Harold Babcock's Sermons

December 21, 2008

“Long Walk Part of Gift”

Filed under: Uncategorized — newbabcock @ 2:46 am

“Verily, we live not by tangible gifts alone, but by the dearer benefactions of appreciation, kindness, compassion, and affection.”
– W. Waldemar Argow

Earlier this week, Sabrina and I attended the 99th annual Carol Service at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, with wonderful music provided by the always outstanding Harvard/Radcliffe Choir.  Over the past thirty years I have attended this service perhaps twenty times, and it never ceases to amaze me how incredibly talented those youthful student singers are.  And, while we may grow older, those singers remain perpetually young–an illusion, of course, but a comforting one, nonetheless!

Part of the fun of attending the Carol Service, however, is to hear my old Divinity School advisor Peter Gomes, minister at the memorial church for the past 35 years or so, preside over the service.  Peter has one of the most amazing reading voices that you are ever likely to hear.  He is a throwback to a time when “pulpit oratory” was a far more appreciated and respected skill than it is today.  Peter can milk more pathos out of the familiar biblical Christmas story than just about anyone I know.  It is a pleasure to see or hear anyone perform at the peak of his or her craft, and certainly as he approaches retirement age, Peter has achieved the pinnacle of the preaching and public speaking craft.

This year, Peter made a point of reminding the assembled congregation that the Carol Service has gone on uninterrupted through financial disasters and wars and crises of every kind, implying as he did so that this current economic crisis will also pass, implying that there are, in spite of all that threatens and all that darkens, at least a few things which brighten and inspire and remain and will endure.

On this point, I found myself moved, yet once again, by the ancient story of Christmas as told in the familiar and not so familiar lessons and carols, reminded, once more, of the poignant power of that old, old story: “God is with us: hallelujah!”  It is a story of hope never out of date, for the tired old world is always longing for a savior, always longing to be better than it is, to be kinder and gentler than it is, and it is only when we take the time to stop and listen that we realize the depth of that yearning and the strength of the hold it has upon us.  Down through the ages that story and that hope has served as inspiration for some of the most beautiful music ever written, and it is good to rest awhile in it and to give ourselves up to the miraculous possibilities to which the season points.

This year I was especially taken by my colleague David Blanchard’s interpretation of “the long walk,” which was shared as part of the opening worship service at my minister’s study group meeting earlier this month, and as the morning’s reading today.  It struck me, in these disheartening economic times, as an especially appropriate and meaningful perspective on gift-giving, and it points to what, I believe, ought to be the real emphasis of the season.  Is it possible that financial hardship might help to refocus us on what is really important about Christmas?  That we might at last remember that it is not the gifts in and of themselves, but the spirit in which they are given, which is most important?  And that the greatest gifts we can give to one another have little to do with material things, anyway, but are rather gifts of the spirit, which often cost us nothing except our time and our presence?

This is not a new idea, by the way.   Many years ago, Unitarian Universalist minister W. Waldemar Argow wrote movingly about “The Christmas That Remains”:

There is a Christmas that remains!  Its permanence depends not upon the dictates of custom and convention, or upon tinsel that tarnishes, of upon holly that withers as the old year dies.  Its timelessness depends upon an attitude of the heart. The gifts we give wear out and are forgotten.  And yet . . . And yet the wealth of value and meaning they symbolizes enriches both those who give and those who receive.  Verily, we live not by tangible gifts alone, but by the dearer benefactions of appreciation, kindness, compassion, and affection.  To know that others care for us, that there are those who joyously manifest their faith in the power of goodwill to remake the world–ah, this is the Christmas that remains.  Like the Bethlehem star, it shines eternally to cheer our hearts, gladden our spirits, and remind us of those things that abide forever.

As I wrote in my holiday letter to you, it turns out to be the time we spend with loved ones and friends, the time that we take for reconciliation within ourselves and with others, the time that we take to look inward and take stock of who and where we are and where we are going with our lives, the time that we take to reach out to others who may not have all the advantages that we have had, the time that we take to think about what it would really mean to have “peace on earth, goodwill toward all,” and to do something to make that dream a reality, that is the real gift of this holiday season.

These things and the time they take cost us little or nothing materially, and yet each of them can have a profound impact in our lives and in the lives of those we touch.

Too often, we try and fail to find the perfect gift that will show our loved ones just how much we love them and what they mean to us.  But what is most important is what remains after all the gifts are unwrapped and put away.

More and more, as the years go by, it is these things which matter most to me at Christmastime: the time spent with family and friends, decorating the tree, sharing a meal, giving and receiving greetings, simply being together.  For we know, or we should know, how precious and perishable each of us is, how irreplaceable those we love, how quickly the time passes and the years roll by, how uncertain is the future.  As my friend David Blanchard wrote, with truth,

When Christmas has been tidied up and packed away for another year, the gifts acknowledged, many already forgotten, the New Year stretches in front of us. What will get us through those months, with all that they may hold, will not be the things in the boxes.  We must look to the hands of those who bought and wrapped and carried those gifts.  With their gifts they are telling us something too wonderful, perhaps too embarrassing for words.  They are telling us that, for us, they will take the long walk.

In the end, it is the spirit in which a gift is given that is most important, the spirit which is reflected so well in the story: “long walk part of gift.”  It isn’t the what, it’s the how: how the gift is given, how it “means.”  In other words, the best gifts are really only symbols of something deeper and more profound, and it is what they stand for, the willingness to take that long walk, that really matters.

It might actually be good for us to have to be a bit more creative about the gifts we give.  Not having as much money to spend might be an opportunity for us to remember what is most important about our relationships, and why it is that we give gifts in the first place.  It might even force us to think a little more carefully about the kinds of gifts we give, and to focus more on the spirit in which they are given.

As I also wrote in my Christmas letter, while material gifts are often good and pleasant to receive, it is the spiritual gifts which last the longest and which make the greatest difference in our lives.

In a recent newsletter column, my colleague Sandra Fitz-Henry, minister of our Unitarian Universalist church in Attleboro, reminded her congregation:

The Christmas Story is the story of a family, in the midst of political oppression and war, and the birth of their child, who grew up to speak of a vision of wholeness and holiness, of equality and inclusion.  It was a message of love so simple and so radical that it has captured imaginations for two thousand years.

We still desperately need that message!  Sandra went on to recognize that while this year promises to be a tough one for many of us, still this holiday reminds us that “in the midst of darkness, new beginnings can shine forth,” that while life is often difficult, and though it is sometimes filled with tragedy and sadness, still there is always “the evergreen branch of hope” beckoning us onward into the uncertain future.

It’s not such a bad thing, after all, to be reminded that, while it might be good to have it, money still can’t buy the most important things in life.

So that is my simple message to you this Christmas holiday season.  It is not just about the gifts we give and receive, but about the long walk that goes along with them and gives them their meaning.  For all of us, may the Christmas light shine brightly, may the Christmas songs touch our hearts, and may the Christmas story remind us always of the blessings that are ours today.  Amen, and blessed be.

– The Rev. Harold E. Babcock


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