Sermon: Saturday, December 24, 2016: Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Eve

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20

Last Saturday members of this congregation gathered for our 4th annual Las Posadas action for public and affordable housing here in our neighborhood. Although our action was put on by the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance, Las Posadas is a 400-year old tradition with Mexican roots that has spread wherever Mexican people have made their homes. Like a “living nativity,” during Las Posadas members of the community dress up as Mary and Joseph who then lead a band of wanderers in search of warmth and shelter. Along the way they knock on the doors of “innkeepers” who, playing their assigned part, refuse shelter to the Holy Family until, finally, they come to a home where the doors are open, the expecting parents (and all their friends) are let in, and there is a great celebration with sweet treats and warm beverages and lots and lots of music.

Despite its rich cultural significance, there is something odd about the story of the Mary and Joseph being turned away time and time again as they look for a place to bring their child into the world: it’s not in the scriptures. Let’s take a closer look at what’s actually there:

“While they were there (in Bethlehem), the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Lk. 2:6-7)

Mary and Joseph had traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because the government had called for a census and, at least according to the story, people were required to travel to their ancestral homes for this event. Joseph was descended from David, so he and his family traveled to Bethlehem. The scriptures say, “while they were there…” so it sounds as though they might already have been in Bethlehem for at least a short while. And, where were they staying? Well, perhaps it was an “inn,” as the English translation would have it, though the word we translate as “inn” also means “guest room.” It’s possible, probably even likely, that Joseph was staying with kinsmen — and that, as with many immigrants and refugees, the house was overcrowded with too many people trying to make do with too little space. The guest room was full, so Mary and Joseph were staying in the common room with the animals, which was also not uncommon. Families brought their animals indoors at night to keep their homes warm, just the way this small space will continue to heat up throughout the night as we continue to eat and sing and pray.

So, the way things happened and the way we like to remember them happening may not be exactly the same — and that’s alright! Holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah are full of stories that get embellished with each re-telling, and the flourishes we add are not accidents so much as occasions for us to insert ourselves into the story. Instead of fussing over how it really happened that first Noel, we might ask ourselves why we are drawn to telling a version in which the family is turned away, time after time.

Don’t you suppose it’s because this is what we have seen in our own lives?


After years of stories and images of refugees flowing out of Syria, we’ve now seen a collapse — not only of Aleppo, but of international consensus and action to preserve the lives of the most vulnerable civilians, children and families, who have nowhere to go.

We don’t have to look oversees to find evidence of holy families being turned away at the door. Here in our own country we are hearing story after story of people who suddenly feel vulnerable and exposed. We are being told to prepare for a national registry of all Muslims. We sense hard won victories for women, people of color, and LGBTQ people beginning to crumble.

Then, when we’re honest with ourselves, we recognize that we, too, have been inhospitable to our neighbors. We have kept the doors of our hearts and our lives shut to struggling coworkers, aggravating relatives, the poor and homeless who live in our neighborhoods, in the spaces between spaces.

We embellish the story of this night with the detail about an unfriendly innkeeper because we sense that the story is incomplete without that character; because we know in our bones how unfriendly the world can be, how unfriendly we ourselves can be, to those forced to wander through the world relying on the kindness of strangers.

Thank God, then, that this is not where the story ends — with the family huddled among the animals giving birth to their firstborn child. Instead, and more to the point, the story continues:

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the LORD stood before them, and the glory of the LORD shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.;” (Lk. 2:9-12)

This is the heart of the story — not the hard-heartedness of an imagined innkeeper, or the supposed solitude of the stable, but the word of hope delivered to the least likely listeners: shepherds, working people going about their business, not knowing that God had entered space and time to challenge the powers and principalities by choosing to make a home among the forgotten, the overlooked, the lonely and the lost.

