If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Ambiguous Sign: Luke 2:1-20

*This sermon was preached on Christmas Sunday morning at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon. It included these pictures projected on a screen throughout the sermon. I could hardly finish the sermon as I looked out and saw a number of wet eyes among the congregation!

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, Our Rock and Redeemer.

The scene of the nativity was a favorite among Renaissance artists. Looking at their paintings you can see how each artist tried to bring together both the human and the divine elements in the story of Christ's birth. In Hugo van der Goes' painting Adoration of the Shepherds you can see a creative interplay of the elements of heaven and earth. The artist's devotion to the natural world is seen in the spacious landscape surrounding his manger scene and the wealth of precise realistic detail. In his painting the shepherds kneel before the Christ child dressed in simple peasant robes as brown as moist dirt. These field hands gaze in breathless wonder and excitement at the newborn baby, who lies naked and almost blends into the earthen tones.

In contrast to the down-to-earth shepherds are the unearthly angels, who look on in ritual solemnity. Some kneel around the Christ child dressed as priests at high mass. A few angels fly above the manger scene in ecclesiastical robes like flies buzzing around a maternity ward window. For symbolic reasons van der Goes' angels were painted on a much smaller scale. They are dwarfed next to the shepherds, appearing to be out-of-place, foreigners in a strange land. In other paintings artists have made the heavenly dimension dominate the manger scene, with striking colors, ornate gilding, or golden halos that encircle the heads of the Madonna and child. Although van der Goes brushes in the heavenly elements, the painting's natural and human elements appear to stand out.

Isn't van der Goes' rendition of the nativity saying something symbolically that we all can affirm? Though the Sacred was there at the manger scene, it was the human elements of Christ's birth that would have stood out most clearly. Let me ask you this. If you were an artist present at that manger scene long ago and were commissioned to paint a family portrait, what do you think you would have seen; a mother and child with matching cymbals for hats? Angels in ecclesiastical robes? If you had showed up at that stall with a digital camcorder and filmed the whole thing, what do you think you would have seen when you watched the film played back over a bowl of popcorn in your living room; angels buzzing around as common as house flies? Or were the angels only seen with the eyes of faith?

As Christians, we believe firmly that heaven came down and touched the earth on that first Christmas. But what if the halos were erased from the picture and the angels were painted out, how then would we recognize that God had come among us? If no angels with wings come to us to announce the good news, then where will we hear it? What kind of signs will we look for that the Savior is among us?

Believe it or not, the good news of Christ's coming was first announced to shepherds by angels from heaven. The shepherds sat on the hillside washing their socks by night, I mean, watching their flocks by night. There was nothing particularly unusual about that evening. Nothing filled the air, except the smell of sheep. And those shepherds were not particularly subject to heavenly visions. They lived off the land. Rough-and-tumble fellows. Calloused hands. Scruffy beards. No nonsense. Real down-to-earth, hardworking kind of guys. Their business was watching sheep, not gazing off starry-eyed into the heavens.

Then all of a sudden an angel of the Lord stood before them. I can imagine their eyes bugging out an inch or two and their jaws hitting the ground with a thump. The glory of the Lord shone around them like a beam from a UFO. Those simple shepherds were scared right out of their wits. They did a double-take and rubbed their eyes awake. What would angels be doing out there among a bunch of sheep? In typical angelic language the angel said. "Do not be afraid." Sure! Don't be afraid. Ha! Like shepherds see angels every day. "See," said the messenger, "I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people." The ears of the poor shepherds perked up at the sound of good news.

"To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." And as if one angel were not enough to blow the brains right out of those simple shepherds, the night sky cracked open and was spangled with a flock of glittering angels praising God. Above the sound of flapping wings they sang, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom God favors." Wow! Chiffon angels come to burlap shepherds. The doors of heaven open in a pasture.

But in our modern age we don’t look for good news to come to us wrapped up in such heavenly form. Unlike former ages, we 1ive in a time when the halos have been erased and the angels have been painted out of the picture. Myth, story, and symbol, have all been ruled out as vehicles of truth. The supernatural has been written off as fairy tale or childish imagination. Although many would say we live in a postmodern or post-enlightenment era, I believe we still live under the long, dark shadow of the age of Enlightenment. Ours is an age still dominated by science and rationalism. The Enlightenment taught us that for anything to be true it has to be quantifiable, fit into a formula, or put under a microscope and examined with the human eye. The philosopher Descartes, father of the Enlightenment, expressed the spirit of the modern age when he said: I must avoid believing things which are not entirely certain an indubitable.

The age of the Enlightenment says that there’s nothing, nothing that we cannot doubt? If that’s the case, then why not include rationalism as one of those things that we can doubt. That is what postmodernism has done; doubt rationalism. Does everything that is true have to fit into a logical formula? Does everything have to be literal or it is not true at all? If that were the case, then those of us who see with eyes of faith would have big problems.

Sociologist Peter Berger has examined the alleged demise of the supernatural in modern secularized society in a book fittingly entitled A Rumor of Angels. The opening sentence of the book reads: If commentators on the contemporary situation of religion agree about anything, it is that the supernatural has departed from the modern world." Berger's thesis is that we live in a time when the transcendent has been reduced to a rumor.

