Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Like Ancient Israel, We

Like ancient Israel
Have claimed to be God's chosen people.
A city set on a hill,
Whose sins cannot be hidden.
We have wrapped bandages over gaping wounds
Then been surprised that the infected puss
Leaks through the thin gauze
Carrying tiki torches,
depriving children of healthcare.
We have thought
Our claim to be a Christian Nation
Would drown out the cries
Of those Jesus would have healed,
Would have fed,
Would have touched,
Would have restored to community.
Those whom we
Have let go hungry,
Refused to go near,
And left hiding in the shadows.
Do we think that we will fare
Any better than the ancient Israel
Whom God sent into exile?
Do we even pause to think
of the wrath to come?
Or do we just go shopping.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Mary, Marley, Scrooge, and Zacchaeus

Before you decide that I've simply flipped my lid due to excess fatigue brought on by Advent preparation and participation in the recent Wolf Pack Theatre Company's A Christmas Carol, hang with me for a moment.

My Advent thoughts have been affected by the nightly listening to the words of Marley...but also to a recent poem by Maren Tirabassi that you can find here:


as well as Walter Bruggemann's recent book Money and Possessions, some of the ideas from which he discusses here:


Brueggeman makes the point that what he calls "extraction economies" (where wealth flows from the poorest to the richest through taxes or labor at low wages) succeed because people forget who they are.  He specifically refers to Zacchaeus, who had "forgotten he was a Jew," and was able to sign on with the Roman Empire.

In William Dean Leary's adaption of A Christmas Carol Jacob Marley says, "I did not learn the lessons that were shown; feeling they were an imposition on me, all I stood for and all I believed.  I felt myself above reproach, above the suffering of my fellow man and their petty grievances; ignored that which was right in front of me.  Choices Ebenezer, my choices have damned me to walk the earth with the load I now carry."

Which brings me to my point about Mary.  So much depends on who, and what, we say "Yes" to.  In Luke 1:26-38 we find the story of Mary and her encounter with the angel Gabriel.  Gabriel presents her with a situation that she does not understand, that is beyond her picture of the way the world is.  Yet she says, "Yes."

Marley can on grasp one view of the world.  It is to get what he can, while he can, and the rest of the world be damned.  It is not a difficult leap to see his view reflected in much of the world around us. It is easy to stop with where we see it reflected in recent legislation or in the current administration's attitude toward immigrants; spinning a false narrative rooted in the message of Norman Vincent Peale's theology, which gave rise over the years to both the "prosperity gospel" and the current "evangelical politics" neither of which are Gospel at all.

But there are also the choices of treating people as commodities in our sexual relationships; our social relationships; and our family relationships.  These too are built on an "extraction mentality" that says that other people's only value is what they can give me, what I can extract from them.  We can even carry this attitude into our relationship with God, when we come to believe that God's purpose is to make us feel good; to furnish us with warm, inner feelings....rather than seeing our purpose as to reflect Mary's "Yes" in our lives and help birth the Kingdom of God in acts of neighborliness and mercy here and now.  This is not to deny that such actions will provide us with warm inner feelings; for it is in them that we encounter the Living Christ.

Mary said "Yes" and gave birth to the Messiah.  We are called to say "Yes" and to give birth to the Kingdom that Jesus taught us to pray "Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

But we, like Marley, like Zacchaeus, have not done that.  Even when "humankind should have been our business," we have signed on with Empire, bought into the extraction economy.  We need a conversion experience like Scrooge's.  Because "link upon link, yard upon yard" the chains we forge grow long and heavy....both individually and as a nation.  Hanging from our chains are the sexual partners who were treated as relational throwaways, the sacred lands that were bulldozed for the resources that they held, the bodies of the poor who died from lack of medical care, and the children we used to reflect our "success."  

It is an Advent discipline to ask ourselves about the chains we are forging.  It is an Advent discipline to repent, to remember who we are, to make amends.  Only then can, in the words of Tiny Tim, "God Bless Us Everyone."

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Fierce, Transforming Joy

The two passages this week might be termed "poems of joy."  Both of them speak of things that are yet to come...but they claim those promises as a source for deep joy and trust.  They also claim them as world altering statements.  They are NOT "pie-in-the-sky," but are comments made at ground zero and are deeply political.

The first of these, Isaiah 61:1-4, borrows phrasing from Leviticus 25:10 when those Israelite farmers who lost their land and were forced into indentured servitude can leave that servitude and return to their land.  This is the "proclaiming of a year of the Lord's favor."  This is followed by comfort for those who mourn, liberation for captives, the lifting of drooping spirits, and the rebuilding of desolate places.  Isaiah takes these promises, which were to individuals in Leviticus, and applies them to the whole nation...particularly to those who were in exile, separated from land, home, and Temple.

