08 Jan Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Christmas, Year B
Sunday 31st December, 2023
Today’s introductory prayer is from Quaker Advices & Queries #12:
Let us give and receive vocal ministry in a tender and creative spirit.
Let us reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it’s not God’s word for ourself, it may be so for others.
Let us remember that we all share responsibility for worship, whether our ministry is in listening silence or through the spoken word.
Some years ago, in Western Australia, my friend Chris took a Sunday drive out bush with Sayed, an Afghan farmer and newly-arrived refugee. They drove out of Perth into the vineyards and farms of the southwest, where there are massive sheep paddocks and masses of healthy sheep and not many people. After several kilometres of silence, Sayed turned to Chris and said ‘But where are all the shepherds?’. Nothing in his long farming experience in the mountains of Afghanistan had prepared him for the sight of sheep without shepherds. He knew what he was seeing, but couldn’t understand it: he literally couldn’t believe his eyes.
This setting of this morning’s gospel reading from Luke is also a rural landscape. The terrifying angels have left and the shepherds, obedient and full of anticipation, have headed off to see for themselves ‘this thing that has been made known to us’. Instead of guarding their flocks they are keeping company with ‘Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger’. Such a strong image of the Word made flesh, revealed in all its/his complicated simplicity.
The stable, the manger, the baby, family, the animals, the shepherds and kings…
How many carols, nativity plays, Christmas cards and other artworks have taken this image of shepherds watching their flocks by night (or washing their socks, as we had it at primary school) as the familiar heart of the Christmas story?
Here at Mucknell, by the week before Christmas, the community had received 98 Christmas cards. Of these, only two – two! – showed the shepherds at the manger. Lots of scenes of the magi, but only two of the shepherds.
So, as Sayed might have wondered, where are the shepherds?
Perhaps exotically well-dressed kings bearing gifts sell a more popular and populist idea of Christmas. Have shepherds, by and large, simply disappeared from our collective and increasingly urban consciousness and become invisible, like so many marginalised people?
Well, not entirely. You may know the name James Rebanks – among other things he’s a writer, but he’s a Cumbrian sheep farmer first and foremost and this is what he writes about working through Christmas:
The sheep need feeding and looking after as if it’s any other day. It sounds like a pain, but it isn’t. Tending to a flock of sheep…feels like the most natural thing to do on the birthday of someone born in a manger in a faraway land of shepherds. We go to church the night before and see our friends and neighbours, and I enjoy eating mince pies and singing those carols that are about shepherds…
It sounds as if 21st century James Rebanks and those Bethlehem shepherds on the cusp-of-BC/AD would probably get on just fine, sharing across the centuries a common language and culture of sheep.
And what about other people who might be seen as contemporary shepherds of a sort, albeit without sheep? ‘Mentors’ they’d be called, perhaps, in today’s terms.
Those who, by choice or circumstance or instinct, listen beyond themselves and, like Luke’s shepherds, obey and follow a calling and then transmit their experience to others who will, in turn, listen and obey and follow…and on it goes.
Here’s a random selection of contemporary shepherds that comes to mind: school teachers leading crocodiles of children on school days out and patiently answering endless questions; the practitioners of non-violent communication who guide and support the peaceful protests seen globally over the last months; all those of faith who continue to worship in places where it’s unsafe to do so and where the presence of God seems temporarily absent; Aboriginal women holding family and culture and language together by the skin of their teeth; and writers, who use words to make change for good and who are as vilified by some as they are admired by others.
The prophecies and fears and warnings of both Isaiah and St Paul that we heard earlier aren’t so far in tone from the rage and pleas of eco-journalist George Monbiot (that’s probably the first time those three names have been used in the same sentence). And street artist Banksy’s extraordinary 2019 visual image of the holy family in the stable, called ‘Scar of Bethlehem’, is as fresh and challenging this year as then.
A common thread throughout these examples – using the word in its widest sense – from today’s Bible readings until today, is the fearlessness of their protagonists. Which is not about the absence of fear but about fear that is felt, faced and transcended, coupled with an openness to saying and hearing and living into truth. Each shows a capacity for ‘fearless receptivity’, to borrow a Buddhist phrase.
Luke tells us nothing about what it cost, tangibly or intangibly, for the shepherds to follow the call to Bethlehem. We don’t know if they simply left the sheep alone to face the dangers of the wilderness and/or predatory humans (Sayed would be horrified), or if there were other shepherds who stayed behind, or if there were sheepdogs on guard or whatever…
But what we do know from Luke is that though the shepherds were ‘terrified’ to begin with, they overcame that fear. They went to Bethlehem regardless, and returned changed; returned no longer afraid but ‘glorifying and praising God’.
Perhaps this is the start of what would come to be known as the spreading of the good news, when as Luke tells us ‘they made known what had been told them…and all who heard it were amazed…’
So, in some unlikely cultural and countercultural way, the stable remains the solid centre of the nativity story. It’s a point of constancy to which Christians and all people are welcome to come and go each Christmas, to visit, revisit, perhaps revise, our understanding of faith, family, home, exile, new birth, new beginnings.
The word ‘stable’ is both noun and adjective, and metaphor as well as solid object. Its root is the Latin stabulum or standing-place, which is also the root word of stability – a grounding of heart that’s central to the Rule of Benedict. Recalling that, the ancient symbol of the good shepherd, the crook here in the church that marks the abbot’s place, suddenly seems new and fresh. Somehow it binds together the notion of stability with the journey of the shepherds to the stable in Bethlehem.
So here’s to stability of the heart, trusting the good shepherd who lives in each of us to lead us with fearless receptivity into the new year.
Image: Le Breton, Jacques ; Gaudin, Jean. Adoration of the Shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51557 [retrieved January 8, 2024]. Original source: Image donated by Jim Womack and Anne Richardson.