Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘LGBT’

It’s All About Relationship

Mark 10:2-16

Take a moment to think about the important relationships in your life.

Now, think about the boundaries and rules you set in those relationships.

Do those rules and boundaries enhance your relationships or hinder them?

Obviously, society as a whole sets rules and laws. Such rules are supposed to keep people safe and to enable a higher quality of life. Families do the same thing. Parents set rules for their children—supposedly for the same reason. We set rules and boundaries with our brothers and sisters, our partners and spouses, and even our friends. But…

Do our rules actually help us connect to each other in healthy relationship?

This is an important question to ask, because relationships move the world.
Relationships really matter.

And in a world in which violence, political posturing, religious propaganda, and materialism continue to drive and distract people—relationships could very well be the salve that leads us to healing and community.

In this Mark story, we find Jesus of Nazareth in a crowd of people, once again facing his religious peers, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were testing Jesus by asking him somewhat absurd and impossible-to-answer questions. Imagine much of what political debates look like. Candidates are paraded in front of us and asked a barrage of questions—many of them not really having the ability to answer them. In the end, it is often which candidate looks LESS foolish who wins such debates.

Town-Hall-Debate-Meme

It’s a setup. And often, the real questions that could lead to some positive changes are never asked. For example, after yet another shooting in a school in the United States [in Oregon], how many concrete questions will be asked of presidential candidates regarding swift and federal gun laws that could combat this sad and horrific violence? Most likely, the questions will be ambiguous as best, and each candidate according to his/her party line will vaguely address it. But they will never get to the point.

It’s about relationships. Gun control laws have nothing to do with politics, or religion, or freedoms, or any of the absurd back and forth with the NRA.

It’s about relationship—protecting vulnerable children from such violence; raising youth to consider alternatives to guns in order to resolve arguments in the street or the classroom; giving incentive to gun shop owners to respectfully and honestly run their businesses without fear; pushing aside partisan politics to curb gun violence and to promote more…

Relationship building.

But that’s not what happens. And that didn’t happen when the Pharisees debated Jesus.
This is why, I think, that this part of Mark’s Gospel is so often misunderstood.

First of all, context alert. We’re talking 1st and 2nd Century Israel and Palestine.
And, we’re talking about Jewish subcultures. Men married women.

Women were property and so were their children.
Men could remarry or marry more than one woman.
Women had no rights.

And now we rejoin the story. The Pharisees are asking Jesus about marriage laws.
But there’s a twist. Remember John the Baptizer, the guy who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan? Jesus’ cousin? Well, he was killed by Herod Antipas for saying that Herod’s divorce and remarriage was not lawful.

So the Pharisees ask Jesus this question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” anticipating a response that might make him guilty of treason.

whaaat-2That was the political distraction.

The religious distraction goes all the way back to the book of Deuteronomy [the last book of the Torah]. There were different schools of thought in Judaism about divorce. Some thought that a man could only divorce a woman if she committed adultery. Others pretty much said that a man could divorce a woman if she looked at him and made funny faces or burned dinner.

Jesus choose not to answer the Pharisees’ question. He asks them a question!
“What did Moses command you?”

This is was a trick question, because Moses never did actually command anything about divorce. Instead, the book of Deuteronomy was created as a guide and interpretation to life in that era and part of the world. As every religion does, Judaism adapted to societal changes and thus, rules changed. Deuteronomy reflected that, and so technically when the Pharisees respond with: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her” they were making the legal argument, according to religious law.

But Jesus flips it over.
“Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”

The Pharisees may have been very good at quoting scripture and trying to make others look bad, but they were now grouped together with the Egyptian Pharaoh, the arch enemy of the Israelites in the Moses story, who also was hard of heart.

Well, that must have embarrassed or at least royally ticked off the Pharisees.

Jesus isn’t done.
He moves on from divorce to marriage itself. He talks about God’s creation and instead of referencing Deuteronomy, he quotes Genesis.

Jesus reminds them that from the very start of things, God created “them” male and female. There is no hierarchy.
A man leaves his father and mother and joins with his wife.
They become one.
And what God has joined together, let no one separate.

I’ve heard this quote a million times—either as part of a wedding, or in some hateful, misguided propaganda against gay and lesbian couples.

Leviticus

But I said that we’d not let ourselves get distracted with those things and that we would focus on relationships instead, because that’s what Jesus was doing here.

