Any number of the most enjoyed holiday films are built to some degree around familial idiosyncrasies or dysfunction, a nice-ish way of saying that some families are pretty crazy, and it’s a rather permanent condition. I realize that such disorders are beyond your comprehension and experience, but maybe you can press yourself to imagine with me this morning what family holiday dysfunction would be like.
The reason the dysfunction becomes so centralized at Christmastime revolves around the fact that family members who are no longer together every day under one roof come under one roof for a few days or several days to celebrate Christmas--the hap-happiest of season of all. Issues that were not resolved because this one and then that one moved away don’t disappear; instead, they faithfully come back to haunt like the ghost of Christmas past. It must be a good enough experience to repeat because most of them are going to try it again next year regardless of the results of this year’s get together.
The child who left home as a rebellious child may return every Christmas as still something of a rebellious child. Parental controls may never have been resolved. The parents’ ever-crumbling marital relationship keeps crumbling, and the years and years of deterioration show up as a feeling of utter chill even amid a beautifully decorated room that is, in fact, quite toasty. The sibling rivalry that wasn’t settled before the kids became adults may still not be settled, and it rears its ugly head in around-the-table conversation.
I watched a movie the other evening called “Fred Claus.” It’s about the ultimate Christmas rivalry--the rivalry between Santa Claus and his older brother, Fred. From the time Nicholas was a small child he was saintly; he was selfless and concerned about others--especially those less fortunate than he. The mother of Nicholas and Fred was enamored with her younger son and fell into one of the traps that sensible and sensitive parents never fall into--comparing the children to each other. In her frustration with the older son’s, Fred’s, messing up and acting out, Mother Claus began to say to Fred, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?!?” Fellow parents, if those words or any like them ever tumble out of your mouth, even once at a low point, they will come back to haunt you; somewhere, somehow, likely when you least expect it--maybe long years later--you’re going to get stung.
There’s a perfect answer to that kind of parental question that surely some sharp and gutsy kid has been able to toss back at a parent goofy enough to ask it: “Because I’m not my brother. I’m not my sister. I’m me. All I can be is me. Faults and all, all I can be is me!” You know, now that I’ve been a kid AND a parent during the rearing years, maybe I should write a book of responses kids could offer their parents when asked awful or impossible questions. Have it printed in big type, bound in loud colors, and sold in the older children’s and teen’s sections at Borders and Barnes and Noble. Build an online teenie bopper market for my work on Facebook. That could really go somewhere. Of course, the first time a kid used my published responses to rebut her or his parents and got backhanded for having a smart mouth, I’d probably get sued. So, maybe not a great idea.
Carson, my younger son who is a bookseller at Borders, keeps telling me that if I want a really comfortable retirement with plenty of money to pad his bank account, enhance the Silverside endowment fund, and seriously spoil my future grandchildren I should write trashy paperback romance novels. “With my hopeless love life?” I asked.
He said, “Sure! Dad, you have a GREAT imagination!” He says I’ll have to come up with a catchy pen name--that David Farmer just doesn’t have the allure to make people want to buy a trashy romance. He said that I perhaps should take my first name and make it my last name, changing the emphasis from the first syllable to the last: DaVID. He says alliteration, he’s really thought about this!, works well so my first name in the pen name should also start with a D--something like Davon. Davon David.
To cap it off, Carson says that my first effort should be set in a church and should be given the title, Sanctuary Sensuality or Parsonage Passion. Who knows what I might do on Christmas break!
OK, back to Fred Claus. Sure enough when the boys are grown men, the tension and rivalry between them hasn’t gone away; obviously, it’s more pronounced on the side of the older brother, Fred, the one who never felt that he could measure up to his kid brother in anyone’s eyes, especially in the eyes of their mother. You need to see for yourself how the rivalry is finally resolved in this humorous, not knee-slapping but humorous, modern Christmas tale starring Paul Giamatti as Nicholas Santa Claus, Vince Vaughn as Fred Claus, and the always on-target Kathy Bates as Mother Claus.
Now that my talk of family fiascos and sibling rivalry has helped you anticipate even more than you did already the upcoming Christmas gathering and feast, let me move on. I’m sticking with the sibling rivalry theme.
One of the many contributions that Jesus made was planting the seed of human unity. He developed this principle in his own reaching out not just to Jews, but also Gentiles; not just to other subservient people like himself but also to certain Romans, Rome having put them in subjection.