We have all been affected by our modern rationalistic age to a great degree. I know that I have. I'm a bit skeptical of claims of the miraculous and supernatural. Granted, this is the kind of world I read about in my Bible. But, when I lift my eyes up from the supernatural world I see in the Bible, I look out on a different kind of world. Speaking as a rational person, I have to say that we, as people of God, do not live in the same kind of world that the Bible portrays. God doesn't speak from burning bushes. The seas don’t part on command. The sun doesn’t stand still. Blinded eyes don’t see with mud for medicine. The dead do not rise up from their graves. And angels do not flit about giving birth announcements to virgins. That's not the kind of world into which I was born.

Today, there may be rumors of those who say they can hear God's voice. But, personally speaking, I seem to have trouble hearing God's voice a great deal of the time. I don't know about you, but when I pray I don't hear a sound. There are no audible voices. I often wait quietly, listening for God to speak, but there is nothing but the hum of silence. I have sat alone with my feet soaking in tears, frustrated, feeling hopeless and depressed, and no angel has shown up and placed a hand on my shoulder. When I asked God to show me the way, no angel has come to me like one did to Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. There has never been a cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night guiding my way. I have never actually heard a Charlton Heston voice booming out: "Leo, my beloved child, go to the elders of Zion and proclaim in their hearing, ‘Behold, I will shepherd your people." Have you ever heard such a voice?

At times I have deeply longed for an experience e of the "supernatural" to happen in my life. I have prayed the pray of Isaiah that opened our Advent readings: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. But when I raised my head and opened my eyes, all I could see was an open Bible, a broken piece of bread, a wet-faced child, a disheveled young woman wanting some food, and a struggling church. I have squinted my eyes hard looking for signs that God was at work in my life. But most often I have seen very little that might be considered "supernatural," things that could not be explained away scientifically, rationally, or psychologically. So, I tend not to look for those spectacular signs of God's presence.

Even so, I still believe with all my heart that, on occasion, I have seen God's face. I have walked with Christ. I have heard the voice of angels. But most of what I have seen with my eyes and have heard with my ears has been all too human. Maybe I'm just a product of our overly rationalistic age.

It is from within such a rationalistic age that we hear of the voices of angels, who come announcing to simple shepherds that the Christ has come. But, rationally speaking, from the viewpoint of our age it would appear that all angels have flown the coop! And the heavenly signs have been unplugged.

If that were truly the case, then where would we look for signs of Christ's presence among us? Where would we listen for the good news? Where would we experience the Holy? I read in today's Christmas story about a sign that was given to the shepherds by the angels that was to confirm the good news they heard. And when I read what that sign actually was, I was moved to silence…. You might have thought that the stereophonic symphony of glittering angels in the sky would have been the sign that Christ had come among humanity. But that was not the sign. Shhhhh! Lean forward. Listen carefully to the angel's words:

This will be the sign for you… You will find… a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

What kind of sign is that? That's the sign of good news? That's the sign that Savior of the world has come? That's how God comes to us? In a frail, vulnerable baby wrapped up tight in his humanity? I was expecting something a little more supernatural, something with a little more pizazz. At least a baby with a cymbal for a hat! If I hadn't heard the word of God's heavenly messenger, I wouldn't have recognized anything out of the ordinary at the manger. Would you have? I wouldn't have seen God in that child, being without a halo and all. How about you? What kind of sign is that? A baby in a cattle trough. Maybe we just need to walk a little closer and squint little harder.

Can you see the sign? Look closer. In the darkness of the night the glow of an oil lamp creates a circle of golden light. A sweaty mother lies on the floor looking up at the rafters. She squeezes all the blood out of her husband's hand. The contractions are coming every two minutes now. They are getting harder and harder to bear. The only sounds you can hear are rapid breathing and the howl of a wolf in the distance. She inhales deep the smell of hay and cattle. Then it becomes so quiet that you can hear the feet of a mouse running across the floor.

The moment of silence is broken by a low groan. Then, onto the floor plops something that at first looks like raw hamburger. It's a baby! The mother goes limp, exhausted. Then there's a loud "Waaaaaaaaa!" The beaming father cuts the cord and ties it with a piece of old thread. Then he wraps the baby tightly with strips of cloth and lays him beside his mother.

No golden halos. No fluttering angels. No opening skies. But, there's the sign. And it is all too human. The baby’s earthen hue almost makes him blends into the hay. There's nothing very heavenly about this scene. Maybe if you just kneel and look deeply into the moist eyes of the child, you will see something. Maybe not. But, there's the sign. There's the sign of salvation, the sign of good news, the sign that the Messiah has come. A baby wrapped up tight in his humanity.

If that's the sign the shepherds were given of Christ's presence among them, then where in the world do we look for signs of Christ's presence among us? If the halos are erased and the angels are painted out, where will we find the Sacred?

This is the Gospel truth. We will find that the Christ is among us, like the shepherds, through an ambiguous sign. The truth for us is that we will find the Sacred wrapped tightly in the swaddling clothes of the human. As a confirmation of the good news that the Savior was among them, that the Lord had come, that God was in their midst, the angels gave the shepherds a sign; a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. That was their sign; a rather ambiguous sign.
By "ambiguous" I mean that the sign could be open to several interpretations. The shepherds could have looked down at that human baby and said, "This is the Christ!" Or they could have looked down at that baby and said, "This is the Christ?" It's the same way with answered prayer. You can see it as merely a human coincidence or as the hand of God. The signs of God's presence among us always have that kind of ambiguity. They are capable of being interpreted several ways. That's because the Holy comes to us wrapped up in the human.

