Fear

It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles

A sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August, 20, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.

The setting of today’s Gospel is that Jesus had been healing people on the shore of the lake, where they landed after that stormy night that we read about last week. People were broken, sick and infirm, and Jesus made them whole with his touch. And some religious people came along who were very worried about whether Jesus’ disciples were washing their hands properly. In fact, the healing didn’t matter at all to them, it was the forms of purity that were all-important. Jesus points out to these ultra-religious people that their technical compliance with rules is really a way to avoid complying with one of the most important of the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and your mother.” Then, today’s passage begins and Jesus says to the crowds: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

It would be a mistake to think that by saying this, Jesus is against Judaism or against a particular Jewish group, like the Pharisees, who were the most devout and active religious group in Palestine in those days.  Many prophets and rabbis had said similar things.

What Jesus was saying was: Stop trying to game the system. Stop using your religious observance as a way to feel superior to others. Once people get into positions of power – in business, in government, in the church – they often turn sanctimonious and say to others: If you’re not doing what I say you should do, then you’re defiled. Jesus won’t go along with this. It is what comes out from the inside that defiles, Jesus says. The products of hatred, disrespect and selfishness defile the people of God. “Murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” How much do we see these on the national scene nowadays? How often are they excused – even by the President of the United States? How is it that his councils of advice have resigned, except for those religious leaders who he appointed to give him spiritual guidance?

It takes a transformation and cleansing of the heart to live the life of God’s compassion. It takes courage to heal. In our Gospel today, the religious people took offense. Jesus was aware that they would. People protect their selfishness, and their self-serving manipulations; especially religious people. The holiness of God is not revered by honoring a form, an image, an idol, a statue. God is revered by accepting God’s mercy, by living from God’s generosity—seeking the good of others, welcoming those who have not been welcomed, healing the broken hearts of those who suffer or who have been rejected. It takes courage to be with Jesus in this way, because he won’t necessarily let us off the hook, settling into the comfort of our own self-righteousness, or into the isolation of our own hurts.  He gives us no room to be smug.

It’s no accident that the story about the woman whose daughter had a demon follows directly after this in the Gospel of Matthew. The disciples, of course, represent the church, and like the church, we love the disciples and we’re with them and they show us the truth of the Gospel as much in how they misunderstand it as by how they live it.  Jesus has moved from the scene of conflict with the Pharisees and healing the multitudes out to the coast. There’s some indication that he went out to the shore, to get away from a lot of what had been going on – not that different from why people are out on the Jersey Shore or Cape Cod right now. It was foreign territory and Jesus was on a break from his mission to change and heal his fellow people of Israel.

It’s kind of fashionable nowadays for preachers to criticize Jesus in this passage, putting themselves in a position of moral superiority, seeing Jesus as insulting the woman, not seeing the dignity of the woman or his responsibility toward her right away. I read it a bit differently. Jesus is walking and this woman makes her plea. And he remains silent, reflecting, taking it all in. She’s upset and she knows that Jesus casts out demons, and this is about her daughter who she loves. And Jesus is silent, just walking.  And the disciples are just like all these church people, and even, perhaps especially clergy, who have the quick answer, the decisive fix, and they know how to get rid of problems. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

I’m not certain who Jesus is talking to when he says the next sentence. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Maybe to the disciples. Not exactly as a reproof to them, but reminding them of his focus.  Maybe reflecting to himself, “who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman heard him and courageously and tenaciously engaged him. “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” And she expands on the metaphor, “even the dogs eat the crumbs.”

Jesus says: “Great is your faith.” This isn’t because Jesus lost the argument, no matter how convincing the loving mother was. It’s that he understands her faithfulness. And her faithfulness isn’t to some doctrine or rule. Her faith is demonstrated through her deep compassion for another, for her child, which gives her the courage to stand up to Jesus.

