TAKE ME TO THE ALLEY
Christmas Eve, 2016
One of the things I and a lot my brother and sister preachers do is to spend all year being on low-level alert for what I call Christmas “tidbits:” stories, or quotes, or vignettes, or any kinds of ideas to use as “hooks” for my Christmas sermon. I do it for Easter too, but Christmas is always a little more challenging. When we gather in church on Christmas eve, we gather around a story that is almost numbingly familiar, and yet it is also about as fantastically distant from our daily lived experience as can be imagined. So all year this preacher keeps an eye out for something, anything, that will offer some kind of new way into this same old, same old story.
It happened for me this year way back in April. I was driving somewhere and listening to an interview on public radio with a rising star in the world of Jazz. Now, I am not at all a jazz aficionado, so don’t go getting impressed with my musical sophistication. I have never possessed a single jazz album. Apart from some 1940’s big band tunes and some Louie Armstrong stuff, I know nothing of jazz.
Consequently, until that propitious April afternoon drive, I knew absolutely nothing about one Gregory Porter. But during the interview he sang a song that immediately announced itself as the hook for tonight’s sermon. So, back in April I set up a reminder in my I-Phone to look this song up the week before Christmas. I did, and it has become an ear worm for me ever since, a tune I go to sleep and wake up singing in my head. Since all good ear worms are meant to be shared, let me play for you the central theme of “Take me to the Alley,” by Gregory Porter. Feel free to close your eyes and sway.
[Play first verses of “Take Me to the Alley, by Gregory Porter]
Now, let’s be honest, that tune stands pretty much zero chance of entering the pantheon of popular Christmas carols! “Silent Night” is like a rap tune compared to this. The snappy beat is just not there.
But the theology is spot on. Porter, who, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn, grew up singing in church, nails the deep meaning of the Christmas story. Listen again to the words:
Well they build their houses in preparation for the king
And they line their houses, with every sort of shiny thing
They will be surprised
When they hear him say
“Take me to the alley.
Take me to the afflicted ones.
Take me to the lonely ones who somehow lost their way
Let them hear my say
I am your friend
Come here to my table
Rest here in my garden
You will have a pardon
“Take me to the alley.” Go to Bethlehem. Take your pick. They mean precisely the same thing. Porter sings in his few verses precisely what Saint Luke wants you to discern in his twenty verses. You seek the king? You seek God? You seek the source of life? You seek sense and meaning and purpose? You seek justice and peace on earth, goodwill among all men and women?
Simple. Don’t go to Jerusalem or Rome, Luke tells us. Don’t go to the places of beautiful houses and beautiful people and beautiful things. And, dare we say, beautiful churches? Go to Bethlehem. Go to the simple village filled with unsophisticated peasants and mud huts. There you will find him, wrapped in rags, lying in a goat’s feed box.
Luke tells us about a manger and shepherds, Porter sings about an alley and the kinds of people you might find there. But despite that fact that none of us were born in peasant hovels, and none of us live in alleys, the story and the song are for us too.
The other Christmas tidbit I stored away this year came to me from Brother Curtis, a monk in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Massachusetts. He wrote in a Christmas message last year:
If this is a season of your life where you are full of clarity and confidence, where all seems right in heaven and on earth, how wonderful! Enjoy it. Share it. Share it generously.
If, however, this is a season of your life where you are lost—something about your past or your present or your future—and you’re lost, take enormous comfort.
Jesus will find his way to you.
Jesus finds a way to us. That is the beautiful raw kernel of the Christmas story around which we have allowed so much other silly stuff to accrete. In the Christmas story we hear how passionately God seeks a way to us. God seeks to invite us into the divine garden, to enjoy divine friendship, to eat at the divine table, to hear the words of divine pardon.
And whether you actually live in an alley, or if that alley is more of an internal, psychological, spiritual reality – hurts, bad memories, broken relationships, self-doubt, fear – whether the alley is external or internal, God seeks you there. Jesus invites himself to your alley, and invites you to the alleys of this world, where you will find and be found by the deep love that created, binds, and will heal all things.
And so, on this Christmas night, I give you a gift. The gift, I hope, of an earworm that will stick with you for a while. An earworm that will remind you of what Christmas is about, remind you of who this baby Jesus is, and invite you to encounter the God in Christ who loves you, who seeks you, and who will find a way to you. In an alley.
[Play “Alley” again]