Holy Profanity - thrive UMC Official Blog

Holy Profanity

silent-night-banner Holy Profanity

As we’re approaching Christmas day, here at thrive we’re trying to keep the ‘holy’ in the holiday.  So to do that, and to remind everyone of the original ‘good news’ this holiday celebrates, we’re going to read the Christmas story, as it’s found in the Gospel according Matthew. Now, as a quick side-note: there are actually four separate, and unique, stories of the life of Jesus found in the Holy Bible. We call these stories ‘the gospels’ –because they’re the stories of good news, for all people.  And, they all tell the same story, and they share several common themes, details, and plot-points between them; but they’re all distinct enough to each merit their own telling.  In fact, this is a common theme in the Bible more broadly: to hold differing perspectives and experiences side-by-side.

Our temptation as readers, however, is to discard the tensions between tellings and collapse the varied narratives into a single, neat story.  And we see this done all the time with the Christmas story we’ll read today.  Most of us, when we think of the birth of Jesus, picture the ‘holy family’ in something of a barn, in the company of animals, an angel, some shepherds, and three flamboyantly dressed men.  This phenomenon, I think, stands as a strong testament to the educational power of children’s plays and miniature artistic renderings of the Nativity scene.  Because no such scene is found in the Bible itself –instead that image we have is a cut-and-paste collage of elements from parts of two of the Jesus stories. And the risk here is that the miracle is lost in the mash-up.

You see, each of the four stories of Jesus in the Bible –Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John– connect the story of Jesus to the broader themes of the varied writings and stories found in the Hebrew Bible, but they all do this in different ways.  And we can see this most explicitly in the way that Jesus is introduced in each story.  The Hebrew Bible, by the way, is the holy scripture that Jesus was raised on, and it remains the holy text for the Jewish faith today.  You may have heard these writings referred to as the ‘Old Testament’, but that label is less than generous, and also misleading, because it makes it sound as if it’s somehow obsolete or outdated.   However, as I hope we found in our reading and exploration of the Exodus story over the past several months, this Hebrew Bible, this Old testament still has a great gift for us to unwrap.

And Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, is a continuation of the Exodus story.  The human hand that penned this wildly inspired story, whom we call ‘Matthew,’ recognized that the good news of Jesus was a whole lot like the good news of the Exodus story: slaves are being set free.  The same power is at work in the world.  The same deep human struggle is being faced. Chains are being discarded, and liberation is blooming powerfully to life.  Only this time, the promise is that the freedom offered comes in a different form.

So let’s read together this great, good news story.  We’re reading from Matthew, chapter two.  Listen for the groans of slavery, and watch for the way God speaks.

Read Matthew, chapter 2

If you were paying close enough attention to this story, you might have noticed a few explicit references and reversals with this story and the Exodus story.  Both tales tell of a jealous king who is fearful of losing his power to a competitor.  In both tales, lots of little baby boys died in a vain effort to stop the uprising before it began.  In both tales, one special little boy narrowly escapes, so he can grow up to save an entire people from an agonizing oppression.  And if we’d read on to the next chapter in Matthew, we’d find that safe passage from death happens in a river, only in this story the vessel, the ark, is baptism, and not a basket.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Now, historically, a whole lot has happened between the Exodus story and the Jesus story. The way over-simplified version is that the slaves came out, found a home for themselves, became a nation (Israel), struggled a lot, had some good times, and some bad times, but in the end slavery came back and won.  The people turned on themselves, got caught up in political drama, God-drama, and so, so much people drama.  And there was a whole lot of war.  They won some battles, but were eventually invaded by Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and by the time we get to Jesus, the Roman Empire ruled the land.  So in short, they found themselves only to lose themselves, over, and over, and over.

So our story in Matthew starts out with a king named Herod.  And Herod had the title of ‘king,’ but he’s more like middle management for a huge foreign corporation.  If you find it helpful, think of a mean version of Michael Scott from the ‘The Office,’ who just found a package on his desk that says: ‘To the future Regional Director of the Scranton Branch, not Michael Scott.’  And this is Herod –he’s a local, Jewish leader; but there are Roman soldiers and supervisors everywhere around Jerusalem to make sure that everyone pays taxes to Rome, and just doesn’t cause trouble.  And so Herod is significantly limited in his actual power, but feels pretty confident in himself until some guys show up at his door and ask, “Hey, where’s the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star and we’ve come to honor him.”

