I preached this sermon this morning, the readings are the lectionary for Christmastide 2, Jeremiah 31:1-14 and John 1:1-18. The sermon led into a celebration of communion.
The prophet Jeremiah’s words characterizes the captors of the Jewish people, the Babylonians, as bullies, and celebrates that God keeps his promises, but only after God’s people recognize that they just can’t pay lip service to God, but that following God requires a real sacrifice.
This is perhaps the most important message of prophesy the church needs to hear today, as it was one of the most pervasive themes of the Old Testament prophets to the Jewish people. The message remains the same, but the circumstances are very different.
I will return to this, but I want to talk about some things happening in the past month, during the season of Advent, as we continue through these twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany.
The philosopher Mary Daly’s most famous teaching is from her book, Beyond God the Father, written in the early 1970s, that “As long as God is male, the male is God.” Her point is that the attributes we ascribe to God are often reflections of our own identities. For Mary Daly, no traditional theologian would ever go on record about the actual genitalia of God, but they would always assert that God must be male. There is this bait-and-switch technique used when it comes to language about God: God isn’t really male, to think so would be ridiculous, but at the same time, God must be male—to think otherwise is not just ridiculous, it’s heresy.
According to the philosopher, Mary Daly, this kind of circular thinking isn’t just lazy, but it is indicative of the power structures in the church: Of course men don’t have real power in the church, but when you look at how things are usually done in the church, and everywhere in society, men always have real power over women. And, Daly argued, the base cause of patriarchal power, that is, the power that men have over women, is entirely rooted in religious stories and mythology, beginning with the necessity that God must be male, because, as she famously taught, so long as God is male, the male is God.
So several weeks ago a controversy erupted that a Fox News anchor declared that both Santa Claus and Jesus are white—do any of you remember this? The news outlets played this as if the criticism for saying such things was anti-Christian, and when the news anchor apologized for it, she acknowledged that Santa was probably not white, she said, the race of Jesus is still up for debate.
Actually, it’s not: the historical St. Nickolaus was Turkish, and the Jews during Jesus’ time were likely more dark-skinned than they are today. We could debate what being “white” really is or means. And there is a long, long history of Jesus being depicted in art as every race imaginable, when Jesus is painted to look Chinese, for example, do the Chinese really think that he was Chinese? Of course not, because part of the Good News is Jesus’ universality as the “word made flesh” (as described in John 1), but for some reason Europeans and Americans want to take the whiteness of Jesus to be very literal.
To return to Mary Daly’s point—as long as God is male, the male is God—when it comes to race, we could also make the claim that so long as Jesus, as God, must be white, the whites must be God. Clearly, people do not outrightly think that white people are God, but they elevate something about themselves, something deep-down that they celebrate about themselves to being on par with the divine. And we all know God isn’t white, but we should also know that Jesus wasn’t white either, but the woman on Fox News, giving a very careful apology for saying that Santa Claus was white, just couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge that Jesus wasn’t white, either.
In the past few weeks another controversy erupted about the television show Duck Dynasty, a show I have never watched. One of the show’s stars, Phil Robertson, gave an interview to GQ magazine, which I read in the grocery store, where he discussed about how African Americans were happier before the civil rights movement, because they just worked hard and didn’t complain. And when he was asked about sin, he immediately discussed homosexuality. It was on the later point that created the firestorm that led him to be dropped from his show on the A&E channel, but his statements about race were really what was appalling to me. Then in the past few days A&E returned him to his show as if nothing had happened.
But what did happen is that Christians throughout the country, thousands and thousands and thousands of them, wrote letters, wrote blogs, tweeted and facebooked, wrote letters to newspapers, and became vocal about how unfair it was to fire someone from a television show for stating what his religious beliefs are. The A&E channel, who is owned by Disney, reversed their decision, it would seem, based on public outcry.
What I found the most appalling about this whole idea is how many Christians are willing to look the other way from the racism of his statements and focus on something he said about sexuality, and claim that Christians are discriminated against because of their beliefs. If a millionaire on a top cable show can be fired for his religious beliefs, it would follow, so can any Christian too be fired if they live their religious beliefs out in public.
There is a whole lot more to all of this, but I want to remain focused on our message today. Following Mary Daly’s insightful teaching—that so long as God is male, the male is God—and its logical consequence that so long as God is white, the whites are God, so too it would seem that so long as God is hateful, the hateful are God. And here is my point: what we believe about God is not just a reflection of what we say we believe about doctrine or scripture, but it also says something about ourselves. And very often our beliefs about God are in essence beliefs we have about ourselves.
So the irony is that thousands and thousands of Christians felt compelled enough to work in public to keep Duck Dynasty on the air out of a religious concern, or fear of losing their own religious freedoms, all while acknowledging that “I have a right to hate, and I have a right to veil hate behind my religious beliefs. But it’s not hatred when it’s my God that does the hating, I actually say what I believe because I don’t hate you, but I love you.” This is the same circular logic the philosopher Mary Daly exposed regarding the gender of God: that to be a Christian, to be a real Christian, requires hate, and veils that hate to make it sounds like love. We all know that this is the opposite of Christianity.
To return to the prophet Jeremiah: the vision of God keeping his promises to his people is inclusive, and separates the bullies from the faithful, but the faithful must first recognize that “finding grace in the desert” is a radical message of love: “Expect love, love, and more love!” (31:2-6) In the fullness of time, once the faithful realize that they have missed the point of what it means to worship God and to be in God’s service is to work for justice, and to work on behalf of the oppressed. To name evil when it occurs, and to call out the cultural demons, especially when they occur within the temple.
When the faithful finally recognize God’s radical vision of love, then their community will be restored: they will return home. The handicapped will not be forgotten, even women giving birth will not be forgotten, as the scripture says, “bring them all back, a huge crowd!” (31:8) “Their lives will be like a well-watered garden,” their weeping will be converted to laughter, “lavishing comfort, invading their grief with joy.” And their priests will be treated fairly, while the people have abundance. (31:10-14)
This vision is not the Gospel of Wealth, that if you stay on God’s straight and narrow path, that you are rewarded monetarily for your moral actions—we also know that this is not really Christianity either. But rather it is a vision of the world where God’s faithful people can get over themselves, and get rid of the stumbling-blocks and idols they construct for and between themselves and God, and lay down their words that are sharpened like weapons, and stop the circular dance of masking hate as love, or veiling hate as religion, and worship, really worship God through acts of liturgy in the temple and acts of justice outside of the temple.
And that the works inside of the church and temple lead to make world-changing decisions, and speech, actions outside of the church walls. That our belief that Jesus, as the word made flesh, really is the universal point of salvation for the entire world, and not just for some. And that we recognize that God’s people are the poor, and the oppressed, and the homeless, and the powerless, and the peacemakers who struggle while the allegedly faithful busy ourselves with discussions of sexual purity and legitimizing and downplaying racism—all well failing to recognize that the way churches deal with these issues not only distracts us from doing the real work of the Gospel, but contributes to the horrors of this world and its injustice.
In this New Year, our Good News is the same Good News that it’s always been: that God loved the world so much, that he gave his only Son, and whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life, and that God did not come into the world to condemn this world, but to save it out of love for the whole world. What the church needs salvation from in this new year is salvation from itself, just as the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed to the Israelites, that once we stop declaring ourselves and our needs and our wants to be God, perhaps then we will move into a new spiritual reality. But this spiritual reality that God promises must be one that we really want, namely, that all are equally welcome to God’s table, and that God’s love is justly imparted to each and every one of us.