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The First Sunday of Christmas

A sermon by Dr. Drexel Raybord
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
December 29, 2013

The 148th Psalm [link]


In his marvelous book “Invisible Lines of Connection,” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells a compelling story.  Along about 1944 in Munich, Germany, a young Jewish woman, Sussie Penzias was riding home from work on the bus.  She watched the light snow falling outside the cold window pane and began to feel drowsy when the bus lurched to a stop.  SS Troopers had halted the coach and climbed on board.  Sussie saw with horror that they were examining the identification papers of the passengers and that Jews were being taken off the bus and sent to a waiting truck around the corner.

She began to tremble and soon to weep.  The man sitting next to her noticed and looked at her with kind eyes, eyes that conveyed compassion and concern.  Despite her terror, she felt trust toward the man.  When he gently and politely asked her what the matter was, she replied, “I don’t have the papers you have.  I’m a Jew.  They’re going to take me.”

Without warning, the kind looking man exploded in rage.  “You brainless woman!  I can’t believe this!  I can’t stand sitting next to you!  You disgust me!”

Sussie looked on in stupified horror as the SS men strode up the aisle and asked what all the yelling was about.

The man shouted angrily, “She deserves to be taken!  My wife has forgotten her papers again.  I’m so fed up!  She always does this!”

The SS men laughed, looked at the man’s papers, wagged their fingers at Sussie and got off the bus.

The Nazis had a list of acceptable people, people they deemed deserving of life and liberty, prestige and privilege.  Sussie and her people weren’t on that list.  It was an exclusive list, and lots a fine people were excluded.  Around 6 million were excluded in a particularly heinous, cruel and unjust manner.

But that’s what happens when you have exclusive lists like that.  Hutus mark Tutsis off, and vice versa.  Bosnians mark Serbs off, and vice versa.  Shiites mark off Sunnis, Protestants mark off Catholics, conservative Baptists mark off so-called liberal Baptists, and in all those cases, vice versa.  When you have exclusive lists, inevitably, whether it was meant or not, someone somewhere gets damaged.

That man, whom Sussie never saw again, whose name she never learned, who’d gotten off the bus at the next stop and disappeared into the gray winter evening, had a different list.  It was evident that Sussie was on his list.  He had an inclusive list, and he saved at least one person from terrible damage.  I have a feeling he did that for more than just Sussie.

And I wonder how many times Hutus included Tutsis, or Bosnians included Serbs, or Shiites Sunnis, or Protestants Catholics, and on and on with the vice versa.  I’m sure it happened in all those cases more times than we’ll ever know until we get to heaven, and when we see people healed and conflicts diffused, it happens to the extent that they’ve developed more broadly inclusive lists of folks whom they deem worthy of compassion, love and respect.

Psalm 148 is a wildly inclusive list.  The singer/songwriter who penned this particular praise song has decided to list every entity in all of the cosmos that he believes ought to be about the business of praising the Creator.  He starts in “the heavens.”  Then he moves to the heavenly beings, the angels and all the “hosts.”  Then, in what some might think is a poetic flight of fancy, he begins listing cosmological bodies, the sun, the moon, and the stars.  Think about it: the poet calls on massive nuclear balls of helium and hydrogen and lifeless balls of orbital rock to praise God.  Then he calls on clouds to praise God (the waters in the heavens).  He calls on the planet itself, then sea monsters, and then - of all things - meteorological phenomena, fire, hail, snow, frost, stormy winds, to praise God!  And then geological structures, then vegetation, then wild animals and birds, including creepy things (okay, okay, the text says “creeping things” which would be worms and insects, but those things are creepy).

Only when the poet gets to the 11th verse does he mention people.  And then he mentions every kind of person - from royalty to commoners, old and young, women and men.  They’re ALL invited to praise God.  They’re ALL invited to share in the kind of strength that only God can give.

This is a radically inclusive list.

Now, we’ve just come through another Christmas season, and the likelihood is that some kind of list played a major role in your holidays.  In fact, we have that popular song about Santa Claus at Christmas who makes a list and checks it twice, “gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.”  So, we tell the kids, “you better watch out.”  Evidently, Santa Claus as an exclusive list and if you ain’t good, you ain’t gonna be on it!

For the most part, lists are good things.  They help you get things done.  And they help you remember to include people in your gift giving to whom you want to express your love.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  But the way most of us have learned, taught, and practiced our religion, it has more in common with Santa’s motivation in that popular song than it does with the ethos of the 148th Psalm.  We use our religion to determine whose naughty and who’s nice, who gets included and who gets punished, and we begin to stress out over whether or not God has included us on God’s list.  After all, most of us are well acquainted with our naughtiness, and there’s this creeping fear that we just might not be on God’s list.

Notice something, though, about the 148th Psalm.  Cosmological phenomena like stars, moons, and rings of Saturn don’t have vocal cords.  Trees don’t have hands to clap.  Mountains and streams can’t play instruments.  All of those entities, though, are invited to praise God.  How does that happen?

