This is a sermon that I delivered on 12/22/2013. It is not academically cited or proofread for academic purposes. If you have questions about this sermon, please contact me here.
Sermon Title: A Subversive God
Primary Scripture Reference: Matthew 1:18-25
Have you ever heard the expression, “the medium is the message”? That expression kept coming to mind as I prepared for our worship today. Consider this: God, the creator of space and time, entered the world as a human. Not only did God enter the world as a human, but God, as Jesus Christ, was born of a poor peasant girl – probably no older than fourteen. And not only that, but Jesus’ birth was agreed to by a poor carpenter from the rural north – far from Jerusalem – who, according to the law, should have had Mary gruesomely killed for “dishonoring him” by becoming pregnant with another Father.
So, the King of the Universe was illegitimately birthed by two peasants, in a rural town. They bucked the law, tradition, and had nothing to give, but themselves.
And lest you think the complexity is done, the Gospel from Matthew is also about bucking the Empire. If you like, you can turn to page 783 in your pew Bibles. Just before Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, is the genealogy of Jesus. In the middle of the genealogy, it briefly refers to the “deportation to Babylon”. Of course, that deportation was a long time ago – fourteen generations to be precise. No longer were the aristocratic Jews in Babylon, they were permitted to return to Jerusalem and their own towns. Now, the Jews were Romans. The Jews were now subject to Roman law, and, in fact, Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the first true emperor. So maybe you can imagine the pain that was being felt. The Jews returned to their home after being violently forced away by a powerful empire. Now, they were returned home under condition of being subject to another powerful, violent empire. Many may have liked this. They might have been grateful to Rome for the opportunity to return home. In fact, a major theme running through the rest of Matthew’s gospel is criticism of the pharisees and scribes, who seem to blindly support Rome at the expense of their own integrity to God. But – people like Mary and Joseph – they did not fare so well under Roman rule.
And so, the fact that Jesus – God – is born to peasants in the hill country, in Bethlehem on account of the Roman Census – is a great subversive act of God.
Jesus’ fundamental concern is for the ‘least of these’. Jesus knows that people who have wealth and possessions are not so quick to give those things up for the sake of their own souls. But the people who are marginalized by Empire are in dire need of a Messiah.
Perhaps part of the reason that God is born a peasant boy in the outlying region, in a tiny country of the vast Roman Empire, is for integrity. If, for example, Jesus were born as Caesar’s son, he would have inherited rule of a powerful Empire. And that is what people, perhaps, were expecting. Instead, Immanuel, God-With-Us, is born a poor infant, a paradox.
But what does this all mean for us, today?
We are very comfortable in our systems and processes. We believe that all problems can be solved with technical fixes. Illness can be cured, mysteries can be explained. And this belief can be coddled along, so long as we have no sense of what is going on outside of our own Empire.
Where would Jesus be born today? Would be be born in Washington, DC or New York? Maybe Jesus would be born in Syria, or Rwanada. Perhaps Jesus would be born in a mine-town in Northwestern China, the son of a poor miner, destitute financially and environmentally, so that the wealthy in Shaghai and Beijing can make money selling cheap things to Europeans and North Americans.
Jesus’ birth humanizes those whom we would rather forget. And that is subversive.
I think that we think of subversion as a bad thing. Its definition is ‘the corruption of the moral order, established system, or institution.’ I can think of no more accurate word to describe Jesus’ birth than subversive. God hates evil. God loves you. When the way we live our lives is evil – when our lives fail to recognize the humanity of others, which is my understanding of evil – then our way of living must be subverted by the subversive God.
Now this is where I run into trouble. I do not believe that we are evil. I do not believe that we are mean-spirited or cruel-intentioned. I do believe we live in an economy that is daily used for dehumanizing purposes. I do believe we live in a culture which organizes itself around redemptive – or perceived redemptive violence. I do believe we live in a moral order that likes to give preferential treatment to certain groups of people. I do not believe we created these systems, I do not believe we consent to these orders, but we do live in them. Like Mary and Joseph.
During the most recent economic recession, hard times fell on many people. And somehow, the people who do impact the economy, successfully convinced those who were hurt by the economy, that it was the hurt people’s own fault. And of course, here is something I’m guilty of – completely neglecting those people who didn’t even realize we were in a recession, because their lives are in permanent economic depression.
I said “this is where I run into trouble” because I am just as cooperative with our world’s systems as anyone, and I have no helpful solution to offer. I want to live comfortably, I want to travel, I want to raise a family, I want to get more education, I want to retire in a hundred years – and I’ll likely be able to do those things, purely by the happenstance of my birth. I was born in a wealthy area of a wealthy country to middle-class parents who helped me prioritize these things. Jesus selected to be born to poor parents in a poor region of a poor country.
How does God subvert today? Please pardon my answer if you find it glib, but Grace. God offers Grace. And not just some pie-in-the-sky, mysterious Grace that will help us when we find ourselves at the end of our days. God offers us very real, visceral Grace daily.
God offers us the opportunity to empathize. Grace.
God offers us the opportunity to give generously. Grace.
God offers us the opportunity to love. Grace.
On Tuesday night, I had a bout of insomnia, and I turned my TV on for the first time in a long while. I discovered that, in fact, the Jerry Springer show is still on the air – at 2:30 AM. For those who aren’t familiar, its a program thats somewhat related to the Roman Collesseum. People with relationship issues bash each other emotionally until they come to blows, all so the onlookers can get a good laugh and think, “at least I’m not them.” Things like the Jerry Springer show, while certainly not the norm, are, however, exaggerations of how we live our lives. Can you think of an opportunity where you did not empathize, give, and love to another person? I hope that I’m not the only one. Think of how destructive this system is, and commit yourself to being an agent of God’s Subversive Grace.
How will God’s Empire be more visible is we are agents of God’s subversive Grace?
Here is another area where I run into trouble. I’m very willing to talk, talk, talk, and point out all of the problems in the world. And I’m also willing to do certain things – I smile at people, I feed street people, I give to charities, I volunteer. But – I’m not yet in a headspace where I am willing to be arrested for civil disobedience. I’m not yet in a headspace where I’m willing to go be a peacemaker in a violent land. In other words, I’m not yet willing to be a martyr, or even a Mother Theresa. I want to be there, but I’m emotionally unprepared. And so what I’m saying is, I think there is a continuum. I think that we have a tendency to think that people are fully formed faithful people.Just as people’s faith evolves and, hopefully, becomes more mature and sophisticated as they progress through their Christian life, so too does our commitment to witness in certain ways.
A friend of mine, and a Moravian Sister from Lititz, PA, Marian Shatto, now in her 70s, has joined a group of singing activists, who go around North America and sing protests. She has also, in her 70s, been arrested for trying to disrupt and subvert dangerous systems. In her 20s, she did not have the capacity to do this. But singing and being arrested in the name of civil disobedience is not for everyone. We respond to our call.
I think, though, that part of our call discernment requires us to being paint attention to God in ways that we do not expect. If we expect a call from God to come a certain way, we may miss it altogether. So the process of discernment is just as much a part of God’s subversive process. Sister Blair received a call from God to ordained ministry, during a time when women were not permitted to be ordained. If she was expecting that call, it wouldn’t have made sense, because it wasn’t a part of our system.
God’s subversion is creation. God’s subversion helps us to re-order our ways of living so that we can live more justly, more abundantly, and more confidently as citizens of God’s empire.