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Two weeks ago our family was in Charleston, SC. We’d planned some time to break up our drive to Orlando with some distractions for our kids. Of course it was hot and humid. When our children were covered in ice cream and soaked in sweat, we headed off the main streets and over to Waterfront Park. It took about three seconds for my fully clothed children to jump into the fountain along with twenty other children.
Since then I’ve wondered if the 87-year old Susie Jackson brought her children and her grandchildren to play in this same fountain. I’ve wondered if she sat on that very same bench where I sat, just a few blocks from her church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal.
How different things are two weeks later. A sudden storm blew over Charleston, a chaos of violence and hatred. Two weeks after that storm claimed Susie Jackson’s life and the lives of eight of her fellow worshipers inside a place that she considered sanctuary, a place that was her own.
Ms. Jackson reminds me of the disciples in today’s Gospel text. They also knew about storms. We find them with Jesus on the shores of the sea. He has finished his teaching on the kingdom of God. He is no doubt exhausted from the crowds and preaching, and he is ready to cross to the other side of the Galilee. With him are former fishermen, men Jesus called from their work on this very lake, from boats just like the one they are in. These are men who knew the varieties of clouds and signs of danger in the wind, men who knew the difference between a terrible storm and a storm that would kill.
If the disciples knew their fishing ground, each inlet and fishing season, then Susie Jackson knew her church just as well. Ms. Jackson was a trustee of Emanuel AME, and a member of the choir. And she showed up for Bible study almost every Wednesday night.
While Ms. Jackson was not expecting the storm that erupted inside her church, she was no stranger to bad weather. Her life is a reminder that racism is not a storm quelled over time. Instead, it ebbs and flows. Ms. Jackson lived racism that was overt, and racism that went underground. She lived through Jim Crow segregation. She lived through the Tuskegee experiments. And in her late 70s Ms. Jackson lived in a country where 1 in 6 black men are incarcerated. In her 80s Ms. Jackson saw the number of hate groups in South Carolina grow to 19. In neighboring North Carolina that number ballooned to 24.
Yes, our black brothers and sisters know about storms.
The storm at Emanuel AME on Wednesday night is devastating. To know that the welcome and hospitality of this small group of brothers and sisters was met with such ferocious hostility. To imagine the heartbreak of those left behind. To think about those who will go to worship this morning, reflexively looking with fear at the stranger next to them. I cannot help but echo the words of the disciples who scramble against the waves as Jesus lies asleep in the boat. Do you not care? Do you not care that we are perishing? I want to wake this Jesus up. With the disciples, with my brothers and sisters at Emanuel, I want to scream at Jesus to wake up, to pay attention. Doesn’t he see that we are in trouble?
But I read something that convicted me of my desire to bring this prayer to God. These words were written by Crystal Lewis, a graduate student at Wesley Theological Seminary. She writes:
“I continue in this day of sadness and bewilderment with a heavy heart and with the conviction that we religious folks may, perhaps, need a moratorium on our talks with God— for a short time at least.
I understand, my religious friends and colleagues, how desperately you desire to pray, given the tragic nature of last night’s events. However, I have run out of prayers and only desire to ask you: Will you instead talk face-to-face with someone about white supremacy and racism? Are you willing to start a conversation about what the world needs in order to move forward in peace?
Is it possible that our prayers for God to somehow “fix” the world seem unheard because we don’t yet see ourselves as the answers to those prayers? And if so, how do we change our faulty perspective?”
Ms. Lewis challenges us to claim the power to calm seas that Jesus gives to the church. In her words I am reminded that in the Gospel of John Jesus tells his followers that they will do even greater acts than he. The body of Christ that is here now, the way that God will confront racism in our country, is through you and me.
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever,” says Jesus. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
We can boldly be Christ’s body for one another because we know that none of us is the savior. That work has been done. Jesus has accomplished bringing about the salvation of world. We are invited participate in the kingdom of God that is already here. We may be patterned after this Jesus who has chosen us as his body, has sent his Spirit to empower us, to bind us together, to silence the winds.
But I am reminded that, though we are one body, we have different work to do within this body. Many of us long for reconciliation. A few nights ago some of us here gathered to pray with others from Durham at St Joseph’s AME. At the end of that time locked arms and joined together in singing “We Shall Overcome.” We long to look at one another and say we are one.
As I read the Gospel text this week I was reminded that before Jesus rebuked the storm he had to wake up. Before he could confront the chaos that was surrounding them, beating down on them, threatening to take their lives he woke up. As Christ’s body on earth empowered by the Holy Spirit we can rebuke this storm, but before we can do the work of silencing this chaos we have to wake up.
This week my black brothers and sisters have told me that white Christians have work to do. What they have asked me to hear is that racism will continue to be news to the black community long after it falls off the national news cycle. They have asked us to wake up.
Waking up means we know how we got to this place. Waking up means truth-telling is a prerequisite to reconciliation. For those of us who call the Methodist church our home this begins with the very origins of racism in our church. Waking up means being truthful even with the painful parts of our past.
We have to know our past. We need to know how early Methodism’s anti-slavery resolve faltered under the thriving slave trade in America. We need to know that the African Methodist Episcopal Church resisted racism in the Methodist Church, what one writer describes as an “act of holy defiance.” The AME was founded in 1760 by Richard Allen who was born a slave in Philadelphia. After he purchased his freedom, Allen became an evangelist.
He worshiped at St George’s Methodist Church. Segregation was enforced both in and outside the walls of the church, and black and white parishoners had their own seating areas in the sanctuary. During this time the growing number of black worshippers began to worry white parishoners. One Communion Sunday a black man named Absalom Jones sent these worried white folk over the edge when he responded to the call to repentance. He wanted to kneel at the rail. He came down from the segregated galley and got to his knees. Panicked murmurs filled the sanctuary before he was yanked to his feet by a white trustee. Allen left, vowing never to return. He formed a church called Bethel Church for Negro Methodists. It is likely the first black church meeting in the United States.
