Deb Richardson-Moore: A Savior is born to all us shepherds

A shepherd and his flock

Bigstock/Oleg Golovnev

In this excerpt from her book “The Weight of Mercy,” the pastor of Triune Mercy Center recalls the church’s first mid-week Christmas Eve service and the homily she delivered on her favorite Christmas subject, shepherds.

Horace reappeared in early December, relaxed and snazzily dressed in creased slacks and a silk shirt. I was glad to see him.

“Sing this morning?” I asked.

“Anything you want,” he said, ducking his head shyly.

I asked him to select any Christmas carol he liked. We didn’t need to run it by Henry because Horace always sang unaccompanied.

When his turn in the morning service came, I was glad I had my worship bulletin to hide my laughter:

Do you hear what I hear?
Do you hear what I hear?
A star, a star shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold.
Let us bring him silver and gold.

Said the shepherd boy to the little lamb
Do you hear what I hear?
Do you hear what I hear?
A child, a child sleeping in the night
With a voice as big as the sea.
With a voice as big as the sea.

No matter. Despite Horace’s mangled lyrics, his voice was deep and resonant, encompassing all the pain of a black man raised in rural South Carolina in the 1960s, a man with emotional and behavioral scars to boot. I loved to hear Horace sing, but I loved to watch him, too, as his voice led him somewhere else, to the River Jordan or the mountainside or his grandmother’s peach orchard. When he was finished, or before he finished, really, he hung his head and walked back to his pew, not acknowledging the applause, perhaps not even hearing it.

To me, Horace was the epitome of what was good and pure and real about worship at Triune. He was the experience that 145 people came to have that morning. He was the reason we kept going when Caroline slid back into addiction and Alonzo disappeared from church and two people broke in over the weekend.

Our new facilities manager alerted me to the break-ins. We had so much going on I didn’t notice.

On the day before Horace’s impromptu Christmas carol, deacons from Edwards Road Baptist Church treated our people to a Christmas dinner at Tommy’s Ham House. It was an extravagance for them to be inside the restaurant, piling their plates high with fried chicken breasts, green beans, macaroni and cheese, rolls, and banana pudding. Bobby Thompson and his roommate, residents of our rental house, wore the flashy new clothes they favored since getting clean.

Bobby was the after-dinner speaker, sharing stories of his years on the street before getting sober. Most of the people listened respectfully, but a few talked loudly, oblivious to the niceties of the occasion or maybe simply answering the overriding voices in their heads. I reluctantly left my own chicken and macaroni to sit, nanny-like, shushing the worst of the offenders. I’m not sure he ever knew there was a speaker.

One of our homeless men came in, agitated, not wanting to eat, but insistent that I let him into the education building.

“I can’t leave!” I whispered. “I’ve got 100 people here.”

He left and found that a door to the education building had been inadvertently propped open during the deacons’ visit. He climbed the stairs to the second floor, let himself into the facilities manager’s office and took $90 in cash our manager was holding for him.

Later that night, someone else broke a basement window, climbed the stairs to the first-floor level and exited the building, setting off the alarm.

We never did find the second perpetrator, but the first tearfully confessed, scared we would have him arrested. With his record, a break-in would get him an automatic 15 years in prison.

“But the $90 was his?” I asked our facilities manager, as we were sorting things out. “He was just retrieving his own money?”

“Yes.”

“And he walked in through open doors, didn’t break any locks?”

“Right.”

“Then I’m not inclined to have him arrested. What do you think?”

“That’s fine with me.”

The man subsequently went into drug rehab and sent us a photo of himself, sober, tucked inside a card thanking us for having faith in him.

* * * * * * * *

That December, for the first time, I thought we might have enough active congregants to hold a straight-up, mid-week Christmas Eve service. In the past, we’d had a service -- with a meal -- only if Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday night. In 2008, it fell on Wednesday. Even with no meal attached, I thought it could work.

Fifty of us gathered at 5 p.m., the glow in the stained glass windows already fading to dusk, traffic sparse on the street outside. I asked people in advance to read passages from Luke’s Christmas story, and all but one showed up. We lit the Advent candles and the Christ candle and sang carols and celebrated communion. The scheduled singer didn’t show up, but Gus sang “What Child is This?”

I preached an abbreviated homily on my favorite Christmas subject, shepherds, who would be our Triune mascots, should we ever have such a thing:

If I ever thought about shepherds at all, I thought of them as pastoral heroes, rugged individualists. I thought about King David as a boy, fighting off wild animals to protect his father’s sheep. I thought about shepherding as a noble, if lonely, life.

But that was not the view of shepherds in the first century. In Luke’s world, shepherds were synonymous with criminals, low-lifes. For the Jews especially, it was a job that prevented one from being ceremonially clean. But beyond that, it was a job that was simply assumed to be filled by dishonest people.

People assumed that shepherds stole many of their sheep.

A shepherd’s word was not accepted in a court of law. The upright, honest pillars of the community assumed the shepherds would lie, and so they weren’t even allowed to testify.

My seminary professor compared shepherds to modern-day carnival workers. I had never known a carnival worker, but I had been to enough carnivals to know exactly what he meant. They were rough-looking men and bleached-blond women who signed on temporarily with traveling fairs. They ran the Ferris wheel and the side shows and lured teenagers into losing their money throwing baseballs at milk bottles.

They had tattoos at a time when no one else did, and they lived in run-down trailers behind the Tilt-a-Whirl.

They screamed endlessly into bullhorns trying to get Upstate farm boys into sad hoochie-coochie shows or sadder freak shows.

Indeed, while American courts might accept their testimony, they would have been the last people your lawyer would want testifying on your behalf.

Well, these were the people who first heard the story of Christmas.

The angel of the Lord brought the news to shepherds.

This is a wacky, intentional way to begin the story of the Savior of the world. And make no mistake: Luke is making a statement here. And he will repeat that statement when Jesus talks to women and lepers and the marginalized all through his gospel.

This new Savior came first to shepherds. Were he to repeat this pattern upon his return, I suppose he might first appear to drug dealers. To hoodlums. To gangs.

Not to confer favor. Not to say they’re following the way of the Lord. But to say, “Unto to you is born this day … a Savior…”

For indeed, the Savior we celebrate tonight is born to all us shepherds.