December 4, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Introduction to scripture:
For those who were not here last week, let me begin once again by explaining the title of my Advent series, “Bring on the Grandmothers.”
Before the gospel of Matthew tells us the story of Jesus’ birth, it first provides Jesus’ genealogy in order to establish that Jesus will be born of the house of David. Matthew lists 42 generations of fathers and sons beginning with the father of the Jewish faith, Abraham, marching on down to King David, continuing to the last King of Israel before the exile to Babylon, and stopping finally at Joseph. Clearly, Matthew tells his readers, this baby who is to be born is the son of kings.
“But,” Matthew warns, “maybe not the kind of king you are thinking of,” and in a foreshadowing of the confusion Jesus will bring to our carefully constructed worlds, Matthew inserts four women’s names into the roll call. They are not the most famous of Jesus’ female ancestors, nor the most upstanding, but Matthew chooses to mention these four women because he believes that their stories will tell his readers something about the character of the baby who is about to be born, something about the kind of Savior Jesus will become for us. During the weeks of Advent, I am preaching on these grandmothers of Jesus to look at how their stories inform our understanding the kind of salvation Jesus offers.
Matthew 1:1-5 says, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab.”
Last week we heard about Tamar who pretended to be a prostitute in order to force her father-in-law to fulfill the obligations of the covenant, and as a result was called righteous. This week’s story belongs to Rahab, who didn’t pretend to be a prostitute — she was a prostitute and as a result of her actions was called a “hero of our faith.”
Here is Rahab’s story:
Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.
Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” The men said to her, “Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.”
Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself. She said to them, “Go toward the hill country, so that the pursuers may not come upon you. Hide yourselves there three days, until the pursuers have returned; then afterward you may go your way.” The men said to her, “We will be released from this oath that you have made us swear to you if we invade the land and you do not tie this crimson cord in the window through which you let us down, and you do not gather into your house your father and mother, your brothers, and all your family. If any of you go out of the doors of your house into the street, they shall be responsible for their own death, and we shall be innocent; but if a hand is laid upon any who are with you in the house, we shall bear the responsibility for their death. But if you tell this business of ours, then we shall be released from this oath that you made us swear to you.” She said, “According to your words, so be it.” She sent them away and they departed. Then she tied the crimson cord in the window.
For the rest of her story, see Joshua 2 and 3
“Shame on you!” Just hearing those words can make our hearts race and our faces blush. “Shame on you!” Immediately, we imagine fingers pointing in disgust, dogs groveling before the feet of an angry owner, or if the words are spoken to us, we are the dogs — made to feel unworthy.
At a small church I served for a short time before coming to Alfred, the congregation told me about a time in their history when one of the young women in the church became pregnant out of wedlock and the officers of the church decided that she would no longer be allowed to take communion. They believed that because of her “wanton ways,” she was no longer worthy to sit at the Lord’s Table with the other members of the church who, though certainly guilty of their own sins, had the decency to choose sins that could be kept hidden from others.
“Shame on you,” they told the young woman when they forbid her to take communion. “Shame on you for ignoring the standards we have set for the members of this church.”
I wonder if those church officials ever considered that by their reasoning, Jesus’ own mother would have been forbidden to eat at his Table. One could argue, of course, that Mary’s pregnancy was different and not at all the result of a teenage roll in the hay but Matthew knew that Jesus’ contemporaries wouldn’t have seen it that way. In the gospel of Matthew, the religious authorities view Jesus as the illegitimate son of an unwed mother from a podunk backwater town. They believed that he was not worthy of their attention, let alone God’s, and Matthew reinforces the shame of Jesus’ background by including the prostitute Rahab in Jesus’ genealogy. The Bible doesn’t tell us why Rahab took up prostitution, but most women don’t enter prostitution as a considered career choice. They become prostitutes because they are starving and have no source of income, or they were runaways, or sold into sexual slavery. In most societies, prostitution is a act of last resort for women, and yet still the society condemns those women with shame.
Last year, Texas police said that they wanted to reduce prostitution in their state in order, they said, to help women escape from the trap of such a life so they began posting the mug shots and names of the prostitutes they arrested to social media. The police claimed that the public shame of having their prostitution exposed to the world would encourage women to find another profession. Besides the obvious double standard of this program — none of the client’s pictures were posted — the program will leave women permanently branded with the 21st century version of a Scarlet A, since anything put on the internet remains there forever.
“Shame on you,” the police said to the women. “Shame on you for ignoring the standards we have set for the citizens of this state. You are unworthy of our concern and compassion.”