In the same way Mother Emanuel AME was a response to racism in the Methodist church. Mother Emanuel AME was founded by black Methodists who left their church over the decision of their white-majority elder board to pave a garage over top of their black cemetery. Among those who joined them was a freed slave named Denmark Vesey who, in his spare time violated the city ordinance by teaching other black women and men how to read and write. Authorities raided Mother Emanuel and shuttered it after declaring it a school for slaves. Vesey later organized a failed slave rebellion out of the church. In response the town burned it to the ground. It was rebuilt by Vesey’s son until the city outlawed all-black churches in 1834.
Waking up also means self-examination of our contemporary stories, analyzing the systems in which we operate today, looking to see the ways in which the past is not past. What would it look like to ask our black friends and neighbors to name for us the ways they see racism operating in their schools and churches and workplaces and neighborhoods? What would it look like to learn the racial history of our city? What would it look like to participate in conversations about race, opening ourselves up to the uncomfortable possibility that we are more complicit in racism than we thought we were?
As I thought about being the body of Christ, of Jesus gift of the Advocate, it also made me wish Jesus was here. A few weeks ago we celebrated Ascension Day, the day we remember when the resurrected Jesus returned to the Father. In the Amish church this is the most important day of the year, but it is also a day of mourning. No one works and every person who can fasts. I’ve wondered if the reason for this tradition is that we long for Jesus. We long for a Jesus who can fix this. We long for the Jesus who can feed the hungry simply by breaking bread. We long for the Jesus who can remedy illness with a touch. We long for the Jesus who could end this storm with a word.
Instead Jesus promises us that he has given us everything we need. The Spirit working through us is enough. We together as Christ’s body are enough. What Jesus has done, what Jesus has defeated is enough. What we have been given is enough to confront the hard truths of our past, enough to navigate the complicated relationships and questions of our present, and enough to hope for a future where we can live the truth that “we are one.”
I mentioned that on Friday night some of us gathered at St. Joseph’s AME church as we were led in prayer by pastors from around our city. We sang and wept and read Scripture together. One of the pastors, I can’t remember who, prayed these words, “You didn’t say hell would not come against your Kingdom… you said it would not prevail. Help us to remember that.”
We are in the middle of a storm, brothers and sisters. It is a storm of racism and it has claimed the lives of nine more of God’s beloved, nine more who join us in making up Christ’s body. Hear their names:
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Rev. Sharonda Singelton
Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. Daniel Simmons
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Docter
O Lord, You didn’t say hell would not come against your Kingdom… you said it would not prevail. Help us to remember that. Help us to live it. Wake us up.
I was at a reading group this morning where someone brought up the issue of how we preach against patriarchy, both in overt forms like domestic violence but also in the more subtle forms of self-sacrifice. I remembered preaching a sermon on domestic violence, knowing this is a topic not always preached from the pulpit. Here it is from a ways back.
Nehemiah 8 (Epiphany, Year C)
Raleigh Moravian Church
If you have regular interaction with a young child, a niece or nephew, grandchild, neighbor, son or daughter, you probably have a lot of experience with forgiveness. I would define much of my life right now as a laboratory. In this laboratory the boundaries of rules and the boundaries of my patience are tested hourly. Living with a preschooler and toddler reminds me that most of the time forgiveness is a well-worn path upon which we go back and forth, over and over again. There is an infraction. The rule broken is addressed. Punishment is dealt. Forgiveness is granted. And life resumes as normal.
Now I don’t want to disparage this process. There’s a lot to say about this ritual of forgiveness. The fact that we have to do it so often really is a testament to the power of love, even when the offense occurs over and over again. We readily forgive, because we love the offender.
We see something similar happening in today’s Old Testament reading. We are placed in the middle of a scene that requires some context. So here’s what’s been going on. For seventy years the people of Israel had been living under the occupation of Babylon. When the Babylonians swept in they destroyed the Temple, the most important place of worship for the Israelites. Now, this wasn’t an ordinary church. The Temple was required for Israel to worship God. It was a very big deal.
Not only that, all the people who helped organize society, the priests, kings, prophets, teachers, all those folks were sent into exile. Everyday people were left behind to figure things out on their own. But with no Temple, and no access to the law of Moses, the people of God started to integrate themselves into the rest of Babylonian society. They didn’t witness to God’s love and provision. They didn’t remember the stories of the past. Instead, they started to do what everyone else around them did. They did this for seventy years. An entire generation passed by.
At the seventy-year mark the politics changed. A new super power emerged – the Persian Empire. The Persians had a different strategy when it came to ruling over foreign peoples. They allowed everyone to go back to their places of origin and to rebuild their old places of worship. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about this return, and about the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple.
In today’s Scripture we find the people of God in their newly rebuilt capital. The Temple has been restored. The elders and priests have returned. The people are gathered to hear the law of Moses read allowed. These are the books of the Bible that contain the history and rules of community life, those things that set the Israelites apart from the nations around them. There was a time of explanation of the laws in case anything went over their heads. And when the people finally get it, when they hear how they were supposed to have acted over the past seventy years, they weep.
When I first read this passage I was surprised that the Israelite’s reaction wasn’t fear. Now, the law of Moses is pretty clear that there are serious consequences to not following God’s rules. Yet, despite this, the words used to describe Israel’s reaction are not words of fear. They are words often used in the Bible to describe mourning at funerals. This same word is used to describe Joseph’s reaction to seeing his starving brothers kneeling before him in Egypt asking for food. These are words of deep emotion – regret, sadness, and loss.
What happens next may sound surprising to those of us who have a particular idea about God’s character in the Old Testament. God doesn’t bring the hammer. Despite decades of disobeying the law there is no fire and brimstone. Instead, Nehemiah tells the people to stop their weeping. This day is holy, set apart, he tells them. Instead of mourning they are to rejoice. They are to eat the richest foods they can find. They are to drink the sweetest drinks they can make. And then they are to give out portions of this food to those who don’t have any. Do not grieve, he tells them. God’s gladness over your return to him is a hiding place from your grief. It is a shelter from the distress and sadness that comes from discovering that you have hurt one who loves you and cares for you.