We’ve seen another example just this week come out of a terrible national tragedy. That was when Heather Heyer’s mother said at her daughter’s funeral: “I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I’ve got give her up, we’re going to make it count.” In the Gospel story the woman’s child is described as having a demon. There’s no specific or graphic description, but as I’ve said here before, that the demonic is a human, not a divine or magical reality. The demons are the results and symptoms of the evils of a society, where the angers, fears and selfishness are pushed off and dislocated: sometimes onto the weak or vulnerable, sometimes onto the most fearful or angry. Jesus saw this woman’s depth of faith and compassion and he said, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the child was healed immediately, just as those in the crowds were healed, those people who Jesus addressed, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Advertisements

The Lord was not in the Wind

A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

In the fourth watch of the night, he came walking toward them on the sea.

If last Sunday had not been the Feast of the Transfiguration, the Gospel would have been the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which immediately precedes what we hear today. In the Gospel of Matthew, the reason that Jesus is out there at a remote place by the Sea of Galilee is that he had been informed that Herod Antipas was comparing Jesus to John the Baptist; and everyone knew that Herod had had John killed for calling out Herod’s immoral behavior. As Jesus was trying to withdraw to reflect and pray, the crowds came. It was late in the afternoon, and Jesus made sure that they had food.

So our lesson today begins with Jesus sending his disciples ahead with the boat, while he got rid of the crowds and went up on the mountain to pray, which was why he was there to begin with.  So why did he send the disciples off in the boat? Because they needed to get to the other side.  Most of them were fisherman, and they knew how to use a boat—better than Jesus did because he was a carpenter. So that evening, they were headed off, across the lake while Jesus was up on the mountain alone; praying.

Though they knew how to row it was tough going, because the wind was blowing directly at them. And as they struggled through the night, a storm came up.

I grew up in arid country, and storms can appear quickly. When I was a kid, I was fishing with my dad, an uncle and three cousins in a small boat in the middle of a reservoir not that much smaller than the Sea of Galilee. In the middle of a sunny afternoon a cloud came in from the west and suddenly there was a storm—the waves were higher than the gunwales of the boat. My dad got the motor started and we went straight for the nearest point on the shore. As soon as the boat touched the beach, it filled with water. It was a frightening and dangerous time.

Out there on the water there was no place to take cover.  The disciples had been struggling out on the open water all night, and it was dark. When the storm suddenly came up, the text says, literally, it was the fourth watch of the night, which meant the time between 3 a.m and 6 a.m. There they were, far from shore, without even a 35 horsepower Evinrude to get them out of danger.

And Jesus appears, walking toward them on the water. It didn’t calm their fears—they thought they were seeing a ghost. Out there in the dark, everything seemed threatening. Not just the real possibilities of the boat sinking or capsizing, but everything. Their fear, which was in a real sense reasonable, magnified every other thing around them and made everything frightening, even the saving presence of Jesus. When I read this story again, I realized that it resembles nothing as much as the accounts of Jesus resurrection appearances. He appears, and is seen but not recognized until he speaks, he reached out his hand so that Peter could touch him and know that he was not a ghost. Jesus is present, the fear calms, and the storm calms, and they are safe.

So why didn’t he just stay with them and keep them safe? One reason is that he had something else to do—he was out there on that hillside to pray and reflect. And why shouldn’t these professional boat rowers be the ones to take a boat across a lake? The danger that the disciples were in was not unusual. Back then, people lived closer to the forces and dangers of nature than we do today. Everyday life could put you in peril that we mostly can’t imagine today.  In our more technologically advanced age, the dangers are more technologically mediated, like automobile accidents or nuclear missiles. Our fears and anxiety more often emerge with relationship to people and institutions—will there be enough money? Are those unhappy faces signs of a conspiracy against me? Will things work out so my kids can learn and be happy? Will there be a war?

Yesterday, we saw a violent eruption of hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. At its root is the self-pity and infantile anger of white supremacists who can’t bear the thought of others having equality of dignity with white people in our country. Their anxieties have morphed into blame and evil. And people were injured and died.

Like the disciples, we are responsible human beings out in a world with its dangers and with anxieties that magnify and distort those dangers to the point that we see ghosts of our fears at every turn.  A large part of the polarization and partisan conflict is due to anxieties constructing dangers that aren’t there and making it harder to deal with the real dangers and evil that threaten us. It is particularly disturbing when people of great power intentionally magnify anxieties and threaten multitudes with danger and destruction.

