For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
For this week’s spiritual practice led by Trecia Reavis, CLICK HERE.
As I get started, I’m going to light our Advent candles as we welcome Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us to our memories and hearts and worship today. And as we prepare room for the joy, the peace, and the comfort of God with us.
Jesus, our joy, our peace, our comfort, bring us into awareness of your light shining upon us, shining within us. Give us eyes to see that you have shown us what God is like. And give us the power to know that you are with us always, to sustain and comfort us, and to guide us into lives of meaning and purpose and great joy, for all people. Amen.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s, when school year afternoons, and whole summer days were unscheduled, unstructured, unsupervised. As kids, we often met up for games of pickup basketball, whiffleball, kick the can, capture the flag, all kinds of other competitions. There was a lot of fun.
But one of the least comfortable memories of all this was the way these games just about always began. In any group, the older, alpha male boy, and the guy who was the closest thing he had to a rival, would be anointed as captains, lords of our playtime, and they would one by one pick their teams.
Sometimes they’d choose the strongest first, sometimes the fastest, sometimes the oldest, sometimes their little brother or best friend. In my memories, I was often one of the younger ones. And I wasn’t a really athletic kid, so I was never near the fastest or strongest or best, and so never amongst those favored with the highest choice.
So as other kids were picked first, I remember looking around my fellow unfavored ones, and sizing up their degree of disfavor, as I’d wait, hoping, just hoping I wouldn’t be chosen last.
Now this was not the end of the world, of course. Most of us experience being unfavored, left out, inadequate at some point as children. For me, eventually, there were games besides neighborhood sports, and I could find places in my life where I’d feel more successful, more desirable, more favored.
But I’m aware that these life questions of status and favor can run much deeper and longer. Last week I read Isabel Wilkerson’s new book Caste. I’d requested it from my library when it came out earlier this year, and it finally got to me last weekend, and I tore through it this week. It’s really good.
Wilkerson illuminates the history and presence of racial injustice in our country by placing it alongside the genocidal regime of the Nazis, and the ancient caste system of India. All three societies – ours, Nazis, India – were built around strictly reinforced hierarchies of status and favor.
Wilkerson writes: “Through no fault of any individual born to it, a caste system centers the dominant caste as the sun around which all other castes revolve and defines it as the default-setting standard of normalcy, or intellect, or beauty, against which all others are measured, ranking in descending order by their physiological proximity to the dominant caste.
They are surrounded by images of themselves, from cereal commercials to sitcoms, as deserving, hardworking, and superior in most aspects of American life, and it would be the rare person who would not absorb the constructed centrality of the dominant group.”
Wilkerson writes about the racial apartheid of American history that has favored white Americans and disfavored, disfranchised, and discriminated against Black Americans.
But our own culture of unequal favor encompasses us all, in all aspects of our identities.
So, as a little white boy born to English speaking parents in 1970s America, I could turn on any TV channel, any time of day, and find my culture centered, normalized, favored. My wife, a child of immigrants from China, same era, could hunt and hunt to find her culture anywhere in media, and usually it was invisible, except maybe for a racist portrayal of an animated cartoon Chinese dog named – I kid you not – Hong Kong Fuey – who lived in a file cabinet.
Who among us is seen? Who has good news? Who is favored?
As we approach Christmas, I want to take a fresh look at a familiar Christmas story. Today, we greet the shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
And we ask: say God wanted to to be present to us in human form, to resuscitate an ancient royal lineage, and then to expand it to encompass the whole human family in a great big community of good news renewal? With whom would God begin? Who would first welcome God’s comfort? Who would get to tell the story? Who would be God’s favorites?
And what is that comfort now so many years later for you and me, and our neighbors near and far? What does it mean to us to be God’s favorites?
Let’s read, from Luke’s second chapter.
Luke 2:8-20 (CEB)
8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord.12 This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14 “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child.18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.
