Monday, December 19, 2011

The Revolution and the Revelation--Sermon 12/18/11

The Revolution and the Revelation

This past Tuesday I had the pleasure of being one of the Christmas storytellers for the nursery school children. Each class of children are invited into the sanctuary. The two year-olds clinging to the knots on the rope they hold as they walk with wonder into the sanctuary, the four and five year olds walking with a little more confidence, but with a glimmer of wonder still shining in their eyes. The lights are dim. The tree is lit. The characters from the nativity are placed around the chancel. I have learned my job as teller of this miracle story well from Renee Moore, who I consider the master of all storytellers. The children are invited into hear the tale. I lead them on a long walk through the pews as if they were riding a donkey. We clip and clop along, we stop and pretend to take a rest, we stop by the make-believe oasis and let our donkeys have a drink of imaginary water, while we make slurping noises and then just when we think we see Bethlehem we realize we have to walk even more to get to the place where the census counting is done. To imagine the star I light a candle, and hold it high above my head and then we all follow the star to the place where the baby Jesus is, lying in the manger near the altar.

Some children may never have heard the Christmas story before, especially the younger children who may come from homes that don’t attend church. Some children can’t remember Christmas before, their memories are so short, and they are so young. I am always careful to try to explain it in a way that makes sense, to draw attention to the sensory details that the children can understand. The feel of rough prickly hay on a baby’s skin as he was placed in a manger. How cold it may have been as the shepherds watched their flocks at night. How the frankinsence and myrrh smell. These small details seem to be things children can wrap their heads around, heck, they are perhaps the only things about this story of wonder that I, as an adult can wrap my head around most of the time.

And then there are things that I don’t say yet. I refrain from the details that make the story a little less “G” rated, things which cause the children to ask questions I’m not sure I have easy answers to offer. For instance, have you ever tried to explain immaculate conception to a child? Ever tried to talk about how Joseph isn’t “technically” the biological father of Jesus? Ever tried to give details about Herod deciding to kill all baby boys after Jesus was born? Ever try explaining to a five-year-old that Mary may have been the age of their oldest sister when the angel came calling that day?

The thing is, though, I have come to believe that the Christmas story has too often been sanitized not just for young listeners, but perhaps for our own ears as well. There are parts of the story steeped in mystery, parts we don’t understand, or parts which make us uncomfortable or parts that ask more than we might be willing to admit. There are times when we prefer our Christmas story with a priestly bend, rather than a prophetic one. This morning’s scripture is a perfect example. The verses that Luke penned in the last part of the first chapter of his gospel are the words of Mary. Spoken straight from her lips shortly after her cousin Elizabeth had confirmed the blessing of her pregnancy. The words offer a little insight about this young woman who was chosen to give birth to the Christ. And this proclamation is spoken only after Mary has wrapped her head around this wondrous event which will shape not only her life but will change the course of world history. In these words, also known as the Magnificat, we get a glimpse of revolution, of an alternate future which is poised to be birthed with the coming of Jesus.

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, as we are finishing with our gift wrapping, and preparing to sing the soft carols, imagining a Christmas straight out of a Thomas Kincaide photo with snow falling softly, our lectionary offers this prophetic revelation from one we might consider the least likely of prophets, the meek and mild Mary. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, after we have been encouraged to wait, and prepare, and then wait some more, we are offered this nugget of gospel truth. On this fourth Sunday of Advent as we rush to listen to get to that beautiful Christmas story that we have practically memorized from the second chapter of Luke, which begins, “and it came to pass…” there is this moment of poetry which we dare not ignore.

Mary’s magnificat is similar in literary style to that of Hannah, a matriarch of old, who spoke her own prophesy about the child in her womb in the first book of Samuel. It is a song of liberation, a cry for justice, it is a song sung in solidarity with all those who struggle. She who has only spoken in scripture before with passive acceptance, “let it be done” has now revealed a new perspective. Mary speaks a radical truth. Hear verses 51 through 53 again spoken in a contemporary vernacular from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
God bared his arm and showed God’s strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked the tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold.
These are not the words of a passive Mary here, accepting with quiet resignation her fate. She is an active participant in naming the oppression and injustice which she has seen. It is no wonder that Jesus became the prophet that he was, for I would imagine that a great deal of what he learned was taught by this woman who spoke of transformation and liberation, a mother who believed in her child’s destiny as a prophet himself.

