This is the second sermon of the four-part sermon series on patriarch and sexualized violence being preached at Niles Discovery Church this winter. The third in the series was actually posted just before this one.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, in Fremont, California,
on January 28, 2018, by the Rev. Brenda Loreman.
Scripture:  John 4:7-30, 39 and Judges 19:16-30
Copyright © 2018 by Brenda Loreman

My guess is that, unless you’ve read the Bible cover to cover or been to seminary, you are unfamiliar with our text from Judges. I think there are many reasons for this. For one thing, the passage is not part of any church service in the liturgical year and is not part of the revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of Bible readings that many churches use for worship and preaching—and so it is not read out loud in church unless a preacher deliberately chooses to have it read. The passage is so gruesome and brutal that most readers and listeners rightly find it offensive. The passage defies any hopeful interpretation or message of the good news of God’s redeeming work in the world.

Through the millennia, the church’s primary response to this text has been a vast silence. And so we rarely read it and rarely confront what it has to say to us, and about us. But I think it’s imperative that we end that silence. Because our silence in the face of this text—and others like it in the Bible—and our inability to confront it, is connected to our silence and inability to confront how our society normalizes sexual assault and sexual violence.

It’s impossible for me to fully explicate or interpret this complicated text in a twenty-minute sermon; I know I won’t do it justice. But I want to point out some important ideas about it and connect those ideas to the legacy of silence and misogyny they have left in our Christian tradition.

In the chronology of the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Judges happens after the Israelites have followed Moses from Egypt to Canaan, and before the twelve tribes of Israel were gathered into one kingdom under the leadership of Saul, David, and Solomon. The ancient editors of Judges repeatedly remind the reader of the book that this was a time when there was no king in the land, implying that a lack of strong leadership is the reason for such a gruesome act happening; when there is no king, lawlessness will prevail.

The primary historical interpretation of this text is not that it is a commentary on society’s brutality against women. Instead, the crime of Gibeah is a crime perpetrated on the Levite, whose property had been destroyed, and who was not shown proper hospitality by the Benjaminites. Additionally, there is often an assumption among historical interpreters that the concubine must have done something to disturb the peace in her household and anger the Levite.

Notice that the Levite shows no concern for the welfare of his concubine throughout the night. Notice that he shows no sorrow over her assault and death. Notice that he doesn’t even check to make sure she’s actually dead before he dismembers her. He never even acknowledges her humanity. Her only purpose for him is a way to seek revenge against a community who had wronged him.

Feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible offers an alternative interpretation of the concubine’s story. For Trible, it is important that we interpret this story “of outrage on behalf of [its] female [victim] in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray that these terrors shall not come to pass again.”[1] When we speak for the nameless woman of the story, we “interpret against the narrator, plot, other characters, and the biblical tradition,” and we “recognize the contemporaneity of the story,” because “misogyny belongs to every age.”[2]

It seems a stretch to apply an ancient dismembered concubine to our culture today, but I don’t think it is. The culture that was willing to see the concubine as nothing more than a collection of body parts still exists today, and feminists and sociologists call it “rape culture.”

According to feminist authors Emilie Buchwald Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth:

A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes. This violence, however, is neither biologically nor divinely ordained. Much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.[3]

Like racism and white privilege, rape culture is so deeply embedded in our culture and part of societal norms that most of us don’t realize it’s there. Here’s an example.

I’m almost certain that everyone in the room has seen this photo, of a sailor kissing a nurse to celebrate to end of World War II. Even if you aren’t old enough to remember it appearing on the cover of Life magazine the week after August 14, 1945, you’ve probably seen it since then. It has become an iconic expression of the wild exuberance and joyful release that the country experienced on that day.

Photographer Albert Eisenstaedt didn’t pause long enough to get the names of the sailor and nurse after he took the photo, and for many years their identities remained a mystery. The image of a passionate kiss seems romantic—a couple sharing their joy at the brutal war being over. But later research in the years following the release of the photo have determined that the pair are most likely George Mendonça, a sailor on leave in New York City, and Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant working in the city. They had never met before, but found themselves in the crowds gathering in the streets as people began to celebrate after hearing the announcement from President Truman that Japan had surrendered.

I have always liked this photo, thinking it captured so well the euphoria at the end of the war. But in the light of my study of rape culture and living in the present moment of the #MeToo moment, I’ve been reevaluating the image and its message.

Look carefully at the body language of Friedman. Her body is turned awkwardly away from Mendonça, at a stiff angle. Mendonça is holding her tightly, essentially putting her in a head lock, and she is not returning his embrace.

Like any good photographer, Eisenstaedt snapped several photos of the pair in an effort to capture the best exposure and composition. Here’s another image of the same scene. In this version, notice that Friedman’s hand is wedged between the two of them.

And in a third version, Friedman’s hand is clenched in a fist next to Mendonça’s face.

Nothing about her posture in any of the photos says that she is a willing participant in the kiss.

I might be tempted to dismiss my suspicions about the nature of Mendonça’s and Friedman’s encounter if it weren’t for what Friedman herself has said about it in interviews:

“That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”

“I did not see him approaching, and before I knew it, I was in this vise-grip.”

“It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed!”

“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you.”[4]

Unwanted and nonconsensual sexual touching is sexual assault; rather than an image of a romantic encounter, this is an image of an assault. The fact that we tend to explain it away by saying it’s from a different time—or that Friedman herself didn’t consider it assault, or that the sailor couldn’t be blamed for having some fun on such a joyful day, or that it’s just a kiss—is part of the deep, underlying problem with rape culture. We live in a society where we are willing to explain away and excuse sexual assault. It’s time to stop. It’s time to tell the ancient hidden stories of the nameless concubines, and it’s time to allow, encourage, and provide a safe space for women everywhere to tell their own stories, to acknowledge our complicity in allowing rape culture to flourish, and to find a way to make a change so that we no longer confuse sexual assault with romance.

Statistics tell us that one in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.[5] These statistics are appalling, but I think we need to remember that they only refer to the sexual assaults that actually get reported to authorities. In all likelihood, the number is greater. And I tend to believe that every woman has a story to tell about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.

Late last year, the Rev. Amy Butler, the Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York City told a story about a gathering of parishioners she had at her home. As a small but diverse group gathered around her table for dinner, “one of the men in the group brought up the subject of sexual harassment allegations we’re seeing all over the media. He asked what he could do. As a woman sitting at that table,” Butler said, “I appreciated his questions. But it quickly became apparent that those questions were not the most pressing issues on our minds.” Every woman at Butler’s table began to share her own “Me, Too” story:

“I remember the first time I saw a male teacher looking down my shirt. When I complained, I was told to button more buttons.”

“The first time a man exposed himself to me, I was at a neighborhood pool. I was 7.”

“In my all-girl’s elementary school, I had to stay after school some days when my mom was working late. I hated it because the janitor would push me up against the counter and touch my body. When I reported it, I was told just to stay away from him.”[6]

Around Butler’s intergenerational and interracial table, table, it became clear that for many women, “sexual harassment and abuse of women is part of everyday life.”[7] In my own conversations with women—and some men as well—I have discovered the same thing.

And the church has been complicit in upholding rape culture and misogyny, “implicated by thousands of years of institutional and personal abuse of women, almost an entire existence of keeping women subverted and victimized. I don’t think we even know how deep and inbred this sin of the church actually is. But like most things, the church will be dragged kicking and screaming into the conversation. Because women, like all the women around [Rev. Butler’s] dinner table […], will start telling their stories. And we will not stop.”[8]

For the sake of argument, I assume that “most Christians agree that Jesus wouldn’t appreciate the sexual exploitation or abuse of women.” So it’s time that the church, “an institution claiming to represent the values of Jesus, take necessary steps to enter a conversation we should have been leading long ago.”[9]

It’s time for us start talking about misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexism in general. It’s time to acknowledge the “constant, wearing, culturally inbred experience of sexual harassment.”[10]  It’s time for us to listen to women, to provide a platform for us to tell our stories and to honor those stories as holy.

It’s time for us to lift up the story of the nameless concubine, to take to heart her story and confess its present reality.  It’s time for us to hear the stories of women the way Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well: to listen without judgement, to engage in respectful conversation, and to offer the gift of living water, the spirit that binds human life together, that brings about wholeness and healing. Amen.

_______________

[1] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 3.

[2] Trible, 86-87. Emphasis mine.

[3] Emilie Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher, and Martha Roth, eds. Transforming a Rape Culture (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2005), xi.

[4] “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture,’” blog post at Crates and Ribbons, https://cratesandribbons.com/2012/09/30/the-kissing-sailor-or-the-selective-blindness-of-rape-culture-vj-day-times-square/ (accessed January 25, 2018).

[5] Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence. https://endsexualviolencect.org/resources/get-the-facts/national-statistics-on-sexual-violence/ (accessed January 25, 2018).

[6] Amy Butler, “What Churches Must Do Right Now to Stop Being Part of The Sexual Harassment Problem,” Washington Post, December 1, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/01/what-churches-must-do-right-now-to-stop-being-part-of-the-sexual-harassment-problem/?utm_term=.c4328f0b0843. Accessed January 25, 2017.

[7] Butler, ibid.

[8] Butler, ibid.

[9] Butler, ibid.

