Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Sermon 2014 - Testimony of Untrustables

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

-Luke 2:1-20

In this morning’s gospel reading, 

the angel appears to the shepherds. 

The shepherds talk. 

The shepherds go together to Bethlehem to see. 

And the shepherds, 
like John the baptizer after them, 
and like the angels, 
and Mary and Elizabeth before them, 
testify to the light. 

The Angels Appear To The Shepherds

A bit on shepherds.

Shepherds shared a lot in common with other characters from the Gospels. 
Like the “publicans”—that is, the “tax collectors...” 
Like the publicans, 
the shepherds were despised and distrusted. 
The shepherds were accused of being thieves, pilfering crops.
They were known as liars by trade—
mothers told their children, “Don’t talk to that man,” 
if she saw him coming down the street or at the grocery store,
his smell and his dress giving him away as 
“one of them”—you know, “one of those people.” 
Not to be trusted.  

In case you think I’m imagining this 
or hyperbolizing to really get through to you 
in this year’s Christmas sermon, 
I’m not. 
Historians, writing to us from centuries ago, tell us that Shepherds in Jesus' time were not even trusted to be witnesses in court, or to hold a judicial office. 
Caring for sheep wasn’t just a job. 
It was an identity. It’s who you were if you were a shepherd. 
And just by existing as a shepherd, 
a shepherd was suspected, 
and of course 
stereotyped, caricatured,  marginalized, 
and devalued as a human being.  

Of course this also put shepherds 
in relation to another “group” who, in the gospels 
are referred to as “friends” of Jesus—
that group, of course, is “the prostitutes.” 
Perhaps those in this group were more marginalized by the faith community than any other community —
the faith community—those “faithful,” 
the ones we might call puritans, 
or pietists, or orthodox, 
(or maybe even “Lutheran,”) 
“the clean,” “the holy,” the “righteous.”

The religiously religious: 
those deeply sick and troubled people 
who shout from the street corners and pulpits 
about “sin” and “sinners” 
and repentance and wrath, all day long, 
but whose despising turns into desire in the night, 
when they run to those they spent all day condemning for some sort of “fix” for their void. 
These characters are quite prevalent in our news outlets today—
mostly because many of us enjoy judging them.
I mean, I know I do. 
I share that stuff all over facebook.  
It feels better than looking deep into our own hearts.  

The shepherd, the publican, and the prostitute… 

the ones who see the parts of humans that we often deny, 
pretending there is nothing hidden 
or nothing dark 
or nothing… human, in us, 

the ones who are used to seeing those things 
and thoughts 
and activities 
for which the general population might feel 
shame or guilt or remorse, 

(our dehumanizing nature, our obsessions, our greed…)

if those things weren’t so buried beneath layers of self-deceit 
and willful forgetfulness, and memory loss… and denial…

The shepherd, the publican, the prostitute: 
the ones who clearly see the things 
which most people hide even from themselves, 
flawed as they are, 
imperfect and sick and hurting like the rest of us, 
perhaps more, perhaps less. 

These are the ones, according to the gospels, 
to whom Christ, the light appears, 
shining in a manger, at a meal, on the cross—
these are the ones through whom we hear a testimony to the light, 
the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. 
The ones who shout from Mountain tops, 
and deep, bright, encounters, that Jesus Christ is born. 

Oh - And there’s one other group in the Bible with which the shepherds have a bit in common. 

The shepherds also had something deeply in common 
with Jesus and his family. 

The shepherds, 
says the gospel this Christmas morning, 
“were living in the fields.” 
Like Mary and Joseph and Jesus, 
the shepherds also had 
“no place to lay [their] head.” 
They, too, slept among the animals. 
For the shepherds, as for the parents of Christ, 
there also was no place. 
No “room,” 
no welcome at the Inn. 

As Cathy noted this past Tuesday at Lectio Divina, 
“Nobody wanted them.” 

Nobody wanted them…


The shepherds talk. 

After the apparition—
after Gabriel and the choir 
delivered the good news of great joy, 
and then proceeded to go out with a twelve-minute drum solo 
and amps turned up to eleven, 
“glory to God, and peace on earth…” 

After the joy and the chaos and the beauty, 
when the shepherds, once again, 
were left alone to clean up after the show... 
the shepherds talked. 

Pausing for a minute,
these men—not even trusted to testify in court, 
not even trusted as a witness to a crime… 
Not even trusted by their fellow humans, 
realize that they have been called and trusted by God 
to both witness and testify to the birth of the Savior. 
They have been trusted to witness and testify 
to the “good news of great joy for all people.” 

What was God thinking? 

Perhaps they asked themselves this very question. 
But as they spoke to one another, the decision came quickly. 
And these shepherds “went with haste,” 
looking for the “sign” the angels had foretold—
not a star in the sky, 
or even Mary’s face on an underpass or on a temple wall, 
but a child wrapped up, in cloth, 
in a manger. 
The shepherds went with haste 
to welcome a prince, a messiah, a savior, 
whose arrival into this world 
was perhaps not at all unlike their own. 


The shepherds go together and see. 

When they got there—you know: to the manger, 
to the baby wrapped in cloths in Bethlehem, 
they witnessed and testified 
to the boy’s parents—
to Jesus’ parents, they testified about Jesus. 
They relayed the news that had been given to them. 
Their words 
(not gold or frankincense or myrrh, 
but their words
were received as treasures, 
placed deeply, 
and pondered, 
in the depths of Mary’s heart. 