Jesus appears in the midst of the storm, not to do a magic act and make the danger go away. That’s not what the miracle is. The miracle is the healing of the fright, the presence of the life-giving power of God. At the beginning of the lesson, Jesus is dismissing the crowds, just as I do, or a deacon does at the end of the Eucharist, “Go forth, in the peace of God.” At the end of the lesson, he brings peace, not just to the disciples, but to the forces of nature. His presence gives courage—even though, as Peter demonstrates, in the midst of all of this we can slip and start to sink. We often overthink things, think of why we are beyond God’s help, think that Jesus is on the other side of the lake, or perhaps on the other side of a historical or philosophical divide. Somehow, the last place we expect him is in the middle of our turbulent storm. Yet at the darkest time, there he is, “Take heart. It is I, do not be afraid.”

Don’t be fooled by the loudest voices, or the roaring of the storms, or the great earthquakes or cataclysms. Remember Elijah—he was told to go to the mountain and wait for the Lord. And it was not the storm, or the earthquake or the fire that revealed the Lord. It was the sound of sheer silence.

 

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul…

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher…

That’s a quiet enough phrase. Simple really. We have one teacher, Jesus. It is enough to be like him. I take him at his word, that’s all that’s required of us, nothing more.

Then you think about it—it is pretty scary. Jesus went about healing, but many took offense. Why? I don’t have a special conduit into the minds and motivations of people today, let alone 2,000 years ago. But in a world in which many are ill, and where illness permeates the society or the system, somebody benefits.  It may not always be one hundred percent clear, how, but for instance, beggars on the street are an easy source of virtue for those who give small alms and go on their way. You may remember in Lent, Jesus healed a blind beggar who then stood up for himself, challenging the condescension of the Pharisees—that was troublesome. Jesus cast out demons and changed the perspective of who was holy and what was holy and when they were holy. Real compassion brings about change and it will make people uncomfortable.

Projection is a wonderful thing. Someone is upset or offended by something someone says, or does, and the only way they can deal with it is by attributing their own motives, fears or evil intent to the person who is upsetting them. Jesus’ opponents had seen Jesus casting out demons and they said he must be in league with Beelzebul, the Prince of Demons. But what they were really doing was projecting their own fears, or their own malice.

Let me say something here about demons and the demonic.  Demons are in fact real. The demonic crops up in our lives far more than we recognize. I’m not talking about cartoon or movie versions of the demonic, I’m talking about the reality that our Baptismal service is addressing when we are baptized:

Do you renounce Satan and all the Spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

 

Demons are human realities, human creations, not divine ones. They are realities in the same way an image or a brand or a belief are real.  For instance, the image of Marilyn Monroe has a power and a social significance separate and apart from the person who is associated with it.  In fact, it exists and exercises influence apart from anyone who might own or purport to control trademarks or property rights involved with it. Demonic realities are slipperier and have more power.  That is because they carry the power of evil which everyone avoids taking responsibility for.

The easiest demon to see in our country is racism. Some individuals might be said to be possessed or consumed with racism, but even if you eliminated those, racism would persist, even among those who can’t see it or deny it. The dignity, even the very visibility of African Americans and others is dismissed without thinking about it, suspicion and distrust based on no evidence except race crop up, and find expression in actions even when we don’t think about it, or approve of it, and particularly when we aren’t thinking. The thing is, no living person is responsible for the existence of racism and no action by any individual or group will make it disappear, though it may be cast out or its effects ameliorated at some times and some places.

But this isn’t a sermon about racism, it is about the demonic, the insidious evils that affect our lives—not things that we will, or things that we created, at least not as individuals. You can see the demonic in abusive families or addictions. You can see it in political discourse. Nowadays we can see that pretty close up. The demonic lives by fear, anger, hate and resentment—but not just any fear or anger. The demonic arises when people deny and cover up those things to the point that nobody really remembers where they came from—everybody, when confronted, can point to a prior instance of offense or terror, unkindness or disrespect that comes from somebody else.  Jesus, in his compassion began to cast out these demons, and triggered the vast resentment that got him crucified.

Jesus wasn’t naïve, he knew what was happening and what was going to happen. But the evil in this world, embodied in those demons was destroying human life, ripping apart society—and Jesus had come to bring life.

