Sunday, December 28, 2014

"I Have Good News and Bad News"

Text: Luke 2:22-40

Today’s Gospel story offers something for everyone: characters who follow God through faithful adherence to customs and those who will follow God by breaking with custom; female characters who are as significant as the male; characters from infancy to old age. In fact, this story holds the hopes of at least three generations:  a child who embodies hope, loving parents who carry their best hopes in their arms, faithful elders whose hopes are finally realized though they could have given up on hope years before. And this story holds, in the words of a carol, "the hopes and fears of all the years.” The truth is, I have some good news for you, and some bad news. 

Some would say it’s very good news that Mary and Joseph take their child to the Temple to initiate him into an ancient religious tradition they’d followed to a T. But strict traditionalists might view it as unfortunate that Jesus would eventually critique much about that tradition. He later understood his religion’s essence well enough and appreciated its best parts fully enough to help reform it—because, like all religious systems, it needed to change to remain vital and faithful. So even though Simeon and Anna are symbols of the religious status quo, they bless a baby who will later violate some of their religious laws—by healing on the Sabbath, for example. They bless the child though their religious leaders would oppose his future ministry. Ironically, the seeds of radical reform can grow in the sure and steady soil of tradition.   

The bad news is that all expressions of Christ’s church are imperfect, but the good news is that a self-correcting mechanism is built into the church’s enduring traditions. This story honors those who have remained faithful to traditional pieties and practices but also those who question and upend those traditions. As soon as faithful Simeon blesses this child, he correctly predicts that Jesus will one day be opposed by the very tradition in which he was dedicated, because it is a tradition Jesus will challenge and change.  This story should warn us—and encourages us—that the children raised to follow our dearly held church traditions will bring about saving changes the tradition will then oppose. Yet the church, in every generation, must bless the new generation within the very tradition they will eventually reshape, much to our discomfort, much to our potential benefit. The Bad News is that tradition is always Breaking Down. The Good News is that tradition is always Re-forming.

Good and bad news can also be seen in the words of Simeon. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all children were to receive Simeon’s blessing—and all parents receive his warning? Because all of us share in Christ’s mission in this post-Christmas world. Can you picture the old man’s frail arms scooping up the infant, his quavering voice declaring:  “Well, I can die happy now because I have seen what it’s all about. My responsibility is over: I see at last how our messed up world will be rescued”?

Now plenty of parents have heard their children praised and have delighted to think that others have recognized their children’s adorable qualities. But Simeon’s praise is so excessive it’s scary. Good news is starting to sound less good—and then the news grows worse with a discomfiting prediction, spoken directly to Mary in a tone suddenly ominous: 

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2: 34-35).

He’s saying, first of all, that this child’s saving way involves first a falling and then a rising. This image of falling in order to rise prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection but is also at the core of many spiritual teaching. Then Simeon adds, “This child’s way will be seen as a threat and will be opposed.” Finally, he tells the young mother, “Your child will cause people—even you, Mary—to grapple with their inner thoughts. This little one is going to cause YOU pain. How hard it will be to turn him loose, to truly dedicate him to the work of bringing God’s peace and love into a violent world. Those who oppose God ways of peace and justice will one day hurt him and when they do, you will feel your very soul pierced.  You already know, young mother, how your heart is all entwined in his. Are you really ready to dedicate him to the Lord, Mary?  Can you love him enough and trust God enough to give up your own expectations of and for him?  You agreed to bear him.  Can you now give him back to God in this dedication ceremony?  Because, Mary, this child can change the world. But to fulfill his purpose, you must let him be who he is. You must believe that his destiny is bigger than fulfilling your expectations. You must teach him that the future of the world is, in some way YOU don’t understand, dependent upon him. It’s good news and bad news, dear girl. The good news is we have our hero. The bad news is –he’s your son, and his life must be lived for others and his goodness will be opposed.  Still want to dedicate him, young mother?”

Maybe at this point Mary wanted to back out of her vow to God.  Or maybe in later years Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth confided her fears for son John. As word reached them about John’s reputation for challenging the authorities, maybe Elizabeth whispered to Mary that she wished she’d soft-pedaled some of that religious stuff. And surely Mary feared, after John’s beheading, what Jesus’s calling might exact. Maybe you, too, have helped nurture children into adulthood—loved and admired them—but also worried about where their calling might take them. 