The second passage, Luke 1:46-55, is often referred to as the Magnificat.  It is another song of Hope in the middle of a desolate time.  It recounts what God has already done and uses this past behavior on God's part as grounds for belief in what God will do in the future.  In the middle of Roman occupation Mary sings her subversive song about God's promise to Israel (and as Christians, we claim that the promise is to us as well).

I asked one of the Bible studies this week to imagine who they would have sing this song.  My two favorite choices were Billie Holiday and a blues singer whose recording career stretched from the 1920's to the 1950's.  Who would you imagine singing this subversive song of joy and hope?

Then we talked about places where this kind of song could be sung.  I imagined a village in Nigeria where Boco Haram has raided repeatedly.  A young girl comes into adolescence knowing that the next raid she might well be taken to be a forced bride, and her brother turned into a child soldier.  She receives a visit from and angel, promising that she will be part of the story of God's liberating God's people.

Or a sweatshop....anywhere in the world where forced labor produces the goods that flow into this, and other wealthy countries.  The words that were sung in verses 52-54 might sound like this:

He has sent the sweatshop owners
away in handcuffs
And turned ownership of the factory
over to those who once worked there as slaves.
They take breaks for meals now
when they are hungry
And the fines levied against the previous owners
pay for their food.

These are songs of a fierce joy that claims a transformed world....even before that transformation arrives.  And they call the listener to begin living in that transformation NOW...not to wait for it to get here, but to live as though it is already present.  This is the great thing about Mary's "yes" to the angel Gabriel.  She moves to live in the coming new day, even before it arrives.

I found myself asking (both the members of the Bible studies and myself) a number of questions:
  • Where in my life am I indentured and in need of release and the chance to return to the roots of my faith?
  • How, and where am I captive, longing for freedom?
  • What would it mean in my life for the poor to be fed and the powerful to be sent away hungry?  Which am I?
  • How might I ask these same questions about those around me?
  • How might I ask them about the nation I live in?
  • What would it mean, in each of these situations, to begin living in joyful anticipation of that coming transformation?  To live right now as though that day has arrived?
Advent calls us into this fierce, transforming joy.  To live in preparation and anticipation of God's arrival in the birth of Christ and of the Kingdom in His life, death, and resurrection.  These are not, as I said above, pie-in-the-sky promises.  They are for here, now.  They are radical, ground zero promises to transform the world where you and I live.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Amen.  Let it be so.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

John The Baptist Preaches To A Priviledged People

In the opening verses of Mark and Luke Luke  3:10-14 we are given a picture of John the Baptist and his preaching.

I found myself doing some imagining, much as one might do if they were practicing the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, and trying to picture myself in the crowd listening to John. I found two things that were a bit disturbing: The first is that I saw myself as one of those entitled ones who believed that their identity as descendants of Abraham might give them special privilege in the Kingdom. I was reminded that our identity as God's children, God's people, is a gift it is not something that we are entitled to; and that like John said, "God can raise up children of Abraham out of stones" if God chooses. The meaning of that struck me as being that God took Abraham from nothing, from being a “stone”, and made him into the father of the Jewish Nation. God is always about making something out of nothing, and we forget that at our own peril.

The second thing that struck me was John's reply to those people who, as Walter Brueggemann says, "had forgotten that they were Jews," in signing on with the Empire by becoming soldiers and tax collectors for Rome. John doesn't call them to give up their jobs. But he Does call them to use their positions of power for justice. Listening to his instructions that they not take more than what they should and that they should not engage in various forms of exploitation was an enlightening moment for me.

I am a person of privilege. I cannot change that. I am a middle-aged, middle class, white male. I cannot deny that my life has been privileged. But neither can I use that to claim that I am entitled to anything: either some special relationship with God, or to use my privilege socially to enhance my position at the expense of others. I am called, and I believe most of the people who read this, are called, to engage in acts of justice and mercy as part of our gratitude for the gift that we have been given in the relationship that we do have with God through Christ, and for whatever power or privilege we might have.

Often we get focused on our individual relationship with Jesus, which is terribly important. But it is a mistake to focus there to the exclusion of our responsibility to work for theKkingdom by being just and using what power we have, and whatever way we have it, to care for those who are vulnerable and marginalized.

I am also finding in my own life, that sometimes I focus on my engagement in Justice ministry and do not cultivate my spiritual life, my personal relationship with the Jesus that I follow in the way that I need to. This is not an either-or proposition. In fact to do either at the exclusion of the other is to invite spiritual disaster.

This Advent, as I listen to John the Baptist, I am challenged and blessed as I am called to prepare the way for Christ’s Kingdom and clear a straight path in my life through the underbrush of entitlement and priviledge.