So Jesus turns to his disciples and says:

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

Jesus is talking to us. The only way to cast out or limit the demons of this world is through stopping the denial and holding them up to the light—in compassion, and not in self-serving fear or anger—but in the compassionate love of Jesus. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

This is not without consequences, Jesus would not expect it of his followers if it were not important; if life itself did not depend upon it. Pain, conflict, ostracism, even death can result from not cooperating with the culture of denial, anger and fear in this demon filled world.  It’s serious business to be Jesus’ disciple, and not to be undertaken flippantly or with any self-regard or self-righteousness. Jesus says, “Do not fear them, Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The much greater danger is the death of the spirit that comes from accepting the demonic as normative, denying that evil exists, and taking that fear and anger and despair into your soul.

The peace that Christ brings is not cheap. In a world where human beings hurt and demean one another daily, a life of respect and compassion is outside the norm, it requires attention and courage, else we slip into the morass of self-serving anger and cruel despising of others. Yet it is peace, and it is a joyful thing to live in Christ’s love—life is indeed possible, we are not dominated by the despair of this world.

As St. Paul said it today:

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also much consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

 

After reading the Passion

A homily for Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

The experience of the reading of our Gospel lessons today is enough, it takes no preaching to understand. The crucifixion is a great evil. It is a human evil, the people who said Hosanna to the Son of David were the same ones who said, “Let him be crucified.” We read the Passion story today, in a traditional manner, with three readers: a narrator, Jesus, and a reader for all the speakers. When I read for all those speakers, a part of each of them also reflects a part of myself. Each one avoiding pain or difficult consequences for themselves, and the result was the crucifixion of Jesus.

This week we dwell with that—we live that last week of Jesus’ life along with him and all his other disciples. In that we come to know and appreciate the overwhelming love of God in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Walk humbly with your God

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see god.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are YOU when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In the Sundays leading up to Lent, our lectionary is taking us through the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. Last week he called the first disciples and the lesson ends: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

The next thing Matthew says is a description of the great crowds who travelled from all over that started following Jesus. Jesus’ response to those crowds was to teach them. Over the next four Sundays we will be going through this detailed account of the teaching of Jesus which is known as the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching is the fundamental foundation of Christian spirituality.

IMG_0096_2

The introductory part, which I just read, is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together, they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.

The Beatitudes start with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Who are the poor? They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have things that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or still could lose.

And yet, many of those things that we might lose are good, are created by God and give us joy. It hurts to lose them. The second beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Sometimes the things we give up or lose are things, or status or parts of relationships that we like. And adjusting to that is a type of mourning. Sometimes we mourn for people who have meant much to us. In our own community, we have lost people, long-time members—and we grieve. Losing a spouse or a child or another close loved one hurts immensely, and it continues to hurt for a long time. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy.

When Jesus says “Blessed are the meek,” we need to understand something about that word. Meek has taken on a meaning in the past century that is misleading. We are inclined to think of meek as meaning primarily passive and submissive, but the word in this passage does not mean that—it means gentle, courteous and humble. One doesn’t inherit the earth by being timid or weak; rather it is by the strength of being humble, listening and giving credit to the dignity of others. The humble person neither trumpets their advanced status in the Kingdom, nor resents what they have given up for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Being meek does not mean that you don’t speak out when you see wrong or injustice. It’s only the meek and humble who can authentically hunger and thirst for justice (which is the same word as righteousness). Those who, in the core of their being, hunger and thirst for righteousness are fed, not by seeing it completed in this world, but by humbly receiving sustenance and life in God’s Kingdom so that they may continue to look for, and find the possibility of a little more justice in this world.

And as we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.

Notice here, that we have gone through all of this before we get to peacemaking. Making peace is not something you achieve by splitting the difference, or agreeing to not talk about disagreeable things. Making peace where there has been real contention takes the most profound of risks, courage, humility and strength. The children of God who are the peacemakers must be living day by day in God’s kingdom for anything like peace to make sense.

