Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2012

12.12.24 “Poor On’ry People” – Luke 2: 1- 20 Christmas Eve

Central United Methodist Church
“Poor On’ry People”
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 2: 1- 20
Christmas Eve
December 24th, 2012

Each year as Christmas approaches, just when shoppers and worshippers alike greet each other with “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”, I’m pulling my hair out and saying, “I have to preach the Christmas story again?”

John Buchanan, now retired as Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, says that in his fifty years of ministry, he felt the same way every year. What possibly could we say that illuminates or enhances a story everybody knows and loves? He also says that every year his closest advisor and consultant, his wife, would say the same thing: “Stop worrying about this. We don’t come on Christmas Eve to hear a sermon. We just want to hear the story, sing the carols, light a candle, and go home.” In my heart I know it’s true.

My wife, Michele, said, “Surely in 40 years of preaching Christmas, you have something you could use again?” The truth is, I don’t. Each year, each Christmas, each congregation, is different; I am different. It’s as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You never step in the same river twice.” By you time you arrive again, the river has changed and you have changed. That’s the key: it’s not so much the Christmas story, it’s us who change.

For the young, Christmas may be the same, a time of pure joy. The happiest Christmases we ever knew, and perhaps ever will know, were when we were children. The lights, the goodies, Christmas trees, the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning, was it ever better than that? And, we may not have known it then in our child-like naïveté, there was also the joy of family, trying as that can sometimes be.

As we get older, though, just when we supposed to be joyful, Christmas may fill us with a deep sense of sadness, due to the memories and associations Christmas brings, as Charles Dickens taught us to call them, “the ghosts of Christmas past.”

Because what we didn’t know – couldn’t know – when we were children, was that, as we grow older, Christmas changes. We grow up and move away, there may be a divorce involved, either of our parents or us, we have children, and as wonderful as that is, in time, they do as we did: they grow up and move away. One by one, death steals away those we love, those who populate some of our fondest Christmas memories? How many of you lost loved ones this year? It makes Christmas both sadder and more difficult, doesn’t it?

So when we look into our hearts on Christmas Eve, it is these ghosts of Christmas past who haunt us. For example, I was in a restaurant the other day and they played, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” sung not by Bing Crosby, the best-known version, but Frank Sinatra. It was a song written in 1943, eight years before I was born. But it went to the top of the charts, propelled by all those homesick Americans stuck overseas during WWII. It has remained a holiday classic, because it voices those Christmas memories and associations: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

Thirty-six Christmas congregations I have preached to; in my memory, I can see them sitting before me, as clearly as I see you tonight. While each congregation is in many ways the same, each congregation is also different.

One of the ways we are different this year, is because of what happened ten days ago, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Whatever else happened, this Christmas of 2012 will forever be known as the year of this horrible tragedy, when 20 sets of parents had to bury their children a week before Christmas.

It affected us too – though not nearly as great as them – it changes us, and in reality, colors our reading of the Christmas story. So that when we look at the Christmas story this year, we may see things we didn’t see before. One thing we immediately note, is that the story as we remember it is more “photoshopped” than we admit. It is less the story of an idyllic Christmas, as we have often imagined it, than it is a story of hardship and humility, and, in the midst of it all, the great good news of the amazing, embracing love of God.

At the outset of the story, the powers of occupation, who make life hard without even knowing it, loom over all; the Roman Emperor Augustus, Quirinius, the governor of Syria. They were the powers that be, and yet what happens doesn’t involve them, other than being the cause of Joseph and Mary’s inconvenient journey. Luke’s story has little to do with them, and only demonstrates their irrelevance and resistance to what God is doing and how God is working in the world.

That the first Christmas would require an inconvenient journey sets a precedent, in that it also unknowingly sets off a ripple effect of Christmas journeys through the centuries. Little did Augustus know the everlasting hardship he was imposing: for those away at school, at war, living far away, a Christmas journey would ever after be required to get home.

Having made that journey too many times, I can tell you our idealization of Joseph and Mary’s journey is way overrated. The late and local director John Hughes gave it a name: “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” Cars break down, even burn by the side of the road. Snowstorms hit. Sleep – if it comes at all – will has to be found in churches – or worst yet – airports, because all hotels and motels are full. I’m not talking about John’s Hughes’ movie, I’m just talking my own personal experiences! You too?

And, so, there they are, Joseph and Mary on their ninety-mile journey to Bethlehem. Can you hear the anxiety rising in their voices, as they near Bethlehem, and see the crowds on the road with them? “Reservations? I thought you made them?” The story itself almost skips this detail, with Luke dropping it in a few passing words: “While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was not room in the hostel.” Almost all we know about the first Christmas is inferred in these few words.

