The Scripture reading for this Sunday was Matthew 1:18-25.
The music was "O Come, O Come Emmanuale" arranged by Marshall McDonald & Steven Sharp Nelson, adapted by Jon Schmidt. Performed by Carl McAliley on piano and Susan Wegner on cello.
The proclamation recording is here along with the full print version below.
The invitation is not normally included, but it touched too many to be left out.
Rev. Laura Mayo
December 18, 2016
“I’m Laura Mayo and I am the Senior Minister of Covenant Church: an eccumenical, liberal, baptist congregation.” As soon as the word Baptist escaped my lips she was giving me a hard look. When the naming got to her she said, Nafisa Munshi from the Muslim American Society Mosque. After everyone else gave voice to name and religious context, she, looking right at me, said: “I live in Katy. There are a lot of Baptists there.” David Leslie of Rothko Chapel cut in to say, “She’s not that kind of Baptist.” The woman continued, “Christians talk a lot about this Jesus and his love and then these same people, the same people are evil to me. You see my hijab. Just this week at Target a man saw me walking into the store and waited on me. As as I came inside the doors he began to yell at me calling me trash and filth, telling me to leave. He spat at me. Is this the love of your Jesus?”
I wanted to break eye contact in my shame - my shame that anyone would treat her so cruelly - that her perception of Christians, of Baptists, of me, was people who talk about love and then spit on Muslims . . . I wanted to close my eyes--to shut out the horror of her words, her experiences. Instead, I held her gaze and apologized. I said how sad I am that anyone would be so cruel, I said she was right that Jesus did teach love and that I couldn’t understand how people who claimed to follow him could be so dehumanizing. I said I was sad and I was sorry and that I wanted her to be safe, to feel welcome.
The conversation around the circle took off from there: jews, muslims, and christians all offering ideas and suggestions about our duty to humanity, our call as people of faith to welcome, include, and care, ways we can stop violence, tools for educating, ideas around roleplays to practice being with someone who is being verbally or physically attacked and engagement with each other.
The day continued with brainstorming about helping our city embrace our tremendous diversity . . . there were many ideas and lots of learning and listening, I found though that the words and experiences of Nafisa were the most instructive for me.
I wonder if such mistreatment, such hatred, such violence would happen, especially in this time of year, if we had a more realistic image of Jesus. I don’t know that it would solve everything but if the man who attacked Nafisa, had noticed that she looks more like Jesus’ mother Mary than his wife likely does, that her young son looks more like Jesus than his child does. If we put a dark-skinned Mary, Joseph, and Jesus on our Christmas cards and coffee cups, in our manger scenes, would it change anything?
Without apparent intentional intervention, children in our culture image God as an old white man, an image that reigns unchecked unless it is countered with other God images. Similarly, the vast majority of the renderings of Jesus show him as white: our paintings, our movies, of TV mini-series, our stained glass
In all likelihood, if you close your eyes and picture Jesus, you’ll imagine a white man. Without conscious intention or awareness, many of us have become disciples of a white Jesus. Not only is white Jesus inaccurate, he also distorts our connections to the stories of Jesus and the stories of people of color.
Scholars and theologians debate about just how dark Jesus of Nazareth’s skin was: Princeton biblical scholar James Charlesworth notes Jesus was “most likely dark brown and sun-tanned” (James Charlesworth, The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide). Theologian James Cone wrote: "The 'raceless' American Christ has a light skin, wavy brown hair, and sometimes - wonder of wonders - blue eyes. For whites to find him with big lips and kinky hair is as offensive as it was for the Pharisees to find him partying with tax-collectors. But whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black, baby, with all of the features which are so detestable to white society" (J. H. Cone, "The White Church and Black Power.")
While shades of brown are debated, it is clear that Jesus was not white. The earliest depictions of an adult Jesus showed him with a brown complexion. But by the sixth century, some Byzantine artists started picturing Jesus with white skin, a beard, and hair parted down the middle. This image became the standard.
In the colonial period, Western Europe exported its image of a white Christ worldwide, and white Jesus often shaped the way Christians understood Jesus’ ministry and mission. Some 19th-century Christians, eager to justify the cruelties of slavery, went out of their way to present Jesus as white. By negating his true identity as a dark-skinned, oppressed minority, slaveholders were better able to justify the master-slave hierarchy and forget Jesus’ ministry to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). (Information about artistic renderings of Jesus from Christena Cleveland “Why Jesus’ Skin Color Matters.”)
We’ve white-washed Jesus. We’ve taken what might have been a way to expand our understanding of those with significant differences, those more like Jesus than we are and we’ve thrown them out, replacing them with a light brown haired, blue-eyed lie.
We didn’t stop at white-washing, though. Not only was Jesus not white, he was also, as a jew, part of a religious and ethnic minority in the Roman Empire. Jews were marginalized by Romans, Greeks, and other non-Jewish groups in many imperial cities. As an infant, Jesus was the target of ruler-sanctioned violence, and fled to Egypt as a refugee. He fled because of his gender. He was a boy and the lives of the boys under age two were threatened by the empire. Jesus was a dark skinned religious minority refugee who fled persecution because of his gender.
The story as it’s recorded in the Bible also comes with a significant amount of sexual scandal. In the genealogy that precedes this morning’s reading, Tamar appears--Tamar, the one who disguised herself as a prostitute in order to conceive a child with Judah. Then, there’s Rahab, another prostitute. Ruth, who seduced her way into a marriage and security appears, as does a reference to King David’s murderous, lust-fueled plot.
Jesus in our popular imagery--the light-haired, blue-eyed, untainted, popular evangelist bears almost no resemblance to the stories about Jesus in the Bible. What we find in our sacred stories is a dark-skinned, dark-eyed, dark-haired Middle Eastern child born amid sexual scandal, ostracized for his family’s religion, persecuted because of his gender, friend to tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners and other outcasts, who is from Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
How would Nafisa experience Christians if those Christians saw a manger scene on every corner with dark-skinned refugees, surrounded by sexual scandal? If, as we sang “Silent Night” we remember that Jesus and his parents fled from the Middle East to Africa in order to escape persecution for Jesus’ gender, could we really say hate-filled words about trans people - could people advance cruel and unfair treatment for trans people in the name of Christ, could they do it, if they thought of Jesus as one who knows what it is to be persecuted for his gender, to flee for his life because of it?
Those who decry the black lives matter movement, could they miss the point so completely by shouting back all lives matter if they truly saw Jesus? Could they hate people for no reason beyond their skin tone, if they knew we follow a black Christ?
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
Jesus - savior: he will save the people from their sins. What if the sins Jesus saves us from don’t have anything to do with gender identity, sexual preferences, race or class . . . or actually what if they have everything to do with those distinctions - what if Jesus embodies the groups that are so often marginalized and oppressed: embodies religious minority, embodies dark skin, embodies poverty, embodies sexual scandal - is persecuted for his gender . . . what if we are to be saved from our sins of racism, classism, islamophobia . . . What if we are being saved from our mistreatment of those we experience as other?
If this is the salvation Jesus offers, come, Jesus, come this Christmas, come into our lives and our church and our city and our world - save us.