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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 2:8-20 and Luke 1:46-55
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives is who they say were the first (beyond Mary and Joseph) to recognize the importance of the child.  Matthew tells of magi, learned men coming from the east to pay the child homage.  I’ll talk more about them next week.

Luke says that the first to recognize the importance of the child were shepherds.  And the shepherds didn’t come to this conclusion on their own.  They as a group experienced a visitation from an angel bringing them glad tidings of great joy, telling them about the birth of a child in Bethlehem.  And then the shepherds decided to go check out for themselves what they’d been told.

I’ve been pondering, pretty much all month, this question:  Why shepherds?  The answers lie in the social and political reality of Jesus’ day, and they lie in what Luke was trying to accomplish in his gospel.  Marcus Borg summed up the social and political reality of Jesus day in one sentence:  “Jesus and early Christians lived within the largest and most powerful domination system of the ancient world.”[1]

The good news that Jesus brought, the good news the adult Jesus preached and embodied was and is God’s loving alternative to domination systems.  That’s one reason Luke tell us that angels came to the shepherds and they were the first to receive the news.  Shepherds were part of the masses, the common people, the lower part of the lower classes.[2]

Many scholars have concluded that shepherds were even lower than that.  They say that shepherds were social outcasts in the time of Jesus,[3] and whether or not that’s accurate, it is certain that they led a difficult life on the periphery of the community.  While they were lucky to have employment, their job was pretty much 24/7.  Shepherds spent most of their time outside watching over the herd, no matter the weather.  They often slept near their flock to protect it from robbers or wild animals.  Each night, the shepherds would gather their flocks into places called “sheepfolds.”  These could be stone walls made by the shepherds or natural enclosures, such as a cave.  In the morning, they led the flocks out to graze.[4]  And so the days went, one after the next.

And this brings us to what Luke was trying to do with his Gospel.  One of Luke’s major concerns is the marginalized.  We get hints of this throughout his birth narrative.  The angel appears to shepherds because they qualify as the “lowly” and the “hungry,” the very people in the political manifesto Mary sang when she embraced God’s mission in this birth.  Luke insists that people who have resources are obligated to care for people who don’t, for the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized.[5]

There’s another thing that Luke is doing by telling us about this angelic visitation to the shepherds – he’s setting up Jesus as the new David.  We’re in Bethlehem, the city of David.  And remember, before he became king of Israel, David was a shepherd.

And then there’s the language the angel uses in the announcement.  The angel calls the baby “a savior” and “the Lord.”  And then the whole angelic host sing of glory to God and peace on earth.  Savior and lord are titles claimed by the Roman emperors from Caesar Augustus onward.  And peace was something Caesar Augustus promised the empire – pax Romana.  Luke is setting up the whole gospel of kingdom of God as being the alternative to the kingdom of Rome.  And Luke is setting up the different ways to peace.  “Augustus became Rome’s Peace-Bringer with peace through violent victory but Jesus became God’s Peace-Bringer with peace through non-violent justice.”[6]

John Dominic Crossan says, “The difference was not in the that of peace but in its how, not in the purpose and intention of peace but in the mode and method of its accomplishment.  For Rome, as you can see clearly on the beautiful bas-reliefs of [the] … Altar of Augustan Peace, the mode and method was:  religion, war, victory, peace.  Rome believed, as did every empire from the Assyrian to the American, that the future of civilization demanded peace through victory.  But the messianic vision of the Jewish Jesus proclaimed a different program:  religion, non-violence, justice, peace.  Its mantra was peace through justice.  Or, as Jesus told Pilate in John’s powerful parable:  God’s Kingdom, as distinct from Rome’s Kingdom, precludes violence – not even to liberate himself from imperial power (18:36).

“Victory’s violence establishes not peace but lull – until the next and always more violent round of war.  The Christian challenge of Christmas is this:  justice is what happens when all receive a fair share of God’s world and only such distributive justice can establish peace on earth.”

Then Crossan asks, “But how can we ever agree on what is fair for all?  Hint:  ask what is fair – in first or 21st century – of the 99 percent of earth’s people and not of the 1 percent.”[7]

We need only go to the Greek island of Lesbos, to the refugee and migrant camp called Moria, to talk to our culture’s equivalent of the shepherds.  More than 6,000 souls fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded in a space meant for 2,330.

Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  “The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Among [the people now forced to call Moria home] are Kareema and her elderly mother, Kamila, who spent the past few years trapped in Deir al-Zour in Syria under the rule of the Islamic State.…  ‘There was no electricity; we were using oil lamps.  It was as though we returned to the Stone Ages,’ Kareema told me.  Though they suffered terribly – ‘We left because there were no longer doctors, hospitals or health care,” she said – nothing prepared mother and daughter for Moria.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…

“The Christmas story is their story more than anyone else’s.  It is a story of displacement, in which Mary and Joseph leave their home and give birth to Jesus in strange city.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is born at the margins of society, poor and wrapped in cloth and laid ‘in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’…

“If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married.  Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside.…

“As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.

“There is much at stake for them in our looking.  If the people I met don’t get out of the camp soon, they risk freezing to death.  But looking at Moira can also teach us about what Christmas really is – a story of how our salvation is bound up in the lives of those who suffer most.”[8]

I think Luke would agree.

In the 14th century, mystic Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.  What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself?  And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace?  What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?”

What good is it, indeed?


[1] Marcus Borg, Convictions, reposted on on 15 December 2017.

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 48.

[3] See, for instance,

[4] “How People Made a Living in the Time of Jesus,” American Bible Society, (accessed 23 December 2017).

[5] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 48.

[6] John Dominic Crossan, first light: Jesus and the Kingdom of God, a reader for the “Living the Questions” series, copyright 2009 by, page 8. Found online on 23 December 2017 at

[7] John Dominic Crossan, “The Challenge of Christmas,” Huffinton Post, (posted 12 December 2011; accessed 23 December 2017).

[8] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).



A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Day, December 25, 2016,
by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer and the Rev. Brenda Loreman.
Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer and Brenda Loreman

During today’s worship service, Pastor Jeff and Pastor Brenda shared stories behind some famous and not so famous Christmas Carols, and then we sang them.

Away in a Manger (Pastor Jeff)

When she was little, my younger sister’s favorite Christmas carol was “Away in a Manger.” For a long time, people thought that Martin Luther, the great reformer, wrote “Away in a Manger.” It turns out that that was wrong. The words to the song were written by an American, but we don’t know who. And we don’t know who wrote the tune that we’re going to sing, either.

I like this carol, but I have a particular problem with one line in the second verse. “The cattle are lowing” – that means that the cows were mooing. “The baby awakes” – if I was sleeping in a barn and the cows were mooing, I’d probably wake up, too. “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”

Who are they kidding? What newborn baby doesn’t wake up crying, at least some of the time?! I think they included this line to make us feel guilty when we are fussy. I say, “Bah, humbug” to that. Maybe one of you would like to write new words to that verse.

So that’s a little bit of the story behind “Away in a Manger.” We’re going to do more of that today. We’re going to learn some things about some Christmas carols and then sing them.

