The Shepherd Who Stayed

This sermon was first preached for our 7pm Christmas Eve service in 2013.

When I was a child around Christmas time, I remember getting into my pajamas at night and laying down on the carpet of our den and listening to the 24 hours of Christmas. It was a radio station in my area that was taken over by the holiday – probably the same in many areas – that would play Christmas music straight through with no commercials. It was so important to me that I would ask my parents to record it on cassette tapes – a relic now from another time. Each year, I wanted to somehow capture the feeling of Christmas, and the little kid in me was sure recording the sounds of the holiday would help me to hold onto the spirit of the holiday a little bit longer.

There’s a classic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon from my childhood that is just a single panel long. The picture of the boy and his tiger shows them curled up asleep in front of the fire. The words read, “Christmas Eve — On window panes, the icy frost – leaves feathered patterns, crissed and crossed, but in our house the Christmas Tree is decorated festively, with tiny dots of colored light that cozy up this winter night. Christmas songs, familiar, slow, play softly on the radio. Pops and hisses from the fire whistle with the bells and choir. My tiger is now fast asleep on his back and dreaming deep. When the fire makes him hot, he turns to warm whatever’s not. Propped against him on the rug, I give my friend a gentle hug. Tomorrow’s what I’m waiting for, but I can wait a little more.” That closing line sums up the childhood feeling for me. I’m waiting for tomorrow to happen, but I’m also happy being here now – waiting.

In some ways I was already experiencing nostalgia alongside the childhood joy. But mostly I just didn’t want it to end before it began. I was excited about the toys, but I was also looking forward to the religious services. Midnight Mass was a powerful thing for me as a child. I felt like it was opening up sacred doors to view a glimpse again of something I was not here for – the first time around. Maybe you could call it the opposite of nostalgia – hoping to witness what had already happened. Pining for a time or an event we had never seen for ourselves.

As an adult though, I wonder if each of us doesn’t witness the scene at the manger after all. Maybe we touch the spirit of it, in between the silly and the serious, as our children reenact it at our pageants. Maybe we glimpse the Star of Bethlehem in our own way, as we light our candles to Silent Night. The rituals and our traditions bring us back to a time we didn’t get to see ourselves.

Sometimes though, we relive this moment in unexpected ways. I feel like some of us witnessed the Christmas miracle again just this past weekend. From Monday’s New York Times, “Like Black Friday shoppers, Ms. Campolucci and dozens of others began lining up on Sunday night, bundled up with sleeping bags, hand warmers and down jackets to fight the snow and wind. They huddled together with hot tea and coffee, ducking into running cars to warm up before reclaiming their spot in line.  

“We’re just waiting with bated breath,” said Amy Wilson, who is seven months pregnant and spent much of the night outside the offices of the Salt Lake County clerk. “We’re not missing this — it’s not happening.” 

Ms. Wilson said a marriage license would mean that she and her partner of seven years, Emily Eresuma, would both be recognized as the legal parents of their daughter, with each of their names listed on the birth certificate. In case they could not get a license, they had been exploring out-of-state adoptions and other costly measures to ensure that they would both be the girl’s legal guardians. 

After a cold night, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Eresuma married at 8:20 a.m. It was a quick ceremony in a stairwell, with Ms. Eresuma’s brother performing the rites.” For this modern family, a miracle occurred in the most mundane of places, a stairwell. The most fitting Christmas present I could imagine.

Those are the stories that give me that warm Christmas glow now as an adult. In essence, it’s the messages of hope and perseverance we encounter in the most unexpected places – and for the most unexpected people. Christmas is not about the risen Christ – that comes later in the Christian story. It’s not about power or privilege – unless we’re talking about how power is overcome or or privilege is let go of. It’s not about the heroes or the rulers. Unless by hero you’re looking to a mother, a son, and an adoptive father who are travelers, are homeless, and weary from the road. It is in exhaustion and insecurity that Mary and Joseph show the world a different path to follow.

That’s the part of the story that resonates the most for me as an adult. Maybe it’s the opposite side of the coin that we get in the Calvin and Hobbes touching cartoon, but they’re both true. Sometimes we approach Bethlehem from the story of compassion, and sometimes we come to the manger from a place of loss – of hoping for hope. Both are there – both are worthy.

Our earlier reading, “The Shepherd Who Stayed” is yet another way to enter this story. “Thieves in the wood and wolves on the hill, My duty was to stay. Strange though it be, I had no thought to hold my mates, no will to bid them wait and keep the watch with me. I had not heard that summons they obeyed;
I only know I stayed. Perchance they will return upon the dawn, with word of Bethlehem and why they went. I only know that watching here alone, I know a strange content. I have not failed that trust upon me laid; I ask no more — I stayed.”
Sometimes we’re not called to goto the manger. Maybe we’re born of another faith, or no religious tradition at all. Maybe we see Jesus as a great teacher, a holy man, or a prophet, but not the son of God – or at least not any more a child of God than the rest of us. I don’t believe that keeps us outside the heart of the Christmas story. The story is not about believing any one thing. It’s not necessarily about being ready to travel across the world with our gifts of gold or myrrh. Sometimes it’s just about seeing, as the poem says, “The hillside seem(ing) on fire”, it’s about feeling “the sweep of wings above (our) head(s).” It’s leaving space in our lives for wonder, for awe. It’s about living our lives as we feel we need, with integrity, but making room to witness the moments of sacredness between all the moments of busy and fuss. And in those moments of sacred wonder, allowing the message to infuse our being. Allowing the message to teach us that salvation, or peace, does not come from power, or privilege. We find it when we value what the manger scene shows us – A mother, a son, and an adoptive father who are travelers, are homeless, and weary from the road.

In the year to come, remember this night; remember that star over Bethlehem. When you are exhausted from the long road to wherever you are going, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re trying to piece together a family of your own making, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re struggling to make ends meet; to find that next job; to keep a roof over your head – remember you are not alone on that road. All these stories, all our stories, are in tonight’s story. And when you go back into the fuss and busyness of the frantic year – when you hear people say the poor deserve what they have – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say, we shouldn’t be concerned about affordable places to live for others – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say that a family should always look a certain way – remember this story and know that message is false. The kings and wise men of the world will come later to the creche, but the animals, the shepherds – the lowest among us – are the first to witness this night.

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