New Year’s Eve at our house was fairly typical. At midnight, one of my neighbors fired off some thunderous firecrackers, and the neighbor next door to him came out in his bathrobe to complain that the noise was scaring his little dog, while Billie and I said our usual subdued goodbye to one year and hello to the next with a quietly fervent hope that it would be more peaceful than the one just ending. Since my comments this morning will be rather quiet and reflective, I’ve decided to strike a balance by starting on a lighter note with a story I hope you will enjoy as much as I do.
I heard it in Canada from a former student who set the stage by explaining that Canadians make jokes about backward “Newfies” — their neighbors in the province of
Newfoundland — the way we do about Okies and Aggies. He assured me, gentleman that he is, that the Newfies themselves rather like the jokes, and began telling me about a Newfie who wanted to go abroad on a trip but was afraid to try it because he could not speak a single foreign language. Someone suggested he talk to a travel agent, who said, “No problem, Sir. You need to go to Portugal because they will all understand you if you speak very slowly. I – mean – like – this, – very – slowly.” The Newfie was delighted, bought his ticket, practiced the new speech pattern, and flew off to Portugal. He decided to try it out first in a bar, to be sure it really did work, so when the bartender came over with a questioning look, the Newfie said, “Scotch – and – water – please.”
The bartender, who had come from Canada himself to settle in Lisbon, smiles at this strange tourist and decides to play along. “Fine,” he says, “Scotch – and – water – it – is.” He brings it back, watches the Newfie take a sip, and says: “How – is – it – my – friend?” The Newfie says, “Very – good. But – tell – me – something – please. Where – are – you – from?” The bartender smiles again and says, “I – am – from – New-found-land.” “Oh,” the Newfie says, “You – are – from – New – found- land – too?” “Yes – I – am,” the bartender says. “Well, tell – me,” the Newfie says, “If – you – are – from New -found-land, and-I-am-from- New-found-land…. why – are – we – both – speaking Portuguese?”
I could justify what may seem to be a purely gratuitous joke by pointing out that , after all, it’s about communicating, which is what sermons are about, but that would be less than honest. The truth is, I just wanted to hear you laugh together before I began a quietly reflective sermon on this first Sunday of one more year of our lives. so let’s segue into a quiet mood, beginning with some personal reminiscences. .Several times in the golden years of growing up I saw the circus come to town, and once my father let me get up early enough to watch the roustabouts sing with the rhythm of their sledgehammers while they put up the Big Top. To a wide-eyed child they were exotic aliens who appeared out of mystery and romance and vanished as suddenly as they had come — people with lives so exciting I could understand why boys sometimes ran away to join the circus. One night, after the last show, my father stayed with me so I could see the tent collapsed, the lions and tigers settled down for their all-night ride, and the whole gaudy caravan rattling its way out of town. Here one day, gone the next, the circus seemed to exist in a world free from the normal restraints of time.
Not that I troubled my head much in those days about the nature of time, or how it forever kidnaps pleasures and friendships in its disregard for our feelings. It was only when I read playwright Ben Hecht’s comment, years later, that “time is a circus forever packing up and moving away,” that I understood what a vivid metaphor that is for life. Because for all of us in this room the circus left town again a few days ago on New Year’s Eve when we said goodbye to a strange year that began with the inauguration of a new president after the most bizarre election in recent memory, that caught us by horrified surprise on that unforgettable September morning, and that came to an end with quiet but worrisome evidence that global warming, with its potential for catastrophic change, may not be an idle fantasy after all. My oldest son, who is an optimist by nature, called to tell me he had never felt quite so uneasy about a new year as he does about the one which is still an infant on this second Sunday of 2 double O 2. He seemed to need reassurance, so I looked on the bright side. “We’ve been surprised every year of our lives. It may turn out much better than you can imagine.”
I believe that, but I also dislike goodbyes, so as usua; New Year’s Eve was more a poignant than a party time. I told you once of my hope that on some New Year’s Eve this church might decide to see the old year out together in Fellowship Hall, enjoying one another as we always do, and then at midnight pausing to sing that most nostalgic of songs, “Auld lang syne,” whose Scottish dialect literally means “old long since,” or more gracefully translated, “of days gone by.” I heard it first as a child, wondering at the look on my parents’ faces when they sang it, having no knowledge of the long reach of their memories, unable to see the lost faces they were seeing, but able to catch the tender melancholy in their voices as they sang those haunting lyrics.
That may be why Billie and I have almost always spent New Year’s Eve in a rather subdued way. The one just past was typical — a quiet, reflective evening in the company of friends of more than 40 years, Bob and Patsy Scott. Toward midnight, as one door closed forever, and another opened, we sat by the fireplace with some wine and cheese and shared memories of days gone by and our hopes for the ones still ahead of us. I thought for a moment that night, surrounded by comfort and friendship, of how different life was long ago for my Anglo-Saxon ancestors who called this first month of the year Wulfmonath — wolf month — a grim reminder that by then the winter cold had made the wolves bold enough to invade the village itself in search of food. It was a tough month for them: long nights, cold gray days, and a nagging worry that the latesummer harvest and the pile of firewood might not last till Spring? The month of the wolf.
But before their time, down in Italy where the winter’s were not so cold, the month had gotten a different name. The Romans called it January in honor of Janus, their god of gates and doors and new beginnings — the god of two faces, one facing the past, the other looking forward. We pray now to a different god, and instead of wolves we worry about remembering to get the new date right on our letters and checks, but most of us, I hope, are also a little more conscious right now of how priceless life and time are. Every year is unique, but we may have set a record for broken hearts and tears over the past three months. Even professional reporters like Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings and Dan Rather have choked up on screen, and Dave Letterman found himself unable to make jokes for a while. And after watching all those interviews with firemen, who can possibly believe anymore that old bromide about how “grown men never cry”? We’ve seen the toughest and bravest unable to stop crying.