[10] Butler, ibid.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 4, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 8:2-11 and Luke 24:1-11
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I have long considered the passage we heard from John 8 to be a pretty good argument against the death penalty.  The law says that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for adultery.  Jesus stops the crowd from carrying out that penalty.  It seems pretty clear that Jesus is anti-death penalty.

At least in the case of adultery.

When only one of the party is brought to justice.

And that last statement is an important one for this sermon series.  The crowd is only seeking to punish the woman, as if the adultery is her fault.  She was caught in the act, they say.  That means the other party was there.  Why aren’t they hauling the man away to be killed, too?  It’s as if the guy gets a pass.

For generations, we’ve been letting men get away with sexual harassment and sexual assault.  We’ve been slut-shaming the women and giving the men a pass.  In my studying for this sermon series, I’ve learned some of the reasons why people sexually harass.

According to John Pryor, a psychologist at Illinois State University, there are three personality factors that increase the likelihood that a man will be a sexual harasser:  a lack of empathy, a belief in traditional gender roles, and a tendency toward authoritarianism.  In his research, Pryor found that when men with these personality traits are in an environment or system that suggests they can get away with it, they will do it.[1]

Add to this information the results of more recent studies showing that power makes people impulsive, less worried about social conventions, and less concerned about the effect of ones actions on others.  Other studies show that powerful people become more focused on themselves, are more likely to objectify others, and are more likely to overestimate how much others like them.  Sometimes powerful people will think that there are sexual signals coming from subordinates that simply aren’t there.[2]

Why men are much more likely to sexually harass than women is not completely clear.  “It’s not like women are somehow immune from dark personality traits,” psychologist Louise Fitzgerald said, “but we know from gender research that men are more aggressive, more socialized to seek sex and believe they have a right to it.”[3]

I do not think this greater aggression is simply biological.  It is not, as Andrew Sullivan proposed in a column for New York magazine,[4] simply a matter of testosterone.  There is something about the ways we raise boys that makes the men they grow into more aggressive than women, particularly more sexually aggressive.  One of the dangerous ways we do this is by doing what happened in the story from John’s gospel.  We give the men a pass.

Consider these three things we tell boys and girls that gives boys a pass.

  • Boys will be boys.
  • He does that because he likes you.
  • It’s just locker room talk.

Perhaps a little more strongly than the other two phrases (though I think all three do this), saying, “Boys will be boys,” teaches that there is only one way to be a boy, and that way is to be violent, rough, and tumble.  It implies that boys are biologically wired to be violent and that they should be excused from the consequences of that behavior.  It turns out, according to neuroscientist Lise Eliot, that there is very little difference between the brains of girls and boys.[5]  When our culture buys into the idea that maleness is to be equated with violence, we excuse behaviors that hurt others physically or emotionally.

The junior high boy snaps the bra strap of the junior high girl in the hallway.  When the girl informs a teacher, the teacher says the boy did it because “he likes you and doesn’t know another way to tell you.”  It gets said again and again.  I am guilty of saying it – not at the junior high level, but with elementary kids.  When we say it, we are reinforcing that idea that boys are incapable of expressing themselves through any means other than violence.

“When we dismiss boys’ aggression as evidence of affection,… we sell all children short.  To girls, the message is, ‘That violent act to which you did not consent means that he feels love for you.’  And the message to boys is, ‘When you feel an emotion, you should express it through violence.’”[6]

Consider what those messages do.  They imply “that it’s strange for boys to have feelings of love that are disconnected from feelings of violence [or power over another].…  When we tell our boys it’s normal to show that they like someone by hurting them, we don’t just excuse toxic masculinity – we encourage it.  We are effectively not teaching our children what safe and consensual relationships look like at the moments when they are just starting to come of age sexually.”[7]

Likewise, we give boys and men a pass when we excuse their stories of sexual assault as “locker room talk.”  We’re essentially saying “boys will be boys,” but in an advanced way.  We are saying not only that it is okay, but that it is appropriate, that it is expected for boys and men to perform their masculinity and their sexuality in aggressive ways.  And that is toxic for all of us.

Aziz Ansari

About three weeks ago, a pseudonymous woman’s account of a difficult encounter with comedian Aziz Ansari was published online.[8]  They met, exchanged phone numbers, exchanged text messages, and then went out on a date.  The date ended in Ansari’s apartment and became very sexual very quickly – from kissing to undressing to Ansari saying he was going to go grab a condom, all in a matter minutes.  “Grace [the woman’s pseudonym] voiced her hesitation explicitly.  ‘I said something like, “Whoa, let’s relax for a sec, let’s chill.”’  She says he then resumed kissing her, briefly performed oral sex on her, and asked her to do the same thing to him.  She did, but not for long.”[9]  The date ended, and she left – very upset.  For her, this was a #MeToo moment.

There was a lot of push back about this article – a lot.  The woman was not an employee of Ansari, so there were no workplace dynamics in the situation.  “Her repeated objections and pleas that they ‘slow down’ were all well and good, but they did not square with the fact that she eventually gave Ansari oral sex.  Finally, crucially, she was free to leave.  “Why didn’t she just get out of there as soon as she felt uncomfortable? many people explicitly or implicitly asked.”[10]

This question is, I think, the other side of the enculturation issue I just scratched the surface of about male sexual aggression.  And I’ll tell you, I don’t know all the possible reasons.  But I found a very informative article online that opened my eyes, titled “The female price of male pleasure.”  I hope you will read it; click here.

It’s thesis is this:  “Women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time.  And to ignore their discomfort.”[11]  Loofbourow, the author of the article, starts with this little factoid:  According to a study published on the National Institutes of Health website, 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and “large proportions” don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.[12]  She goes on to explore how and why women and men have entirely different understandings of what makes sexual intercourse “bad sex.”

She notes that there are five times as many clinical trials studying men’s sexual pleasure as there are studies into the severe physical pain some women experience during sex.  Why?  “Because,” she concludes, “we live in a culture that sees female pain as normal and male pleasure as a right.”

She writes about women who continue having sexual intercourse even though it is painful.  She writes about women being taught to expect the first time they have sexual intercourse to be painful – and if the first time, why not the second time?  And then there’s the discomfort the fashion industry pushes on women, largely for the sexual gratification of men.

One of the reasons women don’t just leave when a social encounter turns uncomfortable sexually is that they are taught that uncomfortable is the norm.  This is probably also a reason that some women don’t realize that the uncomfortable situation they just had – in the workplace or at school or at church or at the sports club – was sexual harassment.  And even if they do recognize it as such, it may be a reason they don’t bother reporting it.

There are two other reasons I can think of that people (of all genders) don’t report sexual harassment and sexual assaults.  The first is that they don’t think they’re going to be believed.  It’s what happened to the women in the story we heard from Luke’s gospel, and they weren’t even reporting an assault.  The women go to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid after the crucifixion to give it a proper preparation.  But when they get there, the body is gone and they have an angelic visitation.  When they report what happened to the men who were followers of Jesus, they are not believed.  The men don’t believe them.

The other reason I can think of that people don’t report sexual harassment and sexual violence is that they worry that their reporting will be met with more violence.  You may remember the recent special election for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat.  One of the candidates, Roy Moore, was accused of sexual misconduct in the weeks leading up to the election.  This is what happened to home of Tina Moore, one of the accusers.[13]

The fire is being investigated as an arson.  The fear that reporting will be met with more violence is reasonable.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to touch on in this sermon:  What do we do about all this?  I’ll go into this in much more detail next week.  This week, I want to say there are at least three basic things we can do when we see harassment, or even assault, taking place:

  • We can disrupt the situation. This needs to be done in a way that is as safe as possible.  You may want some support from another when you do this.  I’ll offer some examples of how this can be done next week.
  • We can confront the harasser. This doesn’t have to be done in the moment and it isn’t appropriate in all situations.  But when it’s appropriate there are ways to do this.  More next week.
  • And we can ask the target of the harassment how we can help. This might seem obvious, but researchers say it’s crucial to check in the with target of harassment and offer to help – like offering to go with them to Human Resources if the harassment takes place at work.

The other thing that’s important to do when someone discloses harassment or abuse.  Believe them.  Telling someone, “I believe you,” can give them the support they need to get the help they need to get the healing they deserve.  We can do a better job than the male disciples did on Easter morning.

Amen.

_______________

[1] William Wan, “What makes some men sexual harassers? …” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/12/20/what-makes-some-men-sexual-harassers-science-tries-to-explain-the-harvey-weinsteins-of-the-world/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Quoted in ibid.

[4] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/01/sullivan-metoo-must-choose-between-reality-and-ideology.html

[5] Colleen Clemens, “Say No to ‘Boys Will Be Boys,’” Teaching Tolerance, https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/say-no-to-boys-will-be-boys (posted 17 December 2017; accessed 29 January 2018).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Katie Way, “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life,” babe.net, https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355 (posted 14 January 2018 [as best I can tell]; accessed 3 February 2018).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lili Loofbourow, “The female price of male pleasure,” The Week, http://theweek.com/articles/749978/female-price-male-pleasure (posted 25 January 2018; accessed 29 January 2018).

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25648245

[13] M.L. Nestel, “Over $150,000 raised after Roy Moore accuser’s home burns down in suspicious fire,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/100000-raised-roy-moore-accusers-home-burns-suspicious/story?id=52192189 (posted 7 January 2018; accessed 3 January 2018).

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”  – Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963.