He shifted the whole conversation from religious divorce laws to relationships—relationships God intended to be important and life-giving.

But let’s not dump on the Pharisees. Jesus’ own followers were still harping on the dogma and doctrinal laws and missing the point. After the Pharisees scene, Jesus is with the disciples in a house, and they are asking him again about divorce.

Jesus’ response is tricky, if you don’t know the context.

Basically, his statement: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” is flipping the script again. Remember that in this culture and era men had all the rights. Adultery was defined like this: if a man had an affair with a married woman he committed adultery against that woman’s husband; if a married woman had an affair with anyone, she committed adultery against her husband. In other words, women were always to blame, and neither could they divorce their husbands. So Jesus’ words were blasphemous for that group to hear.

But his point was well-made: if God created humans equally male and female, why are women so powerless and considered property of men?

Likewise, why were divorced women left to suffer and starve, isolated from society?

Why were so-called “followers” of God’s law disenfranchising people, dehumanizing them, and pushing them to the margins?

And he drives it home when he welcomes children.

Children were [and I would argue that they are] the most powerless in the world. They don’t ask to be brought into this crazy mess of a planet, but here they are. Often they are neglected, abused, ignored, and considered property.

Side note: many last week were gushing over Pope Francis’ baby kissing episodes and the little girl from California who ran out to meet him, eluding security guards, delivering her personal letter to him. Consider, though, that many people were surprised, shocked, amazed even that the Pope would pay attention to children, as if it were something extra special or supernatural. Really?

It seems that many of us in the world don’t expect adults [especially religious rock stars] to embrace children.

Further, how many of you really know why the little girl ran to the Pope? The letter was about her parents who are undocumented. They have been living and working in the U.S. for years—picking fruits and vegetables. They are in real danger of being deported. Her letter was to ask the Pope to consider the many human beings who are mistreated and discriminated against because of outdated immigration laws. As a child, she was simply asking for religious people [who claim to love Jesus and love children] to work towards immigration reform so kids like her can be with their parents.

In spite of what some have said, I don’t think that Pope Francis welcoming her and receiving her letter was at all like the scene of Jesus of Nazareth calling the children to him. The kids in Mark’s story didn’t have to evade security guards and secret service; they only had to deal with annoyed disciples.

Further, when the disciples tried to shoo the children away, Jesus was furious. He called them out. He told them: Do not stop the children; for the reign of God belongs to them—not because they’re cute or good press or promote my agenda, but because they are the least. They are the women who are left out; they are lepers pushed away from society; they are Samaritans who are hated; they are the little ones, and you should bless them and love them.

It’s about relationships.

Friends, do this, please!
Any time someone or some church tries to use scripture as a way to exclude people, or disenfranchise certain groups, or to promote a political or even a religious agenda—redirect the conversation.

Don’t feel that you have to answer trap questions.

Instead, you ask the questions.

When someone claims that gay or lesbian people are outside of the Bible’s definition of marriage, and therefore, God doesn’t approve, ask them a question:

What did Jesus command?

When someone asks how your church could accept transgender people, or those who are in gender transition, or those who are still discovering themselves, ask them a question:

What did Jesus command?

When someone wonders how any American Christian could be friends with a Muslim, ask them this question:

What did Jesus command?

That question will most likely lead to silence, because people who use religion to justify their prejudice aren’t thinking about loving their neighbor as they love themselves.

And then, when children’s voices are silenced by guns; when women are made powerless and stripped of their human rights; when refugees are turned away; when addicts are locked outside the church; when people without papers are discriminated against and called names;

Remember, it’s all about relationship.

We are all related to each other on this planet. We were made that way. In all the craziness of culture, religion, and politics, it’s easy to forget that. But remember, we’re all related to each other. And the more we emphasize our connection to each other, the more we will find our way, the more we’ll show compassion and understanding; the more we’ll share; the more we’ll learn and grow.

It’s about relationship.

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Why Welcoming Everyone is Crazy

Mark 3:20-35

Two Sundays ago I called the Norristown Courthouse eight times.

Eight times.

You see, a month ago, I received my fourth summons to appear in Norristown, PA for jury duty.

juryDUty

Now this won’t be a rant about someone’s “civic responsibility” or bureaucracy, or the government, or whatever. Instead, I’m going to tell you my jury duty story, because something happened there that mattered to me.

