Sunday, December 20, 2009

We are all meant to be mothers of God

Advent 4-C Dec. 20, 2009
Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 15: The Magnificat
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

People of faith are viewed by many people in this society as kind of kooky. People of faith are just not realistic. “Religious do-gooders” as one of our elected representatives said, dismissively, of us here at St. Paul’s and of our faith and hope that we can make this neighborhood a better place to live and work. People of faith are just not rational, some people would say. They just don’t have their feet on the ground.

Mary and Elizabeth must be seen as the ultimate kooky “people of faith.” What c
ould be less realistic than the words Mary sings when she meets up with her cousin, Elizabeth? Casting mighty from their seats of power? She, a pregnant, poor, unmarried girl? Filling the hungry with good things? Her cousin Elizabeth is elderly, and is now pregnant for the first time in her life. These are just ordinary people, not miracle workers; how much more delusional can they be?

These two women, and the two baby boys they carry in their wombs, come to us today in the line of prophets. Mary and Elizabeth came from people who read their Bibles carefully. They lived on the fringes of society, where they could see the things that were wrong, where they could see how poor and powerless people were treated. They knew their Bibles well enough to know that God promised that the world would be a better place. They stood in a long ling of prophets who listened carefully to God, and who looked carefully at the world around them, and said, Wait a minute here. There are things going on in this world that are not what God intends. When Mary and Elizabeth listened for God, they heard the great and powerful swooshing sounds of angels’ wings, the Holy Spirit coming upon them, overshadowing and empowering them to see the world as God sees it, and to speak and to act.

And all the world is grateful that these two kooky women, these people of faith, and hope, these attentive listeners to God, said yes.

Meister Eckhart, a popular and mystical teacher of the Middle Ages, said this about Mary: “We are all meant to be mothers of God.” To be mothers of God in the sense of being a kooky person of faith like she was. To be a person who listens closely for the swoosh of those mighty Holy Spirit wings, and who looks closely at the world around her. We are all meant to be mothers of God when we say yes to the promises God has in store for us, and for the world God has created. We are meant to be mothers of God when we open ourselves to be changed by what God has in store for us, when we do indeed go forward in faith, not exactly sure that what God would have us do is reasonable, or socially acceptable, but we do it nonetheless. To be a mother of God is to be willing to be a kooky person of faith.

There is something curious about this song that Mary sings, that we will soon say together. It is in the words of a young woman, talking about the promises God has made or the world, but it is spoken from the point of view of something that has already happened. God has already overthrown the mighty and given the hungry enough to eat. God has already pulled the downtrodden up and sent away the rich people, who were not willing to participate in this way that God would have the world work.

This kooky person of faith seems to think that all those things have already happened, and that the birth of the son she carries is part of this ongoing process of healing the world, of bringing it back to the world God created it to be.

What a kooky imagination this Mary has, to listen to the swooshing, swooping powerful wings of the Holy Spirit, and to begin to see the world as God sees it – to take it on faith, as it were, and to begin to live her life, now, in the real world here and now, believing it to be true.

“We are all meant to be mothers of God.” Kooky. Hopeful. Knowing that the world could be, and is, a better place, and saying yes to God, when God shows us how this could be so.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

What then should we do?

Advent 3-C Dec. 13, 2009
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9: Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:1-13
Luke 3: 7-18

The news this week has been filled with horrific images of the effects of global warming: melting icebergs, flooded deltas, thousands of displaced people in places like Bangladesh which are only give us a hint of the millions who will be washed out of their homes as the planet warms and the water levels rise. The leaders of the nations now meeting in Copenhagen seem at a stalemate: the bottom line vs. the lives of millions? What then should we do?

Pick an issue, any issue. It seems like nearly everything we face in the world is overwhelming. Global warming. This neighborhood, how messy and blighted it is. This church, how many leaks it continually seems to spring. Household bills, how can we ever make ends meet. Poverty. Hunger. Homelessness. Drug addiction. Gang violence. Yow. Let’s just hunker down and forget it all, because, really, what can we do? What can we possibly do?

I think we need John the Baptist. How lucky then we get him this Advent for two weeks in a row.

John was a powerful preacher, whose bold words attracted many people around him. The message at first read seems harsh: Repent, you brood of vipers! That does not exactly sound like a sermon that would pack them in, yet …

The power of John’s message is that he described the world as it was: it is a world turned upside down. The world of 1st century Palestine was ruled by corrupt and brutal leaders at the top, and put-upon peasants at the bottom. John preached a message that began to allow the people to “unforget” the promises of God, to “unforget” that the world is God’s, and that God rules with justice and compassion and mercy, to “unforget” that even poor people and old people and disabled people have dignity. The people at the top definitely want the people to forget those kinds of messages, to forget that religious faith in God has something to do with life in the here and now and not only in the by and by, that the beneficiaries of the abundance of God’s creation are the people of God, not just the fatcats at the top.

The mists of history make it easy for us in 2009 to forget that the world of John the Baptist was so messy. It was so long ago that we forget that politics and war and economics and all those things that consume our 24-7 news cycle were the ever-present realities for the people who came to listen to what John had to say. The rose-colored glasses we often put on when we read the Bible make us think that words like “repent” have to do only with personal sins. The powers-that-be in our world certainly benefit if we, too, forget that the promises of God mean that there IS enough to go around, that the world CAN be a peaceful and beautiful place, that EVERYONE is entitled, by virtue of being a child of God, to a home to live in and food to eat and a life of dignity and meaning and worth.