It’s at this moment he realizes that the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, God’s chosen ruler of the chosen people has been born and it’s not him.  And he is ‘troubled.’  So, just like Pharaoh in the Exodus story, he eventually responds by killing all of the baby boys of the kind he thinks might rise up to threaten his power.

Now I bring all of that up, because we, as readers today need to notice where the slavery is coming from.  In the Exodus story, who was the oppressor of the Hebrew people?  The Egyptians, right?  But in the Matthew story, who is oppressing the Jewish people?  The Jewish people! They are now the masters of their own slavery!  Just like in the Exodus story, God, in Matthew, is bringing freedom through a child to the Jewish people, but who is the one stopping it? Who is the one barring the gate toward freedom this time around?  The Jewish head-hauncho! In other words, this is not an ‘us-versus-them’ thing any more politically –it’s just us versus us!

So then where does the Holy Family go to escape this jealous assassination attempt?  To Egypt!  Can you believe this?  Oh irony! Oh holy paradox!  To be safe, this time around the savior finds refuge in the original house of slavery!  And I don’t think we have time for this today, but this is ancient wisdom our modern psychologists and psychoanalysts are confirming: to be emotionally and mentally healthy, we have to go right to the source of the threat.  Don’t run from it.  Don’t fight it.  Face it. Stand with it.  And make your peace.

It’s just like baby Moses in the basket: Moses found shelter from the Murderous King Pharaoh not by floating down river out into some other land –but instead Moses was saved from Pharaoh by moving in and growing up in own Pharaoh’s house!  Can you believe this? Brothers and sisters, this is not just a story, this is a deep and holy and profound mystical symbol for what’s true about humanity! This is an illustration of what is, and was, and always will be true about us as human beings! We like to pretend the enemy is somewhere out there, but just becoming free from one enemy does not make one free! Ever. You leave one land or job or marriage to get away from the evil bad person, and guess what?  There will always be another one!  And after you do this long enough, and you repeat it enough times, and what comes to the surface?  Guess what, the enemy lives in you.  It is a part of you. You might actually find out that it is you.

There was a song that was popular when I was in high school that had a line that said, “It’s no surprise to me I am my own worst enemy (cuz every now and then I kick the living shit out of me.)” I hear that and I go, ‘hey, that sounds like the Bible!’ (And that shit you’re kicking out of yourself is the holy shit. It’s the part of you that knows you’re worth something.  It’s the part of you that knows you’re sacred –just like everybody else.)

But the point for now is that we need to face our enemy and name it.  If we’re going to claim to be a saved people –which I hope we will- we need to call out our enemy and rent a room with them. And the gospel of Matthew here, as we read it last week, identifies that enemy as ‘sin.’  Jesus came to save us from our … sin.

But what is sin?  These days we have a whole lot of trouble with this word, and not without reason.

For this too, our story provides a profound illustration.  Sin is hearing about a new-born savior of your entire people and trying to feel better about yourself and your power by killing it and a bunch of other babies. Sin is finding out about somebody with a role or value like your own and feeling like maybe you’re not worth quite as much anymore, compared with them.  Sin is the self-preoccupation that blinds us from all of the holiness without.  Sin is the delusion that every story and encounter and stoplight and waiting line is a personal attack of the cosmos against us. Sin is taking the approach in life that all of this is for me, instead of experiencing ourselves as a gift for all of this.

Sin is also, by the way, hearing me say this and thinking, ‘Gee, I know a particular a-hole or two who really needs to know about how much of a sinner they are.’

Of course, I don’t want to dwell on and in sin too long, because sin is by no means the last or main point.  But I want to say one more thing, which is that, when we’re ready to confront our own sin –and each of us most certainly have our own unique private struggles with ourselves, that make it difficult for us to relate to God and to others- but when we confront our own personal version of sin, we find out what it eats.  And what sin eats for breakfast is fear and hurt.

