Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon: How (Not) to Answer a Call

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 25, 2015, Ordinary 3B
Jonah 3:1-10, Mark 1:14-20

How (Not) to Answer a Call

Well…finally.  Here we are.
As I stand here in this pulpit for the first time, it’s hard for me not to be struck by the odd coincidence of the Old Testament and Gospel readings that were offered up by the Revised Common Lectionary for today.  On the one hand, I’ve been very fortunate to have been called by this congregation less than seven months after my seminary graduation.  On the other hand, since God first began disturbing my comfortable life with this call, not long after I had completed my second year on the faculty of the University of Kansas, it’s been five and a half years.  So you might say that the whole idea of “call” has been on my mind for at least that long.  And here, today, the lectionary offers up two rather distinctive “call stories” for preaching. 
A good sermon is not about the preacher.  In this case, though, there is almost unavoidably more biography to this sermon than will typically be the case.  I promise to do better next week.

The beginning of Jesus’s ministry in the gospel of Mark is recounted in about as terse and direct a fashion as possible.  You’ve no doubt noticed that Mark doesn’t bother with a Nativity story; we go straight to (the adult) John the Baptizer, proclaiming his message of repentance and baptizing whoever came along to hear it.  (That John actually gets five whole verses, including a verse devoted to his wardrobe and a two-verse quote, is quite indulgent for the normally no-frills author of this gospel.
Jesus shows up in verse 9 to get baptized, an event marked (for him at least) with the tearing open of the heavens and a voice of blessing from above.  Forty days of temptation are covered in two verses, and finally, at the beginning of today’s reading it’s time to get to work.  The time is fulfilled,” says Jesus, “the kingdom of God has come near. 
So I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that an author who moves his story along so quickly is going to give us a fast-paced account of the calling of Jesus’s first followers, and indeed the whole story happens in five verses.  First Simon and Andrew, and then the Zebedee sons, James and John, are called, and their response is described with a word that Mark uses a lot in his gospel: “Immediately.”  To hear Mark tell it, the instant Jesus called out to them, with that catchy line about fishing for people, they just dropped their nets and took off with him.  As for James and John, they just walk right off Dad’s boat, without so much as a good Middle-Eastern kiss on the cheek.
Do you ever experience a moment when you hear a scripture, one that you’ve heard dozens of times, but this time you hear it, as if for the first time, and it sounds utterly crazy?  I had that experience with this scripture, and that word – “immediately” – some time after this whole drawn-out process of being called started.  It might have even been three years ago, hearing a sermon on this scripture.  I’m not sure.  But in the midst of reading and hearing this passage, my mind went straight to the thought…these people are insane. 
You don’t do that.  You don’t just get up and walk off like that.  It’s just…wrong.  You’ve got obligations.  Family.  Responsibilities.  You don’t just quit in the middle of Music History III.  You can’t sell a house that fast.  It just doesn’t work that way.
So if Mark put in this passage as a test of my willingness to respond to God’s call with absolutely no hesitation at all,…I failed.  I did plenty of hesitating, a lot of faltering, and some outright fighting against it.  I liked my life.  Loved living in Lawrence – I’m sure Gainesville’s a great town, but it’s gonna have to be really something special to live up to that standard.  I had great faculty colleagues, wonderful students, nice little place to live, good church family, reasonably successful academic career…plenty of reason to rationalize.  Yeah, I spent plenty of time trying out lines like why? you know I won’t be as good at that, don’t you?  can't do that to Julia, can I?  All sorts of lines and excuses and rationalizations came tumbling out until there were no more left. 
I still can’t help but believe, though, that once we take off the rose-colored glasses with which we Christians tend to read the Bible, we see that this is still pretty strange behavior from Simon and Andrew and James and John.  And you could argue that they paid for it.  Their lives were indeed turned upside down.  From good solid fishermen to followers of an itinerant desert preacher who came to a violent end, and then to leaders of a fledgling community huddled together around the fact that that violent end wasn’t an end at all, but the beginning of something unpredictable and unbelievable.  No, they were never the same again.  And when we look God’s call to us square in the face, we know that we can never be the same again.
While the immediacy of these four fishermen in taking up Jesus’s call still sounds hasty and rash to me, I have to admit that it’s far from the worst way to answer a call.  For that, we turn to Jonah.
We only read ten verses of Jonah this morning, but really, you can’t preach on Jonah without addressing the whole bizarre story. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah goes on the run instead, hopping a boat basically in the opposite direction.  God drops a big storm on the ship, and when Jonah is singled out as the one bringing on the bad weather, he ends up overboard and is gulped down by a great fish God had prepared for the occasion.  That’s chapter one.  The second chapter is a psalm of thanksgiving that Jonah prays while in the belly of that great fish.  It seems sincere; Jonah sings of being cast away into the deep but being rescued by God, like a lot of psalms do. 
So, when we get to today’s story, and Jonah gets Call 2.0, you’d think that the way this chapter goes would be the best of all possible endings.  For a proclamation of only eight words – “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”, Jonah’s ‘sermon’ was phenomenally successful.  Even if he was barely trying Jonah managed to ignite one heck of a revival.  From the lowliest of citizens upward to the king himself, the whole massive city took up repentance in a sweeping and thorough fashion, and God in mercy spared the city. 
Now you need to understand what it means to talk about Nineveh taking up such an act of repentance.  Nineveh was marked by two things; brutal militaristic conquest and stunning moral debauchery.  Think Moscow at the ruthless height of the Soviet Union’s power crossed with the most hedonistic stereotypes of Las Vegas.  That’s a reasonable enough modern way to understand Nineveh.  If you weren’t from Nineveh you hated Nineveh, particularly if you were an upright type like Jonah. 
So chapter three would make a great ending for the book of Jonah, but instead we get chapter four, where Jonah cinches the deal as master of How Not To Answer A Call.  In the face of a stunning preaching success, the likes of which would have made Billy Graham blush with envy, Jonah throws a temper tantrum.  He actually prayed to God like this:

