I preached this sermon on December 24, 2019, at Faith Lutheran Church in Lebanon, TN. As was usually the case, I hope my preaching gave the hearers as much of a new perspective of God’s action in the world through Jesus Christ, as it gave me in preaching it.
I do believe a sermon is delivered in a particular time and place to a particular group of people in a particular context, and so I trust the Holy Spirit, in sharing this here and now, outside that time, place and community, to give wings to these words if they are meant to mean something to you too.
I am only telling you this story because Bamm Wynns was there too and so I have a witness.
You may have noticed (and you will FOR SURE now!!! :-))a slight abrasion on my forehead.
I received that minor scrape on Sunday night I was examining the new keyless entry to our church kitchen installed by Tim Setterlund and Bamm.
To the best of my knowledge my head on the corner of the door did not cause a concussion or cause me to feel dizzy or to black out for a short time. I am only telling you those details so you won’t think a “head injury” nudged me to MAKE UP a story that would serve my storytelling purpose for my Christmas Eve Sermon!
Before church on Sunday morning Tim Twohig was trying to figure out what to do about a shortage of hosts for Sunday night’s Compassionate Hands guests.
I was listening to conversations .between Tim and some of the men who are faithful and regular volunteers but who, for various reasons could not stay overnight on Sunday.
So I decided I could do it.
Now, I am going to be honest with you. Part of the “nudge” to serve was due to having signed up for the very first Sunday night a couple weeks ago, when there wound up not being enough homeless men to need our shelter that night, and so I didn’t even have to stay.
Perhaps a bit of “guilt” moved me opposed to generosity or Christmas Spirit!
At 6:45pm Sunday night, the van with our guests showed up and four men walked through the back door into our warm and welcoming fellowship hall with their sleeping mattresses laid out and a plastic bin of towels and washcloths set out by the shower.
Tim Twohig had texted me earlier we were having five guests but only four had initially come in.
Greetings were offered and “thank-you-so-much-for-having-us” was heard from more than one of them.
The last man to come in must have been taking a smoke outside as the others were entering the building and so five minutes or so later there was a knock on the door and I opened it to welcome one of the most ragged human beings I have ever personally encountered.
All I could see was too much hair, too much beard, and grimy Carhartt overalls.
His hair was matted and seemed to stand out six or eight inches in every direction from his head and his beard was so full and scraggly one could only detect his eyes, nose and mouth.
I should have thought “John the Baptist!”
But I must shamefully confess, I thought: “Charles Manson.”
Almost immediately a not so fragrant aroma of stale nicotine, and body odor (Only surpassed by the wreak of alcohol) began to settle into and fill the room.
You need to understand this condition that caused the visceral experience was really only coming from a couple of our guests.
One of the five almost immediately went to his mat and went to sleep. The other four took turns in the shower, or fixing a cup of coffee, or grabbing a couple of cookies provided for them, doing their laundry, unpacking their backpacks (to rearrange EVERY.SINGLE.ONE of their earthly belongings).
After an hour or so one of the men asked Bamm and I if he might take a chair outside because he was going to cut the hair of his grizzly friend and didn’t want to get hair all over our floor.
Now, I want to pause my story here because I need to clue you in on where I am going with this sermon before you start thinking: “Pastor, I came to hear the sweet story of the birth of Baby Jesus and his mother mild, and his silent earthly step father, and the angels and shepherds.
“I didn’t come here to be confronted with the realities of homeless men in Lebanon, Tennessee!
“It’s Christmas Eve for goodness sake!”
This is where I am not so sure the bump on the head or the fatigue from a lack of sleep or maybe just the nudging of the Spirit didn’t cause me to go here with this sermon!
Until this 10th Christmas sermon I have preached, the 50 or so Christmas sermons I heard before I was a preacher, and any other discussions and readings by scholars and historians, I don’t think I have ever understood the importance of the shepherds to this familiar story.
It’s not just that God sent the angel to some group of unimportant people to be the bearers of Glad Tidings that makes the shepherds important to the story.
It’s not just that the Shepherds might be a good way to remind us the One who is born will one day be known as “The Good Shepherd.”
It’s not just that the Messiah was descended from the line of David who too was a Shepherd.
Maybe any and ALL of those reasons count for something.
But I think more than anything God chose shepherds as key players because the people of that day would have thought pretty much the same about shepherds as I thought about those homeless men Sunday night.
They were not just “the least of these.”
The shepherds in their day, and the homeless men in our own, are human beings that live on the edge and much of the time WAY outside the edge of what is “normal” and “proper.”
And still God chose THEM to be the ONLY human beings to be important enough to be told directly that God had become fully human.
The only ones.
If God thought they were important enough to be among the most important remembered characters in this important chapter in the story of God, maybe I need to take what the shepherds told us seriously.
If I was writing the story today it would go something like this:
In that county there were homeless men caring for their friends behind a little church at night, when suddenly a police cruiser rounded the corner with blue lights flashing.
The frightened men were trying to choose between running into the woods or seeking sanctuary back inside the church.
.But the policeman said to them over the blaring speaker of the car):
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. And ALL means ALL!! Even you homeless men the pastor inside that church is a little suspect of.
If we listen closely to this beginning of the story we should not be the least bit surprised when, about thirty years later, the message of the angels is proven by this baby-now-grown-into-a-man who welcomes, heals, EATS WITH, and loves people as disturbing to societal insiders as those homeless men might be to me or you.
I used to hear this story of the baby, knowing how it ends, because I have heard the rest of the story.
Tonight I’m not surprised by how it ends, because I’ve finally understood what happened at the beginning should help ALL of us know:
Christ was born for THIS.
Christ was born for THEM.
And knowing that should change us the way homeless guest Michael’s finely clipped hair and closely trimmed beard allowed me to see the smile on his face and the new way he saw himself.
WE ALL COUNT in this most amazing story of God’s love and gift of life and light to all—to the WHOLE world.