The truth of Mary is this. In the church we have sanctified or, perhaps, sanitized her our contented nativity scene Mary. She with the blonde hair and blue dress. She who smiles in bemused acceptance. We forget that there is more to her. We forget, for instance, that she was a strong peasant woman. A woman who gave birth by herself in a stable. A woman who was not merely the vessel of the divine, not merely a conduit for the holy, but a prophet in her own right. Mary was a woman who had the audacity to say “yes,” to the unimaginable. And after uttering that simple “yes,” she preached of the world that could come through her child’s birth.

The writer Madeleine L’Engle writes of Mary’s legacy in this way. She says of Christmas: This is the irrational season/ When love blooms bright and wild./
Had Mary been filled with reason/ There'd have been no room for the child.

This morning I wonder how we can embrace this irrational season and Mary’s revolutionary words for ourselves. How do we make the Magnifcat our own communal manifesto? Our own proclamation of peace on earth?

I collect articles from The Christian Century. I am a natural clipper and saver. A pack rat for words. And this week I ran across an article I had cut out several years ago about Mary, and the power of her song. The writer, a Lutheran pastor by the name of John Stendehal writes this about our reclamation of the magnificat, “[As] grateful as I am for [Mary’s] example and companionship…there is something I worry about….The Magnificat may move us with its dreams of redistributive justice, but do we make imaginative solidarity with Mary only to domesticate her to our decidedly inexpensive fantasies of peace on earth? Are we drawn to consider what this will cost us and to begin paying that price?” He goes on to write, “I pray that we who have much of the world’s goods and power will hear Mary’s words about the proud and rich as warnings and salutary threats to ourselves. If we are able to sing those words lustily, let it be because we are seduced by the grandeur and grace of salvation she describes, but let it also join us to those who yearn for a turning of the socioeconomic tables.”

The Magnificat is a powerful piece of writing, and is not for the wishy-washy of faith. It is as revolutionary today as it was when it was spoken by an unknown peasant woman who lived in a Roman-occupied country. It even had the power to threaten heads of state in Guatamala in the 1980s, when it was barred from being preached, for it was deemed too subversive, too radical. And perhaps that’s the way scripture should be, right? Perhaps that’s the way our faith should be. Perhaps what we need to be about if we welcome the Christ child into the world is to truly proclaim the Magnificat with mind, body and soul at the very core of our being. Perhaps we must take seriously the call to stand in solidarity with all of those who are downtrodden—be they economically or spiritually suffering. Perhaps we must be utterly single-minded about the toppling of systems of oppression piece by piece wherever and whenever we see them hurting others. Perhaps Mary’s call, this call for a turning of the tables, a call for an inversion of the dominant structure, a call for a revolution of the system of injustice has to be something that the church proclaims with single-minded focus.

This revelation and this revolution is not for the faint of heart, but ushering in new life rarely is. Being called to join Mary as bearers of God won’t be easy, not for any of us. But can we as the church afford to be any other way if we truly believe in a kingdom of peace?

The writer Nancy Mairs sums up our mission pretty simply when she writes these words: That’s what we’re here for: to make the world new, we know what to do: seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly, treat every person as though she were yourself. These are not complicated instructions. It’s much harder to decipher the directions for putting together a child’s tricycle than to understand these.

Friends, we’ve waited, and we’ve pondered, and we’ve listened, and we’ve prepared in this Advent season. And now Mary’s voice pierces the silence with a clear call. Let us prepare for the birth of Christ, let us labor to bring the reign of peace to all.

And all God’s children said, Amen.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Now, this man...

...he can write.

Give some love to my friend of my favorite bloggers on the block.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Wilderness Within--Sermon 12/4/11

