Sermon Series: Love Yourself, Love Your Neighbor
“You Are A Conqueror”
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? Did his parents live in Bethlehem? Was Bethlehem his hometown? No. Nazareth was his hometown.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, according to the story, because his parents had gone to Bethlehem because of a census. The Roman Emperor Augustus had declared that the whole world, the entire Roman Empire, should be registered so that the empire would have accurate records of all the people under its power. (Luke 2:1-5)
So Quirinus, the governor of Syria, declared a census and required everybody to go back to their family’s original home to register. Joseph was of the lineage of David, so he had to travel to Bethlehem to register.
Why did Jesus spend the early years of his life in Egypt, according to the story the way Matthew tells it? Because Herod who was governor of Galilee after Jesus was born instituted a pogrom to kill all Jewish male babies because he had heard a prophecy that a new Jewish king would be born.
The birth narratives of Jesus are just riddled with reminders that Jesus was born into a conquered people … people who were not free but who had been conquered by outside invaders and who were forced to live under the thumb of a foreign power that did not particularly respect their heritage, their culture, or their religion.
Israel’s status as a conquered nation who longed for freedom and autonomy dominates the nativity narratives.
Most people understood themselves and their neighbor in terms of their relationship to Rome, their conqueror… the power to which they were subjected.
There were at least four general categories of people, although the lines between the categories are not neatly or cleanly defined.
There were the ordinary people who did their work, raised their families, went to synagogue, paid their taxes, followed the rules, tried to get along with the Roman powers-that-be, and tried to live their lives with as little hassle as possible. This was probably the majority of the people.
Then there were those who tried to live off of the grid. They tried not to participate in the census, they tried to avoid paying taxes, they hoped Rome would never realize they existed. They just wanted to hide and be left alone.
There were the revolutionaries of different degrees of extremity. They were working for their goal of freedom, some engaging in armed rebellion, others planning and organizing or fantasizing about the day that their armies would overturn the Roman oppressors and freedom and independence would return to Israel.
Finally, there were the collaborators… those who went to work for Rome and who helped to maintain Rome’s control over Israel. Chief among these were the tax collectors who collected Rome’s taxes from their fellow Israelites.
For most of his ministry people were trying to figure out which group Jesus belonged to. All of the groups were represented among his disciples.
There were ordinary hard-working fishermen who by every indication paid their taxes and lived by the rules. You remember that when someone asked Peter if Jesus paid the temple tax, Peter did not want people to think that Jesus and his disciples were part of the group of people trying to live off the grid or that Jesus was a revolutionary so Peter said Jesus did pay the tax, even though he hadn’t. Jesus has to talk to Peter about this, and Jesus ends up paying the tax so that they would not unnecessarily give offense. (Matt. 17: 24-27) For Peter the idea of even tax resistance was too extreme.
But also in the group were James and John, Sons of Thunder, revolutionaries, zealots, committed to the violent overthrow of the Roman oppressors.
Also in the group was Matthew the tax collector, a collaborator.
Zealots hated tax collectors. Zealots swore an oath when they joined the movement that if they ever had the opportunity to do so they would execute tax collectors, so I imagine it took a while for Matthew to sleep comfortably in the same room with James and John.
The story of Jesus is at least in part the story of how to live as a vanquished, conquered people. How do you live when a foreign army has come and taken over your land and is trying to impose on you a different way of thinking and a different way of living and a different way of praying?
In the midst of this situation Jesus comes proclaiming the Kingdom of God – God is our true emperor. Jesus’ teachings and actions are about how to live free when you are part of a conquered, oppressed, enslaved people.
Our general topic this Advent/Christmas season is Love Yourself, Love Your Neighbor. It is based on Foundry’s key scripture where Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God and the second greatest is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
The assumption behind Jesus’ teaching is that we love ourselves in good and healthy ways. If you don’t love yourself in good and healthy ways, do not love me the way you love yourself. Right?
I actually mis-titled the sermon for this morning. I entitled it “You Are a Conqueror,” but the word from Romans says “You are more than conquerors.”
The point is that we tend to live like conquerors or the conquered. We tend to live like winners or losers. We tend to live like victims or oppressors.
We tend to categorize one another as winners or losers. Helpers or those who need help.
Unless you know that there is nothing in life that can truly defeat you or destroy you or devalue you or make your life worthless or futile, and therefore that there is nothing in life that can defeat me or destroy me or devalue me or make my life worthless or futile, do not love me the way you love yourself.
I was asked to talk about urban ministry at a conference sponsored by Wesley Seminary this past week. I decided to talk about the contradictions of urban ministry.
I had a mentor when I was younger … his name was Art Brandenburg. I went to Art once and asked him to help me figure out how to deal with a problem I was facing in my ministry.
When I described the problem, Art said to me: “That’s not a problem, that’s a contradiction.” A problem is something there is a solution to. A contradiction is something in the nature of things that you’ve got to figure out how to live into creatively. Creatively and consciously.
Urban ministry is full of contradictions. One of the contradictions I talked about is the tendency of urban ministry to divide people into stewards and clients.
All of us are both helpers and the helped. All of us go through times when we are needy and need others to support us. All of us have resources that we can use to help others.
One of the contradictions of urban ministry is that it tends to turn some people into stewards who use their resources to help others and other people into clients who are being helped. This is not the way the world ought to be. It is not healthy. It tends to lead to paternalism, and internalized oppression, and resentment, and passive-aggressiveness. It is not a problem to be solved. It is a contradiction that needs to be lived into consciously and creatively.
I see our mission folk here at Foundry living creatively with this contradiction all the time.
If you understand yourself as either a victim or a victimizer, don’t love me the way you love yourself. If you understand that you are more than a conqueror, that you are not defined by what seeks to oppress or victimize you, then I want you to love me just like you love yourself.
We are never helpless. We never need to despair. I am not saying that we shouldn’t feel the sadness and pain of the wrongs within life, the disappointments, the limitations.
We are all limited. We are mortal. We are finite. We are not God.
But we never need to be defined by the circumstances of our lives. And if you allow the circumstances of your life to define you, do not love me the way you love yourself, because I don’t want to be defined by you.
Always treat me as a person who has the capacity to define myself, to help myself, to live competently and constructively. If I need help, help me, but do not define me by the help I need. Do not encourage me to stay needy even if it feels good to help me.
If we know that we are free, we can love others without taking their freedom away from them.