December 24, 2017 – Christmas I
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
On a hot summer day in 1790, U. S. Marshalls began knocking on doors throughout the country. George Washington had been President for a little over a year. The Constitution had been in effect for only a little bit longer, and Article I, Section 2, of that governing document declared that it was time to count the people—though not all of the people, mind you. “Indians not taxed” were to be excluded, and slaves only counted as three fifths of a person, but the young government needed to know how to apportion representatives and taxes, so a census was to be taken.
A census is a curious thing. As a child, I remember being fascinated with the thought that every person within our nation’s borders would be counted, and I remember being surprised at how offended my father was that the government would ask him a bunch of personal questions. Over the decades, the census has adapted to clarify what it really wants to know. At first, the only name they bothered to record was the head of each household. Other free persons didn’t get their names written down until 1850, and the names of slaves weren’t recorded until after slavery had been abolished. In the first census, they didn’t bother to segregate anyone by age except to distinguish between white men and white boys, but, by the second census, they had six different age categories for both white males and white females, but they lumped everyone else into an indiscriminate category of race, gender, and age. As Carrol D. Wright, the Commissioner of Labor in 1900, wrote, the decennial census was “embodied in the Constitution for political reasons wholly, and with no thought of providing for any systematic collection of statistical data beyond the political necessities of the Government.” In other words, the government only counts what the government thinks is important enough to count.
As individuals, we, too, only count what is important. Do you know how many paperclips are in the container on your desk? Or how many nails are left in your toolbox? I have no idea how many cans of chick peas or black beans there are on our pantry shelf, but I can tell you that there are two cans of boiled peanuts in there because I don’t snack on chick peas. I don’t know how many juice boxes are in the outside refrigerator, but I do know that there is plenty of beer in that same fridge. As young children, we learn to count everything, and as we grow up we learn to stop counting the things that don’t matter to us. That’s why it hurts so much when someone discovers that he or she doesn’t count. The only child in the class who doesn’t get an invitation to the birthday party. The spouse who eats alone because her husband is completely consumed by work. The senior citizen who has no one to be with on Christmas morning. The staff member whose idea is completely ignored. The parishioner whose hospitalization gets overlooked by the clergy. The student whose gender identity means that there is no school bathroom to use and no box to check on the government’s next census. We only count what matters to us and for those reasons that are important to us, and, when we don’t bother to count someone or something, we are declaring effectively that they aren’t worth it.
I wonder whether Joseph felt with particular anger the burden of having to take his pregnant fiancée from Nazareth to Bethlehem simply because some government official said he had to. For the better part of a week, through hostile territory and hazardous conditions, Joseph and Mary traversed the 80 miles, while the carpenter contemplated the futility of the trip. Sure, his ancestral home was the city of David, but why did it matter to the Roman occupiers of Palestine where he and his nine-month-pregnant bride-to-be stood to be counted? Was he really supposed to put forth all of that effort just so the government could more accurately and effectively tax the people whom they ruled? There was no representation in the Senate offered to the Jewish residents of this distant province. The Empire only cared about one thing. To them, this poor couple was nothing more than a miniscule part of a much bigger revenue stream.
When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they discovered again what it meant to count to no one. Instead of being welcomed by some distant relatives, they went to the village inn and found that there was no place there for an unwed pregnant woman and her fiancé. Despite what is depicted in most nativity plays, including our own, the gospel never mentions a kind innkeeper, and it seems just as likely that Mary and Joseph snuck into a stable when no one was looking because they could find shelter nowhere else. When it was time, instead of being heralded by family and close friends, this ignoble birth went all but unnoticed by anyone except the nervous but joyful parents and the livestock bedding down beside them…
That is, until God Almighty broke the silence of that night and filled the skies above the nearby pastures with the heavenly light—not shining above the palace in Jerusalem, not revealed to the rulers in Rome, not declared through a government edict or announced in any official proclamation, but beaming brilliantly in a field full of sheep and shepherds. To them, the angel of the Lord announced the baby’s birth, declaring, “I am bringing 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.” And, in that moment, when God announced to those lowly shepherds what God had done through those lowly parents in that lowly stable, God revealed that salvation comes not to those who are important by the world’s standards but to those forgotten ones whom God counts as God’s own children.
The powers of this world think of the poor and weak and insignificant as nothing more than a means to an end, but God sees them as God’s beloved children. We are enamored by a prince born to a royal family and swaddled in the plushest garments, but God arrests all of creation in a baby born to an impoverished family and wrapped in tattered rags. We would celebrate on the grandest stage with those who would bring us honor, but God celebrates in an open field with poor, dirty shepherds who have less than nothing to bring to the manger. In the birth of God’s son, Jesus Christ, God shows the world how God sees us. In the incarnation, by taking our human nature upon God’s self, God declares that we belong to him, that in God’s eyes we all have value, that to God every one of us counts.
On this holy night, we celebrate the adoption of the human race by Almighty God. Through the birth of Jesus Christ, God sees each one of us as God’s beloved son or beloved daughter. Like a parent wrapped up in a child’s every move, every step, every milestone, God is enraptured by us. No matter who you are or where you are or where you have toddled off to, God loves you as God’s own child. When God looks down upon you, God doesn’t see one among billions. God sees one whom God loves as God’s own. This Christmas, look first at the mirror through God’s eyes and see yourself as God sees you—as God’s beloved child. And then look out at the world through those same eyes and see what God sees: that absolutely everyone is a vessel into which God has poured God’s love. If we will love each other the way God loves us—as God’s own children—then peace will reign and love will win and the birth of Jesus Christ will unite us all.
 Wright, Carrol D. and William C. Hunt, History and Growth of the United States Census (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900), 13.