There’s something really wonderful about that. And if we stopped reading right here we’d have one idea about what forgiveness looks like. We can imagine that God wipes the slate clean. Forgive and forget. Let bygones be bygones. All’s well that ends well.
But if we follow the text a little ways further we’ll see that this isn’t the end of the story for Israel. In fact, there’s a lot more mending that needs to happen to make things right. And it isn’t easy. First, the Israelites have to face the past full on. They have to remember God’s never-ending, world-altering love for them. They have to come face to face with how deeply they had betrayed this love.
The Israelites also had to change the way they lived in real, practical ways. They had to change their marriage practices. They committed to the economic burden of no longer selling or buying grain on the Sabbath. They agreed not to grow crops the entire seventh year, and to forgive debts as the law of Moses required. Life as they knew it would never be the same. God had forgiven but intrinsic to this forgiveness was remembering and repenting in tangible ways.
What I hope we hear in today’s Scripture, in this snapshot of God’s forgiveness from so long ago, is that forgiveness doesn’t always look like just one thing. Some forgiveness looks like a father to a toddler, consistent return and reconciliation. But some forgiveness can be hard and it can be costly. It can be rooted in a kind of remembering that causes upheaval.
Dr. Halee Gray Scott knows exactly what this is like. In her article in Relevant magazine Scott describes how she came to this realization. It came at the end of an early relationship with a young man that she describes in this way: it was “something like the nightlock berries in the Hunger Games—sweet, a little bitter and toxic. We had chemistry and a lot in common, so when it was good, it was really good. But when it was bad, it was a disaster.” Dr Scott was the victim of an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship. Women, and occasionally men in relationships like these are called names, are publically humiliated by their partner, or are criticized, demeaned and judged into submission.
Other forms of domestic abuse take on a more violent form. I read a story this week about a smart, young Harvard grad who fell in love with a charming young man. It was on their honeymoon that he first attacked her after she got lost on the highway. He hit her so hard that her head slammed into the driver’s side window. She dismissed the event, justifying it by saying that he was stressed out. But eventually the abuse became routine. It took one particularly terrifying incident that concluded with a visit from the police before she said enough is enough.
Leslie Steiner became part of a frighteningly large group. Depending on the study you look at there are between 1.3 – 2 million women who are physically assaulted each year by an intimate partner. Some studies show that domestic violence of this kind is the leading cause of injury among women ages 15 to 44—more than car accidents, muggings and rape combined. It will take women in situations like these six to ten attempts to leave a partner for good. And every day three women will die at the hands of their abusers.
But often times good Christian women find themselves in a bind when it comes to facing a situation of domestic abuse. And the church all too often becomes and accomplice in their terror. After all, we reason, aren’t we called to forgive? Doesn’t Jesus explicitly say we are to turn the other cheek? Isn’t forgiveness required seventy times seven?
In the face of these questions I am thankful for the ways in which Nehemiah complicates our ideas about forgiveness. He reminds us that forgiveness can be a difficult and life-changing road. What we find is that forgiveness doesn’t nullify the consequences of sin. Neither is forgiveness synonymous with reconciliation. Dr Scott explains how “In the case of domestic abuse, the relationship between two people has been irreparably ruptured because trust has been violated. Though studies on domestic violence are rare, the patterns of violence are so deeply ingrained that most experts agree that very few perpetrators will actually change. We can forgive another person and even, in a sense, be at peace with them without a full restoration of the relationship.”
Yes, forgiveness can be a difficult road, a road marked by painful choices and life changes for all parties. For some it will mean confronting the past, holding memory up as a shield. It may mean that the routine of life, what seems normal and regular is upset. Forgiveness may be the end of a much longer journey.
The reality is that someone here today needs to know that he or she does not deserve to bullied or hit. I want to believe it isn’t true, but the statistics say that 1 in 4 women will find themselves in an abusive relationship at some point. Domestic abuse isn’t limited to a specific age group, race, economic bracket, or gender. But there are common factors within domestic abuse, and one of those factors is isolation. Abusers thrive on isolation, believing that those who witness or experience abuse will refuse to stand up or speak out.
We as a church need to do better than that. And this brings us to the second Scripture we heard today, the moment when Jesus stands before everyone in the synagogue and pulls out the scroll of Isaiah. And there before them he proclaimed what is at the core of this kingdom he came to bring about: “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Yes, friends, to let the oppressed go free.
For those in our congregation who do find themselves in relationships of humiliation, degradation, and violence – you may feel alone, but you are not alone. And I promise there is another life waiting for you. It may not feel like that now. It may feel like there is so much holding you back. But there is a God who has set this people in motion to walk down that long, difficult road with you. This is the God who rejoices in your very being, who wants to make himself a shelter for your grief.
That love is incarnate in real and practical ways here at Raleigh Moravian. That love is among us is in the form of our Stephen Ministers. These are men and women who are being trained to help each of us along the difficult terrain of life changes, like moving out of an abusive relationship. Craig, Fran, and I are also ready to walk with you, to help you locate the resources of safe housing, counseling, and support that you will need to begin the new life God has waiting for you.
May we all find the wisdom, strength, and courage to do the work God has given us to do.
Duke Memorial UMC
May 17, 2015
My friend Marilyn sees the world in black and white. There’s out there and there’s in here.
Out there are institutions, faceless, nameless institutions for people with intellectual disabilities. Out there low-paid shift workers are in constant turnover. Out there Marilyn has a caseworker. She’s another file, one of hundreds piled on the desk of her huge-hearted, pure as gold, but completely overburdened social worker. Out there Marilyn is a clinical diagnosis, a Medicaid waiver, a problem to be solved.
