FOR ALL THE PEOPLE
A Meditation by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Christmas Eve December 24, 2016
Some years ago now on a Christmas Eve probably not unlike this one, Harriett Richie and her husband and children walked out of their South Carolina church following their late night candlelight service and headed to their car. It was a few minutes after midnight, and the night was clear and crisp. When Harriett’s husband remarked that he was hungry, the family decided on a whim that, instead of going directly home, they would see if they could find a restaurant that might be open in the wee hours of Christmas morning. After some unsuccessful searching in town, they finally found the lights on at a nearly deserted truck stop near the off-ramp of a nearby interstate, and went in for a very early Christmas breakfast. It was an experience that stood in stark contrast to the carols and candlelight they had just experienced at the church.
[Instead of an organ and choir] The jukebox was playing something like “When You Leave, Walk Out Backwards So I’ll Think You’re Coming In.” [Unlike the poinsettia-filled sanctuary] The only suggestions of Christmas were the multicolored blinking lights strung around the large window. The air smelled [not of pine or fir or incense, but] of coffee, bacon and stale cigarette smoke. At the counter a one-armed man in a baseball cap was drinking Pepsi from a bottle. Two other men sat at a table talking, eating and drinking. At such an hour [Harriett said she] couldn’t help wondering where they had come from or were going.
A tired-looking woman named Rita came and took their orders, and soon they began scarfing down pancakes and bacon and eggs. Harriett said at first she found herself a bit bemused by her surroundings.
This wasn’t [her] first breakfast at 1 a.m., but the others had been on somebody’s china. [She said] The snob in [her] was enjoying feeling out of place. Years from now, [she] thought, we’ll laugh and say, “Remember the Christmas we ate breakfast at that truck stop? That awful music and those tacky lights?”[She] was staring out the window thinking such thoughts when an old Volkswagen van with Texas license plates and an overload of luggage drove up. A bearded young man in jeans got out. He walked around and opened the door for a young woman who was holding a baby. They hurried inside and took a booth near the back.
Harriett said she imagined them on the way to somewhere where grandparents were anxiously awaiting the first chance to see their new grandchild. She saw Rita walk over to take their drink orders, and she heard the baby begin to cry. The father lifted the baby to his shoulder, but it didn’t help; the baby began to wail. Rita poured some coffee for them, just as the mother took the baby and stood and began rocking her, but the crying continued. So the mother picked up the diaper bag and started toward the door, holding the baby’s head against her neck as though she could muffle the baby’s cries.
Rita [stopped her… she] reached over and held out her arms. “Drink your coffee, hon. Let’s see what I can do.” There was something about the way Rita took the infant that made [Harriett] think she’d raised half a dozen of her own. She began talking, walking, playing with the baby. Rita showed her to the man in the baseball cap. He began whistling and making silly faces, and the baby stopped crying. Rita showed her the blinking lights and the lights on the jukebox. She brought her over to [Harriett and her family]. “Just look at this little darlin’. Mine are so big and grown,” she said.
As Rita was making her rounds, the one-armed man took a pot of coffee from a burner and started waiting on tables. The other two men pitched in, too, distributing food from the window that separated the counter from the kitchen. It was about then that a small moment of light illuminated that dark night, and it dawned on Harriett. She felt a tear well up in her eye, as she said to her husband, “He’d come here, wouldn’t he?”
“Jesus. If Jesus were born in this town tonight, and the choices were our neighborhood, the church or this truck stop, it would be here, wouldn’t it?”
He didn’t answer right away, but looked around the place, looked at the people. Finally he said, “Either here or the homeless shelter.”
“That’s what bothers me,” [she] said. “When I first got here I felt sorry for these people because they probably aren’t going home to neighborhoods where the houses have candles in the windows and wreaths on the doors. And listening to that awful music, I thought, I’ll bet nobody here has ever heard of Handel. Now I think that more than any place I know, this is where Christmas [is meant to happen]. But I don’t belong.”
They finished their meal in silence. As they walked out into the chill on their way to the car, Harriett’s husband put his arm around her and said, “Remember that the angel said, ‘I bring good news of great joy for all the people. [I reckon that means even you.]’” She responded with an unconvinced smile. But the comment lodged somewhere in her heart and mind as they made their way home and finally turned onto their street.
The houses in [their] neighborhood were dark [but as they drove by the houses, one by one Harriett thought of who was inside]. As [they] passed the Milfords, [she] wondered what Christmas Day would be like for them. Their daughter died in a car accident during the summer. Next door Jack McCarthy had lost his job. A little farther down the street lived the Baileys, whose marriage was hanging together by the slimmest thread. Mrs. Smith’s grown son had died of AIDS. [Then she thought…you know,] maybe we’re not so different from the people in the truck stop….
After they got home, and the children were ready for bed, Harriett pulled out her Bible, turned to the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and read, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Then, she said, she turned once again to the Christmas story from Luke, just to be sure the angel really had said, “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.” Many Christmases later, as she thought back to that Christmas breakfast at the truck stop… that holy and surprising night… Harriett wrote,
I still believe that Jesus would be born in what I’d call an unholy place. But rich, poor or in between, we are all poor in spirit. We all have more unhappy memories than anyone would guess and burdens that we never share. In the endless, sometimes meaningless daily grind, in the comings and goings of our lives, our souls are often far from home whether we know it or not.
In the places where we are broken, in the dark holes where something is missing, in the silence of unanswered questions, [even there… especially there] the wondrous gift is given.
You know, I believe she’s right. The angel did say, “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. All. Now, for Luke, that probably meant all of Israel; but by the grace of Christ it includes even us Gentiles… and others beyond our careful calculations. It includes all of us.
Walking across campus last week, I spotted a bumper sticker on the back of a car outside Bynum Hall – a multi-colored map of North Carolina with the words, “Y’all means everyone.” Good news of a great joy for y’all – for everyone! No matter what legislative decrees may say! Good news for all! In fact, the good news announced at Bethlehem may even more encompassing than we think.
In a post for his Writer’s Almanac last Christmas Eve, Garrison Keillor spoke of an event only a portion of us will remember, but it’s worth repeating for all:
On Christmas Eve 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft entered orbit around the moon. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to orbit a celestial body other than our Earth. Apollo 8 circled the moon ten times over the next twenty hours, while the astronauts tested equipment and took many photographs of the moon’s surface. It was the first manned space mission to the moon, and it was a crucial step toward meeting the Apollo mission’s ultimate goal – putting a [person] on the surface of the moon. NASA would achieve that goal less than a year later.
The astronauts sent a Christmas Eve broadcast home to Earth from their path around the moon. Borman later recalled, “We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice, and the only instructions that we got from NASA was to [say] something appropriate.” All three astronauts took turns reading from the Book of Genesis, which begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.”
William Anders later said that although the astronauts went on their mission to explore the moon, what they really discovered was the planet Earth. [We think it is so large, so complex.] He added, “I think it’s important for people to understand that they are just going around on one of the smaller grains of sand on one of the great spiral arms of this kind of puny galaxy …. It [Earth] is insignificant, but it is the only one we’ve got.”
Responding to that post, my pastor friend Jon Walton said, “I hardly think the Earth is insignificant, nor our lives of little consequence. I do, however, think we tend to underestimate the role the whole earth plays in the story that is our focus and endpoint [this night]. Heaven draws close to the Earth in the birth of Jesus, and all the Earth takes notice and responds.”
The birth at Bethlehem was not some celestial celebration that hovered over and above the mean ordinariness of life as we know it; it was instead the birthing of God’s goodness and love precisely within a very human life, a birth in rude and common surroundings to a teenaged girl and her bewildered husband, in a troubled time when Quirinius was governor of Syria and Caesar Augustus had the world under his capricious and powerful thumb. The first witnesses of the Incarnation of God were not theologians or princes or prophets, but poor, uneducated Judean shepherds. That is the way of Luke, who, among all the gospel writers, displays prominently God’s special affinity for those of low degree. And in that sense, Harriett Richie was probably right; Jesus probably would have come to the truck stop instead of her neighborhood or her church.
And yet… and yet… the gift of Christmas is not just for some. The good news of that Bethlehem night extends with ripple effects to all people everywhere – to the educated and the uneducated, to the rich and the poor, to the devout and the skeptical, black, brown, white… single, married, gay, straight… it extends to Rita and the one-armed man and the couple from Texas with the crying baby, and to Harriett Richie and each of her neighbors, to you and to me.
“For to you is born this night in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:11, 12)
Good news of a great joy, for Christmas marks the beginning of the redemption of life as we know it, with all the hopes and fears of all the years, and initiates the promise of an encouraging future even when the future seems precarious and bleak at best… good news of great joy for all the people. All the people… you… me… all.
 Harriett Richie, “He’d Come Here,” Christian Century, December 13, 1995, 1205-1206. This meditation owes much of its content and direction to Richie’s story. All other citations are from her story.
 As cited by Jon Walton, in a paper presented to the January 2016 meeting of the Moveable Feast in Austin, Texas.
 Walton, cf. note 2. Italics mine.