If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Virgin, the Baby, and the Christmas Sex Scandals: My last controversial Christmas sermon before leaving pastoral ministry 7 years ago

Believe it or not, Christmas in early America was a scandalous holiday. It was not a celebration for families and children, particularly since it had strong sexual overtones. Christmas as it was practiced in the 17th century so offended the Puritans that the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed its observance in 1659. The fine for observing Christmas in Massachusetts was 5 shillings. Most people did not celebrate Christmas for the first two centuries in New England.

Why was Christmas such a scandal? In his Pulitzer Prize nominated study Stephen Nissenbaum reveals how Christmas was once a peasant celebration marked by excess drinking, gluttony, carousing, cross dressing, and lewd sexual acts. In 1725 the Reverend Henry Bourne called the way most people commonly behaved during the Christmas season “a Scandal to Religion, and an encouraging of Wickedness.” Peasants practiced a kind of trick-or-treat. While “wassailing” they would forcibly enter the homes of the wealthy and demand to be treated to food, drink and money, or else. “Mumming” was a common practice at Christmas with men and women going door to door dressed in one another’s clothes. Singing Christmas carols was considered a “disgrace,” since it was generally performed in the midst of rioting, fornication and wantonness. No wonder Christmas was such a scandal!

By comparison to these early Christmas celebrations, our Christmases are pretty tame. Christmas has been domesticated into a sentimental season for children and for celebrating consumer capitalism. The transformation of the carnival of Christmas in early America was accomplished by some New York aristocratic gentlemen known as the Knickerbockers. The group included such men as Clement Moore, author of The Night Before Christmas, and Washington Irving, who popularized Santa Claus. These wealthy, elite men were politically conservative, fearful of the working class and opposed to democracy. In their hands the once wild and scandalous Christmas celebration was creatively domesticated.

Even as a religious holiday Christmas has become pretty tame. There is little hint of scandal in present day Christmas celebrations, if you exclude all the drunken Santas. Like sugar plums, Christmas card images of Christmas dance in our heads----humble Mary, wise Joseph, meek-and-mild Jesus in a manger, star with kite tail, three wise men bearing gifts to the baby in the manger , which is biblically inaccurate, and the snow falling gently on the ground. Just a simple scene of dad, mom and the newborn stranded away from home on the holidays. This Christmas scene would warm the heart of most red-blooded, middle-class, suburban American families. The whole story of Jesus’ birth has become a Hallmark snapshot of sweetness, nostalgia and wholesomeness. Christmas is pictured as American as apple pie and presents under the tree on Christmas morn. We can thank God that we don’t have to view scenes of lewdness on our streets or men dressed like Ru Paul showing up at our front door on Christmas day! Who would be so shameful as to include sexual scandals in the Christmas story?

Well, how about Matthew, the writer of the first Christmas story? In his telling the birth of Jesus was surrounded with scandal and strong sexual overtones. It all begins with the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew. Matthew traces the royal lineage of Jesus the Messiah all the way back to King David and beyond. Normally women were left out of the family records. Strangely enough, Matthew includes five women in Jesus’ genealogy----Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Not only is it unusual that these women are included as branches in the family tree of Jesus, but they all share in common the taint of some sort of sexual irregularity in their stories. There is scandal woven like a string of popcorn through this Christmas family tree!

Just look at the family tree of Jesus. On one limb we have Tamar. Quite an ornament. Her story sounds like some headline in a supermarket tabloid. But, there it is, right there in the pages of the Bible. Don’t let your kids read this stuff! It could corrupt their innocent minds. The story begins with Judah, who went out and got his youngin’, Er, a wife. Before he could have any children God struck poor ol’ Er dead as a door nail, ‘cause he was a bad dude. So, Judah told his other son, Onan, to go and sleep with Tamar, which was his brotherly duty according to the law. As weird as it may sound, Onan has sex with Tamar, his brother’s widow. But, he performed coitus interruptus. Let’s call it, in banking terms, an early withdrawal.

Onan knew that the child he would help create would not be considered his. That is why he did not totally fulfill his brotherly duty. Well, God bumped off Onan for not getting Tamar P.G. Then, Judah refused to offer his third son, Shelah, to Tamar, ‘cause he was only knee high to a grasshopper. Besides, Judah was afraid his last son might get iced by God. Judah said to Tamar, “Why don’t you go live with your dad awhile. Wait ‘til my son gets rid of his peach fuzz. Then, you two can tie the knot and have a kid.” Two dead sons at the hands of one God was enough to leave a bad taste in Judah’s mouth and make him just a little suspicious of Tamar.

