“Holy Interruption” — Christmas 2016
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship, Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY
Author, Creation-CrisisPreaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2016)
Text: Luke 2:2-20
In a congregation I served several years ago, I sent out an informal email poll asking people the following question: “What do you find to be the biggest distraction when you attend a worship service?”
There were a variety of responses. Some people named cell phones, the sound of traffic outside, or the temperature being too hot or cold. But by far, the biggest source of annoyance during worship is … (you guessed it) children!
Some churches are more welcoming of children than others. But even the most forbearing among us can get a bit exasperated with the interruptions of children. How about when you have one of these lovable little urchins sitting in the pew directly in front of or behind you. You watch Cheerios cascading to the floor, lose count of the number of times the child goes back and forth to the bathroom, and climbs up and down, up and down, as if the pew was a jungle gym. And you hear all the juvenile prattle, despite the parent’s continued admonition: “Use your inside voice!”
If you are one of the parents or grandparents who actually has one of these children in your care during worship, you’re lucky if you can even catch the gist of the sermon or hear a phrase or two from the prayers. Worshiping with a child is one big exercise in patience and interruption. Actually, life with a child is a series of interruptions – diaper surprises, sudden sicknesses, nightmares at 3 a.m.
Mary and Joseph understood what it means to be interrupted by a child. Nine months ago, Mary was going about her life, happily planning for her upcoming marriage, when an angel appeared from God and interrupted her: “Greetings, Favored One! The Lord is with you. But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus,” (Luke 1:28-31).
Just like that — girl interrupted. Life interrupted.
The Gospel of Matthew records a similar incident for Joseph. Nine months ago, he was just going about his life, engaged to a pretty young girl, busy with his carpentry business, when an angel appeared from God and interrupted him: “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21).
Just like that — man interrupted. Life interrupted.
And that’s just the beginning. The rest of the story is also punctuated with interruptions. The government interrupts their lives and tells them they have to make the long trek to Bethlehem from their hometown of Nazareth in order to pay their taxes. The innkeeper interrupts their lives to tell them they have to stay in the barn with the animals because there are no more rooms available. It’s one interruption after another.
As you revisit these age-old stories in your preaching for Christmas this year, you may find interruptions of a different kind are in need of your attention. Our planet’s ecosystems are interrupting humanity with an urgency that cannot be ignored. Nearly everywhere we look across the globe, the effects of human-induced climate change, pollution, deforestation, and extreme energy extraction are interrupting and disrupting the lives of billions of people. While many of us and our parishioners will long for a sweet sermon of greeting-card sentimentality, the reality is that for people living in poverty, dealing with rising sea levels, escaping war-torn areas, facing environmental violation of their homes or tribal lands, and trying to survive in a society that has told them their lives don’t matter, such saccharine sentimentality is a luxury they cannot afford. If our aim is to be true to the text about this interrupting Christ-child, our preaching shouldn’t pay for such a short-lived luxury either.
Because the truth about this little family is that they were buffeted by forces beyond their control. They were like so many families today who live in areas gripped by violent regimes, or whose crops have been decimated by drought, or who find themselves wandering as climate-refugees seeking someplace with room at the inn where they can find shelter, a warm place to sleep, a meal, a change of clothes, and a lead on a new life. Howard Thurman’s poem captures the reality of these families:
“Christmas is Waiting to be Born”
by Howard Thurman (African American theologian and Civil Rights activist)
Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes
And the heart consumes itself as if it would live,
Where children age before their time
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold,
While bones and sinew, blood and cell, go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed.
Christmas is waiting to be born:
In you, in me, in all mankind.
This doesn’t mean that your sermon should hammer away at folks with a litany of guilt-inducing crimes against the planet and humanity. No one wants to feel so overwhelmed by the complexities and compound fractures of our human and Earth community that they limp from the church regretting having come. So is there any Good News in the midst of these interruptions?
The shepherds would say: Yes! Living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night . . . the romantic vision we have of their simple, bucolic life is another artificially sweetened misconception. Because, in fact, a shepherd’s life was one that no one envied. Long days and nights isolated and alone, these were people who society often rejected for one reason or another. No one wanted to hire them, so the only job they could get was watching sheep. It was a difficult life of being constantly on the move with no hope of a promotion, no promise of a salary increase, no hope of companionship beyond the other rejects out there with you. It’s a life all too familiar for today’s migrant workers and “illegal” immigrants who, like the shepherds, are often viewed as rejects and do the work no one wants to do, often the dirty work of supplying our food, all while being blamed for taking jobs of the native-born (who don’t want that kind of work anyway).
And then one fateful night, the angel interrupts 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.” (Luke 2:10-12).
Just like that – shepherds interrupted. Hopelessness interrupted.
This is startling to them. Imagine the feeling of a child when the first big snow falls, and hearing the announcement that school is closed! You run out and jump and roll in that beautiful, downy iciness, because you know it means freedom. Freedom from the monotony of another day. A brief reprieve from that big test you were dreading. Freedom to breathe a sigh of relief and play and drink hot cocoa and enjoy the day as a gift.
