A Christmas Sermon for Those Not Feeling Merry

Luke 1:39-46

There is a man
who lives in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas
named Kirby Brown.

When the holidays come around,
Brown says he feels adrift. (1)

His parent split up when he was young
and there is been no solidified
Christmas plans from year to year.

I have learned,
he says, to treat Christmas,
just like the day before.

In this place of lulls and loneliness,
he writes a song known as the “Shepherd’s Lament”.

Singing from the perspective of a traveling shepherd,
Brown croons,
“I walked down through the village,
out past the city lights,
up here on a hilltop out of sight.
And I hear everybody singing,
but I just can’t find the tune,
if grace is coming,
I hope it’s coming soon.

The wise men must have missed their turn
somewhere on Highway 10,
the walls of the old manger caving in.
And heaven’s in a holding pattern over Bethlehem,
and everybody’s waiting for a friend;
everybody’s waiting for a friend.

They said you might be righteous,
that you might be someone to say
it may not matter what you’ve done.
And I try to keep on hoping
but don’t know what I’m hoping for,
when Christmas feels just like the day before.”

He continues,
“The wise men must have missed their turn
somewhere on Highway 10,
the walls of the old manger caving in.
And heaven’s in a holding pattern over Bethlehem,
and everybody’s waiting for a friend;
yeah, we’re all still waiting for a friend.

Waiting for a friend.”

Those words haunted me this week:
“Yeah, we’re all still waiting for a friend.”

There is a man, Bradley Campbell,
who hears the song too,
and says that it catches him by surprise,
because he knows what it is
to spend Christmas by himself.
He’s a reporter who is
used to spending the holiday afield.
He hasn’t been home in nine years.

Brown’s voice seeps into his psyche;
It is a mixture of sweetness and melancholy.

Campbell is two beers in
and he finds his eyes starting to tear.
It hits home: He too is waiting for a friend.

Yeah, we’re all still waiting for a friend.

That phrase lingered in my mind this week.
It makes me think of Mary,
who hurries to see her kinswoman, Elizabeth.
Is it because she needs a friend too?

when we picture Mary,
we imagine an idyllic scene
with shepherds and wise ones,
Mary and Joseph
and a perfectly sleeping baby.

I am curious,
if everything is
as picturesque as it seems.

Within a few days
of learning she would bear
the Holy into the world,
Mary hurries to Elizabeth,
carrying the enormity of it all,
the doubt and the wonder,
the isolation and the curiosity.

Carrying all of this,
Mary rushes to Elizabeth’s,
greets her in a glorious moment
of songs and blessings,
and then it says,
Mary stays for three months.

I want to know,
what happened in those three months?

In the long expanses of silence,
when she was by herself,
what did she feel?

There are so many layers to Mary’s story:
she is a teenager,
engaged to be married,
already pregnant,
outcast by society,

She lives under Roman occupation;
her people crushed under
the oppression of foreign rule,
forced to pay taxes
beyond what they can afford.
She knows what it is
to witness injustice,
to wish with every sinew in her body
that things could be better,

there is a moment,
when she sees with clarity,
that God is birthing in the world
a different kind of life
where the rich and powerful
would be made low
and low and hungry
would be raised up.

She knew that to be true
because that was
what God was doing with her own life.

God was turning over the current world order
to create a kin-dom of radical equality,
which is why
God decided to be birthed
in a young Galilean peasant.

Still I have to wonder: Is it hard?
Are there moments that Mary cries with grief
as she laments what is going on
in the world around her?
Are there others when she is filled with rage
at the way the powerful and corrupt
take advantage of the poor?
Are there others
when people look down their nose at her
and all she wants
is a friend?

We hear about the glorious moments,
but I wonder about the quiet ones,
the restless ones, the ones
when Mary is staring out the window
having second thoughts.

I wonder because that is part of the
Christmas story
not depicted in fancy manger scenes
or cheery Christmas songs.

