Sarah’s Story

By Scott Sears

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:7b NIV)

Sarah sat in the dust and dirt that had collected in the front room of her family home drawing with her fingers in the dirt.  At times, when she didn’t like the way a picture looked, she would rub it out of existence with her heel.

“How much longer, Daddy?” she said to one of the two men standing near the doorway.  The boredom in her voice was both evident and intentional.

“Not long, little Sar,” her father said.  “Not long at all.  Keep quiet or you can go and help your mother in the kitchen.”  Sarah frowned and went back to her drawing.

Sarah had seen people coming and going for most of the past week.  Some stayed as they proved to her father and mother that they were indeed relatives.  “Some are so distantly related they might as well be Gentiles,” her mother said more than once.  Some stayed even if they weren’t related.

Many of these strangers brought food or other items to share with Sarah’s family.  That was good.  Bread, salted fish and even the rare sweet were shared among the lodgers and the family.  Some of the travelers had nothing to share and relied totally upon her family’s ability to provide.  Sarah’s father gained more energy with each new visitor, each new person lodging in their home.

Her mother, however, was tired.  Sarah saw it in her eyes. And Sarah could definitely hear it in her mother’s voice.  She also saw it in the way her mother held her stomach where Sarah’s new baby brother or sister was growing each day.  It wouldn’t be long now.  And Sarah so hoped for a little brother around the house.

Yes, Sarah enjoyed the treats she got at times and had even found herself entertained by some of the stories the travelers told, but for the most part she was bored and Sarah could tell that many of the travelers were bored with her as well.

She thought about going in and lying down on her parents mat in their room.  She knew she would be sleeping there again tonight.  Between her father’s exhausted snores waking her, and her mother’s ever growing belly taking up space on the mat, Sarah had found it was better to go to sleep early.  But Sarah really wanted to wait and see what strangers would be sharing their home this night.

Bored or not, she listened and continued to play in the dirt on the floor.  She made a star, which she kept, a bird which she erased and several very passable sheep.

“It’s only me.  Just one person!  That is all, my cousin.  I brought my own mat and I have food for myself.  I just need a place to shelter after my journey.  Even a corner in this room would be a palace compared to sleeping on the streets.”

Sarah’s father shook his head, “I hate offering such meager lodgings to my kin.  Have you checked with everyone else?”

“Every one.  No one has any room nearly as nice as your floor.”

Sarah stopped her drawing long enough to look at the floor and wondered if these works of art were what made this cold, hard floor seem nice to the stranger.  It was a floor to her.  It was a very boring place to be.  She certainly didn’t yearn for the floor like the traveler and she thought the crowded mat with her parents a much more comfortable place.

“Look!  I even have a gift to offer.”

Sarah looked up again at this possibility and saw the man reach outside the door and bring in a small, sad looking table.  Yes, it had four legs like a table should but when he sat it on the floor it wobbled back and forth.  The top of the table was not solid but had five pieces of old weathered wood across it giving it some use, although Sarah couldn’t imagine what.

“There, there, my kinsman,” her father said, “gifts are not necessary.  My home is always open to those who need a place.  I could not bear to have you part with any possession for the lousy accommodation of a corner in my front room.”

“You will let me stay, then!” the stranger laughed as he said it.  He kissed her father on both cheeks and worked his way into the room before her father could object again.  He set down his bedroll and the meager belongings he had with him and immediately knelt in prayer.

Her father shook his head and sighed and laughed.  He looked to the ceiling and said, “Hospitality.  Addonai, I bring these people into my home because you have blessed me with it.  May we all be a blessing to one another.”

Sarah watched as her father moved towards the door to close it for the night.  Her room, the roof and now the very front room were all filled with people.  She was certain there would be no more strangers this night.  Yet, as he removed the table from the path of the door, another stranger appeared.

Her father paused just long enough to make out the man’s face.  “Joseph?  Joseph of Nazareth?  I believe I recognize the face of my sister’s son.”