A little over six years ago, while our daughter was finishing law school and interning in Nashville’s public defender’s office where she’s now an assistant PD, she was part of the team defending a man the media dubbed “the wooded rapist”—and whose conviction was eventually covered on NBC’s Dateline. G emailed us a news clip from the trial that shows her walking in with the accused. He wears a yellow jumpsuit that signifies the most dangerous classification of inmates. He is guarded by two courtroom officers. So encumbered by shackles, he needs assistance from my child to be seated. And there he sits at the defense table, shoulder to shoulder, with my baby girl. Six years later, I’m accustomed to the fact that G. spends most of her time in the jail meeting with folks charged with minor to heinous crimes. But six years ago, even though I supported my daughter's vocation, I was disturbed to see with my own eyes the child I’d once protected in my arms sitting beside a man accused of a series of terrible acts. Georgia rightly reminds me that her own calling is to serve “the least of these,” but a sword can pierce a mother in moments when she sees, when she literally sees, what that calling might exact.

Last Sunday I wondered if Mary could possibly have known that her son would follow a scandalous and dangerous calling? This Sunday we wonder if Mary and Joseph glimpsed both the good and bad of Simeon’s prophecy and the “good news” that Anna began sharing about this child.

And now I’m wondering, what if  the prophet Anna and elder Simeon, like most preachers and prophets, gave to Jesus’s family the same essential blessings and warnings they had given to countless other families before?  What if Anna and Simeon had been encouraging and challenging young parents for decades. But what if this were the first time their words were believed, the first time a young couple had the courage and faith in God to live their lives and raise their child as if the world’s salvation depended upon that child?  What would it mean to our world if each one of us treated the children in our lives as if they have the potential to heal the world’s brokenness? How would our parenting be different? Our grandparenting? Our care for children in our congregation and our community? How might we treat differently a sick child in Sierra Leon, a battered child in Guatemala, a hungry child in Alabama Village, an ignored child living across the street?

So here’s what I want you to ponder:  If we truly believe the Christmas message that God works through incarnation, and that the Christ event continues today through the Church, then should we not regard every child today as potential vessels of the Christ light? You don’t have to be a parent to see how everything changes for you if you believe that. 

What if Anna had been whispering to little girls and young mothers down through the years a blessing that said, “You are so special. God will use you to set this world to rights. And little Mother, how blessed you are to love this very child.” What if Simeon had held boy babies up to God, day after day, with this message for hundreds of fathers: “Your son is special. He will save his people. He will bring light. He is the one.” And isn't this what baptism should convey--as our children follow Jesus in baptism? What if prophecy is not so much about predicting a glorious future for a special individual as it is a fervent hope for all humanity? What if there really is in all of us that spark of the divine, we who are made in God’s image, we who are called to be like Christ? 

If that is so, our healing work will be opposed. The way is not easy for parents and children, for heroes and their mothers and fathers, for those who follow the Christ and try to live up to and into a calling to be peacemakers and justice seekers. The way is not easy for those who try to reform religion among the religious. The way is not easy. That’s the bad news. The good news is . . . well, who can say it better than an earlier Hebrew prophet, Isaiah?

“A little child will lead them.”

Prayer: Forgive us, O God, for not realizing that sometimes the bad news contains the good news. Forgive us for squandering opportunities to bless your children.  Help us, O God, to see your image in one another.  Direct us, God, to be faithful to the essentials and to challenge the inconsistencies.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Mary, Did You Know?"

Gospel text:  Luke 1:26-56

“Mary, Did You Know?”, a song we’re hearing a lot this season thanks to Pentatonix, makes me wonder what Mary could NOT have known. According to today’s Gospel reading, the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to an extraordinary son who would “be great” and would be called “the Son of the Most High” and would be given the “the throne of his ancestor David”(Luke 1: 32). But how would Mary have understood that? If a Jewish peasant were to take back the throne of David, a major shift would have to take place in the political conditions of a subjugated people. Mary must have heard the good news Gabriel brought to her as good news for all her people—emboldening her to sing a subversive song we now call the Magificat to extol the God who would bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly (Luke 1:52).   

But Mary couldn’t anticipate who her baby would become.  Even nowadays, when ultrasounds tell expectant parents the gender of their child, not much else can be predicted.  S__ ­­and K__ know their baby will be a boy; but it will be a long time before they will know how tall he’ll become or what his favorite foods will be. K__ and S__ will wonder and hope and dream about the man he’ll grow into for a long, long time.

You and I will have the joy of watching with them as God shapes a new baby boy into a fine young man. Our faith community can be ready to assure this child and his mothers that he is growing into exactly the person this world needs at this hour.

Because each new baby born into this broken, tired, troubled world is potentially the next Messiah.

