Sermon, December 22, 2013

Published January 7, 2014 by

12-22-13 Seeing Ourselves in the Story
Phil Campbell, Northern Light United Church, Juneau, Alaska
Texts: Isaiah 7: 10-16
10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
Matthew 1: 18-25
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

The first Christmas Eve I spent as the pastor of the Park Hill Church in Denver was on a Sunday. At the morning service I had the privilege of baptizing the great-great grandson of the oldest member of the church. Markus lived with his parents on the east coast and they had traveled to Denver to be with family for the holidays. It was a glorious celebration of joy and love as most baptisms are. It was also a special way to observe Christmas – the opportunity to affirm God’s love for this infant child of the church on the day we prepared for the birth of the baby Jesus.

Markus would return now and again to Denver for family visits. One occasion was the Christmas after he turned five. He attended the Pre-K church school class on the Sunday after Christmas. We were using The Word Among Us, a lectionary based curriculum, and the lesson for the day was the story of Jesus’ childhood that is recorded in the second chapter of Luke. Jesus had journeyed to Jerusalem with his parents for the festival of the Passover. But when but when the festival was over and the family headed back to Nazareth, Jesus stayed behind to talk with the elders in the temple. (This part of the story has always distressed me. It took his parents a couple of days to notice that Jesus wasn’t with them!)

The curriculum had an accompanying art resource entitled Imaging the Word, that contains striking visual depictions of the lessons. The picture of Jesus with the elders in the art book was one rendered by a French artist Bénédite de la Roncière . It is part of a series commissioned by a Catholic organization in Cameroon, Jesus Mafa. It is a set of prints that portray the life of Jesus through the lens of African village life. (See sermon pdf file for a picture of Jesus Among the Elders.)

Markus looked at the picture and said to the teacher, “That’s not Jesus.” The teacher was a skilled educator who didn’t argue with Markus but asked him more about his reaction. (In interests of full disclosure, the teacher was Teresa, my spouse!) Markus said it couldn’t be Jesus, because Jesus was white. Markus was raised in the dominant culture of our country where the most popular recent depiction of Jesus is Sallman’s Head of Christ, a man with long, straight brown hair with decidedly European features (picture on the sermon pdf file).

Markus could not imagine Jesus as looking different from Sallman’s painting even though no one knows what Jesus looked like. What makes Markus’ reaction so strikingly poignant is that Markus is African American.

I grew up thinking of Jesus as someone who looked like me. In fact, when I was a young ministerial student with longer hair (and more of it), and with hair and a beard that was brown instead of white, it was not uncommon for people to tell me, “You look like Jesus.” Don’t worry, it didn’t go to my head; although there are some who have thought of me as having a martyr complex! Think of the significance. I grew up seeing myself in the Jesus story. I experienced the story of Jesus and his family as one to which I could relate. Jesus was someone like me. Markus, however, could not relate to Jesus. To him, Jesus was “other.” Jesus was not like him nor was he like Jesus. Markus had internalized the dominant culture messages that excluded him from the story.

I thought of Markus in the wake of the media reaction to Aisha Harris’ piece about the problem that a white Santa poses for children of color. She, somewhat tongue in cheek, suggested that we should start thinking of Santa as a penguin, because everyone likes penguins and no one would feel left out. Fox News’ Megyn Kelly took issue with Harris’ assertion. Kelly stated that Santa is white and people should just accept it. Kelly added that Jesus was white, too, although she later reported that she subsequently learned that certainty about Jesus’ color is far from settled.

I won’t comment further about Santa ;-), but regarding Jesus, I ask, “does it matter?” Is it important to know what color Jesus was, what he looked like, what the specifics of his human existence were? My answers to these questions are “yes,” and “no.” I answer in these opposite ways for the same theological reason: the incarnation. The incarnation is the affirmation that God comes to be with us and like us. Our readings this morning both from Isaiah and from Matthew proclaim, “Emanuel,” which means, “God with Us.”