My Saturday morning Bible study was reading this passage last week. We were curious about this city of Bethlehem, the ancient city of the famous King David. And about the parents Mary and Joseph, and what it was like to make an improvised crib for your child out of a feeding trough, a manger.
One person had a great question about the message this army of angels has for the night-shift shepherds. They praise God in heaven, and then for earth, they say: peace among those whom he favors. Peace, if you remember last week – shalom, salaam, justice, wholeness, wellness – peace among those whom he favors. And she was a little uncomfortable: what does this mean? Does God play favorites? And if so, who are they? Who is included? And who aren’t they? Who is excluded?
Now first, there are some translation issues. There’s a reason that different Bibles say somewhat different things here: good will to all people, peace to the ones with whom God is pleased, or as we read today, peace among those God favors.
The Greek words here that speak to pleasure, delight, and choice have some ambiguity, and even they are translated whatever the shepherds heard and thought in their old Aramaic language, which wasn’t recorded.
So we don’t know precisely how to state this phrase. But it does beg the question: these beloved ones, these chosen that delight God, these favorites that are comforted with the blessing of God’s peace?
Let’s start with the shepherds. It’s been overstated over the years just how outcast shepherds were in this culture. Still, though, find me a culture where the people who labor with the animals and the land are at the top of the pyramid. Find me a culture where the night-shift workers are the ones who are favored.
I’ve wondered: where would these shepherds fall on our society’s scale of favor? Are they the underpaid construction workers laboring on the big building project in my neighborhood? Or are they the unemployed union laborers picketing that siame site? I don’t think either really. They’re more like Achut (a-choot) Deng, a Sudanese refugee who made her way to the US some twenty years ago. She got a job in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at a Smithfield pork processing factory, starting wage of $12.85 an hour. By this year, she’d made her way up to a job as supervisor in a division that uses knives to cut the fat off pork loins as they fly by on a conveyor belt. Earning $18 an hour now, she supported nine people: herself, a single mom to four boys, as well as a family of five relatives in Sudan. This year, though, as an essential worker in a company that gave no protections to their employees, she got COVID at work, got very sick, was worried she’d die and leave her children orphaned. She was out of work for weeks, lost a lot of income – first from being sick, then when the plant shut down. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/15/podcasts/the-daily/meat-plant-coronavirus.html
Like the shepherds of the gospel of Luke, I think Achut Deng is acutely clear that she is not among those most highly favored among us.
And yet, it’s to shepherds that this army of angels appears, however that works. The night sky brightens, and one who has appeared to them says: Don’t’ be afraid. I have a proclamation of good news!
Now listen, these shepherds, just like us, knew a pile of bull when they heard one. They were used to the propaganda of the Roman Empire that would announce their victories and the expansion of their imperial might with proclamations that were called “Gospel – good news” The content of this supposed good news was attached to this empire’s glory of Rome, which offered residents of their empire the pax Romana – the peace of Rome. But since Rome had conquered their region some sixty-five years earlier, established the province of Syria in which they lived, they had begun to be heavily taxed and saw their countrymen kept in line with a hideous form of torture and capital punishment called crucifixion.
Like a contemporary advertisement – we treat our workers right, as they bring you Smithfiled marinated pork – it’s what’s for dinner! These shepherds would have recognized the empty promises and lies of commercial and political propaganda.
So what separated this message? Why did they listen?
I think it was in the details. The big news here isn’t coming out of Rome, but out of a nearby town of significance in their culture, Bethlehem. And this baby to be called “Lord” – well, the only birth announcement of a Lord in this time was if an emperor had a child who would succeed him as Caesar. But Caesar Augustus still lived, and this baby was a Jew like them, one of their own colonized, conquered, low caste people. And the place of this birth wasn’t a palace with a throne, but a tiny two-room village house nearby, with a crib fashioned out of an animal’s feeding trough.
This message was different. This good news got their attention.
But maybe it wasn’t just the content of this message, maybe it was that someone was taking the time to bring this message to them.