So, like the shepherds, we have to look for the Sacred wrapped tightly in the swaddling clothes of the human. Not wrapped like a Christmas package that you tear open to find the gift inside. As if we could tear away the humanity of that child in the manger, peel back his earthiness and find the real essence of Christ inside. No. God is there, all wrapped up tight in the human life of that child. The Sacred is wrapped up in the utterly human lives that we all live. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory.

Trying to find Christ without the humanity of Jesus, or trying to find the Sacred without the human is like trying to find an onion by peeling away the layers of its skin. If you try to peel away the skin in order to find the onion, all you will have when you’re done will be a handful of onion skins. For the onion is in the skin. The Christ is in the baby. The Sacred is in the human. So, remember. The signs of the Sacred are always a bit ambiguous.

And though we may be Christians with a biblical memory and eyes filled with visions of heavenly things, we are still children of a modern, rational age. And at times we may want to peel away at the skin of the human and behold the Holy. We may wish we could pull back the curtain, tear open the heavens, and see God's glory directly. But if we expect to find God somewhere else except in the humanity of Jesus or expect to find the Sacred outside of our ordinary, frail, vulnerable human lives, then we may wind up with only a handful of onion peelings with tears in our eyes.

But, when we look upon life with the eyes and ears of faith we can see and hear the signs of God's presence among us. With eyes of faith we can see in the sign of a child in the manger the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. With ears of faith we can hear in the all-too-human word of Scripture the voice of God. With eyes of faith we can see the Sacred in the skin of all that is human. Angels come to us, unaware, in the guise of friends who tell us good news or as strangers at our doorstep. And believe it or not, if we squint hard enough, we can see Christ in the onion skin of this church.

Such ambiguous signs. They only become signs of God's presence when we look at them with the eyes of faith. Hidden in the very human stuff of our lives are signs that point us to the glory of God.

There you are on this Christmas morning. All wrapped up tight in your humanity. Hoping to find some sign of God's presence as you come to worship this special day. And all that you can see is an open Bible. Some burning candles. Garland and ribbon. Wooden words on a near wall, not magi from afar, proclaiming “Jesus is Lord.” All-too-familiar faces in church. All you can hear are human voices singing some old Christmas carols and a very human sermon. There are no halos. No angels. No heavenly voices. Just a bunch of ambiguous signs. And you came looking for the living and glorious Christ.

With eyes of faith look again at all the signs. They may look ambiguous. But, they point to Christ. All the signs point to Christ who has been with you all along. In worship. On the job. At play. In your home. Sitting alone in prayer. In joy and in sorrow. In sickness and in health. In life and in death. Christ has been there. Can you see that even now, right here, Christ is with us?

Can you see him? Can you hear him? Come closer. Lean forward. Kneel quietly before the tiny bundle that lies in the hay. Shhhhh. Can you hear him breathing? His warm breath fogs the morning air. His cocoa colored hands are so small and weak. His body is so vulnerable to that cold, cruel world out there. Gaze with wonder upon that bundle of life. What do you see? A baby lying in a manger all wrapped up tight in his humanity. No. More than that. This is the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And it could have been just a stirring in someone’s heart, but didn't you hear some angels singing, "Glory be to God in the highest!?"

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God's Holy Word.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mary's Song of the Poor: Luke 1:46b-55

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon, on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 18, 2011

Howard Thurman, African-American prophet and mystic, in his book Meditations of the Heart writes:

I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is, I must learn the new song that is capable of meeting the new need. I must fashion new words born of all the new growth of my life, my mind and my spirit. I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before, that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God. How I love the old familiarity of the wearied melody-- how I shrink from the harsh discords of the new untried harmonies. Teach me, my Father, that I might learn with the abandonment and enthusiasm of Jesus, the fresh new accent, the untried melody, to meet the need of the untried morrow.

Some songs are old. Some songs are new. Some songs are easy to sing. Some songs are difficult to sing. Some melodies are familiar and others untried. In the gospel of Luke Mary sings a song that is both old and new. Its melody may be simple and smooth, but its words are dissonant and discordant with the tenor of our times. Her song is a familiar melody, but with a “fresh new accent.” We know Mary’s song as the Magnificat. That’s not the title of an old Disney movie. The title comes from the Latin form of the word “to magnify.” It is Mary’s song of praise to God from among the poor.

The song comes in the gospel of Luke during an encounter of Mary with her cousin Elizabeth. Mary and Elizabeth, who both receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the favor of God, and a child of promise, represent for us the potential for a new fertile future of unexpected hope and promise. An angel has previously announced to Mary that she would conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. The angel informs Mary that Elizabeth is also pregnant in her old age, an echo of the story of Sarah and Abraham. Mary hurries off on a journey to a village in the Judean hill country that probably took two or three days. She probably went to assist Elizabeth with her work of fetching water from the well, grinding corn, collecting firewood, and cooking her meals.

