Shepherds — A Christmas Message

Preached on December 24, 2014 at Northwood Presbyterian Church


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What do you know about the shepherds? What have you heard?

Were shepherds poor or rich? Were they young, or old? Were they men or women? Were they well respected, or were they lower on the social ladder?

Shepherds were poor. Their work was a day to day sort of work where they were always dependent on the needs and desires of wealthy landowners.

Shepherds were young, mostly.

Shepherds were young men, but they were also young women.

Most important to know and reflect upon this day is that shepherds were not well respected in society. They were considered dirty and untrustworthy. In fact, the testimony of a shepherd was inadmissible in court because it was considered unreliable. Shepherds were nearly invisible members of society. The lowest of the low. Untouchables. This week I learned “To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property” I wonder who the modern day shepherds would be in our society. Migrant farm workers? Mentally ill homeless people? Refugees? Vagrants? Prisoners?

The shepherds speak to me this Christmas because I see them there, and I know what they mean to this story. I know that God came to the world wrapped up as a tiny baby in the midst of these shepherds for a reason and purpose. Shepherds might not have been able to serve as witnesses in court, but they were witnesses to the greatest act of love the world has ever known.

More than this, they are the ones that actually receive the good news. Luke tells us that it’s to the shepherds that the angel says “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.” It gives me chills to think about who the angel is speaking to when the angel says this. To you is born this day.

We are blessed in this sanctuary with the soft glow of candlelight and the cozy comfort of companionship. As we sing carols and celebrate the birth of our savior together, we feel that God has done something amazing in this world.

Yet the shepherds remind us of an important fact that we must never forget: Jesus was not born in here. Jesus was born out there. The angel brings the good news to those who are the least worthy to receive it, to society’s forgotten bottom rung, to the least of the least.

It is my prayer that this is a message of hope and solace for those of us who are gathered here, as we think of those who are out there in some way. There are people we know who are lost and wandering and not with us in these pews. We trust that the angel brings the good news to them just as it brought the good news to the shepherds out in the fields.

For those who are in prison or homeless or marginalized in some way, we trust that this good news is heard, loud and clear. For us, too, when we feel like outsiders, when we feel like we are the lowest of the low, the least understood, the least worthy, this message is for us.

I wonder if the shepherds trusted much in God. I suspect that they might not have trusted much in God at all because they were not welcome in the synagogue or among the religious elite. They were invisible people. Yet God breaks through all of that, and talks to them through the angel.

What if this is you, today? What if you don’t feel like God speaks to you at all? What if you don’t normally come to church because it doesn’t seem like there is a message for you? What if God decides to speak to you anyway? What if it doesn’t feel like Christmas in your home or in your life or in your heart and somehow in some kind of way out there God speaks to you with a voice that is loud and clear?

It’s an unbelievable message really. It’s startling and shocking. It can not be dressed up or dressed down and the message is this: Jesus Christ is born to us where we need him most.

And so I invite you, I invite all of us, as we come to the table and light candles and sing carols to open our hearts and listen to how Jesus Christ is being born in our lives and in our world, right where we need him most.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer of us all, Amen.

6 thoughts on plagiarism, creative expression, and sermon writing

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I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity recently as my book inches (and simultaneously sprints) toward the finish line. The whole process of coming up with ideas, letting them take root in my mind, writing them down, spiffing them up and sending them out into the world (with a team of people) has been hard work, and it has been a very personal process. I’ll write more about how the publishing process has intersected with my personal and professional development, but right now I want to weigh in on some thoughts about sermon writing, creative expression, and plagiarism. This is a topic that comes up a lot ministry circles, usually when someone gets busted for ripping off someone else’s work. As always, these are my thoughts and opinions, and don’t necessarily represent the thoughts and opinions of any institution I’m associated with.
1. Preachers have to be idea factories which is both invigorating and draining at the same time.  Pastors who preach every week are called to come up with new, fresh, and relevant information to speak to their people for at least 10 sometimes up to 30 or more minutes every week. That’s every seven days. The invigorating part of this is that our brains are always turned on to creative stories. We’re constantly looking for snippets of things that can be woven into sermons. Sunday comes, whether we’re ready or not. The invigorating part about that is that we always have to be plugged in to the creative energy within ourselves, we have an “excuse” to go browsing through current news stories and the New York Times Sunday section. When I want to relax and watch TED talks or browse what’s current on Twitter, I feel like even my “down time” can be useful. The draining portion of that is the exact same thing. Sometimes I feel like I can never turn my brain off.
2. Imitation is flattery, plagiarism is an insult. I think preachers need to be very clear on this point: if you rip off my work I will not only be insulted, I will use any means available to me to make sure that it never happens again. My own opinion is that this is not a usually grey area. I shake my head when classically trained pastors claim to not know it is wrong to steal someone else’s work. We know. We went to graduate school. We know the difference between imitating someone’s style, retelling their stories in our own words and straight up plagiarism. Preachers should never shy away from using someone else’s ideas or stories or inspiration, but they should always always acknowledge when they have done it. When they heard a story “somewhere” but aren’t sure where, they should just state that: “It didn’t happen to me, but I remember hearing a story one time about a…” Google is a preacher’s best friend.
3. Preaching and sermon writing is a creative work and those who preach are regularly giving away pieces of themselves. I could write about this one for a long time, but what I’m getting at is simple: be gentle and don’t take it for granted. That goes for both the writer and the hearer. Preachers take their ideas, they mull them around, and they offer them to communities of faith, with great hope that their words will make a difference in the lives of others. Certainly preachers also believe that the Holy Spirit is at work through the whole process and that the preachers is often just a vessel for something greater. Still, when a preacher is getting up in front of you, she is painting a picture, singing a song, building a bridge. The takeaway, I think, is simple, be gentle.
4. Some sermons are great; some are terrible. Oh well. Except for instances where a preacher has unlimited time for sermon preparation and research and/or is exceptionally gifted for the work of preaching and teaching (Hi, Rob Bell! I heart you!) there are weeks when the sermon isn’t the work of art everyone was hoping it might be. The best advice I ever got on this I got from the Rev. Doug Learned, PCUSA pastor and mentor who probably got it from his mentor: “Feed the people, Traci, that’s your task. Some weeks they’re getting a steak dinner and sometimes it’s PB&J, you just have to feed them. That’s your task.” I live with this analogy every week. I told it to my congregation the first week in the pulpit: “You’d better get ready for some PB&J weeks,” I told them, “but it’s my prayer you never leave this place hungry.”
5. Preaching is a two way street.  Rob Bell talks about this in his lectures on preaching, and I relate to it all the way down to my toes. He says that when people say to him “You did a good job” he wants to respond, “And how did you do?” Preaching is about conversation. It’s talking and listening. Good preaching inspires something in the listener. (Incidentally, on this, I am the first “listener” of my own messages…)
6. The question we should be asking about preaching isn’t “is it good?” but rather “Is it effective?” or “Does it inspire change?” Again, I think the art analogy is a useful one here. When I think about the types of art pieces that have changed my life for the better, it’s hard to say that it was “good.” I think of a piece I saw once in the San Antonio Museum of Art… it was a beautifully framed pair of ballet slippers with the title “desaparecido.” The artist was Colombian. It spoke volumes, but it was terrifying. I was drawn to it and I’m thankful for it as a work of art, but I can hardly call it “good.” What do we mean when we call preaching “good…” do we mean entertaining, or funny, or easy to stomach, or do we mean something else?
I think I could easily come up with six more but I’ll save that for another time because, well… I have a sermon to write.