Sunday sermon from December 21, 2014
Text: Luke 1:26-38
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church
If you could permanently remove one song from the Christmas canon, what would it be? I mean, if you could just wave a magic wand and your least favorite Christmas tune would disappear, which one would you choose?
Would you go for something from the hymnal? It’s okay, I officially give you permission. We’ve all heard these so many times I’m sure there’s one that gets on your nerves. But I’m wiling to guess that if you could remove one song from the Christmas canon it probably wouldn’t be something sacred; my guess is that it would be one of the hundreds of saccharine secular tunes that play endlessly over the airwaves for six weeks every winter. Something in a “Feliz Navidad,” or a “Happy Holidays,” or a “Wonderful Christmas Time.” Maybe you have some objection to the way that Santa Baby tries to flirt with our good friend Saint Nicholas. Or maybe you’ll join me in registering some objection to that old Christmas duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
My objection — and if this is your favorite song, I apologize, and let me casually observe that next week is a Christmas hymn sing and we will take requests and I don’t really like “The First Nowell” either and if you want to get back at me there’s your chance — but my objection to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” is that it’s just a bit, well, creepy. We’ve got this duet between a woman at the end of a date and the man trying to keep her from going home. She keeps trying to leave. “I really can’t stay; I’ve got to go away” she sings, but he won’t quite let her go, and it’s not clear that he is acting quite the gentleman. “The neighbors might think,” she sings, and then, wonders aloud, “Say, what’s in this drink?” and maybe it’s just a strong one or maybe he’s slipped her something truly unconscionable. “My mother will start to worry,” she sings, and frankly, I’m getting a little worried, too. She says “I simply must go / the answer is no,” but he clearly thinks that “No” still means “Yes,” and by the end of the song, he has accomplished his seduction, over and against all of her protests. Hence my objection: that there’s this line between flirtation and sexual misconduct and I’m pretty sure that right about the part where she says no and he figures to keep going, right about there, the song crosses over.
Now, I think there is an argument to be made that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t actually a Christmas song at all. I mean, obviously, it’s not in the hymnal, but it’s not even really a secular Christmas song. There’s no mention of the tree or the presents or any Santa name-dropping, and maybe we should file it alongside “Winter Wonderland” and “Let it Snow” and all those other songs that are really just songs about weather. But then we come across a text like ours today from the Gospel of Luke, and I am not so sure that the Gospel doesn’t cross over the same line. You all know this story. God sends the Angel Gabriel to the backwater town of Nazareth, to an unremarkable young girl engaged to an unremarkable young man, and the Angel says to this Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…,” and it’s worth remembering that Mary has not been to the pageant rehearsals and does not know where this story is going, and to presume that this is the most terrifyingly interesting thing that has ever happened to her would I think be the understatement of all time, but it’s not over. Because then the angel tells her “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” and you might notice that Gabriel can’t even be bothered to phrase it in the form of a question. It’s not an invitation. He doesn’t ask permission. Mary doesn’t even get a chance to say no. It’s just “God needs your womb, and we’re doing you the favor of letting you know in advance.” And I think there’s a line between calling people to discipleship and sexual misconduct and we may have just crossed it.
But then, of course Mary gives her consent. It’s not clear that she has to. It’s not clear that her consent makes any difference to what seems to be the inevitable will of the Holy Spirit; but, still, Mary gives her consent. “Let it be according to your Word,” she says. “Here I am, servant of the Lord,” which, of course, is the polite modern translation for a word that really means “slave.” “Here I am, slave of the Lord,” Mary says, which is hardly the kind of language I would like to hold up as a standard for responsible sexual behavior. And I know I’m stretching the point. But still. For two thousand years Mary has been worshipped for this moment on account of her obedience, and for two thousand years we have extrapolated from this moment a sense that obedience was what God wants out of women in the first place. Say no if you want to, but, you know, God wants you to say yes. ‘Cause, baby, it’s cold outside.
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time saying yes myself to a Christmas story that seems to have so crossed the line into sexual misconduct. And I’m not trying to be perverse or graphic. It’s just: Mary doesn’t get much say here. It feels like she just gets valued for her ability to reproduce and then left on the sidelines of the story. And frankly, in 2014, that sits uncomfortably with me. About a month ago Rolling Stone magazine published an in-depth expose of the culture of sexual abuse at the University of Virginia, an article that went through the campus like brush fire until, a week later, the magazine revealed that the story had not gone through its usual rigorous fact-checking process and that some of its most centrally troubling pieces might not be true. But even so, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that sexual abuse, especially on college campuses, is at epidemic proportions. In 2012, the CDC found that about 19% of undergraduate women experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college. In the same year, the Washington Post found that 55% of colleges and universities with more than 1,000 students received at least one report of a forcible sex offense, and, as you know, those numbers almost certainly underreport the actual problem, as going to the authorities is not always obviously in the victim’s best interests.