Upon meeting Mary the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. Elizabeth has two visitors: Mary and the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and says a line that anyone who has said the rosary will remember: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Then, Mary breaks out in the song that we know as the Magnificat.

I refer to it as a song not because it was sung, but that it fits the poetic form of the Psalms, which were liturgical songs of the Hebrew people. It contains parallelisms, which are two lines that interconnect with one another. This is the most common form of Hebrew poetry. Mary’s song is very similar to the song of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, found in the book of Judges. Parallels to Mary’s song can be found in various Old Testament passages, the Psalms, intertestamental writings, and texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. The song presents themes from the OT and themes that will reappear on Luke’s gospel. Her song resembles the contemporary songs of the Misa Campesina or Poor People’s Mass, which I once heard in the 80’s at a gathering in San Francisco for peace and justice in Central America.

Mary’s song begins in joyful praise to God. She recognizes her lowly or humble status and how she is blessed to be so favored. For Mary is to be the bearer of the Messiah. Like a Woody Guthrie song that recalls the history of America and imagines a social transformation, Mary’s song extolls the God of Israel’s history and imagines a social revolution.

The mother of Jesus sings the song of a God who has scattered the proud and self-sufficient, toppled elite rulers from their thrones, lifted up the poor and lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands and stomachs. These are definitely awesome deeds we do not expect.

New Testament scholar Raymond Brown sees the life setting of this song among the Jewish Christian anawim or “poor ones” of the first century. Mary’s song is a song of praise to God, the Liberator, who turns the world upside down. Though dirt poor, Mary sings a song of praise. If we recognize our own social and economic location, the God Mary praises acts against our own national and personal interests. It’s not a solo, but a song of solidarity with her people, the poor. Her song is a melody of social upheaval, a reversal of the fortunes and misfortunes of God’s people. She sings of social transformation.

We were probably expecting more of a gentle lullaby from Mary than a raspy song of economic justice. Her unexpected words remind me of the unexpected acts of Nora Nash, a sister of St. Francis in Philadelphia. Along with other nuns from her order, sister Nash sits in on the board meetings of Goldman Sachs, the world’s most powerful investment bank. They have bought the minimum number of shares in stock to be able to submit resolutions at the annual shareholders meeting. Sister Nash advices three Goldman top executives that their Wall Street Bank should protect consumers, rein in executive pay, increase its transparency, and remember the poor. These sisters were occupying Wall Street before it was fashionable for young hipsters. These sisters of mother Mary have also confronted Kroger, the grocery store chain, McDonald’s, Wells Fargo, and the Fortune 500 for unjust practices. What bodacious audacity! They sing a song with a radical vision.

Mary’s song is far more radical a vision than even that of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which focuses on the power and privilege of the 1% of the wealthy over against the 99 % of the rest of the US population. In the Occupy movement the enemy is the wealthy 1 %. Mary’s song envisions God completely overturning our economic system, flipping it on its head. If we understand Mary’s vision on a global and not simply a national level, the lyrics of her song indict not simply the 1% over against the 99 per cent in the US, but the 20% of the wealthy of the world over against the 80% of the world’s impoverished peoples. As Walt Kelly’s politically satirical comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Gentle Mary sings a radically subversive song of God’s coming revolution and we are implicated in the lyrics.

E. Stanley Jones, the early twentieth century missionary once said that the Magnificat is "the most revolutionary document in the world." It is a song that terrified Russian czars. The people of Nicaragua were once fond of reciting it. During the oppressive rule of Somoza in Nicaragua the poor campesinos were required to carry proof that they voted for him. The people sarcastically called the document, “The Magnificat.” Mary’s song is revolutionary.

Dare we, who live in the wealthiest and most powerful empire on earth, sing the song of Mary? Wouldn’t its melody sound like the sawing of the limb on which we sit? Wouldn’t its lyrics stick in our throats like a fish bone? For us singing Mary’s song is less like singing a familiar Christmas carol and more like singing an unfamiliar, dissonant song. How can we, who are the wealthy of the world, sing Mary’s song without undermining our own lifestyles, our own political, economic, national interests and ideologies? We are not simply exiles in Babylon. We are Babylon. As the Psalmist moaned in Babylonian captivity, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” How can we sing Mary’s song in our own land?

We have sung the songs of pride and power, comfort and wealth far too long. We have sung the old familiar songs of Babylon about American exceptionalism, Battle hymns of the Republic, funeral dirges over flag draped coffins, Christmas consumerist carols, and TV commercial jingles. How do we sing Mary’s song of the poor?

We probably need a new voice, a new melody, a new perspective. Singing Mary’s song of the poor and lowly will call for a practice of reading the music identifying with the perspective of those indicted by her lyrics, those who benefit from the violence, militarism, oil hounding and hoarding, those who are comfortable with economic inequity, cheaper goods, and low pay that go with the interests of our wealthy empire, interests we most often support. It is my conviction that we white, wealthy North Americans need to read not just Mary’s song, but all of the Bible with the intentional awareness of our perspective as the dominant and privileged. Our tendency has been to too easily identify ourselves with the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless, the persecuted, the crucified. I’m convinced that the poor, vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed have an interpretive advantage when it comes to reading the Bible rightly. They share a common identity with Mary and her people.

