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					God of the Manger                                                                         1/19/09 11:41 AM




              God of the Manger

              Rev. Alida Ward

              Luke 2:1-7

              Dec. 10 2006




              Yesterday morning, I went down in the church basement, right below
              us, to find the manger, this manger. I couldn’t remember exactly where
              we’d left it last year – after Christmas was over and the candles had
              been put away and the wreaths taken down – I couldn’t remember
              where we’d stuck the manger. Finding it was an adventure: the
              Halloween decorations from the Junior Deacon’s haunted basement are
              still up downstairs, and in the dark I stumbled over a very convincing
              fake rat – at least I think it was fake – and whacked into a large bat
              hanging from the ceiling, which immediately began flapping its wings
              and shrieking at me. I think that too was fake – the shriek sounded
              pretty un-bat-like – but it sure scared the bejesus out of me. All these
              sorts of things, by the way, are the reason our furnace man told us
              recently he won’t go into our basement unless someone else goes first
              and turns all the lights on. The basement’s scary even without the
              plastic snakes and rats. It’s dark, it’s dank, it’s dirty.

              But finally in the corner of the dark dank dirty basement I found the
              manger, pretty dank and dirty itself, and covered with cobwebs. I
              carried it up the basement stairs and hauled it up here to the front of
              church. Ann Harvey wandered in by chance just then, and helped get
              the manger in place, covering herself in cobwebs in the process. The
              manger, we noticed, had lost a wing-nut in the moving process, and
              now wobbled like crazy. Well, said Ann, stepping back and taking a
              look, all I can say is it’s a good thing we don’t actually put our Baby
              Jesus in the manger. This one’s a mess. It is a mess, this manger. And,
              Ann’s right, in our Christmas pageants we don’t actually put Baby
              Jesus in the manger. We just tell our Marys to hang on tight to the kid
              – we don’t want to drop an already bewildered infant into a pile of
              straw, into a wobbly manger missing a wingnut.
              But I remembered the year my daughter was Baby Jesus – I know, I
              know, nepotism at work – and the girl who was Mary that year, who
              was eager to do it right, held Brigitta for a minute or two, and then, as
              a gasp arose from the congregation, turned and plopped her into the
              straw, into the wobbly manger, which was probably every bit as
              cobwebby and dirty as this one, and left her lying there the rest of the
              pageant.

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              Well, why not? The truth is, of course, that that’s exactly what Mary
              did, the real Mary, long long ago. And the truth is, of course, that that’s
              exactly what God did long long ago. Skipped over the palaces of kings,
              detoured around the homes of the wealthy, went right by the garrisons
              of generals and the places of power – and found a dirty stable and a
              wobbly, cobwebby feeding trough and there was born, plopped into the
              straw. God, born a baby, God, born poor, in a place of filth, God,
              Creator, choosing this, this as the doorway into our world.
              I think that’s the whole point. I think, more than angels and shepherds,
              more than stars and gifts, more than Wise Men and Herod and Gabriel,
              this manger is the whole point of the story, this dirty, feeding trough of
              a crib is the whole point. ‘Cause this crummy place to put a kid is here
              to remind us that of all the places God could have chosen to show up, it
              was in a place of poverty and uncertainty, of hunger and of need, a
              stable behind a hotel where there were no rooms for the likes of Mary
              and Joseph. That of all the ways God could have entered our world, God
              chose to enter just as each of us enters: hungering and thirsting,
              depending on the arms around us to hold us up and hold us close.
              After Ann left yesterday I sat here at the manger, just staring at it, and
              I thought: How great the love. How great God’s love. To want so badly to
              know us. To want so much to walk with us. To want so completely to
              feel what we feel, to hunger where we hunger, and ache where we ache,
              and laugh in our laughter. To pour God’s own self into a fragile human
              life, with all the risk that it would bring, just to know us and to save us
              and to help us get it right. How great that love, how great.

              I have been overcome all week, as so many of us have been, by the
              story of James Kim, the San Francisco father of two little girls who gave
              up his life to try to save theirs. You know the story. Driving home to
              Oregon after Thanksgiving, James and Kati Kim took a wrong turn on a
              snow-covered mountain road, and were soon stranded, their car buried
              in the snow, utterly lost. They kept the motor running as long as
              possible to keep their daughters fed them gave them what little food
              there was, took the tires off the car and burned them, hoping the smoke
              would attract help. And finally James Kim decided to walk for help, to a
              town he thought must be just four miles away but was 15. He set out
              from the safety of the car and from his hungering daughters and
              walked out into the treacherous mountains, into the snow. And died
              there, as his family, back at the car was finally rescued.
              So many of us watched this week after James Kim’s body was found,
              watched as the exhausted officer in charge of the rescue efforts broke
              down on camera and another stepped to the microphone to say “James
              Kim was a hero. His courage was extraordinary. His efforts to save his
              family superhuman.” “Of course he left the car,” a friend said later that
              day, “he would do anything to protect his family. Anything.”
              If you want to know how God loves us, well, that’s how God loves us.