Jesus is totally in the real world. Notice that the next step in the beatitudes, indeed the consequence of making peace, is being persecuted for righteousness sake. Don’t expect living as a Christian and as a peacemaker to make your life peaceful and easy. For instance, it never occurred to me that the President of the United States would ever make an order that caused long-time residents of this country and whose permanent visas were in order to be detained and refused re-entry into the country as happened this weekend. That order embodies fear and anger and uses power to gain satisfaction for that anger by scapegoating people like the U.S. Army translator who was detained and threatened with return to Iraq. At times like this, when Christians speak out for the dignity of people there is a real risk of suffering for it.  The peace and love of Jesus Christ can be profoundly disruptive, particularly for those who think they have this religion thing under control.

So that summarizes Jesus’ outline of the Christian spiritual life.

Jesus teaches us and the crowds the way of life. But what he teaches is not important because it is new or different. It is important because he lived it and shared God’s mercy and compassion.  It is a mistake to talk about the Sermon on the Mount as representing “New Testament teaching” as if it were different from the “Old Testament.”  His life and teaching are consistently a commentary on the scriptures of Israel.  Hear again our Old Testament lesson for today: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Over the next three weeks, the Sermon on the Mount will illustrate how Jesus’ humble walk with God interprets the scriptures of Israel. God blesses those who accompany him on that walk, rejoicing in God’s Kingdom, finding God’s peace, purifying their hearts, receiving and giving God’s mercy and comfort.  May all of our spirits become poor enough and empty enough to inherit the reign of God.

 

Whom then shall I fear?

A sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”

Last week, our gospel story was from the Gospel of John, and in it was the call of Andrew and then the call of Peter. Today’s gospel story is from the Gospel of Matthew and in it is the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John. Two different Gospels, two different writers, two different stories remembering the call of Jesus’ first disciples.  In John, they were over by the Jordan, east of Jerusalem while John the Baptist is still out baptizing people. In mending-netsMatthew, the story takes place after John was arrested. They are on the beach at Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, far to the north of Jerusalem.

The lesson begins: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” It was a very dark time. The leader of the movement for repentance and hope had been taken—the powers would no longer tolerate him and by extension, they wouldn’t tolerate this movement, of which Jesus, by being baptized, was a part. Precise time frames are difficult to draw out of ancient texts like the Gospel of Matthew. But we know that after his baptism, Jesus withdrew into the wilderness and was tempted and then he heard that John was arrested and then went to Galilee. Time has passed between Jesus’ baptism and the point at which he proclaims, “the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” During that time, Jesus reflected. He knew the darkness and lived among those who were in darkness.  And Matthew refers to our lesson from Isaiah:

“In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

Jesus began to proclaim: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”  Though John the Baptist had been saying pretty much the same thing, now Jesus IS the light.

What does Jesus mean when he says repent. Repent of what? Repent of the shadow of death. Of fear. Of hatred. It is time to live in God’s Kingdom and not in the kingdom of Herod or the Empire of Caesar. But what is God’s Kingdom, how do we know it? Jesus gave his disciples a prayer, which we have all been taught, and which we all say every day. It describes the Kingdom—indeed in living it, it is God’s Kingdom.  “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, just like in Heaven. Give us today the bread we need. Forgive us our offenses as we forgive anyone who offends us. Keep our faith and character from being tested, but save us from evil.”  Living in God’s Kingdom is simple, easily understood, but also challenging—especially challenging to our selfishness, our anger, our fear, and our inner darkness. And Jesus calls on everyone to repent. Jesus calls us to repent. He is the light. God’s kingdom is the light that shines light on our inner darkness and gives us a way toward a life of generosity of spirit and of compassion.

And as he is saying this, Jesus walks down on the beach of that big lake in northern Palestine that is sometimes known as the Sea of Galilee. He sees these guys working. “Come with me, we have much more important work to do.” Jesus invites them to invite others into the kingdom. And they come along with him as “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Jesus is here to heal the sickness and darkness in this land too. We are called to follow him in the good news of the kingdom and to share the light of his love.

Tell it out among the nations: The Lord is King!