This tendency to easily identify with the lowly and persecuted can also be found among white, North American Mennonites, who claim a heritage of social marginalization, simple living, and martyrdom. We proudly take this identity stance when relating to other Christians or in disassociating ourselves from the power and privilege inherent in the American empire. We are the marginalized, the exilic people, the persecuted, the martyrs. But, the reality is we have pretty much assimilated ourselves into the wider culture of the American empire. We are the rich, the proud, the powerful, and the privileged, those who Mary sings God will send away empty.

So, what I’m suggesting is to begin listening to Mary’s song and reading the Bible with an intentional awareness of our hermeneutic or interpretive lens of power and privilege. By that I mean that we intentionally practice a biblical reading strategy with eyes wide open to our own place of power and privilege in the world and how that affects our reading and the practice of our faith. Then, we will begin to notice how we spiritualize words like “poor” and “rich,” how we make texts about economic justice into issues of the heart alone, how we avoid the tough texts of the Bible that challenge our lifestyles, how we squeeze the Bible message into our own national ideologies. Reading the music of the Bible with an interpretive lens that recognizes our own position in the world can teach us how to sing a new song.

This new interpretive approach will mean reading Mary’s song and identifying with those who are on the top rather than the bottom, the haves rather than the have-nots, the powerful and not the weak, the dominant and not the dominated. It will mean reading the Exodus story from the perspective of Pharoah and Egypt, reading the taking of the land of Canaan remembering our ancestors who took Native land, reading the story of exile from the perspective of Babylon, the story of Jesus, and the church’s story through the eyes of the Roman Empire. It will mean reading with new eyes, singing Mary’s song in a new key.

Can we, as Howard Thurman suggests, “sing a new song, as difficult as it is…”Reading the Bible with a keen awareness of our own power and privilege could mean singing Mary’s song as a new song with an unfamiliar melody and “untried harmonies.” At first, the notes may warble and catch in our throat. But, reading from a new perspective, from the position of power and privilege, and singing in a new key, can emerge from growth and change in our minds, hearts, and spirits. In the wise words of Thurman, we “must fashion new words (and new perspectives) born of all the new growth of my life, my mind and my spirit.”

If we can sing Mary’s song in a new key, with a new accent, from a new perspective, and be able to remain in the tension and discord, if we can sing a new song in our brokenness as a powerful and privileged people, if we can allow its melody and lyrics to permeate to the bone, we may begin to change not only or identification, who we identify with in the song, but also our identity, who we are as persons and as a people in the economy of God.

I invite all of us to listen to and sing Mary’s song of the poor as a new song, as difficult as it is. We must sing Mary’s song of praise and prophetic imagination if we are to envision a different future, a new tomorrow for our dissonant and off key world. The prophet and mystic Howard Thurman can be our director:

I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before, that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God… Teach me, my Father, that I might learn with the abandonment and enthusiasm of Jesus, the fresh new accent, the untried melody, to meet the need of the untried morrow.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Spirit is Upon Me: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 4:14-30

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2011.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. When I hear those words from Isaiah my immediate thoughts turn to my early charismatic experiences. When I was a 19 year old, long haired Rock musician living in Los Angeles I went to a number of events that made me think that the Spirit of the Lord might be upon me. I had an older friend, Richard Gant, from LA City College who had studied for the priesthood. He was fired up about the Catholic charismatic movement that was burning back in the 60s. Richard dragged me off all across the LA area to various monasteries, cloisters, Jesus Freak gatherings, Teen Challenge, where I met the Christian gospel singer Andre Crouch, a Kathryn Kuhlman healing service, where I was called on stage, received the laying on of hands from Miss Kuhlman, and was “slain in the Spirit,” and attended a bunch of other charismatic and Pentecostal services.

At one charismatic meeting we were coached on how to speak in tongues and pray in the Spirit. As we kneeled in prayer the Pentecostal leaders suggested we stutter out some syllables in order to “prime the pump,” as it were. I told Richard I could easily fake speaking in tongues and upon doing so had an ecstatic experience. I also remember at that time listening to a tape on the story of Pentecost Richard had lent me and all of a sudden I hearing a loud wind rush through the apartment where our Rock group lived, like it was my own personal Pentecost. Richard baptized me into the wild world of the Spirit.

Was the Spirit upon me? Had I been anointed? What was the evidence? Speaking in tongues. Receiving laying on of hands. Being slain in the Spirit. Ecstatic and auditory experiences. Are these the signs of being anointed by the Spirit?

The prophet Isaiah proclaims The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and The Lord has anointed me. The prophet’s words fit in with what is known as the Servant of the Lord tradition. These texts in Isaiah speak of a Servant of the Lord, who at times appears to be Israel and at other times a prophetic or messianic figure. This Servant is, at times, a Suffering Servant who bears the people’s sin, brings salvation, and finally inaugurates the kingdom of God.

Isaiah speaks these Spirit-inspired words to Israel following the exile in Babylon. He offers the people a bold word of hope. In a surprising and even daring manner, the prophet takes on the role of the Servant of the Lord by saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” and “The Lord has anointed me.” Anointing with oil as a mark of the Spirit’s appointment and empowerment for a role and was usually reserved for judges, kings, and priests. The prophet Isaiah brazenly proclaims God’s anointing for a role fit for a messianic figure.