“There is no such thing as being non-political. Everything we say or do either affirms or critiques the status quo. Even to say nothing is to say something.”  – Fr. Richard Rohr

“For all people of faith, the question is not whether to be ‘political’ but how to do so with faithfulness to the vision and love that has claimed and called us.”  – Rev. Wesley Granberg Michaelson

50 years ago last December, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., issued a public call for a “Poor People’s Campaign.” King recognized the triple threats to democracy in the United States from racism, militarism, and poverty. He argued that the three overlapped and needed to be addressed together. He argued that they needed to be addressed as moral issues, and the way to do this was with a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, this moral approach would include political action and solutions; it could not do otherwise. But because these triplets posed a moral threat, then needed to be address morally.

I have argued that the three threats King identified still threaten democracy and morality in the United States, and that they are joined by sexism and environmental degradation. In fact, I have argued that human-caused climate change is the most important moral issue of our day. It is time for a new Poor People’s Campaign. And two prominent faith leaders – the Rev. Liz Theoharis and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II – have issued such a call. They are calling for a new “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call to Moral Revival.”

The ground work for the campaign has already begun. Training are being held across the country. This spring, thousands of disenfranchised people, members of the clergy, and moral leaders will engage in protests and direct actions at statehouses and the U.S. Capitol. The leaders hope the six weeks of protest will be one of the largest waves of civil disobedience in the U.S. The actions will take place across at least 25 states (including California), as well as the District of Columbia. Its leaders hope that the weeks of action will lead to mass mobilization at the U.S. Capitol on June 21.

This all this makes me think that the time is right for me to update and preach a sermon series I offered several years ago on Sabbath Economics. This series will provide some theological underpinning of the Poor People’s Campaign. So that’s what I’m going to do this Lent (which starts on February 14; see article about Ash Wednesday on page 1).

I will also be joining the Poor People’s Campaign more directly, for I feel I must join in calling our nation to a moral revival. I will attend a training this month at Zaytuna College in Berkeley. And I will be joining rallies and marches in Sacramento this spring. I will probably join in some of the acts of civil disobedience and face arrest.

I hope you will join the Poor People’s Campaign, too. If you are not already convinced that the nation needs a moral revival, I hope my Lenten sermon series will convince you. And then I hope you will find ways to be involved, ways that are faithful to your circumstance and calling.

If you do email, I recommend going to the campaign’s webpage at poorpeoplescampaign.org and signing up for emails. If you do Facebook, I encourage you to “like” the Poor People’s Campaign and California Poor People’s Campaign pages and to check them regularly for inspiration and information.

And I ask that you pray. Pray for me as I prepare my sermons. Pray for our church as we seek to faithfully fulfill our mission. Pray for the leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign and for all those involved in the Campaign. And pray for a moral revival in our nation.

Peace,
Pastor Jeff

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 21, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 21:8-21 and Mark 14:3-9
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This headline ran in the online version of the Daily News last week.  “Mich. man’s wife says he was deported to Mexico after legal error.”  The person who is doing the talking, the person being quoted is the woman.  And yet she is identified as “Mich. man’s wife.”  She is identified in terms of whose she is.

Why didn’t the headline say, “Mich. woman says her husband was deported to Mexico after legal error”?  Patriarchy.

Was the headline writing trying to be sexist?  Who knows, but I suspect not.  The problems is that male dominance is so pervasive in our culture, most of us won’t even hear it or see it when it’s happening.

Part of our sacred texts includes a story of a man who wields his power, power he has because he is a man, and the way he wields his power is to throw a slave and her child out of the household and into the wilderness to fend for themselves, presumably to die.  It’s the story we heard today.  It’s part of the story of the patriarch of the Hebrew people (who is also seen as the patriarch of Christian and Muslim people).  It’s part of a larger saga that is filled with call and response, promise and impatience, deceit and intrigue, forcing God’s hand and God tolerating it, jealousy and betrayal, abuse and salvation, and much, much more.  The story offers (among many other things) a window into the gender issues and gender power dynamics of its time.

In the small part of the story we heard today, we see that the male is the head of the household.  Sarah may be the one who is feeling insecure and jealous, but Abraham – the male head of the household – is the one who makes the decisions.  And it’s worth noting that Sarah’s insecurity and jealousy is because of a male child.  Had either Ishmael or Isaac been a girls, Sarah wouldn’t have worried.

If you’re not familiar with the story, I encourage you to read it.  Here’s a synopsis.  Abraham senses that he is called by God to leave his home and strike out on an adventure, so he packs up his household and off they go.  God, he believes, promises to make him and his wife Sarah the parents of a new nation – despite the fact that they are already old and have never had any children.  Eventually they get impatient waiting for the child that God has promised, so Sarah suggests that they have a surrogate child.  She suggests that Abraham have sexual intercourse with the slave Hagar.  Abraham does; Hagar gets pregnant; and a son is born who is named Ishmael.

Wouldn’t you know it.  Once they’ve agreed that they aren’t going to have children together and Ishmael is born, Sarah gets pregnant.  She has a son who is named Isaac.  And when Isaac is weaned … well, that’s where we pick up the story.

Suddenly, the son born to Hagar is a threat to Isaac inheriting the household and the promise.  So Sarah lobbies Abraham, the head of the household, to have Hagar and Ishmael thrown out.  And Abraham does just that.

This story isn’t just about Abraham wielding his power as a man.  It is also about sex trafficking – for that is what Hagar suffers at Sarah’s hands.  It is also about rape – because Hagar didn’t have an opportunity to give her consent to having sex with Abraham.  There are aspects of this story – like all the stories about families in the Hebrew scriptures – that are very disturbing if they go unchallenged.  These stories reflect the patriarchal culture in which they were written.

In this story, the sexism inherent in the culture even creeps into the way God is portrayed.  Did you notice that the angel comes to a sobbing Hagar to reassure her that God has heard the boy’s cries?  Hagar is the one sobbing, but God hears the boy and it’s the boy’s cries that seem to move God to action.  Oy vey!

I suppose it’s good news that the Christian church isn’t responsible for creating the theological context in which sexism took hold, the way it is for creating the theological context in which racism took hold.[1]  No, the Christian church is only responsible for perpetuating and codifying patriarchy.  Consider, for instance, how things get translated.

If you’re looking for a patriarchal text, check out 1 Corinthians 14:26-40.

Paul is writing about the practice of worship in the Corinthian church in chapter 14, and we get to this passage.[2]

            What then, brethren?  When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  Let all things be done for edification.  If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.  But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God.  Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.  If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent.  For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.  For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.  What!  Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?
If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.  If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.  So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.

Whenever I read scripture aloud, I try to do some interpretation of it in the way I do the reading.  What I emphasize orally comes across as more important than what I de-emphasize.  I don’t know what to do with verse 36.  I don’t understand what the word “What!” is doing there.  Still, this is how the passage has been translated.

I’m not a Greek scholar, so I can’t argue with the translation.  So, about two decades ago, I asked a Greek scholar if this was a good translation of the Greek.  He said it was – in terms of the words.  But the oldest text from which the translations are derived do not have punctuation.  So figuring out where sentences begin and end or where paragraphs begin and end is potentially problematic.

We do know that the letters we have that were written by Paul were parts of exchanges.  Letters were sent between churches and Paul – in both directions.  That means that Paul is likely responding to a letter that, given the content of Paul’s letter, was probably about (among other things) arguments about worship in the Corinthian church.  I can imagine Paul standing there, with a letter from the Corinthians in his hands, dictating his response to a scribe.  And I can imagine him, from time to time, quoting the Corinthian’s letter back to them, particularly if they wrote something that really got under his skin.  So, imagine if we got the punctuation wrong.  What if what Paul wrote was this:

… For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.  For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
[Quoting from a letter from Corinth:]  “The women should keep silence in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
What?!  Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?
If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual,…

Suddenly Paul is offended by the sexist assumptions in the Corinthian church, not supporting them.  And now, finally, that “What!” makes sense.  It’s an expression of his outrage.

And yet, for hundreds of years, the Christian church has punctuated the text so that it supports patriarchy, so that it codifies patriarchy.  My Greek scholar friend insisted that this way of punctuating the passage totally works in the Greek.

We’ve done the same sort of thing with our Gospel lesson.  Jesus is in the house of Simon the leper – which, let’s acknowledge, is a pretty radical thing on its own.  A woman comes in, breaks open a bottle of nard, and anoints Jesus, pouring it on his head.  It’s shocking, I tell you!  Shocking!  The people who were there were shocked.  And they said so.  Jesus, on the other hand, sees it as an act of love, of caring.  Mark tells us that Jesus saw this as an act of preparing his body for burial (this happens just a day or two before his crucifixion).

It is not uncommon for people to assume that the woman who did this must have been a prostitute, it being such a sensual act.  Mark doesn’t tell us anything about the woman’s character.  They may also be merging this story with a different story in Luke 7 where a woman whom we’re told is “a sinner,” anoints and cries on Jesus feet, only to dry them with her hair.  She, too, is demonized as a prostitute even though there is nothing in the text to point us in that direction.

And did you catch that Jesus says to the people at Simon’s house, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”?  This act will be told in remembrance of her – and we have no idea what her name is.

The Christian church may not be responsible for creating patriarchy, but we are responsible for perpetuating it, for codifying it.  We do that with the stories we tell that we don’t challenge.  We do it with the way we translate texts.  We do it with the assumptions and interpretations we make.

