Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Two: Shepherds and Strangers

I grew up as far from Bethlehem as one can imagine, in a gracious, well-groomed suburb of New York City, a world of quiet, green backyards, live-in help, excellent schools. My home wasn't far from the Chappaqua neighborhood where Hillary Clinton lives. My field hockey team played Chappaqua's every fall. It was even closer, as the crow flies (across the Long Island Sound and East River) to the childhood home of Donald Trump in beautiful Jamaica Bay.

Shepherd, Arthur Allen Lewis, 1927, NY
I lived with my grandparents in the only non-traditional, non-two-parent household I knew. My grandfather, a first generation Italian-American, had built the house and others in the neighborhood. He kept some of his contractor supplies in a locked shed in the back yard, kept tools in the locked garage, kept his basement workshop locked, his office off the driveway locked, kept a large TV turned loud in the master bedroom, also locked. He traveled through the house with the jangling of keys and, depending on the level of inebriation, with loud, sometimes obscene proclamations about whatever caught his eye or sparked his simmering anger.

My birthday was two weeks before Christmas, but I never had a party, mostly for fear my grandfather would ruin it. In some strange, childhood way, I considered our school Christmas parties my own; my name, after all, is Carol. I imagined every Christmas carol we sang was a birthday present for me. Strange idea, I suppose, but I was a strange kid, always watching from the edge of things.

Christmas, for me, wasn’t so much about decorations. Most years we had a tree, but some years not. If our grandfather decided on outdoor decorations, we’d all be drawn into hours of unhappy compliance with his whims.

It also wasn’t much about presents. Most years there’d be just one gift, usually something practical: a winter coat. A pair of boots. Occasionally a good surprise would surface, but usually not. No reason to lie awake at night, wondering and hoping.

Christmas cookies? We had some, but my grandmother baked year round: bread, pies, cookies.

For me, Christmas was more about the carols: songs of mystery and longing, of promise fulfilled, exuberant celebration.

In third grade I earned a small Sunday School Bible of my own by memorizing the books of the Bible and I started setting the Christmas story beside the already memorized carols. I was struck by the bit about Herod and the babies, the flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s jealous wrath. I felt a kinship with Jesus, living in the shadow of a malevolent, unpredictable power.

I also felt a kinship with the shepherds, partly because I would have loved to have a lamb or two of my own, but more because they lived outside, as I would have been happy to do. As I grew older, I realized they were outsiders like me, not quite part of the community around them, marginalized strangers, tolerated but not quite welcome.

The more I lingered in the stories of Christ’s birth, the more I saw a growing cast of outsiders: Mary, am unmarried teen, suspiciously pregnant. Ragtag shepherds, running through the dark to share a ridiculous story of angel choirs and strange pronouncements. Old, extraneous Simeon, not quite ready to die. Strange old prophetess Anna, offering words quickly forgotten.

Even the wise men, the mysterious Magi: weren’t they outsiders too? Neither Jews nor Romans, travelers from some unknown land, carrying inappropriate gifts, setting off that chain reaction of jealousy, suspicion, and slaughter.

I saw in those stories hope for an outsider. Did God choose outsiders deliberately? Or were they the ones who were watching, and waiting, ready to hear something new?
Rahab, CMDudash, 2010, Idaho

When I got around to tackling the genealogy in Matthew 1, I found more outsiders. In the middle of endless names of men, there were just a few women: Tamar, a Canaanite, whose two evil husbands died, whose children, Perez and Zerah, were the product of pretended prostitution. 

Then Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute rescued from Jericho. 

Ruth, a Moabite, great grand-mother of King David. 

Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, recorded as the wife of Uriah the Hittite, although Solomon’s father is listed as David. That one short sentence carries a reminder that Bathsheba was unfaithful to her husband and David arranged for Uriah’s death to hide the resultant pregnancy.

All four women were outsiders, alien in some way, with the hint of scandal attached to their names. If Matthew’s goal was to convince readers that Jesus was the ideal choice as Messiah, those weren’t the names to use. But if the goal was to say “God uses outsiders and redeems broken families,” those names are deeply comforting.