The role the prophet envisions fulfilling sounds a lot like the messianic kingdom has come. The Spirit’s anointing is not about speaking in tongues, ecstatic experiences or supernatural phenomena. The descriptions of the Servant’s work, the signs of the kingdom look more like some kind of social transformation ----bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, release to those in debtors’ prison, to proclaim the year of Jubilee, a time of social justice, and comfort for those who mourn.

These are images that reflect God’s coming reign that the messiah inaugurates. The prophet dares to envision his own anointing and empowerment by the Spirit as doing the work of God’s kingdom. In other words, in some sense, the prophet dares to see himself as having been anointed by the Spirit to engage in the messiah’s work, which focuses on the most vulnerable in society, the marginalized, poor, and oppressed. The prophet boldly dares to fulfill this role.

Jesus also dares to place himself in the role of the Servant of the Lord and the Messiah. When Jesus came to Nazareth, his hometown, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, a customary practice, like going to church on Sunday. Homeboy Jesus is asked to read from the prophets, possibly in a cycle of readings. He is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Remember this was before our modern Bible. Books of the Torah and Prophets were handwritten on separate scrolls.

Jesus just happens to read the chosen text for that particular day from the prophet Isaiah. He reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…” and so on and so forth. Notice how Jesus leaves out the part about “the day of God’s vengeance,” which I think is telling. Jesus hands the scroll back to the attendant and sits down, which is an indication that it’s time for the interpretation. Then he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

I’m not sure if everyone caught the meaning of Jesus’ interpretation of this text, because they were “amazed at his gracious words!” Now, I’ll have to admit that it’s nice to hear, “Great sermon preacher,” but sometimes if everyone likes your sermon it could mean that they really didn’t understand what in the world you were saying! Jesus continues his little sermon and clearly challenges his own people’s ethnocentricity, their puffed up pride in being God’s chosen people, which reflects a narrow vision of the messianic age and God’s reign.

And Jesus makes his case from their own scripture. He points to God’s compassion for a foreign widow and God’s healing of an enemy. In doing so, Jesus implies that instead of a messianic age when God’s vengeance will be poured out on their enemies, God’s liberating kingdom will look different. God’s reign is already evident in that all along God has loved, healed, and cared for the foreigner, stranger, and enemy as much as God has loved, healed, and cared for God’s own chosen people.

Now, they clearly understand the theme of his sermon! I can almost hear the people saying, “Shiver me timbers, dem is fightin’ woids!” Jesus’ homeboys are ready to take him on a long walk off a short cliff! At times good sermons can get you in trouble!

Jesus boldly dares to proclaim that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…” to do the messianic work of God’s reign. In the very person of Jesus the Isaiah prophecy has been fulfilled, not so much as a prediction of Isaiah, but in the manner of Isaiah. Like Isaiah, Jesus dares to take on the role of the messiah, who does the work associated with God’s kingdom; proclaiming, healing, liberating, comforting the least of these. In his ministry Jesus will liberate the oppressed, give sight to the blind, including religious people who just can’t seem to see, and live as if the time of God’s justice has already come. For this he had been anointed by the Spirit.

That is why we speak of Jesus as “the Christ.” Christ is not a cuss word or Jesus’ last name. It means “the anointed one.” Jesus was baptized, anointed by the Spirit for his messianic mission. He fulfilled the role of the Spirit-anointed Servant of God, the messiah. That is why he fulfills the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…”

There is a real sense in which we as Christians, as the messianic community, take on the role of the Servant of the Lord who does God’s kingdom work. To be a “Christ-ian,” an anointed one, is to have received the Spirit’s appointment and anointment for the work of God’s kingdom. Isn’t that what our baptism was all about? It wasn’t just so we could take a bath and get our names on the church membership role. In our baptism we dared to take on the role of a servant of the Lord. In our baptism we risked being appointed and anointed to do the work of the Messiah, to do the work of God’s kingdom. That’s the boldness of baptism. That’s the boldness we all need to say for ourselves, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me…”

That boldness, that daring to proclaim our own Spirit anointment and appointment will be for us to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation for the oppressed, and the time of God’s joyful justice.

What does that look like for us… today… in this place? What are the signs that we are anointed by the Spirit? For us it probably will not look like speaking in tongues or wild visions or ecstatic experiences. But, it will probably look deeper than charity for the poor from our own opulence and abundance, wider than offering our money to the poor detached from our presence. It will mean boldly taking the risk of building relationships with the vulnerable and marginalized in society. It will look like direct involvement in our communities, outside our own church structures. It will feel as uncomfortable as rubbing shoulders with those left out and dropped out, forgotten and forsaken, lost and lonely. It may smell of poverty and sickness.

Signs of the Spirit’s anointing at work will probably look less like a quick e-mail sent off to someone who is ill, depressed or lonely and more like a visit, a cup of soup, or anointing with oil for healing. It may sound like the giggle of a child you are watching play in your living room because her young mother is out looking for work. Or it could sound like the cheers of friends as they welcome an Occupy protestor released from jail.