But in here Marilyn is a gift. In here is a community called L’Arche. Here Marilyn is a core person, a person who makes up the center of our life together in L’Arche. She loves to buy me Starbucks mugs she finds on sale for 50 cents at the Goodwill. She’s a devout Catholic who goes to Mass as often as she can. In here Marilyn is a beloved sister, daughter, and friend.
When I hear these words Jesus prays for his disciples I think about Marilyn:
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
In today’s Gospel reading we hear the prayer Jesus prays for the disciples before his betrayal and crucifixion. It’s a prayer for them, and it’s a prayer for us. It’s a prayer about what it’s going to be like now, when the doubts come rushing back in, when Jesus’ risen body disappears, into the clouds, without a trace. It’s a prayer for those of us who are still here, still figuring out what we do in this messy, complicated, beautiful, terrifying, broken world.
And this world is complicated. The “world” shows up a lot in the Gospel of John. In this prayer we hear that the world the disciples will face is fearful and painful. It’s a place marked by conflict and persecution. Chris Hoke in his book Wanted helps us get a better grasp of what Jesus might have meant about being hated by the world. You may remember Chris came here last month for a book reading. Well Chris spends a lot of time with people who don’t seem to fit in to the world. Gang members, inmates, street people. And in one chapter he talks about a Bible study he does with homeless street kids, gutter punks who hang out at this free clinic on Monday nights. He’s reflecting on how the examples these kids give of how they have experienced “the world.” Chris writes,
“I was struck by how their examples were not stories of being wronged by individuals, necessarily. They didn’t seem to be complaining about the anonymous employee who locked them in the dumpster, for instance…. They all gave examples of general procedures, policies put in place to deal with unwanted people.”
I think that my friend Marilyn would have a similar definition for the world. The world is a way to deal with the unwanted, the broken, the people who can’t keep up.
For Jesus’ followers, being in the world was going to be rough. And it has been. Some of you may know that I am a licensed minister in the Mennonite Church. Mennonites have a strong sense of being separated from the world. First this was because of persecution. Over time if became a choice to separate from the world.
Some Mennonites take this idea of being hated by the world into the very clothes that they wear. It’s a way to identify the visible church. It shows you who is in and who is out.
If we’re honest, our experience of the world is not that simple. It’s not as easy as identifying someone by her cape dress. We don’t get a line that divides “out there” and “in here.”
In fact a lot of us get along pretty well in the world. We can keep up with the pace. We can make it in the system. We have the right social networks and safety nets and retirement plans.
Jean Vanier is someone who knew how to make it in the system. He had a career, first in the navy then as professor of philosophy. Until one day he felt God calling him to live with the poor. The problem was that he’d been in the world for so long that he didn’t exactly know where to find the poor. So he went his priest and asked him, “where do I find the poor?”
In the 1960s the answer was in institutions for the mentally ill and the disabled, horrific places of abuse and squalor. With no training, no experience, nothing but a call to somehow figure out how to be in this world but not of this world, Vanier took three men out of the institution and lived with them in a home. That was the first L’Arche community.
For a while Vanier was consumed with wanting to “do something” for these men. But after a while, after eating together and caring for another, they became friends. They learned together to see the brokenness in one another and the way that God was transforming them.
What I love about L’Arche is that it doesn’t make sense in the world. It’s not a place where we “do something” for someone else. No one is rehabilitated. No one becomes a good citizen. No one becomes a productive member of society. But people are healed. They are healed of loneliness and busyness.
One of my strongest memories of L’Arche was how long it took to make dinner. Our core people would return from their job sites in the late afternoon and it was already time to start cooking. For one, we had a lot of people to feed. Four core people, three assistants, a few volunteers, a friend from the neighborhood who happened to stop by. But what also took time was that we cooked as a community. We didn’t cook for our core people, we cooked with them. It took time to find out a role for the people who were helping. It took creativity to think about how chopping and simmering and setting the table could involve even the people who couldn’t use their hands.
It wasn’t efficient. To the world it looks like a waste of time with a people who put a drain on society. But to God it looks like the kingdom.
I often wonder if that’s the reason the people who chose to be near Jesus were the people who couldn’t make it work in the system. They were outsiders, sinners, sex workers and tax collectors and shepherds and children. These were people who didn’t matter, people who would get run over or left behind if they couldn’t keep up. These people saw that Jesus was offering something different. Maybe it just made sense to them what Jesus was trying to do. Here they saw someone else who didn’t seem to operate in the system.
For a while I worked at a university in Oregon. One of my jobs was to set college graduates up with a year or two of volunteer service. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps had the very best slogan of all the programs. “Ruined for life.” They knew that the kinds of experiences, the kinds of relationships, and the kinds of time wasting they were setting up for young college grads would ruin them. These young people wouldn’t be able to go back to the system and live in it in the same way. They’d be ruined for it. Instead, they were ruined for life.
Being ruined for life means that the world as you knew it gets upended. Graduates from JVC begin to doubt. They begin to doubt that the story of upward mobility and excellence is a good story.
Someone else was ruined for life after a chance meeting after an encounter with the people of L’Arche. In 1985, after serving on the faculties of the University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School, and Harvard Divinity School, Dr. Henri Nouwen packed his bags for Richmond Hill, Ontario to become the assistant to Adam. Nouwen traded lecture halls and famous pulpits to sit beside a young man who couldn’t speak or walk. He fed Adam, bathed him, prayed beside him.
To the world it looked like a waste of time, a waste of money, a waste of the gifts of intellect God had given Nouwen. But that’s not how he saw it. Nouwen instead was ruined for life. About his time with his housemates in L’Arche Nouwen wrote:
“While at first it seemed quite obvious who was handicapped and who was not, living together day in and day out made the boundaries less clear. Yes, Adam, Rosie, and Michael couldn’t speak, but I spoke too much. Yes, Adam and Michael couldn’t walk, but I was running around as if life was one emergency after the other. Yes, John and Roy needed help with their daily tasks, but I, too, was constantly saying, ‘Help me, help me.’ And when I had the courage to look deeper, to face my emotional neediness, my inability to pray, my impatience and restlessness, my many anxieties and fears, the word ‘handicap’ started to have a whole new meaning. The fact that my handicaps were less visible than those of Adam and his housemates didn’t make them less real.”