Once you get to thinking about it, it is overwhelming. What then should we do?

When the people asked John that question, his response was direct, and simple. Share. Be honest. Be content with what you have. God promises us abundance and life and enough to go around: start living every day as though you believed it. It’s kind of like the old proverb that says if your house is messy, then this is where you start, here, at your feet, and clean this area that you can reach. If the world is overwhelming, and out of control, and we have no power to change those big things, then start where we are: if we have two coats, we share one. If we have enough food for our family, then share with a family who has none. John acknowledges that the people who come to hear his message live in the world: they are not just “do-gooders” but tax collectors, soldiers – people not known for being honest or generous, people caught on the bottom rungs of that upside down world of violence and greed. Be content, John says to those people. Be honest. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal from people who have less than you do. John’s big, grand, global message comes down to these simple instructions. The kingdom of heaven is coming – and this is how we should start to live, now.

What then should WE do? How would John the Baptist answer that question for you, today?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

a nothing son of a nobody

Advent 2-C
Dec. 6, 2009

Baruch 5:1-9
Luke 1: 1:68-79

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

“The Word of God came to a nothing son of a nobody in a god-forsaken place.”

That is really what St. Luke means in this passage about John the Baptist. The first few sentences of our gospel passage for today are all about the rich and famous people of the day, the important and powerful people, the beautiful people, people with a lot to lose. It is important to Luke to place this story of John the Baptist, and what he says about the coming of Jesus, in the political and social context of the day. John the Baptist and Jesus lived in a particular time and place, with particular people in charge – a place of empire and military domination and of a powerful religious ruling class: John the Baptist and Jesus lived lives that were subject to these forces and these powerful actors. AND they were nobodies: “The Word of God came to a nothing son of a nobody in a god-forsaken place.”

The Word of God came to this nothing son of a nobody because the “somebodies” could not be trusted with this Good News. The “somebodies” like the Emperor Tiberias and Pontius Pilate and Herod and Philip and Lysanias and Annas and Caiaphas all had a lot to lose if this Word of God entrusted to this unknown wilderness-wanderer ever got out. In this world of “Haves”, the Word of God came to the “Have-Nots.”

The verses we read today in place of the psalm are the verses that John’s father sings when the boy is born. It is a song of hope: it comes from the past, and looks to the future. It comes from the past, because it is full of the imagery of the Jewish people. It is full of how they understand how God acts in the world, in human history, and what God has promised to the people. For the Jewish people, the world is turned upside down. Instead of a world ruled by God’s justice, we live in a world ruled by corrupt or at best flawed leaders. Instead of living the lives God wants us to live – lives of honesty, compassion, prayer, service – we live lives far from God, lives of fear, addiction, selfishness, anger. The world God created, and the world God wants, is turned upside down. As Zechariah’s little baby boy John would eventually say, “Repent! Turn around! Leave those stupid, wicked, death-dealing ways of life behind.”

Zechariah’s song is also a song of the future: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High.” That upside-down world is about to be righted. John, this little baby boy now in his father’s arms, will lead the way.

There is a Hebrew word that is very important here: Tikkun. It means “repair,” and it is often used in the phrase, Tikkun olam, to repair the world. Now this Tikkun is a religious concept, a theological word, but it not something that God alone does: it is something in which we participate with God. This upside-down world is in desperate need of repair, and John the Baptist calls out to us from the wilderness that our repentance is the first step to take in that repair. Our repentance – our turning away from things we do that hurt ourselves, or the people we love, or the neighbors we live near, or the city we live in, or the planet we live on – our repentance from all those things that are dark and painful and destructive is the first step toward preparing the Way of the Lord, preparing for the coming of God with us, Emmanuel. Now, I don’t want to imply that Jews are just “closet Christians,” but so much of what we Christians know to be true is right there, embedded in those Hebrew words: Emmanuel means “God with us.” Get ready, John the Baptist says. God is coming to be with us. The world as we know it will be turned upside down: valleys filled, mountains brought down, crooked, bumpy, pot-hole-strewn paths will be made straight and true, and nobodies like you and me will walk in peace on our King’s Highways.

Well now, some people might think. If God is so all-powerful, how come we still have to read about prophecy? How come the descendants of those power-brokers like the Emperor Tiberias, or Pontius Pilate, or Herod, are still making our lives miserable?

You might also ask, why then do we sin? We do we keep getting angry and doing stupid things, or fall off the various wagons of discipline we try to follow in our lives? Probably because sin and greed and fear are as much a part of what it means to be human as is love and generosity and courage. No matter how hard we try, we seem to spend a good chunk of our time in the wilderness.

I think that is what the wilderness symbolizes in the bible, the wilderness as the place that is rough, and hard to live in, the place of struggle and deprivation, the place of testing – and yet also the place where the people of Israel heard the Word of God, drank the water from the rock, ate the manna from heaven, followed the pillar of light in the darkness that led them to the promised land. From the wilderness came that nothing son of a nobody, bringing to us who dwell in darkness this precious Good News: God’s tender compassion will break on us like the dawn, and the world, indeed, will be turned upside down. Come. You will see.

* William Herzog, New Proclamation 2006, as quoted in Reflections by Kate Huey, for Advent 2-C 2009