Dear friends, this has been quite a year, hasn’t it? Long and loud, dangerous and disappointing. Still, our city is plagued by gun-violence that claims the lives of women and men, parents and children, week after week. Our hearts have been broken, over and over again. In our despair we have wondered if our best days are behind us, if we have done something do deserve the pain that clings so tightly. We hear this ancient story and wonder which role we are playing.

You may be like the innkeeper, all out of room for the forgotten kin who keep showing up in your lives; or you may be like the shepherds, interrupted by angels as you go about the daily business of your life. You may be like Joseph, traveling to be with family; or you may be like Mary, amazed and pondering the meaning of these things. You may even be like the angels, filled with joy this night, irrepressibly singing your glorias into the darkness.

At the center of the story, though, is the infant whose birth signals a new beginning for all the world, an end to war, and a home for the homeless. This child goes ahead of us to prepare a place in God’s home, where there is room for us all. This child, who received shepherds on the night of his birth, will honor their labor by comparing God to the shepherd who goes after every lost sheep. This child creates families wherever he goes, tearing down every wall that divides us from our neighbors. This child is the sign of God’s presence with us, despite our fears and our failings. This child is born again tonight and every night to turn us from our anxious preoccupation with the past and point us once again toward the future, a future filled with hope.

Oddly enough, I imagine that the first night was not so different from this night. Families, all of them holy, who’d traveled distances great and small, cramming into a tight space, not quite sure how everyone fit together; strangers coming in from the cold dark, having heard that something was happening here, something important, something with the power to change the world. Prayers and songs of praise.

So we open our doors and we welcome each other in. Here, there is enough: enough room, enough food, enough warmth, enough hope, enough light. Christ is here, with us, for the world, forever.


Sermon: Thursday, December 24, 2015: Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20

“Where does it hurt?” is the diagnostic question asked by mothers and fathers ever since the first child said “ouch” for the very first time. “Show me where it hurts. Let me kiss it and make it better.”

If we’re lucky, our childhood traumas heal pretty quickly. Scraped knees and bumps on the head. A loud cry brings adults running to restore safety and order and all is soon right in the world again.

Sooner or later we discover that some hurts can’t be kissed away. Parents sit on the edge of the bed as children tell tales of being bullied, or share the agony of a break-up, or divulge the sorts of secrets that haunt families for the rest of their lives. Or parents aren’t there at all and children end up raising themselves as best they can after caretakers check out physically or emotionally, developing defense mechanisms and coping strategies for handling the pain of life on their own.

Where does it hurt?

The list grows faster than we can recite the harms. The phantom pains of the people we’ve lost as real as any limb. The illnesses that seem to chase after us, as friends and family fall prey to diseases with which we’ve become far too familiar. Our heads hurt, our bodies ache, and our hearts — oh God, our hearts — either numb or broken wide open by the news that floods our televisions, our inboxes, our newsfeed.

Where does it hurt?

San BernardinoIn San Bernadino. In Colorado Springs. In Chicago. In Paris. In Beirut. In Syria. And once again in Israel, where this holiday season has been marred by the violence that naturally follows from occupation.

Imagine the holy family huddled in the night, far from home, in some stranger’s shed. Imagine Mary’s birthing cries as she labored in the dark. Imagine Joseph’s terror as he bluffed a sense of confidence he surely did not feel. No parent sitting at the edge of the bed. No bed. Just pain in the middle of the night, far from home, in a land under occupation, where daily violence was a fact of life.

Then the unexpected thing happened. Then God interrupted the constellation of hurts passing as reality with a divine kiss, a light in the darkness. Do you know what it was? How God did it? It wasn’t the baby Jesus — the world was full of newborn infants and terrified parents.

Agriculture, etc. Shepherd scenes. 'While shepherds watched t...

Agriculture, etc. Shepherd scenes. ‘While shepherds watched their flocks.’ Night scene sho – Date Created/Published: [approximately 1920 to 1933] – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection – Reproduction number: LC-DIG-matpc-02990 (digital file from original photo) – Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.