The Apostle Paul has caused so many problems for the Jesus Movement that we don’t want to give him across-the-board praise, but on some key issues Paul, though he never knew Jesus personally, led the early Christian communities to see some pivotal truths growing out of the seeds that Jesus had planted. And I don’t know of anyone who doubts that Paul’s drive and zeal--along with his burning desire to undo somehow the abuse he had inflicted upon Christians before he became one--were singularly responsible for Christianity’s institutional success. Bottom line, Paul was to the Jesus Movement what Karl Rove is to the Bush administration. If not for Paul, the chances are very great that you and I would never have heard of Jesus from Nazareth.
One of those issues about which Paul was absolutely right is the one I just mentioned--human unity. Every female living on the face of this Planet is my sister. Every male living on the face of the Planet is my brother. We all know, nonetheless, that the greatest problem in human history has been sibling rivalry; siblings have been willing to do whatever it takes to outshine or dominate other siblings. If that has meant killing off a siblings or several of them that has been taken as OK; the end has justified the means.
Paul had a lot to say on this subject, and one of the most compelling snippets found its way into his letter to the Christians at Galatia. In Jesus the Anointed--that is in communities built around his teaching and influenced by his example--there is no silly, chauvanistic, classist, racist categorizing of sisters and brothers in the human family. Those who dare to live by the teachings of Jesus put away separationism and exclusion. In a community built around the legacy of Jesus the Anointed there is no Jew versus Greek or Gentile. There is no free person versus enslaved person. There is no female versus male dichotomy. And that kind of unity that SHOULD BE established in the Christian community is passed along to the wider world outside the church.
Paul helped us see the dream, the goal of the oneness of humanity. We must thank him for that. Now, if only we could, if we would, live by Paul’s understanding of where the teachings of Jesus logically lead, the world would instantly become a better place and stay that way.
Among other things we’d see is that sibling rivalry would be gone for good. That would stop destructive conflict. Wars would cease, and there would be no more nasty undercurrents between siblings or other family members at the Christmas table! Imagine!
From Paul’s cultural and theological perspective, he believed that the whole of humanity could be divided up, in terms of how history had gone, into two groups. You know a little something about what that’s like, don’t you? Many of us do that to some extent.
If you’re a true musician, you might be apt to think that there are TRUE MUSICIANS in the world and others--you know, the non-musicians. If you’re a sports fanatic, well, you know, there are those in the world who understand sports and those who don’t. If you’re one of those avid readers who always reads the latest acclaimed titles, there are the well-read like you in the world, and then there are the illiterate. If you’re an editor, as I have been more often than not for the last quarter century, there are people who meet deadlines in the world and those who don’t; it’s as simple as that.
If you’re a member of the KKK, there are white supremacists like you in the world, and all the others who should get a cross burnt in their front yards. If you’re a vegan, there are non-meat-eaters in the world, and then there are all the two-legged carnivores. If you’re Rick Warren or one of his devotees, there are those whom they permit to be loved by God, which just happens to be the group all of them are in; and, naturally, there is the other group whom God doesn’t care for, which includes non-evangelical Christians, homosexuals, poor people who are so afflicted because they don’t know the Warren formula for prosperity, and Jews. If you remember that Jesus was a Jew, keep it to yourself! Can’t wait to hear that inaugural invocation!
OK. OK. So, Paul saw the world as being made up of two groups of people: Jews and Greeks or Gentiles. This wasn’t his unique perspective; he had largely inherited it, and until mid-life he had lived by the doctrine of Jewish exclusivism, which by the way is not at the heart of the Jewish religion by any means. Much more than Judaism’s monotheistic siblings, Judaism has written into its core a willingness to embrace those who are not Jewish as still a part of God’s larger family.
We can’t say for sure that Paul had none of that inclusiveness in his theological world view, but when it came to Christians, those who peopled a sect that broke away from Judaism, Paul--then called Saul--believed they had to be stopped, and if that meant some of them had to die, well that’s the way the pita crumbles. Thanks to Paul’s personal contribution, many Christians were imprisoned and some put to death because he portrayed them as a threat to either Rome or to a growing movement of Jewish nationalism.
Ironically, when Paul converted to Christianity--that’s a whole other story and a major one--he carried the Jesus Movement out of its Palestinian place of birth and over into the Greek world of blatant polytheism. He did very little after that to try to deal with the growth of Christianity within Judaism, that is as the sect it was. He tried to plow completely new ground among those who knew little or nothing of notions of a single deity. Those people out there in Greek land were the Gentiles.
From there, he began to change his view that the world as made up of his own kind, Jews, now including the sect of Christianity; and the much larger group in the world--everybody else, Gentiles. I don’t think we can be certain exactly where Paul had come down on the issue, but there was a minority within Judaism who believed that the Jews were God’s chosen people to the exclusion of others. Now, the non-Jews weren’t hell-bound, but they still could never be full members of the family of God; they would forever have been second-class latecomers.
