Sermon, December 19, 2021
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
So many of you know my parents’ are visiting this weekend - wave Trudy and Dale - and yesterday we did the first of the Christmas gifts; I took them to see the Van Gogh Alive Exhibit at the Starlight Theater. (For anyone considering it, I HIGHLY recommend. So enchanting.) The show has a way of enveloping you better than any old Van Gogh painting, which is it’s charm.
Van Gogh was really taken with the night sky. And as I was sitting there looking at huge renditions of Starry Starry Night, I couldn’t not think about the Shepherds in the field suddenly seeing the light of angels. Van Gogh is quoted as saying, “I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.” It made me wonder if that’s why the Shepherds were open to believing the angels - years of looking at the night sky.
It’s ironic that Shepherds are often the forgotten players in the Christmas story. In Bible study, when we did a little brainstorm on who was involved in the nativity stories, the shepherds were almost overlooked. The Shepherds get left out of the lectionary - the schedule of scripture snippets we read on Sunday. They only show up during Christmas, where they are outshined by the Christ child. So even tho they are featured in some of the best Christmas hymns, we rarely ever talk about them in church!
But the shepherds are crucial to tell the story about the God who we worship, the God who shows up to the forgotten.
In our Advent book study of Light of the World, biblical scholar Amy Jill Levine emphasized how prevalent shepherding had been through the entire history of the ancient Israelites, reaching back to Moses before he led the people out of Egypt. Abraham was a shepherd, so was Lot. Even King David was initially a shepherd, discovered by Samuel as the youngest, smallest, overlooked son of 8 kids who was out in the fields tending sheep when he was called to be King.
In the ancient Mediterranean economy, shepherding was central. People used nearly every part of the animal - the meat, milk, hide, hair, and even dung. And to shepherd well is painted as similar to Godliness, as we recite in the 23rd Psalm, ‘My Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…’ Jesus will call himself the Good Shepherd, elevating the qualities of feeding, nurturing, care giving and protecting, rather than warrior qualities of power and might.
And yet, shepherding life was not fun. They lived alone for long periods of time on the move from pasture to pasture. They were subject to the whims of the weather - heat, cold, drought, rain, or lightning. Some were the owners of their flocks, but many were hired hands and of those, some were neglected or exploited by the (often absentee) sheep owners.
We love to romanticize the poverty of Mary and Joseph in the story of their journey, but rarely consider the situation of the shepherds. “While ‘all the world’ is rushing around to comply with Augustus and Quirinius, the shepherds are ‘living in the fields, seeing watch over their flocks by night’ - not at all worried about presenting for the census. Like migrant workers or the newly homeless family who live in their car, they move from place to place largely unnoticed by the government bureaucracies. They evade government notice. They are, quite literally, not worth counting.”
It’s fair to say that they were pretty low on the economic ladder, while in the Roman Empire’s rigid class pyramid, people in the upper classes had incredible benefits in comparison to those like shepherds. For Luke, the significance of the lives of the shepherds epitomize human existence in the present, broken age of vastly unequal and inhumane treatment.
It’s as if, in Caesars’s time, in this broken world; when sickness strikes, some people get the most advanced medical care available, while others avoid visiting the hospital over fear that the bill will cause them to lose their home. Still others wait in an overcrowded ER waiting room when things get really dire, hoping for a miracle.
It’s as if, when plague hits, some infected by a deadly virus get helicoptered to Walter Reed Hospital for a special drug cocktail while others die at home; some get tested easily, quickly, repeatedly, even daily while others can’t find a place that has tests, or afford to take off work to quarantine. Still, while some are vaccinated and even boosted, others are still waiting for their country to get the vaccine at all.
It’s as if, when the world shuts down, some people are asked to resume their work activities from the cramped and frustrating quarters of their own home for their own safety, while others are asked to grin and bear the risk of their health in their employment as bus drivers; factory workers; food pickers and packers; nursing home attendants; sanitary workers and prison guards, because we can’t do without their labor. And so those people make up an exponentially higher proportion of the sickest and the dead. Still others are near conscripted into service by Governors who declare meatpacking to be an ‘essential service’ and unscrupulous employers who threaten workers with termination or immigration status reporting.
In covid times, excuse me, I mean in Caesar’s times, the world is broken. We live in a broken world.
