A Lamedvavnik Christmas
Text: Luke 2:1-20
An old Yiddish folktale tells of 36 righteous people hidden in every generation who are the lamedvavniks. It is a made-up name from two Hebrew words – lamed and vav, whose numeral value adds up to 36. In many versions of this folktale, the lamedvavniks do not even know that they are; they are simply people who lead just and mercy-filled lives, always having an eye out always for the interest and well-being of others.
About the lamedvavniks, my good friend, Louie Andrews writes, “In strictest secrecy these 36 people risk their lives doing righteous deeds out of the goodness of their heart. . . They live and die seldom recognized by those around them, then occasionally, purely by accident, their deeds become known, and there is astonishment over what one person can accomplish. They pour compassion and love on those around them without ever seeking recognition. The lamedvavnicks are the hidden saints among us who faithfully and humbly keep the world spinning.”
After reading the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel just now, I find myself wondering if Luke left out one character in the story, the one shepherd to arrive late in Bethlehem who was the lamedvavnik in the group. While the lead shepherd announces, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us,” I wonder if the lamedvavnik shepherd stayed back to provide protection for the sheep from the wolves. I wonder if this faithful shepherd was like one of those people I know with the remarkable capacity to multi-task doing the right thing, or as the folktale calls her, a lamedvavnik.
In Matthew’s Christmas story, we meet Magi, astrologers following a star to the Christ child. I wonder if the wise men, the Magi, were actually lamedvavniks? They traveled to Bethlehem bearing gifts. They had tea with Herod but they were smart enough to know that they were not in the company of royalty. They found royalty precisely where the world insists it can never be found – in poverty, in young ones engaged way too early, in a feed bin acting as a cradle and looking remarkably like a throne. These lamedvavniks were wise enough to know that even in his infancy, Jesus was the only royalty ever worth following.
Throughout the season of Advent, the key word to us has been “wait.” We wait on God’s advent; we wait for Jesus to make a return trip. Tonight, I find myself wondering if I have had the “wait” of Advent all wrong. What if the “wait” of Advent and Christmas is God is waiting on us to be the lamedvavniks of welcome to strangers in our land, waiting for us to insist there is always room in the inn, and that we will not stop believing that until all those without homes have homes and all those without shelter are safe and housed?
What if God is waiting for us to stop wishing the Prince of Peace would come and recognize that he has and is waiting for us to stop selling peace short, to stop saying “They’ve always fought; they always will”? What if God is waiting for us to be the lamedvavniks of peace, to resist the seduction of war and violence, and to live each day as if peace were possible?
What if God is waiting for us to put our creative minds together so that “no kid hungry” is not an aspirational slogan but a cold hard fact? What if God is waiting for us to put our faiths together so that through us those who have given up on God learn that God has not given up on them? What if God is waiting for us to notice those not here tonight because their bodies or hearts or lives are wounded or broken and they believe that no one notices and no one cares?
What if God is waiting for the lamedvavniks to show up on this holy night and tomorrow morning and on Boxing Day and on every day and night that follows? What if you and I are numbered among the lamedvavniks? What if we are in the holy number of God’s right seeking children called to excel in love, practice forgiveness, and model mercy?
What if the story of the lamedvavniks is not simply an old Hebrew folktale, but through Christ is our story? What if you and I wake to see not so much whether Santa has come, but to see our God who has come, is coming, and in the meantime is waiting for to be the lamedvavniks of the world that God so loves?
St. Francis says it as well as it can be said:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you can live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at oppression, injustice, and exploitation people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
So, along with St. Francis, let me wish you all a lamedvavnik Christmas!