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Lost in the triumphal language of Christmas time, “The Lord is Come” and “Behold! A Savior is Born,” is the less regal way that listeners of Jesus’ day and age would have heard his story. Spoiler alert – it’s not an account of triumph and majesty, rather a pretty meager tale of people born on the absolute margins of the era, in the lowliest of places, amongst the outcasts. We lose sight of that so often in the age of Jesus the King, holy and mighty and God incarnate.
I think we have to go straight to the glory, for if we really examine the situation of his birth then it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the veneer of praise and piety while enabling lots more Jesuses to be born in lots more lowly places. As you all know we took the step this year of placing a chain-link fence around our nativity scene in an intentionally provocative commentary on the current wave of immigration ugliness. It was up for nearly three weeks before I posted a picture of it on social media and the floodgates opened. Since then the post has been shared hundreds of times, we have had “a couple” of phone calls and social media posts, and I have done several interviews, including one with the New York Times. And, to be clear, all that the nativity scene endeavors to be is a theological art display, a commentary on the intersection of our moral and legal lives. I appreciate the praise that is coming our way, but I think taking an asylum seeker into your home is much more worthy, as is work along the border caring for those human lives impacted by legal decisions made from thousands of miles away, or the one-on-one, heartbreaking work of legal representation for people locked away in our own county jail. I think that the challenging role that border patrol agents can play, often having to make difficult and complex moral decisions in a moment, is much more worthy of praise and support, as I think the dedication with which many of you serve our community, trying to make your faith have hands and feet, ought to be lifted up in countless tweets and posts and articles.
Some of the criticism we received has been from people who claim that this is apples and oranges, that the Holy Family weren’t migrants at all and the comparison is false. In keeping with the ways that we want Christmas, and really the whole Gospel, to comfort and reinforce rather than challenge or provoke, let me say that it’s true – this isn’t a straight comparison. There are many differences in our world and Jesus’ world. Rarely does our biblical instruction match perfectly with our culture, for our holy scripture was written for a different people, in a different time and place. We have to extrapolate, to make parallels.
It is Matthew who uses the exodus to Egypt as part of his birth narrative largely to get his audience, stepped in the Jewish tradition, to reflect on the original Exodus story, making sure that Jesus is attached to another great prophet and leader, Moses. At Passover, Jews to this day are asked to not only reflect on the Exodus story, but to actually claim it as their own. They are asked to know themselves as once being slaves in Egypt and knowing the price and value of freedom, so that they might have such empathy for others. The same is true of the story of migration, which we ought to connect with from both our faith traditions and our own human story. The story of humankind is, after all, always a story of migration. And our religion(s) ought to (and do for that matter) appeal to our empathic imaginations to welcome the outcast and the stranger, to support the refugee and the prisoner and the downtrodden…for there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.
The Bible cannot speak directly to our circumstances in 21stcentury America. It can, and does, speak to values that lie at our moral center. Rev. Dr. William Barber, the new voice of moral authority in our nation in my opinion, tweeted this last week: “What’s going on in America today looks too much like what was going on during the 1st Christmas: ego maniac on the throne, taxes to benefit the wealthy, kids killed by government policy, families forced out of their country, health care & housing denied to poor folk having babies.” Neither Dr. Barber nor I are suggesting that this is a perfect mirror, that the analogy is pure, for analogies never are pure. What I think we are suggesting is that there are still the same struggles at work in our world that faced the Holy Family. There is still much danger for the poor, for the marginalized, for those who, save only the misfortune of their birth locale, face oppression, poverty and exploitation. Jesus came to save our hearts, which would change our policies, but it would seem that we often still resist even the basics of his teachings. Love your neighbor seems a fine platitude, until it costs us something or makes us feel uncomfortable. And love your enemy? Well, that didn’t go over even as the words came from Jesus’ own mouth.
In Matthew’s version of the Gospel story, we are to understand that God’s incarnation comes amidst homelessness, migration and oppression. The Holy Family lives a fragile existence, much like the families that come to our border, seeking the safety and stability of home somewhere away from their home. And then there’s also the stress within the Holy Family. After all, Mary and Joseph were engaged but had not yet married or moved in with each other or consummated their union when Mary comes to him with this news. Or perhaps even more scandalously, he finds out the news of her pregnancy. It’s a safe assumption to think that Jospeh concluded only one thing: that his espoused wife had been unfaithful. Perhaps this is why Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous man — he lives according to the law, which says divorce in such a situation, but also showing compassion beyond the law, for Joseph has two options — public stoning or quiet break up. He opts for the latter out of a sense of kindness, perhaps, to avoid exposing her to public disgrace and brutal punishment, though that option is legally available to him.