What I mean by that is every little girl or boy can become our savior by living God’s love so fully, so decisively, so radically, so hopefully that salvation comes to our earth. I name the child we’re expecting in our congregation as our savior without any expectation that a new star will settle over Mobile on the night of his birth and without any hope he’ll enter this world wearing a halo. (If he does, be sure to take pictures, S__.) I’m not contradicting the distinctly Christian meanings of the words messiah and salvation—and there have been many Christian meanings of these terms over the centuries. I’m not predicting this child’s impact as if I’m some kind of prophet. I’m simply professing this belief: our violent, selfish world can be changed one life at a time—by love and love alone. That is the saving Gospel Jesus lived and preached. “Our” new baby has the potential to live God’s love in saving ways. I think Mary knew that about her baby.

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

A new baby can begin his saving work in our lives from the very start. Through his vulnerability, WE are required to care.  God comes to us in the face of a defenseless child who calls forth our love. 

Our very planet is saved when we think beyond the span of our brief lives to the needs of the next generation and the next. Environmentalists value a saying from the Iroquois Nations that we should make decisions with a view toward the impact on seven generations into the future.  If we are not thinking about our children and their future children and their children when we make choices, then we are not living in sustainable ways, meaning we are destroying rather than saving our earth. A new baby calls us to care about conditions on this planet even after we are gone. And so we are saved by caring for this baby and each new baby. We must think about the world he or she will inherit. We must prepare them then to think about and protect the world their children will inherit.

Mary, did you know . . . when you kiss your little baby you kissed the face of God?

Thirteen years and one day ago, a baby girl was born to T__ and K__.  Thirteen years ago those new parents kissed her sweet face, and I’m pretty sure they knew they were kissing the face of God. They knew, in that season of Advent, on the darkest days of the year, that God was with them in a special way because of a tiny infant. 

But let me step back if I’m too close to confusing the sacred power of love with mere sentimentality, as we’re susceptible to doing at this time of year. Let me not romanticize babies or mothers. Instead, let me, let us, see in the ancient story these representatives of vulnerability. Advent tells us that we all live lives pregnant with possibility. And responsibility.

What a terrible responsibility to deliver a baby into a world where he would be feared and despised by the dominant culture. According to Matthew’s account, by the time Jesus was two, King Herod would order the murder of all male Jewish babies. Mary’s fears and hopes for her child were tied up with her fears and hopes for an entire people. That meant Jesus would learn that his life mattered not just to his parents, but to his people. Mary’s love for her son was part of her love for her people. God’s love for that new baby was part of God’s larger love for humanity. Mary sang a protest song about a God who would “scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” and bring down the powerful and “fill the hungry with good things” but send the rich away empty” (Luke 1: 52-53).  Hope for one child is tied to the welfare of all.

As these children are saved, so are we. We’ll be saved when we recognize the face of God among young men gunned down by a militarized police force, among the poor who are getting poorer, among the victims of the Ebola virus and their heroic nurses and doctor, in the tenderness of two young mothers whose marriage is blessed by this church but not by the state of Alabama. Well guess what, Alabama? God didn’t care about official marital status in choosing the mother of Jesus. In fact, the story of Jesus’s birth stresses that it’s the unlikely ones who do the saving; it’s the folks some consider disreputable who are most likely to usher in the reign of God’s peace and justice.

The Orthodox Church calls Mary Theotokos--meaning “God bearer”, “the one who gives birth to God.” I like to think we’re all a bit pregnant with God. Pregnancy, like Advent, is a season of waiting and of not knowing, of anticipating the emergence of God in our world, of feeling within us a maturing and expanding love. 

The Mother of Jesus helps us appreciate the maternal in God—as does my favorite medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich. Lady Julian wrote a book describing visions she had of Christ, and that fourteenth century book called Showings became the first book written by a woman in the English language. She interpreted her visions about Christ this way:  “Love was his meaning.  Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For Love. So I was taught that love is our Lord’s meaning.”

Interestingly, she visualized the loving Christ at times in a feminine form. She wrote, for example, that “Jesus is our true Mother.” Seeing the feminized Jesus altered her imagery for the sacrament of Holy Communion. Quaintly, she explained, “A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most courteously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament, which is the precious food of life itself. . . . The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can familiarly lead us to his blessed breast through his sweet open side . . . .”

The Eucharistic meal is interpreted by Julian as a mother’s giving of her body’s milk for her child.  For love.

Mary, the mother of Mother Jesus (to use Julian’s metaphor), loved her own child. But she loved others enough to teach her son a kind of love that might require him to give of himself. Did Mary know that we cannot love only our children if we want to love our children truly?

When I was a new mother, another new mother in my church learned that her baby had a medical condition that prevented the child from being able to digest any formula or milk other than human breast milk. Unfortunately, that mother was not able to produce milk for her baby. So I became one of a few other mothers in the area who volunteered for many months to express breast milk to help feed another child. I hate to admit it, but in the earliest days of anxious motherhood, I worried my body wouldn’t produce enough milk for my child and this other baby, too. I was afraid to share. But here’s the miracle of the human body and the human heart: the more you nurse a child, the more milk your body produces; the more you give, the greater your supply grows. My child and my friend’s child grew fat and healthy. My love for my child could not be limited to my love for my child. Love was all of a piece.

Mary, did you know that your child could not be fully himself until he could give himself with love for others?  Mary, did you know, as Julian did, that the meaning is love?  Mary, did you know your child would save us with love?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Leveled Path of Peace

Texts: Isaiah 40: 1-11;  Psalm 85: 8-11; Mark 1: 1-8     

It’s hard to imagine “peace on earth” when a double homicide dominates the local headlines, when Eric Garner’s death at the hands of a New York police officer claims national concern, when the deaths of an American and a South African journalist in Yemen make international news. Thank God, the violence you and I usually encounter--or create--is not physical. 

Johan Galtung, a peacemaking strategist, says that in addition to physical violence, there are two other types: "structural" violence and "cultural" violence (qtd. in Peterson 41).The life and teachings of Jesus, the writings of St. Paul, the words of the Psalmist, and the prophecies of Isaiah condemn these less obvious impediments to God’s peace.

Let’s first consider peaceful responses to physical violence—which is the type of violence easiest to recognize and the type I experienced this week.

George and I were returning from our evening walk last Wednesday with new dog Rascal. A few months ago Rascal joined our family, having previously been the victim of considerable violence. He came to us from a rescue organization with buckshot pellets embedded in his back and hindquarters, blind in one eye, a slight limp from being hit by a car, and scars up and down one leg consistent with bite marks. And he was/is heart worm positive. But this little fella is 40 pounds of insistent, in-your-face affection and hilarity. Those eyes—one gazing at you adoringly, the other weirdly vacant—melt your heart. He’s an odd and compact combination of being cuddly and street-wise—like one of the characters the young Mickey Rooney used to play. I fell in love with him the first time he snuggled up.

On Wednesday night I was leading Rascal on his leash back into our yard when another dog came toward us out of the dark in a running crouch. Two seconds later three more large dogs charged us. I remember mainly the sounds: snarling and barking from the pack and doggie screams from Rascal. George, who was trailing about fifteen feet behind us, and two neighbors got to us fairly quickly. George tried kicking the other dogs away but they kept coming back into the vicious vortex. One neighbor ran inside her house to get a spray bottle of water and came back with it to distract the dogs. I remember screaming for Rascal and trying to pick him up, but he had slipped his collar and leash. The other dogs darted in and out on every side. I thought they were killing him. I didn't know what to do. Somehow he and I escaped into our garage and just hunkered down between our two cars for a long time. After the dogs’ owner got control of the other dogs and put them in her home, she walked back to our yard and into our garage to see if we were okay. She was crying, breathing hard. I just kept saying, “We’re alright. We’re alright,” even though I couldn’t really assess our injuries yet. I didn’t realize until I got ready for bed later that I had blood all over my face.

Turns out we were alright—no stitches required. Pain meds and an oral antibiotic for poor Rascal who had at least six bite wounds. Simple first aid for a few minor bites on my hands. Since then the dogs’ owners and I have talked to make sure nothing like that happens again.   

Here’s what haunts me most about that situation. I am still wondering what I should have done. I didn’t know how to stop the violence. But I’m pretty sure that screaming Rascal’s name and plunging my hands into a circle of bared teeth was one of the worst things I could have done. My fear for Rascal only added to the agitation and frenzy.

Of course, in the midst of conflict there’s usually no time to develop a plan. In the darkness of night there’s usually slim hope for a peaceful response. But peacemakers believe we can be taught strategies for creative nonviolence, and we can practice those strategies. Our very liturgy--which weekly involves speaking words of peace to one another, holding concerns for the world in empathetic prayer, and gathering at the Table of peace as sisters and brothers--instills these habits of thought and action.

That’s why Jesus taught a way, a holistic way to live in this world. His way of discipling others was not a simplistic set of rules. His way was a spiritual discipline that could be practiced, a spiritual disposition that could developed in order to live in right relationship with God, neighbors, and ourselves. Jesus’s “third way,” spelled out most clearly in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, was neither to respond to violence with more violence, nor to submit to violence and degradation, but to actively oppose violence with creative nonviolence.

