2 Jan 2011
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them [by the angels].” (Luke 2:20) In the name …
Today we celebrate one of the unique liturgical feast days of our church. The Feast of the Humble Shepherds was one of the very first liturgical innovations of our denomination. It dates from the Special Synod of 1906. Those 105 years ago, ours was a church of mostly poor immigrants. Language, culture and economics combined to keep many of our first parishioners locked into those low-paying, exhausting and dangerous occupations that no one else would consider taking. For them the connection with the gospel to the poor, the outcast, the troubled and the sick was a natural one. Their own poverty and cultural isolation led them to appreciate first hand the gospel’s gift of hope and dignity to all the world’s marginalized peoples. These were parishioners who found great comfort in the teaching that God’s angels were first sent to the humble shepherds of Bethlehem. It was this personal, spiritual connection through the ages that inspired the delegates at the 1906 Synod to establish the Feast of the Humble Shepherds.
In a world where the disparities of wealth and education are growing increasingly large, we need to be reminded of the message of the humble shepherds. That disparity is so vast that sometimes it’s hard for us to even imagine. If you remember during Advent, I mentioned in a sermon that Sharon and I went to Boston for a couple of days. You know those little bars of soap you get in hotels and that we think nothing about. Well, there’s an organization that collects the used bars of soap and sends them to Haiti. We may think it’s gross to use someone else’s used bar of soap, but in Haiti they can be used to stop the spread of deadly cholera. Something that we would just assume throw away as garbage has the ability to save lives in a third-world country. This disparity is sometimes hard to even imagine, and that’s why in this season of goodwill we need to remember our moral obligation to God’s less fortunate children. And this is where the Feast of the Humble Shepherds comes into the picture.
I don’t know the story of all of us, but I can tell you of mine, and I don’t think it’s all that different than many of yours. Both sets of grandparents came from Europe, Poland and Spain, and came here not knowing the language or the culture. They were dirt poor, but they worked tirelessly to have a better life for their children and grandchildren. I hope this can remind us that the vast majority of the poor and the disenfranchised are not a different kind of people, some of us may be only two or three generations removed from them. They’re often just a less fortunate people. They all don’t have the chance to pack-up and move to a country where jobs are plentiful. They often don’t have the chance at education or for that matter even safety. Too often their governments are corrupt, and war and disease are constant realities. To our parishioners of 1906 this reality was all too obvious, but to us in 2011 we may need to be reminded because the gap is so large between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Sometimes we just can’t imagine their world, and the Feast of the Humble Shepherds tries to remind us that it was to these that God sent His Christmas angels.
Their story is still found in all those masses of people who form the vast majority of the world’s citizens, the poor and the powerless. These people, like our first parishioners of 1906, are also the ones who continue to be honoured and inspired by God’s selection of some of their own as the very first witnesses of God’s humble Incarnation. These are the first ones called to Jesus. And it is their image that inspires today’s feast and its message to the church of the present that “The needy will never be forgotten, nor will the hope of the afflicted ever fade,” (Psalm 9:19) which are words taken from the Book of Psalms, and are words used in today’s liturgy to remind us of our calling as church and as Christians. We have a moral and spiritual obligation to care about those people who are not cared about. The reality is that our world is competitive. There will always be some who have more and others who have less. But in this reality there should also be fairness and respect. When some must live on the streets, and others have more than they could ever know what to do with, we need to be reminded that winning is not the whole story.
On Thursday evening I watched the final few minutes of the UConn women’s basketball game against their opponents from Stanford University. That night UConn’s record-setting 90-game win-streak came to an end. What I most enjoyed about that game was the respect both teams had for each other even in the context of so much on the line. The coaches spoke highly of each others credentials. The players respected the ability of their opponents. One Stanford player who fouled-out at the end of the game when it looked all but certain that they would win actually went over and spontaneously hugged the UConn coach as a sign of respect. Both teams played to win. But both teams respected each other. There’s always going to be competition in our world. There are always going to be winners and losers in that competition. But there simultaneously has to be fairness and respect, and I have to add that because of the increasing and unsustainable disparity between the rich and the poor there also has to be compassion. Compassion reaches beyond what is fair and reaches out to what is Christian. It’s at that point when our faith meets life in a very practical way. This is when we are reminded to care about those people who are not cared about. Again, this is the message behind the Feast of the Humble Shepherds “that the needy will never be forgotten, now will the hope of the afflicted ever fade.”
The story of the humble shepherds ends in Luke’s Gospel with them returning to their flocks “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” It is through their first witness that we begin to hear of Christ. Likewise, it is through the witness of the poor, the powerless and the sick, and how we relate to them that the proclamation of Christ and His message still continues in our world today. May we be faithful to this message of the humble shepherds, and for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo