Sunday, December 10, 2006

Shepherds and Livestock: God's Royal Guests--Advent 2 Sermon

Psalm 46
Luke 2: 8-20

The shepherd lifestyle is one of foul odors and ill repute. Long days and nights of waiting and watching are punctuated by the occasional thrill of chasing off a coyote or some other animal hungry for some easy prey. Shepherds aren’t the strongest, aren’t the smartest, aren’t wealthy or noble. Yet our God seems to have a high regard for them. The heroes of our faith are shepherds: Jacob, Moses, David. The prophets even see God as a shepherd, tending the flock of Israel. Jesus verifies that the prophets are right, because he says that he is a shepherd, even though we know his profession is carpentry. We also see in the nativity story that Jesus is born amongst the animals in a stable. He’s put in a feeding trough instead of a cradle. The fact that God incarnate is more appropriately born in a stable among cows and donkeys and sheep and that his first human visitors are poor, crude shepherds tells us something very important about our ideas about power and glory and importance. What we generally regard as royal doesn’t fit the mold that God defines for us in the very birth and life of Jesus Christ. Even though we know that God came into the world in such a way, we tend to whitewash the story in our imagery. The shepherds in the field visited by the angel have clean headdresses on, we probably don’t think of the smell they carry. The livestock in the stable kneel gracefully in the clean hay. We probably don’t think of the smell of donkey sweat or animal droppings corrupting our picture. What is it about shepherds and livestock that appeal so strongly to God?I’ve read a book called “Where Heaven Touches Earth” by a UM pastor in Shreveport named Rob Weber. The first chapter focused on the shepherds’ activity of “keeping watch.” Despite the common image of shepherds on a grassy hillsides with a full moon illuminating the scene, Weber points out that many nights clouds must’ve obscured the light of the moon, or there was a new moon and not much light. Shepherds must’ve had to develop another way to “watch” their flocks in case of these kinds of occasions. Many of you who have farms or ranches know how the shepherds “Keep Watch” don’t you….they listen!
This “listening” relationship is mutual. The sheep also listen to the voice of the shepherd. Jesus must’ve learned a lot from the shepherds in his life, because he knew this relationship well. In fact, in the Gospel of John Jesus describes himself as the “Good Shepherd.” And can you guess what the sheep do who follow this good shepherd? Well, Jesus tells us, he says, there in that beloved story in John 10, “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me…and they follow me by listening to my voice.” The voice of the shepherd is very important—but on the night of the nativity, those shepherds in the hills wound up at the right place because they listened. Advent is a time for careful listening, active anticipation. Waiting in this case is not a passive activity. Advent Waiting is making room, clearing the path. The hymn that we sang this morning is an ancient hymn telling the story of each beast’s contribution to the event where “Heaven Touches Earth.” The simple beauty of the hymn tells of each animal speaking with pride about what they could give as a gift to the holy family. Though we may sometimes think animals aren’t really worth God’s attention because they are somehow “lower life forms” perhaps it will give us a good dose of humility to know that God does use animals. The story of Balaam’s ass is not the only part of the Bible where animals play a key role in getting across to humans what God wants them to know. God’s response to Job tells us that animals occupy the mind of God just as humans do, and we might do well to be as attentive as they are. If we are to take a note from the shepherds and the livestock, we may understand that a key to our Advent preparations is to tune our ears to the silence, listening for the angel choir. Weber points out that in this day and age we have much to distract us from the silence. I’m sure we can identify with one another when we talk about how we tend to cover up the silence with “background noise.” Why? Because it makes us more comfortable I suppose. The silence often sounds hollow and it makes us feel empty. So we fill it up, we turn on, tune in, and drop out as they said in the 60’s, (So I’ve heard.) Recently I played a little game with the youth where I gave them an advertising slogan or a familiar image from a commercial, and they rang a bell to see who the first person would be to get the advertising company. I remember when I wrote the slogans, I sat down at the computer and mentally spewed forth the questions and answers in a purge of “mental space.” Isn’t it amazing that most of us can probably rattle off a whole litany of commercial taglines and slogans, but very few of us have committed the scriptures to memory?It is amazing to me that John Wesley and other people of his time had the entire Bible committed to memory. You often see on television Victorian era people reciting long poems from memory. I don’t have any poems committed to memory. I don’t have any scriptures longer than a couple verses committed to memory. But I can tell you that Burger King lets you have it “your way.” I can tell you who the “Great American Road belongs to” (And that one has been off the air for 15 years or more—that little bit of information has occupied a little chunk of my memory for 15 years or more!” I can tell you what kind of insurance a duck is trying to sell me and what kind a little green lizard is trying to sell me or what kind is “like a good neighbor.” I can tell you who is the King of Beers, who “tastes great but is less filling,” or what is Australian for Beer. I can go on, but the point is that perhaps you can identify with me. My mind has been bought with entertainment. Some sociologists say this American culture is “entertaining itself to death.” In many ways we are. We’re trading our own authentic creativity for pre-packaged sound bites of corporate creativity designed to help us spend our money. Advent asks us to “keep watch.” It invites us to prepare. How do we prepare in such a crazy, image laden world? We turn off, tune in, and drop everything. Actively anticipating takes our undivided attention. The shepherds were accustomed to active anticipation because they had to defend their flocks from predators. To do that, they had to know what to expect. We too know what to expect. We have been given the Good news. We know to look for God where we might least expect to find God. Jesus was born in a feeding trough. God chose to become incarnate in a little baby, born in precarious circumstances to parents of little means. God’s sign to the outcasts was as direct as a visit from a heavenly being. To the powerful kings and sages, God merely put a star in the sky—A subtle sign that something important was happening.
There is a saying that “The universe is filled with miracles and surprises simply waiting for our wits to become sharp enough to notice them.” IN Elizabeth Barrett Browning’ s words, “Earth’s crammed with heaven,/ and every common bush afire with God; / And only he who sees takes off his shoes; / The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
This poem for me illuminates the meaning and practice of Holy Communion, which we celebrate this morning. If we gaze with awe and wonder, if we look with Advent eyes at something as common as the bread and juice, we might see that it too is afire with God. This ritual was instituted by Jesus to assure us that he would always be with us. The miracle of Christmas is that God comes to the world “In the flesh,” The miracle of the Eucharist is that this person of God who came to us “in the flesh” is still with us by the power of the Holy Spirit in this very act of eating bread and drinking juice. Jesus tells us that by participating in this ritual we are eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Though this may sound odd to our ears, I think of Jesus speaking here from his Divine nature. If we are to think of the bread, we might picture the soil growing the grain, the fields of wheat bending in the wind, the hands of laborers harvesting the fields and turning the wheat into flour.
We might picture the contributions of all of these things coming together to produce this loaf. This wide range of images associated with bread keys us into the diverse nature of God’s presence in the world. Christ’s body is visible to the Advent eyes even when we think we are observing something mundane. If we think of the juice, we might think of the hillside vineyards fed by the rain. We might think of that vine taking the moisture from the air and the ground and gathering it in the sweet juice of its fruit. Why is it sweet? So that it will be eaten and the seeds within will find new life in new soil. What a miracle! The blood of Christ does indeed course through the entire process that brings this cup to our lips.
If we embrace silence and attune ourselves to the quiet miracles going on right under our noses, we might just be able to perceive the divine reality in the simple things we usually overlook. Bread and Wine, Babies and Mangers, flesh and blood. These are gifts to us shepherds. If we see the light, will we travel to the stable? Will we go from there and spread the news far and wide like the shepherds in the scripture? That is up to us! Like the shepherds, God has invited us to be special guests at the birth of his Son. And it happens right here………

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