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“And Now, a Word from Our Shepherds!”–Christmas Eve 2008 Candle Light Service

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento
7:00 PM, December 24, 2008
Rev. Roger Jones & Rev. Doug Kraft

Words of Welcome
1) Doug
2) Roger:
Welcome to everyone, especially those here for the first time. If you are visiting us, we hope to get to know you better. You are always welcome to our Sunday morning services, which take place at 9:30 and 11:15. Religious education programs for children and youth take place during the 9:30 AM service, and we offer nursery care on Sundays. In tonight’s service, Nativity readings from the Bible alternate with traditional songs. During most of the songs please remain seated, but we will invite you to rise as you are able for some, including our first hymn, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” You will see in your order of service that its refrain is in Latin but you are welcome to sing it in any language you know. By the way, if you have a cell phone or pager, please be sure to
turn it off.
Responsive Reading
for Lighting of the Chalice

adapted from the Rev. Sophia Lyon Fahs

For so the children come, and so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come.
Born in flesh, born with spirit.
No angels herald their beginnings.
No prophets predict their future courses.
No wise men can see a star to show where
to find the babe that will save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Parent and grandparent, sitting beside the child’s crib,
feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
They ask, “Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?”

Each night a child is born is a holy night—

a time for singing, a time for wondering, a time for worshiping.
Christmas Prayer

Please join me in the spirit of contemplation as I offer these words of prayer. Creative Spirit of Love and Goodwill, we give thanks for the gift of this day and all the gifts of life. Among us here on this evening are many joys and cares, personal reasons for gratitude and for worry.
Most of us who gather here remember loved ones who are no longer with us; our memories remain precious. Many of us come with nostalgia for lovely times in the past, and many come with excitement for the night and morning ahead of us. May our being together teach our hearts to sing in all times of life.
As we sing, pray and hear the message of peace this evening, we know there are many without peace. Let our prayers extend beyond these church walls to a world in need of peace and healing. May we do our part for peace and understanding.
May our being together give us assurance of the warmth of human fellowship and the goodness of our own hearts. Let us know that every member of the human family is connected to everyone else.
May we know that everyone is held in the embrace of love. May peace be in our hearts, this night and always. So may it be. Blessed be, and amen.

Readings:
Prophet Isaiah 9:2-9, Gospel of Luke 2:1-20, and Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12

Homily:
“And Now, a Word from Our Shepherds”
The stories about the nativity of Jesus were not written down until about 40 years after his death. The many stories and memorable sayings and lessons of Jesus were passed around by word of mouth, and eventually some scribes put pen to papyrus and wrote them down as Gospel books, with multiple versions and variations one the theme. In a few hundred years, once there was a formal church, the leaders of the church decided on an official set of only four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Of these four, only the books of Matthew and Luke tell about the baby in Bethlehem. And, of these two, only the Gospel of Luke tells about the angel and the shepherds. Luke has the shepherds “out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”
Suddenly an angel appears to them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them. A heavenly messenger brings big news…to plain-old humble shepherds! Why shepherds? The shepherds may be asking themselves the same thing: Why us? Why us?

Imagine being one of them! Shepherds work alone, or nearly alone, wandering out in the middle of nowhere. (To be sure, in Palestine 2,000 years ago there was a lot of nowhere in which to wander.) You are watching your flock by night, as you do every night, and you see a flash in the dark sky, and someone speaks to you, and urges you to go on a journey. And before it vanishes, it sings, and it has backup singers, known as the Heavenly Host. “Holy, holy, holy! Glory to God in the highest,” they all sing. Now this would be freaky, wouldn’t it? The angel says to them, “Be not afraid,” but I don’t think that would help very much.
If I were a shepherd, such a cosmic light and sound show would leave me feeling dizzy and faint. Maybe the shepherds have to sit down on a rock and put their heads between their knees. Once they are able to sit up and speak, they have to figure out what to do about this news. “Why us?” They must be saying. “We’ve got work to do!”
Having the job of shepherd means working the day shift and the night shift. You tend the animals by day so they will not get lost, and lead them to all the grass and shrubs they need to grow big and fat. You guard the animals by night so wolves won’t rush in from the dark and eat them. If the shepherds were to leave their flocks, they could lose their livelihood. This risk must weigh on their minds. “Babies are cute,” one might say, “and a savior baby must be really cute, but can we afford this journey to go see one?” Perhaps they consider that might work if a few of them go to the city and a few stay behind and watch the flock.