To Paul’s great credit, he insisted that that wasn’t the way things were, and if things had ever been that way, God fixed the problem by creating one new humanity in place of two; in so doing God made the basis for peace between the two groups that had been perceived as completely separate form each other. Even so, and oddly, he treated the news that in God’s eyes there weren’t two groups of people, Jews and Gentiles, as a mystery, something that took people reflecting on the teachings of Jesus to understand.
Paul closes his composition to the book of Romans with a reference to this mystery. You heard this read a few minutes ago; let me refresh what we read: “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus, the Anointed One, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed...” (Rom 16:25-26a NRSV adapted). That’s a mouthful. Paul would never make it in our text-messaging world; “cya” wouldn’t work for him at all!
It’s very interesting to me that Paul refers to the gospel he is preaching as HIS gospel--not God’s gospel, not Jesus’ gospel. I don’t make a big deal of that, but it certainly catches my eye. I think it may have been Paul’s owning of a point of theology that he had made a cornerstone of how he presented the message of Jesus. What Paul presented to the Roman Christians, based on what Jesus himself preached, if embraced by those who heard it and/or read about it, would be a catalyst for divine strength.
Perhaps you recall that when Paul first began his missionary activity--carrying the message of Jesus to the Gentiles, those who knew nothing of Judaism or practical monotheism for that matter--the Greeks or Gentiles who wanted to join the Jesus Movement had to become Jews first. There was no such thing as an “instant conversion” whereby a person could immediately become a Christian unless she or he were already Jewish; the person was required to become first a Jew and then a Christian as a part of the Jewish sect of Christianity. So this mystery about which Paul wrote and the new humanity at its core meant, among other things, that Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews on their way to becoming Christian.
Let’s tip our hats to Paul again. He provided the leadership in getting the early Christian community to let go of Judaism as the entry doorway for all who wanted to follow Jesus. Of course, it was a tough period for surgicenters whose adult circumcision cases dropped to almost nil east of the Aegean Sea. Paul’s pressing of Greeks to get circumcised in order to be able to show their love for God had been a major source of income for those places. Oh well, a new market for reverse circumcisions was born, even though the health insurance companies wouldn’t pay for it.
On the side of Jews, who would later be portrayed by some of the early Christians as the killers of Jesus, this mystery revealed that there was nothing inherently wrong with being a Jew either. A Jew did not have to hang her or his head in shame because of Jewishness as the means of being accepted into the Christian community. Self-affirmation was in; groveling was out.
Now I have to tell you that I think Paul, for all the good he has contributed to the matter on which we focus today, was in places putting a spin on this matter of how human inclusion was in and human exclusion out. Jesus’ ministry and message were great gifts to humanity, but God’s plan for the ages went back to the beginning of time. It was never God’s intent that groups of people--religious groups, ethnic groups, economic groups--would be in conflict with each other, opposed to each other, estranged from each other, willing to kill each other because of the damnable sibling rivalry. Jesus’ contribution wasn’t God’s doing a new thing, but rather God’s clearest object lesson that humanity was never intended to have been divided up into groups antagonistic with each other. The mystery wasn’t really a mystery at all. It was a secret, and there’s a huge difference between “mystery” and “secret.” It was a secret because those who knew the truth did their best to keep it from each other and the wider world. Many people still today who are beneficiaries of God’s love try to claim it first for themselves and their kind and secondarily if at all to others outside their group.
If you want to give a real Christmas present to the world, pass around the news that God never had favorites and today has no favorites. Let it be known that everyone is beloved by God, and that little baby boy born in Bethlehem of Galilee so long ago grew up to catch on more readily and more clearly than anyone before or since.
The great Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in the year 70, was a key part of the lives of both Jesus and Paul. Both men worshipped there at least on the high holy days of their faith.
That Temple was laid out structurally in an interesting way--the most holy place in the interior moving out rather incrementally toward the outside and the least holy places--the holy of holies in the inner most space, the most protected and the least accessible place, all the way out to the most wide open and least restricted space called the Court of the Gentiles. Anybody could come in that far, but only Jews could go further inward, and the powers that be meant business about that.
A little over a hundred years ago archaeologists digging around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem discovered parts of this dividing partition, and they found this inscription that I understand was placed every few feet on the partition that kept the Gentiles from going any further than the Court of the Gentiles. Listen carefully because the message of the inscription was very subtle, and you might otherwise miss its intent: “No one of another nation is to enter within the fence and enclosure round the Temple. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death ensues.” Do I need to read that again to make sure you picked up the nuances? Of course not. How could they have been clearer? Gentiles who cross this line will be killed, and they will have themselves to blame.