I was shown great hospitality when I didn’t expect it.

Let’s go back to Sunday night. I didn’t sleep well. Perhaps I was anxious and overly tired, because I usually am on Sundays, and Monday is my day off. Or maybe I was anticipating something new and interesting; after all, I had received jury duty summons before but never actually had to show up. My lawyer friends scoffed, knowing that a clergyperson such as me would never get selected for a petit jury, much less a criminal case. But I couldn’t sleep, maybe because I thought: why not?

I rolled out of bed on Monday morning—resembling the freakiest of zombies—and I made my way to the courthouse. I went through the metal detector, scanned my little summons paper at the door and showed my ID. I put on my plastic badge with my juror number; I was in!

The room was packed. There were 300 people in there. Whoa. I couldn’t believe it.

jurorNo food, no drink. Just sit down.

That’s what the sign said.

Everyone looked tired. Some were visibly cranky. One guy all dressed up in his suit and with a briefcase, sauntered about the room as if to say:

Look at me. I’m so important. Can’t you see I have better things to do? Look at me!

One lady, in front of me, was intensely knitting something as if to say:

This is our lot in life. Suck it up, grin and bear it, we’ll be here for a WHILE.

Two other ladies in front of me gossiped about their families; a woman in a hijab asked me and the woman sitting next to me if we knew exactly what these numbers meant on our plastic badges. One lady didn’t my eye contact with a single person while she frittered away on her laptop. People kept coming in; some were visibly frustrated with traffic, or the parking, or perhaps…life in general?

The lady on staff who scanned us in and gave us our plastic badges entered the room periodically and said:

Juror number 5609, you need to fill out your juror info form. 5609? 5609?

Bueller, Bueller, Bueller?

bueller-anyoneThough we were all supposed to arrive at 8:00 a.m., it wasn’t until about 9:00 a.m. that the same lady patiently calling out numbers put in a DVD to fill us in on all the details of being a juror. The DVD speaker, Larry Kane of Comcast, reminded us:

If you are in need of an internet connection, you may visit the juror’s lounge and ask for the internet connection cable. That way, you can connect it to your laptop.

Yeah, thanks, Larry. But the nice lady calling out numbers just told us that wi-fi was free.

The DVD mercifully ended with Larry telling us how much of a privilege it would be to serve as a juror.

Another period of time passed.

tell-me-again-about-jury-duty1The kind lady who scanned us in, gave us our plastic badges, called out the numbers of people who hadn’t filled out their info forms, explained the DVD, answered a multitude of questions, and continued to run back and forth to the courtrooms—finally addressed us again around 10:30 a.m.

She maintained her bright smile and said:

Okay, everyone, thank you so much for your patience. They are ready for you, so what I’m going to do know is to read off 50 juror numbers. If your number is called, that means you have been randomly selected. Please stand and I will escort you to where you need to go.

She paused and smiled.

And I know that you’re tired and that the weather isn’t great, but hang in there. We will get you moving, and those of you who aren’t called, you are free to use the facilities or to get a drink of water, or whatever you need. Thanks again for your patience and your service.

One guy behind me sighed so exasperatingly loud that I could feel his eyes rolling even though I couldn’t see them. Another lady to the right shook her head in disgust.

But the patient, kind lady wasn’t fazed. She started calling juror numbers. My number ended with a 09. Numbers 08, 07, 06, and 10 were all called, but not mine.

Some people breathed a sigh of relief, others scoffed in disappointment.

And…the 50 chosen—they left…

Never to be seen again.

Finally, it was about noon and the kind-hearted, smiling, patient, hospitable lady [how I now thought of her] addressed the remaining lot by saying:

Some news, everyone. The last case to be tried is a criminal case.

Some groans in the crowds.

It has now gone to bench. So yes, I’m sure some of you know what that means. You’re free to go home! Don’t forget to scan your papers on the way out so you receive your stipend check in the mail. And thanks for your service.

And with that, three people actually said, a la Homer Simpson:

woohoo

We filed out of the courtroom. Some people were actually running. I’m not kidding. Cars whizzed out the parking lot.

As I sat in my car, I reflected on how jury duty experience had been so less painful than I thought. Why? The welcoming, hospitable, incredibly-patient lady on the petit jury staff who led our tired, grumpy lot through the morning.

