The Messiness of Christmas

A Sermon for January 1, 2017. First Sunday After Christmas. Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-22

37036One of the Advent-Christmas traditions here at Pleasant Hill is to place this beautiful, porcelain made Nativity set on the communion table. These figures from Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are familiar to worshippers: Mary and Joseph, the baby, a shepherd, an angel and the magi. All the major players are here…except for one.

There’s no figure of King Herod—King Herod the Great who was appointed by the Roman Empire to rule over Judea, the country in which Jesus was born.

In the millions of interpretations of the Nativity in displays, greeting cards, paintings and children’s books that have been created over thousands of years, a depiction of Herod is not included. Cattle, sheep, camels, a donkey, a dog, a cat and even Santa Claus are added to the scene. But not Herod. The beloved hymns of the Advent-Christmas season don’t mention Herod either, except for two obscure carols, one written in the late 16th century and the other in 1911.

And yet he is an integral part of Jesus’ birth and early childhood.

The reason for Herod’s absence, of course, is obvious. He’s not a good guy and certainly no admirer of Jesus. Herod is, quite frankly, scared of the baby and the prospect that this child will one day overthrow his reign and become Israel’s ruler.

Herod is so terrified of losing his throne and power that he plots to murder the infant Jesus by sneakily asking the magi to let him know the baby’s exact location so he also may pay homage.

But his plan is thwarted when an angel of the Lord warns the magi to return home by another road and then tells Joseph to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This, however, is not the conclusion of the story, although historicaly our retellings often end here.

After realizing the magi have tricked him and the baby who threatens his kingdom is not within his reach, Herod becomes filled with rage. “If I can’t have the one baby who will become king, I will kill them all!” Herod probably thought as he ordered his soldiers to murder all boys in and around Bethlehem who were between the age of infancy and 2-years-old.

And that image of children being slaughtered by a ruthless king is too much to comprehend. Genocide doesn’t fit neatly with the angels’ pronouncement of joy, the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, the star over Bethlehem, and strangers coming to worship the child.

Herod’s violence breaks our silent and holy night in which we celebrate the prince of peace on earth. Herod makes the celebration of Christmas messy and ruins one’s sentimental view of and desire for the holidays, which is not something many Christians like to consider. But we need Herod in the Christmas story in spite of his horrific actions or maybe because of them.

In her essay “Putting Herod Back in Christmas” Anglican priest and author Joy Carroll Wallis[1] puts it this way:

Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race. …Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees and nobodies.”

Christmas, with its spirit of giving and message of incarnate love, peace and joy, certainly speaks deeply to our hearts and draws out our child-like sense of amazement. It sparks our imaginations and stirs our souls to do a lot of good in the world. But the events that occurred on that first Christmas reminds us that humans have the potential to cause a lot of mayhem.

Jesus is born into a broken and sinful world, in a time in which the Roman Empire controlled everything and Caesar proclaimed himself to be god-like. And from birth to death, Jesus encounters persecution by the Roman authorities and religious leaders who feel intimidated by his presence and the truth that he is the actual embodiment of God’s love among humanity.

Jesus shakes up the world and threatens the status quo. And that holy upheaval scares people who wish to cling to their own power, prestige and agendas. It scares them enough to lash out violently against “the other” whom God has created and to ultimately reject God’s love for human beings—especially the ones who are marginalized and viewed as unnatural and different.

Jesus not only rattles the people during biblical times, but his life, teachings and resurrection also frightens people today, including devoted, long-time believers. Can Christians then open their eyes to recognize and understand the messiness of Christmas and this birth in our lives and world?

Religious writer Matt Emerson[2] says it like this:

We are two thousand years from first-century Palestine, but the Incarnation is not like the Civil War. It is not simply an event from which we draw lessons. The challenge for moderns is to see the dynamics of Palestine within the human landscape of the human heart. Our inner life is one of clashing sects and regimes, of shaky alliances and diverse languages. A Herod hides in all of us. So does a Pontius Pilate. And a St. Peter. And a Mary. At one time we are the moralizing Pharisees; at another, the ruling Romans. Christ today must enter this territory. Will we prepare him room? It’s strange. And it’s difficult. Christ unsettles. Christ imperils…A mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry. This is the first Christmas. Can we today recover some of its dramatic impact?”

Amid our joyful celebration of Christmas, can we connect with the upheaval that accompanies Christ’s birth? Can we admit that as much as we want Christmas time (and the days ahead) to be filled with peace and forever free of violence and heartache, the reality is that it’s not going to happen instantaneously?

Can we stop brushing aside the messy, hard-to-look at parts of Christmas and life so we can take a moment to see the pain of humanity instead of ignoring it and pretending that the atrocities around us bear no affect on our daily living and happiness?

Can we acknowledge the pain so that we might connect with the hurting, the oppressed, the outcasts and nobodies whom Jesus came to dwell among?

Can we see in the faces of babies, particularly those born in extreme poverty, the Christ child who was delivered in a musty stable to a poor peasant couple in the hub of Empire?

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Can we see in the faces of immigrants and refugees the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus running for their lives under the cover of night to a foreign land to escape a bloodthirsty king?

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Can we see in the faces of innocent children and families of war-torn Aleppo, the fear and anguish of the children and families in Bethlehem who suffered genocide at the hands of Herod’s army?

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Can we see in the faces of the poor, the working class, the discriminated, the abused, and the broken, the God who dwells among the suffering?

Homeless Man on the Street

Can we see in the face of Herod, our own capabilities for destruction and know that God desires for us to act in the restorative ways of love?

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Can we witness as the magi did, the epiphany of God’s love in the world’s most broken places? Can we truly see the power of our Sovereign Creator who comes to be with us in human flesh and divine glory as a vulnerable, defenseless child?

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In a reflection on the scripture reading, Christian theologian David Lose[3] assures us that we can:

Sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful and filled with goodness and grace. And God is a part of that, giving blessing and celebrating with us and for us. And sometimes life is hard, gritty, disappointing and filled with heartache. And God is part of that as well, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us ever more deeply into God’s loving embrace and promising that nothing—not even death—will separate us from God… God is working not only with the characters of this (Christmas) story, but also working through their triumphs and tragedies in order to work salvation in and for the world. God is likewise holding onto us through the joys and sorrows, working through the triumphs and tragedies that attend our lives—all to share the news of the salvation God has wrought in and through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.”

God is calling each of us to share the good news and help build God’s kingdom—a place where all are welcomed, redeemed and cared for in love.

God is calling each of us to do the work of Christmas, long after the carols have been sung, the decorations have been removed and the season has officially ended. Or as the late civil rights activist Howard Thurman said so profoundly in his poem The Work of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken,

To feed the hungry, to release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers,

To make music from the heart.

             The work of Christmas is not easy. It’s hard, challenging, frustrating and tiring at times. It’s plain ole messy. That’s just how it is.

We take the fear, scorn and despair with the joy, wonder and hope. We take the bad with the good. We take Herod with the magi.

But the anguish reminds us that Jesus enters into a mess and the mess doesn’t overcome God-with-us; and the gloom reassures us that we’ve been made to endure messes and to get busy living out God’s love.

This is the first day of a new year, a new beginning. There’s a lot of messiness in this world and there will be a lot more. None of it will get cleaned up by itself.

So let’s get up and get to work.

Amen.

…………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

 

[1] http://liturgy.co.nz/church-year/herod-christmas

[2] http://www.americamagazine.org/content/ignatian-educator/terrifying-first-christmas

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2973

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This Is Our Story: Finding God in the Mess

A Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015, Genesis 32:22-32, Luke 7:36-50

Bulletin graffiti art by HS youth Courtney Henry
Bulletin graffiti art by HS youth Courtney Henry

I don’t know if you are aware, but the Bible is full of poop.

Now, I’m not suggesting the Bible is a bunch of nonsense. Indeed it’s not. What I mean is that it’s literally full of it!

There are piles of scatological references in this sacred text, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering that throughout history people have always had to figure out how to deal with their crap.

In the time of the Israelites, modern conveniences like trash bags, compost bins, and indoor plumbing didn’t exist, so folks followed specific guidelines for handling waste, whether animal or human:

But the flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering. (Exodus 29:14)

With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:13)

And much like the graphic violence that one finds in cable TV shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, the Old Testament writers didn’t pull any punches when it came to stories about killing the crud out of oppressive rulers:

Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them. After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He must be relieving himself[e] in the cool chamber.” (Judges 3:21-24)

God also doesn’t shy away from using manure to make a point. In the book of Ezekiel, God commands the prophet to do the grossest thing possible as a symbolic way of showing the people of Israel that they would be eating unclean food in the pagan lands of their soon-to-be exile.

And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself. …You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung. The Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will drive them.” Then I said, “Ah Lord God! I have never defiled myself; from my youth up until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by animals, nor has carrion flesh come into my mouth.” Then he said to me, “See, I will let you have cow’s dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread.”

Even Jesus mentions human waste as he gives practical advice to his disciples about what will happen when they share the news of God’s kingdom:

“When people realize it is the living God you are presenting and not some idol that makes them feel good, they are going to turn on you, even people in your own family….A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content—pleased, even—when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, ‘Dung Face,’ what can the workers expect? (Matthew 10:21-25)

Likewise, the apostle Paul explains to the early Christian church in Corinth that those who follow Christ will be treated by the Roman Empire as if they were scat on the bottom of a sandal:

 When others choose taunts and slander against us, we speak words of encouragement and reconciliation. We’re treated as the scum of the earth—and I am not talking in the past tense; I mean today! We’re the scraps of society, nothing more than the foulest human rubbish. (I Corinthians 4:12-13)

Let’s be honest: The Bible is a mess.

And it isn’t solely because the word “dung” is mentioned more than 30 times in the NRSV. There’s so much dysfunction, pain, suffering, weirdness and plain ole messiness within the pages of the Bible that TV reality shows and Shonda Rhimes primetime dramas look tame in comparison!

The Bible is full of messy stories about messy people doing messed up things and finding themselves in a whole heap of mess, right there in front of God and neighbor.

It is essentially one hot stinking glorious mess.

And that’s exactly what I love about the Bible!

It’s not a 12-step guidebook to success or a rulebook to be followed faultlessly, verse by verse so one can dwell in the clouds with golden wings and a harp. The Bible is a collection of stories about God’s love for all of humanity throughout time, despite all its sins and crap.

Some Christians, like the TV evangelists, often say that the problem with this messed up world is that we’ve strayed away from the good ole values of the families in the Bible. We need to return to those stories, they say, so we can make the world and our lives more perfect.

But you and I know that’s bull honkey.

Yes, we need to go back to these stories again and again, but not because they give us examples of how to live an impeccable existence.

Montreat Youth Conference, Week 1, June 9, 2014
Montreat Youth Conference, Week 1, June 9, 2014

We return to these scriptures about messy, flawed people so that we can be reminded that no matter how messy life gets, God is there with us in the muck; and that no matter how much we mess up, God still loves us; God still calls us to show love to the most messed up among us.

What was true in the ancient world remains true in this post modern one: Life is messy and thus our stories are messy.

Sometimes the mess is of our own making as human beings.

We dump our waste on the earth, filling the land, skies and water with garbage and pollution. And we dump on one another—people we like, people we love, people we hate and people we don’t even know.

We have difficulty seeing God’s image in our fellow human beings. We have trouble showing dignity and respect to others who are different from us. We spew a lot of hateful things instead of speaking in love, and the garbage that comes out of us only makes the situation messier.

Then there are the messes we put ourselves in as the result of a bad choice we made…

—The traffic tickets we receive for constantly zipping through a red light.

—The tummy aches we get after eating a pint of ice cream and two bowls of tater tots for dinner.

—The moody demeanor and poor health we experience following months of late night partying with illegal drugs and bottles of alcohol.

—The cutting marks we make on our skin because it’s the only way to release the amount of pain we feel inside over things that we dare not tell another soul.

Isaac's Blessing of Jacob by Suzanne Cherny, Google Images
Isaac’s Blessing of Jacob by Suzanne Cherny, Google Images

These messes threaten to consume us bit by bit by bit until our identity is completely lost, much like Jacob in the Book of Genesis.

Jacob caused quite a mess when he manipulated his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that belonged to his brother Esau. And after fleeing home for fear that Esau will kill him, Jacob still manages to wade even deeper into trouble in an encounter with a man named Laban and his two daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years later as Jacob is passing through a territory belonging to Esau, he realizes that he no longer likes the man he has become, and he struggles to make amends.

