Tuesday, December 22, 2009

[unpreached sermon #9] We Light the Candle of Peace Today

Advent 2C - December 6, 2009
Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6
We Light the Candle of Peace Today

I find it a little ironic that this is the Sunday of Peace, having read through the week's daily lectionary with lots of passages of wrath and judgment.  It's also weird because today's Sunday lectionaries are all about preparing the way for the coming savior -- oh, and Paul saying nice things about the Philippians.  "Peace" is not a theme I would intuitively extract from this set of readings.

So, when I can't figure out what to do with the lectionary, I go back and summarize each text.

First, we have Malachi, which has two parts.  One, a messenger is coming to prepare the way of God.  Two, the coming of God will be purifying like a refiner's fire purifying silver.

Next, we have the first of two passages from Luke.  This first is what is known as the Canticle of Zechariah.

Again, it's in two parts.  God has honored the covenant of old and shown mercy on us, sending us a savior.  And you, child, shall be the prophet who comes before this savior, telling the people of their salvation.  Dawn from on high will break upon us, giving light to those who sit in darkness, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.

Third is the epistle in which Paul praises the Philippians, longs to be with them, and prays that they may continue to grow in love and insight.

And fourth, the opening of the third chapter of Luke.  At a particular socio-historical moment, under imperial rule, the word of God came to John in the wilderness, and we hark back to the prophet Isaiah -- prepare the way of the Holy One; everything will be smoothed out, and "and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."

So what do I do with all this?

I was tempted to just ignore the Epistle because it doesn't really seem to fit (and who besides me preaches on all four lectionary texts, anyway?) -- but I'm stubborn and perverse, so this actually made me want to focus on the Epistle more.

There's a song that goes, "the one who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it."  I've always found it a bit of a weird song, but of course it gets in my head every time I read this lectionary passage this week, so I've been thinking about it.

We are works in progress.

And God has begun good works, which God will complete.  Both events to which Advent is looking forward -- the Christ child and the eschatological Second Coming -- are not about wiping something out and starting afresh but rather about bringing something to its fullest fruition and completion.

The refiner's fire that Malachi speaks of takes mineral from the earth and turns it into something you can make into a work of art or function (or both) -- order out of chaos.  I was telling Tiffany on our Advent planning call that in reading the lectionary texts this year, I found myself troubled by that classic Isaiah quotation -- "Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low..." -- because on a literal level I don't like the idea of all the landscape variation being erased; but that on a metaphorical level it can still resonate with me -- the rough ways shall be made smooth.

So, we are preparing the way of God.  What does that mean?  Does that mean a carpet of palm fronds like the crowds on Palm Sunday?  The triumphal king enters the Holy City, the dwelling place of God, on a donkey, and comes not to overthrow the occupying imperial powers or even the temple authorities but rather willingly gives himself (herself) up to be executed by the authorities.

In their book The First Christmas, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan talk about the imperial environment into which Jesus was born.  The Roman Empire wanted peace, too, and succeeded -- the Pax Romana.  Except that was peace through violence -- not true peace at all, but merely a lull.

The peace that Jesus is about is peace through justice.  Where relationships are not defined by nonconsensual power-over but rather where we are all gathered together at an abundant table with FAMILY -- and not the family of origin which is so fraught for many of us, but family of choice.  God has chosen each one of us -- named us and claimed us, declaring us the Beloved.

And we are called to help bring about that peace.

When I read the Canticle of Zechariah I get as far as, "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High," and I remember Tiffany preaching on how we are ALL called to be messengers of the Most High [I suspect I'm remembering this].

In continuing to think about what it means to help bring about this promised peace, I am also reminded of one of Marla's favorite phrases: "we make the road by walking." I think I first heard this when she preached on the David and Goliath story this past June.  She talked about how there's a lot that's really problematic in that text -- Goliath trash-talks David and David gives it right back, talking about the destruction he is going to rain down on the Philistines.  Not exactly modeling an ethic of "love your enemy" and abundant table fellowship. But she pointed out that there's also the stuff about how the Israelites try to clothe David in armor and none of it fits him.

David is victorious despite not because of the assistance of the powers of the world.

Personally, I'm really big on working within the system; but it's also good for me to be reminded that the systems of the world are not God's system.

We are called to do this work -- knowing that God is bringing Creation to full fruition rather than destroying and starting over, strengthened by the assurance that this broken world will be redeemed.

So let us go forth, to prepare the way of peace -- to make that road by walking it.


Monday, December 21, 2009

"But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be."

Tiffany's weekly email Saturday night included:
This week at CWM we will hold a quiet meditative service focusing on the Magnificat, Mary's song of joy.

Please stay safe during the impending storm. While we will have services at CWM, we encourage you to stay warm and safe.
There were ultimately 7 of us gathered (including the pastor).

