ANGELS AMONG US: This will be a Sign

Luke 2: 1-20

Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church

December 23, 2018

When I ask people to tell me about their favorite sacred places or to tell me about times in their lives when they have felt close to God. Nine times out of ten those experiences include being in nature. They say, “I feel close to God when I am out of the water in my kayak, or up on the mountain or in the middle of the forest.” When I walk through the forest to get to work in the morning, I too feel close to God. It is not hard to sense the presence of the holy when we are immersed in the great outdoors.

But one of the compelling things about the Christian story is that it not only affirms the presence of the sacred in nature. When the word becomes flesh, the presence of the sacred, Emmanuel, God who is with us is affirmed as being within and among each and every one of us. We don’t need to take a drive to the country to find God. God is in our children, our spouses, and our neighbours. God is in the people we love at church and the people we merely tolerate. The presence of the sacred in our most celebrated citizens and in our most despised. It is in each of us. And oddly enough, that’s what makes the holy presence so challenging to see and to find sometimes. It’s so incredible and yet so ordinary that it’s easy for us to miss.

Of course, the Shepherds were surprised that night in the field, at least according to the version of the story that we heard this morning. They weren’t expecting that the sign that peace and goodwill for all people, nothing less than the salvation of the world, would come into the world in a feeding trough in a barn in the company of two young people who appear to be homeless and who in another version of this story would soon be refugees.

The angels among us according to this story are messengers who point us towards love found in vulnerable places. Which sounds quite lovely if we’re just talking about babies found in feeding troughs because who wouldn’t love a baby no matter where they were found. The message becomes more problematic when we realize that most of us don’t actually like vulnerability or being vulnerable in general. If the what the angels are telling us is true, that love is found invulnerability and the power to create a peace-filled world is found in vulnerability, we have a bit of an issue.

In fact, Brene Brown, who many of you will know as a leading researcher in the area of vulnerability, says she believes that as a society we are experiencing a serious deficit of vulnerability. She thinks that’s because in the western world, we have internalized so much fear since 911 that we are are in a state of collective post-traumatic stress syndrome. When we internalize that much fear, she says, we lose our capacity for being vulnerable. We can’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable because we are too afraid that something bad will happen to us. The problem with that is according to Brene Brown as well as the angels in this morning’s story is that vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, faith, possibility and love.

The opposite of love isn’t hate. Its fear and fear keeps us from being vulnerable.

We often think of the shepherds in the story of the nativity as the marginalized and the outcasts. We refer to them as lowly. I used to think that was because they were paid poor wages. A few years ago, however, I learned that shepherds in ancient Israel had a reputation of being scoundrels. They were thought to be dubious characters who operated on the shady side of the law. They neglected their religious observances and were associated with trespass and dishonest sheep-dealings. They weren’t at all the gentle sheepherders I had painted them out to be all these years. They were rough and tumble tough guys who fought off wolves and robbers under cover of dark. They were the type of people who would more likely scare others than be scared themselves.

And yet when the angel appeared before bringing them a message about peace on earth and goodwill, love for all people, they were terrified. What could have scared them so much? What is it about love that makes us so scared and keeps us from being vulnerable with one another?

When I think of the people who are angels among us pointing us towards love found in vulnerable places I think immediately of Jean Vanier. Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities around the world. One might think that Vanier set up these communities so that able bodied and minded people could help the intellectually and physically challenged people that live in them. To a certain degree, he did, but L’Arche exists so that all community members can share their spiritual gifts with the world. If you go to volunteer in a L’Arche community, one of the expectations is that you will not only bring something to the community, you will learn something when you are there. The members of the community with intellectual disabilities will be your teachers.

One of the most famous people who has ever volunteered in a L’Arche community is Roman Catholic writer and scholar Henri Nouwen. In the final years of his life, Nouwen lived in the Daybreak community north of Toronto. Nouwen who wrote countless books on the spiritual life and was a professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard talked about how hard it was when he first went to live at L’Arche because the people he was interacting with had no capacity to engage him with the intelligence to which he was accustomed. Some of them actually were non-verbal. He had no capacity to impress him in the way he normally impressed people. They hadn’t read any of his books or attended any of his lectures nor did they have any interest in them. To them he was just Henri.

When he found himself being loved and accepted by these community members, he realized they didn’t love him because of his credentials or what he had accomplished in his life. They loved him because he was Henri. And because they loved him for who he was, he found himself more able to love them and perhaps more importantly to love himself.

They were for him, the face of God, found in the most unlikely of places. For the rest of his life in his words “he bound himself to them for his own salvation.” He bound himself to the vulnerable, made himself vulnerable and in doing so, he the birthplace of joy, creativity, possibility and love. He became an angel among us pointing us towards love found in vulnerability.

Jean Vanier says this about human weakness: “We all have wounded vulnerable hearts. Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help…. therefore those who are weak and in need have a secret power to touch our hearts and to bring us together in mutual belonging, whatever our religion or culture may be.”

No wonder the sign the angels pointed towards, the place where love is born was not found in the glory shining all around the shepherds, it was found in the feeding trough, in the barn in the company of two young people who appear to be homeless and who in another version of this story will soon be refugees.

If we are going to claim the gifts given in the manger, we are going to have to kneel down low. We’re going to have to allow ourselves, like the shepherds to have our hard shells broken open, so love can pour into our hearts and we too can carry a message of love to a fearful and hurting world.