Waldorf education is pretty big here. Some folks swear by the Montessori method. Most of us swear at the corporate model of education, with endless rounds of standardized testing and resource draining charter schools all funneling profit to the super rich and their private equity funds. Me? I’m a fan of the Goop Method. It is among the less known education theories, and has only one principle. If you can get a child’s hands in goop, you can teach them almost anything.
It is my theory, and the testing has been less than rigorous, but experience has shown me that in a world that treats children like little cpu’s that need to be programmed, if you put a kids hands in something, mud, bread dough, plaster, it doesn’t matter, you open pathways in the brain, because it turns out that children aren’t brains on a stick, but little amazing learning animals that have hands and feet and everything, that learn with sound and color…
In the same way, we have learned that important values-based messages can be delivered in an entertaining form, not just in some dry sermon delivered by a lecturer in a pulpit. As I shared last Sunday ina dry lecture from this pulpit, the Harry Potter series is a compelling adventure story for the young and young at heart, but it is also a lesson in the power of love and a compelling anti-racist teaching. Disney and Pixar movies have evolved, deliver important values-based messages, Merida proving that girls don’t need a prince to be brave and strong, Nemo found by his single father and a cognitively-impaired companion. And along the way, sly nods to the adults in the theater or listening to the DVD playing in the backseat for the 53rd time.
And sometimes, just maybe, the teaching comes in the form of an over-the-top, completely unrehearsed Christmas pageant.
A Christmas pageant that reminds us that there are two birth narratives in the New Testament and they are very different, despite our attempt to create a family-friendly mash-up.
Yet, despite their differences, they share this: God chose a strange way to save the world.
In Matthew there is no census, and Jesus is presumably born at home, but the family has to flee immediately, saving their child by crossing a border. They are refugees. The story would end right there, no teaching, no healing, no Easter, if they had been turned back at the border.
In Luke, where we find the fictional Roman census, Joseph and Mary are “un-sheltered,” an assembled word that means exactly what is says, may be permanent or temporary homelessness, even more dire when it means that even the shelters are full or the un-sheltered individual is too mentally ill to be in a shelter, or in this case on that night in Bethlehem, there was no appropriate shelter, and the babe is born in a stable.
Angels, a virgin, wise travelers from the East or maybe shepherds in a field, pick the parts you like or stick with the traditional mash-up, doesn’t matter… one thing is clear. Holiness is found in unexpected places.
Even if we choose to strip away all of the fantastic elements from the story, to write off both birth narratives as fictions by well-intentioned later followers, we still arrive at this: Jesus, not rich, not powerful, not a general or a ruler, just some wandering rabbi who seemed to have the ability to change lives, to have love enough to make clean and whole what had been unclean and broken, and who dared us to live as if God were love, and here we are talking about that man almost two thousand years later.
In the middle of the worst of times, corruption in high places, the darkest of forces triumphant again and again, broken brown bodies, and there, floating in that sea of despair, a babe, in a regular home, fleeing across the border, in the manure-stench of a barn, holiness in surprising places.
This is how holiness always comes, where and when least expected. Where in your life might you find surprising holiness? It is there, a star in the sky, a babe in the manger, a new world being born before your eyes. Rejoice, the Lord is with us, this night and always. Amen.
Lessons and Carols
They are beautiful, of course, plastic and porcelain and hand-carved, realistic, hipster and so abstract that they are one step from a Picasso, these creches that we carefully unwrap each Christmas and display in our homes. And, of course, they are completely anachronistic, white people in a brown world, a mash-up of two completely different birth narratives that have little in common, three kings where the text gives us an unknown number of wise people, gender unspecified, from the East, and not scheduled to arrive for another twelve days, shepherds from a completely different movie, angels hovering over the open stable, all jumbled together in one little kitchen-sink of a tableau.
But let us, for just a few minutes, suspend our disbelief, our well earned skepticism, that historical-critical lens through which we see ancient scripture, and just accept, for a moment, this image of an infant born in a stable, sleeping in a manger, attended by shepherds and kings.
This is an odd assortment of characters, a diner where construction workers and professors sit in the same booth and break bread together, or maybe it is every bar song ever written, and as someone who listens to country music, I know bar songs. It is the Cheers of the Ancient Near East, though nobody seems to know anyone’s name and that’s okay.