Now, I don’t know how the Romans allowed this to work since the Jews, as subservient to Rome, couldn’t pronounce the death penalty. Practically speaking, I’m sure that it all boiled down to who an offender was.
You can bet that Paul had spent some time in the Temple during his days as a zealous Jew watching that wall, just daring a Gentile to cross the line. Later, after having identified himself as a follower of Jesus, things really turned around.
Paul was seen near the Temple or maybe in the Court of the Gentiles with a Gentile, presumably a convert to Christianity, some of those who watched that partition and who crossed the line yelled out that Paul had brought a Gentile too far into the Temple.
By this time, Paul wasn’t loved by the Jews because he had become a part of the Jesus Movement, and they accused him of no longer teaching the true importance of the Torah. Some of the Jews at the Temple that day wanted to have Paul killed for insulting their religion and watering down their spiritual perspectives. This is the story as told in Acts 21:
They seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. Immediately he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. When they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul (Acts 21:27b-32 NRSV).
Paul was arrested and taken in for questioning. I’m not karma person; nor am I the type who believes that “what goes around, comes around”; but I do point out the paradox of Paul having been one who tried to hurt those who differed with him on theological grounds now being beaten by those who had inherited his brand of religious zeal. Another interesting twist is that a Roman commander, a Gentile, saved Paul from the angry Jews.
Keep in mind that the angry Jews didn’t by any means represent all Jews. One of the practices of which most of us are guilty is generalizing; instead of saying, “...some Jews,” it’s easier to say, “Jews.” Instead of saying, “...some radical, extremist Muslims,” it’s easier to say, “All Muslims.” Instead of saying, “Some African Americans,” it’s easier to say, “The Blacks.”
In our responsive reading earlier, we read some selections from Ephesians, chapter 2, and one of the points that Paul made when he wrote to the Ephesians was that Jesus, after getting over some of his own initial anti-Gentile sentiments, gave his life to bring all people together--Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Jews. Jesus called both groups, said Paul, into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. Now you know from where Paul drew that image of the dividing wall. There was a literal dividing wall. It had very nearly the same meaning as signs near public restrooms years ago that said, “White only,” and, of course, we all know of those much more dangerous invisible lines that the wrong people had better not cross if they want to live.
When I lived in New Orleans, I became rather familiar with the French Quarter, but don’t get too many wild ideas about what I mean by that. I was a happily married family man, and a Baptist pastor to boot; not that I’d have lived the wild life even if those facts were absent.
I did learn from those who had been there long before I arrived that Bourbon Street really was as wild as its reputation held, but other parts of the French Quarter weren’t nearly so wild. As far as Bourbon Street was concerned, there was a place, the further one went away from the center of the city, called the lavender line. There was really no line there, but any local knew about it. The lavender line marked the “straight” end of Bourbon Street from “gay” end of Bourbon Street. Sad to say, back in those days--in the late 1980s--gay bashing was not unheard of, and there were skin heads then who made sure it was practiced from time to time.
I remember one horrifying story about a couple of businessmen, tourists, strolling down Bourbon Street one night, and they crossed the lavender line with no awareness of it because, again, there is no visible lavender line. They walked around on that end of the street for a while and didn’t find what they were looking for so they headed back toward the straight end of the street. When they did, some skin heads came out of no where and beat these two mean nearly to death only because they presumed them gay. Had they been gay, that would have been, should have been, just fine--especially in the French Quarter. But had they been presumed straight, they’d never have been beaten up.
“Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”
Long time ago
You were born
Born in a manger, Lord,
Sweet little Jesus boy
The world treats you mean, Lord,
Treats me mean too,
But that’s how things are down here
We don't know who you are.
One of the most compelling aspects of Jesus’ life to vast numbers of people in his own time and in the present is that he was a not-so-rich, not-so-popular commoner who lost his life to violence. A sadly large number of people can identify with that, and the bonus is that God was so powerfully evident in Jesus. People say to themselves if left to their own ponderings, “If God is there for that outsider, God may be there for me too.”
My dear friends, that’s a large part of what Christmas should be about. This business of trying make Jesus kingly and majestic with a halo glued to top of his head misses the point entirely. Jesus was a part-time preacher from Podunk who was born as far from regality as could possibly be. The smell of fresh hay wasn’t the only aroma filling his nostrils in his first hours of life.
As an adult, he lost his life for simply trying to get rid of sibling rivalry in his proclamation of God’s love for all people, Jews and Gentiles. Paul again: God created one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.
It’s not a secret any more. This is how God intended it from the beginning; Jesus caught on to the truth.