Tommy has worked on our families’ cars for as long as I can remember. Won’t start? Call Tommy. Pulled the edge off your bumper in a parking lot? Call Tommy. At least twice in college I drove the pitiful car I was had at the time straight to Tommy’s garage, and my parents came to pick me up later. I wouldn’t say I know Tommy well, but he has been a constant in our lives for the last twenty years. The other thing he is known for in town, besides being a magician with cars, is his Christmas lights. His nice, rather non-descript brick house is ablaze, with lights around the gutters, on the roof, colored and white in various patterns, down the front stairs, around windows, on bushes and the little tree. The yard isn’t big, probably not much bigger than the courtyard out here, but it is filled with lights, stand-up crèche sets AND Santa Claus, candles and wire Christmas trees. It is a marvel.
But a couple of years ago the lights just weren’t up. Nobody knew why. We didn’t run into him, were kind of nervous to ask. We assumed it became cost prohibitive. You don’t make a stellar living being a mechanic, and the economic crisis was taking its toll on everyone. After a couple of years, we had almost forgotten.
Until this one. A few weeks ago my dad, along with all of the rest of the staff at the Conference Center, gathered in the lobby of the inn to decorate. They were hanging garland and wreaths, lots of big red bows, as they drank cider and ate cookies together. They needed an extension cord for a row of lights, and dad was walking down one of the halls of the hotel to a maintenance closet. And a woman he recognized, but couldn’t quite remember, stopped him. She worked in housekeeping. Mr. Tuttle, she said. Tommy is my husband, she said. He thinks a lot of your family, and we decided I would tell you our story; we wanted to tell you our story. She wasn’t like every other employee at the Inn, she said. She was on a work-release program from the minimum security correctional facility on the edge of town. She had been there for five years. Eight or so years before she was the controller for a decent-sized manufacturing company. It was a good job. But she had started heading to Cherokee on the weekends, to play the slots there in the casino on the reservation. It was fun for awhile, then she went more and more. And then, as the gambling addiction took root, she started taking money from the company to pay her debts. I justified it all in my head, she said, as wrong as it was. Until someone raised a few suspicions, and then it happened quickly – the arrest, the trial. She had been there for five years, hadn’t been home in five years. And while she still had time to serve, to pay back to society and the company what she owed, this year, for the first time she was coming home for Christmas. For three whole days, she said. And she was so excited. I just wanted to tell you, Mr. Tuttle, she said. Tommy said it would be good to talk with you.
And the reason I tell you this story, and the reason Tommy has given me his permission to share it with you, was that that night Dad drove down Tommy’s road, wound around the curves, and came to the straightaway just before his house…and there they were. The lights, blazing, every single one of them. And in an instant my dad knew why those lights had not come up, those last four Christmas’s Tommy’s wife Yvonne had been in jail. Tommy couldn’t do it. The hole in their lives was too big. There are seasons in all of our lives, I would imagine, when life presses down and we don’t feel like much more than a mass of broken relationships and broken dreams as we scurry from one thing to another, not doing anything as well as we would like. As we gather, as we get a little testy with family, as we grieve those we dearly miss who won’t be around the table this year. But this Christmas, Tommy’s lights were back up. Not because everything was fixed – Yvonne still has more time to serve. Because in the midst of all of the pain in their lives, and in ours, throughout this broken and beautiful world, his lights shone their proclamation of a broad and deep and persistent hope.
One of my theology professors, Shirley Guthrie, has written, "Christmas is the story of a radical invasion of God into the real world where we live all year long – a world where there is political unrest and injustice, poverty, hatred, jealousy, and both the fear and the longing that things could be different." That things will be different. As John writes in his gospel that Taylor read a moment ago: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." That Christ has come to earth once again, this sacred night. And that because God has joined us here, this life is blessed. You, us, our relationships. So that we can have hope. So that Tommy’s lights, along with the candles we will hold high in a few moments, might shine, for all the world to see, forever and ever.
All praise be to God. Merry Christmas. Amen.