Look at the first verse of the Gospel of Mark, which, you'll note, is not a complete sentence. That's why some believe Mark 1:1 was intended as something like a title or subtitle launching this Gospel and declaring its intention. If so, the entire Gospel of Mark is aimed at sharing the Good News (or gospel) of Jesus Christ. Mark’s method for doing so is to show how Jesus discipled others in his ways. As we work through the book of Mark this year, we’ll observe Jesus instructing his followers in a way of living and, as readers of that Gospel, we can be instructed, too.

While Matthew and Luke’s Gospels start with nativity stories (two different versions) and John’s Gospel starts with a poem about the pre-existing Word coming among us, Mark begins with another beginning: Jesus’s ministry, as heralded by John the baptizer. John is the one who prepares the way OF the Lord. I used to think that John was preparing the way FOR the Lord, merely announcing the coming of the Lord. But John is saying he’s preparing the way OF the Lord, preparing the people of Jesus’s day and preparing readers of Mark’s Gospel, with instruction in the Way, the way of God, through which God’s fullest reign can be ushered in.

That way is the way of peace. That way should be the work of the Church.

Let’s consider two other forms of violence that disrupt God’s peace as surely as physical violence does.

Structural violence is, says Galtung, “built into the very social, political, and economic systems that govern societies, states, and the world. It is the different allocations of good, resources, opportunities, between different groups, classes, genders, nationalities, etc.”  (p. 41).  In reporting on Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson last week for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates exposed the invisible (and often unspeakable) rules and structures that perpetuate injustices in our country. He lamented, “Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level” (

The third form of violence is cultural/relational, which Galtung says are those “aspects of a culture that legitimize violence and make violence seem like an acceptable means of responding to conflict. It’s a way a community or individuals view themselves in relation to themselves, to others, and the world.  It often supports a sense of superiority over, and dehumanization of other cultures.” (qtd. in Peterson, 41).

The violence of actions and words and attitudes that one individual uses against another is easy to spot even if it’s not easy to address. The violence committed against an “underdog” can even be measurable: six puncture wounds on the little dog and none on the big dogs.  But structural and cultural violence isn’t always so obvious. That’s why many Christians haven’t recognized that scriptures—from Isaiah to the Gospels—actually decry economic and political injustices as forms of violence. 

Look at today’s passage from Isaiah, which the writer of Mark later paraphrased.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

The prophet recognizes that a leveling must occur if we’re to receive God, if God’s way is to be created. Figurative valleys must be elevated; symbolic hills need to be leveled; God’s way, the Lord’s “highway” must be level. God’s kingdom lifts up the lowly and eliminates unfair privilege. Through symbolic topography, Isaiah implies that reparations may need to be made, systems equalized, and economic disparities corrected before we can receive God into our midst. Genuine peace cannot exist alongside injustice. The Roman Empire's "peace" during Jesus’s time—pax Romana—was a false peace maintained through fearsome threats and military domination.  Genuine peace is not mere absence of protest or conflict. It’s not passive, doormat acceptance of unjust treatment or degradation, which would allow violence to the human spirit. Living with hunger, being subjected to verbal abuse, being denied opportunity and choice and self-expression are forms of violence. Real peace is founded on fairness and equality and honoring the dignity of all.

The Psalmist put it this way:  “Righteousness (which means social/economic justice in the Hebrew Bible) and peace kiss each other.”  Peace and justice must kiss.

We are bearers and bringers of Good News of God’s peaceful reign. 

People of faith must practice empathy and compassion in order to live nonviolently. People of faith must “study war no more” but instead study and think critically and creatively about peace and expose societal structures to make level the pathway for God’s peace.  Followers of Jesus are called to treat the “least” in society with a certain privilege to honor Jesus as we lift up the valleys and lower the hills. 

As I recall my unpreparedness for violence against my dog Rascal, I imagine Advent as proactively preparatory for the coming of the Christ, calling us think through our commitments to nonviolence and how we want to live that out. If we wait until we are in conflict with friend or family member to develop a plan of nonviolence, we may be as unprepared as I was during a dog fight. If we have not become sensitized to cultural and structural inequities, we might be as ill-equipped to work for genuine peace as the Romans with their phony Pax Romana. If we are not cultivating the spirit of peace within, we'll have no inner resources for peacemaking in the world.

John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way of peace—in our relationships, in our society’s structures—through a commitment not only to peace but to justice.  Jesus taught us how.

Peterson, Ken, ed.  Engaging Our Conflicts: An Exploration of Nonviolent Peacemaking.  Louisville: JustFaith Ministries, 2009.