The angel says: “I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” After hearing this pronouncement, one of the shepherds might ask his companions:
“Did he say what I think he said? Or was it a she? How can you tell, with angels? Well, whoever it was, that angel told us to go to Bethlehem. Can you believe that—into the city!”
Shepherds are nomads–wandering guys. They do not live in one place. Definitely not city dwellers. Out in the fields they do not shave, do not bathe very often, and have no fancy clothes. They keep to themselves. In the literature of the Ancient Near East, being a shepherd was the archetypal occupation. An equivalent character for us today would be the cowboy of the Old West, out on the range. Imagine an angel appearing at night in the big sky of Montana, or in Wyoming, telling cowboys to take a trip into the city. Cowboys don’t like to be told what to do. Nor do shepherds
To make matters worse, the angel’s directions are vague:
“You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” That’s it. No hints to turn right at the first dirt road in Bethlehem, and certainly no angelic Mapquest or Google.
And once they arrive at Bethlehem, then what? Surely every cattle shed there looks like every other cattle shed? There must be some confused cows in Bethlehem, with shepherds looking for a baby in their feed-troughs. And if the owners of those cattle were to see shepherds snooping around, it would not be good. Yet another risk for the shepherds.
But they do agree to go. They go “with haste,” the story says, and they find the right place.

“They find Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” What an experience this would be—leaving behind your livestock, hiking all the way to the city, and finding this baby. This is the baby, according to the angel, whose birth is a promise of peace and goodwill in the human family. The birth is a promise of love to all people.
While the trip to the manger in Bethlehem is not a race, let us note on behalf of our shepherds that they arrive before the wise men do. What a coup! Luke’s Gospel, in fact, makes no mention of the wise men at all. By the same token, Matthew’s Gospel makes no mention of the shepherds, so they’re even.

As we heard in Matthew, the wise men open their treasure chests. They give Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All these gifts are precious, and all have symbolic value in the New Testament. These wise men come from the East, where they are magicians, astrologers, men with wealth and fame. Of course this delegation of well-dressed ambassadors would come to see a child who is born to be a king. But shepherds! Why shepherds?
Of the four Gospels, Luke has the greatest social conscience, according to some New Testament scholars. Luke makes many references to the dignity and worth of the poor and humble. And, of course, the story starts out with a poor family—a young couple having their baby in a shed.
These are humble beginnings for a boy who will grow up to be a rabbi, healer, prophet, and martyr. He gets no room in the inn, and he sleeps with farm animals. Like this baby, shepherds sleep with animals. They do not sleep in nice places, and they live a simple life. Yet they are the first ones to be invited to see this baby.
Poor, humble, hardworking loners, they are neither rich nor famous. Even so, they are worthy of a front-row seat at this drama, a first glimpse of this new promise of peace and love. The only gifts they bring are their humility and their sense of wonder, but that’s enough.
Maybe this is why they have risked so much for this journey: It means something special for them to have been invited. Shepherds may be strong and silent types, but I can imagine that, as the shepherds kneel before the baby, their eyes are welling up with tears.

I like to imagine that each one is thinking: “Maybe this poor little baby can indeed be a source of human goodwill and love. Maybe he can be an instrument of peace on earth. Maybe he can.  And, if he can, maybe I can too.”

Rising from bended knee, the shepherds make the return journey to their flocks. Luke says they go back “glorifying and praising God for all they have seen and heard.” Perhaps they sing and whistle along the way. Or maybe they travel in solemn silence, pondering how this journey has changed them.

However they go, they must be glad they made the trip. These humble shepherds go home, now so grateful for the invitation to go on the journey. It matters that they have been included in this promise of peace, goodwill and love.

On this Christmas Eve, whoever we are, may we know that all of us are invited to make this journey together. All are worthy of it.
May we know that we all are included in the promise of peace, goodwill and love. Everyone is included.
So may it be. Blessed be, and amen.

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