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“What About Him?”

December 27, 2017

“‘What About Him?’” Luke 2:1-20 © 12.24.17 Christmas Eve by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The Polar Express is a film that deserves to be on everyone’s list of must-see Christmas movies. Based on the charming book by Chris van Allsburg, it’s about an unnamed boy who’s skeptical about Santa Claus. But on Christmas Eve, he has a dream—or is it a dream?—that a train called “The Polar Express” pulls up at his front door. A conductor invites him on, where with other children he will be taken to the North Pole to see Santa. One of the kids will receive “the first gift of Christmas.”

“Hero boy,” as the credits call him, meets other children in the plush car where they’re seated. One is a know-it-all; the other, an African-American girl, who is the feminine lead in the movie. The train heads for the neighborhood on the other side of the tracks, and stops to pick up a poor kid in shabby nightclothes. He doesn’t want to get on at first, but decides at the last minute that he does. He runs to jump aboard, but the train is moving too fast, and the boy falls in the snow. Our hero pulls the emergency brake, and the boy climbs on, but sits all by himself in the last car.

Later on we find through a song that though the poor boy has heard about presents wrapped up in red and green, he’s never seen any. Santa doesn’t stop at his house. Later, the hero boy and hero girl talk with the kid, whose name we eventually learn is Billy, and find that “Christmas doesn’t work out” for him. In every way, Billy is excluded from the joy of the holiday, whether at his home or now on the train, sitting by himself.

When the Express reaches the North Pole, and the children begin to file out to make their way to the center of town, the poor boy doesn’t get off. The hero girl asks the conductor: “What about him?” To that, she gets the reply: “No one is required to see Santa.” And that moves the girl and the hero boy to invite Billy to go with them to the festivities.

“What about him?” “What about her?” “What about them?” Those are Christmas questions. The angels proclaimed a message of joy which would be to “all people.” This was no exclusive offer for those who could afford it or who were vetted by a government authority for admission to the manger or considered ritually clean and socially acceptable. The great joy was for everyone: righteous Pharisee and crooked politician, prostitute and priest, sinner and saint. It was for the losers, the left-out, the looked-down-on, and the disregarded as well as for the successful, well-heeled, influential, and popular. The Pharisees had their rules and their lists of who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was dirty, decent and disgusting. The Roman occupiers and their aristocratic collaborators the Sadducees kept their own rosters of who could be trusted and who couldn’t, who could be manipulated and convinced for the right price, who got an audience with the governor and who was left waiting endlessly, never allowed to voice concerns. Indeed, everybody at every level of society had his or her own ideas of us and them.

But the Christmas gospel from choirs of angels cuts across all those lines. The great joy of God’s deliverance is for everybody. As if to punctuate the message, to make sure we get the point, God sends his angel visitors not to the halls of government or the office of the chief priest or the homes of prominent businesspeople. He dispatches them to sing to shepherds, out in the fields, watching their sheep. Lowly, despised men near the bottom of the social and economic ladder were the first to hear of Christ’s birth. Matthew, by the way, does much the same thing, but in his gospel it’s foreigners, Persian sages, who get the news before the so-called insiders in the palace of Herod. A generation before Luke’s gospel was written, in one of the first books of the New Testament, Paul would proclaim the inclusive message: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”

The Christmas gospel speaks to each of us, but not only to us. If we hear the message as about One born who will be our personal Savior, comfort us in this life, and then take us to heaven, and that’s all we care about, we have missed the point entirely. The Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr asks: “Is there no other priority than my personal salvation?” (https://cac.org/the-goal-2017-12-17/) In answer, he writes: “Going to heaven is not the goal of religion. Salvation isn’t an evacuation plan or a reward for the next world. Whenever we live in conscious, loving union with God, which is eventually to love everything, we are saved. This can and should happen now in this world (https://cac.org/returning-to-union-2017-12-19/).

If we’re faithful to the Christmas message of the angels, our priority will be the welfare of our neighbors now. When we see someone left out, we must ask about their well-being and their inclusion in the blessings we enjoy. When we see someone hurting or despairing, we are summoned to wonder how they might find help and healing and experience the joy promised. The blessings of Christmas are diminished for everyone as long as one is excluded, as long as someone or a group of someones sits in the back of the train, alone and downcast, like the kid in the movie. We lose the plot, as they say, when we believe that just because some action or policy doesn’t hurt us, it doesn’t hurt anyone else (cf. John Pavlovitz, https://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/12/20/empathy-america-obituary/). Because the baby of Bethlehem grew up to command us to love our neighbors, we follow him best when we show courtesy and civility to others, which is a big deal in these days when the norm is bullying of and cruelty toward anyone who is different. We imitate him truly when we live with tolerance, and perhaps even move beyond tolerance to true understanding; when we extend a helping hand to our sisters and brothers in this community and beyond. We show we’re his disciples when we attend to the log in our own eyes before we try to remove the speck in our neighbor’s, when we refuse to parade our piety in public, and know it’s the height of hypocrisy to decry the immorality of our land while living without charity or decency ourselves.

But Christmas in this day of deep and worsening inequality moves us beyond individual charity to justice in society. If indeed the Savior born in Bethlehem is the Lord, if he “rules the world with truth and grace,” then Christmas is about justice, for our God is a God who insists on equity and compassion. This lowly one laid in a manger comes to “make his blessings flow” and “make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness,” which in Hebrew is the same word as “justice.”

The birth of Jesus can’t be separated from his teaching, his death or his resurrection and ascension. They’re all cut from the same cloth. What happens in the Christmas story gives us clues about God’s purpose for the world, what Jesus would proclaim as an adult and call “the kingdom of God.” Later in Luke, he described his agenda in the words of the prophet: to proclaim liberty to the captives, good news to the poor, and freedom for the oppressed.

Christmas is not just a day or even twelve days. It’s a way of life. It’s a calling.

Ebenezer Scrooge, having changed his ways, resolved to honor Christmas in his heart and try to keep it all year long. The 20th century activist, poet and preacher Howard Thurman reminded us what that might mean. In his poem “The Work of Christmas,” he wrote: “When the song of the angels is stilled,/When the star in the sky is gone,/When the kings and princes are home,/When the shepherds are back with their flock,/The work of Christmas begins:/To find the lost,/To heal the broken,/To feed the hungry,/To release the prisoner,/To rebuild the nations,/To bring peace among brothers,/To make music in the heart.”

And at the end of the classic Christmas movie The Bishop’s Wife, the bishop ends the sermon the angel had written for him this way: “All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that.

“Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share: loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched-out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”

Indeed, God’s peace, which in the Bible means wholeness of mind, body, and spirit, is the greatest gift we can give our neighbor, including the least of these in whom Jesus said we meet him. Peace is the promise and the hope of Christmas for all. When some say “you’re not welcome,” God says “come on in.” When we’re told “that’s impossible,” we’re reminded of the angel’s assurance to Mary “nothing is impossible with God.” When we’re terribly afraid and confused, we hear the glorious news of great joy which bids us not to fear. And because we know we are cared for by God, that the Messiah has come, that God is with us, we may reach out in compassion to our neighbors and seek justice for them. We can ask with boldness and conviction, with the intent to act: “What about them? What about her? What about him?”

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