They are not all Hebrews. They are most certainly not all clean as defined by the strict Hebrew purity code, besides there was woman stuff going on, blood and placenta, definitely not clean in that paternalistic and superstitious culture. Yet there they are, each with their stories, drawn to a barn.
A man who is decent enough to take on the task of raising a child that isn’t his own. A young woman that the story tells us was willing to risk it all to serve God, joining a long Hebrew tradition of mothers who are asked to sacrifice their sons. Shepherds having a quiet night guarding their flocks, then terrified by a close encounter of some other kind with supernatural beings singing in the sky and telling them to go into town and find a newborn sleeping, in of all places, the feeding trough of a stable. Astrologers who have seen a strange star in the sky and set out for points west, exact destination unknown.
Which is to say, here in this tableau, is church. We don’t always know why we do what we do, and even if we did know, it wouldn’t always make sense. We find ourselves with strange companions in improbable places again and again, on a spiritual journey drawn to holiness, to a weird star and voices from the sky. We arrive to find odd companions, a whiff of manure, and life itself, the divine touching our world.
This is exactly the way it should be. This faith, this Way of Jesus, was fickle from the outset. It was a rebellion from the concepts of racial and religious purity that drove so much of the Hebrew tradition. Just as a group of oddballs gathered in a stable, or at least in that fictional creche on the best shelf in our Living Rooms, so oddballs would surround Jesus throughout his ministry, disciples and followers from the weirdest of places, touching the unclean, teaching the foreign, healing and loving.
Maybe we should all swap pieces of our creches so that they are as odd a mix and mismatch as the actual gathering around Jesus, a beautiful Italian Mary, a Playskool Joseph, a hipster wiseman on a Segway.
Or maybe, we just have to be church, weirdos gathered by holiness in the most improbable of places, Gathered on a Saturday night when the nights are long and cold, boldly saying that God is with us.
I am old enough to remember Bing Crosby Christmas Specials, young enough to have enjoyed David Bowie during his pop music phase, and, a fan of the Buggles and their hit “Video Killed the Radio Star” before they joined the classic band Yes, I was there to watch as that video opened the era of MTV. I saw the famous Crosby-Bowie duet in 1977 when it first debuted, watched it become a seasonal staple on MTV, and today it is a classic. The tune, which you surely know, features Crosby on Little Drummer Boy and a lilting counterpoint written especially for Bowie about the possibility of Peace on Earth.
It is both old, if you can call Drummer Boy from the 1950’s old, and modern, at least modern two decades later. It is as relevant today, as Russia and the Syrian dictatorship drop cluster bombs on Aleppo, as it ever was. And what a week we had, this last week before Christmas. It makes us all wonder about that line in the song… “Peace on earth, can it be?”
And here we are this morning, gathered, singing classic songs, some centuries old, yet part of a living faith, with an evolving theology that is capable of taking on board the discoveries of science without having a mental breakdown.
Which is exactly what we are celebrating, the ancient and the new. No matter how you feel about the birth narratives, fiction or fact or something in between, the simple truth is that Jesus was an eruption of new thinking in an old tradition. He was Bowie to the Hebrew faith’s Crosby, and that beautiful collision of the old and new is the classic that we still celebrate.
A kingdom breaking into the world in a new way, it threw out the stuff that was stifling creativity and growth, the purity codes, the racism that is inherent in the claim that God loves only one people. It kept the justice and compassion from the Hebrew narrative, doubled down on them if anything, but added a universalism that transcended old tribalisms.
Jesus, a baby in a manger in a stable, a wandering teacher and healer, an organizer of a faith-based resistance murdered by the state, a love more powerful than the grave.
Jesus was a new solution to an old problem. How is God with us? How can we be with God?
In the middle of the unwrapping, new stuff that will soon be break or be abandoned in the closet, let us remember what is really new, a God breaking anew into the world every day, the ancient of days, the new dawn, joy in the morning, a star over a stable.
New solutions to old problems, tradition and innovation, and most of all, love… with these in our lives and in our world, we will no longer need to ask “Peace on earth, can it be?” We will be able to sing “Peace on earth, let it be.”