As a prostitute, Rahab too was deemed unworthy to walk in the society of the honorable and upstanding of the city of Jericho. Maybe some of us here have, like Rahab, have experienced a time in our lives when people looked at us as they would look at a groveling dog beneath their feet, and we felt deep shame. Maybe there was a time when you struggled with an addiction that destroyed your reputation. Maybe you had an affair that caused serious harm to your loved ones. Maybe you made some bad decisions that caused friends to cut you off. Even if you have repaired the rifts you caused, memories of those times can still make you feel unworthy and awash in shame. Even those of us who haven’t experienced such a life-overturning event have known moments of shame when we fell short of the expectations of others and felt unworthy before them. Shame isn’t the same as guilt — people can be guilty of crimes but feel no shame, and likewise people can feel tremendous shame even though they have done nothing wrong — because shame isn’t about what you do — it’s an evaluation of your worth in the eyes of your community. When you feel ashamed, what you are feeling is a fear that your community will judge you to be unworthy of their regard. We as human beings are social creatures and our physical and psychological well-being depends heavily upon our relationships to others, so shame probably evolved in human beings as a means of ensuring that we will pay attention to the obligations of our relationships with others in the community. What the Bible asks us to consider, however, is to which community we will give the power to shame or honor us.
In other words, every one of you carries in your heads a particular community that is important to you. Maybe it’s your family. Maybe it is your professional colleagues or political party, or your Fraternity brothers. Whatever that community is, it is the group of people by which you judge your own worth and to which you conform you behavior. It is that community to which you have given the power to shame or honor you.
There was a journalist who wrote an online blog about video games and one of her blogs offended a member of the gaming community. He began to harass the journalist online, and egged on by his gamer friends, his insults became increasingly raw and personal. He clogged her comment box and filled her Twitter feed with pornographic tweets, and the more she tried to shut him down, the worse he got because it raised his standing with his online friends. Finally the journalist did some sleuthing and discovered the young man’s name. It turned out that he was a 14 year old boy. The journalist copied all of the boy’s tweets and comments and emailed them to the boy’s mother. She was appalled, and almost instantaneously, the journalist reported, the boy’s trolling stopped.
The journalist said that she did this several more times communicating with other mothers of trolling teens and what she learned was that the boys didn’t stop just because their parents shut them down but because the boys were honestly ashamed to have their mothers see the kinds of things they had been posting. The boys belonged to more than one community with different standards, but they chose to give the power of shame or honor primarily to their mothers who thankfully turned out to be more important to them than their friends.
Rahab was rejected by her community in Jericho, deemed unworthy of their attention because she was a prostitute, but she chose to measure her worth by a different community. When the two Israelite spies hid from the King’s soldiers in her home, she said to them, “I have heard of your Lord and I know that your God will prevail so I am throwing in my lot with the God of Israel in the hope that your God will find me worthy and save me and my family.” And God did. God didn’t care about her sexual choices, about her life of prostitution, but cared only about her courage and her compassion for these strangers in her home. And God saved her.
Rahab’s great great great to the 28th power grandson, Jesus, would also be judged by his society to be a man worthy only of shame. He was born in disreputable circumstances, hailed from a backwater town, had no money or status to speak of; he consorted with the untouchables of his day, and died the most shameful of deaths — death on a cross. If you were a worthy opponent, the Romans would kill you quickly in private so that you could at least die with honor, but if they thought of you as trash, they would kill you slowly in the most public of displays, hanging you on a cross like a deer carcass waiting to be gutted and tossed away.
“This man who thought he was someone,” the Romans declared as they nailed Jesus to the cross, “is nothing to us. Look upon his shame and laugh.”
But Jesus was the grandson of Rahab. Though he was born into the worst of circumstances and would die the most dishonorable of deaths, he refused to play by the rules of the religiously self-righteous, and instead took shame upon himself so that we might be drawn into a new community — into the circle of God’s grace and forgiving love where we measure ourselves not by some churchy standard of respectability but only by the degree to which we treat others with the same compassion and grace God has shown to us.
I read an article just this week of a controversy at an evangelical college in Canada, where alumni are challenging the school’s prohibition on same-sex relationships. The alumni argue that the church needs to change its views on homosexuality and have talked about the demeaning climate of anti-gay rhetoric they experienced as students that felt anything but Christ-like. One alumnus, Megan Jespersen told the administration that as a gay student, she was made to feel subhuman because of her sexuality.
“I’m talking shame so deep that you don’t want to [go on living.] You can’t fully describe that shame to people who haven’t experienced it.” 1
As I read her statement, and thought of Rahab shamed as a prostitute, as I thought of Jesus born in the backwaters of Judea and enduring the mockery of the religious authorites, of Christ dying a humiliating death on a cross, I thought, “Christ has fully experienced our deepest shame. He willingly took that shame upon himself to prove to us that there is another community that is greater than the ones who lord it over us and mock us as unworthy. There is another community to which we should give our hearts and our lives because it is only this community that matters in the end: it is the community built upon God’s love and grace.”
Be assured, Christ said as he took our shame upon himself: It is not the state whose judgment will prevail in the end; it is not the pious regulations of churchly sorts who think they alone can determine who will eat at the Lord’s table that will triumph; it is not the judgement of administrations or police blotters or the internet trolls that will determine your worth; it is not the communities hatred and division and bigotry that which will triumph in the end: God’s love alone will be victorious and all who choose to judge their worth only by the standards of that welcoming loving forgiving community will be victorious as well.”
The grandson of Rahab will be born to us and he will show us a community of grace and love and welcome. You are all invited to eat at his table this day.