Friday, December 24, 2010

God at the Margins

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

God at the Margins

Well, we made it. It’s Christmas!

Whether you’ve been preparing for months, weeks, or just the last couple of days, or even just the last few hours, ready or not, Christmas is here.

For me, it first began to feel like Christmas last Friday right here in church the children of our day school put on their annual Christmas pageant. I had the privilege of serving as narrator from right here in the pulpit, giving me a great view of the whole production. The children and their teachers had been preparing for many weeks – assigning the key roles, practicing songs, gathering costumes, trying to remember cues and memorize lyrics.

When the big day came, the church was full of excited parents and grandparents. Of course, the children were adorable, decked out in angel wings or tinsel crowns or vaguely Middle Eastern looking robes and headgear. As you’d expect, some of the kids were nervous, spending most of their stage time shyly looking down at the floor. Meanwhile others were looking right out into the crowd, beaming with confidence.

I was most impressed by the little girl wearing a blue veil who played Mary. She looked so solemn and serious when she and the little boy playing Joseph made their way up the center aisle. They really looked like they were carrying out a profoundly important responsibility – which, of course they were. Mary looked totally focused on the baby doll, standing in for the newborn Jesus, that she cradled in her arm.

When they got right here, below the pulpit, Mary gently placed her baby, the newborn messiah, into his crib – a crib much more comfortable than an animal’s feeding trough.

All eyes in church were on Mary and Joseph and their child. Cameras – or mostly camera phones – were clicking away, recording this event for posterity.

The Christmas pageant was beautiful. It captured perfectly the joy we should all feel in our hearts when we remember the birth of the Savior, the birth of the Messiah, the birth of the Lord.

Yet, in some key respects the Christmas pageant was very different from the events depicted by Luke in his account of the birth of Jesus.

In telling the story of Jesus’ birth, Luke emphasizes that the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, was born in very difficult and very humble circumstances to a couple of nobodies.

Luke begins his story by mentioning a couple of big shots – Augustus, the Roman emperor who many at the time saw as the lord and savior of the world since he ruled over what was considered a time of peace and stability. Luke also mentions Quirinius, the local Roman governor. We can imagine the splendor in which Augustus and even Quirinius lived. We can imagine the power that was in their hands.

In a real sense, in the First Century all eyes were on Augustus and his underlings like Quirinius. All eyes were on Augustus because, with good reason, people believed that it was Augustus and kings and governors, the high and the mighty, who had the real power and who seemed to at the center of all.

In stark contrast, there were almost no eyes on Mary and Joseph as they brought Jesus into the world. God enters the world not as the center of attention. God enters the world on the margins, born to two people who couldn’t provide anything better than an animal’s feeding trough for their newborn son.

Now that I live here in Gainesville, I imagine Mary and Joseph and their newborn child huddled in some shadowed corner downtown or huddled in the isolated field behind our own church, watching over their newborn child placed carefully in a cardboard box salvaged from a pile of recycling.

Luke’s point is that two thousand years ago the real power was not with the emperor and his underlings. It turns out the real power – the greatest power of all – was at the margins of society, with a child born to a homeless couple.

Of course, from the start there were a few eyes on Mary and Joseph and the newborn Jesus. The angel didn’t announce the birth of the savior to the emperor and his underlings. Instead the angel announced Christ’s birth to shepherds, “keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Shepherds were important to the local economy, but they were pretty low in status. The shepherds lived and did their tedious work on the margins of society. Yet, Luke tells us, they are the ones who are first invited to see Jesus.

On Christmas we are called to remember that God enters the world on the margins.

And Jesus lived his life on the margins of society. Jesus didn’t spend too much time with the seemingly rich and the apparently powerful. Jesus shared God’s love and mercy with them, but, no surprise, they don’t seem to have been too receptive to him.

Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, spent his life on the margins of society, spending his time among fishermen, tax collectors, lepers and women.

And ultimately Mary’s son Jesus will die on the margins of society, shamefully executed as a common criminal, abandoned by nearly everyone. But, his mother, the same Mary who said yes to the angel, the same Mary who pondered in her heart all the things she had seen and heard concerning her son’s birth, the same Mary will stand at the foot of the cross and watch her son die in agony.

We can only imagine the pain.

And we can only imagine Mary’s joy when, three days later on Easter, God revealed once and for ever that what the world considers the margins is actually the center of all.

We can only imagine Mary’s reaction when three days later God revealed that what had looked like shame and death was actually the beginning of God’s bold move to restore and transform the world.

And around two thousand years later the children and teachers of the St. Michael’s Day School spent weeks preparing to reenact the events that once seemed to be on the margins but really were always at center stage.

Last Friday, here at St. Michael’s, all eyes were on a little girl in a blue veil as she solemnly carried a baby doll standing in for the newborn messiah. All eyes were on Mary as she carefully placed her baby, the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, into his crib – a crib much more comfortable than an animal’s feeding trough.

It’s Christmas Eve and here in our beautifully decorated church our eyes are on Jesus the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

But, what happens during the rest of the year? After the Christmas decorations come down and the nativity set is put away, where do we look to see true power? Do we look to the rich, the famous, those who seem to be in charge? Do we look to the modern-day emperors and their underlings?

Or do we look to the margins? Do we look to the shadowed corners downtown and isolated fields where we just might find Christ with his unlikely band of followers?

On Christmas, God entered the world at the margins.

And in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God reveals to us that what appears to be weak is actually strong; what appears to be poor is actually rich; and what appears to be on the margins is actually at the center of all.

Thanks be to God!