It was the shepherds. The angels did not appear on that dark, lonely night to the holy family. They came to the shepherds, bringing light from the heavens, and they announced that the future we’ve all been waiting for has actually already begun. They sang a song of the savior’s birth, a song that promised peace on earth for all God’s children.

The shepherds heard this good news and they believed it. They heard the word of peace, and they imagined an end to lives of poverty, working alone late into the night. They heard the word of peace, and they imagined an end to occupation, the foreign-born solider finally laying down his sword and acting like a neighbor. They heard the word of peace, and they imagined a government attentive to the needs of the hungry, and the homeless, and the foreigners, and the forlorn. They heard the word of peace, and they imagined a new life for themselves and their families, and their neighbors and their clans.

The miracle that took place that first Christmas night is that God sent messengers to people filled with hurts, people with no reason to expect anything to change, people like you and me, and those people heard the message and believed it. They believed it because they needed to believe it, because the weight of hopelessness and cynicism had become too heavy to bear. They believed it, because to believe that the future would be just more of the past was a kind of prison, and they longed to be free. They could have been hallucinating out there in the fields, or maybe they fell asleep while they were tending their sheep and dreamed the whole thing — but this dream was infinitely better than their waking reality.

I’m sure some of those shepherds had hoped that God would arrive like a parent perched on the edge of their beds, ready to tuck them in with a good story and the charge to dream sweet dreams. Maybe that’s what you hope for tonight as well, a well-worn tale of shepherds and angels and infants in the hay before you head off to sleep. But I just can’t, we can’t, because it hurts all over. In our heads and in our bones and in our hearts. Because the angels didn’t send the shepherds off to sleep, but to go and see that family holed up in the back of a barn.

So they went. As the angels receded into the twinkling stars of the night sky, the shepherds and shepherdesses, lit their torches and left their fields and made their way to Bethlehem.

What do you suppose it was like for Mary and Joseph, tired and scared as they were, to see those points of light coming toward them from the horizon — like stars that had left the sky? What impossible thing would they be asked to endure next? Who were these men and women holding fire in their hands? Were they about to be robbed? Beaten? Abused? Ridiculed? Deported?

Imagine their relief as the shepherds encircled them with light, shared their food and their songs, told the story of the angel host. Mary’s child was less than a night old, and already the world was feeling like a new place!

After a long season of waiting for God to come and save us, the surprising miracle of Christmas is that God doesn’t come like a parent, flipping on the lights and chasing away the monsters under our beds. Instead God comes as an exhausted young mother, a scared father, a fragile child crying in the dark of night.

candlelight-servicesGod is hidden in plain sight, on the streets of Chicago and Jerusalem, suffering with humanity — crying that it hurts all over. We, like the shepherds, have stopped working, have allowed the rhythms of ordinary time to be interrupted, have lit our torches and brought our gifts. All of us together, caring for the fearful and the fragile, creating a circle of light in the darkness. That’s the miracle.



Sermon: Wednesday, December 24, 2014: Nativity of Our Lord — Christmas Eve

Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7  +  Psalm 96  +  Titus 2:11-14  +  Luke 2:1-20

During seminary and for a short while after I moved to Chicago from Atlanta, I used to work the overnight shift at the Children’s Hospital to help make ends meet. It wasn’t the first time I’d worked overnights. I’d spent a few years after college working 2nd and 3rd shift at group homes and emergency shelters, so I was used to the strange mixture of quiet and crazy that comes in the middle of the night.

hospital-hallwayHospital wards are more quiet by night than during the day. The lights are dimmed so that families can rest, though you still see screens glowing softly in patients’ rooms or from computers at the nurses’ stations. Down in the cafeteria however, or in the labs, the lights are turned up and you can hear the hum of the fluorescent bulbs overhead and the motors of the waxing machines being pushed over the linoleum tiled hallways as custodians use the peace of the night shift to clean and prepare for the coming day.