I know there must be good sense somewhere in those strange words from Ecclesiastes , the ones that solemnly tell us we gain more wisdom from our grief than from our laughter, but grief is a medicine we’d just as soon defer as long as possible. I can tell you on this frankly nostalgic Sunday morning that ministry probably offers more of those emotional ups and downs than any profession I know. Not the few moments in the pulpit each week, but all those other times when ordinary people like Gary and me have the extraordinary privilege of sharest the happiest and saddest days of your lives. They come so closely intermingled that we may move in an hour from the joyous hopes of a wedding or a baby’s christening to the heartbreak of tragedy, sickness and death. It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride unlike any other but I feel profoundly privileged to have been a part of it for such a long time. I don’t even mind the teasing that defines our role in the cycle of marriages, births and funerals by saying that what we do is “Match, hatch and dispatch,” but I prefer the imagery of three bells the way they appear in a once-popular song recorded years ago by the Norman Luboff Choir. The lyrics purport to be about someone named Jimmy Brown, but those two very common names are really meant to signify that the song is about any of us whose “rites of passage” might have been marked by churh bells if we had lived in an earlier time. The lyrics are not great poetry, so I hope you’ll give them credit for sounding much better set to music:
In a village hidden deep within the valley, among the pine trees half forlorn,
There one sunny Sunday morning, little Jimmy Brown was born.
All the chapel bells were ringing, in the little valley town,
And the song that they were singing was for Baby Jimmy Brown.
The little congregation prayed for guidance from above:
Lead us not into temptation, let this hour of meditation,
Guide him with eternal love.
I sat in a waiting room about 6 months ago while a special baby was being born, and one of those moments happened that tie the past to the present in a happy coincidence. The doctor was a little late, and as she ran across the waiting room floor she shot a quick, startled glance my way before disappearing into the birth suite. Once inside, I was told later, she asked her patient, “What is Dr. Meyers doing out there?” And when the expectant mother replied, “He’s my grandfather,” the doctor said, “Really? He married my husband and me 20 years ago.” Several weeks later the baby born that day was christened and brought into this room to be welcomed by all of you in that happy time when we make ourselves an extended family in love and support for a child.
So, one of the three bells in that old song is for Jimmy Brown’s birth, because it was a pleasant custom in certain villages long ago to celebrate with the church bells when a baby was born. And then there were the years of growing up, until one day the bells rang again — this time, for a wedding: In a village hidden deep in the valley, beneath the mountains high above/ There 20 years thereafter, Jimmy was to wed his love. / All the chapel bells were ringing, ‘twas a great day in his life. / And the song that they were singing was for Jimmy and his wife. / And the little congregation prayed for guidance from above, / “In this hour of celebration, let their lives be filled with love.”
It turned out to be too difficult, but I’ve often wished our carillon bells could ring when a new bride and groom walk out of this church as a sign to the whole neighborhood that this little congregation, in the hour of promise-making, is praying together that the new home will be filled with love. Not just the love born of youthful romance, but the deep and irreplaceable love that can grow out of that — the love created through years of shared memories and joint obligations and a sense of how important it is to hold things together. I have loved few things more than the pleasure of being part of such weddings, and especially of having at least 25 couples who were married here as non-members join this church later because they could not forget the beauty of the place. And every Sunday I get to say hello to others who found a church home simply because they had been invited to attend one of those weddings.
The third and final bell in the song is the one that links it most closely with the goodbyes in life: In a village hidden deep in the valley, one rainy morning dark and gray, / A soul winged its way to heaven – Jimmy Brown had passed away./ Then the lonely bell was ringing in the little valley town / ‘Twas farewell that it was singing to our good old Jimmy Brown, / And the little congregation prayed for guidance from above, / And for rest and peace for Jimmy from the great Eternal love.
There was a time, in small villages in England and America, where it was the custom when somebody died to ring the church bell — one stroke for each year of the departed’s time on earth. And when the neighbors heard it, they paused in their work in the house or in the shop and were reminded that nothing lasts, that the circus has lost a performer, and so returning home that night, or putting a meal on the table that night, a family saw each other with fresh eyes, impulsively gave a hug or kiss, and when asked, “What’s that all about?” said, “O, I heard the bells today and thought how glad I was we’d be together tonight.”
There were no bells from the steeple, but we all said enough goodbyes last year to understand that ancient Hebrew poet who reminded us that because our years are brief and come to an end like a sigh, we should learn wisdom in how to use them. This is not morbid advice. It is the only sure way to live completely, to drain the cup, to waste nothing — because all the truest and deepest pleasures in life come from knowing that nothing lasts forever. I understand better than I once did why the Biblical poet said “Sorrow is better than laughter. It may sadden your face, but it sharpens your understanding.”
You must have right now, as I do, a name on your lips of someone dear who had plans for this year and did not see a single day of it. Sobered by the thought of missing faces, you and I have entered another year with its gift of a few more chances to love each other, to redeem our days from self-pity, and to come a few steps closer to the nobility possible for us if we live in the spirit of Him for whose sake this church came into life, and for whose sake it promises to make of 2002 a blessed, blessed year. May it be so.
We give grateful thanks, our Lord, for the daily comforts of life,
for the sacred bonds of friendship, and for the hopes we share for
this church as we begin another year together. Amen.