“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was in my own country? This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Now let that sink in for a bit.  Jonah did not want to live in a world where God forgives.  Jonah was ready to watch the sky fall on Nineveh.  If he had to contaminate himself by entering such a wicked and debased and evil city, he at least had the right to be able to watch God destroy it, and now he wasn’t even going to get to see that.  Stupid God, being all merciful and forgiving. 
Unfortunately, this is where we have to remind ourselves that Jonah is less distant from us than we think.  Who is it that we hate, or fear, so much that we don’t want to see God extend mercy and forgiveness to them? 
Think through the twentieth century for just a little bit.  A hundred years ago, maybe it was Berlin, and “Kaiser Bill,” who occupied that role as the acceptable nation to hate.  Then a little more than twenty years later, it was Germany again, and that awful shrieking little man with the bad moustache and murderous intent.  For several decades that role then shifted to Moscow, perhaps, with a succession of callous dictators and an army and spy apparatus ready to stifle dissent brutally at home and sow violence abroad.  Or maybe one of that regime’s offspring, down in Cuba.  Maybe Iran and the Ayatollah took up that role for a time.  Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.  Maybe now it’s ISIS, or ISIL, or IS, practitioners of an outright medieval brutality.  Or possibly that strange dictator in that strange country, North Korea.
Our culture is quite adept, as have been many cultures over the centuries, at producing new enemies to hate in unison.  And “hate” is the word; mere fear isn’t enough.
The trouble is, that’s not how we’re called.  Jonah thought he could get by answering God’s call while holding on to his own enmities and prejudices, even as much as Jesus’s own disciples may have thought it was still o.k. to hate the Romans, for example.  But that’s not how we’re called.
Yes, “we’re.”  Just because I eventually did drop that beautiful life and vocation and go back to seminary; just because I’ve picked up and dragged my infinitely patient wife off to a new place and a new vocation; just because in a couple of weeks a bunch of people are going to say a bunch of words and lay hands on me and call me “Reverend”; none of that means I’m the only person in here called by God. 
Maybe you’re lucky enough that you don’t have to uproot your whole life, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t calling on you to be a bearer of good news to those who need good news most.  And that calling doesn’t allow for you to nurse your long-standing prejudices either.  They don’t look like you?  They don’t live in the right part of town?  They aren’t American enough for you?  They don’t share your good upright morals?  They don’t “believe in the Bible” (whatever that means)? 
You love them anyway.  You bring good news to them anyway.
After Jonah’s rant in chapter four, and after an incident with a qiqayon (a kind of bush) that springs up to shade Jonah only to be burned up in the heat, it is God who has the last, unanswerable word in this book.  When Jonah laments the demise of the bush and again claims to want to die, God responds with a response that was apparently unanswerable for Jonah, one that points up Jonah’s prejudices (and our own) as so lacking and untenable in the face of a loving and merciful God:

“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

We look at Nineveh – any of our possible Ninevehs – and see brutality and corruption.  God looks at Nineveh and sees lost children.  And God calls us to see the lost children in Nineveh, not just the brutality and corruption.
God calls us out of our safe homes to bear witness in the strange and threatening world.  God comes along the lakeshore, calling us away from our fishing boats.  God moves down University Avenue and Archer Road and Main Street and NW 13th Street, through The Duckpond and Haile Plantation and your street.  God moves among the university classrooms and halls and offices, through Shands Hospital and the museums and concert halls, and maybe even through the Swamp and the O’Connell Center.  God walks where we are and calls us, and isn’t interested in our judgments on those to whom he calls us.  Our job, if we really want to be followers of Christ, is to bear witness, to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, justice to the oppressed, and mercy to the lost children of Nineveh. 
That’s how to answer a call.

For that call, to all of us, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH '90): "For the Beauty of the Earth" (473); "Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore" (377); "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" (281)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The 12 Days: Day 8

From the Qu'ran 19:16-36:

Mention in the book of Mary, when she withdrew from her people to a place facing east,
and she took a veil apart from them; so We sent to her Our spirit who presented himself to her as a man without faults.
She said, "I take refuge in the All-merciful from you! If you fear God..."
He said, "I am a messenger from your Lord, to give you a boy, pure."
She said, "How shall I have a boy when no mortal has touched me, nor have I been unchaste?"
He said, "It shall be so! Your Lord has said: "It is easy for Me; We have appointed him as a sign to the people and a mercy from Us; it is a thing decreed."
So she conceived him, and withdrew with him to a far-away place.
And the pains of birth drove her to the trunk of the palm-tree.  She said, "I wish I had died before this happened, and had become a thing forgotten!"
But he who was below her called to her, "No, do not sorrow; see, your Lord has set below you a stream.
Shake the palm-trunk towards you, and fresh, ripe fruit will tumble down on you.
So eat thereof and drink, and be comforted; and if you see any human being, say, "I have vowed a fast to the All-merciful, and today I will not speak to any human being."
Then she brought him to her folk, carrying him.  They said, "Mary, you have surely committed an improper thing!
Sister of Aaron, your father was not an impure man, nor was your mother an unchaste woman."
Then she pointed to him but they said, "How can we speak to one who is still in the cradle, a child?"
He said, "Lo, I am God's servant; God has given me the book, and has made me a prophet.
He has made me blessed, wherever I may be; He has enjoined me to pray, and to give the alms, so long as I live,
and likewise to cherish my mother; He has not made me a tyrant, unprosperous.
Peace be upon me, the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I am raised up alive!"
This is Jesus, son of Mary, a statement of the truth about which they are in doubt.
It is not for God to take a son unto Him.  Glory be to Him!  When He decrees a thing, He only says to it "Be," and it is.
Surely God is my Lord, and your Lord, so serve Him.  This is a straight path.
(Trans. from Calder, Mojaddedi, and Rippin, Classical Islam: A Sourcebook of Religious Literature)

You were not expecting this one.  Don't pretend.

Jesus is in fact regarded as a prophet in Islam -- the "last prophet," or at least the last in that tradition. This isn't the only time Jesus comes up in the Qu'ran or in Islamic thought in general, but as this comes somewhere being a "nativity story" it seemed the one to check out.