On an early Monday morning in Norristown’s Courthouse, that seemed crazy.

Crazy, why? Because true hospitality is crazy. Do you know who was in that crowd of 300? Women and men of various socio-economic levels; people of all sorts of cultural and ethnic backgrounds; transgender folk; religious and non-religious folk; people late and people early; people eager and people confused; full of all kinds of people.

And yet, that woman welcomed us all. Truly. I saw it.

And you may think I’M crazy for saying that this staff member of Norristown’s Courthouse was more like Jesus than most churches, but for me, it was true.

So let me explain why, and then you can draw your own conclusions.

Jesus of Nazareth, in Mark’s Gospel narrative, even as early as chapter 3, is already called crazy. The crowds who followed him, his own disciples, his own family—they are all confused about what he’s doing and saying, and they’re afraid of what might happen to him. Already Jesus had cast out a couple of demons and healed some sick people, and it was getting worse. He hung out with so-called sinners [called the untouchables]. One of his disciples collected people’s taxes; Jesus found it convenient to heal people on the Sabbath. So from the get-go, Jesus’ brand of religion did not fit the religious laws or social customs of the day.

So it’s no surprise, don’t you think, that people called Jesus crazy. Well, in their words, they called him demon-possessed, but in our context, demon-possessed would be batty, nuts, bananas, 5150ed, bobo, bonkers, certifiable, cray-cray.

Even his own family thought he was a little coo-coo, and that’s why they started to get protective. Can you blame them? Any parent out there, do you want your son or daughter to be at risk? Would you be happy if they chose a vocation or a calling that led them into danger, no matter how important it might be? Parents and family go into protective mode.

Jesus, stop. Just stop already. Tone down this radical hospitality to all people. It’s dangerous.

It’s been my experience that most Christians who regularly attend churches often think of hospitality as being friendly and nice to people—especially new visitors. But it’s usually temporary, because eventually, most church folk expect said new people to blend in eventually and learn the way that the church already does things.

Well, that’s not cray-cray Jesus’ brand of hospitality. Instead, Jesus meets people where they are and as they are. Everyone’s invited, no matter how messy and chaotic it may become.

That’s called radical welcome.

So I’m left with this question: are we considered crazy for the radical hospitality and welcome we show to all people?

We should be.

We should be pushing the limits of what hospitality and welcome mean—no matter how crazy it may sound or if it’s not religiously or socially acceptable.

If we truly embrace the radical welcome of Jesus for ourselves, this ought to be reflected in our treatment of others—how we welcome and accept them as they are.

How crazy are we?

Not nearly crazy enough…

Love in the Matrix

John 14:15-21

That was a scene from the last movie of the Matrix trilogy, Matrix Revolutions. Neo, a human being played by Keanu Reeves, meets a family. This “family” is made up of all computer programs in the virtual reality called the matrix. The father, Rama-Kandra, tells Neo that he loves his his daughter, Sati, and his wife. Neo, a human, does not understand how a program could experience such an emotion like love. In case you missed it, the dialogue goes like this:

Neo: I just have never…
Rama-Kandra: …heard a program speak of love?
Neo: It’s a… human emotion.
Rama-Kandra: No, it is a word. What matters is the connection the word implies. I see that you are in love. Can you tell me what you would give to hold on to that connection?
Neo: Anything.
Rama-Kandra: Then perhaps the reason you’re here is not so different from the reason I’m here.

Neo is trapped in a train station between two worlds. Rama-Kandra, his wife, and their daughter, Sati, have made a deal to get out of this “in between” world. Sati, you see, is  a program without a purpose and will be deleted from the machine mainframe unless her parents can hide her. That is their goal of taking the train.

But Neo is puzzled, and rightly so.
Why would Rama-Kandra and his wife, two computer programs, care about just another computer program called Sati?

The answer is love, but Neo [like all of us] thinks love is a human emotion.

But as Rama-Kandra explains it, love is just a word. What matters is the meaning you attach to the word. Programs like him can experience a profound connection to each other, one that they use the word ‘love’ to describe.

Love is just a word.
What matters is the connection it implies.

In John’s Gospel, the last one written about Jesus, there is an extreme focus on love and connection not found elsewhere in the New Testament.

Why is that?

John’s community was scared, anxious, and uncertain.