The Christian testimony is that God becomes incarnate in humanity in the life of Jesus. The particulars of Jesus’ life matter because, to state the obvious, but to state something we also often fail to appreciate, no one is human in general. No one, including Jesus, is a generic human being; instead, he, like the rest of us, is grounded in the particulars of a specific life. Jesus’ specificity matters. It is what the scholars call, “the scandal of particularity.” It can shake our assumptions when we tend to the details of Jesus’ existence. Jesus’ way of being human was shaped by his Jewishness, and by his working class status in occupied Palestine. Jesus was not wealthy. Unlike the Apostle Paul, he was not a Roman citizen raised with all the benefits that accrue thereto. We know that his life, ministry and message put him at odds with the Roman occupiers and that he was executed as an enemy of the state. We don’t know with any certainty what Jesus looked like but it is a pretty sure bet he did not have northern European features. It is unclear what the mix of African and Mediterranean was two thousand years ago. All these particulars are important. They were shaping influences on the life Jesus lived. So, yes, what Jesus looked like, and how he was human, does matter. He was a particular human being.

But on the other hand, the theological significance of Emmanuel is that God is with us, and “us” means everyone. God is with each of us in the specificity of our individual lives and amid the cultural and ethnic influences that shape us.

Matthew reports that “the birth of Jesus took place this way.” Did it? Matthew’s assertion goes beyond the facts of what we can know Jesus’ life. “The birth of Jesus took place this way.” Not according to Luke who tells a quite different tale of the nativity. For Matthew, it was important to tell the story from Joseph’s perspective and to ground it in the tradition of the prophets. Matthew tells the story as if Isaiah predicted it, that Jesus’ birth is what the seventh chapter of Isaiah is about. Some contend that this is literally and factually the case. But reading the seventh chapter makes it clear that Isaiah’s concern was the plight of his contemporaries. The child born to the young woman was not a prophecy about what would happen 600 years hence, but about the need for a sign of God’s peaceful presence in their immediate context. They needed God with them to settle the dispute among the two kings that was happening in Isaiah’s day. Matthew, however, like preachers are wont to do, saw Jesus in the story, and thus he tells us that Jesus’ birth took place to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. This is a perfectly acceptable way to draw upon our tradition, but doing so it is different from literally limiting the incarnation to a single way of describing how God is with us. Do the specifics of Jesus’ life matter? Yes, in that they shaped his particular life, but no if it keeps others from seeing themselves in the story. The good news of great joy comes to all people. The good news is that everyone can see themselves in the story! This is expressed in the various renditions of Jesus by various artists. (see examples in pdf file).

One depiction won a contest conducted by The National Catholic Reporter. It captures the complexity of seeking to portray Jesus. It invites everyone to be able to relate to him. Jesus is seen as a contemporary, multicultural, androgynous figure (see pdf file).

In keeping with this last portrayal, I return to my mention that Matthew’s story differs from Luke’s. It was important for Matthew to root his telling in his understanding of the prophetic tradition, and to connect Joseph with the story. For Luke, it was crucial to tell the story from Mary’s perspective. Luke’s story is grounded in Jesus’ identification with the poor and the dispossessed. In particular, Luke’s Jesus is, in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s phrase, “the woman identified man.” Not only, then, can males of all races and cultures see themselves in the story, but so, too, can all women. I saw this good news of great joy recently conveyed in a bit of internet humor that offered three “proofs” the Jesus was a woman:
1. He had to feed a crowd at a moment’s notice, when there was no food;
2. He kept trying to get the message across to a bunch of men who just didn’t get it;
3. Even when he was dead, he had to get up because there was more work for him to do.

Does it matter what color Jesus was? Yes and no. Yes, Jesus lived a specific life. He was human the only way humans can be – in particular, not in general. But no in the sense that Jesus’ specificity does not limit God being with us in our specificity. Emmanuel, God with Us, means all of us!

It has been years since I have seen Markus. I pray that he has come to be able to see himself in the story. That he has come to know that God is with him. This Christmas, may this good news of great joy been known to him and to us all. Amen.

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