The Christmas story affords us many examples of proclamation and response. Most Sunday School children can highlight at least three stories about the birth of Christ that speak to this component. There is Mary, who is visited by an angel and responds by accepting her part as mother of the Christ; there are the Magi, who see a star that foretells the birth of a king and respond by seeking him; and finally there is the company of angels proclaiming to the shepherds the birth of the Child, the Messiah, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. The shepherds respond accordingly; they go to see what the Lord has made known to them. They are not put off by the strange place in which the Messiah is to be born; even though the Lord of whom the angels speak is born in poverty.
The people of Uptown Ministry understand poverty, because it is their lived experience. The idea of the Child of Light, born in a stable that houses farm animals, holds a special meaning for them. For the people of Uptown, the proclamation of these readings resonates with the lives they lead. When we read scripture at the Ministry that speaks of poverty and marginalization, it is understood because it is real. There is no room for sugar-coating the relationship between suffering and the scripture narrative; to do so is disrespectful to the people of Uptown who live with suffering and have their own stories of survival to tell.
I learned this lesson the first time I preached at the Ministry nearly seven years ago. I don’t even remember what I preached about; but I do know I was naïve about the people to whom I was preaching. “Maureen” was a Euro-American woman in her eighties who had lived on the streets for nearly fifteen years. She was suspicious of the people who ran the shelters and so she spent her nights sleeping on the “el” trains. Maureen often came to worship. She sat in the back with her shopping bags, which contained all her worldly possessions, surrounding her. She rarely participated and when we gathered in a circle at the end of worship to pray, she refused the invitation to join us. But something struck a chord with Maureen that day. About halfway through the sermon, Maureen slouched in her chair, folded her arms across her chest and declared, “Well, THAT’S a nice fairy story!”
I don’t remember what I did in response; I don’t know if I finished preaching or if we discussed Maureen’s feelings about what I was preaching. I do know it changed the way I led worship. I learned a great deal about what it means to be real and still bring the good news that day. God doesn’t sugar coat the message of the good news. Yes, Jesus Christ is born and we should rejoice at his coming. But he wasn’t born in wealth and security, safely tucked in his bed. He was be born into the real world; not always pretty, not always safe, not always fair. Not so different from life on the streets.
While we sometimes respond to the scripture readings and preaching at the Ministry with a prayer of confession, the parishioners at Uptown are often the ones who respond directly to the proclamation. They respond by offering up their own thoughts after worship. They respond during the sermon, stopping me mid-sentence to agree or disagree…and then discuss. It is what the theologian Urban Holmes refers to as liturgy that leads to the edge of chaos. But that chaos is sacred, shaking up the mundane lives that we know—whether those lives are the ordinary middle-class lives of a preacher or lives lived on the street. This is the type of worship that works best at the Ministry; it is worship in which those who have so little control in their lives have a place to act in a time and place that is their own, in which they have the opportunity to grieve, to rejoice, to proclaim the good news—and respond accordingly.
Uptown Ministry is a program of Lutheran Child and Family Services and is affiliated with The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.