BUT, with “Away in a Manger,” there is sometimes a debate about how to sing it. Should it be the tune that starts up high and then comes down: “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed”? Or should it be the tune that stars low and climbs up some: “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed”?

That’s the question we would have to answer every Christmas Eve when my younger sister was little when my family would sit around our Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols. We would usually end up singing both tunes.

Today we’re going to sing the one that starts up high and comes down – because that’s the tune that in our hymnal.


Good Christian Friends, Rejoice (Pastor Jeff)

Hum the tune to “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice,” and you’ll think – well, actually, I don’t know what you’ll think. I think, “That’s a happy, dancey tune. Maybe English, maybe late 18th century or 19th century.”

Sure enough, the tune is from the early 19th century, written by an Anglican priest. James Mason Neale, the composer, was, it turns out, a theological radical for his day. Ahead of his congregation and the church hierarchy in that time, he thought faith should lead to exuberance and that faithful people should reach out to the marginalized and forgotten. He even started a religious order for women, the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, whose mission was to feed the poor, to care for orphans, and to minister to prostitutes. For his efforts, he got death threats – and one congregation kicked him out throwing stones at him.

Because the music was 19th century, I assumed the words were, too. Wrong. The words were written in the early 1300s by a German nobleman turned Dominican monk named Heinrich Suso. Like Neale, the composer, Suso was a theological progressive for his time – progressive enough that he was tried for heresy. The pope condemned him. The German king exiled him. From Switzerland, he continued to preach and write, trying to communicate the joy and compassion of the gospel.

It was in this context that he penned “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” It was passed around orally and finally found it’s way into print 150 years after it was authored.

Eventually it was translated and Neale wrote his music for the lyrics.

By the way, Suso was made a saint by the Catholic Church in 1831.

Let’s sing about the joy of the gospel.


Joy to the World (Pastor Brenda)

[Information to be added later]


Go Tell It on the Mountain (Pastor Jeff)

We owe a huge debt to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and a handful of church musician scholars for the fact that African-American Spirituals survive. Post-slavery, few white scholars saw the Spiritual as a legitimate musical form. African-American musicians were the ones who worked to collect and transcribe this music that was taught from mouth to ear over the decades.

As I think through the Spirituals I’m familiar with (which, I acknowledge, is a very limited list), I notice that only a handful are about Christmas: “Mary Had a Baby,” “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

There are plenty of others. A Google search reveals a significant list, though still only a portion of all the spirituals created in the African-American experience.

Sometimes a Christmas carol invites us to imagine how life was for someone else. So it is with “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

As you think about the Christmas story as Matthew and Luke tell it, who do you think an American slave would most identify with? I imagine it would be Mary and Joseph forced into substandard housing on the night their child is born, and the shepherds who had to work 24 hours a day and were pushed to the edges – literally and figuratively – of society. And those are the main characters in African-American Spirituals.

This song, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” also invites us to ask what the good news is that we are to spread over the hills and everywhere. I would say that it is not just that God sent us salvation from sin that blessed Christmas morn so that we might live forever in heaven in the sweet by and by. I would say that God has been sending us salvation from oppression and injustice ever since that blessed Christmas morn.

So, let’s go tell it.


God’s Love Made Visible (Pastor Brenda)

[Information to be added later]



(Later in the service, Pastor Brenda read “Christmas Eve at the Epsom Circle McDonald’s,” a poem by Maren Tirabassi. You can read the poem here.)

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 9:2-7 and John 1:1-5, 10-11, 14
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my home town. The plows got out in a timely manner when it snowed. It’s been up above freezing for couple days now, so only small patches of snow are holding on.

The ABS discussion group had their weekly meeting at the Chowder House yesterday. ABS stands for “anything but sports” and yesterday they were discussing fake news. They concluded that most of it is.

Mr. Willis went on one of his twilight walks on Tuesday. Mr. Willis’s habit was to hang around the house all day, but at twilight to venture out into the neighborhood to survey his domain. Of course, being so near to the solstice, that meant venturing out at around 3:30. The sojourns typically take an hour or so and end with Sydney standing on the back porch, shaking a small bag of cat treats and calling Mr. Willis’s name. On Tuesday night, Mr. Willis didn’t return. Several times that evening, Sidney stood on the back porch, shaking the treats, calling for Mr. Willis, but still there was not sign of him.

Wednesday was a school day, so Sidney couldn’t go looking until after school, when it was almost dark. Gathering flashlights, her friend Carol, and her mom, they started looking. Sadly, they didn’t have to look far. There, where their street dead ends at the woods, was the body of Mr. Willis. It was a violent death. Some predator, probably a coyote, had killed him and was probably scared off by cars or kids. It’s unusual for coyotes to go after domesticated cats, but with small rodents not being readily available at this time of year, it can happen.

Mr. Willis had been part of Sydney’s life, part of the family, since she was three, and this was the first time Sidney has lost someone she so dearly love. She’s a smart kid. She understands the predator-prey relationship. But this. This seems so cruel, so personal. She asked her mother, “Why?” knowing that there was no answer. And she asked if there couldn’t be another way, a way for coyote and kitten to live together. The shortness of the days, the length of the nights seem so reflective of how Sydney has been feeling these past few days.

As I think about the darkness Sydney and so many are feeling, I think about the promise we heard in the reading from Isaiah and the testimony we heard in the reading from John: That light shines in the darkness and that darkness cannot overcome it. Sometimes it feels like the darkness has. And yet …

I was introduced[1] to a poem by Thomas Troeger this week that speaks (to me, at least) about this hope, this promise. The poem is called “The Dream Isaiah Saw.”

Lions and oxen will sleep in the hay,
Leopards will join with the lambs as they play,
Wolves will be pastured with cows in the glade,
Blood will not darken the earth that God made.

Little child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Life redeemed from fang and claw.

Peace will pervade more than forest and field:
God will transfigure the Violence concealed
Deep in the heart and in systems of gain,
Ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain.

Little Child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Justice purifying law.

Nature reordered to match God’s intent,
Nations obeying the call to repent,
All of creation completely restored,
Filled with the knowledge and love of the Lord.

Little child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Knowledge, wisdom, worship, awe.

While Sidney feels as if she’s living in darkness, Peter Mueller[2] is feeling like some light is finally coming. Ten weeks ago, Susan Mueller had a brain aneurysm. The darkness began with three hours in the emergency room in Concord. One nurse grabbed a pair scissors to cut off Susan’s outfit. Another went to work getting her hooked up to some high-tech monitors. Someone drew two vials of blood. Once the lead surgeon managed to stabilize Susan, two techs rolled her off to the radiology lab. Five minutes later Peter stood behind a cluster of white coats huddled around screen images. Two of the physicians didn’t say word. Their silence signaled gravity.

The ER doctor determined that life-support was critical, ordering intubation for a ventilator before the airlift to Mass General. Within minutes, three air medics in blue flight-suits for wheeling Susan’s gurney out to the hospital helipad. Peter followed behind, carrying a plastic bag of clothing scraps.

