Thursday, January 4, 2018

Coming home to be counted

Luke 2: 1-16
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
Christmas Eve 2017


         Before I moved to Delaware, I never really had the opportunity to become a regular at a restaurant, bar, or hangout. I never served in one place long enough, as I did supply preaching and interims and filling in for colleagues when they went on sabbatical. There has also not been a place I’d want to show up to every week, which is what it takes to become a regular.

         Now for the first time I am a regular, at Grain on Main, our neighbor on the upper east side of Newark. It started at Kate’s, with Andy the bartender and a few other regulars there. But when Andy moved to Grain, so did a few of us regulars from Kate’s. And we stayed. Some of us even got our faces up on the wall. The TV show “Cheers” got it right from the start: "Sometimes you want to go/where everybody knows your name/and they’re always glad you came/you want to be where you can see/our troubles are all the same/you want to be where everybody knows your name."

Beer and Carols, Dec. 20, 2017
Brian Ford, one of the other bartenders at Grain says this about regulars: “When a guest rolls up to the bar looking for their favorite seat and wearing gear sporting the restaurant logo you come to realize that the bar is more theirs and less yours. Regulars are the best part of any bar and watching someone turn into one is the juice - needless to say ... ours are pretty (insert f-bomb) cool.” Anybody can be a regular. It doesn’t matter who you are. When you’re a regular, you become a part of something bigger than you, your life, your worries. When you’re a regular, you’re family. You feel like you matter, that you count for something.

         If the story about Jesus’ birth means anything, it means we count for something. Every last one of us. Like college students welcomed home in church, Joseph and Mary went home to be counted, where everyone knew their names because they were family, regulars. Mary and Joseph weren’t turned away from an inn but told there was no space in the upper guest room so they would have to bed down with the rest of the extended family and the animals. Scholars think that Jesus was born in Nazareth rather in Bethlehem and that there probably wasn’t a census, but let us remember: this is a story, Jewish midrash, not history. It’s a story that sets up Jesus as Lord versus Caesar as Lord. The foolish versus the wise. The lowly versus those in high places. The marginalized versus the powerful. The peaceful versus the vengeful. The kingdom of God, the Beloved Community versus empire.

         When empire wants to count you, it’s as a number, as profit, as taxable, as productive, as efficient, as entitlement, as the amount of resources you consume and what you give back. If empire knows your name, it’s because you’ve gained celebrity or power or wealth. In God’s realm, even the hairs on our head are counted, we are so worthy and rare and precious; our numbers compared to the stars in the heavens or grains of sand.

         In the 2020 census, the U.S. Census Bureau was considering removing a question about sexual orientation from a marketing survey for the census—a survey to determine why certain “hard-to-count” populations—non-white, undocumented, non-binary as well as LGBTQ—do not participate. If you don’t feel safe in public space, why would you participate? In empire, if you’re not counted, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. But after public outcry and that of advisers to the bureau, the question will now remain in the set of proposed questions for the survey.

         There are many in this nation who are returning home for holiday celebrations who are not counted as part of the family, who do not count themselves as part of their family because of their gender identity, their sexuality, their political views. There are those who are not welcome home at all, who are thought of as one who has died. There are those who will work instead of celebrate, who have to choose between a few simple presents and rent, who will work all year long to pay for the Christmas they have. There are too many in this nation who are regarded as nameless, who have nowhere to go and no one to count them as family.

         The people amongst whom Jesus was born are those empire values least and counts as expendable: day-laborers and hired hands in the shepherds, a carpenter father, an unwed mother, extended family living under one roof, the poor and humble, all treated as immigrants in their own land. This story and its power persists, and we must persist with it, precisely because it is the lowly who are lifted up, it is the voiceless who spread the good news, those who go unnoticed who are counted and welcomed home. It is a story of hope in the face of a despairing world, peace amidst a culture of violence, deep joy despite the certainty of sorrow, and love that never ends.

         No matter who we are, what we’ve done or left undone; no matter our skin color or sexuality or gender identity or physical ability or mental health; no matter our family configuration or family name or where we live or where we’re from; no matter our religion or our belief or our education; no matter who we are, each one of us matters. Our troubles definitely aren’t all the same, but in the Beloved Community, all our troubles matter. We are seen. We are valued. We are heard. And we’re forgiven when we don’t do it well. We’re all regulars. We all count. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.

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