By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
Today my sermon is an experiment in imaginative storytelling. I’m going to retell the story of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the wise people. In my story I’m going to bring to life Tree’s drawing of the holy family in a tent on the streets of San Francisco and what it means for our understanding of Epiphany in this time and in this place.
Part of why I want to do this retelling is to illuminate the subversive message of the text, which is often obscured or over-spiritualized. Growing up Christian, I thought I knew what this story was about… a savior being born that I could believe in to save me from my sins and get me into heaven. Yay. But as I got older that story didn’t work anymore and definitely didn’t feel transformative. It’s only in recent years that the subversiveness of the story has begun to make sense. It took a lot of peeling back the layers of imperial Christianity and white supremacy.
In our Back to the Basics series this fall, which focused on the story of the Bible, I preached one sermon on the exodus, law and conquest. It was a difficult sermon to write given especially the complexities of violence in the text.
In preparing that sermon it became clear to me that the Hebrew god was the god of the slaves. This made the Hebrew god different than other ancient near eastern gods. The Hebrew god delivered the people from slavery and gave them instructions for a way of life that would help them to stay free of tyranny, both tyranny from within and tyranny at the hands of others.
With this in mind, it’s not surprising that God would show up centuries after the exodus as a baby born among an oppressed people. This isn’t just a sweet story that makes a nice Christmas card, with a cute baby and cute animals. It’s a revolutionary act of incarnation that communicates Divine Spirit is on the side of the dispossessed and discarded.
How crazy is it that in our tradition the Creator of the universe shows up as a baby, and not even a baby born to rich people, but a baby who is seen as an illegitimate child, born to poor people.
Most of Christian history has been an effort to sanitize this revolutionary story (and others) because if we actually believed and understood it, the world would be a very different place. We must be aware that our scriptures, in large part, were written by people and communities who were dispossessed (granted there are exceptions like King Solomon who was a great plunderer of the land). Imperial Christianity has taken these texts of oppressed peoples and twisted them to serve tyrants, slave-holders, and genocidal maniacs.
When we let imperial Christianity be the only Christian story, we let the imperial story win. In these times, we must follow the footsteps of our Anabaptist forbearers and claim the revolutionary power of our tradition. We must strike back against the Christian empire.
When Divine Spirit shows up, systems of oppression (sin) are subverted and there is release for the captives and the colonized. This is good news because we have all been bound up, even if our captivity looks different. This is what happened during the exodus. This is what the prophets declared. This is what happened when God was born as a child to poor, itinerant parents.
One way to fight the Christian empire is to tell the sanitized imperial stories in new ways. Here is my attempt to bring to life the story of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the magi in this time and in this place.
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Jesus is born in a tent in Hunter’s Point. He is a biracial child. His mother Maria’s family came to the Mission after being displaced from El Salvador in the 1980s by the civil war. Joseph’s family had been in San Francisco for a couple generations, having come with the great migration of African Americans from the South to build ships at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Joseph’s family owned their home but sold it in 2001 and moved out of the city because the cost of living was too high and the jobs no longer paid enough.
Joseph recently returned to San Francisco after graduating high school in Stockton, where his family has lived since their move in 2001. He came to the city to work for the census and is crashing on his cousin’s couch. He meets Maria soon after arriving, who had gone to Mission High and is now working full-time cleaning houses and taking classes at City College when she has time. She really wants to move out of her parent’s apartment but can’t afford anything, not even a tiny studio.
Once she and Joseph realize they are expecting a baby, things get crazy. Maria’s parents aren’t supportive, and let her know she can only stay at home as long as she ends things with Joseph. Maria knows she can’t do that, so she and Joseph scramble to scrape together the little money they have to try to find something, anything.
Without a long credit history or housing references, and little income, they get turned down again and again by landlords. With the baby so close to coming, and no job options outside of the city, they do what no person ever wants to do.
They go to Walmart to buy a tent and sleeping bags and mats. They have Joseph’s car, but they can’t sleep in there with a baby. On top of the baby supplies they had been purchasing and storing at Joseph’s cousin’s, they have little money left for the camping gear they need. They ask the manager if there are any returns or slightly defective tents they can buy at a discount. Seeing their struggle, she offers them a tent that has just been returned. But she tells them to keep her kind act a secret, lest she lose her job.
They find a space to pitch the tent in a lot which was cleared for a luxury high rise soon to go up in Hunters Point. Even though they are only a short drive from Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital when Maria goes into labor, they have no health insurance, so risk the delivery of the baby in the tent.
The wise people come from far away, from Iran. They are scholars and mystics, well known for their TEDtalks on lucid dreams and mindfulness. Each of them are world-renowned in their own right and they had been invited to speak at the Dreamforce conference (and hence were granted travel visas). After presenting their workshops, they raise a question to Marc Benihoff (Salesforce CEO) and Tim Cook (Apple CEO), while they are holding a fireside chat.
The wise people ask if they knew where to find a certain child. Marc and Tim were not expecting that question! A child, they say, who will be so disruptively innovative that the fabric of society as we know it will be unraveled. Marc and Tim don’t know how to respond at first because they thought these wise people had only come to pay homage to all the luminaries at Dreamforce. Then they actually got a bit freaked out, and trying not to show it, had their personal assistants and spiritual advisors research anything they could find about this disruptively innovative child.
Turns out there was record in an obscure sub-Reddit about a powerful organizer who would be born in Hunters Point. He would unite the working class and the poor and bring the elites to their knees through a radical redistribution of wealth and a restructuring of society.
Marc and Tim, and many others at Dreamforce, were aghast and disturbed by this news. But feigning a desire to honor the baby (since he would be a cultural innovator), they asked the wise people to let them know once they found him, so they could also go and give him and his parents gifts, like iPhone 11s and a free unlimited data plan.
The wise people made their way to Hunter’s Point and after searching through a couple encampments, found the child with his parents in their tent. It wasn’t a very big tent, so they couldn’t all fit inside, but they were amazed by the love and spiritual vitality radiating from Maria, Joseph and the child. They knelt outside the tent and offered their gifts, which astounded Maria and Joseph with their extravagance.
There was such joy in their time together that the wise people didn’t want to leave. They talked about the spiritual power that was needed to overthrow tyrants and bring down evil corporations. They talked about the power of prayer and the wisdom of dreams. They also discussed wise elders who had gone before them that had united poor people to bring healing and liberation to the world. It was a blessed and awe-inspiring meeting.
And when the wise people did leave, they did not return to Dreamforce, knowing that the gifts from the elites would only serve as surveillance tools for the powerful.
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If Jesus were born among us today, most Christians would scoff or not even notice. Jesus is born in a tent in Hunters Point. Jesus is born in a detention facility at the border of the United States. Jesus is born in Oakland, in a home occupied by mothers who are fighting an eviction by a corporation who has been holding the house vacant for years in the midst of a housing crisis.
Jesus and his family are among us, but do we see them? In this season of Epiphany may we pray for Divine vision, to see were the Spirit of God is breaking forth in subversive ways. May this Divine vision help us to reorient our faith. We are called to be the body of Christ in the world and that body is oppressed, threatened and homeless. But it is also a body with spiritual clarity and power, seeing through the lies of our unjust world.
During this season of Epiphany may we remember that the incarnation is a revolutionary act. May we have the courage to join the revolution. Amen.