Isaiah 63:7-9 | Hebrews 2:10-18 | Matthew 2:13-23
We love to put things in categories, don’t we? We love to draw boundaries, to section things off. It’s how we understand the world. We divide everything! Cities into neighborhoods, animals into species and sub-species, academic subjects into specific schools of thought (continental philosophy vs. analytic philosophy), and so on. But there’s nothing we love dividing more than people. We divide people up by race, gender, sexuality, culture, class, country of origin, ability, hair color, musical preference, hobbies, and the list goes on. Just think of high school: you’ve got the classic categories like nerds and cheerleaders and jocks. And then you’ve got sub-categories – not just jocks but the soccer kids and the basketball kids and the baseball kids.
I fall into this trap all the time.
I can remember when it all started! I was visiting my friend Nate, who had moved to Boise (the big city) a few years earlier. Being a city kid now, he was much cooler and knowledgeable than me. We were at the mall (the middle school mecca), and we saw a group of kids in polo shirts with popped collars, cargo shorts, and the same pair of Adidas shoes. Nate narrowed his eyes and said, “preppies.”
I asked what a preppy was and he said, “them.”
Understandably, I asked, “Well, what are we.”
He thought about it and said, “We’re punks…and skaters.”
What a silly little interaction! I’m sure he doesn’t even remember that conversation, but it was defining for me. It communicated that there are people we belong with, and people we don’t, and we don’t like people we don’t belong with.
That interaction had lasting affects, I still feel a connection with punk music. It happens as much for adults as it does for teenagers. People of similar incomes, interests, skin colors, even genders tend to hangout.
And far from challenging these divisions, the church usually perpetuates them. In many church growth books, the reader is told to have a target audience and to cater to that audience. Surpirse! Most churches tend to target the affluent, successful type. The ones who look like model Americans and tithe well. The church, for some reason, thinks it’s a great idea to have men’s groups and women’s groups separate from one another. One of my former professors once said, “There’s nothing more dangerous than a group of men sitting around and talking about what it means to be men.”
All these divisions create us/them. And when the “us” starts talking about the “them” without any input from the “them” group, we’re headed down a very dangerous road. When men start talking about how they should relate to women, without input from women (and vice-versa) things are going to turn out badly.
In our passages from both Matthew and Hebrews, Jesus refuses to be easily categorized. Partly out of choice, partly out of circumstance.
In Matthew, Jesus is forced to become a refugee. He and his family flee from Bethlehem to Egypt, and when they return to Israel they settle in the backwater town of Nazareth.
Who is Jesus? Is he an Israelite or an Egyptian? Is he from Bethlehem or Nazareth or some unknown town in Egypt?
When Jesus grows up and begins his ministry, the Pharisees take a special interest in knowing where Jesus is from. In John, after Jesus heals a blind man they say to the man, “We are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” As if where he’s from will determine his worth. They’re always asking Jesus where he got his authority. They want to know how to identify him, which box to put him in. Where is he from? What teacher did he learn from? What’s his view on this or that theological issue?
Put Jesus refuses to be boxed in. Instead, he dwells in “liminal” spaces, spaces that exist outside the borders, or that straddle the walls that divide.
Our Scripture from Hebrews identifies yet another liminal space. Jesus straddles the ultimate divide: that between human and divine.
Jesus, who John 1 tells us was with God and was God, became human. Became our brother!
That’s what Hebrews tells us, it says that because we all (all humans and Jesus) share the same Parent – God – we are all siblings, even siblings of Jesus. So is Jesus God or is Jesus the Son of God? Is Jesus human or is Jesus divine? Scripture says yes to all of these questions with no nos. Yes Jesus is God and yes Jesus is the son of God. Yes Jesus is fully human and yes Jesus is fully divine.
Jesus confounds our knowledge – at least the kind of knowledge that’s based on dividing up and categorizing. He defies knowledge “about” but invites knowledge “of.”
He defies knowledge “about” but invites knowledge “of.”
Knowledge of God is not a knowledge we can parse out and quantify. We are not closer to God based on what we know about God, but by how we know God through relationship with God. The same way we know a spouse or a family member or a friend. It’s not about facts. It’s a different kind of knowing than that.
Put yet another way, Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest says, “We look at objects, and we judge them from a distance through our normal intelligence, parsing out their varying parts, separating this from that, presuming that to understand the parts is always to be able to understand the whole. But divine things can never be objectified in this way; they can only be [understood] by becoming one with them!”