As he watched the helicopter fly farther and farther away, he pinned his eyes to the sky as if that slender mechanical bird was supposed to circle back. What he was really staring at was a challenge old is Abraham standing over Isaac atop a woodpile, but as new to him as the emergency developments of the past three hours – the challenge of relinquishment. Would he be able to let go of Susan as a daily fixture in his life? Permanently? No one was around to advise him on these questions, though he had a hunch that an answer might be required of him that night.

Relinquishment became the question he contemplated during his drive south. When you are behind the wheel on a highway and your only passenger is God, you can cover a lot of spiritual ground. He went to work practicing relinquishment, at least in his head. God listened patiently.

The first three brain surgeries occurred soon after Susan arrived in the operating room late that night. It was a seven-hour ordeal that the surgeon warned would be extremely high risk. He offered no assurance that he could save Susan. Several family members joined Peter and stretched out on the couches in the waiting room pretending to sleep. You don’t really sleep in a situation like this. You listen to your stomach gurgling as you wait for some updates from the surgical suite you believe may arrive at any minute. Dawn is a welcome sight.

Susan spent a week in intensive care before being moved to the neurosurgical floor. By day, Peter and his family whispered prayers and told old stories and strategized ways to distract her from requesting more Vicodin than was allowable. By night, Chopin nocturnes play quietly on Peter’s laptop – better medicine than any pills in a tiny cup.

Something went wrong on day 21. Susan retreated into her mind and entered a particularly dark period. She became largely unresponsive. Dreaded vasospasms inside her brain – something doctors warned could happen – began to limit Peter’s expectations of how complete Susan’s recovery might be. When she stirred, her hands lurched for the electrode wires fixed to her scalp.

On day 27, Susan’s condition decline notably. It was becoming clear to their children, Jacob and Rachel, and to Peter that they might soon become a family of three instead of four. As aids rolled Susan’s bed down the corridor for her 11th CT scan, Rachel slouch to the floor outside room 5135. She cried. Peter sat down beside her and joined in the tears. Whether it was an attempt to comfort his daughter or a sudden wake up call to the faith he had practiced for so may years, he readied himself to say a few words. And a strange peace came over him.

While Peter’s head would turn to scriptures to find solace in a crisis, something inside him told him that Rachel didn’t need scriptures. She needed a dad. Still, a scripture rattled around inside Peter’s head, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

“Rachel, I know this is hard,” he said. “It’s really hard. I don’t like it anymore than you do.”

She kept pressing him. “Are we going to lose her?”

He told Rachel he didn’t know. And he offered more. “You know what I think we have to remember? As much as we love mom, we need to remember that we also love God. We love God very much. God is the one who will hold our family together whether we get more time with mom or not. That’s as good as we can have it. And, that’s pretty good.” They both cried some more.

Day 31 brought tough new developments. Susan state of mind moved into a rotating mix of catatonia, suicidal behavior, and dangerous psychotic activity. Posing a threat to herself into anyone close, doctors moved her to a lockdown unit. Every time Susan swung out in violence, the alarm sounded, aids came running, and four of them hustled her into a straitjacket.

As the team of physicians continue to size up her erratic behavior, it became clear that more drastic treatment measures were necessary. They proposed an experimental drug and treatments of electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. The idea of shocking Susan’s brain with electric currents for the sake of triggering seizures did not strike a warm accord in Peter. But the medical team convince the family that no other reasonable options were available. Susan was mentally alert enough for hospital personnel to require her signature on the waiver form, yet confused and belligerent enough to refuse to pick up the pan.

There was a humorous moment when Susan launched into an apocalyptic rant. The attending neurologist even turn theological when he asked, “Susan, is there any chance that you think you might be Jesus Christ?” She paused and looked at each of the people standing around her before offering a reply: “Well, someone does need to save the world.”

The physicians made it clear to Susan that they believed that she was incapable of making considered medical decisions that were in her best interest. They informed Peter that his best option would be to take her to court, and as absurd as it seems, that became the plan. Susan was assigned her own hospital appointed attorney; Peter enlisted his. The judge deposed the physicians and eventually ruled in the case. The evidence did not lean in Susan’s favor. Aids summarily strapped her to a gurney and wheeled her way to the ECT lab.

Two weeks after the ECT treatments, Susan was ready to be discharged. Electroconvulsive therapy was not without difficulty, temporarily erasing all of her memories. But she did come home. And some of her memories are starting to creep back.

Light seems to be coming, bringing back to life emotions once hidden away. And this morning, Peter turned from his pillow to hers and said, “I can’t believe you are alive.” To which she replied, “I can’t believe it either.” And they rose from bed and went into their day trying to be as grateful as possible, treating life is a gift to be share.

Ann Weems once wrote,[3] “The Christmas Spirit is that hope that tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful and announces in the face of any Herod the world can produce and all the inn doors slammed in our faces and all the dark nights of our souls that with God all things still are possible, that even now unto us a Child is born!”

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, the children go to Sunday school every week, and the light has come.

[1] I was introduced to this poem in a musical setting:

[2] This story is based on (and sometimes quoting directly from) Peter W. Marty, “Holding each other loosely,” Christian Century, 2 September 2015 edition, pp 28-31.

[3] I’m not sure where she wrote this. A friend quoted it on Facebook without further credit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer,
based on the story, “No Room in the Inn,” by Katherine Paterson.[1]
Scripture:  Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2007, 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Warm, but quiet.  “Wearing sandals.  It’s a Christmas miracle,” my friend Steve Sarles posted on Facebook this morning.[2]  Of course, he lives in the south – you know, in the Boston suburbs.  But it’s plenty warm in Mount William.

I’m okay with the lakes not being frozen over and there being no snow on the ground at Christmas.  It seems like Christmases were either brown or a foot-deep in white when I was growing up.  Still, there should be little pockets of ice between the rocks along the shore in the lake coves that don’t get the winter sunlight during the day.  That’s just not happening this year with temperatures touching 60.  I’ve heard weather forecasters saying that the El Niño in the Pacific is causing – or at least contribution to – the warm weather on the Atlantic coast and even the tornados that struck the southeast yesterday.  How weird is that?

Speaking of weird, the Christmas card from Frank Dearborn says that he’s a grandfather.  I used to babysit that kid, and he’s grandfather now.  If he’s old enough for that, then I’m – there’s just no way that I’m that old.

When he heard the news that his daughter was pregnant, he called the Bed and Breakfast his parents used to run and made reservations.  Frank was determined to have a four-generation Christmas back in Mount William – and he’s made it happen.  Frank and Jill, their two kids, their kids’ spouses, and their granddaughter are at the Grove Hill Inn (the owners who bought out Francine and Ernest eight years ago changed the name).  Tomorrow morning, Francine and Ernest Dearborn will drive up from Nashua and the family will celebrate at what was once their home.

