Sermon for Christmas Eve
When I was a university student, a friend of mine took a summer job on a surveying crew working in Northwestern Ontario, and most weekends it landed him at the Lakehead University student residence in Thunder Bay. He invited me to drive down to visit with him for one of those weekends, and on the Saturday morning he took me to The Hoito Restaurant for breakfast. Anyone from Thunder Bay knows the place; a cooperative restaurant located in the basement of The Finnish Labour Temple, noted for hearty Finnish food offered at bargain prices. When I was there in 1981 it certainly wasn’t what you’d call fancy—functional is probably a better word—but it was packed with students and all manner of people looking for a great breakfast deal. Over to the side were a couple of tables filled with old men, speaking Finnish, and obviously in no hurry to finish their cups of coffee and free up their tables.
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My friend made a point of telling me that those men were the real reason The Hoito existed. “Hoito” is the Finnish word for “care,” and in 1918 it was as in a gesture of care that the place was founded. You see, a good number of Finnish men had come to Canada to work in the logging camps that dotted Northwestern Ontario, and most spent their lives living pretty rough. Many never married, and aside from days-off spent in Thunder Bay, the bush remained home. The restaurant was founded to ensure that these men not only had access to affordable, home-cooked meals, but also a place to call home; a place where they would feel cared for.
I was probably seeing the last generation of those men. Having lived that life for all those years, they had now permanently retired to Thunder Bay to live on Old Age Security and whatever savings they’d managed to accumulate. They’d spent their lives in logging camps, working to supply the raw materials for building and for the pulp and paper industry—for the rest of us, in other words—and now in old age they’d had to try to settle in a world that had changed and had not a whole lot of space for them. But there was always The Hoito. I was all of 20 at the time, but it made quite an impression on me; those old and tired faces, worn bodies, and the unfamiliar sound of their Finnish tongue. I could only barely imagine the lives they’d lived.
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” We hear those familiar words read on this night, and maybe conjure up a picture of a moonlit meadow dotted by wooly white sheep, watched over by noble looking shepherds. Their robes are remarkably clean, their head-coverings draped stylishly over their shoulders, and in their hands they hold those crooked shepherds’ staffs. They look thoughtful and ever so patient… or at least they do on the Christmas cards.
Particularly for those of us who have lived only in the city and have had little real contact with farms and livestock, it is easy to sentimentalize the shepherds. Jesus speaks of being the good shepherd—“and the sheep follow him because they know his voice”—and tells his story of the shepherd who goes out to seek the one lost sheep, and we imagine a pastoral scene with the most wonderful shepherd and his lovely wooly white sheep. We read the 23rd Psalm—“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”—and the same kinds of images spring to mind.
Now try this: “In that region, there were Finnish loggers living rough in a bush camp, trying to keep warm against the cold of the winter night.” Loggers who had left home to take the only work they could, and who would live this hard life until their bodies could no longer handle it. Men who would live out on the edges of the society that their hard labours supplied; a society that would have little real place for them when they did come to town. If not for that restaurant in the basement of the Labour Temple, they wouldn’t even have a place to get a meal.
That gets us closer to the realities of the shepherds. It was a hard life, living rough in the hills, tending those sheep. And while your labours as a shepherd supplied the needs of the society, you weren’t really a part of it. The wool, the milk, and the meat were all wanted in the marketplace, and of course the lambs were required for Passover and for temple sacrifice, but the shepherds who made all of that possible were a bit suspect. Living out on the land like that, you’d seldom be able to go to synagogue for prayers or to Jerusalem for the various ritual obligations. Satisfying even the simplest ritual requirements of needing to have clean hands for eating was no small thing, and in dealing with livestock there is always a good deal of muck. Come lambing season, there was blood. How to observe the requirements of torah under such conditions? And so the most pious and diligent religious people in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Nazareth would give the shepherds a wide berth.
“At the bottom of the socio-economic world of first-century Palestine,” writes David Lose, “the shepherds have no right, no expectation, no hope in the world of being touched by the divine.” Yet in Luke’s telling, it is shepherds who are met by an angelic messenger and who are given this news; it is shepherds who are touched by the divine.
What’s more in the view of the biblical scholar G.B. Caird, what really “captured Luke’s fancy” was how “the promise of God came true because of an enactment of the Roman government… Caesar Augustus had become the unwilling coadjutor of a salvation which would one day encompass his whole empire.” Consider, too, those famous words the angel speaks to the shepherds: “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 Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord.” This day, says the angel, a baby is born who is the Lord… and if this baby is Lord, then Caesar is not.
Were it all to happen in our own time, maybe the angel would sit down at the breakfast table with tired and worn Finnish loggers and tell them about a baby’s birth. Maybe that angel would arrive on some North End street where teenaged prostitutes huddle against the cold, or in the midst of a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. One thing is sure: the angel wouldn’t be sighted at Westminster Cathedral or chatting with Joel Osteen at Houston’s Lakewood Church. For that matter, the angel wouldn’t be arriving here in this church, to bring the news to me. Quite clearly, the angel would not appear at the White House or 24 Sussex Drive or Buckingham Palace. “For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes,” sings Bruce Cockburn in his song “Cry of a Tiny Baby,” “But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums.” This is a night to celebrate that great gospel reversal, in which the expected is by-passed and the impossible is made possible. And so Cockburn can sing,
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
Have a blessed and peaceful Christmas season.