Time is Short

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
©Linda Bruce
January 21, 2018

The Greatest Show

Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC
©Rev. Alison J. Buttrick Patton
December 24, 2017

It is an unorthodox cast of characters, not nearly what you’d expect if you were writing such an important story from scratch. There are no stars among the performers (except for the one in the sky); no famous people (except the Roman emperor, mentioned only in passing). The role of God-bearer is played by an inexperienced teen named Mary, from a hick town called Nazareth. Mary’s husband, the baby’s adoptive father, is Joseph, an unassuming carpenter with calloused hands, a furrowed brow and remarkably little to say.

Then there are the shepherds – laborers who likely smelled of sheep dung and stale beer. These are the bottom-dwellers, lowest rung on the 1st-century social ladder. One wonders whose idea it was to make them the messengers of God’s Good News, given how few people were likely to let them indoors…  

Even the angels give one pause: Neither Gabriel nor that ‘heavenly host’ are described as what you’d called angelic: light and glowy and feathered, with beatific smiles.  On the contrary, these angels seem to terrify everyone they meet.  “Don’t be afraid!” they have to say, again and again.

So what kind of pageant is this? Smellier than we typically imagine – with all those bodies crammed in around the feeding trough, and a young woman somewhere in the middle, just having given birth.  Smellier, and earthier, more real somehow – not at all like the whitewashed tableau depicted on certain Hallmark cards.  

Imagine Mary without any midwife, no parent or cousin to coach her through those first anxious hours as a new mother. Imagine how she must have struggled to figure out breastfeeding, with Joseph shuffling his feet and averting his gaze.  Imagine a goat butting at her elbow until Mary’s frustration melts into giggles and she pats it on the head. (Goats generally make everything better, when they’re not eating the furniture, that is).

…It’s true, the gospel of Luke doesn’t actually mention any animals.  Still, who can resist adding a goat or two, Joseph’s donkey and a few tag-along sheep.  

All in all, it sounds a bit like a circus, all these oddball characters – not a first-class performance at all.  There are no cameos by local officials; no special appearances by decision-makers of note.  Not one person (or beast) in that barn with the least bit of power, or two nickels to rub together – at least not as recorded in the gospel of Luke.  

Yes: Matthew introduces a few traveling magi  (wise men) who have the means to bring rather extravagant-sounding, if utterly inappropriate, baby gifts, but those guys are just as quirky as the rest: dreamers and stargazers with their heads in the clouds.

So what are we to think? Did the casting director get it wrong? Or is there something about this motley crew that is worthy of note? What if, we are compelled to ask, what if God chose these particular players on purpose? This may not sound so outrageous, at first. If you are used to hearing the story, then teenage mothers and sheep herders and celestial beings may not seem out of place at all.  

But imagine how the scene might be cast if these same events unfolded today. Imagine a brown-skinned immigrant named Jose and his young wife Maria. They have no health insurance and they are afraid to go to the ER (their Visas expired last month), so she gives birth in the tiny apartment they share with another family of eight… plus a dog, a two stray cats and cockatoo.  The entertainer who lives upstairs returns after a late show at one of the seedier nightclubs and hears the woman’s laboring cries, so she comes downstairs with coffee and towels. She also sends a text to the other kitchen staff at the restaurant where Jose works, so they come over bringing cigarettes for him, a homemade rattle for the baby (dried beans in a can), and beer for themselves. They speak an odd mix of Spanish, Mandarin, and English, so they don’t always understand each other.  Still, they all notice the extra-bright star through the cracked window pane and agree that Maria has an extraordinary child… The entertainer, who is wearing too much makeup and has a hole in her stockings, croons a torch song until the baby falls asleep…

And that’s just one possibility. It turns out, there are any number of ways one could cast Luke’s pageant, so long as the roles of honor go to people regarded by society as without power or status: sideliners and outcasts. They are the stars of the show, by design. They are the ones whom God and angels choose – to announce those glad tidings of great joy.

It reminds me of a moment in the film The Greatest Showman, about PT Barnum. Barnum has a vision for an extraordinary show.  He recruits an odd assortment of characters to perform: the bearded lady, the midget, the tattooed man; the pink-haired acrobat. He gives every one of them a place to shine. When things go badly and a broken-hearted Barnum gets ready to throw in the towel, one of those performers looks him in the eye and says,  “The world was ashamed of us, but you put us in the spotlight…We were hidden in the shadows and you gave us our humanity.”

I can think of no more appropriate headline to grace the marquee on Christmas Eve, no greater Good News than this, that God in Christ honors the humanity of those on the very margins.  I can hear the shepherds and their kin proclaim it:   “Christ is born to us this day.  We went to welcome him, and he stretched his little arms wide and welcomed us instead.”  

At the end of the night, when the curtain falls, this is the truth we are left to ponder:  That all those years ago, God chose to be revealed, not through the powerful and the privileged, but through the lives and witness of those seen as powerless (Feasting, Bi, Homiletic, p. 119): the misfits, the outcasts and the odd ones out.  And God speaks through them, still.  

So be on the lookout tonight – for improbable messengers with extraordinary news.  They may just belong to the Greatest Show on Earth: the one that features a flashy star and a huge angel chorus; beasts and a baby and all manner of guests. Listen closely to the stories they have to tell – about Hope-Come-Down, Love-in-the-Flesh, and Peace on Earth; follow their lead, and they may well show you the Way to the Christ Child himself, the very one who welcomes everyone, God’s entire cast of colorful characters – even you, even me – and gives us all a song to sing, a role to play, God’s love to live.

Amen.