But, really, it’s unclear what else happened there, 
at the stable, in Bethlehem. 
It’s clear that life before the shepherds arrived 
was different from life after the shepherds left. 
But the experience itself was hard to describe, 
even sort of uneventful—
totally reorienting, 
a “watershed moment,” 
a revolution of the Spirit, 
an encounter that would bring light to every corner of their hearts, 
life would never be the same again!!!, 


Actually, in the gospels, 
this event is hardly described at all. 
With our Christmas hymns and songs 
we try to embellish, or imagine, or empathize—
the story invites us to. How could we not? 

What was it like? We ask. 
What were they feeling? 
How were they rejoicing? 
Were there little drummer boys present? 
Did Santa also bow down or lie prostrate before him? 
Was Rudolph there? 
What kind of animals were there…?
Were they all wearing their fathers’ bath robes and sneakers? 

But all Luke’s gospel offers us about this Christmas event, 
the birth of the Light that no darkness would ever outshine…

is two sentences—
well, two and a half. 

“[They] found Mary and Joseph, 
and the child lying in the manger. 
When they saw this, 
they made known what had been told them about this child; 
and all who heard it were amazed…” 

These shepherds showed up, 
these notorious liars and thieves and untrustables, 
and, it seems,
spoke to them a word of Truth 
that was received more deeply 
and more clearly 
than any they had ever received before. 

they were amazed. 

And then Mary ponders in her heart, and then they go home! 
That’s it! 

The shepherds “returned.” 

After only two and a half sentences! 

Seemingly hardly with the trip. 


The shepherds testify to the light. 

on the way back 
they were still glorifying and praising. 
They were happy. 
In their encounter with God as human, 
they, the marginalized, 
were brought to the center of God’s story. 

They who were accused of thievery 
were charged with delivering the most precious gifts—
the words of angels, the message of God. 
They, the distrusted ones, 
at Christ’s birth, 
were the first to testify, 
the first humans to testify to the light. 

Even more, 
all of the nonsense that had been thrown in condemnation
at them--
at the shepherds, 
and at the publicans, 
and at the prostitutes, 
and even at Mary and Joseph—
all the accusation, the hate, 
the guilt, the dehumanization, 
all that religious baloney was lifted, 
discarded, disproved, devalued. 
Not only does the savior save, 
but God does not despise the flesh, 
the dirt, 
the manger; 
God actually dwells within it all. 
God is born in it, among it, among us. 
God dwells in the body. God loves through bodies. 

God saves through flesh and blood and bone and spirit and breath. 

Immanuel! God is with us. And God is love. 

Christ, embodied, full of grace and truth, 
forgives, resurrects, feeds, 
makes whole; 
comes not to condemn, 
but to Resurrect—
not to make bad people “good” 

not to make shepherds into Ned Flanders, 

not to make shepherds into Ned Flanders, 

but to bring (us) dead people back to life. 

Those who continue to condemn:
Those who judged them, 
those who judge you, 
or us “bad” or “sinful” or “not good enough” or whatever—
Those who still spend all their energy judging
and condemning and obsessing over sin,
they’re wrong.
They missed the point!
They missed the point of the gospel—
the good news for all people. The good news of great joy. 

Yes. We are all sick. We are flawed.
We have all felt the weight of sin 
and oppression 
and inequality. 
We are all broken, 
and in need of Resurrection. 

But, Christmas says, 
by Grace, 
Resurrection shows up—the Light shines. The New Day dawns;
in the Christ child, 
in a manger, 
among the poor and the oppressed, 
displaced and discriminated against, 
among those who have no place, 
for whom there is “no room,” in the inn or anywhere else
among those ones that nobody wants;

on a cross, 
to those who know the darkness more deeply and intimately that most, 
in an angel to some shepherds, 
to the lost, and the heartbroken, 
in unexpected moments we can’t adequately describe in 2 sentences, 
but that reverberate through a lifetime, 
even through centuries and centuries in story and symbol and song. 

By Grace, 
the birth of Resurrection shows up, the Light shines, a New Day dawns,
in a dark world, 
filled with violence, and war, and fear—
filled with hate that seems impossible to finally shake away 
(it just keeps coming back!), 
but so does the Light keep coming back!
So does the love, 
so does God, 
in flesh, in bodies, 

in you! 

In you, so does Christ keep coming back and dwelling among  us, the light shining in the darkness. 


Those who long for a home, 
a place, 
with nowhere to lay their head
or to belong,
in these God chooses to dwell, 
to live, to become—
striving among us toward healing, 
and liberation, 
and unity, 
and sanctuary and home; 
calling forth “light and life, in which God takes delight;” 

working to bring the crucified, the oppressed, the hurting, the lonely, the sick in spirit, 
up toward Life, 
into Resurrection, 
toward the center of God’s story, 
with which we are all trusted, 
lights, testifying to the Light 
that burns within and beyond us, 
and into eternity. 

May God’s light be kindled within you. 
And may we point to and participate in
the birth of Resurrection
that this world badly needs. 

I am glad God sends angels to Shepherds.
That they speak with one another. 
That they go and see,
and that they testify to the light. 

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