Maybe they’re comforted, by knowing for the first time in their life, that they are God’s favorites. After all, this good news for all people, came first to them, nightshift, low wage, vulnerable, essential working shepherds.
Maybe they are God’s favorites, worthy of God’s peace and wholeness.
Next, they go to Mary and Joseph – a teen mother and a village carpenter, unwed, as well as unimportant, unknown, unexceptional. Not prominent people, not beautiful people, and – in some tricky circumstances at the moment – what seem to be some very unlucky people.
But they are at the center of this story, parents to this God-with-us child king. Maybe they are also God’s favorites, worthy of God’s peace and wholeness.
There’s a pattern here. As Jesus grows up, and the gospels tell the story, the next messengers of good news are a dozen or so young fish catchers and tax collectors. Maybe they are also God’s favorites, worthy of God’s peace and wholeness.
But while these trainees of Jesus are still getting their act together, there are two other messengers of good news sent out by Jesus. These are the first two who effectively spread this new good news, an empowering good news, very different than the extractive, exploitive message of Rome.
One of these messengers is a formerly homeless man, who’d been living in a graveyard. With a complicated mental health history, and years of self-injurious behavior, he’d eked out a life on the edges of society, until Jesus made him his friend and guided him to recovery. This man also appeared to be God’s favorite, worthy of God’s peace and wholeness.
The other of these early messengers was a young widow who’d been serially abandoned by men, who’d left her broke and alone. Though she had a natural genius for religion and theology, she wasn’t a teacher or pastor or really known for anything professionally. She was mainly known by her string of failed relationships. Until Jesus engaged her keen spiritual mind and empowered her to teach her whole community. This woman also appeared to be God’s favorite, worthy of God’s peace and wholeness.
These two are both cultural and economic outsiders, aware of their disrepute and disfavor. The gospel writers don’t even dignify them with names, but Jesus favors them with the power of ambassadorship.
Here’s the upshot. God’s first favorites in the gospels, all God’s first favorites, are people accounted as nobodies. Low-wage, low-caste, low-status, low rights, low named ordinary people.
The way this world counts and measures you as big or small, high or low, worthy or not – these are not God’s terms. God counts, measures, and favors differently. God starts God’s stories with hidden treasures, worthy beauties unnoticed, undervalued by others.
Good news of great joy can find all of us, just as all of us can miss it too.
So this Christmas, how do we welcome God’s news of great joy? How do we welcome peace on earth among God’s favorites? How do we favor as God does, and find ourselves with the comfort of being among God’s favorites?
There’s a social element and a personal element to this.
Socially, the path to peace on earth comes through learning we are all God’s favorites.
Practice favoring as God favors. I’ve been stewing on these words for weeks now: Words of affirmation can drive out demons and diseases. Affirm others more. And in situations where you have power or privilege – in your family, in your workplace, in your community: take on God’s dedication to honor and empower those who have been ranked and favored lower by others.
And when you are intimidated or dismissed in your own eyes or others, hold your head high and walk with the dignity that is yours. I remember a couple years ago preparing for a meeting with one of the most powerful politicians in our state. I was leading a team in this meeting, and knew I’d be sitting across a table of high-skill lawyers and public officials, leading a team of some of the more prominent clergy in our city. And I was so nervous. What was I? And a Muslim friend and brother on the team turned to me and said: Steve, remember what we believe. No one is higher or lower than any other human. We are all the same under God, all in God’s image.
And that gave me the power I needed, remembering that at some level, we are all God’s favorites.
And lastly, personally. Endeavor to see and treat yourself as you are seen by God, no higher than any human, no more favored, but also no lower, no less favored. No matter your failings, no matter your age, no matter your education, no matter your ranking in the racist, classist, sexist order of this world, you are seen and loved by God. Ultimately, the path to peace within comes through God’s favor as well – we are loved not because of what we accomplish or how we are valued by others. We are loved because we are.