24 December 2014
Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, Year B
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1–20
Sermon: Born in a Barn
Anna Marion Howell
In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a little girl, I was a little… shall we say… a wee tad bit deficient in the “young lady” department. I liked to play rough with my boy cousins. I swore like a sailor from a fairly young age. I despised anything frilly, froofy, or pink, and anyone who tried to put a dress on me did so at their own risk. I spent most of my childhood with dirty feet, scraped knees, and wild, unruly hair.
“Young lady, were you born in a barn?”
As you can imagine, I heard that a lot when I was growing up. Did your parents ever say that one to you? Mine definitely did. (Other greatest hits from the Mom and Dad Album in my family included, “shut that door; I’m not trying to heat up Converse Heights,” “do not make me stop this car,” “we can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way,” and of course, my dad’s hit single, “you’d better adjust that attitude, or I’m going to adjust it for you.” Any of those sound familiar?)
I wasn’t actually born in a barn, of course—I was born at Spartanburg Regional Hospital—but having been “born in a barn” in the metaphorical sense means you don’t have a lot of manners. It means you’re behaving in a way that’s deemed to be beneath you. Whatever you’re doing is unexpected, unbecoming, and maybe even a bit upsetting to those around you.
Maybe that’s why my favorite Bible stories have always been the ones where Jesus is doing something scandalous. I can totally identify with the image of Jesus as someone who didn’t give the wrong end of a rat about what people thought about him, especially the people who were “in charge”. He didn’t mind breaking rules, and he didn’t take “that’s just not how it’s done!” for an answer. Y’all, I don’t think we hear this often enough. We’re always talking about how nice and sweet and loving Jesus was, and to be fair, that’s true. He was an awesome guy. But here’s the thing: you don’t get crucified for being nice and sweet and loving. You get crucified for being a troublemaker. You get crucified for stirring the pot. You get crucified for breaking rules, upsetting the order of things, and sticking it to the man.
Jesus wasn’t just the guy in the pictures we’ve all seen, cuddling with a cute little lamb or playing with some kids or just standing there looking holy. Jesus kissed lepers. Jesus hung out with pig-herding Gentiles and healed demon-possessed crazy guys chained up naked in cemeteries. Jesus ate dinner with the wrong people—tax collectors and sinners—and treated women and children like human beings rather than property. He healed the slave of a Roman soldier—a Roman soldier! The very embodiment of everything his people hated. He healed on the Sabbath, which was a major no-no. He told scandalous parables and stories about a world where the first become last and the last become first, where the eleventh-hour laborer gets paid the same as the one who’s been working all day, where ninety-nine sheep are left behind because one got loose, where sinners are forgiven and the fatted calf is killed to throw a party for the spoiled brat kid who finally came home—and you can imagine how much the people in power hated hearing all of this. Oh, he upset so many people!
Not to mention, the Jews were totally expecting some kind of super-powerful warrior king, and what did they get? A baby—the son of an unmarried teenage girl—who spent his first night on earth in a manger. I think sometimes we forget what a manger actually is, because the ones in our nativity sets kind of look like cute little ancient wooden bassinets. That’s not what it is—it’s what animals eat out of. Like, farm animals. Ever seen or read Charlotte’s Web? Remember the thing Wilbur was eating slop out of? I think the word they used in the book is “trough”, but that’s a manger. That’s where he began his life, and he ended it by being executed as a criminal. And between the manger and the cross, he spent most of his life upsetting people.
Tonight we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord—the beginning of the life of Christ. In tonight’s Gospel reading, we hear about the glory of the Lord all around, and about the angels who sang “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” – “Glory to God in the highest!” Imagine what a magnificent, beautiful, glorious sight that must have been! And I bet the music was fantastic! Wouldn’t you love to have been there?
God can indeed be revealed to us in the form of beauty—of course He can. I have encountered God in the immensity of a cathedral, in stunning stained-glass windows and towering spires and the booming, magnificent voice of our Presiding Bishop echoing from the walls of the massive space. And God can come to us through the liturgy—I have encountered Him in flawlessly executed processionals, incense-filled sanctuaries, flowery prayers, and in powerful sermons preached by beautifully-vested clergy.
I’ve also met God in the humblest and most unlikely of places. I was in Buncombe County last summer, attending a festival that was held on a campground. Everyone camped out in tents, all the panel discussions, workshops, performances, and other events were held outdoors, and there was a definite humble, earthy feel to the whole thing. Anyway, it was the first full day of the festival, and I’d already made a new friend—a woman fairly close to my age named April, who’s a pastor in a Protestant sect that I had never even heard of. We were having a great time talking about theology, comparing the religious practices of our respective denominations, hanging out with her two awesome kids, and joking about how we and everyone else at the festival looked like, as she put it, “the swamp beast”. I’m sure that, if either of my parents had seen me, they would have asked whether I had been born in a barn. Needless to say, I was happier than… well, a pig in mud.
Unfortunately, however, my endometriosis—a chronic condition I’ve lived with since I was about fifteen—was starting to flare up, and the pain was quickly progressing from uncomfortable to unbearable as the day went on. I tried to be a good sport about it for as long as possible, but by the time the sun was setting, I was all but doubled over in pain. I asked April if she would mind anointing me and giving me a blessing of healing.
Now, usually, this sacrament would be administered by a vested priest or deacon, and a vial of consecrated oil would be used, as well as the words in the Book of Common Prayer. Well, we didn’t have any of that. What we had was a pastor in a muddy t-shirt, a cooler for me to sit on, and instead of a little chrism of consecrated oil, we used a tub of the extremely potent-smelling coconut oil that I use to condition my hair. April anointed my head and began to pronounce the blessing. “O God, you healed a woman bent over in pain…” We didn’t use a rubric or a prayer book. She just cried out to God for relief and healing for me.
And there, I met God. I met God while I was sitting on a cooler outside of a tent in the woods, in the rain. There was mud everywhere. I certainly didn’t look my “Sunday best” that day. My hair was a mess, and I was barefoot. The oil hadn’t been blessed. April wasn’t wearing a stole. We looked like swamp creatures. But God met us there. God met us there in a way so powerful that no memory I have of meeting Him while I was vested in lace or swinging a thurible or surrounded by stained glass can compare to the time I met God in the mud.
Our God is indeed a God who meets us in order, and in beauty, and in majesty. He processed through the streets to cries of “Hosanna in the highest!” And we proclaim that he will come again in glory when he comes back to earth someday. But He’s also a God who meets us in the humblest of circumstances. He’s a God who goes camping with us, a God who works miracles in our lives through slimy unconsecrated coconut oil and mud-soaked pastors and the ungraceful cries of our hearts. Our God is a God who came to earth and spent most of his time in lowly places with the wrong people behaving in a way that wasn’t particularly becoming.
Our God is, after all, a God who was born in a barn.