It was opening the door to the downstairs powder room yesterday that brought the memory back this time.  Frank has had plenty of meaningful Christmases – the first with his wife, the one when their daughter was 10 and she suggested they pool the money they would have spent on presents and give it to the food bank, the one when Jill’s father was so sick and still insisted on taking the family to the midnight Christmas Eve service.  But the Christmas of 1988 when Frank was 18 – this was one of the most transformative experiences of his life.

Begin born into a family that ran a B&B meant that Frank had a job from the day he would make hospital corners.  By the time he was a teenager, he was cleaning rooms and helping out in the kitchen, and he spent most of the summer cutting and splitting fire wood for the winter guests.  But that Christmas, the winter after he turned 18, his parents decided to give themselves a treat, to close down the Inn for the holiday and to take a trip to somewhere warm.  That meant that Frank had the old B&B to himself – no guests, no parents, a stack of movies that his parents wouldn’t let him to watch when there were guests at the Inn.

It was snowing hard the day he drove his parents all the way into Boston to catch their flight to Florida.  He tried to look a little sad as he hugged his parents goodbye – his Christmas present to his mother.  The drive back to Mount William was slow with all the accumulated snow.  He was tired and hungry by the time he got to the village center, so he decided to stop of at Bessie and Winona’s Chowder House for something to eat.  He wasn’t much of a chowder fan, but Winona made a great meat loaf and the cup of coffee was bottomless.

The woodstove was crackling warm and the smell of meatloaf and homemade bread filled the place.  Ewell Biggs and Ames Whitehead were sitting at the counter drinking coffee when he got there.  They gave Frank the typical male New Hampshire nod and grunt of greeting.  Frank nodded back and sat down, waiting for Bessie’s usual “Hello stranger!”  But Bessie just stared at him sadly.  “It’s meatloaf tonight,” she said, as though that would be the last thing anyone would want.

“That’s fine,” Frank said, and then, “is something the matter, Bessie?”

“Bessie’s all worried about them Russians,” Ewell explained between sips of coffee.

“They’re Armenians,” Bessie said to him, and then to Frank, “I was just watching the news.  It’s over 20,000 dead now and about half a million people with no place to sleep.  And it’s cold there!”[3]

“It ain’t like a New Hampshire winter,” Ames said.  “It was 8 below in my barn this morning.”

“It’s cold enough,” Bessie insisted.  “I saw this old woman on TV last night.  They showed her hands.  She was kinda holding them tight like this” – Bessie clutched her hands together – “and she didn’t have any gloves.  She was just holding onto herself and shivering.  It killed me.  I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about that poor old woman.”

Frank thought Bessie was going to burst into tears, but she pulled herself together enough to get a huge steaming plate of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and beans, with three hot rolls on the side.  She knew how Frank loved her rolls.

Just then, he felt a blast of cold air on his back.  Everyone turned to look at the door.  A man was standing there – a stranger.  There was several days’ growth of stubble on his face.  He had on worn jeans and a flimsy baseball jacket and no hat or gloves.  He was not from Mount William, or Bessie would have recognized him.

“Take a seat,” Bessie said.  She only called people she knew ‘stranger.’  “Be right with you.”  Before Frank could ask for ketchup, she was back to the Armenians.  “And those children.  Did you see those poor kids in the hospital with their legs all crushed?  One little boy couldn’t even remember who he was.  The doctor didn’t know if his parents were dead or alive.”

Frank opened his mouth during a pause to ask for the ketchup, but by then she had turned to the stranger.  “Now, what can I do for you?” she asked.

He was still standing in front of the door as though he couldn’t remember what he’d come in for.  “Coffee,” he muttered at last.  “To go.”

“People who got though the earthquake are just freezing to death from the cold,” Bessie went on as she filled a large Styrofoam cup from the coffee pot.

The man looked puzzled.  “Armenians,” Frank said.  “She’s all upset about the Armenians.  There was a big earthquake over there.  A lot of people died.”

“And the rest are likely to,” Bessie said with a huge sigh.  “Right at Christmas.  I can’t get over those poor children.  Cream and sugar?”

“Yeah,” the man said.  “Both.  Double.”

Bessie pushed on the lid.  “That’ll be 63 cents,” she said as the man handed her a dollar bill.  “This mason jar here is for the Armenians,” she said, pointing to it.  “I’m taking donation – if you’d like to put in your change …”

The man took the change she held out and stuffed it into the pocket of his jeans.  “How far to Concord from here?” he asked.

“Usually about a half-hour,” Frank said, “but the road are really bad, so maybe an hour and a half or two.”

“Ah, they’ll plow soon,” Ewell said.

“I need gas,” the man said.

“Well, that might be a problem.  The Triangle Store is closed for the night and the next gas is in Concord,” said Ames.

The man shrugged, turned, and another blast of cold air was felt by all.

“Friendly fellow,” Ames said.

“Not too worried about your Russians, either,” Ewell teased.

“Armenians.”  Bessie looked sadder than every.

When he was ready to go, Frank stuffed his change into the jar even though he’d given her one of the twenties his parents had left him.  When he got back home, the first thing he did was hang out the “No Vacancy” sign.  He wasn’t likely to get any visitors on a night like this, but he wasn’t taking any chances.  He had the evening all planned.  First a roaring fire, then a large bottle of Pepsi and big bag of potato chips, and then start in on the pile of videos.

He had no sooner popped the first tape into the machine and settled back to watch when the doorbell rang … and rang … and rang.  There was nothing to do but go answer.  He put on the chain and opened the door a crack.  “Sorry, no vacancy,” he said, and then he saw the stranger from the Chowder House.

“How about if I stay in the garage?” he asked.  “Like you said, the roads are terrible and it’s freezing out here in the car.”

“Sorry, no vacancy.  You’ll have to try somewhere else.”

“Look I’m just asking to stay in your garage, so I don’t freeze to death.  You’d let a stray dog into the garage, wouldn’t you, on a night like this?”

Frank hesitated.  The man smiled – one of those shifty-eyed smiles that immediately makes you distrust someone.  “Just think of me as one of them Armenians,” he said.

He was right.  Fake smile or not, he would freeze to death in his car on a night like that.  “Okay,” Frank said.  “I’ll have to move the truck out to make room for your car.”  He closed the front door and carefully locked it before going out into the garage through the kitchen.  He backed out the truck and a ten-year-old Chevy with rusted sides drove into the garage.  Frank got an old blankets out of the cargo area, locked the truck, and hurried into the garage.

“Here’s a blanket in case,” he yelled as he set it on the garage floor, pushed the button to close the garage door, and went back into the kitchen.  He tried to stop thinking about the man in the car in the garage as he settled back down by the fire and the TV.  “I’m sure not gonna let him inside,” Frank thought to himself.  “People get robbed and beaten up for that kind of stupidity – murdered, even.”  Frank turned up the volume of the movie to try to drown out the thoughts.

He didn’t know how long the knocking had been going on when he finally heard it.  “Yeah?” he yelled through the door to the garage.

“Daddy said, could I use the bathroom?”

A child’s voice.  It startled Frank and he opened the door.  Sure enough, there stood a dirty, skinny, red-faced kid.  “Daddy said you’d let me use the bathroom.”