“It is I,” the new stranger replied, “and I have my wife, Mary, with me as well.  She is, well, with child and it is very close to her time.”

Frowning, her father sat the table down in front of the window and patted Sarah on the head.  “You: my little Sar.  I think we might make this a stool for you to look out the window and keep an eye out for more travelers.  Perhaps you can say we are full before they darken the door.  If they think a little one has taken residence in a window, they may well believe!”

Sarah wasted no time in climbing up on the table, listening to the boards creek as she did so.  She then hoisted herself into the window.  Though it was late and dark, she could see from the lights of many lamps in neighboring houses that her town of Bethlehem was bustling with activity.  For a moment, her boredom was gone.  She even noticed the young woman belonging with this new stranger standing in the shadows. Even at her young age of six, Sarah knew that Mary was closer to having her baby than Sarah’s mother.  She certainly did not want to share a mat with that woman!  But Sarah knew she needed some lodging.  She must have shelter.

“Joseph, I am so very sorry my kinsman.  My house is yours, but there is simply no place for the two of you.  My last spot on the floor has been taken.  I am so very sorry.”  Sarah’s father said with sadness.

“I see,” said Joseph.  “The peace of the Lord be with you.” And he bowed to leave.

Sarah wanted to tell her father about the very pregnant woman waiting outside.  She knew she wanted to do this even as she watched her father begin to close the door on Joseph and his wife.

But she never uttered any words to her father.  She jumped from the window ledge to the table and then all kinds of other sounds muffled the words.  Either the sound of the center board of the table breaking, or the sound of her own cries, or her father shouting her name as she fell to the floor drowned out even the thought of what she wanted to say.

Her father was there before she hit the ground and Joseph was right there beside him.  Both of them look at her, alarm on their faces and both sets of eyes scanned her from head to toe as if they were looking for some unknowable lost item.

“Your table!” Sarah said between tears.  “I broke your table!”

She buried her face in her father’s beard and her father patted her back and said, “Now, now little Sar.  Let’s be sure nothing important is broken – like you!”

Sarah’s cries died down as her father held her tighter and she was convinced that the most damaged item was the table.  She did notice the feeling of scrapes on her legs and she was aware of little pricks of pain as if something had stung her.

“A few scratches and splinters is all,” Joseph said to her father.  “If she will keep holding still while you hold her I will have the rest of them out before she knows.”

Sarah looked down toward her legs and saw that Joseph had two tiny splinters of wood on the tip of a calloused finger, while his other hand moved toward her leg.  She wanted to flinch but Joseph’s hands were quick and talented.  With caresses more than with tugging and pulling, he removed the rest of the stinging splinters even as Sarah’s tears dried in her father’s beard.

“Brave little girl you have there,” said Joseph.

“Yes.  Yes.  That’s my brave little Sar.”

“But Daddy…your table.”

“It is nothing, little one.” He said to her as he placed her on the floor.

Joseph had already moved to the remaining pieces of wood that had once been a table and began sorting them out on the floor.  The stranger who brought the table had stopped his prayer and come over to examine the damage as well and said, “It really was just cobbled together from old wood from a neighbor’s stable.  I am so very sorry of its terrible workmanship.”

“That too, is nothing,” said Sarah’s father.  “The gift was offered and received as a treasure.  We are sorry it did not last us longer.  We will remember the spirit of the giver nonetheless.”

“Old stable wood, you say?” asked Joseph.

“Yes.  It is from my neighbor’s home,” the lodger said.

Joseph pulled from his belt a little hammer and asked Sarah to come and be his helper.  He removed the nails even quicker than the splinters.  He had her hold two of the legs of the table together in an “X” on the floor.  Each set of legs was fastened together in this fashion and Joseph asked Sarah to stand them up and hold them apart from one another.  Joseph attached the slats that were the top of the table to the inner parts of each frame with the nails he had removed and a couple more that appeared from behind Sarah’s ears with a giggle.  He told Sarah to let go.

