December 30, 2009

The Whole Package

by Debra Dean Murphy
Second Sunday After Christmas
Ephesians 1:3-19; John 1:1-18

It’s still Christmas. It’s hard to tell that from the culture around us, and maybe even a little hard to tell from this Sunday’s appointed lessons. For a few days we were immersed in the earthiness of the Nativity (barn animals, labor and delivery, a feeding trough for a bed). But this week’s readings have phrases like “before the foundation of the world,” “the mystery of his will,” and “in the beginning was the Word.”

It’s tempting, perhaps, to see a sharp division here. To imagine that the Christmas lections are about the simple, familiar, child-friendly stuff—cradles and crèches and shepherds and angels—and that the “After-Christmas” readings have gone all grown-up and academic on us. Logos? John wants to talk Greek while we’re still singing Away in a Manger?

But these first few verses from the beginning of John’s gospel wrap up our story like the beautiful Christmas present it is: Creation, Incarnation, Redemption are of a piece. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4). The Logos is the agent of creation, and the salvation that this Word-made-flesh brings is the fulfillment of creation. The first Word has, so to speak, the last Word.

As James Alison has pointed out: “The act of creation was revealed for what it really is: the bringing to existence and the making possible of a human living together which does not know death; and Jesus was in on this from the beginning. Such is our world that God could only be properly perceived as Creator by means of the overcoming of death.”

And for those who will share in the Eucharist this Sunday, we will, literally, taste this life-giving reality—nothing abstract or academic about it. We will hold the Logos in our hands, taste him on our tongues. Word. Flesh. Light. Life. The incarnated One creating and ever redeeming us his body, we who have “heard the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation, and have believed in him” (Eph. 1:13).


December 23, 2009

God in Particular

by Kyle Childress
Luke 2: 1-20

My college church organized a big evangelistic training and event. We went through two nights learning how to “win people to the Lord” using handy little tracts organized around “the four spiritual laws.” (#1 God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. #2 Man is sinful and separated from God. [Yes, only men.] #3 Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. #4 We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. – I still remember them after all these years.) Each spiritual law had a verse of Scripture attached to it to give it biblical validity. On the third night we were given the assignment of going out to neighborhoods and college dorms, knocking on doors, and if the person answering the door would allow us, we were to tell him the four spiritual laws. If the person said “yes” to the last law, we were to pray with him, asking for Jesus to enter into his heart. After the prayer, we congratulated him on becoming a Christian, told him to go to church the next Sunday and then off we went to “win” the next person to the Lord.

I remember walking down the hall after sharing the four spiritual laws and praying with that student, thinking to myself, “Something is wrong with all this.”

One of the great dangers and persistent temptations of the Christian life is abstraction and reduction, universalization and generalization. We like platitudes and principles, spiritual laws and high-sounding words like “love” and “grace” or “justice.”

But not with Luke. Not with the New Testament. At Christmas we run up against the Incarnation. Instead of timeless truth we get God in particular: a teenaged mother and young father with their baby in a cattle trough, trying to stay warm in a cow shed on the backside of a dusty overlooked town on the far side of the Roman Empire. We get the specific, the particular, the concrete. None of this “once upon a time,” timeless and eternal we get in fairy stories. This story can be dated – when Quirinius was governor of Syria. We can take a road map and follow Mary and Joseph’s journey from Galilee to Nazareth to Bethlehem. Not four spiritual laws. We get an angel calling Mary. God speaking to Joseph. God coming in the particularity of a baby.

Our preference for abstract principles and spiritual laws means we try to make the gospel into whatever we want. Literary critic Stanley Fish explains how the jury acquitted the policemen accused of beating Rodney King in the famous 1992 trial even though the policemen had been filmed on video of beating King. Fish says that the defense lawyers did two things: (1) They slowed the video down to one frame at a time so that each frame was isolated and stood by itself. (2) They asked the jury, one frozen frame at a time, was this blow excessive force? Did this blow intend to kill or maim? Each moment, each frame, and each blow was abstracted from the overall context, history, and story that gave them meaning. Therefore, the jury could not say of any of them that this did grievous harm to Rodney King (Stanley Fish, The Trouble With Principle, p. 309).