Parts of the story look vaguely familiar. Earlier in the 19th sura (chapter, roughly) we get an account of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptizer, that also looks a little bit like Luke's narrative.  Here the visitation of Mary by a "messenger from your Lord" isn't necessarily that dramatically different from Luke's story, including Mary's insistence on her innocence.  From there it does take a different turn, one slightly resembling Old Testament accounts of the exile of Hagar, before the truly unusual part, in which one of three things has happened; (1) the infant Jesus starts to preach; (2) the infant Jesus grows up into a man really quickly; or (3) the time frame of the narrative jumps ahead many years without warning us.

Still, the key here is something that the passage takes great pains to deny, something that helpfully reminds us what the really important part of the Christian nativity narrative is.

"This is Jesus, son of Mary," looks innocent enough.  But as the sura continues, it becomes clear that "son of Mary" is a bit of a proxy for something else, i.e. "not a son of God."  This becomes clear with the statement "It is not for God to take a son unto him."

And this, friends, is the Big Deal.

When we manage not to get distracted by the Christmas pageants and cantatas and such (much less the tinsel and Santa Clauses and radio carols playing Christmas music the day after Halloween), this is the nugget that undoes everything.  Our faith insists, if sheepishly at times, that this whole messy narrative is nothing less than God undoing history by breaking into it in the form of a human, from infant all the way up the chain.  "Incarnation," to use the fancy theology word.  "Emmanuel" as the prophets put it -- "God with us," God as one of us not in a cheesy pop-song way but God as human as God as human as God, both/and, 100% and 100%.

This is scandalous.  Gods don't besmirch their divinity getting mixed up in human form (leaving aside those crazy Greek/Roman deities).  This isn't just Islam talking; many early Christians struggled mightily with just how exactly this whole incarnation worked without God somehow being diminished in the process.  Some of the earliest creeds in the Christian tradition came into existence due to struggles over this very claim of God Incarnate.

Christmas is, despite the way many churches approach it, not the most important feast day in the Christian year -- you have to look to the Maundy Thursday/Good Friday/Easter sequence for that.  But Christmas is not without its depth and significance.  The in-breaking of God into humanity, all undignified and messy and in a no-account Judean backwater, is a claim that the world cannot bear.

To borrow a phrase from Linus and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" again, that's what Christmas is all about.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 7

Luke 2:39-40:

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

So they went home.

After all the fuss at the temple, after the drama of that night when the baby was born, after all the drama with angels and unexpected pregnancies, they went home.  Back to Nazareth.

They went home and the boy...grew up.  Aside from what happens in 2:41-51, when the child was twelve years old, that's all we get.  No miracles, no drama, no...well, nothing.  They went home and the child grew up.  Grew up well, to hear Luke describe it, but grew up.

With the dramatic flair Luke showed throughout the first chapter and most of the second, you'd think that if Luke had found any good juicy stories (see 1:3 for Luke's frank admission about doing research) about Jesus's childhood (nothing embarrassing, mind you, but a good healing or something), he'd have found a way to work it in.  He did include the temple story, after all, or both of them (Simeon and Anna, and the twelve-year-old at the temple).

But, in the end, Luke doesn't give us anything else.  Just...he grew up.

As has been observed, other writers were happy to fill in the gap.  For example, some time in the second century, an unknown author filled the gap with a colorful piece of writing known now as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  Jesus isn't a very nice kid, if you buy these tales.  Apparently people wanted stories of Jesus's childhood, though.  Why this kind of account was appealing is beyond me, I have to admit.

Aside from Luke, the gospels have Matthew's more spare account, and John's prologue (more on than another day).  Mark has nothing to say on the subject at all.  And nobody else, certainly not Paul, sees fit to address Jesus's childhood, or any of the other big biographical details, really.  Paul has a few things to say about the meaning of the Incarnation, but doesn't seem to care much about how it happened (again, more later).