As I listened to the Shepherd’s Lament this week,
I found myself wondering,
What about the shepherds?
What if the shepherds really lamented?
What if spending day in and day out
with nothing but sheep to keep you company
is a challenging task?
What if they were really human beings,
who knew what it was like to lose a loved one,
and stay up at night wondering what to do,
who knew what it was to try to fill their emptiness
with anything that came their way?

What if they too were waiting for a friend?

Yet what I love about the Shepherd’s Lament
is that, even as they journey,
they are still waiting and watching,
believing something will happen
on Highway 10,
even if it doesn’t quite feel like it will.

They are: wanting and waiting.

It is this same wanting and waiting
that Mary brings with her to Elizabeth’s.
She arrives with her multi-layered story
and in response,
Elizabeth looks her in the eyes
and says “Blessed.”
“Blessed are you.”
All of you is blessed, Elizabeth declares,
the anxious part, the prophetic part,
the angry part, the restless part,
the joyful part, the solitary part.

She continues,
“Blessed is she who believed.”

Blessed are you who believe,
Blessed are you who wait,
Blessed are you who hunger,
Blessed are you who miss the turn,
Blessed are you whose community manger is caving in,
Blessed are you who feel adrift,
because it is for you that
Love came to earth.

I have been thinking about that blessing this month.

There have been mornings
that I have woken up
with an aching loneliness,
one that lingers in the soul,
accompanying me through
grocery shopping,
and hiking,
and everyday life.

There have been evenings
when my mind has mulled over
those who I love
and who are passed
who I will never see
for a holiday again.

What do we do
with moments like these?

I have been wanting and waiting.

Then one day,
I had the opportunity
to spend with the day
with a friend who lives in another state.
We spent the day in the Hudson Valley,
eating good food,
attending prayer services at a monastery,
and catching up on life.
Before my friend went back home for the day,
I asked, can we pray together?

I prayed a blessing for my friend.
my friend prayed for me.
We sat side by side
in two comfy chairs,
and my friend prayed,
“Remind us that whether we rise or fall,
we rise and fall in You.”

The next day,
I did a long run
on an outdoor trail.
I carried the prayer with me
as I crested hills
and descended into valleys:
“Remind us that whether we rise or fall,
we rise and fall in You.”

I carried those words into my week,
as I rose and fell,
remembering that I was not alone.

Like Elizabeth speaking to Mary,
my friend had reminded me of what I knew,
and that tender moment revived my soul.

Like Kirby Brown singing to Bradley Campbell.
It had awakened something in him.
Campbell couldn’t listen to the rest of the concert.
He left after the Shepherd’s Lament,
but when he got home,
he began to listen to the song on repeat.
When he was told that
he would not have to work on Christmas,
he at last knew where he wanted to go: home.
The song had led him home.
He had found a friend in the form of Kirby Brown.
who simply sang a song
saying, I am looking for a friend too;
I am waiting with you,
even in the moments
when it doesn’t feel true,
for the Christ child to be born.

I am waiting with you.

Christ is born, I have learned,
when Love comes close
to all the moments of our lives,
and we learn like Mary
that all of it is holy.
That is what I love about this painting,
Mary – Mother of Enduring Love;
she blesses all of it and all of us.
[The painting was shown throughout the sermon
on a powerpoint screen; you can view it here.]

holidays come in fun and cheery ways,
but in the moments when the manger is caving in,
the holiness of God comes
in a stranger who sings a lament,
a friend who takes you in,
a kinswoman who blesses you,
a newborn babe who pulls you near,
a prayer that accompanies you,
and a God who comes close
in all the tender places of your life.



(1) This comes from the NPR story, “A Musical Lament for Those Who Don’t Feel the Magic of Christmas” found here: https://www.npr.org/2018/12/19/677718010/a-musical-lament-for-those-who-dont-feel-the-magic-of-christmas

Categories: Sermons, Uncategorized

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