But when we stick with the story of the Incarnation we can’t make it anything we want. We can’t say “yes” to four spiritual laws and hate our neighbors and kill our enemies. We can’t ask an abstract Jesus into our hearts and ignore his life and the life he calls us to. We can’t be “spiritual” and not become a member of his contemporary body, the church. The miracle of the Incarnation says it is this Jesus born in the specifics of Bethlehem in the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria who called us to a particular way of life embodied in his church located in our time and place today. God is particular. Jesus came to be with us right here.

My old teacher Fred Craddock tells the story of a preacher who loved to preach on big subjects and large issues every Sunday. From time to time some of his parishioners would complain of his big sermon topics and say they wanted something that helped them closer to home, helped them to get through the week but the pastor said they needed to learn to think beyond their petty concerns. So one week the pastor had to go to a denominational meeting in a large city and got one of his church members to go with him. When they reached the city, the pastor asked his church member to find a map so they could make their way to the meeting place. The church member reached over in the back seat and pulled up a globe of the world.

The God we worship comes to us in the particularity of this Jesus and in the specifics of his life embodied where we live. Thanks be to God.


December 16, 2009

As Good As Done

by Doug Lee
Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

We arrived at the village and were greeted by the headman and the welcoming committee. As the honored guests, we were made to sit on chairs under the mango tree. The only others who sat on chairs were men. The women and children sat on mats or on the dusty ground amid the chickens that had free run of the village.

While the important people sat “enthroned,” the clear leaders of the celebration were the women. They had come dressed in their best clothes, shiny and clean. They raised their voices in song, loud and bright. With call and response, joyful ululation, and bodies moving in vibrant celebration, these poor rural village women in Zambia gave voice to God’s victory over disease, hunger, and death.

In many times and places, it is the women who best celebrate the triumph of God.

Elizabeth’s profound greeting and Mary’s transcendent song echo the triumph songs of ages past. Miriam sang of Yahweh’s victory over the horse and the rider who had pursued the Hebrews into the sea. Hannah sang of Yahweh’s victory over her barrenness borne in the gift of Samuel—a sure sign of Yahweh’s coming victory over Israel’s barrenness in the time of the judges. These women’s words herald God’s powerful deliverance of His people.

But what are Elizabeth and Mary celebrating? Elizabeth has experienced a Hannah-esque conception. “Mary” is the Hellenized rendering (Mariam) of the name of Moses and Aaron’s sister. But where is the victory? Where are the dead charioteers and horses? All that is in view, it seems, are a couple of women sharing good news about their unusual pregnancies, and one of them sings. Their sons, as mighty as they will be, are not even born. Yet, these women are celebrating as if the victory had already been won. What’s the fuss? Nothing has happened yet.

But Mary lives in anything but a fantasy world. Luke has her singing her song “in the days of King Herod” (1:5). More than a vague chronological marker, Luke’s reference to the reign of the original King of the Jews carries nearly as much freight as “after 9/11.” Herod the Great was notoriously great at killing off his wives and sons. The gloriously beautiful temple in Jerusalem Herod built was underwritten by the crushing taxes borne by his subjects. Mary lives in time of acute political tension. “The proud,” “the powerful” on their thrones, and “the rich” have a face that fills the poor and marginalized with dread.

Mary, however, is as capable of overthrowing Herod and the empire he represents as the village women in Zambia are of pulling down a global economy that devastates their farming through drought and market forces. Instead of revolutionary fervor, what Mary models is how to live in the hope of Advent, how to live in between the ages. Instead of taking matters into her own hands, she sings. Instead of seizing power, Mary rejoices.

The already is small; the not yet is vast. Yet Mary can cling to the words of promise God has entrusted to her. The leaping of the yet-unborn John and the blessing pronounced by Elizabeth confirm Mary’s miraculous conception and equally miraculous vocation as the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. A virgin conceives and a poor peasant girl from a backwater village is named great. In these small signs unnoticed among the rich and powerful, Mary sees the outlines of a divine revolution. Her song identifies God, and not any human agent, as the one launching a decisive reversal of all of our power equations:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

At last, God will fulfill His promise to bring forth a King who will shepherd His people with mercy and justice. “And he will stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” (Micah 5:4). He will judge tyrants like Herod and redeem a broken creation. In fact, Mary declares these decisive events as already having happened. God’s mighty reversal is all in the past tense. It is as good as done!