And, praise be to God, it may just feel like our own already busy lives have been disrupted, disoriented and even turned upside down by our anointing as servants of God coming kingdom. It may feel like my life is not my own…but the Lord’s. And it could also feel like tears of joy streaming down our cheeks as lives are changed, as hope is renewed, as comfort blankets the mournful. It can feel like the oil of gladness poured upon us as a gift from doing what God has called us, empowered us, anointed us to do.

To boldly proclaim for ourselves that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us and has anointed us…” may just look a bit like…like the messiah has come. And my Advent friends…. he has!

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Prepare the Way! Mark 1:1-8

*This sermon was preached on the second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2011 at Zion Mennonite Churc, Hubbard, Oregon.

The senses come alive during this holiday season. The smell of burning candles rising into the air. The lights of the Christmas tree shimmering in the darkness. The warmth of a crackling fire while sipping a hot cup of chocolate with small marshmallows floating on top. Ahhhhhh… and the hushed silence of snowflakes gently falling on the...PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD! MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!!

John the Baptist enters the Advent season like a bull in a china closet. Amid the jingling of bells and carolers singing “Joy to the world,” we hear a cry that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. The grating voice of the Baptist disturbs our tender thoughts of a cooing baby in a makeshift crib. His ragged message of repentance seems as out of place as a wild eyed soup box preacher interrupting a presentation of Handel’s Messiah. John the Baptist brings strange gifts to our Advent table. Instead of a golden brown turkey, we get locusts with wild honey dip. In place of a new night robe and warm cotton lined slippers, we get scratchy camel’s hair with a leather belt.

Even so, if we are going to welcome the good news from the sweet voices of angels from on high, we will need to first listen to the raspy voice of John the Baptist crying out down there in the wilderness.

Listen…listen carefully to that distant voice crying out in the wilderness. The Baptist cries out for us to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. His voice echoes through the wilderness canyons. His apocalyptic cry has political overtones. In John’s day there were other prophets, like the one known as the Egyptian and is referred to in the book of Acts, who called the people of Israel out into the wilderness. It wasn’t because these prophets thought the desert might be a good place to spread their message. They cried out in the wilderness in a type of ritual reenactment of Moses’ deliverance of the slaves from Egypt through the wilderness and Joshua’s crossing the Jordan River in conquest of the Promised Land. Wilderness and river represented places of liberation from their oppressors and the possession of their land.

This may be the background of John’s prophetic wail in the wilderness. As Israel moans under the heavy weight of Roman imperialism, John the Baptist calls her out over the wilderness and through the river, the places where Israel was once liberated from the bonds of Egypt and took the land as their own. His cry in the wilderness may have been heard as an anticipation or preparation for liberation from Roman domination as the beginning of the coming reign of God. The symbolism of the setting was probably not lost on the politicians of the day, particularly king Herod. It wouldn’t be long for Herod to end a dinner date with John’s head on a dinner plate.

Words like “politics” “oppression,” “imperialism” and “liberation” are not words we necessarily want intruding into our Advent meditations. Who wants to hear the harsh voice of the Baptist howling, “Prepare the Way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”? We might more readily welcome his words if his announcement was akin to “O, you better watch out. You better not cry. Jesus Christ is coming to town!” You know what, when the words John quoted were first uttered, they did come as welcomed words. John was quoting the prophet Isaiah, who first spoke those words in the days of Israel’s captivity in Babylon. The imagery Isaiah uses is from the practice of clearing the pathway of a potentate or god in preparation for the ruler’s procession to the city in order to be inaugurated as the sovereign of the people.

Bumps were leveled. Potholes were filled. Rocks were removed. Weeds were pulled up. Crooked places were straightened for the ruler’s procession to his people. Isaiah uses this imagery to proclaim a word of hope to his people sitting with drooping faces and arms limp at their sides in Babylonian captivity. “Prepare the way for God, who comes to liberate you and lead you across the wilderness, where God will reign among you in your own land,” cries the prophet Isaiah. Now, that’s a welcome Advent message.

John uses Isaiah’s imagery to tell his people to prepare the pathway for the One who comes bringing salvation and liberation to the people. Prepare the way! Remove the injustices and inequities that block God’s pathway. Lift up those valleys sunken by despair and despondency. Knock down the haughty hills of pride and prejudice. Prepare the way for God, who comes bringing justice and liberation through the messiah.

I remember picking up an edition of The Marketplace, a Mennonite business magazine, and seeing on the cover a roadway full of poor, barefoot Haitians clearing stones from a dirt road. With hoes and hands they removed rocks, filled in holes, and knocked down bumps in the roadway. These roadways are the only route for bringing in food supplies, gaining access to medical facilities, and transporting products to market. The new smooth roads are a vein pumping life blood to some of the poorest people in the world. These roads are highways of hope. Mennonite business people have been about the business of preparing the way. They have helped the Haitian people fill in their valleys with fruit trees and improved springs of water. They have assisted them in smoothing out the rough places of 125 roads and 5 dilapidated bridges. The glory of the Lord has been revealed in the form of food, livelihood, and healing medicines coming down those smooth roadways. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!

This may not be the Advent message we were hoping to hear amid the consumerist clamor. It is the season to buy and consume, not to care for the poor and hungry. ‘Tis the season to be jolly and to trample over one another in order to be the first to get a bargain at the department store! We don’t need no sermons on liberation and caring for the poor, preacher. It’s not something we like to hear. What we need is a more cheery message during Advent.