Frank opened the door wider and let him in.  What was he supposed to do?  Tell the kids to go out in the snow.  Sheesh.  He shut the door behind the boy and led him to the downstairs powder room.  “Don’t use the towels,” he warned.

He waited outside the bathroom for what seemed like ten minutes.  What in the world was the kid up to?  Finally, he came out, walking tall and straight-backed like a little prince.  He didn’t say a word, not even thank you.

“You’re welcome,” Frank said loudly as he let the boy back into the garage.

Frank sat down on a kitchen chair.  The guy hadn’t said anything about any kid.  He was thinking about calling the police or child welfare or somebody when there was another, softer knock at the door.

This time, he just opened it.  “You’ve been to the bathroom already,” he stated to say when he saw it was a different kid – a stringy haired girl with a runny nose rubbed raw.  “Where did you come from?” he asked.

She whispered something.


Again he heard the word “bathroom,” so he shut the door and pointed her to the powder room.  He didn’t even bother to warn her about the fancy guest towels. Somehow, he knew it was going to be a long night.

Before the girl had left the bathroom, there was another knock at the door.  This time there was a woman standing there, holding a baby in a filthy rag of a blanket.  Frank couldn’t believe it.  This was like one of those circus acts where people just keep coming out of a car.  “Would you warm it?” she asked.  Frank looked down; she was handing him a baby bottle half filled with frozen milk.

“You’d better do it,” he said.  He got out a saucepan, filled it with water, and turned on the burner.  “The kid – the little girl’s in the bathroom,” he said, nodding in the direction.  He waited, as patiently as he could, for the woman to test the milk on her wrist and shove the bottle into the baby’s mouth, and for the little girl to finish wiping her grubby little hands on all four of the embroidered Irish linen guest towels.

“Now,” he said, “I’m very sorry, but you’re going to have to go.”

“It’s cold out there,” the little girl whined as he gently urged her out the door.

“I know,” he said grimly, going out with her to the rusty Chevy.  The man was sitting behind the wheel with all the windows rolled up.  Frank went to the driver’s side and tapped, but the man didn’t roll the window down.  He looked straight ahead.  Frank banged louder.  “You’re going to have to go.  This isn’t going to work.  You didn’t tell me you had kids with you.”

The man turned slowly and opened the window a crack.  He gave Frank a look – it was the most sarcastic expression Frank had ever seen.  “Just pretend we’re some of them Armenians,” he said and rolled with window up again.

Frank stood there for a minute, trying to figure out what to do next.  It was so quiet he could hear the soft sounds of the baby drinking its milk.  The little girl was watching from the other side of the Chevy with big scared eyes.  The woman hadn’t moved.  She was till standing in the doorway, the baby cradled in her arms, a dark silhouette against the light streaming from the bright kitchen.  “All is bright ’round yon Virgin Mother and Child.”

A shiver went through Frank.

An unheated barn was no place for a baby.  And then he heard himself:  “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.”  No room in the inn, not for two thousand lousy years.

“Look, why don’t you come into the house.  It’s freezing out here.”

The man smiled grimly.  “Thinking about the Armenians, huh?”

“No,” said Frank, “I was actually thinking about someone else.”

Frank led them into the living room to the fire.  He turned off the TV and went to call Bessie.  He knew he needed help and he was sure she would come.  He’d just tell her he had a houseful of Armenians.

That’s the news from Mount William, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.
[1] Katherine Paterson, “No Room in the Inn,” A Midnight Clear, (New York: Minna Murra, Inc, 1995), 68-82.

[2] Steve Sarles, Facebook status update, (posted and accessed 24 December 2015).

[3] On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m. local time a magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook northwestern Armenia and was followed four minutes later by a magnitude 5.8 aftershock. Swarms of aftershocks, some as large as magnitude 5.0, continued for months in the area around Spitak.  Twenty-five thousand were killed and 15,000 were injured by the earthquake. In addition 517,000 people were made homeless. (22 December 2007).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown. Sure, there’s been plenty of last minute Christmas shopping and grandparents have been called in to provide childcare reinforcement since school was out all week, but most people seem to have fortified themselves against the demands of the season and have managed to focus on their families and community.

The chatter at the Chowder House has been about Christmas – Christmas plans and Christmas hopes. Some have been hoping they won’t argue with the in-laws this year. Some have been hoping the turkey isn’t too dry. Some have been hoping they’ve found a good present for that person who they love but who is so difficult to shop for. Maggie John had been hoping that she would be able to round up a group of old high school friends to go caroling.

After her divorce, music has taken an important role in Maggie’s life. She joined a community chorus that rehearses in Concord back in September and she’s found healing in the music, the singing, and this new community of friends. Maggie hadn’t sung in a chorus since she was in high school. It was at a rehearsal of her new chorus that she got the idea. They were singing a movement from The Messiah and it brought back a flood of memories from those days over 30 years ago.

Back in high school, some of her chorus buddies made attending the annual Messiah sing at First Congregational Church in Concord a tradition, and they followed it with Christmas Caroling around Mount William. At the rehearsal, as they sang, “And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be re-e-e-e-ve-e-e-ealed,” Maggie was suddenly transported back in time and she could see herself standing in the snow in front of a white clapboard house singing about figgy pudding, stomping her feet to try to get them warm again. In her mind’s eye, she could see the others: Susan who harmonized on alto so well; Laura who was always suggesting which song to sing next; Jeremy who had a beautiful tenor voice, and beautiful eyes, and a beautiful smile. That really was a hard crush she had. And wasn’t he Jewish, at least nominally? Why was he out Christmas caroling?

Anyway, this fond memory grew into a hope that she could round up enough friends from decades past to form a little choir to go caroling again.

Somehow she managed to pull it off and Sunday night some old friends, their spouses, and in a few cases children and even a grandchild joined her knocking on doors, singing Christmas carols they knew and loved. It was a fun evening, even though there really wasn’t much snow on the ground.

Christmas seems to be filled with traditions. Each family has their own and they can be so strong kids are often surprised when they learn their friends have different traditions. All those traditions are gone for Maggie. It used to be that her family would spend Christmas Eve with her now-ex-husband’s family and Christmas Day would be spent at her parents’ home. That whole schedule has been tossed on the trash heap because of the divorce. She’ll still go to her parents’ home tomorrow, but her children will be with their father in Florida this year.

Christmas started to take on a new meaning for Maggie, what with the change in her family system. To her surprise, Christmas is taking on a religious meaning for her, and she blames that on the singing. One of the songs her chorus sang is a contemporary, fairly complex setting of an ancient text. Once she started getting the music down, she started paying attention to the lyrics.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Between an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.[1]

“What an amazing way to look at the birth of Jesus,” Maggie thought. “And what an image of Jesus – a dancer, a lover – who doesn’t come to judge us, but who comes to dance with us, to woo us – who comes to dance with me.” Maggie had to wipe a tear away as she continued rehearsing. And now, Maggie is looking for ways to dance with Jesus.
Chester Banks has also undergone a bit of a transformation. It happened on the bus ride from New York City last Friday. Chester is spending his junior year of college studying in France, and he flew home for Christmas. The cheaper fare was to New York, so he decided to spend a couple days there, and then to take the bus to Concord where his mother picked him up.

