Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Mike Turgeon “God bless us all” 12/19/10
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the 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.’
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.‘ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. Luke 2:8-20
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador once said, “without poverty of spirit, there can be no abundance of God.”
Poverty of spirit--what is that? Isn’t that some sort of contradiction in terms? Don’t we usually think of spirit in a positive way and poverty in a negative way? ‘Poverty of spirit’ might just be a true oxymoron? And is there a better word than oxymoron?
Like, “I’ll have a plate of the ‘jumbo shrimp,’ please.”
Or, “I like to think of my work as ‘extremely average.’
Well, Romero’s quote got me thinking about how God’s abundance meets the condition of our souls.
My wife and I visited the final dwelling place of Bishop Romero in San Salvador, the capital of that country. His two-room apartment is now a memorial on the grounds of a cancer hospital where he spent his last couple years as a chaplain. Romero was assassinated in 1980 while serving mass in the little chapel there. The assassin was a trained professional. We stood in the spot where he stood, where he took dead aim right as the priest was finishing the consecration of the cup during Holy Communion.
Romero had become a ‘problem priest’ to the government of El Salvador. In the three years leading up to his death, he had espoused the cause of the poor in a poverty-stricken country ruled by a military elite.
The irony here is that Oscar Romero had been a government favorite when he was first appointed Archbishop. He kept his mouth shut and did good works of charity. Things changed forever on March 12th, 1977 when Romero’s good friend and fellow priest, Rutillo Grande, was gunned down for ‘stirring up’ the poor, organizing them to demand freedom so they could pursue better living conditions. Almost 50 priests and nuns at that time had been systematically ‘eliminated’ for the same reason, standing up for the poor and oppressed.
In the last three years of his life, the Bishop had traveled full circle, from an abundance of privilege to a poverty of spirit. His circumstances wrenched him off the path to ecclesiastical power in the church at high levels and rudely deposited him on the road to martyrdom.
But Pastor Mike, why now? Why bring such a jolting story into the warmth and fuzziness of Advent and Christmas? A good question. Our scripture this morning offers up another good question: why a helpless baby in a rough feed-box in an obscure location in a forgotten time? Why? Poverty of spirit.
In Matthew’s Gospel we hear,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
I’m going to take my best swing at defining ‘poverty of spirit.’ Let me say it this way, poverty of spirit is the willingness to receive.
Or maybe it is even simpler. Poverty of spirit is the opposite of a proud spirit. Hmm!
Three weeks ago here, on the first Sunday of Advent, I commented on Charles Dicken’s immortal tale “A Christmas Carol,” calling it an overnight success when it was first published in 1837, almost 200 years ago. Arguably, it is more popular now than when it first appeared.
In fact, William Wilmon, noted preacher and biblical scholar takes it one step further. Could it also be that Dicken’s account of a miser named Scrooge who turns into a giving machine is at least as popular around Christmas time as Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus’ birth that we just heard? It seems that every other year we get a new film or book based on the story.
Wilmon asks a very pointed question: are we more comfortable as givers than as receivers? Do our spirits prefer to be actively passing out gifts like Ebeneezer than to passively receiving the gift of Emmanuel?
Have you ever noticed how most people react when you give them a compliment?
“My, my Miss Jones, I like your hair that way!”
“Oh, please! This old mop. You must be joking.”
“Or, Bill, that was very thoughtful of you.”
“No, no. If you really knew what I was like...”
The point is this--we have lost touch with our capacity to accept a perfect gift. And by perfect I mean a real gift, something totally unearned.
Not the kind of gift that’s given in a ‘set-aside’ season where everyone gives. And not the kind of gift where you get a chance to reciprocate somehow. But a gift that you can’t do a darn thing about, one without strings, one without a payback. One where your spirit can only receive it and nothing else.
In our immediate family on Christmas Day for the last few years we have eliminated most gifts and we simply exchange a novelty gift of no more than $15 and we have the best time laughing ‘till our sides hurt.
Last year’s theme was “something you see on TV that is really neat but you’d never buy it for yourself.” The gift du jour that day was the Snuggie!
I mean, really, once you receive a Snuggie is there any such thing as a reciprocal gift?
Gifts are great, as long as we get to give them. To be on the receiving end makes us vaguely uncomfortable.
Let’s face it, we do not like to be indebted, and indebtedness is exactly the issue that crops up at Advent and Christmas each year. A Savior? I don’t need to be saved. Saved from what? My sin? I’m not a sinner. Just follow me around for a day, you’ll see. I’m completely open, completely honest, always loving, think only of others, never myself. I don’t engage in judgmental thoughts, angry words or thoughtless deeds. Now, I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’m good, I’m good. Savior? You might need a savior but I sure don’t.
Is it any wonder that our world is in the shape it is in?
Dorothy Day, the long-time peace worker in the Catholic Church once wrote:
" … If those professing religion shared the life of the poor and worked to better their lot, and risked their lives in the doing of it, then there is a ring of truth about the promises of the glory to come. Then the cross is followed by the resurrection."
I don’t find it a co-incidence that Christ came to earth amidst poverty. I find it revealing. Humble shepherds, wherever you find them, will always have a tale to tell. And if we should ever get patient enough to listen, that story will be a game changer, first for you...and for me, and perhaps for someone who is in need.
Maybe you know of someone who is in need. Perhaps that need is not so obvious. Maybe that need is being masked by a proud spirit. Perhaps that needy one is you. Just asking. That’s what I get paid for, to ask questions. Did you know that? You pay me to ask you questions? Challenging ones. Ones that come from Jesus himself. And the really funny part about that--you just gave me a raise to keep on doing it. I’ll take that as a compliment.
So, yes, we do finally get to see the softer side of Scrooge. But I believe that the good side of Scrooge and the bad side of Scrooge are only scratching the surface, filling strong human needs to act out and to act right. But I suggest that Scrooge had even a better side, a poorer side, if you will, one he may never even have considered.
When have you fully allowed your best side to surface? The day you got married, the day your child was born?
God is speaking to you today through the hand of a man named Luke. Speaking to you through a tale of shepherds and angels of all things. Speaking to you down through the centuries. The message is it is Jesus’ birthday, not yours, but his. But on that birthday he gives the greatest gift of all, the gift of unconditional love. Guaranteed. Non-returnable. Do not wait until Christmas to open.