December 1, 2019

Catechetical Christmas Carols, III: Standing With Head Held High

Passage: Luke 2:8–20

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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.’ —Luke 2:15


Several years ago, my mom called saying, “You won’t believe it. Without enough kids for the Christmas pageant, I played a shepherd.” My mom is about this tall…the quintessential grandma and would be every pageant director’s dream to plug alongside Mary and Joseph for her calming presence.

Christmas pageants are cast with those we love, costumed in lovely robes, and staged in warm sanctuaries polished to gleam.

Enacting Jesus’ birth narrative in this way whitewashes the writer of Luke’s intended shock of Jesus’ impoverished origins and the subversive message seeped throughout the gospel.

Written after the fall of the Jerusalem temple at the end of the first-century, the Gospel of Luke describes how God turned the world upside down for those who were trying to make sense of the unraveling of politics, religion, and economies and the wildfire-like spread of God’s love.

In Luke’s gospel, God acts through the least probable—an elderly couple without pedigree, Zechariah and Elizabeth, bear a son, John the Baptist.

Mary and Joseph are from the miserable town of Nazareth, filled with the equivalent of section eight housing, and register their heritage to a town of even less significance, Bethlehem.[1]

Forget about what you think you know about a lovely holiday story read on Christmas Eve, and listen with a fresh ear to the next group of people drawn into Jesus’ birth.

 Dear God, we come before your holy word thinking we know what you are saying. Silence in us any voice but yours so we may be startled by your truth. Fill the air with your Holy Spirit and bless our meditations so we are transformed as people have been through the ages by your upending good news. In the Christ child’s name we pray.  Amen. 

Luke 2:8–14
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 God 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.

Simple gestures can communicate powerfully. An infant’s smile sends a grandparent to the moon. A preschooler’s spontaneous kiss or wave of the hand just warms your heart.

In the matter of seconds small actions create connection.

As kids move into puberty, small movements instead can divide. Sometime teens deftly tell another their ideas are stupid or they should shut up and get lost with a silent roll of the eyes.

To be on the receiving end of adult’s eye roll is to experience, viscerally, someone else’s disdain, to be condescended to, told you are boring, frustrating, or simply beyond words.  One does not easily forget this.

Social media posts include this passive aggressive flicker with a wide array of gifs—a gif is a short animation clipped from videos—of presidential candidates during debates, news commentators arguing policy, or Judge Judy.

Almost a reflex this one brief action arouses intense response for both the target and is rarely forgotten. As well the person whose eyes rolled is relieved to not have wasted his or her breath.

The writer of Luke’s gospel knew those who would read his gospel would have rolled their eyes at the mention of shepherds.

Stories of King David celebrate a young boy rising from hill country shepherd to become the greatest king of all. The charming folklore of a primitive society without hierarchy of labor or people is of a time when everyone scraped to get by. Besides it was the ultimate rags to riches story.

As society progressed to the ears of refined city dwellers of first century Palestine, shepherds would have provoked far more than an eye roll. Jewish writings of the time advised, “A man should not teach his son to be an donkey driver*, camel-driver, sailor…or herdsman. For theirs is the trade of thieves.” [2]

No one aspired to become a shepherd; one fell to this job. Considered thugs, brigands, and smelling of manure, shepherds reeked of shame.

Shepherds were not welcome inside the city walls. Shepherds could not be trusted. To these lowest of the low, those deserving of contempt, Luke claims the angels appear.

We learn that the shepherds arrive at the cradle before everyone. They witness love incarnate.  They turn their lives to glorify God. They become the first messengers.

Those who heard Luke’s gospel might not have been fazed by a virgin’s birth but stunned to know God chose the very last people anyone would trust…shepherds. Their contempt fades.  Those most excluded are the first in.

We need to hear the story of “shepherds first” every year as an in-our-face reminder of God’s presence with and God’s preference for those who others had been deemed worthless. Given the polarized partisan climate this year this story seems particularly necessary.

Arthur Brooks, formerly the president of the American Enterprise Institute and now professor at Harvard, is an economist by training who studies mind-numbing data of economic trends, attitudes, and policies to distill present day truths.

He spotlights research that confirms the average Republican and the average Democrat suffer the same assumption that their ideology is based in love and the opposing side is based on hate…comparable to divisions between Palestinians and Israelis. Each side thinks the other is evil and is therefore an enemy with whom one cannot negotiate or compromise.

To bring this home Brooks refers to what good marriage counselors know: the leading indicator of divorce is not anger or disagreement among spouses—both of those are healthy responses that can lead to growth. Instead the highest propensity to divorce occurs when contempt for the other surfaces.

Contempt is defined as the “unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of the other.”[3]

This tolerance of contempt is dividing dinner tables, families, and inciting hateful actions from which there will be lasting damage. We see contempt embodied with eye rolls when watching the national news. And continuing to consume our preferred brands of news cements our convictions of the other as unredeemable. We are headed to divorce and yet our nation cannot be divided with one party moving out.

