By DOUGLAS T. BATES III
CENTERVILLE, Tenn., Dec. 23, 2015 – The following is the text of a serman I gave on Sunday, Dec. 14, at the rural Swan Cumberland Presbyterian Church that I attend here in Hickman County in west central Tennessee.
I am going to tell a story today I first heard many years ago. It was told by Rev. Charles Wright, the pastor of Owensboro Christian Church in Kentucky, where my old friend Bill Conley was a member. Bill and I went back to our days at Vanderbilt University, and we stayed close for 25 years thereafter. We drifted apart and it was probably mainly my neglect. I plan to rectify that.
It is a Christmas story and I have told it many times in this season. I used to send audio tapes of the sermon, with Rev. Wright himself telling the story, to friends who faced new challenges at Christmas. We all face challenges – old and new – at Christmas, so I hope this story is helpful to us all.
Douglas T. Bates III and his wife Molly are shown here last October on the porch of their home in Centerville, Tennessee.
Everything was ready for the children’s Christmas pageant. “Mary” and “Joseph” were there in their robes, lovingly made by their mothers. There were five angels in spotless white outfits, complete with golden halos and cardboard wings cut out and taped by the children themselves. One of the men of the church had built a stable and manger. There was even a live calf and baby goat on hand. A young couple had just had a baby the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and so that infant would play the Christ child.
The local Odd Fellows Lodge years ago had donated three beautiful robes which had been altered to fit three young boys who played the part of what tradition tells us were three Wise Men, whom the Bible tells us came from the East following a star.
Everything was ready, but 30 minutes before the pageant was to begin, it was learned one of the Wise Men had the measles and could not be there.
What to do?
It was suggested by some that the whole deal be cancelled. But too much effort had gone into the project, and everyone wanted it to be perfect.
Others suggested that everyone merely pretend that no one was missing, that the third robe be hidden from sight and the cast bravely perform a charade – everything was complete.
You, surely, know where this story is going.
We have all faced a Christmas after losing a loved one. What shall we do? Just cancel the whole thing? No Christmas tree, no outdoor lights, no cards? It just is not the same, and I am not going through with it. Someone is missing and, so, no Christmas.
Or, perhaps, let us pretend that everything is fine. No one is absent. Our hearts are full of cheer. We will celebrate as if nothing is wrong or missing. There were only Two Wise men to start with. What’s the problem?
We all have missing wise men. Perhaps we just lost our mother a few weeks ago – or perhaps it was years ago and it seems like only weeks. Maybe a child remains estranged. Some bad medical news might have just come in, or a chronic pain will not go away. A few Fridays ago, there was a pink slip in the mail, or, last Friday in the last kick of your senior year, it went wide right and your team was eliminated.
So every Christmas is imperfect – has a hole in it. Isn’t that the real glory of Christmas? In a world of pain and sorrow and sin, Jesus came to be with us in that pain and sorrow and sin.
Children are hungry, old people are lonely, and all of us grieve.
But let us not cancel Christmas, and let us not pretend that nothing or no one is missing. Let us go ahead and celebrate as best we can. There is still much to be grateful for, many to love, scores of memories to cherish.
Merry Christmas, as is.
Douglas T. Bates III and Chuck Offenburger have been friends for nearly 50 years, after meeting as students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Bates is a semi-retired attorney in his hometown of Centerville, about 60 miles west of Nashville. You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on his sermon by using the handy form below here.