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Do not be afraid, shepherds (Christmas 2020 sermon)

Bishop Carlye J. Hughes

In her Christmas sermon, Bishop Hughes reminds us, "It is Christmas, today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, and every single day that we hear that call to not be afraid and to go looking for the sign of Jesus who is with us and near us and in us and in all of God's people the whole world over." (Time: 18:34.)

Video transcript

Let's put ourselves in the midst of Luke’s Nativity story. Right there next to the shepherds in the fields minding their flocks at night, when that angel of the Lord -- and angels must have been some fearsome creature to their eyes because the first thing the angel says, in Luke chapter 2 verses 10 through 12, is, "Do not be afraid. Behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you -- you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

Do not be afraid.

I have good news of great joy for all the people.

There is comfort in those words. Comfort in those words of, "do not be afraid," and that there is good news of great joy for all people. And I can imagine that those shepherds needed comfort because there must have been incredible fear as they were minding their flocks. I imagine on some level they were always a little bit watchful making sure that there was nothing that could be a threat to their sheep. The last thing that they were expecting is to be disturbed by an angel of God. And we have this tendency when we think of angels to picture these sweet little figures. We minimize them, we think of them as our guardian angel always watching out over us, and anything always watching out over us has to be somehow like our grandmother or at the very least a cartoon character that is cuddly and not threatening.

Years ago I attended church with Madeleine L’Engle, one of my favorite writers and very much a favorite writer in the Episcopal Church in many, many other places. "A Wrinkle in Time" is many a child's favorite book. And I remember the rector used to call Madeleine up to the front of the room every Christmas and ask her to do this particular part of the passage, because the rector wanted us to have this realistic sense of what an angel might be like. And in Madeleine’s mind, who is as tall, who was as tall, as I am -- she was just under six feet and I’m six feet tall. But Madeleine went straight up to the front of the church with the fullness of her height, rise up on her tippy toes, stretch her arms out as high as they could go, take up as much space as she could, look at us with a fearsome grimace and shout at the top of her lungs, "FEAR NOT!"

Her imitation or interpretation of an angel taught us all something that we never thought of, that that is why those words come so frequently when there's an angelic appearance. That the first thing that the angel always says is, "Fear not."

"Fear not." Those are words we have needed to hear this year over and over again. We, like those shepherds in the field, have had plenty to be afraid of. A virus that we had not ever heard of, all new to us -- we didn't even think about that virus this time last year. The words "COVID-19" were not even in our imagination last Christmas. That virus and all of the havoc that it has created, the incredible sense of loss that it has created -- that has taught us to fear.

Watching the death of George Floyd -- eight minutes and 46 seconds of his dying with a police officer's knee in his neck, cutting off his airways, cutting off his blood supply, listening to him plead for his life saying that I can't breathe, finally asking for his mother. I don't think there's a person who has seen that video, who not only felt an incredible sense of sadness but a devastating sense of fear that that might happen again. That it might happen to someone that we love. And we learn to be afraid of just how bad racial killings can be and how frequently they can happen.

We've watched extraordinary hunger and job loss in these last 10 months of pandemic. And we have learned to be afraid of what economics are going to do to family, to friends, to our neighbors, to people in other parts of our state, other parts of our country, and other parts of the world. We've gotten afraid and wondered, is there enough to go around? And in the midst of all of this we have had these messengers sent to us the same way that those shepherds have had those messengers sent to them. Messengers that have told us, "Fear not!" Rising up on their toes, putting their hands above their heads, giving us a fearsome look and saying at the top of their lungs, "FEAR NOT!"

Fear not, because God is with you beloved.

That God has always been with us, because that's the next part of the message. That for you today, this day, in the city of David has been born a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

That God loves you so much God has made sure that a Savior would come. A Savior would come to take care of each of us, take care of all of our needs. And not just all of our needs, all of the people of God. And when God thinks all of the people of God, God's not just thinking about the people in the Episcopal Church, God's not just thinking about the people that celebrate Christmas, God is thinking about all of creation and all of the people in creation, because god created them all whether they recognize God or not. God recognizes them and knows their name and has extraordinary love for them.

And all along, all of God's people have been getting these messages, including us, to fear not. That we are not in this alone. The Savior really has come for us and been with us all along. Here's the interesting thing about that Savior, the thing that must have been so confusing to the shepherds because I am sure that they were excited to know that the Messiah was here -- they had been waiting! They had been waiting for someone to right the wrongs, someone to take over from their oppressors, someone to give them freedom in life, someone to make sure that all of their wounded places were healed, that all of their broken places were made whole. They had been waiting for this. Where's his entourage? Where is his army?

