God our Father, you spoke to the prophets of old of a Savior who would bring peace.
You helped them to spread the joyful message of his coming kingdom. Help us,
as we prepare to celebrate his birth, to share with those around us the good news
of your power and love. We ask this through Jesus Christ, the light who is coming
into the world. Amen.[i]
Fred Craddock, Jr, knelt at his sixty-three-year-old father’s bedside in a Memphis, Tennessee, VA hospital. For his part, Fred Craddock, Sr – alcoholic and esteemed storyteller of Humboldt, Tennessee – never stopped drinking and never stopped smoking Bull Durham cigars and laid dying of throat cancer. He weighed seventy-three pounds that day and could neither eat nor speak, but “when he saw his son, [Craddock, Sr,] picked up a Kleenex box and scribbled on it a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’[ii] [In response, the young man asked his father,] “‘What is your story, Daddy?’”[iii]
During the Great Depression, the Craddock family lost the ten-acre farm they had inherited, and the family of seven moved into a dirt-floor shack with neither electricity nor running water. “At times, Craddock Sr[, the patriarch,] would sober up. He [would vow] never to drink again. He [would occasionally find] an odd job. Once, he…arranged for a dentist to pull a gold crown from one of his molars so he could buy Christmas toys for his children,” but as fine as he was with his stories (and perhaps even with his intentions), Mr. Craddock was as unskilled as a farmer, a handyman, and a shopkeep. Craddock, Jr, said of his daddy: “He wanted to do better by his family[, but he] didn’t know how.”
Their matriarch, Ethel Craddock, put food on her family’s table, working during the day in a factory where she adhered labels onto Buster Brown shoes. Then, “at night, [she would gather] her children around the fireplace to play word games,” in order to grow their vocabulary. For this life, Mrs. Craddock drew strength from her faith: “She took her children to church, sang hymns to the accompaniment of her harmonica, [and she] welcomed down-on-their-luck strangers who needed a hot meal or a place to stay.
“At first, Mr. Craddock shared the pew with his family…But he stopped attending as his drinking grew worse. ‘He felt guilty,’ the younger Craddock explained of his father: ‘He’d say, ‘Every time I go to church, they preach against the drunks like they can’t go to heaven…I know what the church wants: another name, another pledge.’” Despite his father’s absence, Fred, Jr, found peace and acceptance in the church, where he was not known for his poverty, but for his potential. The church community cared for him as he grew up, giving him new shoes, picture books of the bible, and kindness.
As it turned out, Fred Craddock’s father was not the only member of his family who could tell a good story. When Fred turned seventeen, he approached his mother to tell her that he thought God might be calling him to be a preacher. His mother doubled-over, weeping at the news. When she collected herself, she explained her reaction, telling him of a terrible night when he was only eight-months-old. The infant Fred was suffering with “diphtheria, a highly infectious disease that forms blockages over the lungs, gradually suffocating its victims[, and he could] barely draw breath.
His father [ran] a mile to summon a doctor[, but] the doctor [couldn’t] do much, and Craddock’s breathing [had] grown more labored. His mother [finally could not] watch him suffer any more, and [fled] to the barn where she [prayed] all night: “Dear God, if you will let him live, I will pray every day that he will serve you as a minister.” She fell asleep on the hay, and awakened to word that her son would live.
In stark contrast, when Craddock told his father of his possible vocation, Craddock, Sr, cracked jokes: “Don’t be like John the Baptist…and lose your head.”
Among the finest preachers of the last century, Fred Craddock knew at least two stories:
one, of a world so harsh and hateful that it could turn a strong man and a father into a drunkard who could not provide for his family; and another, of a world so magical and good that, somehow in the mystery of God, a mother’s prayer could save a dirt-poor child from death and desolation and deliver him to bind up the broken-hearted.
Of course, we, too, know these stories. We know of this cruel world and its awful powers to coerce and to corrupt, even the people who we admire. We know well of disease and disaster and disappointment – the unfairness of this life’s caprice – for those we love, and for ourselves. Into such complexity and difficulty, we announce those first bars of Mark’s Gospel we read this morning: this is “The beginning of the good news…” This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ! For no matter how dark the world has become, we announce the very good news that God loves us – loves you, loves me – loves us enough to send a son to model a different life, sing a different song, and tell a different tale:
. when our infant child lays dying in his crib, it is the story of an infant king that we recount;
. when our drunken father lays dying in a hospital bed, it is the story of a wild man pronouncing forgiveness at the riverside that we recall;
. and when the world has lost its mind and seeks its own destruction and ours, it is the story of a resurrected savior that we remember.
Fred Craddock’s father never heard his son preach. One Sunday while preaching at his boyhood church, a man the same age as his father approached him after the service and said, “[Boy,] you sound like your daddy.” Craddock had to compose himself to achieve the simple action of shaking the man’s hand, and now, even at the end of a long and distinguished career, he says that the compliment remains the greatest ever paid to him and to one of his sermons.
[As a young man at his father’s bedside, he had asked,] “‘What is your story, Daddy?’
“His father’s eyes welled with tears[, and he] wrote: ‘I was wrong.’”
“‘It was so late,” [Craddock said of his father’s confession.] ‘It was at the end. With his personality and his education – he was generous to a fault; give you the shirt off his back. He could have been such a good person, helping people, talking to people, playing with children – he could [have done] all these things.’”
…“he could have…”
In The Episcopal Church we have a tendency to receive sermons and admonitions of what we might call “faithful urgency” the way we might we might receive flatulence in an elevator: such things may be necessary, healthy, and even good, but surely this is neither the time nor the place for such unpleasantness. This inclination to “politeness” functions as a strategy for avoiding some fundamental truths of this life: the first and most significant truth being the certainty that this life will end, and, likewise, our opportunity for fidelity in this world will end, too. Our Advent preparation benefits from a measure of faithful urgency: not that we would be in a hurry, but that we would do what we can do today…here…now. In this season of Advent, looking forward to the birth of Jesus, our faithful urgency would anticipate, as well, his coming at the Fulfillment of Time, and, with this perspective of both the beginning and the end, we would acknowledge the worst of this life, and recommit to the Good.
People of God, I encourage, therefore, do not wait until tomorrow, or even for an altar call this morning (you will be waiting a while for that…): prepare the way of the Lord and choose the Good today. Let us not lie on our deathbeds, grieving what we could have done and lamenting the men and women we could have been. Let us not burden our children with gathering at our bedside and grieving our lost opportunities. No! Let us do the good we can do, while we have time to do it. None of us has everything, but all of us have something good to speak into this wilderness. We need not be perfect to honor our baptism by water and the Holy Spirit….we need only share ourselves and our love, and, in so doing everyday, make room for God to be born in us again.
In the name of the infant King,