These are the people I think of when I hear the gospel of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8) Living in the fields. The shepherds lived where they worked. I’ve known a lot of people like that, people who worked two or even three jobs, leaving their own children at home alone, overnight, to clean offices or to do laundry or to take blood pressure readings. People who spent more time at work than at home. I’ve known just as many folk with only one job that gets just as many hours, first one in and last to leave, burning the midnight oil, or both ends of the candle. For each one of these late night workers there’s often another laborer at home making meals, cleaning rooms, resolving disputes, wiping tears. Living where they work.

I suspect we all know something about these shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

An on-call chaplain’s work is kind of all or nothing. If things are going alright, nobody really wants to talk at two in the morning. So, when your pager goes off it’s almost always because something is really wrong. An ambulance is about to arrive, or a heart has stopped beating. I suspect it’s the same for shepherds. If the sheep are quiet in the night, it’s because they’re sleeping. If they’re restless, you worry about wolves. Not angels.

“Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Shepherds watching flocks by night, mat05403_thumb[2]Setting aside for a moment the fact that it is an angel delivering this message, I’m struck by what an underwhelming sign the shepherds are offered. A child wrapped in bands of cloth is like a baby in a diaper. It’s what you do with a newborn child, you swaddle it. You wrap it up tightly so that it can get accustomed to the wide open world outside the familiar warmth of the womb. As for “lying in a manger,” maybe that would have been odd, but maybe not. These were, after all, shepherds. People who lived where they worked, among animals. I guess I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that lots of people lay their babies in mangers, or anywhere else they could keep them warm and off the ground. We’re not talking about rich people here, not people with baby shower registries. We’re talking about shepherds, overnight workers, very practical people.

And then remember the messenger. This is the good news celebrated by an angelic host, that God’s long awaited messiah has finally arrived, and the proof is that a baby is wearing a diaper and sleeping with some animals.

When I worked at the overnight shelter we would get the strangest phone calls after midnight. They’d always start out really normal, and then they got really weird really quickly. The angels’ appearance to the shepherds feels like that. First, a lone voice in the middle of the night saying, “do not be afraid.” Then a total non-sequitur. Then a chorus of voices. Strange enough to make you wonder if you’d dozed off and imagined the whole thing.

I’ve asked myself if I would do as the shepherds did. If I would go with haste to see this ordinary miracle, the arrival of the messiah. I’ve asked myself what in that strange message and strange messenger might rouse me out of my late night routine and make me want to see this infant Lord.

DSC04779I think it’s the manger. At least, if I’m the shepherd, I think it’s the manger. It’s so ordinary. It’s some old wood where you keep the animals’ food. It’s the reference to animals made to people who made their living taking care of animals. If I’m the shepherd, keeping watch over my flocks by night, and the angel comes to me and says, “the anointed one of God, the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior, is coming into the world tonight — and look! He’s not so different from you! He’s just a baby in a diaper, lying with the animals” then I’m intrigued, because I didn’t think that’s how salvation would look. Like a shepherd, or a night chaplain, or the charge nurse, or the overnight cleaning crew, or the young lab tech, or the security guard at the admitting desk, or the EMT climbing off the ambulance, or the young parent holding her child, or the worried father trying to be helpful. That’s not what I was expecting at all.

And isn’t that what they saw, when they got to Bethlehem, a family like theirs trying to get through the first night after a hard birth. This was the sign God offered to people walking in the dark of night. God has entered human experience the same way each one of us did, cold and small, fragile and dependent. God has not picked some other, better, life to inhabit. God has chosen your life.

I don’t know what you came here tonight hoping to see. I don’t know if these old words and old songs remind you of the heavenly chorus or of your own fond memories of Christmases past. I don’t know if you arrived with a heart full of wonder or heavy with grief. All I know for certain on this silent, holy night is that “God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11) by entering the most familiar, the most ordinary, the most beautiful, the most precious life of all.