Some of my best friends are straight....
Beyond Apology for Christians at Christmas
God is starting to show. Usually that doesn't happen for at least three months, at the end of the first trimester, when the fetus is so small that it creates no bulges. Many women can wear their regular clothes and get their regular sleep, give or take a few gastrointestinal disturbances. Then comes the bulge, the ballooning, the sense of no longer being one's own person, the sense that something important is happening, within our own wombs.
Advent is the season of the showing. We light one candle to indicate the coming of a new kind of light. We usually sing songs of waiting and anticipation - although here at Judson we break the liturgical rules and haul out the Christmas carols early. Our tradition of not having a Christmas Eve service is one some think of as strange. It has good reasons, including the larger music budgets of our sister churches and the fact that many of our people leave town for the birth. In order to give our children the proper appreciation of the full birth experience we rush the music. Here we join Wal-Mart's and D'Agostio's in putting the Christmas out early. I will be happy to tell any liturgical high brows why. The reason is I don't think children can hear enough Christmas Carols. I am thinking of singing some on every Agape between now and Easter. But that is another question. Today the issue is that God is beginning to show.
Christianity is as strange a religion as any other. Our core is the Holy Spirit having mysterious relations with the girl, Mary, all of which results in a child who is understood to be the salvation of the world. Advent is the time when we get on the path of understanding how these things can be. How come God comes down? How come God gets small? How come God, the eternal, becomes the temporal? As I said, Christianity is as strange a religion as any other. At its core power is vulnerability, heavenly is earthly, flesh involves spirit, divinity caresses the ordinary. Our version of God is one that is very hard to understand in a world that sells tacky Christmas ornaments, for the sake of a profit, or is deeply concerned about whether the stores will sell a lot during the gift giving buying season. Our version has a quarrel with the world, as we know it and sings its song in a different key, the key of incarnation, of spirit becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Not above us, but among us. Not outside us, but in us. Not robed in kingly crimson but in swaddling clothes in the manger next door.
During Advent we piece together the meaning of God's starting to show us what God's path is? Pieces are what we get, given the messaging strategy of the divine. A girl. A manger. A small town named Bethlehem. Can you imagine launching your message in Topeka when New York is so close by? Can you imagine launching your message in Bangladesh when Egypt is so close by? These little questions are a piece of the mystery and magnificence of the Christian version of God. Today I will give you a few more pieces of what it means to look in wonder at the Christian path.
We can begin with Isaiah's prophecy. The one who is coming, who is now just a fetus and a glimmer in his parent's eye, will make the way straight and will make the rough smooth. The Advent texts are about a straightening but not a normalizing. There is a difference. Straightening has to do with making God's path clear or straight. It exposes the universal human tendency to get lost, to go crooked, to get roughed up on the way. The Advent promises are about making the crooked straight and the rough smooth - and they have absolutely nothing to do with the many prejudices of the normal.
When I say that some of my best friends are straight, I don't mean that they are normal. In fact, what I love about the Christian version of God is the attack on normalcy itself. You want a Messiah? I'll give you a Messiah. He will come as a child, with no power, no sword, no press kit. He will come totally dependent on you and your care of him. God will relinquish all power and come to earth and be dependent on our love for him to realize salvation. There is another text that tells this same story in greater power. It is the text of the first chapter of Philippians, well known as the Kenosis text, in which the poetry of God descends into the pathos of earth and expels all its power. Humility is what is exalted. Exalted is what is humbled.
So if you want what we appear now to call a take away from this first Sunday in Advent, take this. You may have to reverse path to get on the path. You may have to become better acquainted with vulnerability in order to be saved. You may have to have less power in order to have more power.
I'll never forget the day my seventh grader asked me what I now call the Normal Question. He had been in junior high for two weeks. Mom, can you be smart and popular at the same time? My child was asking me how normal he had to be. These questions never stop. Can you be normal and out of work? Dare you tell the family how long the unemployment checks have been coming? Is it ok not to be normal, according to the world's crooked roads? Can you be normal and not have any money? Or status? Or college degrees? Or thin thighs? Or big pecs? In our world a lot of people tell us who we are supposed to be. They also whisper who God is supposed to be. They act like queer is not beautiful and say they are straight, when really they are crooked.