A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Tell it out among the nations: ‘The Lord is King!’ he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” Ps 96:10

When I was a kid, I wondered if I would ever see a shepherd.  I understood that they were these guys with sort of a hood over their head, and they carried around a big stick with a hook on the end of it. Shepherds were some sort of dreamy, Bible kind of character, who had a life far away from anything that I knew. The thing is, I grew up in Idaho, my father’s business was selling insurance to farmers, both sets of grandparents lived on farms, and at one of those farms, I saw sheep all the time. But there weren’t any shepherds. At my grandfather’s farm, the sheep were kept in pens or enclosed pastures, or sometimes over on a little island in the middle of the Snake River, where nothing could get to the sheep. Bigger sheep operations had people out taking care of the sheep, but those were sheepherders—I never associated shepherds with sheepherders.

Sheepherders were sort of rough, hired hands that spent summers camping out with their sheep in the mountain meadows. You mostly didn’t see them, even if you were up in the mountains

A Sheepherder's camp

A Sheepherder’s camp

where they were, and saw the sheepherder’s wagon, and I think that parents mostly wanted to keep the kids away from them. As a category, they were regarded as disreputable characters.

It took me by surprise that sheepherders and shepherds are the same thing. Even more so when it turned out that the shepherds of the first century would have been described the same way as sheepherders were by my parents’ generation. It was rough work, the guys were pretty much at the bottom of the social heap, and they received little money and less respect for doing their job.

So they are hanging out, out in the hills and it’s cold—not a blizzard, but it’s night and it’s not the tropics, maybe like around here in the foothills in early spring. And. The Angel of the Lord shows up—right there, in front of them. And the Glory of the Lord –not seeing God, but a byproduct of God’s presence. Perhaps it shines, perhaps it feels like electricity, perhaps…perhaps the universe is falling apart, or coming together—who can say? But the Glory of the Lord is showing around these sheepherders.

Then the Angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them … and they were terrified.

And, let me tell you, they were afraid. And they were right to be afraid, because they weren’t crazy, and if anything was ever dangerous, coming this close to the living God, with His Angel standing right there, that was dangerous. These ordinary guys are there, looking at the angel, and he begins to speak: Does he say, ‘don’t worry nothing is happening?’ No. When the angel says “fear not” he’s saying “fear not because…” One insightful commentator translates the Greek to say, “Fear no longer! I am announcing to you good news that will be a great joy for all the people.”

The representatives of all the human race, are this little band of underpaid and overworked hired hands, trying to keep warm while making sure the sheep don’t get lost. And when that angel said, “Do not be afraid,” it was about far more than how those guys felt about this unusual experience. “I am bringing you good news of great joy” : “to you is born this day, a savior, the Messiah, the Christ, your Lord.” The savior is the one who heals us, who delivers us from our sinfulness of fear and anger and alienation from one another. The savior is not someone who takes us out of the world ruled by spiritual forces that rebel against God and the evil powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures; our Savior has come among us, and lives among us to confront, heal and transform those powers.

We live in a country and a world that has been going through a lot this year. Anger and fear have characterized the whole year. Disrespect and jockeying for power among people have been the order of the day.  Who will get more power, or lose power?  When will we get the next piece of news of more people being killed, intimidated, or hurt? How many families are there, whose holidays are disrupted by illness or personal loss? It was not that much different when that young couple set off from the hills of Galilee along roads infested with robbers, all the way down to that little town south of Jerusalem. There was plenty of fear and sadness in those days, and there were plenty of people who thought that the answer would be to get more power or wealth, or the security of great armies.

But it was God’s judgment to send our Savior as a powerless little child, of a poor, young and humble mother, to deliver this world from that kind of fear and that kind of anger. And to whom was it announced? To philosophers? To bishops and archbishops? To kings and political operators? No. The angel appeared to this group of shepherds, out in the hills, who were just trying to keep warm and not lose any sheep. Ordinary guys with no power or influence. God revealed his salvation in the real world of ordinary people, who don’t get recognition, or power or wealth from their lives.

And our Savior is among us, a human being like the rest of us. Born in humble circumstances, and he is a Shepherd. He is the shepherd of our flock, and he loses not a one of us, no matter how fearful we might be.

And our psalm continues:

“Let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad; let the see thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.

 

Be not afraid, and have a happy and holy Christmas.