The Wilderness Within

I met Neil when I was a first year student at Manchester College. I was young and na├»ve, and whole-heartedly devoted to immersing myself in life as a socially conscious college student. Having been involved with Amnesty International in high school, I was eager to meet the faculty adviser for the Amnesty chapter at Manchester. And I was told that it was a psychology professor, and that he would meet with me for a soda in the local snack bar at 9:00 on a Monday night. I arrived early and ordered my root beer and sat, scanning the room for Dr. Wollman. Students streamed in and out to get their evening pizza and popcorn. I sat nervously, with my file and notepad ready, anxious to meet this professor of psychology. Fifteen minutes passed. No sign of him. Across the room sat a burly looking man with an unkept beard, a white sweatshirt with the picture of an orange cat on the front tucked into his khaki pants which had grass stains on the knees. On the man’s feet were a pair of old tennis shoes. He was hunched over a stir fry, and had carefully seemed to be picking the pieces of chicken out of it, or spitting them out of his mouth and placing them on the side of his plate. His beard had a few rice pieces in it. I immediately took pity on this man, obviously hungry, and marveled at how nice it was that the college welcomed homeless people into eat. It was now 9:25. No Professor Wollman. I finished off my root beer, stood up to throw the cup away and did one more look out over the dining room to make sure I wasn’t missing him. The odd-looking cat-shirted, swarthy man saw me and yelled out, “Hey, are you who I’m supposed to be meeting about Amnesty?” I quickly realized my mistake. The man I assumed was homeless and hungry was actually the esteemed Dr. Wollman. Embarrassed and ashamed at how quick I was to judge, I sat down to a delightful, if not quirky, conversation. Neil and I became fast friends. I learned that he was devoted to issues of social justice, care of the poor, environmental activism. He was a crusader for equality and was known nationwide for the work he began with TIAA-CREF in working with other professors all from the second floor of the Administration Building at little old Manchester College to set up a socially responsible investment fund. His passion for social change has always deeply moved me. The way he lives his beliefs have inspired me. And while sometimes as a peace studies intern at the college I had to remind him to go home and sleep after staying up in his office for 48 hours straight working, or cue him about the social graces (like not just walking into someone’s home and opening their refrigerator or medicine cabinets to see what they liked to eat or what medicines they took), I learned from him what true generosity of spirit and prophetic vision looked like.

And so whenever I hear the words of John the Baptist, or think of that misunderstood prophet who ate wild locusts and honey and wore those strange clothes, the person I see in my mind’s eye is Dr. Neil Wollman, Ph.D.. North Manchester’s own John the Baptist who speaks of his passionate belief in the hope of an infusion of peace and justice entering this world with all the quirky glory he can muster.

In some ways, John the Baptist doesn’t fit into our Norman Rockwell, Currier and Ives holiday Christmas tableau. John is untamed and a little wild. He is a prophet of the old school, hearkening back to Elijah. His words are meant to cut a little, his proclamations to make us shudder. He offers spiritual baptism, and preaches repentance in a world that would prefer their faith safe and their sermons comforting. But what I love most about his story has as much to do with where he spoke, than with who he was.

You see John the Baptist was a wilderness kind of guy. Untamed and unpolished as he was it shouldn’t surprise us that his sermons were shouted into a desolate wasteland of wild open space. The wilderness of Judea was not the wilderness of Northern Indiana. It wasn’t a nature walk through Fox Island Park with meandering paths and quiet fresh brooks. The wilderness of Judea was a sparse, hot, unforgiving place. It was a land where one had to be scrappy to survive. It was barren and inhospitable. And so the fact that the call to prepare for the Christ came out of this nowhere place gives me pause.

There is something cosmically comforting to me about the idea that the coming of God was announced in the wilderness, for I believe that each of us carry some form of wilderness within our own souls. Sometimes that wilderness manifests itself in a cavern of doubts about the goodness of the universe or fears about the direction of life and our place in it, or it shows up in the form of a gaping sense of aloneness and unease even when surrounded by others. Sometimes we dwell in that wilderness for only hours, and sometimes we can live in it for season after season. The wilderness can be a frightening and desolate place, where we may flounder and question the presence of God.

And so how utterly and simply spell-binding is it that the first inklings of the coming of Christ into ministry were uttered in the wilderness, in the place where we thought no life could grow, no plant take root, there is this glimmering hope preached. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Home By Another Way speaks of the truth of the event this way, “That was the good news that started with John. He was the messenger, and the message lit him up like a bonfire in the wilderness…[But], only those who were willing to enter the wilderness got to taste his freedom.”

And so the question for this morning, in this season of Advent and waiting that I ask is this? Are you willing to go to the wilderness? Are you willing to go to the depths of your own soul, to the dark scary places, to the places which keep you awake at night, to the nagging worries and untold secrets? Are you willing to sit in that wild place and invite the prince of peace to come, invite the living God to shed some light into the dark night of your soul? Are you able to trust that the holy presence might crouch next to you, find you in the depths of your own wild places and then breathe quietly and softly and slowly some new life into that desolate place?

The poet Wendell Berry has written, “It gets darker and darker, and then Jesus is born.” As we wait in the wilderness, may we recognize the shimmer of light on the horizon. For Christ comes anew, may we be wise enough to hear the words of the prophets who beckon us to be agents of hope.


*For more information about Dr. Neil Wollman and all the tremendous work he has done please note the following website.