Our pastor Rick received a big plastic nativity scene as a gag gift last year. What struck him, he said, was how white they all were. Mary had a pink gown and blonde hair! Nevermind that only the wealthy royalty had access to pink, and blonde is out of the question–we love to clean up the stories, make them more palatable instead of gritty and messy. Rick (who’s an artist) took some brown paint and UNgentrified them!
Mary and Joseph. Pregnant before marriage. Judged for it. Compelled to travel back to Joseph’s home town for the census, they probably hoped to stay with family there, but alas, no room. I cannot imagine not making floor space for this young, pregnant couple, can you? Perhaps something else was going on. You see, Mary and Joseph were a blight on the family name because they did the unthinkable: they got pregnant before marriage. Here they were at the door, Mary’s belly “proof” of their indiscretion. Better not to “condone their behavior” by inviting them in, really. Because then you’d bring that same judgment from the neighbors on yourself, wouldn’t you? And who needs that?
We’re not sure this is how it went down, but it fits the facts. 1. Joseph’s family lives in Bethlehem and still he had trouble finding a place for them. 2. Hospitality is a HUGE part of loving God — that’s what got Sodom and Gomorrah in so much trouble. 3. There was really no inn there — it was only a tiny village, and travelers would have relied on hospitality. 4. Religious people are consumed with protecting their own reputations.
Here’s the problem with religious people (as opposed to people in intimate relationship with God through Christ): religious people focus on behavior. Specifically behavior modification. They work from the outside in. The basic tenet of religion is: toe the line, resist your base human impulses, and earn your God-Stamp-of-Approval. (Or if you already have it, at least demonstrate that you deserve it.) Follow the rules. Stay in the lines. Don’t upset the status quo. If you have trouble with the status quo, then your behavior should be modified. Try harder. Work on behavior, from the outside in, and eventually the heart will come along.
The trouble is, that does not work in the real world; change in behavior does not change the heart. Change in heart brings change in behavior. Change comes from the inside out. Following rules doesn’t make a person good.
That is why the LGBTQ community (or any ‘nonconforming’ community) is so intensely challenging to the religious establishment.
It doesn’t fit the neat box religious people like to fit everyone into. The LGBTQ identification starts with the inside. It says, “This is who I am. I identify as gay even if I never engage in sexual behavior.” This is troubling for those who focus on behavior. Because the whole point of outside-in basically says, “Avoid these behaviors so your identity will change.” Those who have survived so-called ex-gay therapy, who tried with all their being to change, to let God change them, still stand and say, “No, I didn’t change. I did everything you came up with and I’m still gay.”
In the movie Saved!, there’s a “reorientation” camp called Mercy House. One character says, “Places like Mercy House don’t exist for the people who are sent there. They exist for the people doing the sending.” He means that some people are very put out by those who won’t conform to the box. This definitely includes the LGBTQ community. They’d rather leave them out in the cold like Mary and Joseph. Better yet, get a new box to put them in. (That’s where reorientation camps come in.) It’s too threatening just to let them be, not to mention inviting them in. The “Mercy Houses” are the perfect box to put them in.
Even more than all that, God is always challenging our boxes, our neatly drawn lines. Jesus was nothing like the religious leaders expected! They held up their own rules, and they looked at Jesus, and they couldn’t make them align. In fact, he denounced them soundly. (Just read Matthew 23.)
God could easily have brought about his savior to the world in a way that did not involve scandal. Of course he could have. But I think he rather prefers the appearance of scandal — because it helps us not get too glib. It shakesdown our boxes. What is our opportunity in all this? To trust a living God who works from the inside out. To stop working out rules we’re not equipped to work out. To welcome what God brings us, even when it appears to be scandalous.