A Story From the Edge of Nowhere
A Sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
Christmas Eve 2012
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
The town of my childhood, a remote fishing village in Southeastern Alaska, like many a rural community felt like a town on the fringe, a place on the edge of nowhere. And, like many a small town in rural Alaska, we were a community that struggled mightily with darkness. Addiction and substance abuse and depression were a constant presence and a regular reminder that we were perched on the edge, on the margin. We were a place used by the outside world when things like fish and lumber and recreation were needed, but that was easily forgotten when there was no need. Year after year our community faced a world outside that was bright and powerful and attractive – a world to which most of our neighbors would never have access or entre to, and a world that, when entered could just as easily use them up and spit them out. The bleakness of winter and of life claimed more than a few lives each year.
You might be wondering why it is we’re beginning our festive celebration of Christmas with such a tale of woe. Why would we redirect our gaze away from the blazing Yule before us, away from the warm comfort of friends and family, the cheery voices and spirits bright that have come to dominate our picture of this special night? We might ask that until we read again that harrowing tale told by Luke in his gospel, as we have tonight.
He begins by reminding us that our entire story begins in the shadow of Rome, when Augustus was Emperor, and then directs our gaze east, to the edge of the empire, to Syria, and to a remote village, Nazareth, population “who cares”, and to two would-be forgotten peasants. And, who cares is so important here, because no one should have cared. No one did care. The story on the margin, on the edge of the world, in the land of illiterates and no accounts was a place to forget.
And, yet, Luke begins here, with this unwed couple, expecting a child, and with a long journey across treacherous terrain. In short, the story begins in a place not unlike my hometown, a place defined by its lack of access, a place owned by people who will never see it, and a place far removed from the glowing center of it all. And, here on the edge, on the fringe, in the darkness of a subject people, a people known for their tragedy and loss, another would-be tragedy occurs – a child is born in the cold and is laid in the feedbox of animals whose lives may be of more value than his – a child is born who, if he survives the night, will live his life in fear of an oppressive government beyond his reach and control.
This is a dark night. But, this is not a tragic night. Against this bleak backdrop there are the distant strains of ethereal voices speaking of God come down, of majesty and light and joy breaking into the darkness, here, at the edge of nowhere.
I remember, one winter, right on the cusp of spring, our community had lost yet another young man to addiction and substance abuse. In our grief we had come together to console each other and to huddle close to share whatever hope was left. The snow had begun melting and the world was grey and damp and dreary. Then, on a rare sunny afternoon word came into town that something miraculous had happened, an orca, a magnificent killer whale had been spotted in the straight just outside of town from the scenic overlook on the highway. I say miraculous because at this time of year whales, and orcas in particular, were rarely seen. I also say miraculous because the young man who had died was, according to local culture, descended from the Orca House.
As tradition held, when a member of the house of the killer whale died it was an extremely good omen when one of the whales was sited. Elders taught that the whales were the ancestors come back to bring the deceased into the land of their ancestors. On that day, a slow and steady stream of cars made their way out of town until a caravan could be seen snaking its way up the coast to the scenic overlook.
In our grief and darkness we were in need of any ray of light, any hope we could find, and so we went to see. And arriving at the overlook we were greeted not by one orca, but an entire pod, a group of whales the likes of which our village had not seen in living memory! The straight was clogged with the glistening shapes of black and white, of whales playing and splashing in such radiant delight and we stood in amazed silence, fishermen and teachers and loggers – a community on the edge of nowhere – and we watched and we wept, assured in that moment that we were not alone as though a word from beyond had been spoken into our midst bringing hope anew. We returned that night, to a town still caught in the pain of grief, still struggling to overcome the darkness. But, we returned that night to our homes rejoicing for all we had seen and heard. As John’s Gospel says, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, nay cannot, and will never overcome it!
This has been a dark winter – darker than most. We have all been brought to our knees by the multiple tragedies of the year and most especially by those perpetrated on the many young innocents in Newtown, Connecticut. These stories have dominated our headlines, and this Christmas, perhaps more than most we are in need of something true and good and bright to break through the gloom – a glimpse of hope that we are not alone. And, as Fr. Richard Rohr writes,
“Truth and goodness are not always found at the top, but often on the edge and at the bottom… Not in the center of empire, but in the backwaters of Bethlehem. Not among the established, but clearly among those who are dis-established.”
Perhaps you missed it in the barrage of news coverage from two weeks ago, but in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school a small group of children in Pakistan gathered to keep vigil for a community of people they would never meet, and who, for all intents and purposes represented an enemy to their own lives at the edge of nowhere. In Pakistan where innocents are daily lost by infighting between militant groups and the government, by the suicide bombs and machine gun fire of internal strife, or from above by the drones of a government they have never slighted or even seen – in Pakistan a children we have too often forgotten, held a vigil and sent condolences. Their sign simply read – “we feel your pain as you would feel ours.”
That is the story of the incarnation that we celebrate tonight. On the margins of a world of power, away from the attractive and comforting glow of the haves, the have-nots witnessed something, recognized a shared suffering and a common humanity, and refused to succumb to the darkness. God showed up, as one liberation theologian (Gustavo Gutiérrez)says “on the fringe of society” and keeps showing up there. When our eyes are trained on the powers that be, or on the glittering packaging of a life we wish were ours, or, even when we are bent in over our grief at yet another tragedy – God arrives on the margin and calls our attention to the same.
And, if this is so, if God comes to us on the edges, if the one who is the center and source of all reality and creation comes to us on the fringes of our reality and the world we’ve created, then his coming questions everything and trumpets that something troubling and challenging, and hopefully better is in store. As the song of Mary, which we heard only yesterday, tells us, God comes into our lives to bring down the mighty, to lift up the lowly, and to fill the hungry with good things. God’s coming reframes everything and challenges our assumptions. The heart of God’s kingdom, the world which he has come to redeem and save, centers on those about whom we have said “who cares” – the poor, the forsaken, the refugee, and the immigrant. And, if we believe this, Christmas is less a comforting tale, a cause for nostalgia and cozy feelings, and more a challenge and a catalyst. Just as we, in my hometown, left the sighting of those whales that day and rushed to tell everyone who would listen and just as we then strove to meet the darkness of addiction with new light and new energy and new hope, so too we who have come tonight and heard this story anew, can no longer be content to live in a world of violence when we have a Prince of Peace, no longer be content to live in a world that has no hope when we have witnessed hope.
Be amazed, do not fear, rejoice, for, as one local theologian (David Lose) writes:
“God comes at the edges of the story and our lives to speak quietly but firmly through the blood, sweat, and tears of the labor pains of a young mother and cry of her infant that God is irreconcilably for us, joined to our ups and down, our hopes and fears, and committed to giving us not just more of the same, but something more. Christ comes, that is, not just to give us more of the life we know, but new and abundant life altogether. For in Christ we have the promise that God will not stop until each and all of us have been embraced and caught up in God’s tremendous love and have heard the good news that ‘unto you this day is born a savior, Christ the Lord.’ No wonder we sing, ‘Let heaven and earth rejoice!’”