People get greedy.  For all his sense of drama, Luke isn't going to feed any kind of frenzy for juicy stories that don't add up to good news.  So, the nativity story ends with...he grew up.

And that's enough.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 6

Luke 2:22-38:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.  Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arm and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and a glory to your people Israel."
And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.  Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed -- and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.  She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.  She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night ant day.  At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Just when things started to seem normal.

Again Joseph and Mary were doing what good parents were supposed to do, when they were supposed to do it.  A Presbyterian can spot things being done "decently and in order" from a mile away.

All seemed perfectly on track until the old man showed up.  To hear Luke tell it, he just walked up and took the child.  We have no reason to believe that Mary or Joseph knew who he was, so maybe a little bit of panic was in order.  By the time Simeon got through saying what he had to say, maybe the parents wished he had been a mere child-snatcher -- he was old, and they could certainly outrun him...

Oh, it started off well enough, and to Mary at least it should have brought back some memories of angel visits and dramatic prophecies.  Before too long, though, Simeon quit preaching and got to meddling.  Falling?  A "sign to be opposed"?  Might these have been the very first intimations that all would not go well for this child?  Finishing with the cryptic "a sword shall pierce your own soul too" was the last straw, I'd think.  What could that possibly mean?  Is this child going to break my heart?  What will he do?  What will people do to him?

If that weren't enough, then an equally old woman showed up, not to bring darkness to their own hearts, but to point out the child to everyone passing by.  Now Mary and Joseph are not only puzzled and troubled by the old man's words, but they are trying to sort it all out with the whole temple full of people watching, it seemed.

Luke seems very interested in giving us a lot of detail about Simeon and particularly Anna.  We are for a moment treated to the backstory that brought the two to the temple, as well as Anna's personal history and her identity as a prophet (note that Simeon is not so identified).  For Joseph and Mary, though, we have to guess that none of this background was available; just two random strangers suddenly going nuts over their child.

It's not as if there hadn't been enough already, between the angel visitations before Mary was even pregnant, not to mention the invasion of shepherds babbling about angels on the night of the birth.  But what was it like on the other days, when this was just a child who needed to be fed and cleaned and so on?  Did it start to seem, after a while, as if all that other business might have been just a dream, something starting to seem a little less real, a little less present than it seemed at one time?

If so, Simeon and Anna were on the scene to shake those illusions away.

They also served, perhaps, to remind the new parents that they were not the only ones with everything riding on this child, in case that was starting to slip from conscious thought.  To think of these two, blessed with great years, whose whole life had more or less become about waiting for the appearance of this child -- my child -- the salvation of the people, glory of Israel, but my child! -- had to be a jarring, shattering moment.

If there were more of these to come, Luke doesn't record them for us, at least outside of the temple incident at age twelve.  We are left with only two more sentences, in verses 39 and 40, which don't tell us a lot specifically.

Maybe that's because this isn't the important part?

After all, we have done a pretty impressive job of sentimentalizing the nativity story we have beyond all capacity to jolt us or surprise us or move us to live a Christ-like life.  Imagine if we had a childhood full of stories to obsess over.  Can you imagine the carols?  "Away In a Manger" would look like a doctoral treatise in theology by comparison.

Maybe our lack of childhood story is for the best.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 5

Luke 2:21:

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.

It's what you do.

On the eighth day the male child is circumcised.  That's the procedure.  Even if your child is the Son of God.

Amidst all the weirdness and completely not-normal stuff that happened in the time leading to the birth of Jesus, and after the rather dramatic angel intervention and shepherd invasion of the night of the birth, the next thing we get is this simple sentence about first-century Jewish parents doing what first-century Jewish parents do.

One of the things that stands out as odd about what we know of Jesus's life is this yawning gap between birth and age thirty.  Aside from the episode in the Temple when Jesus was twelve, we skip from this infant/toddler (more on that later, on day 12) to the thirty-year-old Jesus showing up to be baptized by John the Baptizer.  Childhood, young adulthood...<crickets>.  Nothing.

