December 24, 2019

Christmas Eve, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Luke 2:1-20

A recent study caught my eye.  A British telecom firm decided to make a correlation between the role children played in the Christmas pageant and their earning potential and career later in life.  Turns out that if were Mary and Joseph, that’s not going to indicate a top salary.  Marys tend to end up in retail; and the Josephs in accounting.  It’s much better, if you’re planning to make more money, to be the Angel Gabriel, who tends to end up in marketing.  But if you were just “one of the angels,” you’re not likely to earn top dollar.  Donkeys did a little better than lambs, who chose careers in health care.  The narrators turned out to be actors who didn’t make much money at all.[1]

The top earner was the ox, who would earn the highest salary in an ad firm

We love to know what predicts success.  We figure if we get our children into the right parts, they’ll turn out okay.  Even as we get older, we love to know the kind of things that will provide our script for understanding our place in the world.  I read my horoscope this morning.  It said, “You have an idea.  Express it.  This song needs singing.”  Not bad for a preacher on Christmas Eve.  Whether the future is writing in the stars or starts getting written down in childhood, it’ not long before the internal script gets settled.  Sometimes in stone. We start to have a running commentary in our minds, or through the voices of others around us, that defines our place, our identity, our race and gender, our perspective, our politics, and correspondingly our worth.

The shepherds in Luke’s story would have been given their own script.  They weren’t the kind of people you invited to your baby shower.  They would have been dirty, and they would have smelled like the pasture.  Likely, the were a little rough.  It’s probably not a surprise that Luke doesn’t record everything they say.  You wouldn’t read that language in church.  But even more, by working odd hours, late at night, they wouldn’t have been able to participate in the religious rituals that kept your spiritually clean.

They’re the people who would have seen an angel and said, “Oh no.”  And likely it would have been more colorful language than that. In the light of a heavenly glare, it’s no wonder they were terrified.  They would have expected the angel to open their mouths to say, “You’re busted. Caught in the act.  Prepare for judgment.”

Luke is writing a different script by telling the story in the way that he does.  The language of the angel announcement is the language of imperial Rome.  On Caesar’s birthday, the announcement would have sounded much the same.  “We bring you good news of great joy.  To you is born this day in the Eternal City of Rome, a savior, who is Emperor, the Lord.”  The announcement would have had great fanfare, a different kind of army, in the center of the Roman forum, which, of course, they believe to be the center of the world.

Luke is subversive, and to the architects of the world’s scripts, radical.  The savior isn’t in Rome.  The messiah, God’s anointed one, is being born at the border of the empire, to brown-skinned Galilean refugees, far from their own home with no place to sleep.  The announcement is first to those on the margin, without weapons or any symbols of power. No credible researcher would highlight any of them as having a high prospect of success or wealth-making potential.

Is that what Mary pondered in her heart?  The glory of God came these socially awkward, crude, and not-a-little stinky shepherds.  What does it mean for your baby if they are the ones who show up to say, “God led us here?”  What kind of God is with this child? What kind of people are going to be drawn to this child?  What do they say about how my baby is going to turn out?

We still live in a world where the scripts are assigned by imperial forces.  Some get better roles than others.  In our culture, that usually has to do with your race or your class.  If you didn’t manage to get assigned one of the good parts, we have stories that will tell you why you didn’t deserve one.  Your brain didn’t work quite like we need it to.  Your body doesn’t quite say what we need it to say.  You’re not as strong as an ox. You’re too old, or too black, too broken, too feminine, too dirty, too crude, to far-gone to have a shot at redemption.

I have a sign on my door from one of the fantastic young people who grew up at Gloria Dei, a transgender young man, now approved to be a pastor, that says, “God loves weirdos.”

It’s a faithful summary of the Christmas story, and of the gospel.

And for a night, by candlelight, by story, by song, we—naively and astoundingly—will announce that this is the script that proves to be true. It’s the results of the heavenly survey announced to a world weary of being divided and stuck, of being mean and inhospitable and cruel:  To you, this day, is born the savior who will indeed determine your future.  A future that is shaped by grace, and love, and peace.

This tiny child will grow to rewrite the script and give witness to a community that raises up the poor, that welcomes the outcast and the strange.  He will forgive sins that no one else would dare even mention out loud.  He will step across the borders and boundaries of politics and religion to call everyone into one family that isn’t afraid of one another.  Of course, those elite predictors of success wouldn’t have it, and they silenced him by lynching him on the tree of the cross, designed to terrorize the very people he loved.  Yet three days, later, God said YES to his way; said YES to love. YES to justice and peace, and gentle kindness.  God said YES to everyone who plays on the stage of angels and shepherds, Mary and Joseph, the ox and Gabriel, and even those never mentioned or noticed.

And, finally, YES, to you.  YES, to those of you who have been left out, left behind, forgotten, or just not seen.  God sees you, all of you, and saysYES, YES, and Amen.

[1] “Your role at your school’s Christmas pageant is linked to how much you earn, study claims,” Published Mon, Nov 18 2019 by Chloe Taylor https://www.cnbc.com/2019/11/18/your-role-at-your-schools-christmas-play-is-linked-to-your-salary.html.