profound the despair, so pointed the loneliness he could no longer avoid. He wondered if that’s how he would end up – forgotten and ignored, sitting there one minute and dead there the next, without a soul to notice that his life had ended. He wondered if there would ever be anyone who would care. He wondered if he would live out however many days he had left sitting alone at dusk on that park bench.

There may be some here tonight who have felt like Joe at some time in their lives, or who feel like Joe every day. There may be some here tonight who know someone like Joe, some who have passed him by, some who understand how the relentless pain of another becomes invisible. There may be some here tonight who wonder how this story will end, and some who believe they know how it will end.

Tonight, on this night we have chosen to call holy, this is what I know: Our world has been like Joe, battling melancholy. The children of our world have known isolation; they have known what it’s like to be ignored or forgotten; they have felt, deep in their bones, what it is like to be alone. The children of the world have been battered, if not by loneliness or apathy, then by poverty or violence or forces beyond their control that have made them grow up too soon.

Our world has been like Joe, going through the same routines day after day without reason or purpose. The people of the world have known what it is to live by rote, to live in that routine of work and play and rest, of work and shopping and rest, of work and shopping and entertainment, confusing shopping and entertainment with godly play and holy rest. Our world has been like Joe, desperately trying to make that park bench a little more palatable, aching to have someone simply sit down next to us. We have feared the stranger, the other, for so long that it seems too late to make amends for our isolating tendencies. For so long we have sat on our proverbial benches waiting for someone to come to us, never venturing off to go to someone else.

Tonight, on this night we have chosen to call holy, this is what I know: That the miracle of the incarnation might be described as God coming to sit down next to us on our park bench. Because while we might have forgotten or ignored all the Joes of the world, God hasn’t forgotten. God cannot ignore this world that was created by deep love. God will not forsake this world so plagued by fear and greed and pride. God will not turn a blind eye to the pain of the world’s children.

Ours is a visited planet, as the Bible scholar J. B. Phillips once said. Ours is a visited planet, which is to say that God is no theist watchmaker kind of God, setting the world a-ticking and then moving on. Ours is a visited planet, but not in the way you or I might want to visit Tuscany or the Grand Canyon. Our is a visited planet, in the way we might want to sit and visit with a beloved grandmother who died, whose advice and date pinwheel cookies we still crave; the way we might want to visit with our best friend who’s doing his best to beat cancer; the way we might want to visit forever with a child or parent or sibling who is wedged deeply in our hearts.

That is how God has visited with us: with the love a Creator has for his creation, with the love a mother has for her child. Why God would choose to do this is beyond my ken, and all that I know on this night we have chosen to call holy is that it has something to do with love. And this love transformed God (if we could say God is transformable) from being a mere visitor to being an inhabitant of the world, like we are. God visited us, and came to us, and became one of us so that you and I and all the Joes of the world would know that we are not alone.

On this holy night, it is as though Joe is sitting on the park bench again. He has put his paper in the recycling can; he has brushed away the pigeons’ offering. He has waited for the light to dim, once again, alone. But this dusk, this time, this holy time, Someone sits down next to him. He just sits down with Joe, and Joe is not alone. We are not alone; we are loved. Thanks be to God.

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