As the story goes, Judah’s wife up and kicks the bucket. After the funeral and a lot of Kleenex, Judah heads off to a sheep shearers convention. Tamar hears about his away-from-home trip, puts on a sexy veil and a lot of red lipstick and heads off in the same direction as that there convention. She’s ready to pull the wool over some shepherd’s eyes. Standing alongside the road leading to the convention Tamar hides her sheepish grin beneath her veil. Tamar spots Shelah, who by now has growed hisself a full man-beard. Tamar looks at Shelah and remembers her empty crib.

Then, along comes big daddy Judah. He’s checkin’ out Tamar, thinkin’ she’s a lady of the evening, a “prostitory.” Judah propositions Tamar: Voulez vous couche avec moi, which translate loosely as “bleep, bleep, bleep.” They go get a cheap hotel room. He wants to pay with a sheep. She thinks that’s a ba-a-a-a-a-d idea. Tamar asks for his big man ring, the one with Judah engraved on it. Look out, man! To make a long and even more sordid story short, young Tamar ends up having a bun in the oven by her creepy old father-in-law. She also becomes one of the beloved ancestors of Jesus hanging around on his Christmas family tree.

Next, we have hanging on the tree---Rahab. She was a foreigner, a prostitute and a traitor to her people. Three strikes, you’re out. Or so you would think. As the story goes, Joshua sent out some spies to check out the land of Canaan. These spies end up checking out Rahab. I imagine her in a tight miniskirt, stiletto heels, trying to eek out a living by walking the mean streets of Jericho. Immediately upon entering the land of Canaan the Israelite spies spend the night at her home. Hmmmmm. Now, how in the heck did these upstanding young men know where a prostitute lived? What, in God’s name, were Joshua’s spies doing at a Canaanite brothel? I thought they came to check out the lay of the land. And I’m not referring to Rahab! Maybe Rahab was a counter intelligence agent and they were gathering strategic military information. Yeah, that’s the ticket! She hid the spies from the king of Jericho and her household was spared when the city was finally conquered. There she is, Rahab, in all her glory. A Canaanite prostitute. As proud as punch to be there on Jesus’ family tree.

On another branch of the tree is Ruth, another foreigner. She is a Moabite. Moabites were descendants of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughter. The scandal just gets thicker. Ruth is also a widow. Her husband and sons all died leaving Ruth with no social security. All she had left was her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth hooked her destiny onto the tailgate of Naomi and they headed off for the land of Judah. Remember him…and Tamar?

After getting their suitcases unpacked and pots and pans in the kitchen, they went to work in the fields of a rich dude by the name of Boaz, kinfolk of Naomi. Ruth caught the wandering eye of Boaz. I guess he liked the way she gleaned. He invited her over for lunch. Bread and wine. Later Naomi tried to play the matchmaker. She told Ruth to go get spruced up, put on a nice dress, fix your hair, and go down to Boaz’ bread factory. Naomi says to Ruth, “After Boaz finishes eating and drinking, watch where he goes to bed. Then go uncover his (snicker, snicker) “lower parts,” and lay with him. He’ll know what to do.” Unmarried and sleeping together. Scandalous! Shame on the family of David, husband of Bathsheba. I’m getting ahead of myself.

From a roll in the grain, Ruth has a bun in the oven. That bun would grow up to be king David’s grandpa. A Moabite widow not only gets a book written about her, she has her name proudly hung up there on the Messiah’s family tree.

Then, there’s the wife of Uriah. One starry night king David takes a stroll along the palace rooftop at just the right time to see a lovely young woman, Bathsheba, taking a bubble bath. He gets all hot and bothered. This married man, this king of God’s people, has his servants go fetch her. As if she would refuse to come. She is a pawn in king David’s game of lust and power. David commits adultery with her and murders her husband. Bathsheba’s unwitting husband is a foot soldier in David’s army. David tries to get Uriah sauced so he will have sex with his wife and cover up David’s dirty deed. Uriah is too loyal a man to leave his post to be with his wife, so David has him put on the front lines in the heat of battle. Uriah finally comes home….in a body bag. David now has this poor man’s wife dangling on his arm. Bathsheba is a victim of sexual lust and political power. She’s an angel with a crooked halo on the Christmas family tree of Jesus, the Messiah.

Finally, we come to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the shining star at the top of the tree. I should say “virgin” mother of Jesus. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t recollect meeting any mothers who were virgins. And you can bet I would bust a gut if some teenage mother with a baby perched on her cocked hip said to me, “You got it right, Jack. I’m still a virgin. And guess who the pappy is?” Virgin and mother? Yeah, right! And you’ve been smokin’ what?