By becoming one with them.
That’s just what Jesus did according to Hebrews! Became one with us.
“ Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death... Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
Jesus rejected the easy divisions, the ones between us and them, the ones between God and humanity, and that’s what made salvation possible.
The family imagery is so powerful in this passage! Especially in the wake of Christmas, when many of us spent time with family. I spent A LOT of time with my family! My parents were here for over a week. And every time we get together, I get to know my family members better, but it’s not because I learned new facts about them, it’s because I spent time with them and we grew closer. I grew in my knowledge of them, not my knowledge about them. It’s a knowledge that draws us together, unifies us. We are separate and yet we are one family. Just as Jesus is separate and yet has become one of us. He has become one with us.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to…well…follow him! We are called to live the same kind of life. And this is hard, because our world operates out of knowledge that is about, not a knowledge of. The world operates out of knowledge that breaks up, divides, and categorizes.
The world puts people in categories and then makes judgements about them without ever getting to know them. Think about the stereotypes we hear all the time. And just to be clear I’m saying these stereotypes are false. The poor and homeless are just lazy, or drug addicts. Muslims are dangerous. Racial minorities are just complainers, creating division where there is none. Women are too weak and emotional to lead. The LGBT community are perverted.
All these false, divisive assertions are based on a false knowledge about not an intimate knowledge of. The people who make such claims didn’t come to these conclusions from befriending and getting to know people in these different groups. Instead, they sat around with people who were just like themselves and then made judgements about people who were unlike them.
But Jesus didn’t do that. He knew that in order to be “a faithful high priest” he needed to become “like his brothers and sisters in every respect.”
He didn’t judge from outside. He loved from the inside.
In Hebrews, it’s from inside the place of the human. In Matthew, it’s from inside the place of the refugee.
I’ve recently come to realize just how hard it is to follow Jesus into this kind of knowledge of the “other.” The knowledge of instead of the knowledge about. We can support causes and post articles on facebook about justice and looking out for the “least of these” without ever actually spending time with any of them. But to actually enter into life with people who are unlike us is surprisingly difficult. As I’ve said, our world is based on division.
In some of my preaching classes we had to practice “dislocated exegesis,” which is where you go to a place that is outside of your comfort zone – a hospital waiting room, a homeless shelter, a cemetery – and read and meditate on the Scripture you’re planning to preach on.
I thought about how I should do that for this sermon. But I didn’t. It was so much easier to go to the coffee shop down the street full of people who look and act like me, and have similar lives to mine.
Crossing boundaries takes intentionality. Most of us could easily live our lives surrounded primarily by people we feel comfortable with. But we signed up to follow Jesus, and according to Philippians, Jesus “did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but humbled himself” in order to become human. To become one with us. I think it’s safe to say that going form divinity to humanity took some intentionality on Jesus’ part.
So I want us as a church to begin to think about how we can intentionally cross boundaries and break down walls. This past week I signed up to begin volunteering once a week at William Temple House’s food pantry. I don’t tell you that to say, “Hey, look at me,” but I’m hoping it will help me get to know people who are different from me.
Next week a group of us are going to the informational event regarding Sanctuary and immigration justice, because right now there are a lot of false fears and assumptions about immigrants and refugees without any intimate knowledge of immigrants and refugees – without any kind of relationship with these people. People who have fled persecution and death just as Jesus did in our Gospel reading from today.
My hope is that in the coming months we can begin to dream and pray about a specific organization that is already doing good work here in Portland that we can join with, and that we as a church and as individuals will commit to giving our time to that organization. That we would all volunteer, even if it’s just a couple of hours a month.
I feel that I should warn you all though. To join with those on the outside like this is risky. As soon as Jesus was born he was hunted by Herod, and his solidarity with humanity ultimately led to the cross. When we join with those outside of our “group,” when we challenge assumed structures and presumptions we will put ourselves at risk.
There will always worries that volunteering with this group or that, or inviting this person or that person into our community will put us at risk – it won’t be safe. And some of those worries will be valid, but Jesus never said it would be safe to follow him, but he said we would be free. To quote Hebrews one more time, “he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death”. Galatians says something similar. It tells us that it is for freedom that we were set free.
To break through the divisions and walls that are set up between us and others is to free ourselves and others, but it’s dangerous business. It will push us outside our comfort zones, and outside the bounds of safety. Luckily, we have a brother who “was tested by what he suffered,” so “he is able to help those who are being tested.” Thanks be to God for Jesus our brother.