When Gavin was 4 years old we were coming home from school and Iris asked Gavin if he had a good day. Gavin cheerfully said, “Everyone in the world had a good day.” Iris responded, “Well, not everyone had a good day. Some people are poor and don’t have anything to eat. You would’nt want to be without anything to eat, would you? Gavin came back, “I don’t need no sermon talk!” In other words, “Don’t preach to me your pious moralisms!” ‘Tis the season to be jolly! Who wants to hear “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” during Advent? I don’t need no sermon talk. Don’t preach to me your pious platitudes!

Many did not want to hear this kind of “sermon talk” from another Baptist of our own day---Martin Luther King, Jr. We resisted his prophetic words, because it meant changing our way of life. And it still does. Martin used the very words of Isaiah in his I have a Dream speech in at the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C. (Get the symbolism of the setting?) He was not there just to create a warm, fuzzy Kum-Ba-Yah moment with blacks and whites holding hands and singing in harmony. His speech was both a sharpened prophetic vision of the reign of God and a concrete political and spiritual call for an end to white racism, discrimination, and segregation.
Like the prophets Isaiah and John, Martin stood in the wilderness of racial inequality and proclaimed:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted,
Every hill and mountain shall be made low,
The rough places shall be made plain,
And the crooked places shall be made straight
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed
and all flesh will see it together.
I have a dream…

And for the messenger, like John the Baptist Martin would end up with his head on a platter, so to speak. Prepare a way for the Lord! Make his paths straight! Do we really want to hear this tough message during Advent? Do we want to listen to some cranky old voice denouncing racism when in our day we have an African-American president? Is the old sad song of antiracism what we want to hear when white racism seems to be an anachronism to many people today, a thing of the past? Aren’t we now a post-racial nation? Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! It’s seems such an intrusive message into this Advent season.

What makes the message so intrusive is that it calls for us to change. Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand! Change the direction of your lives! It sounds so guilt-producing. It seems such a negative message for Advent. In our seeker-sensitive-megachurch-consumer-oriented-self-absorbed-war-is-okay-until-it-becomes-inconvenient-culture words like “sin” and “repent” and “redemption” go over like a lead balloon.

This attitude is reflected in a Doonesbury comic strip. The “Reverend” is explaining to a couple inquiring about church membership about the basic approach of his Little Church on Walden:

Reverend: I like to describe it as 12-step Christianity. Basically I believe we’re all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial, its about recommitment, about redemption. It’s all in the brochure there.

Wife: Wait a minute---sinners? Redemption? Doesn’t that imply guilt?

Husband: I dunno, there’s so much negativity in the world as it is.

Wife: That’s right. We’re looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.

Husband: On the other hand, you do offer racketball.

Wife:So do the Unitarians, honey. Let’s shop around some more.

John’s abrasive message is part of Advent. Do we have Advent ears open to hear what he is really saying? Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand! The dominion of heaven is near! The age of God’s reign is just around the corner. The time is coming when God will cut down the trees of self-centeredness and injustice at the root. The season is at hand when peace and hope will bud and bloom. The day when war and violence shall forever cease is upon us. The hour when we will be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character is at the doorstep.

As the streets are decorated with wreaths and fake snow is prayed on windows, the time is close at hand. As we make our shopping list and check it twice, the kingdom is coming! As we decorate the tree with lights and get out the Christmas recipes, the reign of God has a foot in the door. So, prepare a way for the Lord! Make his paths straight!

If we’re going to prepare the way for the coming reign of God, we better get started now. Grab a hoe. Get a shovel. Fill in a pothole. Level the road. Pick up a rock. Pull up a weed. Volunteer to feed the hungry. Work on a project for peace. Dismantle white racism. Let go of some of your privileges and possessions. Welcome a stranger. Visit a prisoner. For God’s dominion has already begun. God is coming down the highway of this wilderness world. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!

The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas reminds us that the coming reign of God we prepare the way for is already here:

(Jesus’) disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather the kingdom (of God) is spread out upon the earth, and (people) do not see it.”

From the baptismal waters John cried out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” It was nearer than even John could imagine. But, thanks be to God, he had Advent eyes to see. For the road sign pointing to God’s reign stepped into the muddy waters of the Jordan river right next to him. He opened his eyes and looked at Jesus, stepping into the muddy Jordan River and said, “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The Messiah of God’s dominion has come. Do we have Advent eyes to see even now God’s reign is spread out across this wilderness world?

Look. A Mexican woman meets with Mennonite leaders and teaches them how to understand other races and cultures in order to treat them with equity. Look. Soldiers are packing their camouflage duffle bags in Afghanistan and unloading their weapons. An army airplane hums outside their tent. It’s taking them home. Listen. The chatter of people waiting in line sounds like a Christmas carol. A doctor is spooning some stuffing into the plate of a homeless woman at the shelter. He does this every year during his vacation time. Listen. Children shout and laugh as water gushes from a newly built pump just finished in their village. Listen….listen closely…can you hear it? A distant coyote is howling in the wilderness and a faint voice is crying out…Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight.