Christmas Day 2013
by The Rev. Ron Willis
When viewed through the lens of American cultural and political values, God reveal’s God’s self in the most irrational of ways. We celebrate the likes of Donald Trump and the Housewives of Excess. We pay our sports heroes more than one could reasonably ever spend and our teachers and first responders so little that they can’t afford to live where they work. We fund massive corporations to steal commodity crops at below-cost prices and simultaneously cut off the primary source of food access to the most vulnerable among us. And the fundamentalist Christians among us are so drunk on American self-righteousness that they actually believe that they can force God’s hand and bring about the Second Coming by playing a very dangerous geopolitical game in the Holy Land.
Often at Christmas we ponder where Jesus might return to us. And just as often, we might suggest a homeless shelter here in the City, a farmworker’s encampment in the Central Valley, a desolate Native American reservation. But as deplorable as these and other domestic situations may be, and they are, they don’t meet the smell test when compared to the way God has entered into human history according to Scripture.
One of God’s great occasions of self-revelation came through the Hebrew people in Egypt. Holy Scripture brings us a vivid account of the flight of an enslaved people and their great Exodus to a new homeland. But why would God choose these people? Their entire race was enslaved by one of the greatest powers on Earth. And most likely people had no idea who they were, nor cared about their plight. But God heard the cries of this people, and made them the test case for revealing God’s purposes to and through them via Moses and the Prophets.
From the viewpoint of dominant American cultural values, we should have expected God to work in and through the Pharaoh and the elite of Egypt, a great power of the day. There, God would get everyone’s attention. There, God would have a great army and massive wealth to use to bring about God’s purposes. But God could not have acted more differently. God chose to reveal God’s self through the one group of people under the influence of Egypt’s power who had the very least of everything. No political power. No wealth. And no freedom. This hardly seems like a rational way to get humanity’s attention.
And today, as we celebrate the first coming of the Messiah, we are again confronted with a seemingly irrational set of circumstances if God’s intent is to illustrate to humanity God’s purposes. By our standards, we’d expect God to act in and through the great player on the political and cultural stage, through Rome and the Imperial apparatus. That’s where you get noticed, right? That’s were the power is. That’s where you have to go if you want to make a difference. But again, God does just the opposite.
God’s greatest revelation to us, God’s actual enfleshment, takes place in a most ridiculously unimportant backwater of the Empire.
To a nobody couple, probably crashing with relatives in an overfull household, all waiting to be assessed for burdensome taxation by the foreigners who rule them. With no bed available, the infant God incarnate is lovingly placed in a feeding trough, of all things. This is how God enters into human history, as the bastard child of a poor young couple who are on the road in the middle of absolutely nowhere? It’s a scene right out of one of Dorothea Lange’s iconic depression-era photographs. Hardly befitting a king, much less God’s own incarnation.
But wait, there’s more!
Shepherds were much celebrated in the agrarian periods of the Old Testament. They were seen as loyal caretakers who risked life and limb to shield their flock from harm, and we’ve done a remarkable job of romanticizing their existence. But by the time of Jesus’ birth Shepherds represented the lowest of the low in society. They were seen as moochers, feeding their animals on others’ land. They were assumed to be otherwise unemployable and as utterly untrustworthy. Some towns and villages banned them from entering their gates. They were not even permitted to testify in court, so unworthy were they. Moreover, they were despised by the religious authorities of the time, because they did not respect the Sabbath, working every day as they did, and also because they dealt with filthy dirty animals. Unpure! Unpure! The shepherds in our Gospel today are the quintessential outsiders.
And it is to these outsiders, these absolutely powerless itinerants, whom God’s messengers reveal the amazing new thing that God is doing in Bethlehem.
For decades now conservatives in America have picked and chosen through the sermons and statements of the Pope of Rome to imply Papal approval of their agenda. Recent Popes have provided them with plenty of material, which they used to justify the subjugation of women and to question the human dignity of gays and lesbians and others on the margins. And now, in Frances, we hear something different coming the Vatican. His message: we’ve been railing against abortion and gay rights so much that we’re blue in the face. Enough. It’s time to focus on being the disciples Jesus taught us to be through his word and example. It’s time to look after the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned and the sick.
And so the conservatives here have just lost it! This Pope is a radical Marxist! Somebody talk to him! Somebody get him back on message – it’s all about abortion and gay rights! How dare he suggest that unfettered Capitalism has a hidden dark side? Who is he to decry how those who “have” can work the system to gain more at the expense of those who “have not?” Blasphemy, they cry!
But what does Scripture tell us? God reveals God’s self to those who are lowly, outcast, enslaved and poor. Our job as Jesus’ disciples is to prefigure the reign of God. We are to expect that God’s reign will continue to break into this world in places where human need is the greatest: Among those who hunger, those who are in prison, those who suffer because of the active or passive neglect of the powerful.
Our Christmas invitation might be to be in those places, or empower others to do so, to be God’s hands and feet in this world until Jesus returns.