We who despise small beginnings and insist on seeing everything before we get on board will miss out on joining what God is doing. This is God’s way of working: backwater village, peasant girl, manger, mustard seed, and cross.

Mary models a hope that doesn’t begin with us or our ability to see. It doesn’t even begin with the Church. It begins with a revolutionary God who is true to His word. God will put the world right. Mary models the Church’s hopeful vocation and Her dangerous joy.

To echo Elizabeth: Blessed are they who believe that the Lord will fulfill what He has promised. Let us rejoice!


December 15, 2009

A Political Pregnancy (and the Beatles)

by Jenny Williams
Luke 1:39-46, 47-55; Micah 5:2-5a

Though it is not my regularly scheduled week to share a lectionary reflection with you, I was struck with some thoughts this morning while I prepared for Sunday’s sermon. Charles L. Aaron, writing in this month’s Lectionary Homiletics on the gospel text for Advent 4C, takes the two Lukan pericopes as they come in Luke, one after the other, rather than separating them into the Visitation (to be read as the gospel lesson) and the Magnificat (to be read as the Psalter or the Canticle for the day).

In doing so, he contrasts the innocence of the girl who is to give birth to Jesus with the political ramifications of that birth. Taking verses 39-46 and 47-55 together, he says, “gives the preacher abundant material for preaching that critiques the sentimentality of the Christmas season. God speaks through simple, humble people in out of the way locations. The birth of Jesus has implications for our interior spirituality as the opening lines of the Magnificat indicate but also demands change in politics, economics, and use of power. This passage calls for deeper spirituality but also for the church to hold accountable politicians and all who exercise power. It reaffirms God’s continuing use of synagogue and church.”

I think Mary had no idea what she was doing. I mean that in a positive way. Her assent to all that the angel Gabriel told her was an act of deep faithfulness. But it was a relatively small act in the scheme of things. Her part in the ultimate reign of Christ was to have a baby. That she could do. Not that the consequences of the pregnancy were easy to handle (Joseph’s plans to dismiss her) nor were the conditions under which the baby was to be born (a smelly stable). But she offered herself to be God’s servant in that particular time and place by doing what she could do given her social location.

Aaron’s comments brought two Marian examples to mind. One I heard on NPR the other day. In Cobell v. Salazar, a case which alleged 122 years of mismanagement of American Indians’ trust accounts by the Department of the Interior, a $3.4 billion settlement was awarded to the plaintiffs. The suit went on for 13 years. Elouise Cobell noted that the suit became much bigger than she’d ever expected. The suit began as a response to requests by Native American elders to see if funds existed to make basic repairs on their houses or feed their grandchildren. Over 13 years, it became a story of reparations and how history gets narrated. What started out as a small decision by Cobell to be faithful to her people had implications that went far beyond her initial impulse to do what was right.

I’m also reminded of the people of Le Chambon, whom I learned about in movie shown in one of Stanley Hauerwas’ seminary classes. In World War II, this tiny Protestant village in southern France became a haven for Jews fleeing the Nazis and their French collaborators. The Chambonais hid Jews in their homes, providing significant assistance to them. We see them as shining stars in the church’s dark history of complacency in the face of Nazism, but the villagers routinely rejected any labels of heroism. They frequently and genuinely stated that they were simply helping people in need. What started out as their small decisions to be faithful had implications far beyond their initial impulse to do what was right.

Like Cobell and the Chambonais, Mary did not set out to tackle the principalities and the powers. She agreed to have a baby. In the words of the Beatles, she did not “say she wanted a revolution.” She said “let it be” with me according to your word. I agree with Aaron that the church should hold accountable those in power. We should challenge injustice in large, systemic ways. But I wonder if this Sunday is a time to instead give credit to the small acts of subversion that we really don’t see as subversive at all, or that come from places or people who do not see themselves as subversive. After all, Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, came from “one of the little clans of Judah.” Who’da thunk it?


December 09, 2009

I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy

by Jenny Williams
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

The second most popular Advent question asked in the United Methodist Churches I’ve served is “Why is there one pink candle on the Advent wreath?” (THE most popular question has of course been “When can we start singing Christmas carols?”)