And we codified patriarchy in the 494 when Pope Gelasius I banned women from even participating in the celebration of the Eucharist.[3]  The ban on the ordination of women probably begun before that.  It wasn’t until after the Reformation that women started being ordained (again).  Here in the United States, it began with the ordination by the Congregational Church of Antoinette Brown in 1853.  The Christian church suffered without the ordained leadership of women for at least 1300 years, and probably longer.  Why?  Because we codified patriarchy into our way of being church.

And this is stunningly confounding to me.  For me, “Christmas is not the birth of an alpha male who plays by the old set of patriarchal rules, but rather, it is the celebration of the omega male:  the model of a new humanity for both women and men.  The way of Christ, as [I] understand it, is not a way of eye-for-eye revenge, but a way of nonviolent resistance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  It is not a way of domination, but service.  It is not a way of leading through displays of physical, sexual, or financial prowess, but through displays of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control.”[4]

“Although he frequently refers to God as Father, I believe Jesus is a deconstructor of patriarchy, not a defender.  Consider:  His fatherly metaphor decenters the dominant kingly metaphor of his day, toning down kingly patriarchy to familial patriarchy.  The familial patriarchy of his parables and aphorisms (If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more …?) emphasizes kindness, compassion, and love, not power, domination, punishment, and revenge.  He exposes the inherent dishonesty of patriarchy with powerful political insight when he says, ‘Call no one Lord … Call no one Father.’ (Matthew 23)  He turns patriarchy upside down and inside out when he washes his disciples’ feet.  Peter’s negative reaction can be seen as Peter’s (and the church’s?) resistance to Jesus’ radical rejection of patriarchy.  … Jesus’ self-giving on the cross is the most powerful rejection of patriarchy imaginable.  Instead of seizing and holding power by killing others, Jesus lays down his life and offers his broken, torn body as a life-giving gift … Jesus is, we might say, the anti-Caesar, the antithesis of patriarchy.”[5]

May we help the church universal find ways to de-codify patriarchy and to more closely follow the way of Jesus.

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • How aware are you of impact and affect of patriarchy in everyday life?
  • When have you been a co-conspirator with patriarchy’s destructive powers?
  • How does your image of God support or oppose patriarchy?

____________

[1] See my sermon, “The Church’s Role in Normalizing Racism,” Jeff’s Jottings, https://jeffsjottings.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/the-churchs-role-in-normalizing-racism/ (preached 5 March 2017).

[2] This is from the Revised Standard Version.  I use this version because when I re-punctuate it below, I don’t have to change any of the words.  Because of the way translating works, I would have to change some of the words if I used a different translation.

[3] “Ordination of women,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordination_of_women (accessed 20 January 2018).

[4] Post by Brian McLaren on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/mclaren.brian/posts/10155976325702990, 27 November 2017.

[5] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 14, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 1:1-11 and Acts 19:1-7
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was in seminary, I had a text book that was probably two inches thick.  It was on one subject:  baptism.  This sermon won’t be that long.  I promise.

Actually, I’m a little amused that the book on baptism was that long because there’s actually quite a bit of common understanding of baptism in the ecumenical community.  When the World Council of Churches decided to issue a collection of statements on the ecumenical convergence of theologies around baptism, communion, and ordination, the section on baptism was the shortest because it needed the least explanations.  Ecumenically, the understandings of what baptism is and means are pretty solid and widely shared.  The understandings about communion and ordination vary widely, but on baptism, there is a strong convergence.

I’m not sure how the convergence came about.  If you look at the book of the Acts of the Apostles (the book we heard a reading from today), you will see that the ways baptism was practiced by the early church varied.  Expand your search to the whole of the New Testament, you’ll find even more variation.  You will find stories of baptisms performed in the name of Jesus and in the name of God and you’ll hear a call that baptisms be done “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).  You will find stories where it seems that a person needs to profess a faith in Jesus to be baptized and stories where, if the head of a household is baptized, the whole household is baptized regardless of what the other members of the household believe.  Sometimes it’s clear that the one baptized is immersed, is dunked under the waters of baptism, and sometimes it’s not so clear how much water is used.

There is an obvious connection between the baptisms John performed in the River Jordan and the baptisms practiced in the early church.  John’s baptism was a mark of repentance, of turning, of taking a new direction in life.  It was an act that forgave sins.  While the mark of repentance and entering a new way of life were (and are) definitely part of what baptism was (and is) in the Jesus movement, Christians see baptism as something more.

There is something about the Holy Spirit in baptism.  We heard about it in our reading from Acts.  Paul meets up with a group of people in Ephesus who think they’re following Jesus, but they don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit.  They’d been baptized, but only in the tradition of John.  They get baptized in the name of Jesus and they receive the Holy Spirit.

And then there’s the whole question about Jesus being baptized by John.  If John was preaching a baptism for the repentance of sin, why was Jesus baptized?  David Lose points out that in John’s gospel, there’s no report of Jesus’ being baptized.  Instead, the Baptist reports seeing the Spirit descend on Jesus.

The other three Gospels share an account of Jesus’ baptism.  They do not, unfortunately, resolve the question of why Jesus was baptized.  “In fact,” Lose says, “when you listen to the essentials of Mark’s terse account, perhaps what is most striking is that Jesus doesn’t really do or say much of anything that sheds light on what’s going on.  As Mark writes, ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”’

“Do you see what I mean?  Jesus is rather passive in all that happens.  But, on second thought, perhaps that’s just the way it should be.  After all, this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  This is the start of his long and difficult journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  And so at his baptism, Jesus doesn’t have to do anything, but rather simply receives the gift of the Holy Spirit and of God’s favor.  Indeed, it is a powerful word of acceptance, identity, blessing, and commitment”[1] that Jesus receives – “You are my beloved child.  With you I am well pleased” – and this points to another thing that baptism is all about.

In baptism, we are claimed by God.  Just as we are, God claims us.  And in that process, we receive a blessed identity:  beloved children of God.  And in that process, God makes a commitment to us and we make a commitment to God.

Let me share with you some of the key points about baptism – points about which Christianity in its many denominations agree.  These are from the World Council of Church’s document[2] on baptism.  Baptism is rooted in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It has been practiced from the earliest days of the Christian movement.  “Baptism is the sign of new life through Jesus Christ.  It unites the one baptized with Christ and with his people.…  Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection; a washing away of sin; a new birth; an enlightenment by Christ; a re-clothing in Christ; a renewal by the Spirit; the experience of salvation from the flood; an exodus from bondage; and a liberation into a new humanity in which barriers of division whether of sex or race or social status are transcended.”[3]

I’ll refer you to the World Council of Churches document if you want to unpack what those statements mean, but I want to dig a little deeper into one of them:  Incorporation into the Body of Christ.  This is an important understanding of the meaning of baptism.  Baptism brings us together into the community of believers.  It makes us part of the Body of Christ.  The document says, “baptism is a sign and seal of our common discipleship.  Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place.”[4]

The first question a candidate for baptism is asked in liturgy for baptism that’s in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship is this:  Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?  In Chalice Worship, the Disciples of Christ worship book, there seems to be an assumption that the answer to this question is “yes,” since the person is standing there.  But that is the most basic thing we understand about baptism.  When one is baptized, they become part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ.

So, if baptism is becoming part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ, what is “membership” in a church all about?  Well, in some denominations, I think a fair answer is “not much more than a label.”  If you’re a Roman Catholic, you’re more a member of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, than a member of a particular parish.  But as the polity, the way a denomination works politically, becomes more congregational (with a little “c,” meaning having local autonomy), membership takes on more meaning, and more responsibility.

When you join a congregation that is part of the Disciples of Christ tradition or the United Church of Christ tradition, you become a voting member of that church.  Members vote on church budgets each year, they vote on which members should serve in key leadership positions, they vote on calling their pastors, and they vote on the bylaws that govern how they function.

But being a member is more than voting.  We typically receive new members as part of the worship service because becoming a member is a prayerful and worshipful act.  Lillian Daniel describes it this way:  “You will experience real power in that moment [of joining a church], when you tell the people around you and God that this is now your spiritual home.

“When you join, you make a connection, you join a community.  The Bible’s word for that is ‘covenant.’  When you join, you make a covenant.  A covenant is an exchange of holy promises.  In making a covenant we promise to serve God together.  So it’s not just new members who join the church.  Rather, everyone – new members and existing members – joins one another.  As we make our promises to one another we remember God’s promises to us and promise to serve God as best we are able.”[5]

That’s why joining a church is different from joining a gym.  “When you join a church, you’re not just on the receiving end [of services, the way you are when you join a gym], but on the giving end as well.  You are promising to do more than show up and use the facilities.  Will you hold other people in prayer and in love?  Will you make a contribution to the community by volunteering as you are able and financially?  And let’s be clear, you [join a church] because somewhere in your journey, you sensed that there was more to this life than what you see in front of you.  You sense that God is still speaking.”[6]

That is why, traditionally in both the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ, joining a church, becoming a member of a church, is seen as a reaffirmation of baptism.  The liturgy we currently use when we receive new members is based on the baptism liturgy.  The questions we ask people who are uniting with the church are questions we ask when someone is baptized.  That is why the bylaws of Niles Discovery Church say, “Any baptized person may seek membership in this church.  Uniting with the congregation is an act of reaffirmation of baptism.”

