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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
December 24, 2018

Sermon: The Beautiful, Aching Work of Repair

In the beautiful words called Mending Blessing, Jan Richardson writes,

The work of repair
is aching
in its slowness
and beautiful in
the inches by which
it will arrive.

I did not know when we started the tradition of our Paper Bag Nativity pageant that it would become so full of theology, that the pageant itself and what happens in it year after year would bring us such important lessons and would become its own tiny stitch in that slow work of repair that we are trying to do as human beings — the work of healing our own hurting hearts and contributing in some way to the healing of our world.

As many of you know, every year we have a no rehearsal, no stress, pull a costume out of paper bag nativity pageant on the Sunday before Christmas and the only preparation is that we put the costumes in brown grocery bags, label them with things like “donkey, small” or “Camel, large, includes ears” and line them up in the aisles. People come to church, choose a bag, and join the story. As many of you also know, over the years, the kids and now even a few adults have started wearing their own costumes to church, so we never know exactly who will show up in Bethlehem that year. This is definitely one of the best parts. It has become my tradition to take our own little census of Bethlehem and report to you on Christmas Eve. Yesterday morning we had one bat, a tiny ladybug and small duck, who were siblings, two little dinosaurs, one panda, and a rainbow unicorn who also chose to be a star and stood up here in the high pulpit shining over the story.

We also had a llama, a grown up reindeer, and a lion who helped the border collie herd the sheep down the aisle to Bethlehem in an echo of that beautiful prophecy from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah who said that when the world is healed and whole, the lion shall lie down with the lamb and a little child shall lead them all. The wise people were unable to agree on how many of them there were, 7 or 8. I could not understand why this was so difficult. I later learned the camel was wearing a crown, which was confusing, and there was a shepherd mixed into the bunch because he had forgotten to come in earlier. “7 no 8 no 7!” they kept calling from the back, causing a certain doubt regarding their wisdom. We also had a little pink flamingo who was so incredibly excited he flew into Bethlehem as soon as possible so as not to miss anything.

This year’s baby Jesus, a beautiful 12 week old named Ayla, has three older brothers so she is used to noise and she eventually fell peacefully asleep on Joseph’s lap while holding onto the innkeeper’s finger. This was possible because the innkeeper stayed with Mary and Joseph the whole time, sitting next to them and entertaining baby Jesus before she fell asleep. (The innkeeper is also an older brother and is really good at baby entertaining and knows that 12 week olds really like to hold onto fingers.)

As is probably clear from the pandas and flamingos and lions in Bethlehem, we are not that concerned with historical accuracy in our pageant. In fact, we totally encourage people to wear whatever they want and show up however they are and join in as the spirit moves. There is solid theology behind this. First of all, there is no historical basis for the story of Jesus birth as told in the gospels. In telling the story as they did, the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke were expressing their belief that Jesus was special, the son of God, the Messiah the people were waiting for, so they told a story about his birth being filled with signs and portents, stars and angels. The fact that it is a story doesn’t make it any less important or moving. That we are still telling the story more than two thousand years later is a sign of just how powerful a story it is — and how it can still give us hope.

But the more important reason everyone and everything is welcome at our stable is because of who Jesus grew up to be — someone who invited everyone — the rich, the poor, the powerful, the powerless, everyone. But the more likely you were to be left off the invitation list, the more it seems that Jesus wanted you at the party — the tax collectors, the sinners, the prostitutes, the lepers, the poor, the children. These were the people he seemed the happiest to be around. These were the people he really saw, the ones others did not see. And these were the people he said would have the easiest time understanding his teachings about the kingdom of heaven, where the last shall be first and those who are heart broken and ill will be healed and those who have mercy will be blessed. Over and over in answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus taught this: your neighbor is the one you fear, the one you cross the street to avoid, the one you want to close the door to, the one you have hardened your heart against. That one is your neighbor — the one you must learn to love, the one you must learn to value as you value yourself. And you understand Jesus was also saying that in order to love and value our neighbors and believe in their worth, we must all love and value our selves and treat ourselves with mercy. We cannot have one without the other.

So we welcome everyone at our stable here because it is just another small way to practice, another tiny reminder that we are all beloved, and we all belong. We belong to each other and we belong to this world in whatever form we arrive — with our challenges and strengths, our abilities and disabilities, our struggles and sorrows and joys, our epic failures and our heroic efforts, some of which no one will ever even know about. We belong and we are welcome, in all of our tender, ragged, overwhelmed, beautiful, bad tempered, sweet humanness. I believe that Jesus himself taught that people don’t have to fit neatly into the story — that we can make the story bigger instead of trying to make ourselves smaller. And I also believe that Jesus taught that there is more room than we believe, more room in our hearts for compassion, more room in our world for justice and kindness and mercy.