Imagine that feeling multiplied times a hundred. The shepherds “make haste” – they’re running! They’re laughing and hooting, jumping and singing the song they heard in the angel’s serenade: “Glory to God in the highest!”
These are men who welcome the interruption. They long for something to break through the prison of their poverty, disrupt the monotony of their dreary lives. For just this night they have a brief reprieve from their desolate lives. They have freedom to breathe a sigh of relief, inhale a breath of hope, and enjoy this night as a gift.
These are men whose ears are tuned to hear the cry of a baby. They are happy to be interrupted by this child! Because this infant’s cry is the most important revelation the world has yet heard. God is with us! Emmanuel!
These men run all through the city of Bethlehem, banging on doors, interrupting the sleep of countless people, looking for the child. They want to see the Cheerios making a mess on the floor. They want to hear the incessant prattle of this little one. They want to be interrupted. This is what they have longed for all their lives – a holy interruption.
Seeing these migrant workers in the doorway standing on tippy-toe to catch a glimpse of the baby, Mary and Joseph probably sighed with exasperation. Another interruption?
But then the men speak. “We’re sorry to (ahem) interrupt. But we’ve just been given the greatest news. This baby – your baby – is the One! The angel told us! Do you know what you have here? This child is the greatest gift God could ever interrupt the world to give. Whatever you have to go through for this child, it will be worth it. Because this child will bring peace where there had been no hope of peace before.”
“And Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19).
She pondered these words when the child grew to be a twelve-year-old, and interrupted their trip to Jerusalem by disappearing for days, teaching in the temple.
Joseph pondered these words when the child grew to be a young man, and interrupted his promising career as a carpenter to journey to the Jordan River and seek baptism and a life as a traveling rabbi.
You see, Jesus’ life was all about interruption.
He interrupted the sick to tell them that they were healed.
He interrupted the sinners to tell them they were forgiven.
He interrupted the outcasts to tell them they were welcome.
But he also:
interrupted the corrupt leaders to tell them that they were wrong.
Interrupted the oppressors to tell them that God was seeking justice.
Interrupted the whole system that marginalized the weak, forcing inequality, and poverty, and violence on so many people.
And of course, there was the most important interruption of them all – the resurrection. Here evil and death were just going along, minding their own business, happily consuming just one more child of humanity, this one delivered by a cross on a hill at Golgotha. But then three days later in a cemetery garden, suddenly an angel appears and interrupts the women and disciples in their grieving, saying, “Do not be afraid! Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!”
Just like that — Death interrupted.
If God found a way into the world in the midst of the interruptions back then, perhaps we need to be more alert to God’s presence in the midst of interruptions today. In fact, maybe that’s the only way that God can get through to us. Maybe it takes a holy interruption to shake us out of our routine, release us from our prisons of monotony, break the ongoing cycles of violence and evil and pain in this world.
We need this child, piercing the air with his cries, interrupting our lives with this most important news: God is with us. Emmanuel.
And this is good news not just for humanity, but for the entire planet. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son . . .” (John 3:16). Did you catch that? The whole world: Microorganisms! Mountains! Air! Rivers! Coral reefs! Giraffes! Babies born to Muslim women! Children sewing our clothes in foreign lands! Teenage boys with chocolate-brown skin! Your mother’s child – you! All of these lives matter to God.
Which means we need to carry this holy interruption into the world outside the stable doors.
We need to interrupt today’s corrupt leaders to tell them they are wrong.
We need to interrupt the oppressors to tell them that God is still seeking justice.
We need to interrupt the systems that marginalize people and force inequality, poverty, and violence on so many.
As Charles Campbell and Johann Ciliers remind us: “Jesus’ birth interrupted the old age with a radically new order, which turned the world upside down. . . The Christmas festivals celebrate – again in communal, embodied form – the incarnation, in which God became body, flesh – carne. God is born as a human child to common folk; or in specifically carnivalesque terms, a baby is made king – an event certainly as foolish and disruptive as the parodic exaltation of the crucifixion. . .” (Campbell, Charles L. and Johan H. Cilliers, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, Baylor University Press; Waco, TX, 2012; 77).
We, too, need to interrupt the lives of today’s shepherd’s to tell them they deserve respect and fair wages, and full citizenship. We need to interrupt the lives of refugees to tell them there is, in fact, room at the inn.
Even Earth itself is joining in this holy interruption. I’m remembering the tribal people gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation interrupting the plans of the oil pipeline companies, enduring water hoses, tear gas and sonic grenades launched against them in their peaceful protests. In an interview with one of the tribal men about the impasse, suddenly the air is punctuated with whoops and shouts of joy – a herd of buffalo thunders into view. Buffalo are not only a traditional source of food and clothing for the Sioux, they are symbolic of the power of the land itself. For the Water Protectors, these buffalo announced good news – even the land itself is declaring God’s work in the world.
May you experience this most holy interruption. May God interrupt us with the gift of this Christ child. And may all Earth experience this interruption of grace and peace, love and joy. Amen.