 

But perhaps it is time to change our bylaws.  More and more people raised without a church background.  So it is becoming more common for people to find a spiritual home in a local church and feel like they don’t know enough about the Bible or Christian history or theology to be ready to make the faith commitment that baptism calls us to.  I’m also finding more and more people who were baptized, typically as infants, are finding themselves to be questioning the most basic thing about faith – that there is a divine something that we call “God” whose love is made visible in the sacrament of baptism.

People from both of these groups may find a home, a spiritual home, at Niles Discovery Church and want to formally commit to being part of this community of faith, even though they have lots of questions about the “faith” part of “community of faith.”  Should we continue to see baptism as a requirement of membership in our church?

An Episcopal priest offered me this analogy:  When someone comes to our church, we immediately issue them a Green Card.  We say they are welcome to stay and be part of the community.  But if they want to be able to vote, they have to take a citizenship test, and that’s the sacrament of baptism.  Then they can register to vote, which is joining the church as a member.

The analogy is insufficient because it sees membership as merely a matter of voting, and as I just said, it’s much more than that.  Membership is a matter of covenant.  Still, is this (what the bylaws currently say about baptism and membership) how we want to function?

I’ll stop there and invite you into some reflection.  And then we’ll carry on the discussion during our Town Hall Meeting.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • Reflect on a memory you have of a baptism (yours or someone else’s)
  • Whether you consider yourself part or not, what does it mean to you to be part of “the faith and family of Jesus Christ”?
  • Whether you’re a member or not, what does it mean to you to be a member of Niles Discovery Church?

____________

[1] David Lose, “Epiphany 1 B: Powerful Words for a New Year,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-1-b-powerful-words-for-a-new-year/ (posted and accessed on 4 January 2018).

[2] This is actually from the first part of “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” [BEM] adopted in Lima, Peru, in 1982.  You can find the document at https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text.

[3] Paragraph 2 of BEM.

[4] Paragraph 5 of BEM.

[5] Lillian Daniel, So You’re Thinking About Joining the Church, a brochure published by the United Church of Christ that is undated.

[6] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:13-23 and Psalm 137:1-6
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

With today’s reading, we come to the end of the overture to Matthew’s gospel.  He’s been setting up the themes that will run through his gospel.  He’s set scenes and told stories to get us thinking about Jesus as the new David, as the promised Messiah, and as the fulfillment of prophecy.

In other places in his overture and here to today’s reading, he’s inviting us to think of Jesus as the new Moses.

If you read the beginning of Exodus, you’ll see that Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh (the Egyptian emperor) was seeking to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys, but through cunning and non-cooperation with the powers that be, Moses survived.  And when he grew up, Moses led his people out of Egyptian bondage into freedom.

Matthew tells us that in reaction to hearing the news of the birth of Jesus and interpreting that birth to be a threat to his rulership, Herod tries to have Jesus killed and ends up killing all the toddlers and infants in and around Bethlehem.  Jesus is born and threatened with death from Herod.  And when he grows up, Jesus will lead his people, us, out of bondage into freedom.

People have noted that this story of the slaughter of the innocents is in keeping with Herod’s suspicious (if not downright paranoid) character.  I think this points to Matthew writing a realistic story, but there is no archeological evidence that this is an historic event.  No, Matthew isn’t writing history; he’s introducing themes.  And one of the theme here is that Jesus is even greater than the great Moses.  Later in the gospel, for instance, we will read about Jesus going up on a mountain and sharing his beatitudes, evoking and supplanting Moses’ trip up the mountain to receive the ten commandments.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out one more Moses reference, but with a twist, that Matthew makes in this story:  “Escape for Moses is from Egypt, but for Jesus it is to Egypt.  The place of past doom and death for Moses had become the place of refuge and life for Jesus.”[1]

Another theme that plays out in this story in one I mentioned last week:  The Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill Jesus in this story.  This theme of the principalities and powers seeking to kill Jesus will play again and again in the gospel.  And the theme will reach a climax when the Roman-appointed governor, Pilate, succeeds in killing Jesus.  Borg and Crossan put it this way:  “The clash between Jesus the Messiah and Caesar Augustus the emperor started right from the birth of Jesus.”[2]

“Though his [birth narrative overture] sounds the theme of fulfillment, its emotional tone is ominous.  Driven and dominated by Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, it is dark and foreboding.  It speaks of the murderous resistance of the rulers of this world to the coming of the kingdom of God.…  What is hoped for … is very different from the way things are and points forward to the conflict that will be engendered by Jesus’s public activity.…  Christmas brings joy and conflict.  It did so then, and it does so now.”[3]

To be sure, as a child I focused on the joy of Christmas.  My parents tried hard to hide the themes of conflict in the Christmas story, as (I suspect) their parents did for them.  It has been as an adult that I have become aware of the conflict Christmas brings, that Jesus brings.  Jesus upsets the social order – then and now.

We hide the conflict Christmas brings in the paintings we choose to see and in nativity scenes we set up in our living rooms.  We don’t want to see the conflict.  Can you imagine getting a Christmas card with “Scene of the massacre of the Innocents,” the image on your announcement folders, on it?

“Scène du massacre des Innocents,” by Léon Cogniet, 1824,

This must be one of the most haunting Christmas paintings ever.  “A terrified mother cowers in a darkened corner, muffling the cries of her small infant, while around her the chaos and horror of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem rages.”[4]  Rather than painting the bloodshed, the artist focuses our attention on one person, a mother who fears she is about to lose her child.  Her arms envelop the child.  The mother’s feet are bare, as the child may be, revealing how vulnerable they are.  There is nowhere to run to.  She is cornered.

In the background, we see people fleeing.  A woman carries her children, one under each arm, rushing down the stairs, running for their lives.  A man – is he covering his eyes so he doesn’t have to witness the carnage, or is the trying to protect himself?  A soldier grabs a woman’s shoulder as she turns from him to move her baby further away.  And is that small figure in midair with only the wall as a background a baby being thrown to their death?

These figures are in the background and washed out, out of focus, drawing our attention to the woman cowering in the corner, to her face, as she looks out.  As she stares out – at us.  What is she saying to you?

This painting brings up a conflict I have with Matthew’s story.  I am grateful for the angel’s intervention in the story.  Three times, Matthew tells us, angels came to Joseph in dreams to tell him where he should be living.  First, there is a dream telling Joseph to take his family out of the country to escape Herod’s plot to kill Jesus.  Years later, an angel comes in a dream to let Joseph know that Herod the Great is dead and that they can return to their home country.  But when they return and find that one of Herod’s son is ruling much of the country, an angel advises Joseph in a third dream to move to Galilee and they settle in Nazareth.

How nice of the angels to make sure Jesus survives.  But what about the other families in Bethlehem?  What about the woman in the painting and her child?  Why do some people escape the mayhem in their own countries and find refuge in other countries, while other families remain and suffer?  And what about when the refuge they find is its own kind of hell?

On Christmas Eve, I talked about the Moria refugee camp on the Island of Lesbos in Greece.  Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  It is a space designed for 2,330 people.  More than 6,000 souls (over two-and-a-half times as many people as it was designed for) fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded into the space.

“The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…”[5]

While we may call Jesus Emmanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace, we forget that his other titles, like King of kings and Lord of lords, carry with them the seeds of conflict.  And even though we call his family “Holy,” we forget that other titles are just as appropriate:  Impoverished.  Peasants.  Homeless (according to Luke’s version of the Christmas story).  Refugees (according to Matthew’s version of the story).

Back in September, Diana Butler Bass wrote an amazing Twitter thread about refugees and immigrants:  “The whole biblical tradition is about immigration, about the movement of people from one home to another.  Adam and Eve leave Eden and have to make home and family in a place they never intended.  The first story of the Bible is a story of exile and finding home.  And so it continues.

“Noah and his family flee the flood, survive, and build a new home.

“God calls Abraham and Sarah out from their home.  The founder of the three great faiths left Ur to find a home with God.  In this story, hospitality emerges as the most important virtue of faith.  Welcoming the stranger is like welcoming God.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach that human beings are all wanderers, exiles and aliens.  Thus, we welcome as we dream of being welcomed.

“Jacob was an exile who returned to reconcile with his brother.

“Joseph went unwillingly to Egypt, eventually leading God’s people to a rich and abundant land.

“In Egypt, the Hebrew immigrants prospered.  But they were so successful that they scared Pharaoh and he made them slaves.  Moses set them free and led them back to the land of Israel.  Exiles back to their home.

“The history following was one of constant movement, of settlement, exile, immigration, return.

“The New Testament opens with two stories of movement.  Mary and Joseph must leave their town and register in a government census [as Luke tells the story].  Thus, Jesus was born away from home.  [And Matthew tells us that,] as a result of a prophecy, Herod seeks to kill [Jesus].  Mary, Joseph, and baby flee to Egypt to escape, not to return for years.

“Jesus first instruction to his disciples is not ‘believe in me.’  But it is ‘Follow me.’  Because faith is a life of being an immigrant, homeless to find a home in God.  And that’s exactly how the early church lived.  They left Jerusalem and went to Judea and out into the whole Roman world.

