A Christmas message during a pandemic

 Today I want to tell two stories. Both are true. Both speak of the hope and life-giving love that are the essence of Advent and Christmas.

The first is a war story, not of the war against the COVID-19 virus but World War II. Captain Edward Beach, U.S. Navy, was a genuine hero. He commanded the first submarine to circumnavigate the globe while submerged and authored the best-selling Run Silent, Run Deep,[1] During World War II, submarines in which he was serving damaged or sank 45 enemy ships.

The war’s conclusion found Captain Beach in command of the USS PIPER, underway in the East China Sea. There, just as they were entering Japanese waters, he received this message from his wife: Daughter was born August 10th X Both well X Congratulations.[2] In his words, “The war had come to an end, and life, for some of us, was beginning.”[3]

“The war had come to an end, and life, for some of us, was beginning.” That captures Christianity’s essence. In the midst of this pandemic that has killed three hundred thousand plus Americans and tens of thousands of others, we prepare to celebrate the birth of a child who forever changed the world. No matter how bad life seems, no matter how little hope seems to exist, remember that God acted in the birth of a child to declare God's unswerving love for the world. “The war had come to an end, and life, for some of us, was beginning.”

The second story occurred in a small town in Maine. Every December, when a woman named Jenna takes out her Christmas decorations, she remembers the gift that one little girl gave to another in 1960.

In Jenna’s elementary school, each grade had two classes, one for smart kids and one for the others. Most of the children in the other class came from poor families. Everybody knew which class was which and each year children usually remained in the same section.

One year a girl, whom Jenna calls “Marlene,” was “promoted” to the smart class. She obviously came from a poor family and had no friends in the class. Indeed, she was a misfit. No one played with her. Most of the children made fun of her when the teacher was not around.

A few days before the school’s Christmas party, the class picked names from a hat to find out for whom each would buy a gift. The hat went around, the names were drawn, and finally the hat came to Marlene, the new girl. One boy leaned forward, closer than anyone had ever gotten to her, and hooted as he read her slip of paper. “Marlene got Jenna’s name.” They teased Jenna until the teacher reprimanded the class.

Jenna dreaded the gift exchange. When it came, everyone seemed to be crowding around. She looked at the small package sitting on her desk wrapped neatly in tissue paper. Then she looked at Marlene, sitting alone. Seizing the gift, Jenna unwrapped it, and sat there holding it in her hand. “What is it?” a boy hollered when he could stand it no longer.

“It’s a wallet,” Jenna answered. The bell rang and the buses came and someone said to Marlene, “Did your old man make it from the deer he shot?” She nodded and said “My Ma.”

“Thank you,” Jenna said. “You’re welcome,” Marlene replied. They smiled at each other.

Years passed. Jenna went on to high school and college, and lost contact with most of her childhood schoolmates. Whenever she struggled with math problems, she recalled the way Marlene had always breezed through hers. She heard rumors that Marlene had dropped out to help her mother with the younger children at home, then had married young and started having babies of her own.

One day, decades later, Jenna came across the white doeskin wallet she had received at that long-ago Christmas party. She took it out and studied its intricate craftsmanship. Suddenly beneath the top flap she noticed a small slit holding a tiny piece of paper that she had never noticed. She read words written to her years before: “To my best friend.”[4]

In the midst of this unusual Advent, with the promise of vaccines and the frustrations of social distancing and masks, pause to remember the story of Jesus’ birth to a friendless girl. Like Jenna, you may discover small signs of God's love, small, perhaps even tentative, omens of hope, that you’ve never before noticed. The message a poor, forlorn child gave to her embarrassed, unseeing classmate, echoes God's message to us: You are my friends, my beloved daughters and sons. Amen.

Sermon preached in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2020

[1] Edward L. Beach, Run Silent, Run Deep (New York: Holt, 1955).

[2] Tom Clancy, “More Than Most, This Writer Lived What He Wrote,” Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2002.

[3] Richard Goldstein, “Edward L. Beach, Author and First Round-The-World Submariner, Dies At 84,” New York Times, December 1, 2002.

[4] Jenna Day, Downeast, December 1990, p.80.


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