              Every day since the story came to its close, I have thought this: that’s
              how God loves us. With a love that pours itself out, completely,

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              wholeheartedly. With a love that chooses to make itself vulnerable so
              that others may be safe. Stepping out of the safety of his car into the
              world around him, James Kim poured out his life and his love for those
              whom he cherished: he gave himself up so that the ones he loved could
              be safe. If you want to know how God loves us, that’s how God loves us.
              And in a crummy little stable, in a dirty little manger, God made it
              clear: a love poured out completely, wholeheartedly, a love that chose to
              make itself vulnerable so that we could be saved. God stepped out into
              the world and offered himself up so that we, the ones he loved, could be
              safe, rescued, set right, made whole. If you want to know how God loves
              us, this, this manger, is how God loves us. As James Kim loved his
              children. --------

              All right, Alida, you’re thinking -- geez. I thought Christmastime
              sermons were supposed to be light, for heaven’s sake. This is starting
              to sound more like Holy Week. Well, maybe. But it all weaves together.
              On my stole this morning I even wore the symbol that reminds us – over
              the manger on this stole a cross can be seen – a reminder that the love
              born in Bethelehem was a love whose beginning was for us and whose
              ending was for us. All, all for us – a life given humbly, completely, a life
              shared with us from birth through childhood, from laughter to hurt.
              There’s a movie out right now called ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’ I went to
              see last week, accompanying Brigitta and a friend, and I have to tell
              you, I thought I was going to hurt myself laughing. Brigitta was less
              concerned about whether I was hurting myself laughing than the fact
              that I was embarrassing her hugely, laughing out loud and loudly, even
              that laugh, you know, where you accidentally snort. She was mortified.
              But it is a darn funny movie.

              The most dysfunctional family you can imagine ends up piling into an
              old Volkswagen minibus for a trip across a couple states, with the aim
              of getting little 9 year old Olive to a kids’ beauty pageant. She wants to
              become the next Little Miss Sunshine. In the car with her is her older
              brother Dwayne, a darkly melancholy teenager who reads Nietzsche and
              has taken a vow of silence, a grandfather who is so foul-mouthed that
              he’s been thrown out of his elderly housing complex, Olive’s dad, who
              thinks he’s the motivational speaker the world’s been waiting for – He’s
              got the Nine Step program for being a winner – but so far he’s losing,
              can’t get a publisher and has just about run the family out of money.
              Then there’s the mom who is, shall we say, intelligence-challenged. And
              with them all is uncle Frank, who by doctor’s orders has just been
              released to his family from a psychiatric hospital.
              There is nothing about this movie that sounds funny, granted, and the
              first twenty minutes or so, every character in it would agree with you.
              None of them like each other, and none of them want to be on this trip.
              But then there’s this moment when the Volkswagen bus breaks down, -
              - it will no longer shift into the first three gears -- and they discover that
              the only way to get the van going is if they all get out and push and
              then, as the car gathers speed, fling themselves one by one in through
              the side door. In the midst of this ludicrous scene, which is repeated

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              each time they have to stop, one of them begins to laugh, that great gift
              of laughter in the midst of tension – and from that point on there is a
              gentle thawing that begins between them, a grace that emerges, a grace
              that is more than the sum of their parts, and it is love, and it is present
              in the midst of all their very normal dysfunctional humanness.
              The movie ends up at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, where Olive and
              her family discover she’s not the Barbie doll the other girls are – and the
              closing scene is one of the funniest and most loving you’ll ever see; I
              won’t spoil it for you.

              Little Miss Sunshine is not meant to be a movie about God, but in the
              end it is; it’s certainly not meant to be a Christmas movie, but in the
              end it is. God is present in the midst of their mess, in the grace of
              laughter, and gradual forgiveness, and gentle peace. God is present in
              the midst of their mess the way God is present in the midst of our
              messy lives, our struggles and flaws and nuttiness and confusion.
              And that’s a Christmas story, because at the very beginning of it all,
              this is exactly where God chose to show up: not in a palace but in a
              stable, in the midst of the mess, and the need, and the struggle –
              plopped down in the straw of a manger. This is where God always
              shows up, in the places he can ache with us and hunger with us, laugh
              with us and walk with us. In love God chose to be vulnerable with us
              because in the end that’s the only way of truly being with us. ----

              Yeah, it’s a crummy manger, this one, wobbly and dirty and missing
              that wing-nut. But I think we’ll leave it just as is, and remember,
              remember, that this, this, is where God shows up. Amen.

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