Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 1/6/18
Luke doesn’t want any distractions. In his Gospel, the birth of Jesus doesn’t include a supernova exploding in the sky, a shining star high in the east that might keep us staring at the cosmos. There’s no exotic magi, strange astrologers from even stranger lands that excite our curiosities. There’s no pile of glitzy gifts, treasure box surprises beckoning to be opened. No ominous dreams; no threatened dictator; no cattle lowing.
With only the bare essentials, leaving behind all the bit parts and sideshows, Luke, in his Christmas story, wants the most important to be the most obvious. Believing that Bethlehem is reached by subtraction, not addition, the focus is on a small cast of holy characters. And none more so than the shepherds.
After receiving the Annunciation and watching the angels depart, what’s the shepherd’s faithful act?
Luke 2:15-21 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. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
They don’t ask questions or conduct a feasibility study
They return to their same lives but as entirely changed people
They trust God hasn’t made a mistake in choosing them
From the beginning, Haywood St. has been a church. A people who gather in God’s name to offer lament, celebration, and doxology. The great conundrum, however, has been, if hundreds of congregants are gathering at the Welcome Table twice a week downstairs, then why do only a few gather around the Table of worship upstairs? Curious, I’ve continued to ask people over the years. The responses include, “Church is too judgmental, I don’t need to be reminded yet again of my eternal damnation.” Or, “Church used to be a hospital for the sick in search of a divine physician. Now it is just for those healthy enough to be their own higher power.” But, overwhelming, the reason offered by countless people in countless different circumstances remains, “I ran with the same crowd expecting a different outcome. I got wasted on my daughter’s birthday and blacked out instead of calling her. I chose fast money knowing it was only going to lead to doing slow time. I can’t show my face in God’s house. I don’t come to worship because I’m too ashamed.”
Of all human emotions, shame is the most destructive. Unlike guilt that demands contrition, requires a fearless moral inventory, and a haunting incentive not to repeat the same mistake, shame convinces us, not that the behaviors are wrong but that we are. That we are irredeemable, beyond the embrace of grace, a lost cause too far gone.
The most offensive work in ancient Palestine, an occupation that revoked self-worth, was sheep keeping. Because the job required delivering the lambs and mending the injured ewes out in the field, a continual exposure to blood without access to purification, religion deemed the shepherd defiled. Because no advanced degree was required and the entry-level work only led to downward mobility, society was clear that this was not a resume builder. Because the first-born son inherited a family’s property rights, second and third sons were left with few options beyond being landless squatters. And when they crossed someone else’s boundary, the law judged them a trespasser.
But when the midnight skies ripped apart above the Galilean countryside, and the heavenly choir started belting out the Halleluiah chorus, the shepherds refused to stay put in the corner of isolation, refused to mute their voices, and refused to internalize their humiliation any longer. Instead, their faithful act was refusing to let shame keep them from encountering God.
So consider leaning your rod and staff up against the split rail fence, locking the gate to the pasture behind you and trusting the flock to someone else for a while. On Dec. 25th and every other day of the year, Bethlehem is beckoning, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you’re more than good enough for the Good News.
So let us go in haste, the child is waiting.