Fourth Sunday of Advent
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
Message: Share Love: the Shepherds’ Story - A tribute of love to bell hooks
The writer, professor and activist bell hooks died this week at the age of 69. I received this news with profound sadness and yet celebration for her life. I suspect many in our congregation are aware of her work; she was a champion for love and justice and she did this primarily through her vocation as an educator. She explained in exquisite prose and poetry how the act of educating is, or could be, a communal, transgressive, revolutionary act bringing us to a world of we long for. She wrote about grace and spirituality and love and healing and brought such clarity to these topics that just reading her words always not only inspired me to be more, but assured me that I was already enough.
My wife, Elizabeth, and I were both devotees of bell hooks, in fact just minutes after I received the notification of her passing on my phone while working in my office, I got a text from Elizabeth, knowing that we share a love for her. We were introduced to her work in graduate school and seminary in the 1990s and found that she reflected who we were and hoped to be. In the year between my first church appointment in Lawrence, Kansas and moving to California, we lived in Minneapolis. And during that year, Macalester College in St. Paul, hosted bell hooks for a public lecture. We were so excited, put the date on our calendars. We talked about going incessantly, anticipating hearing her speak the words that had animated the truth of our existence and given articulation to our longings. And then the day finally came.
It was January, so of course the snow was high, but it wasn’t snowing and the sidewalks were clear. The lights in Macalester’s memorial chapel were glowing brightly for the evening event as we approached, and as we entered, we saw the place was already packed. We headed to the balcony, the room abuzz with anticipation, and then bell hooks took the stage and spoke.
And she was not what we expected. I admit I often associate wisdom and presentations by intellectuals with deep and sonorous voices. It turns out that bell hooks’ voice is actually quite high on the register. And then in the course of her presentation, she mentioned her partner, and very quickly she followed that up with the pronoun “he.” Elizabeth and I looked at each other in shock. How could this radical feminist not be gay?
I wonder what the voice of the angel who came to the shepherds and spoke the words “Do not be afraid” sounded like. Was it melodious as we’ve been taught to imagine? Or was it surprising in tone or volume or pitch? Knowing what we know about how God works, I think the voice of the one angel who spoke first to the shepherds probably wasn’t exactly melodious. God usually has to get our attention by knocking us off the foundation of what we think we know and what we expect to hear.
But once God has our attention, there is a critical moment. Will we stay in the state of surprise and confusion about the voice or dress or appearance of the messenger so much so that we miss the message? Will we open to a new way of understanding or just ignore or discard the disequilibrium, quickly seeking solid ground at the expense of the message in the discordant note? When God finally does break through the shell of our realities, constructed through the lens of our self-focus and preconceived notions, and has our attention, will we hear the message?
We have been focusing this season on angels among us, and the way God uses messengers to reach us. The first part of the angels’ message is always, “Do not be afraid,” and over and over this Advent, we’ve sought to embrace that message. But in a way, that message is only the precursor to the message, the thing we must do first to hear the heart of the message. In today’s scripture, the voice of the first angel saying, “Do not be afraid” is followed by the announcement of Jesus’ birth, followed by a whole company of angels saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” Favor, as we learned when we explored this word in Mary’s story, means God’s support, God’s approval, God’s unconditional love, for all of us.
The message of this heavenly host is quite simply, what is coming is a gift of love to those who are beloved. In the United Methodist tradition, the fourth Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of love, and though this message of the heavenly host may seem simple, love—the defining, the experiencing, the trusting, of love can be elusive in our lives. In her book All About Love, bell hooks said, “It is far easier to talk about loss than about love. It is easier to articulate the pain of love’s absence than to describe its presence and meaning in our lives.” hooks wrote that she “spent years searching for a meaningful definition of the word “love” and was deeply relieved when she found one in psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s classic self-help book The Road Less Travelled. Peck defined love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
When we hear the phrase “choose to love” we hear a directional, as in love that emanates out from us, that we engage, the giving of love, the entering into love from the innermost parts of ourselves to the outer world, from me to the other. But what God is continually trying to tell us in Advent is that to choose to love is also about the accepting of love. The message of the messengers is Do Not Be Afraid. Love is coming. Open to love. Accept love. I am love. We are love. Share love.
In her book about love, hooks explains that “awakening to love can happen only as we let go of our obsession with power and domination.” She then goes on to say, “Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience…it promotes the desire for separation…When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then difference, of any kind, will appear as a threat.” When I think about my own initial response to encountering the real human person bell hooks as opposed to the bell hooks I read filtered through my self-focused lens, it’s interesting to me that what was initially off-putting to me was that hooks did not present according to my pre-conceived standards of what our shared marginality looks and sounds like.
Of course, the irony is that these were standards that I held about the radical non-standardness of marginality, and in my standards was the insidiousness of domination—voices should sound like this, feminist activists should be this way or that way. “Standards” always require a center or a normative or an “accepted” and when there is an “accepted” the corollary is an “unaccepted.” But, instead of “standards,” hooks proclaims freedom in spaces of difference and marginality. As to her sexual identity, she calls herself “queer-pas-gay” using “pas” from the French to signify “not” and so basically she is saying she is “queer not gay.” Hooks describes “queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and it has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”
I wonder at that moment that the angel, then the host of heavenly angels spoke to the shepherds. It seems that with the angels’ announcement, the shepherds realized themselves at odds with everything around them. In a sense, they found in themselves a queerness. They realized they were being called into a new place to invent and create and speak and thrive and live. And they left everything and followed this promise.
Let’s return to the definition of love that hooks lifts up from Peck: love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” What’s so interesting about the shepherds’ story is that their encounter with Jesus takes up one half of one sentence. The scripture says, “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” Then the focus of the scripture lies in what they chose to do as a result of this encounter. Hear the rest of the story again, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them….The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
In sharing the Good News of this savior, this Messiah and this miraculous birth, the shepherds not only found a new place for themselves to live and thrive but also chose to nurture the spiritual growth of others. This Advent, let’s choose love by sharing the life that is available to us in the community of God that embraces all. This Christmas, let’s share the Good News of a savior who declares the margins as the place of freedom and favor. In that place we will find life. In that place we will find love. May it be so. Amen.