Jesus’ birth story in Matthew ought to remind us of how often pregnancy, or even more broadly, the development of “family”, which comes in many forms, can be a situation full of turmoil, fear, even scandal. Matthew’s version de-sanitizes the typical Christmas portrait of the pious holy family and their angelic newborn child, reminding us instead of the messiness of it all, and how God chooses this entry into the world rather than the gold and silk room of a palace. Shouldn’t the “how” and “where” of Christmas matter to us as much as the “why?” At minimum it ought to suggest to us that we really have no idea where God shows up for we continue to read this story in the confines of climate controlled, plush seated, well-lit sanctuaries – edifices to the God who came to us in the straw and dirt of a manger.
The whole of the birth narrative in Matthew’s account is about one-and-a-half verses. That’s it. You’ll spend more time on a tweet. If you get distracted easily, you might just gloss over it, which could be the point. This story is so everyday, so commonplace that we must knowit wasmissed. There were no announcements, no baby showers, not a notice in the Jerusalem Times. It took place in the back of an inn, full of travelers with their own agendas, while the Holy Family took refuge amongst the livestock. It was a lowly story, unremarkable in every way save one. This is the beginning of the story of the everyday made holy, the mundane and plain used by God to show us grace, love and salvation. This is the beginning of the story that frees us from fear.
Fear, you see, takes many forms. It’s not just the boogeyman, or spiders or snakes, both of which are gross and should be feared. No, it’s the fears that paralyze and stymie us, like the fear of failure, the fear of success, the fear of change, of forgiveness, or being forgiven. And it’s the more insidious things, the other things we attach the suffix “phobia” to, like the fear of the unknown, the fear of people from other places, the fear of the stranger, someone with a different religion or custom, someone who looks different, someone whose skin is a different color, or who speaks a different language…the fear of difference. This story of the baby born just like all of us, in the most mundane and ordinary way, is the story of the beginning of the end of fear. For he will teach us a different way. He will teach us that love is better than fear, that hope is better than apathy and that God is a God of abundance, not scarcity.
It won’t be an easy lesson. That should be really clear to us now. Even in today’s story, it takes a visit from an angel to convince Joseph that he need not be afraid. Flowing robes, blinding light, harps and choirs – the whole shebang…direct, divine intervention. “Don’t be afraid, Joseph,” the angel says. And Joseph, his fear masked by culturally accepted behavior, relents to this plan, the same plan surely told him by Mary when she explains herself to him.
It is fear, I think, that keeps us from doing the very things that Jesus came to teach us about – to love wastefully, to see the plank in our own eyes before the splinter in another’s, to forgive seventy-times seven. What might happen if we actually did those things? What might happen if we really tried to forgive that person who wounded us so? What might happen if we really sought to understand someone else’s position before blasting them with our own? What might happen if we simply decided, in each and every situation, to love? I know what you’ll tell me, it’s what I tell myself. It’s more complicated than that, Chris. And I agree…It’s the angel who doesn’t.
See, I think that it’s fear that gets in the way of faith. For despite all of our desires to use the arrival of Jesus for our own benefits, we’re afraid to actually walk with Jesus, while we continue to claim that walking with Jesus is to our benefit. We’re afraid to give up our outrage or our sense of manufactured righteousness. We afraid to stop keeping score, or to believe that our task is to acquire, consume and compete. We’re afraid to lose a grip on feeling that we’re “right,” though Jesus doesn’t come to make winners and losers. We already know that system. In fact, we know it so well that we are afraid to leave it to follow the grace-filled Way of Jesus. After all, it won’t be the right social policy platform that will save us, nor the gross national product or the stock market. It won’t be walls or bridges or Presidents or Congress. It will be living like Jesus lived, accepting the grace he died to show us, having the salvation of Jesus Christ be born in each of us.
It’s almost Christmas and we can debate what baby will be born again – is it the one who’s birth is only a necessary step for his death, a planned execution from the first angel’s visit to Mary, a plan, we might note, that is completely undisclosed to Mary? Or is this the birth of the baby who comes to announce such a revolution of the heart that he offends many, including, at times, his own disciples? Is it the birth of the baby who comes to shine a light on our own souls, asking us to embrace the morality of God’s Love, which will set us free from all of these fears that keep our souls imprisoned? I mean such a claim would be revolutionary, even dangerous. I don’t know if I’d buy it. I might need divine intervention, like an angel, saying directly to me…do not be afraid. God is with us.