I imagine our modern day Shepherds like truckers gathered at a rest stop in a deserted part of Oklahoma on their cross country drive that keeps them away from family 11 months out of the year, or like the day laborers who stand on the corner near Home Depot hoping to be picked up on a job, or like the terribly poorly paid day care and home health care workers who we entrust to care for our most precious and vulnerable elders with skill and compassion even while they struggle to get any type of health care or paid family leave for themselves.
The presence and lives of these shepherds here in the Christmas story epitomizes the lives of the most disregarded, most exploited, most forgotten of society. And God speaks to them directly.
But God didn't come to Caesar Augustus or Quirinius.
God didn't come to Pontius Pilate or Herod Antipas.
God didn't come to whoever was the Mayor of Bethlehem or the Census Director for the Galilee.
God chooses to appear to Shepherds, inconsequential people living in the fields with livestock. God chooses to speak to a poor peasant woman and her betrothed. God chooses to appear to Juan in the spinach field, and Jose on the slaughterhouse floor. God chooses to appear to Jim as he sleeps in his big rig on the side of the interstate, and to LaKeisha in the Medicaid-only nursing home facility. God appears to the ordinary, the undervalued, the exploited, the forgotten. God chooses to offer peace to the entire world, not the powerful and elite officiants in Caesar’s government. God reveals his promise of peace to those who value caring, nurturing, and love over order, authority and might. God chooses wandering outcasts - the unnamed shepherds - and the homebound census travelers, Joseph and Mary - Rome’s resident aliens.
God chooses to appear to the shepherds living in the fields with the good news. Euangelion!, they said in Greek! Hear Hear, Good News to proclaim!
Now, Luke is doing some subtle political subterfuge here with his story, because, see, Euangelion! - the greek work for Good News and our root for Evangelical and Evangelize - Euangelion! is what Caesar’s Heralds used to say when they were making an announcement. And, in true Orwellian nature, you never knew if what was coming in the proclamation was, actually, good news for you. It could be, “Euangelion! Good News! Caesar has launched an assault on the Mongolian Empire! All your sons will be conscripted and your taxes will be higher to pay for the war! All hail Caesar on his way to victory!”
“Euangelion! Good News! All Jews from Bethlehem must stop what they are doing to report to their home city and be counted so that we can estimate how much we can tax you! All hail Rome and long live Caesar!”
So when God’s angels announce to the poor, forgotten shepherds, “Euangelion! Good News for you… and baby has been born for you… to redeem you and all of Israel…” Luke is co-opting the political to speak to the freedom in the kingdom of God, as opposed to the bondage of the kingdom of Caesar.
Scripture is telling us that Caesar Augustus and Quirnius don't matter. Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas don't matter. The figureheads to strive to retain power within the infrastructure of domination and oppression do not matter to God. The shepherd's matter. The forgotten matter. The unnamed matter. The exploited matter. The peasants matter. The isolated matter. The wandering and the powerless and the outcast matter. And most especially, those who care for others matter.
We matter. Our actions matter. And our ripples matter. The light we create matters.
In this advent season, we’ve been exploring the gifts of hope, of love, of joy and of peace. And in times of great dysfunction, in times of great controversy in DC and great perversion of justice, when hope feels dim, love feels sparse, joy is hard to reach and we don’t see much peace around us - it’s up to us to cultivate and grow hope, love, joy and peace within ourselves. And then, we become those gift for others.
It is up to us to become the hope for someone seeing only darkness. The light we create matters, more than we often realize. This year, even with KKM lite, we generated $3500 in donations for Breakthrough Ministries. That’s a lot of hope for an agency that reaches to kids in crisis, even in the midst of darkness and challenge.
It is up to us to become the love for someone forgotten. When 8 families look out on their doorstop today and see enough food to get them through the holidays and cleaning supplies for the year, they will know that even strangers have love to offer them.
When we are struggling to find the joy, we can foster our own by reaching out. Invite someone to coffee. Wrap up a little gift. The joy of Christmas surprises us when we remember that joy comes in giving of ourselves, in giving gifts - whether material or not. Joy comes in making others happy, and before we know it, we are happier too.
As the song goes, when we stay humble and strive to let God use us as an instrument of peace, the store of peace and goodwill gets a little larger for the next year. If we strive to listen to create understanding, give people the benefit of the doubt, project empathy and compassion first, and embrace the grace of forgiveness for ourselves and for others, we can at least work to create peace around us and let it ripple out from us.
Last night, at the Van Gogh exhibit, I was most surprised to see this quote from Vincent Van Gogh;
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
I guess it’s true in art, and in life. May it be so. May we be the bringers of Good news. Euangelion, everyone! Amen.