What Nouwen and I both discovered is that L’Arche is a place that holds up the light of Christ. When Jesus prays for the disciples, when he asks for God’s protection, when he says they do not belong to this world what he means is that no one is meant to live “out there.” We keep trying to make it in the world. Some of us can and some of us can’t. Some of us can for a little while, until we too come up against mental illness, disability, addiction, something for which the rules and systems of the world have no tolerance.
None of us belongs out there in the dark. The Gospel of John reminds us of this because it keeps calling Jesus a light. Jesus doesn’t come to condemn the world, he comes to disperse the darkness. The world can’t understand the light so it snuffs it out.
Today we’re coming to the end of our series on doubt. You may be thinking, “I still have a lot of questions. I still have a lot of doubt.” My hope is that, perhaps, those doubts have shifted. In fact, I hope you have new doubts as we’ve encountered together, week after week, the risen Jesus Christ. Karl Barth writes that we are still asleep until we begin to be nagged by the questions of doubt. He doesn’t mean just any questions, but the deep questions, the gut questions – “What is true? What is good? What is valuable?” These are the questions that Jesus unsettles in us. Because Jesus unsettled everything. My prayer is that you will find that, in Jesus, this doubt is awakened.
If you do find yourself awakening to these questions then it may be time to put your doubt to the test. When I was at Duke I had a teacher who told this story in lecture. One day he was walking with a professor from another department. This professor – I can’t remember if he was in philosophy or law – he wanted an explanation of prayer. How did it work? He wanted to know. Philosophically, how did one understand the efficacy of prayer. My teacher stopped him right there. He said, “There’s no theory of prayer. You don’t figure out how prayer works. You pray. I’ll show you how prayer works. Let’s get on our knees, right now, in the middle of the sidewalk, and pray the Lord’s prayer together.”
Putting your faith to the test. I hear that phrase all the time. But what about testing your doubt? What about taking that unsettling, that “restless disquiet” and seeing where it takes you? What if you put it in the hands of those whom the world has hated?
If you’re up for it then waste your time. Waste it on someone whom the world considers a waste of time. Don’t serve someone. Don’t fix it or make it better. Find your way to a people who don’t seem to fit into our world. Get to know them. Ask them what it’s been like for them to live in the world.
Talk to Roger Lloyd about having a meal with the IHN families who stay at our church.
Get to know Jenn and Sarah from Friendship House.
Spend some time with the folks at Reality Ministries.
Talk to our friends Randy or Nicole or Michael who panhandle on the corner.
Find your way to the people who surrounded Jesus, the people who felt that there was no place for them in this world. You might find that these deeper questions that Easter awakens are pulled to the surface. What is true? What is good? What is valuable?
At the end of those questions is Jesus. In Easter Jesus places us in the insecurity of systems that bring death, the world that will leave all of us out in the dark. To death Jesus says no. To you, in the certainty of goodness and truth he says yes. Hallelujah the Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Hallelujah.
 Chris Hoke. Wanted. Harper Collins Publishers, 2015.
 Henri Nouwen. Adam: God’s Beloved. Orbis Books, 2012.
Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
Sept 28, 2014
Bitter water. Starvation. Now thirst.
Three times since leaving Egypt the Hebrews grapple with the possibility of dying in the desert. Three times since they were brought out of slavery the Hebrews murmur amongst themselves.
Today’s episode occurs just after the Hebrews grumble about how they will be fed in a place with no discernable source of food. God provides manna and quail. Without any transition, with no discernable length of time between stories God’s people find themselves once again faced with eradication. The Hebrews realize that their stock of water has run out. Chaos and fear grip the camp. Irrational accusations fly at Moses. And just as before, God responds. God instructs Moses strikes the rock and water comes gushing out.
There’s a similar pattern to what we’ve heard before: a threat to the people’s survival. They begin to grumble. Moses hears them and relays their concern to God. God meets their need.
But in this story something has shifted. No longer do the Hebrews murmur, one to another. Instead the people bring the fight directly to Moses. Their anger is so intense that Moses fears for his life, wondering if the people will stone him. This time there are no abstract and extended complaints. In Exodus 17 they get right to the point, “Give us water to drink.”
This story is compact. There’s no detail and the whole narrative takes up only seven verses. It’s told in clipped, anxious phrases. The tension is palpable as fears have intensified into violence. And something else has changed. In the previous two accounts of miraculous provision God has put the Hebrews to tests of faithfulness. This time the tables have turned. Now it is the Hebrews who put God in the docks.
Testing God. Ready to stone Moses. There’s something risky in this story, the feeling you get when someone stands too close to the edge of a cliff. You have to wonder, how will this god respond? How will the god who made water stand up like walls, who sent the angel of death to slaughter a generation of Egyptian boys, the god who brought locust and hail and boils, how will this god respond to a thankless, forgetful people?
You brace yourself, but instead of fire, instead of rocks from the sky and pillars of salt, God shows up. God stands in front of them, right there, before them. He gives them what they need. God holds up reminders of the things done in the past. God says, “This is who I am. This is who I am.”
When I read these stories I am tempted interpret them as a verdict against an obstinate people with horrible memories and bad tempers. But then I remember the god of Egypt, the only god these people have ever known. The god of Egypt was Pharaoh – a human god, flesh and bone, but one you could see, one that was stable and visible. Pharaoh was a god predictable in his maintenance of power, who utilized affliction and the murder of newborns in order to preserve social hierarchy. The only god the Hebrews have known is the god of capital and slavery and coercive power.