“The Bible is a document of immigrants, itinerants, exiles, strangers, and sojourners of all sorts.  And that’s why we are all Dreamers.  We dream of being settled in grace, in the love and full embrace of God.  We dream of a world where all exiles find home, where all strangers rest in peace, comfort, and joy.  We dream of the time where we all plant vine and fig tree, where milk and honey flow.  We dream of no boundaries that create war and division.  We dream of swords beaten into plowshares.  We dream God’s dream.

“If you are in the family of biblical faith, you are a dreamer.  Like Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, followers, disciples, and lovers of God through time.  A vast human family of exiles [and refugees], seeking and finding, offering hospitality, and caring for all on the journey.  Keep dreaming.  Always.  For it is a biblical dream, one that is the very center of the human drama of creation, redemption, and joy.

“And hospitality, being both guests and hosts, must be practiced that this dream manifests in the world.  Without hospitality – welcoming the stranger – movement of peoples results in colonization, exclusion, and violence.  The Biblical dream turns to nightmare without that practice of welcome, of sharing table, of food and gifts.

“So, dream.  Live graciously as sojourner and live generously as citizen.  Practice hospitality.  Love one another.”[6]

Amen.

____________

Questions for Reflection:

  • What is the woman in Léon Cogniet’s painting saying to you?
  • In what ways are you a refugee?
  • In what ways can you offer hospitality to the displaced?
  • What part of God’s dream are you called to make real?

____________

[1] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 145.

[2] Ibid, 138.

[3] First Christmas quoted by The Marcus J. Borg Foundation Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/MarcusJBorgFoundation/posts/1617274701663960, posted and accessed 28 December 2017).

[4] Michael Frost, “Is this the greatest Christmas painting of all time?” Mike Frost, http://mikefrost.net/greatest-christmas-painting-time/ (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 2 January 2018).

[5] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/opinion/christmas-jesus-refugee-crisis.html (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

[6] Diana Butler Bass, Twitter, https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass (posted and accessed 7 September 2017); I have done some minor editing, for instance, adding Oxford commas, changing ampersands to the word “and,” and changing all-caps words into italics.

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 31, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12 and Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I had a dream a few weeks back.  I was teaching a high school math class and as a sample problem to told this story.  My father decided to open a pet store.  The grand opening was intensely popular.  You would not believe the lion he had coming out the front door.

I don’t think it was an angel giving me a message.  Or maybe it was – and the message is, “Don’t quite your day job.”

Matthew begins his gospel not so much humorously as ironically.  Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the City of David.  It’s a sign that he’s the fulfillment of the messianic promise.  And yet the first to recognize him and to worship him are the magi, Gentile stargazers, immigrants from the east.

We’ve mushed together the birth narratives, those overtures to Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels.  We’ve tried to harmonize these two different tunes.  This is the crèche my family used when I was growing up.  It was my mother’s childhood crèche, and it may have been her mother’s childhood crèche, though I don’t know that for sure.  You’ll notice both a shepherd and kings are at this stable.  I think there used to be more shepherds.  And an angel I would put on the stable roof.  I’m sure scenes like this contribute to the harmonization of the two stories in our minds.

I love the carol “The First Noel,” though it, too, contributes to the amalgamation of the two stories.  And it’s a bit of a pity, because if we take Matthew’s story by itself, we’ll see some interesting things going on, things we miss when we read the stories together.  And even when we do manage to separate Luke’s story from Matthew’s, we need to free ourselves from the images of kings.  We have to resist the influence of Hebrew scriptures like Psalm 72’s lines about kings bringing gifts to Israel’s king and falling down before him.  We have to let go of the notion that they were kings, and the number 3, and the names and faces the magi were given in the seventh century.[1]

When we do this, when we get to a purer reading of Matthew’s story, we’ll see things like that fact that the magi’s visit comes “after Jesus was born.”  Those are the words Matthew uses in the first verse of Chapter 2.  “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem …”  He might be walking by the time the magi visit.

And when the magi get to Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, “they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage” (verses 10 and 11).  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are living in a house in Bethlehem.

At least Botticelli comes close.  The house is broken down, but there are no shepherds or barn animals.  And it seems that the whole town has turned our when these strangers from the east show up.

And, did you notice that the magi ask Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  Herod asks his advisors “where the Messiah was to be born” (verses 2 and 4).  “The Messiah, for Matthew, is King of the Jews.”

But think about this:  Matthew doesn’t use the title “king” again “until Pilate judges and executes Jesus at the end of his gospel.”[2]  Matthew is doing something here, tying together Herod and Pilate.  I think he’s reminding the readers that Roman power was behind any power Herod the Great had.  And, as we’ll look at more closely next week, the desire to kill Jesus starts at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  “Roman-appointed Herod seeks to kill, and Roman-appointed Pilate succeeds in killing Jesus, the messianic King of the Jews.”[3]

But I was going to say something about how this overture to Matthew’s gospel is ironic.  First, the magi, these Gentile immigrants from the east, are the first to recognize and worship Jesus.  Then there’s Herod, who knows enough to know that this news is a political threat, but who doesn’t know his Hebrew scriptures enough to know where the Messiah is to be born.  Herod must be wondering, as Will Willimon noted, “What does the future hold?  Can a baby threaten the government?  Is there some other operative in history other than the empire?”[4]

And then there are the gifts the magi bring.  We know who Jesus is, so maybe this presentation of gifts makes a little sense to us.  At least, it made a little sense in my childhood sense of the story.  These are wise men, after all, so they would know who Jesus really is.

But imagine how ridiculous, preposterous this must have sounded to the people for whom Matthew was first writing.  Star gazers from another culture and country coming to a peasant family in backwater Bethlehem and presenting expensive gifts.  Gold, frankincense, myrrh – this does not make sense!  No reaction from Jesus’ mom and dad – this does not make sense!  People with power giving gifts to people who had no power – this does not make sense!

“In the ancient world, gifts were rarely exchanged between people of unequal status,” Diana Butler Bass notes.  “When it happened, such gifts came with burdensome political expectations.  Peasants might offer a gift to a king to demonstrate fidelity, request a favor or plead for mercy.  In the unlikely circumstance that a ruler gave a gift to a peasant, the recipient was expected to give something back as a debt of gratitude – in the form of loyalty, a tribute or a tithe.  Gifts were used to secure power and privilege for benefactors, the very definition of quid pro quo.”[5]

By having foreign people of stature present gifts to Jesus, an infant peasant, Matthew is turning gift-giving on its head.  “Mary and Joseph did not have any gifts – they were neither pleading nor making good with Caesar, Herod, or some rival ruler.  And the wise men brought their gifts with no expectation of repayment, with no debt of gratitude attached.  Gifts were freely given and received in response to love, not in anticipation of reciprocity.

“This giving of gifts undermined the normal political order of things, showing not the power of kings, but the undoing of the benefactors’ status and entitlement.”[6]  What happened in Bethlehem was not a gift exchange reinforcing structures of oppression.  Rather, what Matthew is doing is proclaiming the same sort of thing that that is on Mary’s lips in Luke’s gospel when she sings, “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble!  He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

In Matthew’s gospel, these rich stargazers leave their gifts with a poor family and “go away empty-handed.  No strings attached.  No more quid pro quo.  No more debts of gratitude, only gifts freely given and shared.”[7]

Next to Holy Week, Christmas just might be the most political time of the church year.  Matthew tells us that Herod the Great is trembling in his boots.  There’s a new king in town, only he doesn’t rule from Herod Tower.  No, this new king is living in the backwoods town of Bethlehem.  And he’s not welcomed by the political elite or the 1 percent or even by biblical scholars at the Temple, but by immigrant nonbelievers from the east.

These are the themes that play out in Matthew’s overture to his gospel.  A baby causes fear in the halls of the powerful.  An infant gathers around himself outsiders, those whom the principalities and powers would oppress.  This is the baby who will with his people start dismantling the empire stone by stone without raising an army of firing a shot.[8]

There is one more thing about this story – the angel angle.  Actually, Matthew doesn’t explicitly say that an angel is involved – only a dream.  But in other dreams in Matthew’s gospel, it is often an angel speaking through the dream.

When the magi come to Herod to inquire about the newborn king, Herod orders them to return to him once the find the child.  They don’t.  It’s almost a throwaway line:  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

Warned in a dream.  How I wish Matthew had fleshed out this part of the story.  I’d love to know how he would have described the dream.  Would there have been an angel with a simple message:  “Don’t go back to Herod; go home by another route”?  Would it have been more symbolic, maybe some star the magi had to interpret?  Might they have been told the reason to avoid Herod?

But Matthew doesn’t elaborate.  All we get is one line.  “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

It occurs to me – and I don’t think I’ve ever read someone else interpret the story this way – that the magi were performing civil disobedience.  The king of Israel had ordered them to come back to his court to tell them what they had found.  They didn’t follow the order.  They broke the law.  They went home by another road.

And this is one of the places where I think Matthew’s story intersects with our time.  This is not a time for pacification.  This is a time for resistance.  This is a time for shaking things up.  “We ought to be more fearful of missing out on God’s revolution than afraid of Herod’s reprisals.”[9]

The entire world is facing the dangers of climate change, and the current President of the United States insists that it isn’t real, calling it “a scam” and pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.  And just this Thursday, he mocked climate science because it’s cold in the eastern United States.

I like Steven Colbert’s response to such nonsense.