About three hours into the seven-hour journey – well, it’s scheduled to be a seven-hour journey, but with traffic – Chester started getting impatient and bored. He can’t read in a bus without getting carsick and his iPhone had been dead for half an hour, so his mind started wandering. Images from the hours he had spent in museums over the past four months flashed before him. The bus reminded him of how nice European train travel is, at least comparatively speaking. That made him think about his trip to Belgium, which brought the Royal Museum of Fine Arts to mind, which brought Pieter Bruegel’s The Census at Bethlehem to mind.

Chester’s journey from New York to Mount William was something like two and a half times as far as the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, he figured. If his phone had been working, he would have asked Siri how long it would take to walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Days, he figured, and when you factor in “marauding bandits, deep rain-washed wadis cutting through the path, inns with no room, or full-term pregnancies,”[2] he wouldn’t be wrong. Who was he to complain about a seven-hour bus ride that covered more than twice the distance?

“And what idiotic government bureaucracy,” Chester muttered aloud, thinking both about Caesar’s order for families to return to their ancestral home to be counted, which made him think about the hours he’d be spending at the DMV next week to get his drivers license renewed.

Chester had learned in a religion class his freshman year that there is little historical evidence of this census. But then, for “Luke, the mandate from Rome and the journey of two peasants from Galilee to Judea are not primarily geographical or historical matters but theological ones. The question for Luke is where hope might be found for people like Mary or Joseph. They are, like poor and defenseless people everywhere and in ever time, at the whim of whatever caesar or mindless bureaucracy or uncaring machinery of state happens to lash out in their direction. Caesar issues a decree, drinks another glass of wine, eats a cluster of grapes – and Joseph and Mary pack provisions and head out on the Roman road to Judea.”[3]

Chester’s mind drifted back to Bruegel’s painting. Bethlehem looks very much like a 16th century northern European village in the painting and it’s not obvious who Mary and Joseph are. They are just part of the peasantry filling the village. “They have disappeared into the anonymity of the powerless. The irony is that while Joseph, Mary, and their unborn child are heading to Bethlehem to be counted, in fact they do not count, not to Rome anyway. They are faceless nobodies under the boot of an uncaring empire.”[4]

Suddenly a detail popped out – not from Bruegel’s painting, but from a display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Under a grand Christmas tree, there’s a grander, 18th century nativity scene. “In many ways it is a very familiar scene. The usual characters are all there: shepherds roused from sleep by the voices of angels; the exotic wise men from the East seeking…; Joseph; Mary; the babe – all are there, each figure an artistic marvel of wood, clay, and paint.”[5] But behind the holy family, so subtle he had almost missed it, Chester remembered there were crumbling Roman columns.

Chester grinned as he thought about the juxtaposition – the power of Rome crumbing before the vulnerability of a baby. He looked out the bus window at nothing in particular, holding this thought.

The bus pulled off the highway and into a city. Chester wasn’t sure which one. Heck, he wasn’t sure if they were in Connecticut or Massachusetts at that point. He noticed how bus stations seem to almost always be in a more depressed part of town. “These are Jesus’ people,” he thought. Then he thought about the crumbling columns.

“Why is the world still like this? Why hasn’t God changed things?” he found himself asking. He didn’t think these questions were a prayer, but apparently they were, for Chester felt an answer welling up in him. “While I’ve been waiting for God to act, God’s been waiting for me to act. No wonder nothing’s happening.”[6]

And I’m pretty sure that Jesus was born again in that very moment.

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] These are the first three verses of this ancient song that tells the life of Jesus from his point of view. They are quoted from (accessed 24 December 2014)

[2] Thomas G. Long, “Living By the Word,” Christian Century, 10 December 2014, p. 21.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas G. Long, Something Is About to Happen, CSS Publishing, quoted in an email from, dated 16 December 2014.

[6] This insight is actually from John Dominic Crossan that he has published in at least two books: The Greatest Prayer and The Power of Parable.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the fifth day of Christmas, December 29, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            One of the things I love about Christmas time is singing Christmas carols.  As far as I’m concerned, 12 days of Christmas just aren’t enough, so we let a few Christmas Carols sneak in during Advent.

I love singing Christmas carols because they bring back memories of childhood Christmases.  Part of our family Christmas Eve tradition was gathering in the living room around the Christmas tree, fire in the fireplace, candles on the mantle and the tree, bucket of water on the floor with rags in it pre-soaking to toss on burning branches.  The candles on the tree were my mother’s Swiss heritage shining forth.  The bucket was my father’s Yankee practicality shining forth.

I love singing Christmas carols because they tell the Christmas story, a familiar story, with poetic language that deepen and expand on it.  Some of them fuse together Luke’s birth narrative with Matthew’s story of Epiphany; we’ll wait on singing some of those until next week.  Others will take one element of the story and expand on it.

Every song has a story behind it. Sometimes we know the stories; sometimes we don’t.  Today, we are going to sing some Christmas carols, but before you do, I will share some of the stories behind them[i] before we sing them.  You might want to find the carol as I tell the story.  We’ll start of with “Away in a Manger” number 147 in our hymnal.[ii]

I once served a church where singing “Away in a Manger” almost caused fights.  Which tune are we going to use?  There are at least three tunes to which these lyrics are typically sung in America – the one with which it has been associated the longest is the tune we will use.  I served another church where a typo was repeated for at least three years in the Christmas Eve bulletin; they hymn was called “Away in a Manager.”  This was my younger sister’s favorite Christmas carol when she was little and it, along with “Jesus Loves Me,” is one of the first songs Christians teach their children.

“In 1887, American hymn writer James R. Murray entitled the tune [that is now sometimes called Mueller] to ‘Away in a Manger’ as ‘Luther’s Cradle Hymn.’  Murray further stated in his popular songbook, Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses, that Martin Luther had not only written ‘Away in a Manger,’ but had sung it to his children each night before bed.”[iii]

The story is patently false.  Germans didn’t sing the song until it arrived in Germany from its country of origin, the United States.  I heard one claim that Murray made the story up to help with sales among the Lutherans.[iv]  Perhaps.  Or perhaps he heard the story, believed it, and repeated it.

In all likelihood, the first two verses of “Away in a Manger” were written by an anonymous American sometime in the mid-1800s.  The third verse was added sometime later, one assumes by another lyricist.  With no one claiming authorship, the legend of Luther being the composer took root.

During World War I, many groups started singing with words of “Away in a Manger” to an old Scottish tune, “Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”  This may well have been a protest against all things German, and since the Luther legend had affixed itself to the common tune, and Luther was a German …  Aren’t you glad we get politics involved in Christmas carols?