So it is that the wilderness wandering is the start of a new relationship for the Hebrews with this god they have never known, never before encountered. This isn’t just a shifting of allegiances. Instead, this god unveils a new way of life, new expectations. This isn’t a god like Pharaoh.
While they were slaves the Hebrews scrambled for what little was given them. Now they are discovering a god who gives them exactly what they need.
While they were slaves the Hebrews were commodities, a means towards amassing more wealth and power. Now they encounter a god who does not horde.
While they were slaves the Hebrews were worked relentlessly without ceasing. Now they meet a god who demands their rest.
While they were slaves the Hebrews knew a god who was static, human, like them. Now they meet a god who is unrestricted by nature, and in fact wields power over the natural world.
In each of these stories God reveals to the people how things are different. This new relationship requires more than everyone looking out for herself and working as hard as she can. It means obedience, listening to God’s voice and following these strange rules that will make them different from other people.
After a lifetime with Pharaoh as their god is it any wonder that these people are anxious, distrustful, and filled with fear? To such a people God helps them remember. He recreates the scene of the crossing of the Red Sea. Calling forth an assembly of elders, Moses takes the same staff that parted the seas, and once again God brings life from death. God doesn’t tell them, God shows them. God doesn’t talk about their need, God gives them something to drink. God doesn’t say “I am here.” God appears.
Maybe that’s why God answers these cries in such unusual ways, as the Hebrews are left scratching there heads. What is this white stuff on the ground? Why is God using a rock? Why is he throwing a stick into that bitter water? It is not only provision but introduction, an introductory course on how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob operates.
“Is Yahweh among us or not?” Maybe it was the right question to ask. To question Pharaoh would mean certain death. But here, too, god is not like Pharaoh. With Amy Erickson I wonder if “It may be that the people work to shape God’s character just as God works to shape that of the people. The mutual testing in the wilderness yields a people with a uniquely articulated faith, along with a unique, fundamentally counter-cultural god…”
It’s no wonder, then, that we hear the recounting of the rock of Horeb in the psalms. These are the songs God’s people sang to each other to remind them of this time when they came to know God, when they asked God not to speak of love, but to show them. And God did. This was the story they told to their children, to their children’s children to help each generation encounter this strange god, a god not like Pharaoh.
Here again the psalm:
Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,
O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
Then he brought Israel out with silver and gold, and there was no one among their tribes who stumbled.
Egypt was glad when they departed, for dread of them had fallen upon it.
He spread a cloud for a covering, and fire to give light by night.
They asked, and he brought quails, and gave them food from heaven in abundance.
He opened the rock, and water gushed out; it flowed through the desert like a river.
It comes as no surprise, then, that in 1 Corinthians Paul identifies the rock from Exodus 17 as Christ. After all, Jesus, too, was not what was expected. He, too, came to show us what God looks like. Jesus before us on the cross, a god dying while soldiers mocked, telling him to be like Pharaoh, to get down from there and put them all in their place. Instead God lays down his life. Instead, God defeats death. On the cross Jesus doesn’t tell us, he shows us: “This is who I am. This is who I am.”
This is a theme that will continue to reverberate through the history of Israel, right down to you and me. The people of God will continue to forget. We continue to flee to the security and consistency of idols, worthless but easily understood and predictable. And God will keep showing up. God will keep standing in front of us. At every juncture God will reenact the stories of God’s love. God will hold up a staff. God will bring forth bread. God will give us something to drink. God will say, “This is who I am. This is who I am.”
“So, what’s your plan? You going to keep working your way up to bigger and better churches and church leadership positions?”
This was the end of a conversation I had with one of my parishoners at the church where I am the newly minted Minister to Children. Over the past few weeks it has become clear how difficult it is for most people to get their heads around my recent change in ministry roles. About a month ago I went from being a full-time associate at a slightly smaller church to my current part-time role in children’s ministry. There were many reasons for this change, among them that my husband will soon be going back to graduate school so a ministry call closer to home with fewer hours makes sense for our family. This church is in the town where I live so no more commute. And the pay is good.
Before all of that I actually feel a call to ministry with children and to their families. I’m still coming to grips with the reality that children’s ministry isn’t a hallowed position in the church. It’s not a call that most churches feel requires any particular accreditation or theological training. Children’s ministers work primarily with a population that has very little influence in church leadership, produces no revenue for the church, and usually makes worship more complicated and uncomfortable for the people who do hold power – the adults.
I wonder if that’s why this is a good place for me to be right now. I like power. When I overhear through an open door our lead pastor talking with our minister of adult discipleship about overarching church visioning, coming up with mission and stewardship statements, or delving into church/city relations I feel this pull, this desire to be back at the center of church life. Sometimes I feel sad. And then I remember that Jesus surrounded himself with people who didn’t have credentials or education. Jesus put himself in the way of children, and children found their way to him. On days when I desperately want to sit at the “adult table,” when my office is inundated with color sheets and children’s storybook Bibles, I remember that this is probably the church office that Jesus would choose.
My parishoner isn’t alone. I think most of us think of church ministry as something that happens in stages. We leave behind youth or children for associate or adult discipleship. After a few years this leads to a rural or solo pastorate. After a few wins at this level we may move on to a smaller staff, then finally on to a large multi-staff church.
Now in my second call I find myself drawn from the metaphor of stages to that of seasons. This is a good season for me to be in children’s ministry. Right now I think about children theologically but also from my experience because I have young children. I’m also learning to notice children more, to think about how they see and experience our worship space, how they encounter Scripture and liturgy. I think about the gifts they bring our congregation. And I see them where I didn’t before – in our church, on the street, in grocery stores.
Today I told my parishoner that I am called to this church in this ministry in this season. And I like to think that one day, even after a solo pastorate or a multi-staff parish, that I might find my way back to children’s ministry again.