Meanwhile, in the United States:

  • The top 1 percent’s share of national income has nearly doubled since 1968 while, despite the so-called “war on poverty,” the percentage of U.S. families living in poverty has remained essentially unchanged.
  • Though ours is the richest country in the world, 30.6 million children (43 percent) live at or below twice the poverty line, which is considered the minimum for meeting basic family needs.
  • More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, people of color still face a broad range of barriers to democracy, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting, felony disenfranchisement, and laws designed to make it harder to vote.
  • The prison population in the U.S. has grown by 5 times from 1978 to 2015, with non-white prisoner growing from 49% to 66% of those imprisoned.[10]

“Archbishop Oscar Romero, a twentieth-century Christian martyr killed by the powers that ruled El Salvador [in 1980], once said that we are called to be Easter Christians in a Good Friday world, in a world still ruled by Herod and Caesar.  So also [I think] we are called to be Christmas Christians in a world that still descends into darkness.  But Good Friday and the descent of darkness do not have the final word – unless we let them.

“Jesus is already the light in the darkness for those who follow him.  Conceived by the Spirit and christened as Son of God by the community that grew up around him, he is, for Christians, Emmanuel: ‘God with us.’”[11]

This is a great time to be wise people, people willing to obey God and not human authority.

Amen.

_______________

[1] Kari Jo Verhulst, “A Birth Announcement,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/birth-announcement (accessed 26 December 2017).

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 137.

[3] Ibid, 137-138.

[4] William Willimon, “Christmas: Herod in Trouble,” A Peculiar Prophet, https://willwillimon.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/christmas-herod-in-trouble/ (posted 19 December 2016; accessed 27 December 2017).

[5] Diana Butler Bass, “Why Jesus’ first Christmas gifts were truly shocking,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/12/25/why-jesus-first-christmas-gifts-were-truly-shocking/?utm_term=.a0e26c852f23 (posted and accessed 25 December 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Willimon, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sarah Anderson, “10 Reasons to Revive the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/10-reasons-to-revive-the-1968-poor-peoples-campaign/ (posted 4 December 2017; accessed 30 December 2017).

[11] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 243.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Luke 2:8-20 and Luke 1:46-55
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives is who they say were the first (beyond Mary and Joseph) to recognize the importance of the child.  Matthew tells of magi, learned men coming from the east to pay the child homage.  I’ll talk more about them next week.

Luke says that the first to recognize the importance of the child were shepherds.  And the shepherds didn’t come to this conclusion on their own.  They as a group experienced a visitation from an angel bringing them glad tidings of great joy, telling them about the birth of a child in Bethlehem.  And then the shepherds decided to go check out for themselves what they’d been told.

I’ve been pondering, pretty much all month, this question:  Why shepherds?  The answers lie in the social and political reality of Jesus’ day, and they lie in what Luke was trying to accomplish in his gospel.  Marcus Borg summed up the social and political reality of Jesus day in one sentence:  “Jesus and early Christians lived within the largest and most powerful domination system of the ancient world.”[1]

The good news that Jesus brought, the good news the adult Jesus preached and embodied was and is God’s loving alternative to domination systems.  That’s one reason Luke tell us that angels came to the shepherds and they were the first to receive the news.  Shepherds were part of the masses, the common people, the lower part of the lower classes.[2]

Many scholars have concluded that shepherds were even lower than that.  They say that shepherds were social outcasts in the time of Jesus,[3] and whether or not that’s accurate, it is certain that they led a difficult life on the periphery of the community.  While they were lucky to have employment, their job was pretty much 24/7.  Shepherds spent most of their time outside watching over the herd, no matter the weather.  They often slept near their flock to protect it from robbers or wild animals.  Each night, the shepherds would gather their flocks into places called “sheepfolds.”  These could be stone walls made by the shepherds or natural enclosures, such as a cave.  In the morning, they led the flocks out to graze.[4]  And so the days went, one after the next.

And this brings us to what Luke was trying to do with his Gospel.  One of Luke’s major concerns is the marginalized.  We get hints of this throughout his birth narrative.  The angel appears to shepherds because they qualify as the “lowly” and the “hungry,” the very people in the political manifesto Mary sang when she embraced God’s mission in this birth.  Luke insists that people who have resources are obligated to care for people who don’t, for the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized.[5]

There’s another thing that Luke is doing by telling us about this angelic visitation to the shepherds – he’s setting up Jesus as the new David.  We’re in Bethlehem, the city of David.  And remember, before he became king of Israel, David was a shepherd.

And then there’s the language the angel uses in the announcement.  The angel calls the baby “a savior” and “the Lord.”  And then the whole angelic host sing of glory to God and peace on earth.  Savior and lord are titles claimed by the Roman emperors from Caesar Augustus onward.  And peace was something Caesar Augustus promised the empire – pax Romana.  Luke is setting up the whole gospel of kingdom of God as being the alternative to the kingdom of Rome.  And Luke is setting up the different ways to peace.  “Augustus became Rome’s Peace-Bringer with peace through violent victory but Jesus became God’s Peace-Bringer with peace through non-violent justice.”[6]

John Dominic Crossan says, “The difference was not in the that of peace but in its how, not in the purpose and intention of peace but in the mode and method of its accomplishment.  For Rome, as you can see clearly on the beautiful bas-reliefs of [the] … Altar of Augustan Peace, the mode and method was:  religion, war, victory, peace.  Rome believed, as did every empire from the Assyrian to the American, that the future of civilization demanded peace through victory.  But the messianic vision of the Jewish Jesus proclaimed a different program:  religion, non-violence, justice, peace.  Its mantra was peace through justice.  Or, as Jesus told Pilate in John’s powerful parable:  God’s Kingdom, as distinct from Rome’s Kingdom, precludes violence – not even to liberate himself from imperial power (18:36).

“Victory’s violence establishes not peace but lull – until the next and always more violent round of war.  The Christian challenge of Christmas is this:  justice is what happens when all receive a fair share of God’s world and only such distributive justice can establish peace on earth.”

Then Crossan asks, “But how can we ever agree on what is fair for all?  Hint:  ask what is fair – in first or 21st century – of the 99 percent of earth’s people and not of the 1 percent.”[7]

We need only go to the Greek island of Lesbos, to the refugee and migrant camp called Moria, to talk to our culture’s equivalent of the shepherds.  More than 6,000 souls fleeing the world’s most violent conflicts – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo – are crowded in a space meant for 2,330.

Writing in The New York Times, Stephanie Saldaña describes the camp.  “The scene is grim:  piles of trash, barbed wire, children wailing, rows of cheap summer tents with entire families crammed inside and fights regularly breaking out on the camp’s periphery.  The stench is overwhelming.…

“Among [the people now forced to call Moria home] are Kareema and her elderly mother, Kamila, who spent the past few years trapped in Deir al-Zour in Syria under the rule of the Islamic State.…  ‘There was no electricity; we were using oil lamps.  It was as though we returned to the Stone Ages,’ Kareema told me.  Though they suffered terribly – ‘We left because there were no longer doctors, hospitals or health care,” she said – nothing prepared mother and daughter for Moria.…

“Moria opened as a ‘hot spot,’ or refugee processing center, in 2015, a year in which more than a million refugees streamed into Europe.  Lay the blame for the squalid conditions in the camp on the 2016 European Union-Turkey agreement, struck to discourage refugees from taking the sea route to Europe.  Those who arrive on the Greek islands now must wait to be processed by the European Union before proceeding to the mainland.  The wait can be months, with no guarantee that requests for asylum will be granted.  The combination of waiting, uncertainty, overcrowding and unlivable conditions has created what appears to be an intentional epidemic of despair, meant to dissuade refugees from seeing Europe as a haven.…

“The Christmas story is their story more than anyone else’s.  It is a story of displacement, in which Mary and Joseph leave their home and give birth to Jesus in strange city.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is born at the margins of society, poor and wrapped in cloth and laid ‘in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’…

“If we want to imagine the Nativity, we needn’t go farther than the tent of Alaa Adin from Syria, who left his home just days after he married.  Now his wife is pregnant, and when I met them they were living in a tent outside of Moria, because there was no room for them inside.…

“As we live through the largest migration in modern history, Christmas invites us to recognize our story in the millions who have been displaced by tyrants, war and poverty and to see their stories in ours.

“There is much at stake for them in our looking.  If the people I met don’t get out of the camp soon, they risk freezing to death.  But looking at Moira can also teach us about what Christmas really is – a story of how our salvation is bound up in the lives of those who suffer most.”[8]

I think Luke would agree.

In the 14th century, mystic Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God.  What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself?  And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace?  What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?”

What good is it, indeed?

Amen.

[1] Marcus Borg, Convictions, reposted on https://www.facebook.com/MarcusJBorgFoundation/photos/p.1605197432871687/1605197432871687/ on 15 December 2017.

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 48.

[3] See, for instance, https://factsandtrends.net/2015/12/17/christmas-urban-legends-shepherds-as-outcasts/.

[4] “How People Made a Living in the Time of Jesus,” American Bible Society, http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/how-people-made-a-living-in-the-time-of-jesus (accessed 23 December 2017).

[5] Borg and Crossan, op. cit., 48.

[6] John Dominic Crossan, first light: Jesus and the Kingdom of God, a reader for the “Living the Questions” series, copyright 2009 by livingthequestions.com, page 8. Found online on 23 December 2017 at http://www.unitedchurchgranville.org/uploads/4/2/8/5/4285724/first_light_reader.pdf.

