Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you–wonderful, joyous news for all people.Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” Luke 2: 8-14
Can you imagine it? You’re sitting on a hillside, surrounded by the sound of bleating or snoozing sheep and perhaps a snore or two from your fellow shepherds nodding off, then suddenly from the black night a radiance breaks forth in what you can only describe as an angelic being announcing that there’s a newborn baby in a distant town that’s going to be your savior.
Did it occur to the shepherds to look around and wonder, “who, us?” “Our savior??” No doubt these shepherds might have admitted they longed for a Messiah to come and interrupt the status quo. In the social order of the day, shepherds were just scraping by, barely making ends meet. In Jewish social society, shepherds were regarded as ceremonially unclean, and separated from the rest of the world. I could imagine if these shepherds grew up hearing that one day a messiah would come, their first thought might be that this savior was coming for the rest of the world, not them. But suddenly, somehow, there were angels, a multitude, proclaiming that their savior was born.
Before I began as Executive Director of More Light Presbyterians, one of my gigs was as the Lead Ecumenical Trainer at the Institute for Welcoming Resources. My job was to travel around the country leading Building an Inclusive Church workshops to help clergy and lay people discern the path for their congregations to become more welcoming to LGBTQ people. One of my favorite parts of my position was leading trainings with Reconciling Ministries Network, an organization committed to LGBTQ welcome and inclusion in the United Methodist Church. My very first training in this partnership was with a group of United Methodist lay and clergy leaders in Birmingham, Alabama.
I arrived to this training not knowing what to expect. What I found was a group of incredibly courageous men and women, gay and straight who were committed to healing the UMC and helping the denomination to truly live into their social principles to be welcoming of all people. However, many at this training were feeling despondent, having faced roadblocks to their individual congregations become fully welcoming of LGBTQ people in the form of silence by senior ministers, outright dismissal of their ideas, and rejection at the UMC general conference. Many had come to this training feeling out of options for moving forward. As we began the training, I introduced myself by saying that I was a “hope evangelist” coming from the Presbyterians to proclaim that it is possible to achieve change in the denomination, even when it feels like that change is so far away. The miraculous thing that weekend was the transformation that occurred when the isolation began to melt and community began to grow. Suddenly the group was sharing wisdom about how to move forward when all seemed lost. The shepherds and angels became indistinguishable from one another, and hope beamed among them.
Yesterday, a United Methodist minister was defrocked for performing the marriage of his gay son, and refusing to deny the gospel. A United Methodist Bishop will likely be facing trial soon for officiating the wedding of a couple who attended that training in Birmingham, AL: Bobby Prince and Joe Openshaw. As shepherds can attest, angels usually break forth when night is at its darkest, when we’ve all but lost hope that a savior would really come for us too.
I mourn the spiritual violence that is being wrought in order to squelch the dawning of hope in the UMC. I give thanks for those brave shepherds who are watching and waiting, staying with their flock and working to usher in welcome for LGBTQ people. In this Christmas season, I know there are many of us who still feel like shepherds waiting for a savior, wondering if it is possible that one would come for us to make all things new. As our nights are at their longest, I know I’ll be on the lookout for angels in our midst, reminding me to hope even if all seems lost. Perhaps you’re one of them.
Yours on the journey,