Loved by God, Still Having to Run
As our morning prayer today, we used the lyrics to Stevie Wonder's "Someday at Christmas."
Someday at Christmas men won't be boys
Playing with bombs like kids play with toys
One warm December our hearts will see
A world where men are free
Someday at Christmas there'll be no wars
When we have learned what Christmas is for
When we have found what life's really worth
There'll be peace on earth
Someday all our dreams will come to be
Someday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime
Someday at Christmas we'll see a land
With no hungry children, no empty hands
One happy morning people will share
A world where people care
Someday at Christmas there'll be no tears
When all men are equal and no man has fears
One shining moment, one prayer away
From our world today
Someday all our dreams will come to be
The Sermon: "Loved by God, Still Having to Run"
To generalize is impulsive. To generalize is a mental reflex. Without a lot of effort, we cannot help but generalize, and even when we are trying not to it is a challenge for us. Yet if we do not keep ourselves from generalizing people, events, and circumstances we make understanding impossible.
- How about a little help from Justice Scalia? This week, he shared more of his wisdom with the Supreme Court and the world: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower track school where they do well.” As I was working on this sermon during the week, I asked some of my friends and family members the most ridiculous stereotype they’d heard of recently. My friend, Darvin Williams, who reminded me of this Scalia gem happens to be African American and a graduate of Georgetown Law School.
- Another friend is a pathologist who is in Los Angeles for a professional meeting. He said he had heard while in Los Angeles that all Asians are bad drivers. Who knew?
- My older son who is a supervisor of a large library staff in Baltimore County got in trouble with his boss a while back. He had asked an employee not to use her cell phone when she was working at the circulation desk. His boss, a female, called him in and told him he mishandled the situation terribly, that he needed to learn that women are more emotional than men.
- The most dedicated mothers always become stay at home moms.
- All wealthy people are arrogant.
- Single people can’t be as happy and fulfilled as married people.
- Most problems in our country are caused by immigrants.
- Men are less nurturing than women.
- All preachers like fried chicken! How do you think Colonel Sanders became so rich?
- All churches are alike. That isn’t true. If that were true, most of us wouldn’t be going to one.
- All men are dogs! No we’re not. Some of us are gentlemanly, respectful of women, and capable of monogamy.
- Southerners eat dirt. Not all southerners eat dirt. Some Mississippians do, but not all southerners.
Careless generalizing, mindless generalizing is at the root of racism and all forms of prejudice. To assume that everyone of a particular race or social class is like all others of that race or social class is absolutely ridiculous. To assume that every person who professes a certain religion is exactly like all others who claim to embrace that same religion is unfair at best and dangerous at worst.
The potential way of dealing with entry of Syrian immigrants into this country on the basis of their religious identifications is absurd. Absurd is the new normal in this presidential campaign,
isn’t it? If a Syrian refugee says she or he is a Christian, then we should let her or him in, but if immigrants say they are Muslims, they must be rejected. OMG! Brilliant proposal!
What kind of Christian shall we admit? The kind of Christian who promotes violence? The kind of Christian some of the presidential contenders are who want to kill off large segments of the human population? Or those Christians who believe that Jesus was not the militaristic Messiah envisioned by some of the ancient Hebrew prophets though he had some of the characteristics for which the ancient Hebrews hoped? For example, a thirst for peace, earning him the title Prince of Peace. If Jesus were the Prince of Peace then using violence as a knee jerk solution to people and situations we do not like doesn't fit. There are all kinds of Christians, and plenty of them through the ages as today have been the violent variety.
Still at the borders, Christians are always the good guys, and Muslims are always terrorists or terrorists in the making, right? Have mercy!
- Adolf Hitler was a Christian. He was baptized as an infant and confirmed as a teenager by the Roman Catholic Church. Twisted in so many ways, Hitler embraced Jewish Jesus as a model Aryan. I can’t recall in what context it appears, but in Mein Kampf, he wrote: “...I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
- Every member of the Westboro Baptist Church is a Christian.
- The original effort of a Ku Klux Klan fizzled, but it was revived in 1915 by several fine Christian men, one of whom was a Methodist lay clergyperson, William Joseph Simmons.
Certainly I know that there have been and are many exemplary Christians, but that is no basis for assuming all Christians are ethical, compassionate, or nonviolent. You probably caught Muhammad Ali’s response to Donald Trump’s apparent Islamophobia:
I am a Muslim, and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion….Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.
So to say that we will stop at the border all Muslims as if all Muslims are of the same stripe is colossal ignorance. Yes there are those Muslims, a very small percentage of all Muslims worldwide, who are violent. “Jihadists” they are currently being called by some, and that too is unfortunate because the word “jihad” fundamentally refers to a holy war that goes on within oneself. Translating it as a word promoting active physical aggression against non-Muslim “infidels” is, again, clueless. Not all Muslims are alike any more than all Christians are alike.
Same with Jews. You have pacifistic Jewish Jesus on the one hand, and on the other hand you have Jewish King Herod the Great, who had baby boys killed en masse and members of his own family put to death because of fear that someone might usurp his authority and take his throne.
