Gospel: Luke 2:1-20
1st Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7
2nd Reading: Titus 2:11-14
I met Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus this week. It isn’t as glamourous as it sounds for me or them. It was the icy Thursday morning. I finally had a block of time I could work on my sermon. Susan got the phone. A young woman was crying. It was Mary. They have been staying at Budget Inn. The are on the waiting list for the SON program. They have no car. They have a 10 month old baby. She was terrified that they’d have to stay outdoors in these freezing temperatures. The owner of the hotel let them stay last night out of pity. They owed last night and hoped to also get tonight’s room paid for. $154.90 total. She said, “You couldn’t possibly help with that much, could you?” She’d been on the phone constantly the past few days trying to figure out what they were going to do. She told me she and her husband had been two years clean and sober, from meth addiction. “That’s something, isn’t it!” She was ashamed and proud at the same time. But she said they both have a criminal record, which makes it hard for them to find work. Here they were doing what was right and it wasn’t enough. I really knew they were desperate when she asked if we had any food. They have a microwave and can opener and a few bowls at the hotel.
I really didn’t want to write my sermon, so don’t think I’m trying to make myself the hero of this story. It is thanks to you and the Boy Scouts and Maritime Café, the marijuana dispensary that collects and donates food for the pantry every year, it is thanks to this community, both the church and the neighborhood, that we had food downstairs that came after we were completely wiped out by our December distribution. It is thanks to Barb who makes the time to get a check done and mailed from her office even in a busy holiday season. I put together a box of food that could be cooked in a microwave and even a few little squeeze packets of baby food and drove it over to them along with a letter stating that we would pay the hotel costs.
I talked to the owner to make sure they were legit, they really did have a baby and they were good customers. I don’t want to become known as the gullible pastor who doesn’t check things out. And then I went back to the car to get the boxe of food. Mary came down the stairs and she was so grateful and worried all at the same time. Would her little family have a place to lay their heads? She wore a sweatshirt with holes in the sleeves. She had nothing but her family and her sobriety and some small bit of hope. Joseph came down to the car to get the box of food. He was grateful and worried, too. I gave Mary a card with all the warming centers and their telephone numbers on it. She asked if she could give me a hug and I said “Of course.” That hug was for all of you. I told her to call me and give me an update. She said she would.
On the drive back to church, I missed my turn onto Jennings because I was pondering all these things. I thought of the money in my wallet. I should have given it to her. I wouldn’t miss it. To her it might mean another night of warmth. One more day she wouldn’t worry. I thought of my family, my warm, growing boy who had never known a day of want, who had so many toys he couldn’t possibly play with them all. I thought of my community, people who love me and help me and look after me and I take it for granted. I thought of my problems—how will I fit in all my meetings and get my son from school and volunteer with the PTA and find time for relational meetings and reach out to people who aren’t very happy with how I am serving them or this church.
Here is Mary, far from home, beginning a new journey as a mother. What are her hopes for her child? Here is Joseph, ready to work and support his family, but all the odds are against him. Here are all these houses sitting empty from foreclosure, two on my block—the third one was finally torn down, and here are families lacking housing. Can no one do anything about it? How many derelict houses did Mary and Joseph pass and stare at longingly as was starting to go into labor? Here are the arbitrary temperatures that we say are inhumane to keep people indoors that we use to determine when warming centers are open. When is it ever humane to let a baby sleep outside? Yet here we have a story of Jesus, baby Jesus, sleeping outside as so many homeless and refugees do every single night.
It is not very glamourous to see the world the way it is, with government used to count people in the census, not so they count, but so they can be abused and discounted. It is not very glamourous to sit among the houseless at the warming center and see the toll of living on the streets. It is not very glamourous to give birth in a cattle shed. It is not very glamourous for your job to be watching over sheep. I decided the modern-day equivalent would be gas-station attendant. Lo, they were watching over their pumps by night, when behold an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” They wipe off their hands and straighten their vests and walk into town to see for themselves.
It isn’t very glamourous for your baby’s first visitors to be a bunch of gas station attendants or smelly, dirty sheep herders, yet there they are The shepherds are a very special kind of leader, who care for the sheep, bind up their wounds, know them by name, protect them from wolves. These shepherds come to a cattle stall, a place they knew well. This was their turf. There they find the one who would become the good shepherd. Finally a King who cares about everyone from the least to the greatest. Here the baby Jesus was met by what he would become. And the shepherds become more than shepherds, they become the ones entrusted with more than sheep, they are entrusted with the good news of great joy, and they tend it well. I wonder about the shepherds after that. They must have wondered what became of that baby, that Messiah, that promise. Did they see in each child they met after that the potential Messiah? Did they look for him among the children they encountered?
We read the story and we might feel tempted to get sentimental. But there are real-life holy families all around us. Mary and Joseph still wander the city looking for a place to bring the Christ child into this world. If we search our hearts, and ask ourselves whether we have room for a little one like this, most of us hesitate. Is it safe? Is it convenient? Is it glamourous? Is it fun? The answer to all of these is no. When I ask myself, do I love the Christ Child or my security and comfort more, I’m afraid of my answer.
It is true that we have rejected the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Wonderful Counselor. We crucify him every day by leaving him in the cold, executing him in our prisons, taking away his access to health care, etc. But the amazing thing is that this shepherd king, who sees us for who we are and knows us entirely, makes his home with us, gathers us at his table, gives us his very body, gives us his life. We constantly reject him, yet the light is shining. There is hope because that hope doesn’t depend on us. It comes from God who is love and who we can count on. Because of that love and hope our hearts begin to long for a different world than we participate in and support. Because of love and hope, we might open our eyes to see Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in the poor and hungry. Because of that love and hope and grace, we let go of those things that distract us from God’s vision of peace and justice and make life harder for people already having a hard time, and take on the new life that God is leading us toward.
I met Mary today. She’s a mother with two teenagers, fleeing domestic violence. She needs food for her family. Her eyeliner was thick and there were bags under her eyes. She talked too much. But she is the one God has chosen to bear the good news, the Christ Child, and when Mary calls for help, I don’t want to be the innkeeper who turns her away.