There the baby is born, without help, without visitors, without angels, without a star above. (This is Luke’s story, not Matthew’s.) What is Luke trying to tell us? If this is the way God enters the world, it’s not that unusual, and it’s definitely not well planned; some might call it pathetic. Surely God could do better than this? Just as we say, when life doesn’t go like we pray and plan.

But that’s not all. If we were God (as we often imagine we are), being born into the world, wouldn’t you tell somebody? According to Luke, God does, using angels – no less – to do so. Who does God tell? Shepherds.

As Craig Satterlee, Professor of preaching at the Lutheran School of Theology here in Chicago points out, at that time, shepherding was a profession filled from the bottom rung of the social ladder, by persons who could not find “decent” work. They were commonly stereotyped as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. Religious people took a dim view of shepherds since the exercise of their duties kept them from observing the Sabbath, thus rendering them ritually unclean. Shepherds were classed with tax collectors and prostitutes, people who were “sinners” by virtue of their vocation. And yet, it was to such people God sent angels with their joyful message, that “unto you a Savior is born.” (Craig Satterlee, Working Preacher, December 24, 2012)

Who might the “shepherds” be in our society? Might they be the undocumented, those migrants and immigrants who cross our borders – at great personal risk – to do the jobs no one else will do? To trim our lawns, change our sheets, clean our houses, care for our children, take care of us?
On Christmas of 2001, I speculated that the shepherds of our time were our first responders, firefighters, paramedics, and police. Not in the socially questionable sense of those ancient shepherds, but as those often taken for granted, yet “keeping watch,” over us, the first to run into harm’s way, as they did on 9/11.

This year, I wonder if the shepherds of our time might not be teachers. Teachers, especially union-affiliated teachers, so often vilified by politicians as overpaid, ineffectual, even lazy, who don’t care about their children. And yet it was teachers who were the heroes of Sandy Hook; they were the first responders. It was teachers who saved their students by shepherding them into bathrooms and closets, who kept their children calm, who gave their lives for their children by shielding them with their bodies. These are the kind of people you find in our schools – even a unionized school, by the way – people like Victoria Soto, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel D’Avino, Mary Sherlach, and Principal Dawn Hochsprung. People keeping watch over their children, our children. It was to such shepherds “keeping watch” that the angels came. (Laura Clawson, “Teachers, So Often Vilified By Politicians, Are The Heroes Of Sandy Hook,” Daily Kos, December 18, 2012)

In another sense, all of us know people who can identify with the shepherds, as the “outsiders” of that time and place. All of us know people: family members and friends – some of us might even include ourselves among them – who feel like we are outsiders, that this story is not for us. People who have felt like outsiders for so long that they have given up on church and God. People so down and blue this Christmas they feel they could not come worship, not even tonight.

And yet this amazing story is that it was exactly for such people that the message of the angels came, exactly for such people that the One who was born came, born by the side of the road, born as one of us.

What a startling thought, to think that while we sit here in worship, God is sending angels out with good news of great joy, to outsiders. That Jesus is being born among people who have given up on him. That despite the great sadness we sometimes encounter both in ourselves and in the world, there is a great joy being born in the world that cannot be defeated, that allows us to sleep in heavenly peace.

On a night when songs (and not sermons) predominate, do you know the story of one of our favorite Christmas carols, “I Wonder As I Wander?”

It was composed by the folklorist and singer, John Jacob Niles. Niles was in Murphy, North Carolina, in the Appalachians, on July 16, 1933. While there, he came across a revivalist meeting, which was really a fund raiser to help the revivalist preacher and his family get out of town.

The story was that this preacher and his family were homeless, and were squatting in the town square; it was during the Great Depression, after all. They were living there, cooking their food, doing their laundry and hanging it on the town fountain. The town fathers informed them they were a public nuisance and had to leave, but in order to leave, they had to raise the money. Gas, after all, was 13.9 cents a gallon.

So they had this revival/fundraiser that Niles attended. In his unpublished biography, he tells how he first heard the song. A young girl stepped out to the edge of the platform and begin to sing. Her clothes were ragged and dirty, as was she, and her ash blond hair hung down in long skeins. But she was also beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing, smiling sadly as she sang only the single line of a song.

Afterwards, Niles paid her to sing it again, giving her a quarter each time she did, seven times in all. He left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material, and a magnificent idea.” Based upon that fragment, he extended the melody to four lines and the lyrics to three. It was first performed on December 19, 1933, at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, and was originally published in 1934, in Songs of the Hill Folk.

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
how Jesus the Savior did come for to die,
for poor on’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wonder, out under the sky.

What makes it so beloved?

Perhaps because it harkens back to that special night centuries before, when poor ordinary people beheld a newborn child in the most humble of surroundings.

Perhaps also because, it describes so well the way we feel on a night like this. At Christmas, our hearts may be filled with sadness, but they are also filled with joy.

How Jesus the Savior did come for to die,
for poor on’ry people like you and like I.

May we be the better for it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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