Bethlehem, Burma and the Baby

December 22, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Let’s have some fun with these 11 verses from the second chapter of Luke. Let’s see if we can tell the story by memory. No peeking. I want you to hear it anew. Pick out some word from each verse. I’ll help if the process doesn’t work.

Like any story, it has a beginning, middle and an end. If you take a look at Luke 2, you find it a heavily populated story with an infant at its center. It begins naturally and ends supernaturally. Animals, with shepherds abiding in the field, are the turning point. Doesn’t it amaze you that actors can memorize lines? One way they do is to remember they have to get to the turning point. What is the turning point in this text?

Go ahead; take a peek at your bulletin.


One of the quiet questions of Christmas is whether you have to keep moving or whether you can stay put. Mobility and migration are at its heart.

All went to be taxed, every one into his own city…. Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, into the city of David, which is called Bethlehem. Geography matters.

Manger, birth, no room for them in the Inn. They were out of place, maybe not displaced, but definitely out of place. Think about hotels and homelessness. Are you in place or out of place, displaced or in advanced placement, as in being where you want to be? Think about where you are and about your place.

Get ready for even more transition. Watch the animals make the transition from the natural to the moment, then on to the supernatural.

The first question from the text is where are you from? Where did you start? In what kind of land, with what kind of people?

The Harvard Dialect Survey in this morning’s Times tell us how to tell where somebody else is from. Are you from a place that says garage sale or yard sale or rummage sale? Do you wear tennis shoes or sneakers or gym shoes? Do you say “y’all” or “you guys?” Were you born before or after all fruits, even bananas, have stickers on them, saying where they came from? Doesn’t really matter how the questions are answered. What matters is that you know your Nazareth. It also matters that you get to tell somebody else where you are from. It matters that somebody else wants to know where you are from.

Have you noticed how people often use the question, “Where are you from?” They mean “how did you get here?” “How did you two meet?” Take a quiet moment right now to observe what government is taxing you today. And I don’t just mean internal revenue. Take another moment and remember your Nazareth. The place where you started. Take another moment and remember your Bethlehem. To where did you migrate? It might just have been from Texas to New York or Ireland to Queens or Haiti to Far Rockaway? Using the word “just” there doesn’t master the experience at all. Was it a forced displacement or a consensual one? Upward mobility? Downward mobility? Just mobility for the sake of it?

Let’s name our Nazareth, our places of origin.

Let’s name our dislocations, our Bethlehem’s.

Name your city. “Every one unto his own city.” What a concept.

A lot of us in this congregation have done time in West Virginia. We only get one vote.

Let’s remember that we are always on the move and that most people are on the move. Name the places where you’ve been.

Take another moment and in this 225th year of the anniversary of his birth, let us remember our origin as Judson, in the name of a missionary to Burma. Weird, right? That we are marked by Burma, that it is one of our Bethlehems, one of the places where we were displaced and replaced. Let us remember that this congregation and this building and the thing called “we” have a beginning. Judson said he wanted to convert 100 people to Christianity when he arrived. He converted 8000, went on to learn the Burmese language and translate the Bible into Burmese. He survived three wives. He is our Nazareth become Bethlehem.

Let us pause a minute to imagine what he would think of us, now, carrying his name in his mother tongue, the one he multiplied into many tongues. You only understand the Christmas story when you understand your origin. Origin yields destination but that comes later.

We said that the story turns on the birth of a baby in a manger. It likes to stop there in this season of the silent night, the holy night, the night that is all calm and all bright. It likes to stand still. It likes to become the urgent now and the eternal now. It likes to be a midnight clear. As you fondle and caress this story today, let there be a quiet and stillness. Let the swirl stop swirling for a minute. It won’t kill you to be without motion for a minute, you who come from motion and return to motion.

So we’ve talked about the beginning, from where we come. Now let’s go to the abiding part, because that comprehends the turn and twist in the story. And there were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night, and LO.

I love those words abiding. And the word Lo. So present tense.

Consider where you abide. Where you really live when you are not whipping out your master card for a hotel, aka “Inn.” What is your Lo moment? When does the music really start for you? You do know O HOLY NIGHT, right?

Or “O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie, above the deep and dreamless sleep….yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting love….”

I said the story had a beginning in government participation in our lives. The beginning is not individual but social and systemic. This story is about the government’s relationship with the uncredentialed, without pedigree. All went to be taxed. Perhaps it is also saying “All are taxed.” You know, how it goes. You got to do what you got to do.

It also has a middle, an abiding, a manger, a birth, and a baby.

And then it has an end. I know the easiest way to make conversation with someone is to ask where are you from. But I wonder if our take away today might be to learn a different question. Instead of asking someone at a party where are you from, I wonder if we could become an actor in the Christmas story by asking the question, “Where are you going?” “What are you looking forward to?” “What would constitute success for your life and your story?” Adoniram wanted 800 converts. What do you want?

Walter Brueggeman, the great Protestant theologian, says his favorite psalm is the one where even the sea monsters join in doxology. Psalm 148: 8 it is: Praise Jehovah from the earth, it says, ye sea monsters, and all deeps. Praise Jehovah from the earth. Doxology is the act of praise. Sheep and sea monsters, the uncredentialed all join in. Brueggeman says that doxology is the destination of those who believe that stories come true, no matter how displaced we are.

Note how Luke 2 ends. Its ending gets more verses and attention than its beginning. Suddenly. The Angel of the Lord came upon them. Upon them. And the glory of the Lord shown all around them. Bright lights, big city. The time square energy shows up outside a manger. Big announcement: Fear Not. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior, which is Christ the lord. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the babe right here, right in your field, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger. And then the angel is joined by a host of heavenly hosts praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth Peace, good will to all. (They may have said men but they meant everybody, I just know they did.)

From the natural, quotidian through the animals to the supernatural. That’s how the story goes. And that is how our life is to go too. That at the end we find great light and great peace.

Right now we are In the muddled middle, where we abide, of 2013, around 200 years after Adoniram Judson sailed to Burma to tell the story of Jesus. Lo how the days are hastening on.

I had the strangest experience this week. I was checking the weather at a retreat center in Kerhonkson. I was on my way up there and wondered what to wear. On the web site, it said temperature outside 24 degrees, feels like 24 degrees. I became giddily happy. Imagine weather feeling like what it really was. I get so annoyed by weather people saying it is 32 degrees outside but it feels like 25. How do they know? Then again it does matter how things feel. I hope things feel good to you at some point this season, that peace and light show up and that you burst into doxology, even if it is just on some still night when the web site says that things both are and feel the same.

I am very aware that many of you are having unusual Christmases this year. Think of Jews having to celebrate Hanukah on Thanksgiving, if you want some comfort. Or for the Christmas trees all wondering how it got to be 70 degrees outside today. For our family this is the first year that my eldest son is hosting everything and that my full set of China and silverware is remaining in the cabinet. At his house we drink out of jelly glasses. Since both of my sons married into families with divorced parents, each of them have three holiday events to attend. Everything changes. Kids grow up. Partners die or leave. New ones come or don’t. Unemployment checks start or stop. Some assembly remains required.

Most Christmases, as poet Carol Roach says, it is hard to distinguish between the guests and the ghosts.

That is our middle, where we abide and abide and abide and keep watch over each other by night. But let me tell you where we are heading. We are heading to “Fields and floods repeating the sounding joy, joining sea monsters and all that is deep within us, towards peace and light all around. Thanks Be to God. Amen

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844