A Holy Scandal

Let's spread the scandal of the Gospel to all the world.

You don’t need to admit this out loud, but who here has ever been caught up in a scandal?

You know what I mean.
The kind that gets the neighbors talking,
Where church ladies—no offense to church ladies, guilty as charged—
Tsk-tsk to one another at potlucks
(Oh, I miss potlucks),
“What a shame” or “Can you believe …?”
Where good names are dragged through the mud,
And once-promising futures collapse like a falling star.

Please don’t mistake this for permission,
What I’m about to say isn’t good, even though it may be true:
Everyone likes a scandal.
Well, I should say, everyone likes someone else’s scandal.
The shock of it.
The feigned dismay.
The more salacious, the better:
He did what?
They said what?
The horror! The scandal!
…Tell me more.

What is it about scandal that spreads like wildfire?
That tickles our temptation for outrage?
For schadenfreude?
(You know that word, right?
The Germans have a word for everything:
That’s pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune.
I saw recently they had another word that seemed particularly apropos this year:
Excess weight gained from emotional overeating.
Literally, grief bacon.
Who here hasn’t put on the Covid 19 this year, if you catch my drift?
But I digress.)

Schadenfreude. Scandal.
We love a good scandal.
Something primal goes off in our bones when a taboo is broken,
When a secret is revealed,
When someone gets caught doing something everyone knows they weren’t supposed to do.
It’s half-judgment,
And perhaps half-relief
That they got caught
When we got off scot-free.
And so we whisper behind our hands,
Did you hear…? Did you know…?
As if spreading the story can keep us from falling into the shame of it.

Well, today, the fourth Sunday in Advent,
In our Gospel reading for the morning,
We remember a scandal.
A scandal as common as any since the dawn of time,
The topic of neighborhood gossip that’s been around for
As long as there have been neighborhoods—
A teenage pregnancy.
A young woman found “in the family way,”
Without a family, or at least without a husband—
A mundane, predictable, completely common scandal
That still, somehow, can be devastating to those at the heart of it.

Because that’s what we miss, isn’t it?
In a world of hate-reading and doom-scrolling,
Of gossip-mongering and outrage-spreading,
Sometimes we forget that
On the other side of any scandal is always someone.
A human being. A family.
Sometimes people are in positions of authority or prominence,
But almost always, there are those involved who are innocent or vulnerable.
The abused intern. The betrayed spouse.
The unsuspecting victim.
Those who are thrust, suddenly, into the spotlight—
A spotlight they never sought and didn’t want,
Recoiling from angry troll-mobs’ threats and taunts.

You see, scandal happens when we break our society’s expectations.
When we go against established norms and mores.
Often, those expectations and norms and mores serve us well—
They protect the vulnerable from harm—
But sometimes, perhaps more often than we care to admit,
They cut us off from others,
Because they brand some people Those People,
The ones who don’t belong in polite society,
The marginalized who are further marginalized
By the stain of social shame.

That’s why, with so much at stake,
With the possibility of public shame,
It’s hard for me to understand the greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary,
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”

Mary responds kind of like I did: What on earth can you mean?

And the angel, incomprehensibly, goes on:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. …
The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
And the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
Therefore the child to be born will be holy;
He will be called the Son of God.”

And now, it’s hard to say for sure how Mary felt about all this.
Did the threat of scandal cause her to recoil?
Did she wonder what her parents would say, her neighbors, her fiancé?
Did her cheeks burn at the thought of what rumors would spread?
We don’t know, but we know how she replied:
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
Let it be with me according to your word.”

Here’s another thing we don’t know:
How did her parents respond?
What did the neighbors say?
What we do know is that after Mary became pregnant, she went to her cousin, Elizabeth;
Perhaps her parents told the neighbors she was taking “an extended holiday,”
The way many young women in similar circumstances
Have been sent away to their cousins and aunts in distant counties
Over the millennia.
But try as they might, they couldn’t conceal the fact of this scandal for long—
For soon she had a baby, whom she was forced to lay in a feeding trough because of her poverty:
Scandal upon scandal.