Well, check this out. This is how the birth of the Messiah happened. Mary, a teenager, is engaged to this old geezer Joseph. He finds out (maybe through one of those home pregnancy tests) that Mary is “with child.” And old Joe know it ain’t his. Divorce court would only cause this scandal to hit the headlines. Can’t you just see it, right there next to the headlines of Elvis sightings and the three-headed alien? It reads: Virgin teenage mother gives birth to the savior of the world.
Joe had a good heart and wouldn’t put Mary through that kind of public scandal. On one of those tossin’-and-turnin’ nights an angel sneaks into a weird dream of Joseph and says, “Go tie the knot with Mary, ‘cause that baby’s real daddy is the Holy Ghost!” Ooooookay. Sounds like a Clinton spin doctor at work. Later, some rumors spread around the gossip mill that the father was really a Roman soldier by the name of Pandira.

Anyway, as the story grows, Joe and Mary head off for the chapel. A wedding snapshot might show old Joe at the altar dressed in a tux with graying temples with his blushing bride, a round yon virgin, at his side dressed in a white wedding gown and the unseen father, the Holy Ghost as best man. It all seems to fit the family tree. The Messiah, born of a virgin mother, comes from a long line of sexual scandals and irregularities. And believe it or not, this is the child who will be called “Immanuel, God with us.” Lord, have mercy.

Amid all those scandalous incidents, sexual innuendos, and social embarrassments, Jesus is born. Immanuel, God with us. And isn’t that just the way Jesus would enter the world, right smack in the middle of the messy human predicament. Not like some scene on a Hallmark card with pristine snow, proud papa, haloed mother, and neon-glowing baby, but in a barnyard of bleating sheep, steaming cow dung , sweaty teenage mom, and a family tree with bent branches. It all fits.

That child in the manger would grow up to carry on his offbeat family heritage. Jesus stepped right into the muck and mess of human life, not fiting in, breaking custom and tradition, for the sake of sharing the love and grace of God with all people regardless of their gender, sexual history or orientation, social class, or failed moral lives.

He welcomed those who didn’t fit into the social and religious boxes of his day. Jesus was known to talk publicly with women about God and truth. Scandalous! He even let one woman intimately bathe his feet with her tears and hair. Blush, blush. He wined and dined with tax-collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. Shocking! Hesus preferred to be with the poor, sick, lepers, lame and blind, than to hob nob with the religious elite at the temple. In the end, this child from a broken family tree would die a scandalous death on the cross.

From the scandal of the crib to the scandal of the cross this child, this messiah, revealed the presence of God with us, Immanuel. Into the brokenness, the scandal, the sexual irregularities, the untidiness of human life, God is with us.

Jesus, the Messiah, is born under a odd Christmas family tree. The needles are fallen off in places, like a dog with mange. Some branches are crooked, while other branches we would like to hide. The Messiah is born amid scandal, irregularities and the disorder that is humanity. Isn’t that the good news of Christ’s birth? God is with us in the muck and mess of it all. God dares to enter this weak, fabulous, frail, longing, lovely, hungry, abused, pierced flesh of humanity in a child born in a manger.

Now, we all have our scandals and irregularities in our own family trees. Neither our own families or our own personal lives are Hallmark cards. There’s the alcoholic uncle who embarrasses everyone at the Christmas get togethers. A grandma whose lately been saying some weird stuff that don’t make a whole lot of sense. The teenage niece who had the child out of wedlock and parades it around like a trophy. That adult cousin who acts like a 9 year old. The daughter who came out of the closet and her parents feel like hiding in it. They are all part of our family tree.

And still, we love them. Sometimes because they are family. Sometimes we love those who don’t quite fit the mold, or have messed up their lives, or have been messed up by life, not because they are family. We love them because we have been touched by the grace of God, a God who is with us and who loves us like a parent, even though we may not have fit the mold. A God who is with us and loves is irregardless of our own hidden scandals. A God who is with us and loves us with our own peculiarities and warped ways. This God, who is with us and loves us, has come in our own skin, into our own cockeyed history. That is surely the good news of Christmas.

God’s love and redemptive plan throughout the long stretch of history will not be thwarted by the scandal, the disarray and disorder of the human condition. Jesus, the Messiah, is born unto us. All of us. No matter who we are, what we have done, no matter how far we have fallen short of what we should be, or from what others think we should be.

God is with us and loves us, in all our humble and humiliating humanity. For God has chosen to come to us all wrapped up in that baby born in a manger bed. And God will continue to be with us in the vulnerability of human life….there….amid the sheep and the smell…in a makeshift crib….in a makeshift world….Jesus is born. Immanuel. God with us.

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