We did a group conversation Reflection like we've been doing in Advent Bible Study.  The Scripture was Luke 1:26-56.

We talked about the issue of whether Mary consents.  We talked about how even if it was a rape (either the Divine acting without Mary's consent or Mary being raped and inventing this story as a cover), something so redemptive comes out of that (which doesn't deny the horror of that, but also speaks to the transformative power of love).  I said that I am so invested in my idea of a benevolent God that I have to see her as having consented -- that if she had said no, Gabriel would have chosen someone else, and that I see in Mary a modeling of radical openness to God, an affirmation that even when things seem so strange and frightening we can trust God.

We talked about how Mary is really prophetic in the Magnificat and how that subverts the traditional ideas of her as meek and submissive.  We talked about how in opposition to the Fall narrative which blames Eve, all of this redemption starts with women (Elizabeth, Mary).  Carolyn cited the "he abhors not the Virgin's womb" line (from "O Come, All Ye Faithful") and talked about how that really resonated for her about pushing back against the idea that women's bodies are bad and cause people to sin and etc.; Marla countered that it feels to her like setting apart virgin!Mary as special and different from all other women (thus reifying the trope that female bodies are bad/sinful).  We talked about the question of whether people believed Mary's story (Carolyn said, "I bet her best friend believed her," and Marla said, "I'm not sure I would believe my best friend if she told me that story").  We talked about how Mary stays three months at Elizabeth's and so she comes home great with child and doesn't that make her story look even more discreditable and why does Joseph believe her -- I said, "Matthew sends him an angel," but of course we were in the Luke story.

We talked about how the Magnificat comes after Mary has gone to see Elizabeth and after Elizabeth has rejoiced and affirmed her.  (At the end, Tiffany asked us what we would take with us from this for the coming week, and I said for me I would take that with me, that reminder that within the beloved community we can find love and joy even in the midst of events that are so scary and confusing.)  We talked about the possibility that Mary hadn't really accepted it until she talked to Elizabeth, and my tellings-and-retellings self suggested that maybe she went to this hill country town to abort the baby (maybe she had just been placating the angel ... how does one know if an angel is truly from God anyway?) and changed her mind after seeing Elizabeth.

"Welcome, Yule."

Friday night, I went to Revels with my mom.  I had basically zero expectation, but I actually enjoyed it a lot.

It opens with an excerpt from "Black Elk Speaks" -- "Black Elk's Vision," about Black Elk's vision of the Tree of Life (I thought of Revelation, of course).  At one point he's tending the [invisible] tree and a little white boy asks him what he's doing and he tells him and asks the boy, "Do you see the tree?" and the little white boy says no, and Black Elk says something like, "Well I guess I'll have to try harder," which I found so powerful (hi, I am a child of CWM, where we are so about embodying God's Kindom here on Earth).

At one point, a little girls asks him what his people do in the winter, and he tells her that they gather together inside and tell stories.  She says something like, "We do that, too.  I like stories," and I almost cried.  Though I almost-cry like all the freaking time these days.

I was a little disturbed by the representation of Native people/culture.  In part because when they were in groups they were usually (a) in full-body costumes that hide their faces, which felt a little dehumanizing/Othering to me (though it also meant I didn't have the visual squick of White people playing Native Americans) and (b) felt like an interlude passing through, without real connection either to the other characters on the stage or to the narrative as a whole.

And after a point at which Black Elk is lamenting that the Tree is withering, he sees white kids finishing a Tree of Life quilt and asks them the story of it, and they tell a weird folk tale about pregnant!Mary and a cherry tree, and most of the rest of the Second Act is Christmas music. I mean, I know it's called "The Christmas Revels" (the "In Celebration of the Winter Solstice" subtitle notwithstanding) but I felt a little bit like the subtext was, "The Tree of Life is Jesus Christ -- Native Americans couldn't keep that Tree alive; it takes Christ[ianity] to make that happen."  I mean, I do think in some ways that the story of Jesus Christ is The Greatest Story Ever Told -- that God incarnated, enfleshed God's self, dwelt among us amidst the marginalized people, proclaimed an open and abundant table to all, endured death and triumphed over IT, resurrecting in body and spirit, promising the same (present and future) hope for us -- Christ stands between us and the powers of darkness, assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  But at the same time, it feels problematic to me to imply "our story is the culmination of your story."

There were a bunch of parts where we sang along (the last song before Intermission was "Lord of the Dance," and we sang the chorus, and as they exited into the atrium, they brought the people sitting in the front rows with them, dancing).  The guy leading us in that, as he had us practice, said: "I love harmony.  There are no wrong notes, just poor choices in the moment.  And then we move on to the next moment, with new choices."