Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 23, 2007

2007.12.23 “Of Shepherds and Bathrobes”

CENTRAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

“Of Shepherds and Bathrobes”

December 23rd, 2007

 The 4th Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1: 18 – 25

Pastor David L. Haley

We are in for a treat this morning, as we prepare to watch our children enact for us — in all of its glory the Christmas story. (Well, maybe not all . . .) I’m never quite sure if it fits into the category of religious education or religious entertainment?

All across America today — in fact all around the world — cute kids in bathrobes portray shepherds, angels and wise men, something they’ve never seen in real life. So who’s to say whether they’re doing it right or wrong?

How many times have we seen this — perhaps the world’s best known story — performed, with tears in our eyes, from laughing: angels with their halos falling off, shepherds turning their staffs into machine guns to mow down the audience, innkeepers so caught up in the drama that instead of turning the Holy Family away, they invite them in, ruining the play. A few years ago, in a nativity play at our church in West Chicago, one child was left asleep on the stage after the rest of the “angels departed.” At least after the service there were no adults left in the pews that way.

As we watch, the tears may also flow not only from comedy, but memory.  For some of us, it doesn’t seem that long ago when we were the ones acting out the story.

Knowing that, it may bring tears to our eyes to watch our children, because before we know it, they too will be grown, too sophisticated to be a shepherd or a sheep, sitting somewhere in a church at Christmastime watching their children re-enact the same story.

In some mega-churches, with typical baby boomer excess, they spend a small fortune on nativity dramas, with real camels and a cast of thousands, but it seems to me that exactly misses the point of the first Christmas’ story.

To me, it is like those medieval mystery plays:  the reason they performed them, was because most people were illiterate and couldn’t read, and this was how they learned the story.

For medieval Europeans — not unsurprisingly — the characters looked and acted like medieval Europeans.  For us, they look like us. Here in our multicultural community and congregation, it’s even more wonderful.  As Diane Wolff-Klammer pointed out, “Joseph is black, Mary is Chinese, and Jesus is white:  talk about a miracle!”

Maybe we’ve come full circle:  maybe we need these dramas to teach not only our children — but us — the story.  Yes, now we can read, but do we? Yes, now we are religious, but are we committed to a congregation, to a place in a pew?  Yes, now we are educated, but are we Biblically literate and informed? What religious, moral, and spiritual values — if any — are we passing on to our children, as we set them adrift in the world?  On such days as this, through enacting such a story is this, here is a place and here is a way in which we can pass on that which is important to us to our children.

Here in this story is the entire Christian gospel in miniature; get it, and you get everything; miss it, and you miss all.

Peter Gomes, professor and theologian at Harvard University‘s Divinity School, and preacher at Harvard’s Memorial Church, once said the most profound thing he ever read about Christmas was also the simplest:

Mary held in her arms

The God of love

That we might hold in our hearts

The love of God.

        This is what we — thanks to our children — do today: Put ourselves into the story, thereby putting the story into us.

My professor at the University of Chicago, Martin Marty, who grew up in Nebraska, said when he finally made it to the Holy Land, it was no big surprise.  Because, thanks to his Lutheran Sunday School and such days as this, he’d already seen it in his imagination.

Who knows, perhaps heaven will be the same?

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