following the shepherds

preachinga sermon, based on Luke 2.1-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see what has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste…

Shepherds. Vigilantly watching over their four-legged flocks, their family fortunes. Courageously protecting the sheep from predators and thieves. Long serving. Longsuffering. Laboring through blistering, sunbaked days and frigid starlit nights. Hardly the “stars” of Luke’s story. Nevertheless, to these lowly shepherds the angels first announced the Christmas message.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1663), Abraham Hondius (1631-1691)

Why them? Before we answer, let us ask, what was that angelic message, as we, in one of our Christmas carols,[1] ask of them?

Shepherds, why this jubilee?

Why these songs of happy cheer?

What great brightness did you see?

What glad tidings did you hear?

Luke tells us: A savior is born who is the sign that God wants, God wills peace in the world. Peace. Not merely the absence of war, but concord, harmony within ourselves, among all peoples, and between all creatures and creation.

Because of this declaration, the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest!” Because of this declaration, we sing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”

So, now what? Now, having heard again the word from on high, what do we do?

There is no better, more faithful course than to follow the shepherds, who went, saw, declared what they had heard, then returned to the fields and to their flocks. But with a difference. They, taking the message to mind and heart, returned continuously “glorifying and praising God.”

What would it be for us if we, this night, were to leave this place, returning to our lives as we know them continuously glorifying and praising God? What would it be for us to seek peace in our hearts with ourselves, peace with all others, and peace with the creation?

This Christmas, this, peace-seeking and peace-making, would be the greatest gift we could give ourselves, others, indeed, the world.[2]

Now, as your newly minted Priest-in-Charge,[3] I pledge never to ask anything of you that I am not willing to do. Nor will I ask any question of you that I first have not asked myself. So, when I inquire about seeking and making peace, this is my response…

In nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry, I have observed that we human beings are susceptible to being hurt by others and subject to hurt others. I also note that we humans are not particularly adept at forgiving those who have hurt us. (Full confession: I have an elephantine memory for slights and hurts and I harbor a grudge-bearing spirit!)

Given my experiences of others and of myself, speaking always and only for myself, I have come to believe, to know that unless I forgive I inevitably do the greatest harm not to those who have hurt me, but to me; steeping my soul in the boiling cauldron of bitterness. (A wise person once remarked that the refusal to forgive is akin to one drinking poison and waiting for one’s enemy to die!)

So, I have discerned and decided that this Christmas Day and forward I will not wait to forgive. For the benefits, immediate and long-lasting, are great. To paraphrase Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, “Forgive.” (And he, who, with many, suffered at the hands of the heinous apartheid regime, had every earthly reason not to forgive.) “Not because those who have harmed you deserve forgiveness.” (For they, refusing to acknowledge and repent of their wrongs, may not deserve it.) “But because you deserve to live in peace.”[4]

Forgiving. This is my labor of peace-seeking and peace-making. What’s yours?


Illustration: The Annunciation to the Shepherds (1663), Abraham Hondius (1631-1691)


[1] Angels we have heard on high, verse 2

[2] The original end of the sermon text. The rest was inspired (I pray by the nudging, nurturing urgency of the Holy Spirit) and recorded, via my recollection of the moment, as soon thereafter as was possible.

[3] I began my tenure as Priest-in-Charge of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015.

[4] My parenthetical additions.

2 thoughts on “following the shepherds

  1. That was a wonderful sermon!! One of the marks or a great leader, and one of the reasons I love you is the fact that you never ask anything of others that you aren’t willing to do yourself! Admitting your necessity to forgive others for your own benefit (and internal health from boiling emotions) is a wonderful gift, not only for you personally but for all of us who love you. Adding to this gift, is your pledge to begin forgiving others immediately. It doesn’t get any better for peace-making and peace-seeking.

    Though I wasn’t there to hear this sermon it speaks volumes to me. I spent time on Christmas Eve with some folks I had been angry with for some time. They’d ask us over a lot but I’d always decline. I’m sure they knew I’d been angry but I don’t think they knew why. So as I walked into their home for the first time in a long time, I let it all go. We hugged and then began talking like we always had. I felt at peace, and I felt like they were at peace too. It felt so good I hope you don’t mind if I along with you claim forgiveness as my labor of peace-making and peace-seeking. Bless you for this sermon!


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