Other times the messes are beyond our control—the stuff that suddenly happens without any reason or explanation…

—The family dog that has an accident in the middle of the living room during a party.

—The child who flips out in the middle of a department store because the annoying pop song is blaring too loudly from the overhead speakers.

—The tree that falls onto your fence during a heavy rainstorm.

—the landscaping crew who kicks up a rock while mowing and breaks your car’s back windshield

—The boyfriend who breaks up with you and gives you the silent treatment.

—The grandparent who gets cancer.

—The sudden death of a friend.

These messes comprise a lot of daily life. And more often than not, we try to stick our chins out and wallow our way through the messes in the best way possible.

And finally there are the messes that the world and society has deemed to be a problem, but actually aren’t messes at all…

 —The working poor and homeless

—The LGBTQ person

—The African-American man wearing a hoodie

—The transgendered athlete

—The developmentally challenged child

—The woman with a black eye

—The young adult struggling with depression and anxiety

—The man with severe skin burns on their face

—The middle-aged adult battling their weight

Each of these folks is declared to be a mess by society, and they hear the message so much that they start to believe it themselves. They start to hear their inner voices say: “You’re a mess, you’re a worthless piece of trash!”

But it is up to us to tell those who are viewed as rubbish that they are indeed worthy of a whole mess of God’s love and grace. It’s up to us to say to the marginalized and downtrodden, “You are not a mess.”

Even when we’re in the middle of a mess; whether it’s our own doing or otherwise (and all of us have our own messes to deal with), that mess doesn’t completely define us.

We are much more than our messes because we are beloved creations of God.

Therefore we should show great compassion to others who are dealing with their own mess, unlike the religious leaders who dismiss the sinful woman who comes inside the Pharisee’s home to greet Jesus.

While the details of her mess are not known, the woman is viewed as one who is unworthy of human contact. To Simon the Pharisee and his cohorts, the woman might as well be a pile of dung. Even if she has managed to distance herself from whatever mess she created, the woman can’t seem to escape the label of disgust that has been placed upon her.

And yet hope is not completely lost. Because it’s in the mess that we find God. Or better still, it is in the mess that God meets us face to face.

oil on panel - 12'x8' - 2012
Jacob Wrestling by Edward Knippers, oil on panel – 12’x8′ – 2012. edwardknippers.com

In Jacob’s case, it took an all-night wrestling match of the soul and the cracking of a hip for God to get him unstuck. And the resulting limp in his walk slowed down this slick thief who’d been on the run for so many years. It made him wiser and more tuned in to God’s presence in his life.

 

 

It’s always the messy struggles that leaves us with a scar and shapes us forever. As one of my favorite authors, Rob Bell, says in his 2010 book Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts On Creativity and Suffering:

We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware. (We will become) more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.

From the mess, we can emerge as stronger, open-minded and more aware individuals. Often it’s a matter of laying the mess at the feet of Christ so that we can be changed.

Anointing of Jesus' feet, artist unknown, Google Images
Anointing of Jesus’ feet, artist unknown, Google Images

For the woman who has become a pariah in her own community, there is nothing else she can do but interrupt a dinner party to bring all of her pain and tears to Jesus and pour it into the washing of his feet—an incredible act of humility and servant hood.

Jesus responds to this act—in the midst of the Pharisees who want to make more of a mess out of the situation—by showing the woman compassion and mercy. And the woman, we assume, is changed for a lifetime by Jesus’ love.

When the mess is too much to bear—too much to lift an arm to wrestle with—the only thing we can do is humbly bring it to Christ so that we can be cleaned and made whole.

And just as Jesus awaited the woman at the table in the home of Simon the Pharisee, he awaits us at this communion table now—ready to forgive our messes, to promise us hope of a kingdom and a future without messes and to send us out in peace to clean up the messiness of the world.

And all God’s messy people say Amen.

Notes:

This sermon is a short version of the 45 minute keynote I will give during Week V of the Montreat Youth Conference, Day 2 “Our Stories Are Messy.”

The sermon was inspired by the 2014 book Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by The Skeptical, The Faithful and A Few Scoundrels, edited by Cathleen Falsani

Shonda Rhimes is the creator, head-writer and executive producer of the primetime TV dramas phenoms Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, which all air on ABC.