“Not perfect,” said Joseph, “but if you know anyone with a stable this old wood might make a good feeding trough, now.”

“The stable!” Sarah’s father exclaimed.  “I forgot about the stable.  Joseph…it is so very little for me to offer given your exceeding kindness, but we do have a stable that could be shelter of sorts.  And my wife has had one little one, should your Mary have need of her.  I know it is so little to offer, but, please accept what little hospitality I have left.”

“It is nothing,” remarked Joseph with a grin, “and it is everything.  We will accept what God has provided.  Thank-you, my kinsman.  And thank-you, little Sarah, for being such a fine helper.  Would you like to show Mary and me to our room?”

“Yes.” Sarah said.  And she was out the door to show Joseph and Mary their stable.  She proudly carried the manger she helped make.  She thought of how her accident had let to the manger’s creation.  She was in awe of Joseph’s hands which now held onto his wife as the traveled slowly to the stable.

She only went out to that stable one time while Mary and Joseph stayed there.  Sarah snuck out of the house early to see the family a couple of mornings after her mother had gone out in the middle of the night.  She had gone to assist Mary in the delivery of her first born son.  Mary was now asleep and so was the little baby boy.  Joseph, however, was up whittling something out of some wood he found somewhere.

“A fine bed you made, my little one.  A fine bed indeed.  Fit for a king, I would say,” Joseph said with a smile.  Sarah looked at the baby, the shattered table that became his bed and she joined Joseph in that smile.

manger

*Sarah did not see them or many of the other stranger leave.  In those very busy days, her mother’s time also came and while her mother was busy caring for her new baby brother, chores and cleaning kept Sarah more than busy.

The very next time she was in the stable was a time very near her own little brother’s second birthday.  It was also just a few days after her brother had been taken and killed by soldiers.  Sarah went to the stable this time for some time away from her mother’s cries and to find a place to shed a few tears of her own.  She found herself kneeling by the manger and holding its side only long enough to get a splinter in each palm.

She cried.  She thought of her little brother.  She imagined him now “resting with Abraham” as the grown-ups had told her.  She thought of all the other families in Bethlehem that were hurting.  She knelt by the manger and thought of the sleeping baby she had seen there and hoped and even prayed that the Lord would spare Joseph and Mary from the hurt she and her family were feeling.

After a while, when the tears were gone, she wiped her face with her hands.  She glanced down and saw that the splinters that had pierced her palms were now gone.  Somehow, she knew in that moment that the baby who used this bed was okay.  For now.  For now, he was just fine in the hands of Joseph and Mary.

Sarah walked back to her home, a place so quiet compared to those days two years before when they were overrun with strangers, but a place now filled with tears and wailing.  Sarah walked into her mother’s room and lay down beside her.  She placed her palms upon her mother’s cheeks and wiped the tears away with her own healed hands.  She whispered to her mother that the Lord would not let her cry forever.

And she didn’t.

© 2013 Scott Sears

* The following paragraphs were not included in a Christmas Eve reading of this story.

Bound

"Friar Folk" Ordination Gift

“Friar Folk” Ordination Gift

These little guys have been hanging around my desk for quite some time now.  “Word” (the little guy with the book), “Sacrament” (yeah, with the wine bottle and bread) and “Order”, (the guy in the dark brown robe and the puzzled look toward the sky) were all given to me on the occasion of my ordination by one of my sponsors, Rev. Judy Fisher.  She is even responsible for naming these Friar Folk for me and explaining that the best thing she could think of for ordering the life of the church was a whole lot of prayer.  That’s probably why I have, through the years, purchased the other two praying Friars, appropriately named “Uh-Oh” and “What-do-I-do-now, God?”

Whenever I look at any of my Friar Folk – and yes, there are more of them – I am reminded that I am connected not only to God through my ordination but to many other sisters and brothers in this “order” we call Elders.  I am bound to them by something more than mere words that I said in my vows. I am bound to them by more than just words that appear on any page.