Not that everybody was willing to accept this.  If you delve into the non-canonical material about Jesus, stuff that came out decades or even centuries afterwards, you get some really bizarre accounts about bizarre, willful, even cruel things done by the child Jesus.  Modern authors are not immune to the temptation to "fill in the blanks" about Jesus' life, either.

We stink at not knowing, or more precisely at accepting that we don't know.  There are some occasions where that's a good thing; I'm glad that doctors and researchers didn't settle for not understanding cancer.  But there are occasions where it leads to unhealthy and even destructive behaviors, wild unfounded speculation, and incredibly bad religion.

What's also interesting in the case of these non-canonical accounts, though, is the apparent need to make Jesus's childhood, well, "special."  The miracles and the power have to start showing themselves at a young, even very young age.  The possibility that Jesus just had a childhood -- a reasonably calm, normal childhood -- is apparently unacceptable.

The thing that appeals to me here is the utter normalcy of what the verse describes -- what any male Jewish child would have had done on day eight -- juxtaposed with the reminder of how not-normal things had been up to that point ("the name given by the angel..." -- not everybody has that experience).  At some point, if you're Mary and Joseph, you've got to get on with raising the child.

What do you do when the Son of God poops his swaddling clothes?  You get new swaddling clothes, or clean the old ones, and clean up the child.  Normal.

The child has to be nursed.  The child has to be burped.  And after eight days the child has to be circumcised.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 4

Luke 2:15-20:

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.

They had to check it out, of course.

The angels had made the big announcement to them, and given them a "sign" to know that they were in the right place, so of course they had to go check out what his thing was that the angels had announced, what the Lord had revealed to them.

I've always wondered what became of the sheep.  Some of the songs of the season suggest that they simply left the sheep behind.  This would be a fairly serious thing; to the owners of the sheep it's quite likely that the sheep were of more value than the shepherds.  Was one poor sap left behind to stay with the sheep?  Would one be enough, given that the sheep were quite likely agitated after that interruption from the angels?

I like to think that they herded the sheep along with them.  After all, this child was lying in a manger. If there was a manger around there was probably food as well as possibly shelter for the sheep.  As a result, I imagine a pretty crowded scene around Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus, with the shepherds and sheep crowding in along with whatever other animals were already there.  I like to imagine it, but of course I have no evidence for it.

Whatever became of the sheep, the shepherds made their way towards Bethlehem, and did so "with haste."  It doesn't say "they ran."  Maybe the sheep were slowing them down.  But they got there as fast as they could, in plenty of time for a heaping helping of cognitive dissonance.

It's not like they weren't warned.  The angel was pretty clear about what they'd see; a child lying in a manger.  Still, it wasn't as if the medium and method by which the message was delivered truly prepared them for such a humble sight.

Most scholars suggest that the manger was found not in the rustic kind of stable we imagine, but in something more like a man-made cave, hewn out of rock; in other words, something not far from a literal hole in the wall.  Inside were the child, still rather newborn-looking, probably squawling a bit (NOTE: I'm told by those who have given birth to children that if you're newborn child doesn't cry there's a decent chance something is wrong; that rather stupid line in "Away In a Manger" about "little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes" is absolute BS, nothing more than an attempt to shame Victorian children into being little pod people); Mary most likely spent and wiped out from giving birth, and Joseph in whatever state of panic he had achieved by this time.  It's hard to imagine that the scene itself wasn't quite what these shepherds imagined after all that angel stuff.

Whatever dissonance there may have been, the shepherds didn't seem to be deterred; they unloaded their whole story on Mary and Joseph.  Luke makes it sound like there were others on the scene as well -- "and all who heard it were amazed..." (emphasis mine) -- maybe the keeper of the inn?  Maybe the innkeeper's wife?  (As played by Pig-Pen and Frieda in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," perhaps?) In any case, we get x number of people being amazed, but Mary starting her own My First Baby Book in her own memory.