And the scandals multiplied.
The baby grew up and did marvelous things, just as the angel said.
But his marvels weren’t what you’d expect from a proper king,
The inheritor of the throne of David.
The marvels were precisely the opposite, and they were outrageous in scope.

The baby became a teacher.
And his teachings shocked everyone.
The first time he spoke in public,
He declared that he had been sent
To preach good news to the poor,
To proclaim release to the prisoners
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To liberate the oppressed,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then he said the unthinkable:
Many outsiders will be more faithful than insiders,
Which breached a profound cultural expectation,
And everyone who heard him was filled with rage.
They ran him out of town.

But that was only the beginning.
He cast out demons, and they begged him to leave.
He called fishermen and tax collectors as disciples,
Which outraged the religious elite.
He healed on the Sabbath,
Which seemed a violation of everything his culture held dear.

And news about him spread like wildfire.
“Did you hear…?
“Can you believe…?
He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners!
He violates the Sabbath!
He allows women to touch him!
He says that They are as good as Us!
He came into the temple—did you hear—the temple, and defiled it, topping over the tables, declaring it his Father’s house!

But it didn’t end there.
In a brutal scandal,
He died upon a Roman cross.
The disgrace of the soldiers casting lots for his clothes.
The mockery of the sign above his head: “This is the king of the Jews.”
The schadenfreude of his accusers—
Their pleasure at his misfortune—
The failure of his political project—
His utter inability to amass power,
To liberate his people,
To overthrow the government—
Nailed to an implement of imperial torture between two common criminals,
Mortified publicly for everyone to see.

What must Mary have thought then?
Did she think back to the moment when the angel first visited her,
His words sounding now more like insult than promise:
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”
But the Lord was nowhere to be seen:
He had just been killed in the most degrading way possible.

And then, the most shocking scandal of all:
The defeat of death itself.
For what is a more normal, expected, and common social expectation than death?
We live every day knowing it is coming,
Awaiting it, anticipating its inevitability,
Organizing our lives around avoiding it.
Yet it was destroyed, overthrown,
Not by coercion or might,
But by submission and love.
He had the audacity to rise again,
To declare against all odds that life would have its way,
That the power that governs all our fear
Was nothing but weakness,
And that love,
Love unlike any the world has ever seen,
Love so pure it’s absolutely absurd,
Love could raise the dead.

He was conceived in scandal.
Born in scandal.
Lived in scandal.
Died in scandal.
Raised in scandal.
Glorious, shocking, ridiculous, unimaginable, unspeakable, stunning, alarming, indecent scandal upon scandal upon scandal.

My friends, may I take a moment here and point something out?
The fact that we worship Jesus is a scandal.
If you thought getting involved with this Jesus fellow
Was about buttoned-up sweaters and social respectability,
I give you an unwed mother who gives birth in a barn.
I give you a man who eats with people who don’t belong in polite society.
I give you a preacher who challenges every last assumption about who is in and who is out.
I give you a teacher who turns over tables in the most sacred cultural spaces.
I give you a beaten, bruised, defeated, impoverished, publicly executed king.
I give you a lover whose profligate love, against all odds, destroys the powers of death, sin, and hell.

Now, don’t misunderstand me,
I’m not advocating for anything sinister,
But in the spirit of the One we call Lord,
Can we get some of that scandal for ourselves?
Like any good scandal, it’s imminently spreadable,
So let’s spread it.

Let’s get caught in Holy Scandal.

Let’s make them whisper behind their hands,
Can you believe who they ate with?
Where they gave their money?
How they spent their time?
Who they forgave?
Who they helped?
Where they were seen?
What they called out?
Who they defended?
Who they called friend?

The love of God is salacious, outrageous, spreading far and wide, from town to town, person to person, spilling freely and lavishly onto everyone and everything, in the least reasonable, most offensive, utterly shocking and spectacularly scandalous way possible.

And the message to us, as it was to Mary, is simple:
Don’t be afraid, for we have found favor with God.

So let us respond as she did, regardless of what it makes the neighbors say:
Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

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