So the words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth are words of comfort.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

What we see here as “advocate” and “spirit: is the Greek word parakletos, which literally means “one called alongside.” It is a word that is closely related to a familiar writing from the Hebrew Scriptures [the OT]—Psalm 23. Parakletos is much like the Hebrew word hacham [your rod and your staff, they comfort–hacham—me].

So we ought to see the various levels and meanings of this word and recognize that it is more than a word…

Because this spirit-advocate-comforter-truth will, as the Greek says, remain with them. The word remain is menei in Greek, the same word used to describe Jesus being in the Father, and the Father in him, and the Father in those who love.

When Jesus says that the disciples “know” the spirit, this [in John’s Gospel] means that they are in relationship. Abiding, being one, and knowing are all the same thing in John.

 This is about connection.

And this connection is called love.

And love is the opposite of fear.

And love is not limited to a place or to certain times.

Those who are connected to God’s love are connected to each other.

And they live out that connection in the world.

This gives them meaning.

It’s tempting to think that in our respective matrix [our world, our day-to-day routine], that love is a distant, hypothetical, fairy tale, an all-too-unrealistic idea. Love is reserved for romantic poems and sappy songs, wedding days, and sacred, religious books.

But we ought to stop trying to define love—at least the word—and we ought to find meaning in our connections to each other.

I’ve been thinking about this as the United Church of Christ recently sued the state of North Carolina and as the state where I live—Pennsylvania—just saw a judge, John E. Jones, III, declare unconstitutional PA’s Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA], which once prohibited same-sex marriage. This new legal order directs the state of Pennsylvania to allow same-sex couples to marry and to recognize valid out-of –state marriages.

I admit that it still shocks me that we even had to come this far.

Why so many people [and many of them in the church] feel that they have the authority to define what love is and looks like, and therefore, who can express that love in a marriage—is beyond me. After all, love and marriage are just two words we say to describe a strong, meaningful connection.

When the congregation I serve decided two years ago to become an Open and Affirming church, this move was both applauded and highly criticized. Many left the church leading up to the decision and shortly thereafter. Even the mere presence of a rainbow sign continues to anger and confuse people.

I am not surprised, because the debates and arguments are usually off-base. I still get lots of emails [and even phone calls] from people who do not know me or anyone in the congregation [or gay or lesbian people], but they just cannot understand how we can affirm same-sex unions or the LGBT community. They want proof of Jesus endorsing same-sex unions; they quote Bible passages left and right; they grasp at all kinds of theological straws to try to prove that somehow people like me are wrong about same-sex love being the same love.

And people wonder why most people my age or younger have little to no interest in Christianity or church?

We have become obsessed with defining words like love and marriage and church and have therefore lost our connection to Jesus and our connection to each other.

After all, that is what matters. Church has nothing to do with buildings or even religion.

Church is about people finding meaningful connections—connections to their Creator, and connections with people.

And anyway, if there is anyone who takes this Jesus of Nazareth seriously, all commandments wither away, cover their eyes, shrink, and fade in the face of the one commandment:

Love one another as I have loved you.

So, with that connection in mind, let’s stop trying to define love. It’s pointless.

Instead, let us be grateful for the love we have from our Creator, the love we see in the teachings and life of Jesus, and for the continued connection we have to that love because of spirit.

And then, let us close our mouths for a moment and open our arms and hearts; let us extend our hands; let us reach across gaps and barriers; let us embrace differences and pluralism; let us seek out connections with others.

Let us stop holding on to buildings, religious traditions, dogmas, and definitions.

After all, life in this matrix is not easy and we could all use more connection.

TheMatrixSo may our energies, time, and resources be used to build meaningful connections.

And in those connections, we will walk the path of love.

The Same Love

Matthew 1:18-25, NRSV
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[a] 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All 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.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[b] and he named him Jesus.

Footnotes:         a. Matthew 1:18 Or Jesus Christ       b. Matthew 1:25 Other ancient authorities read her firstborn son

That was an older episode of Saturday Night Live with Will Farrell, Chris Kattan, and Tom Hanks. Of course, they were dancing to that infectious tune from the 90’s, Haddaway’s song What is Love?

Indeed!

What is love?

And baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more!

Some say that the question what is love is the most searched-for phrase on the internet. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Maybe top 10, though. Throughout humanity’s existence, hoards of people have tried to answer this question. Today we are no different, of course. There are many who are trying to define what love is and sadly, along the way, they are defining, according to their worldview, what love is not.