Which leads us back to Jesus falling asleep holding onto the innkeeper’s finger because in our pageant yesterday, the innkeeper did not just show Mary and Joseph out to his stable and leave them there. He stayed and helped put the baby asleep, which was such a good impulse on his part because it is actually more historically accurate and this is one place where the historical and cultural accuracy about Palestine at the time of the birth of Jesus can tell us something really important. The stable in the nativity story would not have been a little barn out in the back of the house detached from everything and Mary and Joseph were not alone and they were not among strangers.

Expert biblical scholar, researcher, and linguist Kenneth Bailey says that hospitality is the highest value of the Palestinian culture, and has been for thousands of years. Returning to the city of his ancestors, Joseph would never have stayed in a commercial inn, even if Bethlehem had been large enough to have one, which is probably wasn’t. Joseph and Mary would have stayed with family no matter how distantly related. Bailey also says that a simple village home in the time of King David would have had just two separate rooms — one for guests, one for the immediate family. And there would always have been animals inside at night because every house had a small area attached to that main family room, where the donkeys and cows and sheep would spend the night after being brought inside.

So while the story makes sense that with everyone returning to Bethlehem to be counted for the census, there wasn’t any space in the guest room of the house by the time Mary and Joseph arrived, they weren’t turned away. They weren’t sent outside. The stable was right there, close to everyone. All the women of the family would have been there to help Mary through her first labor and childbirth. The new parents would have been surrounded by animals yes, but also by the great aunts and uncles, and distant cousins, passing the newborn from one set of arms to another before laying him down to sleep in the manger, holding onto the innkeeper’s finger, except that the innkeeper wasn’t an innkeeper at all, but more like Joseph’s fourth cousin twice removed, which was exactly how our innkeeper described himself yesterday before he got down to the important work of playing with the baby.

We have heard the story with our western ears, but put in the context of the culture and the way people actually lived, the whole message of the story of the nativity changes. It is about making room. It is about welcoming whoever, whatever, shows up even if our guests rooms are already way too full, literally or emotionally. It is about the belief that we can always find a little more room, make a little more room, that there is enough, and we don’t have be afraid. We need this new understanding of the story so badly, our country and our world needs it.

After the angels and the shepherds and the stars is a part of the story we don’t pay as much attention to. But it is really important. Because what happens next is that Mary and Joseph have to flee Bethlehem in order to save their baby from the murderous wrath of King Herod. When Herod realized he had been outwitted by the wisemen who went home by another way and did not report back to him the whereabouts of the baby, the potential threat to his power, Herod sent soldiers to kill all the male babies in Bethlehem under the age of two. So the story tells us that Jesus was saved and grew up to adulthood because his parents left their home country and went to Egypt until Herod died and it was safe to return. Jesus was a refugee. That is how he survived. This is the birth we are celebrating tonight.

This baby, on the one hand wanted, loved, beloved and born in the midst of extended family, and on the other hand a refugee. This baby, who grew up to live a life that was all about compassion, all about unlimited and radically inclusive love, especially for the people that his society and culture, much like our own, did not value: the most vulnerable, the outcast, the marginalized, the poor, the mentally ill, the homeless, the disenfranchised.

For me, the most poignant moment of our pageant yesterday morning was when a little one who was dressed as Bob the Builder (his mom told me he was a colleague of Joseph’s who was a carpenter too of course), got completely overwhelmed by the chaos and waiting and yelled “I don’t like this story.” We laughed of course but I understood it too. It isn’t an easy story at all, really. It is a story about making room in our hearts, in our lives, in our world for things or people we may not understand, making room even for ourselves and for the truth that we are all beloved, that we all belong, and that there is room enough for all, when life can give us so much evidence that we aren’t and we don’t.

I suspect that part of why we are here tonight is because something in us yearns to be reminded that love like this is possible, that welcome like this is possible, that we can in fact make more room in our hearts, our lives, our country, our world. But the kind of love that Jesus talked about and taught about and demonstrated with his own life is a love that will change us. It is a love that will cause us to question all of our assumptions about who is acceptable, who has a right to be here, who is deserving of compassion and tenderness. Jesus said there is no one outside of that circle, including us. There is no one outside of the circle of welcome and if you start to live as if you really believe this, you will be changed, and you will want to change things.

And so we sing together, and light our tiny candles in the darkness, and dream of that world where all are welcome and beloved and known as beautiful. Because we are.


3 Powderhouse Road … Groton, MA 01450-4700 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Created 2018-12-28