And it’s easy enough to blame fraternity life, or college drinking, or some woeful part of university accountability structures, but the reality is that an epidemic of campus sexual violence only emerges from a culture that still cannot fundamentally figure out how to value women for things other than their ability to reproduce. This week Barbara Walters named her most fascinating person of 2014, Amal Alamuddin, an internationally-renowned British-Lebanese lawyer and frequent guest of the United Nations specializing in human rights abuses, and you and I know her better as George Clooney’s new wife. A woman becomes CEO of a Fortune 500 company and it’s still news. A woman becomes president of a major university and it’s still news. A woman becomes pastor of a major congregation and it’s still news. On Friday afternoon, every question asked at the White House Press Conference was asked by a woman, for the first time in history, and the reason I know about it is that it was news. I long to live in a world where women no longer have to do double-duty as both objects and overachievers, and somehow I believe that it starts here, with this story, with this Christmas story, with the conviction that Mary’s got to have more to say than a simple blind consent.
Which, of course, she does. Last week we read the next section of Luke’s Gospel, which contains what we call the Magnificat, Mary’s song, her prophetic exclamation of joy given in response to her new pregnancy. Luke in fact gives Mary quite a bit of dialog (you know, for a woman’s part). But even just in this morning’s text Mary says quite a bit more than we give her credit for. A little bit of historical context will be helpful. Marriages, among families in the Roman empire around the time and place of Jesus’s birth, happened quite young. Among Jews, the average age for brides was about twelve and a half: because a marriage was among other things a financial transaction between two families, it was presumed that betrothing girls before they reached puberty would guarantee that they remained virgins and thus maximized their value. The practice tended to be that betrothal would proceed marriage by about a year; so, money would change hands, a contract would be signed, but the girl would stay at her father’s house for some time before the marriage itself would be consummated. This is where we find Mary, of course: betrothed to Joseph – who, by the way, may not have had much more say in it than she did – living at home, she is property bought, paid for, awaiting delivery. Just because she’s blood doesn’t mean that she’s not also a slave to this household, and slave to this system, and if you’re looking for the real sexual violence in this text I would suggest you find it right here.
But then, an amazing thing happens. Mary consents to Gabriel; she says yes to the Angel; and then, of course, she says “Here I am, servant of the Lord.” “Here I am, slave of the Lord.” Five minutes ago she was property of one man and contractually bound for another, but now by the grace of God’s call upon her she can resist those old identities. She can reject those old assumptions about who got to own her and who got to assign her value. She says yes to God, of course. She consents to this wayfaring Angel. But what she really means is “No.” “No” to a system that treats her like livestock. “No” to a system that barters her away before she can have any say in who she wants to be or who she wants to love. “No” to a system that values her only for the male heirs she can birth. Mary says “Yes,” and of course it’s obedience of a sort, it’s obedience to the call of the Lord, but it’s hardly obedience to the expectations of the men around her; it’s hardly obedience to the assumptions of her society; it’s hardly obedience to the assumptions of our society. Mary says yes, but in saying yes she says quite a bit more than we give her credit for. She says yes, and she means to resist the way things have always been. She says yes, and she means to defy a world that stubbornly refuses to change. She says yes, and she means to fight for the righteous order of God’s new day to come. She says yes, and she means no. No more of this. I serve the Lord, and the Lord alone.
That might sound strange. You might be thinking, “Well, how can she be liberated and a servant of God at the same time? How can be be free and yet a slave?” But as the great theologian Bob Dylan put it – and I’m stealing this one directly from my mother — you gotta serve somebody. Luke knows it. You gotta serve somebody. Paul knows it: over and over he describes himself as a servant of the Lord, and you get the feeling that those are the good days. You gotta serve somebody. Mary knows it. You make a choice between the world as it has always been and the one who is coming to make all things new. You make a choice. Mary knows it; you gotta serve somebody; and she consents to serve the one of whom she sings, the one who has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; the one who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Mary says yes to that one and no to the brokenness, no to the sinfulness, no to the avarice, no to the pridefulness, no to the darkness, no to all those thousand shadow-masters to which we every day nod our silent assent. We have said yes to them so many countless times. But Mary says yes to God instead. And in this is the great hope of Christmas: that, like Mary we can resist the way things have always been. That we can defy a world that stubbornly refuses to change. That we can fight for the righteous order of God’s new day to come. That we can serve the Lord, and the Lord alone.
That’s a Christmas I can say yes to. Let’s do it together. Say yes to Christmas, and no a world overrun with injustice and inequality. Say yes to Christmas, and no to a world so addicted to keeping women in their place, people of color in their place, future generations in their place. Say yes to Christmas, and no to a world run by the few on the backs of the many. Say yes to Christmas, and no to the seductive thought that we have ever been the ones properly in charge. You gotta serve somebody: so, say yes to Christmas, serve the Lord, say yes to the one who first said yes to us. Say yes to the one who first created all things and called them good. Say yes to the one who lifts up the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things. Say yes to the one who waits for us at the end of all our days. Say yes to God, because God said yes to us, in that backwater town, to that unremarkable young couple, God said yes, and Mary laid that yes in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Because it was cold outside. Amen.