Look, I am just as tired as you are of the bombardment of negative messages and heavy rhetoric out there. There are a lot of hateful things said and done to many people just because of the color of their skin, their sexual preference or orientation, their religious beliefs or lack thereof, or their cultural heritage. Let’s be frank—it is happening.

A lack of love.

Rev. Frank Shaefer, a United Methodist pastor in Central PA, was just defrocked recently. That means the United Methodist Church took away his ability to be an ordained minister. Schaefer has led a congregation in Lebanon, PA for more than 10 years. Earlier this year, a church member filed a complaint because Schaefer performed the 2007 wedding of his gay son in Massachusetts, where same-sex unions are legal. According to the Methodist Board of Ordained Ministry, this violates religious doctrine. This in spite of Rev. Shaefer’s plea that he performed the ceremony as simply as an “act of love.” On the same day that he was defrocked, members of the Board came to Frank and hugged him or shook his hand, saying: We really don’t want to do this, you know that, don’t you?

Also, following the recent memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, there were a number of inexplicable things said. For example, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Tea Party Republican, attended Mandela’s funeral. He also posted on his Facebook page:

Nelson Mandela will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe. He stood firm for decades on the principle that until all South Africans enjoyed equal liberties he would not leave prison himself, declaring in his autobiography, ‘Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.’ Because of his epic fight against injustice, an entire nation is now free.

Amazingly, Cruz’s condolences and his attendance at Mandela’s funeral were met with incredible backlash and highly-charged, negative comments about how Mandela was a terrorist and not deserving of Cruz’s support.
Sadly, many who commented claimed to be Christians.

And then, we have been bombarded with news and comments about a famous reality TV show personality on a Duck Dynasty, program I do not watch. He made some hateful comments about gay and lesbian people and also said some racist things publicly in GQ magazine. Then a subsequent sermon he preached in PA with similar rhetoric has surfaced, too. The saddest part of all this is that after he was suspended from his TV job [only for a bit], a number of people claiming to be Christians have rushed to his side and have expressed their overwhelming support for him, in spite of his hateful comments.

What is going on here? Did I miss something? What happened to…

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love?

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but during a season in which we promote love incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, where is the love of Christians?

Don’t worry…this won’t end in a rant, because then…nothing good happens. But we do have a responsibility, I think, to address the hate and to combat it with love. Being silent about all this is not the way to show love.

After all, if I were to answer the question what is love I would most certainly tell you various stories about people in my life who showed me mercy when I didn’t ask for it or who made peace with someone they used to dislike or who accepted someone unconditionally—in spite of differences and even when it was unpopular to do so.

What is love? It is when people act compassionately and truly empathize with others.

That is where I would like to go as we look at the misunderstood story about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth—a story as I have said before—that only appears in Matthew and Luke, and in just a couple paragraphs and no more. As always, I invite you to come to your own conclusion about these stories in scripture. Listen to some interpretation and study and then ask your own questions.

Some context about Mary and Joseph. When two people got “engaged” in their era it was considered to be marriage, though the couple would not yet live together. Engagements lasted as long as it took for the male’s family to come up with a dowry [money, animals, land, etc.] for the female’s family. Also, the male was supposed to come up with some sort of living arrangement. Engagement did not include a trip to buy a ring at Jerod or Helgsburg Diamonds, and then a period of planning for a wedding that could be broken off by the couple at any time without any legal hassle. No, for Mary and Joseph, things were much different. The first step of betrothal was a marriage contract. Family usually made the arrangements. This betrothal could only be broken by divorce, in essence, nullifying the contract.

The second step would include a marriage feast, and the couple would then start their life together in a commonly-shared home.

So…Mary and Joseph had the marriage contract sealed, and amidst the financial and social preparations, Mary gets pregnant.

Oops.

According to Matthew’s story, Joseph had no part of it. This was not his kid.

Double oops.

Matthew describes Joseph as a righteous man—a good dude. So here are the good dude’s two options: public stoning or divorce.
Uh, what?

Joseph dismissed Mary quietly [not subjecting her to public disgrace], meaning that he was breaking the marriage contract. Doesn’t this sound like Joseph was avoiding the more difficult but more merciful choice of staying with Mary?
To me it does.

