by Rev. Rev. Sarah Buteux
December 22, 2019 Advent 4, Year A
There is this meme floating around by Carlos Rodriguez that begins, “Christmas is about believing what a woman said about her sex life.” Have any of you seen it? It’s a pretty audacious statement coming from an evangelical pastor, but it’s true.
It goes on to say:
Christmas is about finding safety as asylum seekers.
Christmas is about a child receiving support from the wealthy.
Christmas is about God identifying with the marginalized, not the powerful.”
It’s good stuff.
How many of you have seen it?
How many of you have shared it?
And how many of you, going back to that first line – “Christmas is about believing what a woman said about her sex life” – have found yourself rethinking the story of the virgin birth because of it? You don’t have to raise your hands, but I am curious.
This meme has appeared on the feeds of some my most progressive friends and acquaintances, the same people who have been vocal in their support of the “me too” movement. These are folks who have courageously shared their own stories and been there to support others as they have come forward.
But these are also the same friends and acquaintances who, if they read the Bible at all, would probably say – as do I – that they take scripture too seriously to take it literally. The sort of people who believe these stories are true whether they happened this way or not.
The Bible is full of “impossible possibilities” – to borrow a phrase from Anthony Robinson – Jonah’s whale and Balaam’s ass, heavenly visions and angelic visitations, supernatural healings and miraculous feedings: inexplicable happenings that most of us are content to gloss over in our desire to get to the point of the story or the moral of the tale.
We approach the Bible with what the great English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief,” meaning that we accept these stories as true on their own terms, temporarily giving ourselves over to the world view of those who wrote them down long enough to appreciate what it is they are really trying to say.
But when it comes to Moses parting the red sea or Jesus feeding the five thousand – well – maybe it happened that way and maybe it didn’t. Personally, I can go either way. For people like us, the Bible doesn’t have to be factually, biologically, or scientifically true down to the letter to be meaningful.
And yet people like us were still moved by these words of Carlos Rodriguez. “Christmas is about believing what a woman said about her sex life.” So moved that what began as a tweet has been re-tweeted and shared thousands and thousands of times.
Christmas is about believing what a woman said about her own body. It’s amazing how revolutionary that idea still is, even 2000 years later.
Christmas is about taking Mary at her word, Mary who said to the angel, “How can this be, for I am virgin?” Friends, Christmas is about believing in an “impossible possibility” – for how else does one describe a virgin birth – believing that Mary is telling the truth about her life and her experience…which sounds good and timely, and right on trend, but …do we? Really?
Joseph didn’t – at least not at first – and it’s hard to blame him.
We don’t know a whole lot about Joseph, but by Matthew’s account he seems like a decent enough fellow…one of the good ones, really. Joseph was righteous, but not legalistic. He was just, but not vindictive.
When Mary is found to be with child, his decision to dismiss her quietly was one of the kindest things he could do. Joseph chose mercy over shame. He put her safety before his honor. We don’t know what Mary told him, or even if she had a chance to share her side of the story at all, because (-sigh-) Mary never speaks in the gospel of Matthew.
But even if she did. Even if she did tell him she was a virgin and the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit, it’s understandable that Joseph would be skeptical. I know I would be. Maybe I still am. All we really know is that once it became clear that Mary was pregnant, all Joseph really wanted was out. All he wanted was to cut his losses and move on as gracefully as possible.
The truth, is that it took an act of divine intervention for Joseph to believe Mary. It took an angel interceding on her behalf to get Joseph to finally hear her side of the story and believe. And I get that. I don’t judge him for it, and we should all be thankful that he came round in the end.
But friends, I’m wondering, all these years later, if maybe part of this story isn’t a call for us to do better by each other. I’m wondering if part of this story is a call to not just listen or hear people, but to believe them when they have the courage to tell us the truth about themselves no matter how impossible that truth might seem.
Because, you see, the longer I walk upon this earth, the more I realize that I am surrounded by impossible possibilities everywhere I look; people who were never going to fit into the tidy little roles assigned to them by birth or family, the church or society. People who defy the expectations of others because our lives are so far outside the experience of others.
You know who you are…just as you know how much courage it takes to speak the truth about who you are, how much strength it takes to walk through this world as your authentic self,
feeling what you really feel, needing what you really need, loving who really love, being who you really are:
be you transgender or neuro-divergent, non-binary or inter-faith, a woman called to ministry or a person of color living in a society built to maintain white privilege.
Maybe you’re still grieving long after everyone else has moved on. Maybe you’re treatable, just not curable. Maybe you’re a poet born to economists or an agnostic in a family of faith.
There are so many of us, like Mary, so many of us right here in this very room who don’t fit into the box labeled “normal” or “easy” or “well-behaved.”
There are so many of us whose experience of this life has placed us outside the bounds of what people can readily understand or predict or honestly sometimes even deal with, and that makes us vulnerable. It can leave us feeling unworthy, unloved, rejected, and misunderstood.
All of you impossible possibilities out there, you know the pain of rejection and disbelief, rumors and sideways glances, opportunities denied and harm incurred. And you know what? Mary did too.
But you know what else? You’re all still standing. Which makes me think that you also know the power of angels. You know how powerful it has been to have people show up in your life who see the truth about you, people who have been willing to stand up for you, accommodate you, and let those around you know that you are exactly who you say you are.
Angels who counseled the people around you who didn’t understand to not be afraid and keep you in their lives.
Joseph would have dismissed Mary were it not for that angel. Her family may well have cast her out. God only knows what might have become of her and the child we call “Immanuel,” if Joseph hadn’t come around. Think about that for a moment.
We all know what a risky proposition the incarnation was. Celeste Kennel-Shank, points out that “Preachers often highlight Mary’s marginalized social position: God chooses to become flesh through an unwed teenager. God chooses to become flesh through a girl whose people are living under occupation… (But) God also chooses,” she says, “to become flesh—to be Immanuel, God with us—through a woman whose testimony was not believed.”
God chooses, right from the very beginning, to stand in solidarity with those whose testimony is not believed. If that’s you this Christmas, then this Immanuel, God with us, this God is with you. This God loves and understands and believes in you more than you will ever know.
And if that’s not you this Christmas, then friends, maybe you’re called to be an angel this time around; the one who stands up for someone else. Maybe your mission this year is to be the aunt or cousin or friend who they can call upon, the one who reminds them that they are exactly who God made them to be, they are beautiful just as they are, and if anyone says otherwise they can come talk to you.
Or maybe, just maybe, you’re called to be like Joseph this year. Maybe this virgin mother and her baby boy have come to invite you to reconsider what you already thought you knew in order to let someone who really needs you into your life and into your heart.
I don’t know where you find yourself in this story. All I know is where Mary and her baby found themselves, and it’s a terribly vulnerable place to be. She needed someone to believe in her, and the truth is, we do too.
So wherever you find yourself this Christmas, be you struggling to see or be seen, be understood or understand, do not be afraid. Know that God believed in Mary, and God believes in you. And for what it’s worth, I do too. Merry Christmas. Amen