Well, praise, evidently, is something bigger than uttering religious phrases in the context of a worship service.  Indeed, how does a mountain, or a star, or a tree, or a creeping thing praise God?  Simply by being true to what they were all created to be.  At the center of praise is authenticity.  At the center of praise is integrity.  At the center of praise is life and vitality, lived out wherever roots sink into the earth or rays warm the air, or mountains rear their snow capped peaks in a background that dwarfs a city’s skyline.  Praise happens daily as you’re being who God created you to be, when you’re centered in God’s call in your life.  You praise the Creator when you live daily the life for which the Creator shaped you.

So the last thing we need to do is worry about being naughty or nice so as to earn our place on God’s list.  When I read this psalm and consider the character of God that it reveals, the NAME of the LORD, it emphasizes that you might not be present to hear your name called, but that was neither God’s design nor God’s desire nor God’s doing.  The fact of the matter is, you’re already ON THE LIST!

When Paul wrote to the Christians gathering across Galatia (Galatians 3:28), and told them about the freedom that people have in Christ, he said that in Christ, there is no Greek nor Jew, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female - in other words differences in status don’t exist in the Kingdom of God, whether based on ethnicity, economy, or gender.  No one’s excluded for any of those traditional reasons drummed up by a committee somewhere which happened to have an army to back it up.  No, doesn’t matter where you were born, what’s in your bank account, or whether you are a man or a woman, boy or girl - you’re ON THE LIST!!

And it’s not like playing pick-up basketball in elementary school when you, the nerd, got overlooked, or picked last, or reluctantly included because somebody’s mom made the captain be nice and you flinched because you knew that when you were picked everyone on your team groaned, “Now we’re gonna lose!”  No, you have exactly what it takes to play the position you were designed to play.  In fact, you’ve already been picked!  If mountains, trees, rocks, and slimy eels all have roles to play for which God shaped them, and they’re on the list, how much more YOU!  God has shaped YOU and you’ve BEEN PICKED to play a part that ONLY YOU can play!  You’re ON THE LIST!

My cousin, Johnny Dickey, was my favorite cousin when I was growing up.  Johnny grew up, joined the Air Force, became a fighter pilot and married a woman named Jean, who we all had to admit was too good for Johnny.  They had a daughter, who is both beautiful and brilliant.  They also had a son, Will, who was born with a spina bifida.  After the shock of his disability set in, the doctors informed the Dickeys that Will would never walk and that he best be institutionalized.  Jean would hear nothing of it.  She spent hours at Will's bedside when he was an infant and later as a toddler, massaging his ankles and legs, all the while crooning in Will's ears and then into his shining face, “You’re beautiful.  You’re perfect.”

Then one day when Jean was at the grocery.  She had been carrying Will, but saw something on an upper shelf she needed which would require both of her hands.  She set Will down on the floor at her feet, got the item and placed it in the cart.  Then, when she bent to recover Will, he wasn’t there.  He was standing at the end of the aisle.

Will had walked.  As he grew older, he continued to walk.  He always needed the aid of braces, and it was a limping walk, both feet turned almost at right angles inward so that he has to lift one foot over the other, but he walked.

During the children's sermon one Sunday at the church the Dickey's faithfully attended, all the other children had run down the aisle and gathered around the children's minister.  Will, as usual, brought up the rear, limping down the aisle in his hobbling gait.  The minister was going to illustrate what the passage of the day was about, "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God."  He began by saying, "We all know that nobody's perfect, don't we?  Anybody here perfect?"  He obviously expected complete assent to this otherwise obvious theological truth when Will raised his hand.  The minister looked at him with skeptical surprise.  "Will, you think you're perfect?"

"Why yes," answered Will.  "My mommy tells me so every day."  The minister tried to recover, but the entire church had gotten another theological point.

And then, when Will was 17 years old, Jean died, a victim of a terrible cancer in her neck.  Will dressed himself for the funeral, and though he limped, he walked down the aisle of their church with the rest of the family, head held high, still defying the odds, still carrying his mother with him. 

Will has gone on to graduate from college, get married, and carry on a successful career.  And he did all that because his mother didn't look through the lenses of medical science to see a flawed victim of spina bifida.  Rather, she looked at him through the lenses of a mother's love and saw the perfection of her only son.

That’s how God looks at you and me, like a deeply loving mother looking at her physically challenged son.    Morally speaking, every single one of us limps.  Every single one of us is flawed. Every single one of us deserves to be on God’s naughty list.  But we haven’t been cut out.  God isn’t sending the moral SS to check our papers and send us to punishment.  No, God is massaging your wounds even as we worship, even as you leave this place, and whispering to you, “You’re perfect.  You’re perfect.  Not because you’re flawless, but because I love you, and I say so!”

Folks, praise God, because you’re ON THE LIST!

Drexel Rayford 2013
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