Sermon: Everyday Angels
Text: Luke 2:8-20
(Gary W. Charles at Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 12-24-2017)
I love Christmas stories. I never tire of hearing about a converted Grinch, a jubilant Scrooge, a miracle on 34th Street. Two of my favorite Christmas stories are told by William Muehl, the late professor of preaching at Yale Divinity School and by Anna Quindlen, in her final column for the New York Times.
If you have ever attended, starred in, or helped produce a Christmas Pageant, or even if you have not, enjoy this Christmas story by William Muehl:
“Many years ago, when my wife and I had a son in nursery school, we received at his hands one day a message that chilled the blood. It was a mimeographed note which announced a Christmas pageant and urged all parents to avail themselves of this great cultural opportunity. Since Mrs. Muehl and I feel about Christmas pageants the way rats are reputed to feel about sinking ships, we began straightaway, as the Bible has it, to make excuses.
“When we learned, however, that our four-year-old was to play the part of a shepherd in the manger scene we decided that it was as foolish to make a principle of not attending Christmas pageants as it would be to make a principle of attending them and agreed that if we happened to be in the neighborhood of the school that morning we might drop in.
“That morning, after canceling two classes and nearly running over a police officer, I happened to be in the neighborhood. And when I entered the auditorium I discovered to my not-very-great surprise that my wife was already seated on the front row.
“At last the teacher in charge announced that the manger scene would be presented by the Connecting Class. The houselights dimmed, the school janitor sneaked on stage with a box of straw, and a purple spot focused erratically about halfway between the pillars of the proscenium arch.
“Then from the wings came three virgin Marys, who arranged themselves coyly around the crèche and waved to their relatives in the audience. A vague uneasiness came over me. . . . But my wife, who is somewhat more sophisticated than I am in such matters, pointed out that the school had, over the course of the years, acquired three costumes for the virgin Mary. So, by the strange logic which seems to govern pageants, there had to be three virgins.
“The virgins were closely followed by two Josephs. . . . Next came the angels, about twenty little girls dressed in diaphanous white gowns and sporting immense gauze wings. They deployed themselves with suspicious symmetry across the platform. Then the shepherds appeared, an equal number of small boys dressed in burlap sacks and clutching an assortment of saplings which purported to be crooks.
“At this point an unfortunate discovery came to light. In order to be sure that the angels and shepherds would strike a pleasantly balanced array on stage, the drama coach had made a series of chalk marks on the floor. A circle for each angel and a cross for each shepherd. She had urgently instructed the children that they were all to find and stand on the appropriate symbols.
“But unwisely this marking had been done when the pupils were wearing their ordinary clothes . . . When the angels came on in their flowing robes, each of them covered not only their own circle but the adjacent cross as well.
“The shepherds, driven by God knows what . . . impulse to . . . obedience, began looking for their places. Angels were treated as they have never been treated before. And at last one little boy, who had suffered about all such nonsense that he could handle, turned toward the wings where the teacher in charge was going quietly mad and announced angrily, `These damned angels are fouling up this whole show. They’ve hidden all the crosses!’
“Needless to say his mother and I were greatly embarrassed.
“The pageant is over, the embarrassment has passed, and the child is a man. But his furious proclamation still strikes me as a trenchant comment on the human predicament. We are, indeed, ‘damned angels’, possessors of gifts and insights which we turn to works of destruction, victims of burdens and infirmities which become the occasions for glory.
“The rich pageant of life is often fouled up by our rigid moralism and the cross is hidden beneath the flimsy fabric of our simple piety. With the best intentions we do the worst thing, and then perform miracles of love almost by accident. Our flesh drives and afflicts us from birth to death. But we have the gall to affirm that it once sheltered the Eternal.”
Some years ago, essayist and novelist, Anna Quindlen, wrote about Everyday Angels:
“They do dazzle,” says Quindlen, “the everyday angels, just as the angel did in the Christmas story, scaring the wits out of the shepherds. But the angel said ‘Fear not’, and that’s what I’ve learned from its contemporary counterparts – the rape counselors, the good cops, the nuns, the librarians. Life will be hard, politics will be mean, money will be scarce, bluster will be plentiful. Yet somehow good will be done.
“The great issues are the same as they were when 15-year-old Anne Frank, three weeks shy of discovery in her attic hideaway, less than a year from death in Bergen-Belson, wrote in her shabby plaid diary: ‘In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart’.
“’Fear not’,” concludes Quindlen, “Anne was right. The heavenly host prove it every day, in Coney Island, in Washington Heights, in Flushing, with cots, with comfort, with boxes of tissues on their desks. I leave you with good tidings of great joy: Those who shun the prevailing winds of cynicism and anomie can truly fly.”
So, who is right, Muehl or Quindlen? What are we, damned angels or everyday angels? Every time you and I come to this Christmas Table, we announce not only that Christ was born in Bethlehem, but that Christ is born again and again into “damned angels” like each one of us. And, by God’s miraculous, star-shining, grace-bestowing love, we who are too often damned and damnable are being changed, even now, even tonight, into everyday angels.
There is one more story that must be told tonight. It is summed up in one angelic sentence: "Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” That is the Christmas story I love the best. Try finding a better story to tell your children and grandchildren, your neighbor next door or the tailor who mends your clothes or the clerk who bags your groceries or to any living person who will stop just long enough to hear the best Christmas story of them all: “Fear not . . . good news . . . great joy.” It is still the greatest story ever told.
So, fear not, you bunch of everyday angels and dear friends.