Dear Lord, my office is a holy mess – coloring sheets, shovels, mission project donations, books, bulletins, bubble machine, folders, missionary newsletters. God, you are here, waiting, in all of it. I look around and see doors to you. We put them up around the church, hoping that someone, a child, a mother, an alcoholic, a fiance, a teenager, a teacher, might try the door and find that behind it is you – just a bit of you. Like Moses squinting through closed eyes to see your back as you passed by. Like the jars that danced between the sacrifice. Like a tower of light, a pillar of cloud. Just a bit of you, hoping that we will be back again to know you better, to know more of you. Builder and Sustainer, help me to construct good doors today, doors that will help us be curious about your kingdom, your face, your hands, your people, and your friendship.
The Mennonite church, like many churches, is struggling, questioning, and fracturing over if and how to include gays and lesbians in our common life. Recalling this past week’s Gospel lesson I find myself longing to be present with the disciples when Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Oh, to be able to sit and ask Jesus my questions, to bring to him the current debate within our church. Oh, to let him set these things right.
But as I read further in my Bible I am reminded that it took only a couple decades before the disciples are once again mired in conflict over Scriptural interpretation, justice, inclusion, ethics, and freedom. The questions at hand had to do with the Gentiles. Would Gentiles be included as they were? Or would they be required to submit to a conversion to Judaism first, becoming circumcised and eating clean foods? It is to the apostles gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 15 that my thoughts turn as I see the divisions occurring in our church.
I would have been one of those apostles on the fence over the Gentile question. I’m careful, and a rule-follower. And I care deeply about interpretation of the biblical text. What often gets portrayed in moments of church conflict like the one we face now are two drastically different convictions bracketing a spectrum of ambivalence. But what if, instead, the conversation was much richer, more nuanced?
I am concerned by some of the arguments I hear from progressive brothers and sisters. I am concerned when the Old Testament is dismissed outright, when I hear the citation of restrictions on tattoos or shell fish. Following Jesus, I want a hermeneutic that takes seriously that not one jot or tittle has been lost from the law (Matt 5:18). Even though the New Testament has more to say about money than sex, I want to bring both of these facets of my life in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I want others to help me read Scripture in a way that helps me to think about and live faithfully even when it goes against my human nature to, say, protect my children or my own life at any cost.
When I hear my traditionalist sisters and brothers I am concerned. I am concerned about “plain text readings” that fail to acknowledge inconsistencies between Pauline epistles, or between Jesus and Paul. I am concerned that we often overlook God’s tactic approval of polygamous relationships in the Old Testament, the theological problems with Paul’s appeal to the natural, or the revival of Scriptural arguments that have been used exclude women, children, and black/brown Christians. I am troubled that despite our core conviction of following Jesus’ teachings of non-violence, our church is rising up over the membership of gays and lesbians while for decades we have remained silent over the membership of active members of the military.
I am troubled when any of us fails to recognize how deeply our readings of Scriptures are formed by prejudice, relationships, personal experiences, communities, and institutions. In a recent conversation at my church on how we read the Bible on sexuality someone in my small group honestly confessed that they didn’t think much about it. Same-sex relationships were an everyday part of his reality and it didn’t make sense to him to go back and look at Scripture to figure them out.
I appreciated this honesty. Most of us are not ready to say that we lead from our experience. Some of us think we can “get outside” these influences rather than doing the hard work of naming and assessing what we bring to our reading of Scripture. We may ignore that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through some of these influences, and that others need to be confronted as counter to the life of Jesus.
I call the Mennonite church home because it is a church committed to one cry – “Jesus is Lord.” The rest of the work is ours. During my first round of graduate school I, like many students who grew up in evangelicalism, felt a draw to two radically different denominations – the Roman Catholic Church and the Mennonite church. Looking back I can see that both churches offered vastly different answers to the same question as to how we grapple with the complexity of Scripture. Some of my friends put their faith in the Holy Spirit’s working through the Magisterium, the hierarchy of the Catholic church. Others, like me, found the Spirit at work in the church on the ground, through the messy, difficult discernment of people gathered together.
I believe, and still believe, that God is present here. I need others who think differently than me to help me see what I cannot see from where I stand. I need others to ask the hard questions. I need a community in whom to put my trust, to help me know how and when to act even though questions and complexity remain.
This week I find myself longing to speak not only to Jesus but also to Paul and Silas. I want to ask them how they decided that a couple verses from Amos held more authority than the entire Levitical code (Acts 15). I want to know how Peter held together his vision of the sheet with unclean food with his rigorous training in Torah (Acts 10). I want to know what was said or done to evaluate that “consent of the whole church” had occurred. I want to know how the church mourned those who left, those who could not accept the radical new work of God grafting the Gentiles into Israel.
I want these answers. I want clarity and explanation. But I also know this is not what we’ve been given. Instead, we’ve been given the Holy Spirit, an Advocate. And we’ve been given one another.
I am thankful for Jan Richardson and the blessing I need on this day.
You thought the blessing
in the staying.
In casting your lot
with this place,
In learning the art
And now you stand
on the threshold
The home you had
had ached for,
is behind you—
not yours, after all.
The clarity comes
as small comfort,
but it comes:
for the next step.
As you go,
may you feel
the full weight
of your gifts
in your two hands,
the complete measure
of their grace
in your heart that knows
there is a place
for the treasure
that you bear.
I promise you
there is a blessing
in the leaving,
in the dust shed
from your shoes
as you walk toward home—
not the one you left
but the one that waits ahead,
the one that already
reaches out for you
in welcome, in gladness
for the gifts
that none but you
April 20, 2014
Three days had passed and she was overwhelmed with exhaustion. Mary could hardly tell if she was dead or alive. But what was the difference now? He was gone. Just like that, this little spark of hope he had kindled in her was snuffed out.
And now it was time to clean up the mess. Mary knew this routine. Go to the tomb. Try to keep the stench at bay, but go early before the smell of the body overwhelms you. There were so many deaths these days. But this was the hardest one of all.