What? How is he going to conquer the world? Where are all those people that are going to do it? I imagine when they heard the Savior has been born, they probably look to see, where are all the people who are rushing to see that Savior?

And then the angel says, "Here's a sign for you. This is what you need to look for: a child born in a manger wrapped in bands of cloth."

What could sound less like a Savior? An infant, completely helpless, in a lowly place, with no agency, needing the community to protect him because he was so vulnerable and so helpless.

Here is your sign.

This is our first inkling in this short little message: fear not, the Savior of the world is here, here's your sign. Look for the lowly, helpless, vulnerable child.

That is our first clue that the Savior is going to be something that we never expected. Even for us today, even for us who know the story and who have been celebrating it year after year after year -- we know how it ends. We know Christmas is the beginning and then it goes to Easter and then it just keeps on going. And still, we need that same message to not be afraid, that Jesus is with us. And here's a sign! Here's how we can see Jesus this Christmas, now, today: look for the lowly. Look for the helpless. Look for the one most vulnerable, like a baby that needs the community to help them. When we look in those places we can't help but see the Savior of the world. When we look in those places, we can't help but know the love of God for the lowly, for the helpless, for the vulnerable, the especially vulnerable like a baby, that needs the help of the whole community.

I have watched you be shepherds these 10 months. I imagine that's the last way you would have described yourself, but you have been shepherds -- shepherds in the field watching over your flocks, whether your flock was your family, your neighborhood your community, your church, the state, the country, the world. People you don't know. People who are oppressed, people who are helpless or hopeless. I have watched you be shepherds. I have watched you be afraid and then I’ve watched you get that message to not be afraid, to know that you are called, and to know that God goes with you to the places where people are helpless. I’ve watched you all over this diocese making sure that people had food -- not just food for their tummies, but food for their spirits. Food for their emotions. That you know the names of those who are hungry and when you put a bag of groceries in their hand just as often you said a prayer.

I've watched you with the helpless. I’ve watched you with the lowly. With those who are so afraid of losing their job, who have lost their job and don't know how they're going to pay next month's rent or their mortgage. Who've been so worried about finances, unable to make decisions, unable and afraid, ashamed even, to ask for help. I’ve watched you reach out to them first. It's almost like you forgot to be afraid to be polite.

And you've waded into difficult conversations. I have watched you let go of the fear about having the hard conversations about racism, about white supremacy, and about white privilege -- a fear that has kept us from moving forward at all. I have watched you look that fear in the face, listen to the sound of God's messengers telling you, do not be afraid, that the Savior of the world is with you.

I’ve watched you walk into those conversations and continue to struggle with them even, when you don't understand. I have watched you be shepherds.

And shepherds we are called to be.

You know in a strange way, I imagine that those shepherds out in the field were expecting a procession. A procession to come and bring the Messiah in much like we would have had a procession in our churches as we celebrate Christmas. And our procession has happened, it's just that it looks very different. It's not happening on a Sunday morning. It's happening every day that there is a food pantry. It happens every day that we get on the phone and call someone who doesn't know how they're going to make it. That procession takes place every time we have opened up our wallets, our checkbooks, and given, and given generously not only to our churches but to every organization that has touched our hearts. We step into that procession when we join alongside those who mourn. Some 300,000 families are having the saddest Christmas that they did not see coming because of the massive number of deaths that we've experienced with COVID-19. And I’ve watched you be shepherds to those who are so sad, who are grieving and who are so vulnerable. This is our Christmas gift.

It's a gift that God has given us. Gave that very first Christmas over 2000 years ago. Gives every single Christmas. And that actually, for us, if you think about it, it is a gift that has made every day of these 10 months of pandemic a celebration of Christmas. Because every time, shepherds, every time you have listened to the voice of God's messenger saying don't be afraid. Do not be afraid. The Savior of the world is with you.

Every time you have followed that sign, into the most vulnerable, into the most low, into the most helpless. Into those really needing God's love. Every time you have done that, you have been celebrating Christmas.

I imagine there might be some who listen to this and think, I don't quite know if I’ve ever been that person. I don't know how to find the lowly person. I don't know how to help the one who's most hopeless or helpless. I don't know how to have the difficult conversations. I’m not even sure if I’ve heard a voice, a messenger from God, telling me to not be afraid.

I want to encourage you, if you have not had that, to ask God to help you have it. These are the kinds of prayers God loves to answer. Oh God, help me to hear the voice of your angels. Help me to not be afraid. Help me to trust you. Help me to know that I have a part too in this Christmas story.

It is Christmas, today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, and every single day that we hear that call to not be afraid and to go looking for the sign of Jesus who is with us and near us and in us and in all of God's people the whole world over.

Merry Christmas.

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