I actually find the lyrics a little troubling – but then, I find the lyrics to “Rockabye Baby” troubling.  “The cattle are lowing; the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”  What lesson does that teach?  Good children don’t cry?  The third verse is, like “Rockabye Baby,” is about death.  “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby – SMUSH!”  “Fit us for heaven to live with you there,” isn’t quite as bad, but it reiterates the “make me a good child just like Jesus,” and who can live up to that?

I will say that the music of the song, combined with the lyrics (if they aren’t looked at too closely) does create a sense of calm, at least, and maybe peace, which is something Jesus seeks to bring to earth.  And, I suppose, if we all behaved as if we were fit for heaven, there would be a lot less violence and a lot less war.

If I haven’t ruined this Christmas carol for you, let’s sing it.

Next, we look at “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” number 153 in our hymnal.

“In 1849, a Unitarian minister from Wayland, Massachusetts, was writing a Christmas Eve message from his congregation.  As Dr. Edmond Sears worked on his sermon, he was a troubled man.  Though it would be another decade before the civil war tore the United States apart, the debate over slavery, compounded by the poverty he saw in his own community, had all but broken the man’s spirit.  He desperately searched for words to inspire his congregation, but he was having a problem lifting even his own spirit above the depressing scenes that surrounded him.”[v]

If you know this hymn, you know where this story is going.

Unlike most Unitarian ministers, Sears believed in the divinity of Jesus.  Like most Unitarian ministers, Sears believed that it was the duty of followers of Jesus to be involved in reaching out the lost, helpless, and poor.  As he struggled to write his Christmas sermon, “it was the poverty and the hopelessness of the people he touched in the slums that sickened his heart and blocked his progress.  He must have wondered how he could write about the Light of the world when the world seemed so very dark.”[vi]

There was something about to whom the angels announced the birth that inspired him.  The angels came to the lowly, the marginalized – the shepherds.  He penned a five-verse poem that he called “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”  When he first shared the poem, his congregation “probably saw it as more a charge or challenge than a story of a miraculous birth in a far away land.”[vii]  But that’s what he wanted.

Nowhere is Sears’ message more obvious that in the poem’s third verse, one that has been discarded and all but forgotten.  (I will use his mid-19th century language.[viii]):

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing!

Our next Christmas Carol is, “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice,” number 164 in our hymnal.

If you look at the bottom of the page, you’ll see that the words and music come from the 14th century, some 200 years before the Reformation.  I was shocked to learn this; I would have guessed it was written in the 18th century, 200 years after the Reformation.  I was also shocked to learn that the man behind this song was persecuted for his religious convictions, endured great personal hardship, suffered through lingering illness, and died in relative obscurity, not accepted by the church he loved.

Heinrich Suso was born in 1295, the son of a German noble.  This was in the midst of what we now sometimes call the Dark Ages.  Being of noble birth meant he was part of the 1%.  He was educated and pampered – and insulated form the realities of life for the rest of the population.  Instead of choosing to remain in the ruling class, he followed a call to the priesthood, becoming a Dominican.

In 1326, he wrote the Little Book of Truth, “a vibrant defense of progressive thinking in the church.  In his work, Suso justified taking the gospel and opening it in a way that would bring hope, compassion, and understanding to the common people – a fairly radical idea in its own right in the 14th century.  But instead of being held up as a man who truly understood the message that Jesus had brought to the earth, the priest was tried for heresy.”[ix]

Suso continued thinking and writing.  His next book was the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, which was written for common people.  “Unable to control the priest and afraid that his radical thinking might cause a revolt, in 1329, the Pope condemned Suso.  Eventually, the German king exiled him.”[x]

One night, “Suso found himself immersed in a dream so real that he became a part of it.  In his dream, the priest saw countless angels not only singing, but dancing.  He listened as they sang and eventually joined with them in ‘an ecstatic dance.’  When he woke, he not only remembered the dream in vivid detail, but also recalled the words and the music.  Feeling led by divine guidance, Suso picked up a quill and ink and recorded “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” to paper.”[xi]  The song became one more tool for Suso to reach the common people with the Good News, which he continued to do in Switzerland, despite his condemnation and exile.

By the way, in 1831, the Pope beatified Heinrich Suso, declaring him one step below a saint.

The final Christmas Carol we’re going to look at today is “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” number 167 in our hymnal.  Given how important African-American spirituals are to American hymnody, I was a little surprised this is the only Christmas Carol in our hymnal with those roots.  But it turns out that few Negro spirituals were about Christmas, at least as far as we know now.

Negro spirituals were born in the fields of the South, born out of the experience of slaves.  Few slaves were able to read and write, so the songs were passed along by the oral tradition and were not collected and written down until the turn of the 20th century.  When one considered the suffering of slaves in America, it’s not surprising that few songs focused on Christmas.  Most focused on the pain and suffering of this life and the hope for freedom in the next.  Sometimes that hoped for freedom was hoped for in this life as well, and so the spiritual became a form of protest and even a way to sharing information about escape.

But look at whom the verses are about in this hymn.  The shepherds take center stage, even over Jesus.  And when Jesus is talked about, it is his lowly state that is celebrated.

We, of course, know nothing about the composer(s) of this song.  But we can be thankful for the gift of this song.  So let’s sing it.


[i] These stories are gleaned from Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2001).

[ii] Chalice Hymnal (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995).

[iii] Collins, op. cit., p. 24.

[iv] I don’t remember when or where I heard this, but I did hear it.

[v] Collins, op. cit., p. 96.

[vi] Ibid, p. 97.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] As quoted by Collins, p 98.  Collins says this is the second verse, but poetically I think it is more likely the third verse.  Wikipedia agrees with me, that it’s the third verse (see

[ix] Ibid, p. 59.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid, p. 60.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-6
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Christmas draws to a close today.  The 12 days of Christmas are over.  Today is Epiphany, and tomorrow we return to Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar.  Today is the day that many people put away their Christmas decorations for another year.  Tinsel and ornaments are packed away.  The crèche is packed up.  I’ll be packing away my Charlie Brown Christmas Tree today.  Keeping it authentic, it has only one ornament:  a red ball.

I know most Christmas Trees are filled with ornaments, and most have something special at the top.  Generally speaking families that do Christmas Trees can be divided into two groups:  the star people and the angel people.  Just a quick show of hand – How many star people do we have here?  How many angel people?  I come from a star family, so this sermon may be a bit biased.

I grew up in a big, old Colonial house back East.  The living room had 10-foot ceilings, so we would get a big tree each year.  Decorating it was a process with certain step.  Get it into the stand, standing straight in the bay window of the living room.  Secure it from tipping over with strings tied to the window frames (we had a pet cat).  Put on the lights – small white lights that didn’t blink (my mother insisted).  Put on the string tinsel – not “icicles” (my mother insisted).  Put on the candles (yes, we lit candles on the tree on Christmas Eve).  Put on the ornaments.

Now, we kids could put the ornaments on just about anywhere we wanted to – so long as they wouldn’t get singed by a candle – with two exceptions.  There was a brass star that my father always hung at the top of the tree, and directly below the star was a painted wooden ornament of a stable with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.  Because these two ornaments were so tied together in my childhood mind, I never understood why anyone would ever put anything other than a star at the top of the tree.