I am bound by God to be in covenant with these brothers and sisters by the very Word of God.

Our denomination has been going through a whole lot of upheaval lately.  I could describe it in detail but that’s not necessary and it really isn’t helpful.  The fact of the matter is that those of us who are “bound” together find ourselves disagreeing with one another.  Some think one way…some think another.  Some are even willing to call the others “wrong”.  (As an aside, I do not have a Friar Folk name “Wrong” or “Right” for that matter.)

I think about my ordination often  and I think about the problems we as Elders are having with one another.  I am glad I have these three guys and their friends around to remind me that I am bound to others.  I also have a great group of Elders that I am in a Covenant Group with that are always there to remind me of the tie we have.  And yeah, sometimes it even gags us!

I don’t have all the answers to what we are facing together but this much I know…I do not have to be “right” about anything.  And you, my sister or brother, do not have to be “wrong.”

There is something bigger than what we can know, understand and figure out that holds us together.  We are bound…Thank God…we are bound to one another.

Family Celebrations

In our home, we have a little saying when one of us begins to weep or cry at a movie or some other event like church. We simply say, “It’s a mystery!” rather than try to figure out exactly what triggered the joy or sorrow of the tears. Well, it was a mystery for me all evening…

I stood among the many people holding candles and sang the hymn that so many churches do on Christmas Eve – “Silent night, holy night” – and I thought about the six wonderful months I have had serving the people of First UMC, Princeton. They welcomed me better than the Christ child was welcomed into the world. They cared for me better than the shepherds in Jesus day would ever experience. And they listened, really listened as I led them to celebrate a Different Kind of Christmas by joining Jesus in the battle against malaria. When my daughter got up and began singing “O Holy Night,” I knew the night was almost complete – the singing of “Silent Night” and the twinkling of the candles allowed me to remember the love, the care and the service given by a community of faith.

The Saturday after Christmas found me spending time with twenty one of my family members in the Fellowship Hall of our church. My Dad got up to say a few words and my brothers and I all nervously laughed, not knowing how long this would take or just what might come out. But then he said, “Thank you. That is all.” And he sat back down. We were celebrating the fifty years that my parents had been married but from the stories being shared, I think we were just celebrating! There was laughter…there were crying, fussy grandchildren (yep…mine) and there was food. The only thing missing…perhaps the singing of “O Holy Night” would have rounded it out for me.

“I don’t know how things were going in there, but people were hanging around in the Gathering Space for along time talking to one another.”

It was a report that I really hadn’t expected. The coffee and the sweet rolls were in the sanctuary and people had come and gone for a couple of hours as groups – sometimes families, sometimes a mix of people – served one another in our version of the Moravian lovefeast. Hugs broke out easily when the eating was over. So, why was I surprised that the fellowship, the unity, the “agape” we shared in the sanctuary spilled over into the Gathering Space and probably even home.

Now that I think it about, only one thing was missing that night as well…”O Holy Night.”

Nah, it wasn’t a “mystery” for just one evening, it has been one mystery after another for a while!  Thank God!

Spread the Light – Save a Life

Imagine-No-Malaria-Logo-3Well, it has happened!

If you text a $10 donation to “Imagine No Malaria” between now and December 26th – simply text “MALARIA” to 27722 – you will receive a confirmation text and then a thank you text that includes a link to a picture of  a burning candle.

I will be making one of those text donations on Christmas Eve during our worship service at First United Methodist Church and then I will be sharing the light of this “candle” as a present to the Christ child who came into the world to “heal the sick…”  It is my small way of showing Jesus I am following him in the revolutionary movement to end malaria by 2015!  It is a disease that can be defeated if we join him.  (Granted, I have to borrow a phone for this one since I have already hit the monthly limit for donations via text!  But that doesn’t matter…what matter is my gift to Jesus!)

