Sermon -- Dec. 20, 2020: "A Love Story" -- Bill Dow

 

SERMON:  “A Love Story”

Dec. 20, 2020

Bill Dow

 

Our gospel reading from Luke is sometimes referred to as the Magnificat, paying homage to that wonderful opening verse, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  Our first reading from 1 Samuel is Hannah’s Song; Hannah being the mother of Samuel.  It begins with, “My heart rejoices in the Lord.”

It is believed that Hanna’s Song might be some of the oldest verse in Scripture, a hymn that was sung even before words appeared in written form. 

The gospel writer of Luke makes a timeless and poetic connection between the coming birth of Jesus and the beginning of humanity.  Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is pushed back all the way back to Adam, son of God and the Magnificat recalls the ancient theme of reversal of fortune: the hungry are fed, the proud are humbled, and the weak are strengthened… and on it goes.

Reversal of fortune is a cornerstone that identifies the nature of God’s love.  God brings a bias to this covenant of love… with complete transparency… in hopes that we, too, might, as we mentioned last week, level the playing field that the abundance of the world might benefit the complete range of God’s creation.

The Gospel of Luke presents the story of Jesus from the perspective of economic justice for the poor.  The birth story of Jesus comes to us through the eyes and experience of women… mothers living closer to poverty than wealth.

Luke 1:41, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.”  That verse does not come from the thought process of a male!  These are the words of a love story, as Robert McAfee Brown writes in his classic book The Bible Speaks to You, inspired by a lovesick God who desires nothing more than our love in return.

My gender prevents me from even daring to suggest that I could comment on the biological birth of a child or the nurturing love of a mother.  HOWEVER, I do bring a story this day that could possibly draw us closer to the essence of divine love. 

At the age of thirteen, I was invited to sing with our church choir.  They knew I could sing, and my mother was the church organist.  So there!  They sat me next to Stu in the bass section.

Stu was the metals teacher at the high school.  What I didn’t know at the time was that he sang in a barbershop quartet with my father when they were in high school together.  It was Bill Dow, Stu Good, Don Bratrude, and Ralph Treiger, singing at the soda fountain in Reeves Drug Store for sodas and floats.

My dad had left our family when I was seven and he died when I was 10 and Stu took me under his wing in the back row, teaching me to read the notes and also how guys in the bass section tend to goof off.  We had five wonderful years together and then I went off to university.  And for the first time in my life, I experienced academic failure.  I was clueless, without real purpose, drifting in a much bigger ocean that demanded study skills that I hadn’t developed.  My only success was winning the heart of a 4 foot 10, 97-pound nursing major.

When I dropped out of school, my neighbor helped me get a job cutting meat at the Jewel.  And after two weeks of cutting meat and one finger, I had a new appreciation for a college education and a determination to return!  But to what…and where??  In the back row of that church choir, Stu shared with me that he had a lot of respect for what was then Stout State University.  I looked into it and enrolled, entering a contract that would transfer my all my credits, except my religion courses!  Something else!  My grade point average would start over from square one!  And Mabel Lou’s oldest son found himself on a course that would establish him as a, guess what…a high school metals teacher.  I went from failing to high academic achievement.  Ruby and I married during my senior year and I graduated with high academic honors and got a teaching job, just up the road a bit.  Life was good!

On a visit back home my mother warned me, “You’re gonna see something in church that’s disturbing.  She would always schedule me for special music when I visited, and that Sunday I was to sing a solo.  When I entered for worship with Mom, there sat Stu in the second row, with another woman and her son.  He was proud as a peacock with his new lover and as I looked around, the whole church was hemorrhaging.  It was so wrong.  And no one, including me, knew what to say or do.  During the opening hymn Phyllis, his wife, slipped in and sat in the back, as far away as possible.  During the closing hymn, she disappeared.  Everyone was dumbstruck and trying somehow to be compassionate and polite.  And as I was singing, looking at him there in the second row, I thought, my God, he’s lost his mind!

I don’t know what happened or how it came about, but that very public affair ended, and Phyllis took him back.  They moved away.  Stu did some work at a hardware store and Phyllis did some teaching.  And as they aged together, Stu slipped into the fog of Alzheimer’s to the point of needing to be admitted to the memory care unit of the local nursing home.  While he was there, his oldest daughter, Laurie, got very sick, went to the hospital and died.  By that time Stu didn’t even know that he had a daughter, a son-in-law, or a wife for that matter.  He knew two things.  He knew his name was Stu, and he knew “The Lord’s Prayer” by Malotte, a solo that he had sung at so many funerals and weddings, including ours.

His son-in-law visited him in the memory unit wrestling with the idea of telling him about Laurie.  Instead he said, “Hey Stu!  How about singing “The Lord’s Prayer” for us.  And right there at the nurse’s station, Stu sang with his clear baritone voice that was as clear and melodic as the day he sang for his first root beer float.  And for a moment in time, everything stopped.  The staff and the residents received the best that Stu had to offer in a moment of reverent reflection.  It wasn’t long after that that he died.

I wrote to Phyllis in a Christmas card, giving thanks that they had found a way to reconcile.  She wrote back once and shared that it was tiring work for her to write but she wanted to share the moment at the nurse’s station and expressed gratitude for my love of Stu.  And not long after that, Phyllis died as well.  

This cross I’m wearing was crafted by Stu’s hands and is a sermon for another time.  But as we consider this story in the context of the theme of reversal of fortune, I will say that this story is not about Stu, it’s about Phyllis. 

The love of God endures without exception and reconciles humanity in relationships that never end.  When things go well, we can see this in the relationship between mother and child, grandmother and family, great grandmother, and respect for the gift of life.  Of course there are times when things don’t go as planned and relationships get derailed. 

If you look closely at this cross, you will see many flaws in its bronze coating.  If you were to compare it to plating, it could be seen as crude.  But love has a way of transforming flaws into perfection.  The child whose birth we celebrate changed a crude instrument of institutional terror and death… into a symbol recognized throughout the world as an image of forgiveness that reconciles, and offers hope in the resurrection of Jesus.  

The day might come when we no longer remember important things.  We might find ourselves in the haze of poor health.  We might even find ourselves estranged from those we love because of hurtful events that seem beyond our ability to reconcile.  But the gift of the Creator’s unfailing grace is extended to all… with reconciliation as a never-ending possibility for those who seek it.  Believe this and prepare for the birth of Christ with new hope through the love that sustains us and identifies us as children of God. 

 

 
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