It literally wasn’t until this week, when I was thinking about the differences between Matthew’s birth narrative and Luke’s birth narrative, that I realized what the angel was all about.  In Luke’s gospel, there is no star.  Yes, the “glory of the Lord” shines about an angel, but there’s no star.  Just angels.  They come to the major players to tell them about God’s plan:  Zachariah (John the Baptist’s father) gets a personal visit at the Temple; Mary gets a personal visit from Gabriel himself (itself? Is it appropriate to use gendered pronouns with angels?).  And an angel (along with the heavenly host) shows up to the Jewish riff-raff (the shepherds) to announce the birth of Jesus.  But there isn’t any star.

The star shows up in Matthew’s gospel.  The magi, watching the sky, see it as a sign and follow it to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem.

If you’re like the shepherds and have sought a sign from God, if you remember the prophesies and have been seeking a savior, if you approach Christmas with deep anticipation, an angel is probably the appropriate ornament for the top of your Christmas Tree.

And if you’re like the magi and are searching, if you’re still unsure, still filled with questions, if you’re on a quest to find out about this mystery and message from God wrapped up in human flesh, a star is probably the appropriate ornament for the top of your Christmas Tree.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into Christmas decorations.

As I said, today is Epiphany.  The word ‘epiphany’ means ‘manifestation.’  Today is a day of realizing that the God’s light and love were made manifest in the baby who slept in a Bethlehem.  Today is a day of realizing that God’s love isn’t just for us – it is for everyone.  Luke says that Jesus is “A light for revelation to the Gentile” (Luke 2:32) – not just for the Jews, but for non-Jews as well.  Matthew tells us this in story, of foreigners coming to pay homage.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much about these magi.  Matthew tells us there was more than one of them – “wise men” is plural so we know there were at least two.  Matthew tells us that they watched the night sky and interpreted their observations as having meaning – they saw a star rising in a certain part of the sky and interpreted it to mean that a new King of the Jews had been born.  And I think we can infer that they were important – important enough to come and pay homage to a new-born king.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much – just enough to whet our interest.  No wonder all kinds of traditions sprang up over the centuries about the magi.  According to Episcopal priest Martin Smith, medieval interpretations created at least six distinct meanings for the gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the magi.  The carol, “We Three Kings,” is based on one of these.

Another – I like this one – comes from St. Bernard.  This tradition says that the magi offered “gold for to relieve [Mary’s] poverty, incense against the stench of the stable and evil air, myrrh for to comfort the tender members of the child and to put away vermin.”[1]

This is a beautiful interpretation.  “The Son of God appears as a poor child at risk in just those ways that millions of children are today.  The Magi’s gifts are not exotic luxuries, but practical relief aid.  Mary and Joseph need financial help.  A cramped peasant’s house, with animals crowded on the other side of the manger that divides the single room, stinks of their excrement.  The baby has a rash because the manger is crawling with fleas.  The wise men are wise enough to offer money, fumigation, and medication.”[2]

But this isn’t all that Matthew is doing with this story.  Matthew has these wise foreigners start by coming to Jerusalem to pay homage to the new-born king.  Of course they would come to Jerusalem.  I mean, where else would the new king be born other than in the capital city?  But that’s not where Jesus is born.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem and this does two things:  It connects Jesus to King David, giving him legitimacy in his claim to the title “king”; and it sets Jesus up separate from the centers of political and religious power, suggesting that Jesus is creating a new order.

And Matthew adds a layer (or two) of additional insult.  “These strangers from the East represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism, and they’ve come a long way to ‘submit’ to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans.  In doing so, they’re poking their finger in the eye of Rome and its puppets.  At the same time, they’re coming from ‘the East,’ [historically] the same direction from which Israel’s enemies approached to conquer and plunder.

‘The East,’ then, is full of portent for the earliest hearers of Matthew’s Gospel.  The ‘wise’ men are strangely naive in approaching an evil king with news of a new king, but perhaps it takes a profoundly trusting soul to follow a star to a far-off land.  Herod’s reaction is the panic-driven response of the powerful to even the smallest threat to their security.  What is more important for us is the reaction of the wise men to their encounter with Jesus:  generosity, and awe-filled worship, just as Isaiah had pictured the wealth of the nations being brought to Jerusalem by gentiles praising the One true God.”[3]

We Americans are quite good a listing all the people we won’t kneel before.  We don’t kneel for crowned heads.  We don’t bend for terrorists.  And in both our denominational traditions, we’re quite clear that we don’t kneel to bishops.  “By and large, we are a straight-backed, lock-kneed people.

“Here is the way the … wise men were like us:  they refused to kneel to Herod’s crowned head.  [And] here is the way we ought to be like the … wise men:  they knew which things were not worth their homage, and which things should drive them straight to their knees.

“There’s not much in the world that ought to be able to make you kneel.  But this ought to:  a deity with no place to lay his head, a savior who knelt before you to wash your feet, a God who could have remained above it all, but stooped, bent, even groveled to get as close to you as possible, and then paid a price for it.”[4]

This story of the magi is rich with meaning.  And on this day of Epiphany, on this day we celebrate God’s love and light being manifest in Jesus, this story calls to us.  It is, I think, an invitation to be like the magi.  And I suggest that there are three ways we can do this.

First, we can seek the star.  Like the magi, we need to be aware and on the lookout for signs of God being at work in the world and in our lives.  I’m not suggesting that you go out and buy a telescope – unless you want to get into astronomy.  I’m suggesting that we can all engage in the spiritual practice of awareness.  We can seek the star.

Second, we need to follow the star.  When we see a sign of God working out the salvation of the world, we might be called to drop what we’re doing.  If that happens, we need to drop what we’re doing and follow that sign.  We need to pack appropriately, too; it’s nice if the gifts we bring make a difference.  And we may have to stop for directions on the way; we shouldn’t be afraid of doing that.  We need to follow the star.

Third, we can be a star ourselves.  On Epiphany, our persistent call to be “the light of the world” in response to God’s gift begins to sound.  Perhaps we should start like the magi and pay due homage.

Want to practice this?  Sometime today, get down on your knees, open your arms out to your sides, and bow your head.  Or if you’re feeling especially brave, try touching your forehead to the floor.  If your body can’t do these things, assume whatever posture speaks to you of humility and reverence.[5]  See what that feels like.

I think that when we get our egos sufficiently out of the way, God will start to use us as stars, as signs of God’s work in the world.  Seek, follow, and be the star.



[1] Martin L. Smith, “Wiser Than We Think,” Sojourners, (31 December 2012), quoting Golden Legend, “a popular medieval compendium of lore about the church’s feast days.”

[2] Smith.

[3] Email from Kate Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, dated 28 December 2012.

[4] Email from Quinn G. Caldwell, “Kneel,” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional from the United Church of Christ, dated 6 January 2012.


Nancy Hasting Sehested, “The Flickering Light of Epiphany,” Sojourners, (31 December 2012).

[5] Ibid.


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