Comforting as well was Mary’s song, the first Christmas carol:
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
 but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things
 but has sent the rich away empty.
I still go back, sometimes, to the question that troubled me as a skinny kid, in my baggy hand-me-down sweaters and itchy, too-long wool skirts: Was it that God chose the outsiders? Or were they the only ones ready to listen?

We've just lived through an election cycle with lots of talk about outsiders and insiders, rich and poor, power and poverty.

Donald Trump presented himself as a challenger to establishment values, leading his followers in cries of "drain the swamp." Many who feel excluded from the halls of power voted for him, hoping he would feel their pain and protect their interests.

His early cabinet picks demonstrate how much of an insider he is: billionaire Betsy DeVos will be steering public money toward private charter schools. Billionaire Steven Mnuchin, ex-Goldman Sachs banker who made a fortune from the mortgage meltdown, will be working with Todd Ricketts, owner of the Chicago Cubs and son of the founder of TD Ameritrade, to change the tax code in favor of the ultra rich and fight regulation of the financial industry.

Ellen Chau, wife of senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, is also daughter to James Chau, whose fortunes were made in shadowy deals shipping commodities, dirty coal and, at times, illegal drugs for Communist China. As transportation secretary, Chau will be in position to relax safety regulations and trade barriers that hamper the family business.

The list goes on: a tangled web of influence, conflicted interest and unimaginable wealth. Policy will be shaped by men and women who have viewed poverty from a penthouse terrace or the tinted window of a limousine.

While Trump surrounds himself with wealthy insiders eager to reward their wealthy friends, the real outsiders struggle. Hate crimes toward immigrants and people of color have been on the rise, despite frantic PR attempts to discount that reality.

Not far from my current home, women and children seeking asylum from violence in Central America have been held in a prison-like detention center, some for over a year, where they allege intimidation, sexual assault and threats of separation from their children for seeking attention for their cause.

Refugees from around the globe cry in crowded camps, hold children tightly on crowded boats, wait to hear if there is room.

Who hears them?

Who will speak for them?

As my life becomes more comfortable, as I find myself surrounded by a loving family and caring friends, as I find my cupboards and closets full, I wonder: in my riches, am I less able to hear?

If I'm less able to hear the cries of the poor, am I also less likely to miss the good news?

Am I less likely to hear the voices God sends that aren't part of my comfortable circle?

The Pharisees shielded themselves from those they considered "unclean," surrounded themselves with people who agreed on the same rules, applauded the same values.

At the same time, they aligned themselves with the immoral power wielded by the Roman oligarchy, enamored by the wealth, the influence, the hope of using that enticing power to shield themselves from an uncertain future.

Inside their self-protective bubble, they missed the coming of the one they claimed to seek.

Worse, they sought help from Roman oligarchs to crush their own Messiah.

As scripture and history make crystal clear, attempting to manipulate the future by alignment with ungodly power is a speedy route to great destruction.

Just years after the death of Christ Jerusalem was flattened, Pharisees scattered.

Too many of our church leaders spend their days surrounded only by members of their churches.

Too many who claim the name of Christ shut out any voices except those who claim the same political brand, the same self-protective stance.    

Who do I speak to first, at the close of our Sunday service? Those who have been there for years, or the pierced and tattooed newcomer, standing awkwardly at the back of the sanctuary?

Syrian Kurdish refugees entering Turkey.
DG ECHOCreative Commons Licensing.
Who do I befriend: the person most like me, or the wanderer most in need of welcome?

Do I shelter myself from outsiders like the shepherds?

Would I welcome strange prophets, or weary travelers, carrying unexpected treasures?

In this season of lights and food and gifts, what can I do to keep my heart open to the humble and the hungry?

What a grief it would be, to find my stomach full and my own heart empty.

To be an insider in things that don’t matter and an outsider in the family of God.

This is the second in a four part Advent series, much of it a revision from a 2012 post: Advent Two: Outsiders In.

Other Advent posts:

Advent Four: For You, Dec. 20, 2015

Advent One: Hope is Our Work, Nov. 30, 2014