It doesn't make much sense, does it, for God to have gone to all the trouble God went through to get Mary pregnant without a human male’s involvement only two years later to trap Jesus in a
situation where he might easily have been killed by crazy King Herod who ordered the massacre of all Jewish boys under the age of 2? It’s the same sick pseudoreasoning that would have God
creating the human race and then saying, “I really botched it up, and these human types are absolutely intolerable so I'm just going to wipe them out with a big ol’ flood and go back to the drawing board.” That is not how God works despite finding those kinds of themes introduced into mythology.
I do not believe in a virgin birth for Jesus or anyone else. However, I have the utmost respect for anyone in this congregation and among my students and friends who differ with me. It has
been much more offensive to some of my theological sparring partners in the past that I don't believe one’s view on the virgin birth makes any difference in terms of one's relationship to God.
The idea of a virgin birth tells us something about how those who knew Jesus best looked back on all the details of his life after it was over and tried to figure out what it was that caused him to be
so in tune with and in touch with God. They thought he must have been God’s progeny, which led to all sorts of assumptions and projections. The doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus, and that’s
what it is--doctrine, was a very respectful effort on the part of those who originally thought of it to give Jesus the honor he was due.
Even so, only two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, mention it; no other books in the New Testament treat the doctrine at all. Not until the end of the second century did any group of Christians emphasize this line of thought about Jesus, which even the arch fundamentalist scholar of the early twentieth century and author of a whole book on the subject, J. Gresham Machen, had to admit was the case. Back to my main concern today about Mary’s pregnancy.
An unmarried pregnant Jewish person near the time of Jesus’ birth, if she were not put to death for adultery, would have been cast to the very edges of society for ridicule and rejection. Again,
why would God go to all the trouble of getting Mary pregnant without the involvement of a human male only to put her life in danger with the very pregnancy that was supposed to get Jesus into
Many of you will certainly remember the story from the life of Jesus where he happened upon a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery by several men, naturally, and they were
exercising their rights and responsibilities as good Jews of their day to stamp out immorality wherever it raised its ugly head. Either she or he or both were married to other people, which made
what they were doing adulterous. The ancient biblical law forbade adultery and provided as a punishment that both parties involved be put to death by stoning. The man who was the second, making a tango possible, was nowhere to be found, though I imagine that he was right there in line with the men who wanted to stone the woman. My point is that a pregnant and unmarried Mary was in danger, literally; her life was in danger.
For that reason and because of her family’s embarrassment, she was sent out of town. Mary had an older relative, an aunt or a cousin named Elizabeth; Mary believed that she could trust
Elizabeth with her situation. Going and spending time with Elizabeth also took the heat off of her family back in Nazareth and to some extent off of Joseph as well for having decided not divorce
Mary under the circumstances.
Mary was loved by God, but she was still on the run. This was not the only time in her life she would be on the run. She lived in a world where regardless of God's love for her those who believed they knew more about religion than God did would without so much as a blink end her life and pat themselves on the back for being so righteous.
The late R. J. Rummel was Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Hawaii. He gave his career, yeah his life, studying causes and conditions of violence and war in the hopes they could be eliminated. Dr. Rummel wrote:
To eliminate war, to restrain violence, to nurture universal peace and justice, is to foster freedom.
On Christmas Day, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem titled “Christmas Bells.” That was roughly halfway through the American Civil War. Longfellow’s own son, fighting
for the Union, had been severely wounded. The words of his poem were, thus, deeply personal for the great poet. Several of the stanzas became the now popular Christmas carol, “I Heard the
Bells on Christmas Day,” but many of his words are unknown to most of us:
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men."
The second time that Mary was on the run for her life was when Jesus was about 2 years old, and that made him one of the little boys King Herod wanted to exterminate. Jesus' father, Joseph,
believed that God's messenger in a vision warned him to get his family out of Herod's domain, and that did not mean the next region over. It meant getting to another country where Herod the
Great had absolutely no influence.
This journey, often called by Jesus scholars the flight to Egypt, is a story of protective immigration. (And by the way before I press on I must mention the fact that some years ago some children in a Sunday School class who kept hearing their teachers referring to the flight to Egypt involving Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. They drew pictures they carried home with them from Sunday school showing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph aboard a plane!) Fleeing to Egypt, Joseph and Mary and Jesus needed some
place safe to stay, and they found that place in the nation of Egypt.
Thankfully, there were no Egyptians at the border saying, “Some of the Jews we’ve heard about are violent; this means all of them probably are. Our only option is to send them all away.” Instead,
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus stayed, presumably, until Herod the Great had died.
I am not minimizing the complexity of our nation’s, our world’s immigration problems. The wholesale blocking option, though, is not the answer; helping promote freedom for the
refugees is at least part of the solution. The Syrians on the run from their own government are loved by God as much as any American or first world person is loved by God, as much as any Christian is
loved by God; and yet they are on the run because of prejudice.
Prejudice has a chokehold on almost every society in this modern world. We have not grown; we have not learned as a race of people, and I mean human race. Egypt’s response to Jesus, Mary,
and Joseph is a paradigm we must not ignore.