The End of Violence, the Birth of Christ – The Rev. Michelle Meech
December 11, 2022
Today, we have a very rich set of readings. The words from the prophet Isaiah, words of promise telling us that the desert wilderness shall rejoice for God is coming and the blossoming shall be abundant – healing, health, wholeness. The Holy Way where all will be unscathed once again.
And the words of Mary found in Luke, words of a promised overturning of the world, casting the mighty from their thrones, remembering the promise of mercy. Words of hope. Words of wholeness.
I really wish we had the time to go through all of these readings, bit by bit, and offer us all the opportunity to take them even more deeply into our beings. Because they are so incredibly rich. But my eyes kept landing on one sentence in our Gospel reading. It’s in Jesus’ response to John’s disciples: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Now, Jesus says this as a part of a longer response where he talks about what’s he’s doing in the world. John is in prison for rabble-rousing and preaching against the corrupt governor of the region and he hears these stories about Jesus and he wants to know – is Jesus the Messiah? Is he the one who will set us free? He sends his friends to find out and Jesus says, well… tell him what you’re witnessing: the healing of people, the good news given to the poor, and the raising of the dead. The overturning of the world, in other words. To heal those who have been wounded, to support those who have no means, to bring life to those who were counted as dead.
“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
I think it’s so easy, especially in Advent and Christmas, to think of Jesus as a mild-mannered prince of peace who just wants everyone to get along. I sometimes think we confuse Jesus with Santa Clause. As such, Jesus is in danger of becoming a milk-toast caricature of who he really was and still is. But really, Jesus is someone who loves us so much that he wants nothing less than our complete transformation, nothing less than the transformation of the whole world. Which means he will push our buttons with his radical egalitarianism, dare to offend us by erasing all the lines we have drawn in the sand, and challenge our assumptions about who we think belongs or has any rights or dignity in this world. He will, indeed, raise the dead to new life.
John Dominic Crosson in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, talks about something called the honor-and-shame society – a way to talk about who is in and who is out. The shunning of others in order to ensure we have a place at the table, so to speak. In the Hebrew scriptures, we have a hindsight view of how Israel, as a society, struggled with this. Their Levitical codes, which were once sacrosanct, became difficult to uphold in the face of their own enslavement and exile. How do we come to terms with the shame of breaking purity codes when we are forced to break them by our abusers and captors? Does God abandon us because we have been victimized or oppressed?
The prophets tell us “no.” They tell us, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come and save you.”
While we don’t really have an honor-and-shame society in the US, Crosson says that we do have a guilt-and-innocence society. Which functions in a similar way. If an individual is found to be guilty, they are shunned. Dead-to-us. We have only to look at our so-called criminal justice system to see how true this is.
The Equal Justice Institute tells us that the US has 5% of the world’s population yet it has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Michelle Alexander explains this staggering statistic in her book The New Jim Crow as an extension of slavery. Once slavery was abolished, Jim Crow laws were enacted as a way to ensure Black people had no rights, no dignity. The mass incarceration we see today is a continuation of that.
Because, you see, what makes someone a criminal is somewhat arbitrary, depending on several factors – whether or not the laws themselves are just, whether or not the police recognize and train themselves about racial bias, whether or not the judge who tries them is corrupt… and that’s just a few of the factors.
So, in our society, I cannot think of anyone who is considered more “dead” to us than someone in prison. Howard Thurman in his book Jesus and the Disinherited says, “There are some things that are worse than death.” (pg 41)
Consider this for a moment. How would you really feel about offering a convicted felon a place at this Table? Does it challenge your sensibilities to receive communion with someone who committed a violent crime? If they are a prisoner, would you be more apt to invite them if they could prove to you their innocence? That they were unjustly imprisoned?
It’s not meant to be a judgment on you if you struggle with this. I’m just asking you to be really honest with yourself.
We have a messiah who is bringing good news to the poor. Who is healing people who need healing. Who is raising our dead, raising those who we have decided are dead to us. And Jesus says to us, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The revolutionary nature of what we’re talking about in Matthew’s Gospel today – to raise society’s dead – is so radical, so profound that it’s been all but erased from much of Christian practice. And the idea, the image, the words… have been spiritualized so much that they have almost lost all meaning. As a matter of fact, Christianity, especially American Christianity, on the whole, prefers to associate itself with the powerful, not the powerless. Standing alongside the establishment in condemnation of the dead-to-us.
For Jesus, healing people, bringing good news to the poor, raising the dead… these are all about the same thing – an overturning of the world’s violence. The Gospel never was and never has been about a saccharin savior who is only here to make us feel better about ourselves. The Gospel is written about God incarnate – real change, real liberation, real healing.
As Crosson says in his book: “A cure for the disease is absolutely desirable, but in its absence, we can still heal the illness by refusing to ostracize those who have it, by empathizing with their anguish, and by enveloping their sufferings with both respect and love…” Crosson goes on by saying that Jesus “heal[ed] the [leper’s] illness by refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and social ostracization. Jesus thereby forced others either to reject him from their community or to accept the leper… It would be, of course, nice to have certain miracles available to change the physical world if we could, but it would be much more desirable to make certain changes in the social one, which we can… the question is whether we can make the social world humanly habitable.” (pgs 81-82)
What we don’t realize, I believe, is that our practices of ostracizing people, no matter who they are, do as much damage to ourselves as they do to the person or people we are ostracizing. We can sit and stew in our self-righteous contempt. We can stand with our team on one side of the line or the other. We can allow the political rhetoric we submit ourselves to, to carry us ever further into the bubble of our own thoughts. But you’ll honestly never find Jesus there.
I know because I have tried. And I never do.
Because that’s the wilderness. That’s the desert, you see. That’s the prison of our own making. Holding on to our anger and our hurt and our contempt doesn’t end violence. It’s just one act of violence replacing another. The more we insist that others need to be punished, the more we find ourselves in a prison with them. Restricted. Inhibited. Not liberated. Parched and desolate. Unhealed.
Violence begats violence in an endless cycle until we are finally able to let go and make room for the blessing Jesus offers: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
The blessing comes in our giving up on the desert wilderness of self-righteousness, imprisonment of the contempt we hold onto, so that we can make room for the blessing. Because in recognizing the dignity of every human being, we are recognizing it in ourselves.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of God” Mary says. “My spirit rejoices in God who saves me… from this day, all generations will call me blessed.” This is Mary’s song in response to God’s call to her.
This yes Mary gives to God is the acceptance to make room, to prepare, for carrying Christ in her physical body and in her being. Her choice is the blessing, just as it is for us. She is blessed for she has chosen to make room for her own liberation. She gives her self over to the liberation of the world and in so doing, gives herself over to her own liberation.
This is the true end of violence. So this is the true birth of Christ.