So there’s great wisdom too, in the repeated command, “Do not be afraid.”  Which, of course, is not a directive against experiencing fear; but it’s instead an encouragement that you not become and be defined by your fears.  Don’t give your fears the power to control your life, and stifle your holiness.

Because of course the hope here is not simply that we don’t sin; but the hope is that we’ll live fully into our own holiness.

To be holy simply means to be sacred.  Something holy is precious and treasured.  It also has the traditional connotation of being ‘set apart.’  In other words, there’s always a sense that will always approach the holy as being not us.  There’s a ‘not me’ quality about it.  And that ‘not me’ quality is divine.

And our challenge in this is to recognize the holy that is all around us.  And good news here is that the holy is not just somewhere ‘out there,’ set apart from us, but that the holy is even within us.  Through the miracle our tradition calls the ‘incarnation’ –the enfleshment of God- that moment when the divine was fully humanized in the person of Jesus, flesh and spirit were forever reconciled.  That miracle revealed that the ‘image of God’ in which we were all created was not irreversibly tarnished by the messiness of our sin and of our profanity.  But instead, through the living body and example of Jesus, we came to encounter the presence of God in a sense of fullness that had never been available to us before.  And through that act, we’re able to recognize the holy in other bodies too.

Now, I want to pause just a moment here, because there’s a frustration at this point that most of us get drawn into: most of us have a deep yearning to experience the holy within ourselves. But that is, for some reason, very, very hard for us to do. Maybe it’s even impossible.  And in the pursuit of experiencing our own holiness –as we try to experience the sacred fingerprint of God upon us and within us- we’re tempted to start playing the comparison game.  And that’s where the pursuit of the ‘holy’ quickly degrades into that horrible ‘Holier-than-thou’ Deathmatch. Because holiness cannot be experienced in isolation –and most certainly not in competition- but it can only be experienced in relationship.  For some strange reason, we can turn and look at all the people and see the holy so easily.  It’s so easy, if we try, to see the goodness, the value, the difference, the sacred worth of those around us.

And here’s the really crazy part: other people can turn around and see it in us, too.  Because it’s there, in everyone. And we need to be in community with other people for our own holiness to come out and be recognized.

I want to mention, very quickly, the hymn Silent Night.  It’s a great song, isn’t it?  And yet, if you listen to the song, what does it have to say about what holiness sounds like?  It sounds like it’s quiet, right?  It sounds like holiness is a lot like sleeping, or maybe even being dead.  Holiness sounds like a baby not crying.  It sounds like a woman procreated without sex. In short, in the song, holiness sounds a whole lot like things not happening. In the song, holiness sounds so beautiful and peaceful, but also so harmless and boring.  Because, so often, the excitement, the vitality –so often life itself- happens in the mess. With sin all around it.  In none of the Biblical accounts of the birth story can we find anything like the scene described in that hymn, or in those pretty and sterile little nativity scenes, where all the pieces fit so nicely together.  In the Bible, the miracle comes into a world that does not want it.  This child was born to compete with the established, enslaving powers of the world. This child was born with flesh that could not stay silent because it experienced hunger and danger.  This child was born a miracle not because it was so clean, or easy, or quiet; but instead the child was a miracle because its loud, and messy, and dramatic humanness turned out to be a perfectly fitting home God to come alive in, and reveal the divine character.

You see, all of the things that make human beings so repulsive and scary to one another aren’t so intimidating or disgusting to God.  In fact, it’s precisely among the mess, and the noise, and the sin, and the conflict that God chooses to show up. And this, brothers and sisters, is the Christmas miracle: that even after we have soiled our hands with the blood of our own babies, God shows up as a tender infant to show us what true and lasting freedom looks like.  It looks like making a holy offering of ourselves.  It looks like putting our power down for a moment to become vulnerable. It looks like living as an ordinary person, and finding out how to be free, even though the chains stay on.

That’s the kind of freedom that lasts.  That’s the kind of freedom that will save us.  When we become living vessels of love and service, joyfully together –instead of slaves to our own self-interest.

Let’s pray.