The Christmas story is a quiet subversion of the normal God. It is also a nudge to get back on the path to God. We walked the Appalachian Trail Friday and stayed out too long to have much light left. We lost the white blazes and Kofe, aka Lassie, had to nudge us back on the trail. Advent is a cold dog's nose back on the path of what it means to be a Christian, to follow the Christian story, to enjoy the Christmas carols, which are as subversive as they are pretty.
Let me give you another piece, beyond the abnormalizing of the normal which the story is. I have winter-ism. I am a winter-ist. I am prejudiced against winter, the color of its skin, the perplexity of its moods, the way it is both too emotional and not emotional enough at the same time. Does it want to be cold? Or fire place warmed? Does it want me exposed outdoors, staring at the tree's in their birthday suits, or snuggled indoors, incubating? Should I imagine the courage of that first iris in the spring as my weather center or is it the sleep of its coiled roots that give the bloom its life? Why is winter so simultaneously normal and abnormal?
Winter is just a metaphor for death, and death is at least the mother of beauty. Why not treat winter with a similar respect? But then I see how dark connects to my other, more popular and acceptable prejudices, like racism. I wonder if I can dare allow something besides me to be normal. Or acceptable. Or good. I wonder how I can escape the prison of my prejudices and learn to enjoy God's sneaky, subversive salvation.
Life may be one long quarrel between the normal and the abnormal, with winter-ism being just one of its case studies. Consider how straight people think they are normal and other people are not. Or how foolishly I give summer the weather vane for my weather appreciation. Christmas exists to mess with your mind about normality, starting with God's early showing of pregnancy and birth as a primary narrative about who this God is. As Mary put it so well, how can these things be?
Finally, let me piece together the progression of this story. Pregnancy is one of the most incremental of incremental things. Children develop in the womb with the slowest possible incrementality. They just keep on keeping on, in the quiet and dark of the world's best container, rivaled only by the shell the Creator has also put on eggs. Packaging genius, that's what the womb is. Pure packaging genius. A child grows from a combination of egg and sperm that begins as a chemical and genetic blob and ends up with fingers and toes. There is a straight path to an accomplished birth. God works this way as well, slowly and surely, taking into account much mystery along the way. At Advent our rough world becomes smooth. Our crooked paths become straight. We join the birth story and give it a little space next to all the other stories, the stories about Christmas sales and seventh grader's instructions on how to be normal. We add the birth story and its sure certain slow progression to what kind of sexual orientation we are supposed to have or what kind of clothes we should wear or what kind of films we should like. We still live in the world where we get off the path, where we spend large portions of our existence avoiding vulnerability and imagining a mean far off God, who never has sex of any kind.
Jon Stewart's bizarre path to fame is a good example of the other message, the message that power is our destination. I like Jon Stewart as much as the next person even though he terrifies me. I wonder how parody of the news became the news and hope that some one will teach me enough about post modernism that I can understand how the now stated fourth most trusted person in America actually trusts nothing. I have my problems with Jon Stewart. But I love the story of how he had to work to become who he is, how many failures were his along the way. Being thrown off the stage at the Bitter End, two minutes into his bit, must not have been pretty. Having to pay busboys and waiters at the end of their days to listen to his jokes could not have been fun. But now he has risen to a great all American fame. He is a household word and he didn't become it by sneaking into the White House Gala for Reality TV. What a path. What a glory. What a victory for power and defeat for vulnerability. How would my trusty dog nutch Stewart back on to a path, where the rough was made smooth and the crooked straight? Stewart would put it all at risk. He would give it away. He would become pregnant with a little salvation. By the way I know he is Jewish. I know there is another path proposed for him. I have no illusions that the Christian path is the only path or even the best path. I do know that power likes to mix it up with vulnerability and that the power path, unmitigated, is dangerous to Jews and Christians and Moslems and more.
God breaks in on the power and fame normalizers at Advent. She does so on behalf of all the people still having their jokes laughed off stage at the local clubs. Power is not the path of the Christian God. Pregnancy is. Sure, certain progress on a path that ends up with joy to the world and peace on earth and good will to all. We who enjoy the Christmas story think of these things, and nothing less, as normal Amen.