But Joseph, even if he wanted to stay with Mary, had no choice to do that by law. In fact, if he did not break the marriage contract, Mary would mostly likely stand trial publicly and that would not end well.
Now I don’t like either one of these scenarios. I just wish Joseph would have stood up against the law and stood with Mary.

But then, Joseph had a dream—an angel visited him and reassured him that he did not have to break the marriage contract. This angelic message seemed to comfort Joseph’s fears and he did finally decide to stay with Mary.
Now, what should they name the kid? Yehoshuah [Hebrew], Joshua [English]. But since the NT is written in Greek—the kid is also called Jesous, Jesus [English]. This name means “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh saves.”

The Gospel of Matthew is conveniently connecting all this to Hebrew [OT] prophecy. Matthew quotes part of Isaiah 7:14, albeit the Greek version. Why do I mention that? Oh, because there is that little, polarizing word virgin in there. This word virgin in Greek is parthenos. But the actual Hebrew word in Isaiah’s original text is ‘almah which simply means a young woman.

I told you I would leave you to work out your own thoughts about this, so I won’t dwell here too long. My worldview tells me, after studying these texts, that the Isaiah prophecy has nothing to do with the New Testament story. So is Matthew’s Gospel trying to trick us by connecting current events to very old prophecies? Let’s try to empathize with Matthew’s worldview.

Matthew’s community was made up of people who were waiting for help. In the 1st and 2nd century, people were trying to make sense of what Jesus of Nazareth had taught and lived. People were unsure. So Matthew’s connection to the old prophecies was an encouragement to people that God had not given up on humanity.

Isaiah 7:14, Matthew knew, was about King Ahaz of Judah. It was around 735-732 B.C.E. Syria and Israel were attacking the land of Judah. Isaiah speaks words of encouragement to King Ahaz and to Judah’s people, saying that God will give the king a sign. A baby will be born and before this kid is a teenager, Jerusalem will no longer be torn apart by war.

This ancient promise is seen by Matthew as a present-day promise.

Isaiah thought that Immanuel, God with us, would come in the future; peace and fulfillment would follow. Matthew thought that this Jesus of Nazareth was with the people like an Immanuel, and wanted to bring peace and fulfillment, like Isaiah said, but not just to Judah. Jesus’ message and life, according to Matthew, was for all people.

Both Isaiah and Matthew were talking about the idea of incarnation—that God could be present [incarnate] in the world. The message, though told in different ways across many centuries, is the same:

God is with us.

As this idea developed, God with us became real in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and in all those who shared love and mercy with others.

What is love? God. What is God? Love.
What does God incarnate mean? God is in us.
So love is in us.

Okay, I get it–the story of Jesus’ birth is very ambiguous and a bit confusing. I have many more questions than answers. But that’s okay, because Jesus actually grew up and the Gospels say a lot more about that. Yehoshuah personified love, acted compassionately and also said that we could and should too. If we look at the grown-up Jesus, what is love is an ongoing question with many active answers.

Love speaks out for justice. Love does not withhold itself when it doesn’t get what it wants. Love is not conditional, but unconditional. Love cares about what happens to people all around the world because love knows that we are all interconnected.

Love is naturally compassionate and empathetic.

Love knows that someone else is also you.

I have to share this song with you. Have you heard Same Love, written and performed by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert? Hear it now:

Macklemore raps:
Playing God, aw nah here we go
America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And God loves all his children, is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago
I don’t know

When I was at church they taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed
That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned
When everyone else is more comfortable remaining voiceless
Rather than fighting for humans that have had their rights stolen

Whatever God you believe in
We come from the same one
Strip away the fear
Underneath it’s all the same love
About time that we raised up

Love is patient
Love is kind
(not crying on Sundays)

Yes, I agree. It’s about time that we raised up…in love. Jesus did.

But we ought to love people with the same love.
It doesn’t matter if they are gay, lesbian, bi, transgender; black, white, yellow, red, green; religious or not; materially wealthy or materially poor; it doesn’t matter if they are family or not, or if they claim a different culture, nationality, or worldview. It’s the SAME Love that we extend, because that is what love is. Love is NOT conditional; love is free of categories and names and circumstances. Love is the opposite of fear. Love is the great bridge-builder and the patient and kind healer.

So this season and every season of your lives, love people with the SAME LOVE. May that same love [incarnate] live in you.

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