[7] John Dominic Crossan, “The Challenge of Christmas,” Huffinton Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-dominic-crossan/the-challenge-of-christma_b_1129931.html (posted 12 December 2011; accessed 23 December 2017).

[8] Stephanie Saldaña, “Where Jesus Would Spend Christmas,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/opinion/christmas-jesus-refugee-crisis.html (posted 22 December 2017; accessed 23 December 2017).

SaveSave

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

If you do the Facebook thing, then you have probably had the experience of seeing a graphic that you really appreciate for more than one reason.  It’s happened to me with a graphic a couple years ago.  Of course, I can’t find that graphic now.  That’s right:  Google let me down.  This diagram is close to it.

As a former mathematician, it tickles me that we’ve got some set theory at work here.  As a pastor, I love that it’s subject is one of my favorites, scriptural study.  The Venn diagram compares Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives.  While there are a lot of words in the center, the overlap between the two is really quite small.

One of the big differences between the two stories is who is center stage.  Mary and Joseph are both mentioned in both versions, but Joseph is center stage in Matthew’s gospel, being named 8 times, and Mary is center stage in Luke’s gospel, being named 11 times.

Sometimes Luke uses a subtle line to remind us of the importance of Mary to his story.  For instance, when we get to the birth itself, the shepherds tell the people in the stable about how the angels had directed them there.  Luke has a line, just a few words, to tell us about Mary’s (not Joseph’s) reaction.  “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

But I think it’s the story of the annunciation that really puts Mary center stage.  Gabriel may do most of the talking, but the story is about Mary.  There are several things that are established in Gabriel’s words that are important, that lay the foundation for Luke’s gospel.

Twice Gabriel says that the baby Mary will have will be called the Son of God.  This is not a statement about Trinitarian doctrine.  This is a title that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and Luke’s original readers would be familiar with.  It was one of the titles that emperor Caesar August was known by when Jesus was born, a title Roman emperors claimed when Luke wrote his gospel.  Gabriel sets up the story – this Jesus we’ll be reading about, not the pretender Augustus, is the real Son of God.

Another thing that gets established in Gabriel and Mary’s dialog is that Mary is a virgin.  I think there are two reasons this is important to Luke.  First, it established that Jesus is greater than John the baptizer.  John’s birth was miraculous because Elizabeth and Zechariah had never managed to have a child and, as it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “both were getting on in years.”  But Jesus’ birth is more miraculous because, though young, Mary had never had sexual intercourse.

The other reason I can identify, thanks to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, that this is important to Luke is that Mary’s virginity sets Jesus up again in opposition to Caesar Augustus.  They detail in their book The First Christmas a legend that originated roughly thirty years before the birth of Jesus about Octavian, the person who would become Caesar Augustus, about how he was conceived.

“When Atia [Octavian’s mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep,…  On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away.  When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband,…  In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.”[1]

Borg and Crossan point out that legend of Octavian’s divine conception is modeled on similar, earlier legends of the conceptions of legendary Generals Alexander and the Roman general Scipio Africanus.  Augustus was to out conquer them all.  “The reason for an emphasis on [Mary’s] virginity,” according to Borg and Crossan, “is in order to exalt the divine conception of Jesus over all others – especially over that of Augustus himself.”[2]

They also note that there is a big difference in the way divine conception occurs between the story of Augustus and the story of Jesus.  “In Greco-Roman tradition, and notable in [the] Augustus story …, divine intercourse takes place in a physical manner, so that it was necessary for Atia to purify herself ‘as if after the embraces of her husband.’  Even with Greco-Roman divine conceptions, the male god engages in intercourse, so that the human mother is no longer a virgin after conception.”  They argue that the “claim that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after conception … made her divine conception different from and greater than all others … especially over that of Caesar Augustus.”[3]

It is not surprising that a story that plays such a foundational role in Luke’s gospel is well remembered.  Luke’s telling of the story helps.  There is something that is both grittily human and mysteriously divine in his telling.  It is no wonder it has inspired so much art.

We’ve been looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” 1472-1475.  There are certain things in the image that became standard elements in artistic depictions of the annunciation in Western European art.  You’ll notice the lily that Gabriel is holding.  Mary is reading a book and she is wearing blue.  She has somehow become pretty wealthy by the looks of those clothes and house behind her.  How she became a woman of letters and means is beyond me.

This is a depiction of the annunciation by Luca Signorelli, from the late 15th century.  It has the standard elements – the lily, the book (that Mary has dropped, perhaps startled by Gabriel), and Mary is in blue.  In the upper left, you’ll see God and the heavenly host, and on a line from God to Mary’s head, you’ll see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming down to Mary to impregnate her.

This is a contemporary depiction, by John Collier.  You’ll see the lily, book, and blue dress.  He purposefully set it in American suburbia.

I love this contemporary depiction by the Chinese artist He Qi, with Gabriel sticking his head in the window.  You’ll notice the lily and the blue in Mary’s clothing, but the book is missing.

This 20th century depiction of the annunciation is by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabi.  The blue has moved into Mary’s hair.  The book is present, subtly my Mary’s knees.  The lily is missing, but the Holy Spirit is there in the upper right.

I found this annunciation online.  It’s a contemporary piece, but I couldn’t figure out who the artist is.  The lily is present and Mary is in blue, but the book has been replaced by an MP3 player, and all we see of Gabriel is a hand.  I’m struck by the fact that one of the ear buds is pulled out, suggesting to me that maybe we need to unplug if we’re going to hear what God has to say to us.
 

This is by Simone Martini, part of a triptych altar piece, painted in 1333.  The classical elements are here.  Mary’s reading her book; the lilies are there; Mary is in blue; the Holy Spirit is right there in the wall paper.  But Mary’s body language is different from the other art we’ve seen today.  Mary is pulling away, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.

This painting and the popularity of the #MeToo hashtag raise some interesting contemporary questions about this story.  As far as we know, Mary was a young woman, a teenager, a girl by today’s standards, when the archangel Gabriel visits her.  They have this conversation in which Gabriel invites her to participate in this grand plan to birth a child to transform the world.  Yes, it’s an invitation to participate, but how free was the consent?  There is a huge power differential between an angel sent by God and a teenager.  And Gabriel, on behalf of God, doesn’t explicitly ask for Mary’s consent, though she does eventually say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s dangerous to read present-day cultural standards and mores into an ancient document, but given what is happening right now in American culture, I can’t ignore these issues.[4]  So, I read on in the story, in Luke’s birth narrative.  It doesn’t stop with the annunciation.  Mary goes off to her cousin Elizabeth’s home.  Elizabeth, pregnant with the child who will become John the baptizer, greets her, and Mary launches into song, a poem we know as the Magnificent.

It is a radical song.  Pay attention to the words when we sing our next hymn.  If you were unclear about what God thinks of a tax plan that, in ten years, has people making between $50,000 and $75,000 per year paying $4 billion more in taxes while people making $1,000,000 or more are paying $5.8 billion less, I think Mary’s song will clear it up for you.[5]  And it’s there in Mary’s song that any doubt I may have had about Mary’s willingness to participate in this plan of God’s is erased.  It is clear that she embraces her role in salvation history.

There’s one more picture I want to show you.

This is a reproduction of a billboard posted by a church in New Zealand in 2011.  It’s not, strictly speaking, an annunciation, but it’s awfully close to one.  And it echoes some of the musing I’ve been doing this week.

If Luke were to tell the whole story of Mary’s pregnancy, not skip over the second and third trimesters, how would the story have gone?  Would he have included the morning sickness? the need to pee all the time because her baby is kicking her bladder? the inability to find a comfortable position for sleep during those final weeks of pregnancy?

And I can’t help but wonder, did Mary ever doubt her calling?  Pretend, like the artists, that the story isn’t only a parable to set the foundation for Luke’s gospel, but that it actually happened the way Luke describes.  Did Mary ever think it was too much – too much work, too much of a burden?  And if she did, did the spirit of her grandmother come back to her,[6] or did the archangel Gabriel come back to her and offer a word to help her figure out how to carry on with her mission?

And what of Gabriel?  What was all this like for him?  He had his marching orders, so he did what he was told.  Or did he?  A friend shared Jan Richardson’s poem, “Gabriel’s Annunciation,” with me.[7]

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her –
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me –
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so –
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me –
her first deliverance –
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time –
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest –
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Luke’s telling of the Annunciation invites us to engage our imaginations, and to even ask ourselves:  How might we be Gabriel?  How might we be Mary?

_______________

[1] From The Lives of the Caesars, in the section The Deified Augustus, 94.4, as quoted by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 211-212.

[2] Ibid, 212.

[3] Ibid, 212-213.

[4] Thanks to Kira Schlesinger, “Mary, #MeToo and the Question of Consent,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8617/mary-metoo-and-the-question-of-consent (posted and accessed 28 November 2017) for helping me articulate this.

[5] Fareed Zakaria, “Maybe Trump knows his base better than we do,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/maybe-trump-knows-his-base-better-than-we-do/2017/11/30/b4ca2164-d60e-11e7-b62d-d9345ced896d_story.html (posted 30 November 2017; accessed 1 December 2017).

[6] The plan was to show a clip from the movie Moana (starting about 1:17 into the movie), but we had a technical glitch that prevented us from showing it.  The spirit of the grandmother line is a reference to that scene.

[7] Copied from http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/19/advent-4-gabriel-and-mary/.

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