When I was younger, my dad and I would get in the car and drive up and down the Valley, and we'd stop in at all the antique stores. We did this long before it became a fashionable thing to do—long before show like Antiques Road Show came on. Nowadays people look in antique stores like panning for gold, but for dad it was always—and he'll tell you it still is—the thrill of the hunt.
I liked to tag along with him. I was never much into antiques, but the fact is that without knowing it those antique stores were a big part of my education. You can learn a lot of history in those places. And if your imagination is anything like mine, you start to think of what the world was like when those things were new. I used to look in display cases and see: straight razors, strops, shaving bowls. Relics of time when men would get their faces shaved by a barber.
I used to look at sets of bone china, crystal, tarnished old sets of silver. Teapots of every shape and size. Magazines that would probably crumble to dust if you picked one up.
Across the room, filled with old chairs and tables, there would be this grand, venerable old china hutch. Wash basins with great big pitchers from the days when there was no running water in the house. Old, yellowing linens lying on little tables.
I would say that one time in fifty I bought a little something, but most of it, for me, was like visiting a museum. It would delight my father if I stopped in at those old shops—some of them are in this area—but I really don't want to. There is nothing there for me. None of those things really seems relevant—and unless you have the space for it, or you collect those things, or you're trying to turn a dollar—you don't really go in. There is nothing there for you.
I remember in college I knew a girl who played the piano. She played Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and she played show tunes, contemporary stuff, old standards. I remember one time she played for her parents, and she played some kind of contemporary thing, and I said, "Play some of that Beethoven." She wouldn't do it. She looked at me, as if to say, "Don't ask again." There was a trace of fear in her eyes.
I asked her about it later. She said, "I don't play classical music for my parents." I asked why. She said, "Because they don't think it's for them." "What do you mean," I responded, "not for them? They don't like it?" "No," she said, "they just don't think it's for them…they don't think people like them listen to classical music."
A couple years ago, I was at a church social: this was at St. Paul's Memorial Church in Charlottesville. St. Paul's is right on the grounds of UVA. Karin used to be an Associate Rector at that church. I was then the Rector of a church in one of the neighboring towns, but I was there in coat and tie, being a spouse, not a visiting priest. It was a lovely wine reception. Lots of people.
A man came up to me, and we got to talking. I didn't mention that I was a priest. He said, "I'm so glad I've found this church." I asked him what he liked best about it. He said, "Well, it's very liberal here. I've been through every red door in this area (he meant every Episcopal church) and they're all a bunch of closed-minded snobs. (Pause.) What do you do?" I told him, "I'm the Rector of a bunch of closed-minded snobs." No, I didn't say that! But I told him I was a local Episcopal priest. We talked about other things, but what he said stayed with me… St. Paul's was okay…but those other churches?..there was nothing there for him.
Little boys and girls have been opening up Christmas presents. When I was a little boy, there was nothing like looking under that tree and seeing those presents, and the little tags that had my name on them. What was in them? Doesn't matter. They're for me! There's one over there. There's one over there. They're for me!
One year, on Christmas Day, the phone rang. It was a very distant relative—he was a trucker, and he was making his way, with his driving buddy, through Virginia, and it was Christmas. He wanted to stop by.
Well, you can't pull an eighteen-wheeler up to the curb, so we had to go get him and his buddy from the truck stop. They were a little scruffy, but we put another leaf in the table, and put out another couple of place settings. It was a strange at first, but there was room, there was food.
I remember thinking as a boy, we don't have any presents for them. I wasn't being a good boy—part of me was worried that some of those presents would go to them instead of me. But it bothered me—there's nothing under that tree for them. Not one present. How can you have Christmas without presents? (Pause.)
Do you know what I find distressing? I am distressed by the number of people who don't feel that they can go into a church. You see churches of every size and shape. You see old ones, new ones, ones that look like they were dropped from the sky from another century, and some of them that are just store fronts in strips malls. But regardless of what kind of church, there are a lot of people who see the sign "church" and they run. No way. I'm not going in there.
I have met people of almost every Christian background: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Baptist, who won't go to church. They had a bad experience. Maybe their parents forced them to go, but never taught them why, or what it means. Maybe they heard sermons that scared them, or made them feel worthless. Maybe it's like that man at St. Paul's—they don't want to be around a bunch of closed-minded snobs. There could be any number of reasons why someone wouldn't come to church.
And some of them do, but they come in a look at the stained-glass and the pulpit and the altar, and it's like nothing else in their lives. Some folks cannot feel comfortable in a pew, they don't want to do something that people will notice, or criticize. They don't want to stand or sit at the wrong moment.
But I think the biggest hindrance is that many people just don't feel like there is anything there for them. The church comes across as a museum.
The church I served before I came here is a quaint little Gothic-style church with a lovely interior, pipe organ, a history that goes back to just after the Civil War. One year, I was asked if the church could be on the Garden Club tour, and I said yes. The Junior Warden organized a big, yard clean-up day. Everything was readied. Flowers everywhere. The organist played in ten minute segments every half hour. And people from all over Virginia came to visit us.
They had been visiting stately homes and gardens. It was a very society thing to do. I was there all day in my best suit, trying to look "Rector-ly." People looked at everything, and listened to the organ. "Such a lovely church. Who are you?" "I'm the parish priest." "Oh, this is an active church?" "Yes, ma'am, this is an active church." "People come here?" "Yes, ma'am, people come here."
There was amused silence. A little uncomfortable, in fact. I said, "You're welcome to come here on Sunday." And the response was always polite, "I may do that, young man," which seemed to me to mean, "No way, sonny boy. There is nothing here for me."
To many people, Jesus is the little boy on a Christmas card; a shepherd on a stained-glass window; a harsh painting of a man being crucified. The church is where he lives, or where some people think he lives—or I don't know. "I'm not welcome there," they think, "They don't know me, they don't want me."
The irony is that God sent Jesus to break through all of that. Instead of remaining, immortal and invisible, in Jesus, God became mortal and visible. "The Word [of God] became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only one born of the Father, full of grace and truth."
That baby in the manger is one of us. God with us. He is not an antique. He is not a picture in an art gallery. He is not confined or restricted by the brick and mortar of this church, or of any church, or of any community. He is not a relic. He is not a conversation piece. He is not just a figure from history. And his followers—if they are truly devout followers—are not closed-minded snobs.
Jesus is not irrelevant. He is God made flesh. He is the only one who is both fully human and fully God—and he is fully able to embrace you, and be known to you. He was born of a woman, just like you. He lived on this earth, just like you. He breathed the air; he ate the food; he had friends; he had enemies. He loved his enemies.
He offered his life and his love for the world, and the world did not understand it. He was raised from the dead, and he'll raise you from the dead.
He is the source of love; the ground of your being, the life force from which all things proceed. His the beginning and the end, and everything in between. And he loves you.
Don't say—don't let anyone, anyone say—that there's nothing here in this church for you. Everything is for you. The music is for you, the pews are for you, the bread and the wine are for you, this sermon is for you.
Jesus is for you.