The pink candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent because since the 10th century, that day has been recognized by the catholic church as Gaudete, or Joy, Sunday. (See one history here.) As early as the fifth century, Christians prepared for Christmas with a forty-day fast. The weeks prior to Christmas were a season of penitence, much in the way that Lent functions in relation to Easter. One can see how the lectionary texts in the first couple weeks of Advent issue calls to reflection and penitence: “The Kingdom is at hand! Know how to read the signs! Repent!” My Greek Orthodox friends observe two fasts prior to and during Advent, increasing in severity and restriction, as a way of preparing for the coming of Christ. They understand that preparation for the coming of Christ entails self-examination and sacrifice.

In faith traditions where the penitential nature of Advent is observed, the third Sunday of Advent is an occasion which ensures that the joy of Christ’s first and second comings is made clear. The texts for that day bring that joy and anticipation to the forefront of the church’s worship. The prophet Zephaniah assures us that God will “save the lame and gather the outcast” as well as “deal with their oppressors.” Joy! Paul exhorts the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Joy! And Luke reports that upon hearing John the Baptist’s message were “filled with expectation.” Joy, joy, joy all over the place!

The pink candle has been a witness to me in recent years. In my Protestant upbringing, December worship wasn’t much more than a prelude to the nativity. It wasn’t until my preaching years that the pink candle began to inform my interpretation of the texts on the first and second Sundays in Advent. I’ve been striking more penitential tones in recent Advents, knowing that Gaudete Sunday is ahead, waiting to help us understand what we are preparing for. This Sunday, our congregation will pull out all the stops during our worship services. A small ensemble of church members who are singers and instrumentalists have been practicing to lead our congregation through some intentionally upbeat music. Some of our small children will be playing “Ode to Joy” on the piano. We intend to have a longer time for the passing of the peace, which (gasp!) may even make worship run past its “usual” ending time.

Of course, each Sunday reminds us of the joy of the resurrection, and Gaudete Sunday is not meant to manufacture a cheap joy through emotional manipulation of worshippers. What I hope our celebration will do is focus our attention on the joy of the eschaton, the redemption of all creation, the glorious telos that the Church anticipates and waits for, but forgets to talk about in the waiting. I pray that our worship will form people for Advents to come, so that their joy is not contained in packages with pretty bows but in the uncontainable God, who is, was, and is to come. Joy!


December 03, 2009

Who Bears the Weight of Empire?

by Brian Volck
Luke 3:1-6

In today’s gospel, Luke moves rapidly from Emperor Tiberius, in Rome, through a cascade of governors, tetrarchs and high priests, to an eccentric Galilean hayseed (the sort of misfit you’d expect in a Flannery O’Connor short story, with his weird clothes, overwrought speech and hyper-religious obsessions) on a riverside in the nether regions of an inconsequential Roman province. In terms of historical, social and political importance, the downhill slope here is dizzyingly steep.

Still, Luke’s concern – for now – is Elizabeth and Zecahriah’s John-boy, not the movers and shakers of first century Judea. Augustus may have proclaimed a census in the chapter immediately preceding this, but it’s John, not Tiberius, making proclamations now: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The words Luke quotes from Isaiah (40:3-5) speak of reckonings and reversals, themes careful readers of Luke 1 and 2 are well prepared for. (Don’t trust me; read them yourself!) Luke’s narrative delights in paradox and inversions, and rarely strays from the marginalized and cast-offs of the world, those who weep and mourn, forever living in the hope.

As I write this, the President of the United States is announcing his plans to send 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, a land which – for sound historical reasons – is called “Graveyard of Empires.” I’m not competent to critique the geopolitical rationale for this decision. I have no idea how this will end, or when anyone will be able to say with confidence that it has ended.

I only ask followers of Jesus in this season of waiting to hold in their hearts the many who will weep in the months to come. Reckonings and reversals await, and few or none may resemble what the movers and shakers of our day imagine. The marginalized in the US, Afghanistan and elsewhere will almost certainly suffer these more so than you or I or Barack Obama or Hamid Karzai.

Where, in the ongoing narrative of contemporary empires, do you hear the voice of one calling in the wilderness? Where do you hope to see the Glory of the Lord revealed to all flesh?