My invitation to you is twofold but simple – share this light as you worship on Christmas Eve. (Just make the donation at an appropriate time in worship and share your “light” for all to see!)  Maybe someone will ask you why and you can share the message with them…maybe others will join you as you share beforehand what you are going to do.  Maybe, God will show up in the midst of this and light the world with these candles that show healing.

Also, if you can, please share this message with as many people as possible, however you wish (share on Facebook, send out as an email, tweet a link…I don’t care) prior to your Christmas Eve worship services.  This blog is read by fewer than 100 people but those 100 know another 100 and so forth.  Light has a tendency to spread and this is one time I hope and pray it will spread long and far.

My hope for First UMC Princeton is that we would light enough cell phone candles (27) to join the Holston Conference in their memorial of those killed in Newtown.  We cannot do anything to bring back the lives lost their but we can stop another killer – Malaria!

Finally, I would like to thank the people at “Imagine No Malaria,” “mGive” and “United Methodist Communications” as well as a colleague in our Conference, Adam Cunningham, for helping to make this happen.  These folks are true warriors in the battle against malaria and this shows that they are committed to seeing this disease eliminated by 2015.  My prayers and my work is with them!

Newtown

Last Sunday morning, I had a wonderful group of children gather around me on the steps of the chancel at Princeton FUMC as we talked about a little owl that someone shared with us.  I told them that no matter what, “God knows ‘WHO’ you are.”  It was corny, campy and cute.  Yet, I don’t regret a single fist bump or hug any one of those children gave me.

Last night I listened to the Princeton Senior High School Jazz Band, First Block Choir and The Madrigal Singers all perform beautiful music for the season.  Their selections this year were interesting – even according to the director – who said many of the pieces were chosen simply because the showed a part of the “music of the world” that is so much a part of our culture.  Some of the songs were not Christmas songs but simply recalled that anyone could praise God.  I don’t regret clapping for a single one of the young people who gave of themselves.  I don’t regret being in tears as I heard the words to the Lord’s Prayer in an African language and English at the same time.  I don’t regret moving to the front of my seat and bursting with love and pride as my own daughter sang a duet of “O Holy Night.”

This morning I am doing my best to prepare myself for worship.  There are lots of good things that have happened this week as I prepare for a different kind of Christmas this year.  But this morning I read an Associated Press story on the shooting in Newtown and one quote brought me to tears again.  One child, in the midst of the shooting said, “I just want Christmas.  I want this to stop.  I just want Christmas.”   And now, I go to worship in song as we present our annual Christmas Cantata.  It is difficult to do that in the midst of all that has happened in Newton, Connecticut this week.

I was reminded on Friday by Bishop William Boyd Grove of the following:

Connecticut and Bethlehem

Our cheeks are wet with tears,
and our hearts are angry.
In our minds, the image
of our own children last Sunday
with their smiling faces
and their blue and white robes
Singing the Jesus story.

Violence and death
are not new to Christmas.
There is a part of the story we usually skip because it spoils the mood.After angels had gone home
and the shepherds back to
their fields, Herod’s soldiers
killed every boy child
younger than two,
hoping one of them was the new king.
And within a few days
the Christmas Child was a refugee headed for Egypt.

Christmas was violent
and is today.
Bethlehem and Connecticut.

We pray that Christmas angels
Who sang on Christmas night
will hang out in Connecticut now;
much work to do there.

His words reminded me of the story I mentioned during last week’s sermon from Matthew:

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

And I was also reminded this week that in some places in our world children die by violence each and every day – the Sudan, Darfur, Palestine are just a few that come to mind.
This morning, our congregation will gather to worship.  We will gather to proclaim boldly that even in the midst of the darkest that this world can bring, our Savior comes.  Jesus arrives in the messiness of our world.  Jesus arrives in the midst of the grieve of Newton and all those who look at their children differently – in our country and through out the world.
May Jesus come to us this Advent and Christmas…God knows we need him!