Certainly Mary hadn't completely forgotten the announcement from the angel Gabriel, or perhaps the experience of that crazy prophetic song coming upon her from out of nowhere when she was visiting Elizabeth.  At the same time, though, the girl was tired.  She could really have used some rest.  But the shepherds crashing in (with or without sheep) no doubt brought back to her all of the unbelievable and awe-full things that had led up to this birth, providing a reminder: remember who this child is, Mary; remember who this child will be.  And the shepherds' account of the angelic announcement brought back into sharp relief for Mary just what it was to be the θεοτὁκος.

As for the shepherds, they were presumably polite enough not to overstay their welcome.  And they ... returned.  To their fields?  To their sheep?  To that one schlub left behind to keep the sheep?  To an empty field deserted by the sheep who had wandered off and gotten swept away in a nearby river?  We don't know.  They disappear from the story.  But they disappear "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen."  Maybe that made the nights alone with the sheep easier to bear.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 3

Luke 2:8-14:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks 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 a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

Now we're getting somewhere.

This is the stuff of Christmas, as it tends to get transmitted in culture both high (no, that link doesn't lead to Messiah!) and popular.  It is so familiar, perhaps, that we don't actually hear it anymore.

Oh, we hear it for certain, when we watch A Charlie Brown Christmas or see the Christmas pageant or the Christmas Eve service, but there's hearing, and there's hearing, and I'm not sure we hear it.

Maybe this is a place where a more modern translation, like the NRSV above, might help.  There's a difference in impact between saying there were shepherds "abiding" in the field, and shepherds "living" in the fields.  And how long has it been since you took the time to figure out what "sore afraid" means?  But we get "terrified."  Maybe not as poetic, but meaningful.

Again, this is maybe a place where our little pageants don't help us.  Who can be terrified of the cute little boy or girl playing the angel?  And yet our understanding of this passage, of the shock and, yes, terror the shepherds felt gets diminished every year.

To go back to A Charlie Brown Christmas: if Shermy thought it was frustrating to play a shepherd every year in the Christmas play, he'd have been totally bummed at being a shepherd for real.  Living (not just abiding) in the fields, trying to keep track of some of the dumbest animals in creation, fighting off predators, fighting off weather, fighting off boredom...again, perhaps not quite like our romanticized illustrated Bible might suggest.

And into this mixture of tedium and chill bursts an angel, appearance enough to leave the shepherds terrified.  The angel's announcement probably didn't help matters.  When a terrifying being tells you not to be afraid, it doesn't usually help.  The heart of the announcement -- a baby born Messiah, wrapped up in cloth scraps and laid in a feed trough? -- probably came off as more confusing than comforting.  And then...if one angel was terrifying, a multitude of same was probably heart attack-inducing.

This might, in all the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke combined, be the scene that comes closest to capturing something of the radical in-breaking that the scriptures of Advent pointed toward.  An event out of the blue, overturning the existence of those who witnessed and experienced it, the announcement would seem to have made it impossible for the shepherds' lives to go on as normal, wouldn't it?  How do you go back to humdrum shepherding after that?

When you say you want to feel the Spirit, to know what it is to be face-to-face with the radical action of God Almighty, keep these guys in mind.  Their lives are being invaded in this passage.  They are being thrown into the middle of an unexpected and inconceivable divine intervention, and they can't quite know what's next.  Except for one detail: they've gotta check this out.

Our dramatist Luke shows his flair here.  Change of scene; he might as well have started this passage with the Greek equivalent of "Meanwhile..." But the choice of shepherds for this scene -- shepherds, not kings or wealthy folk or even good solid citizens, but grungy, scruffy, legally unreliable shepherds -- reveals more than dramatic flair; under the radar Luke is making a statement about the kind of Messiah being born on this night.  The scruffy, smelly folk, the undesirables, the social outcasts ... these are his people, even when he's barely out of the womb.  There might have been less likely people on the planet that night to be the recipients of this angelic outbreak, but it's hard to think of who they might have been.

And this is worth breaking out the angelic multitude.  Not just the birth of a Messiah, but this Messiah, the one who seeks out shepherds and fisherfolk and others on or beyond the fringes.  That's worth a good rousing chorus of "Glory to God."