As radical as it sounds coming from Cambridge, Massachusetts and Washington DC, Brooks argues the way out of this mess is to find our common ground through “magnanimity, understanding, good humor, and love.” It will also take courage. [4]

Brooks recalls a lesson his father taught: moral courage is not standing up to people with whom you disagree. Moral courage comes from standing up to people with whom you agree on behalf of those you disagree.[5]

Somehow we need to open our eyes rather than roll them, to see the other as human first. Open our hearts to love before we open our mouths with hate. See the other not as evil but as person just trying to raise children, save for retirement, and care for their sick. See the other person as God sees them and then muster the courage to speak within respect of human dignity.

Daniel Ichiro Ogata was born in Stockton, CA in 1919. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he recalls his father saying, “Stupid Japanese, they should not have done that.” Despite their patriotic loyalty, the US government moved this family from their home to a detention center near Death Valley. When they learned they would be moved to a camp in rural Arkansas, rumors of mosquitos as large as sparrows haunted them.

While the Ogatas were away, their home was ransacked, and their business was destroyed.

Daniel Ogata remembers the train car pulling into the camp with 36 barracks and being told the barbed wire and armed sentries were for their protection—even though the guards pointed their guns into the camp.

After several years, in 1944 Ogata received $25 and a one-way ticket to Chicago.

Although he could really not be trusted, he was capable of work, and therefore allowed out of the camp to fill the desperate labor shortage. He worked assembling explosives.

Among ethnic hierarchies, a man of Japanese descent ranked among the lowest of the low. Not even African Americans would risk working in a munitions plant. Ogata’s life was deemed expendable. No one would care if he were blown up.

Baptized in the Presbyterian Church and attentive to his faith, he tried with other Japanese friends to find a church that would allow them to worship near his apartment on the Southside. At every sanctuary door the usher would claim, “There’s no room” despite holding fists full of worship bulletins.

Eventually Ogata and his friends made it to Fourth Presbyterian Church. On a Sunday morning, they were welcomed and seated in the pew rented by Cyrus McCormick. (This was back before stewardship pledges funded churches and you rented a pew—paying more to sit in a desirable spot near the front of the sanctuary.)  The McCormick pew occupied a plum location.

Sympathetic to their desire to worship, Fourth Church’s senior pastor, The Rev. Dr. Harrison Ray Anderson invited the Japanese visitors to worship in their own language at a chapel in the afternoon.

Legend has it that Anderson held a session meeting, the equivalent of a Trustee meeting, in which no one could leave until they unanimously agreed to support this welcome. Anderson also pledged personal responsibility to the FBI for their behavior.

Neighbors of the church thought the Japanese’s presence unacceptable and would mob, throwing rocks as they entered the chapel. In response Anderson would stand on the sidewalk in robe and hood to deter potential violence.

After the war Ogata completed an undergraduate and graduate degree all in response to feeling God’s call. Then he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church.

For fifty-six years until his death The Reverend Daniel Ogata served congregations in Illinois and Iowa. He preached grace and forgiveness, proclaimed the Word of God, and ministered to people like those who had thought he was expendable human flesh.[6]

In this sermon series of Christmas hymns that teach, our closing hymn offers layer upon layer of meaning.

Richard Vaughn Williams discovered the lovely, old English tune at a pub in the village of Kingsfold in Sussex, England. A lovely ballad told the story of a young woman’s brutal murder. So often the tunes for our hymns began as bar songs. When he became the editor of The English Hymnal in 1905, he wrote polite words we have been singing ever since.[7]

Kathryn Galloway, a minister in the Church of Scotland, wrote the lyrics “When Out of Poverty Is Born” set to the tune KINGSFOLD in 2005.

I recall hearing this for the first time at Greyfriers Kirk in Edinburgh, thinking, how comforting, this tune is just so serene. How wrong I was.

Galloway’s lyrics take this charming tune to tell the bare truth as the gospel writer Luke did twenty centuries ago.

To receive the good news means climbing down—or falling down—off of some lofty place.

At the level ground of the manger, we meet those who we’d never have invited to our homes, only to realize God brought them first. In the presence of love we see with fresh eyes. In the grace of Jesus we are forgiven. At the cradle all are beloved and belong. We can join the shepherd chorus in telling the good news that everyone is welcome.

[1]Sarah Harris, 2012. “Why Are There Shepherds in the Lukan Birth Narrative?” Colloquium 44 (1): 17–30.

[2] Harris, p. 20, Out of respect for the pulpit, I edited “ass driver*” to “donkey driver.”

[3] Arthur C. Brooks, “Our Culture of Contempt,” The New York Times, March 2, 2019,

[4] Arthur C. Brooks, “More Love, Less Contempt – Arthur Brooks – BYU Speeches, April 25, 2019,

[5] “Arthur Brooks in conversation with Simon Sinek,” The Arthur Brooks Show, Vox Media March 24, 2019, podcast 8:48,

[6] Daniel Ogata, Interview by Jo (Preuninger) Forrest, Fourth Presbyterian Church Oral History, Grinnel, Iowa, April 27, 2006, and “Daniel Ogata Obituary,” Des Moines Register and Tribune, accessed Nov 17, 2019.