Jesus’ Trashy Family

In the whirlwind of the ideological purity games that are wreaking havoc right now in American and British national politics and United Methodist church politics, I thought I’d post an excerpt from a sermon I preached a few years ago:

I’m a huge Dolly Parton fan. There’s a great BBC interview in which she talks about her history, coming from the poverty of East Tennessee.

The interviewer asks, “When did Dolly Parton, as we know her, appear?”

dolly parton

Dolly said, “I really patterned my look, a country girl’s idea of glamour, after what they call the town tramp. This woman… I just thought she was beautiful. She had this beautiful peroxide hair piled on her head, red nails, high heel shoes, and I just thought she was the prettiest thang I’d ever seen.”

Dolly’s mother said, “Oh, honey, she ain’t nothing but trash!”

And Dolly responded, “That’s what I wanna be, Mama. I wanna be trash!”

One of the wonderful things about that story is you can tell in the interview that Dolly saw that woman in a different way, like God actually sees us—not as trash, but as treasure.

Unfortunately not everyone sees in the divine way that Dolly did. Most people don’t.

Every family (and every institution, organization, party, religion, movement, etc.) has folks that they consciously or unconsciously think of as trash—people they would rather keep secret about, keep out of the family pictures, skeletons in the closet—because they’re eccentric, because they don’t fit the family mold, because they’ve done something that has brought dishonor or shame to the family. Or the family feels they’ve done something disgraceful. Often that person has done nothing other than be themself, but the family is not happy.

You know what I’m talking about. Maybe you’re that person in your family. Maybe you’ve made fun of someone who is.

Some folks imagine that Jesus comes from a perfect family. They would do well to consult the New Testament. The very beginning of the Gospel—its opening salvo, actually—is not a catchy story or a funny joke or a sublime theopoetical passage, but rather a very extended family tree. The Gospel writer goes to great length to name the people from whence Jesus comes. And as you begin to explore, you realize: this is not good breeding; this is no high pedigree line.

Can I be honest with you about Jesus, whom Christians call the Savior of the World?

He comes from a trashy family.

Liars, thieves, frauds, murderers, manipulators, passive-aggressives, corporate hucksters, and egomaniacs—these folks abound in Jesus’ family roots.

When people talk about Biblical “family values,” I always wonder exactly what they mean. Have they read the first chapter of the Gospel? Jesus’ family is irregular, nontraditional, and often downright scandalous. You think your family is weird? Jesus’ family will out-dysfunction anything your family brings to the table.

And according to the Bible, this is good news: trying to convince us that God doesn’t choose “perfect” to get God’s message into the world. God chooses actual people, real live human beings, to speak God’s truth. Which includes you and me and other trashy, treasure-filled folks offering ourselves, the best (and worst) we can.

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