She went as soon as Sabbath ended, reaching the tomb before anyone was in the streets. It was so dark she could barely see in front of her. At first she thought the sleeplessness and the grief must be playing a trick on her eyes, but as she got closer she could see it had really happened. Her heart went into her throat and she chocked out a cry. Someone from that angry, seething crowd had been here to desecrate the grave, to further turn the knife of her loss. Or maybe it was grave robbers. It seemed like hours that she stood there before the gapping mouth of the tomb, shaking so badly she couldn’t move. And then, in an instance, she turned and ran.
So begins our Easter Gospel. It’s a story that starts in the darkness. It’s a chaotic scene one accompanied by screaming, weeping, loved ones running back and forth. It’s a story about expectation, what you think you’re going to get. It’s a story about expecting to find Death but instead stumbling face-first into Life.
Today’s story continues with Mary leaving the tomb to tell the other disciples what she’s seen. They return to confirm that, indeed, the body of Jesus is gone. But curious things have happened. If grave robber had been here why would they leave the only thing worth any money – the grave clothes. And who would undress a corpse just to steal it, neatly leaving a piece of cloth folded in a corner? The two disciples confirm Mary’s story and then return home.
The first to encounter the risen Jesus will not be one of these inner-circle disciples. Instead this honor is saved for a woman, Mary Magdalene who plays only a minor role in John’s Gospel. Weeping beside the tomb she finally musters the courage to look inside herself. And to her utter shock there sit two angels who ask her, “why are you weeping?” Hoping for some answers she asks them where they have laid Jesus. Then she hears the question repeated from outside the tomb.
Maybe the voice seemed familiar. Maybe it was a whisper, disguising the speaker’s identity. Mary doesn’t recognize its source. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
We know what Mary came to see. We know what she anticipated. She came to see the corpse of a wise teacher, a brave revolutionary, a man who died for the cause. She came to reconcile herself to her crushed ideas about Jesus, to bury her hope. In an instant in one word, in the speaking of her name, those expectations are shattered. Jesus is not dead; he is risen.
This question to Mary, sitting there in the pit of her grief, reflects back on us today. Whom are you looking for? What did you come here to see?
The expectation for Mary is that Death gets the final word. Death is the enemy of this story. This is what Karl Barth calls “the great ‘no,’ the shadow that hangs over our human life and accompanies all our movements. It is the judgment which reads: You, your life or what you think is life has no meaning because it has no right to exist and therefore cannot last. Your life is rejected life! It has no value before God or before your fellow-being, not even before yourself!’ Death means that this ‘no’ has been pronounced over us. Death means that we inescapably wither and wilt, returning to dust and ashes. This is death as paid by sin.”
Without this Easter day we remain chained to these deaths, anticipating the great death that awaits us at the end of it all. But these expectations are thwarted. Something else happens. I heard an incredible story yesterday that perfectly summed up what this day is about. The Guardian news shared a report about an Iranian man named Saeed was about to be hung for the murder of a man named Abdollah whom he killed during a knife fight when they were both just teenagers. The riveting photos were captured by an Iranian photojournalist. In the first picture Abdollah’s mother is seen approaching the makeshift gallows where Saeed, the murderer stands, a noose around his neck. The mother goes up to her son’s killer and slaps him across the face.
Under sharia law a victim’s family is sometimes involved in the execution, so the scene so far is unremarkable. But what happens next is anything but ordinary. The woman moves towards Saeed again, only this time she reaches out not to strike him but to remove the noose from around the neck of blindfolded man. She looks him in the eye and says one word – “forgiven.” In one of the final photos the mothers of the two men, victim and murderer, embrace each other as they weep. How is such a thing possible?
Expecting to meet darkness, a noose around the throat. That’s why we start of this day putting ourselves in a position to take Death seriously, to remember that this is a story that begins at a tomb. Many of us showed up before the sun rose, like Mary, in the cold gray light of the Oakwood Cemetery, right smack in the middle of Death.
I love this service because it helps me get closer to the first Easter day. I can still feel that chill in the air, the aching tired of waking up so early. Of course some Easter’s are more dramatic than others, last year in particular being of note when we shouted “We truly believe” against a torrential downpour.
But regardless of the weather, we start the day driving down the empty, black streets. For me, this is an important ritual. I want to be there when we walk down to God’s Acre because I need Death to remind me just how truly miraculous this day really is. Today we reaffirm that Jesus defeated those Deaths that mark the way towards our final death. I need to be surprised again by the announcement Fran made this morning that “the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, will also give back life to our mortal bodies.”
The Good News is that we no longer live tethered to the expectations of meeting death and pain at the tomb. The Good News is that Jesus is ready to explode the boundaries of our imaginations, to surge past that which we thought was possible. Jesus is alive and ready to make a way where there was no way. The Good News is that through the cracks of our gnarled, broken world the light of Easter dawn is seeping through.
As the sun rises over the gravestones, as we declare “for us, for us the Lamb was slain” it’s easier to imagine that this is true. It gets harder when we move out of the pews and back into our hurting world. The difficult thing is to live a resurrected life as a reflection of this surging, boundary-breaking hope. More often than not we live like the Japanese solider who was sent to a remote island in the Philippines during World War II. After his comrades were killed he never received the news that the war was over. Even when others told him the news, showering him with leaflets from airplanes, he refused to believe it. For 29 years he continued to hide in the jungle, shooting at everyone who approached. How often we are like that soldier, still living our lives like we are in the middle of the battle. But the war is over! Death has been defeated! Jesus has made our sin his own!
The Good News is that the light gets in. We encounter radical, resurrection acts of forgiveness every day as we wait in hope for the day when we will finally see that Death toppled forever. I think of this promise during the sunrise service. We begin that service together at the top of a hill at the Oakwood Cemetery. After saying part of the liturgy there we process down to the Moravian section of the cemetery, our God’s Acre. But first Hubert sends parts of the band ahead of us. It’s a sort of Moravian version of surround sound. As we walk part of the band plays a chorale and another part responds. They play back and forth, back and forth.
When we begin making our way down you can hear, but not always see the first band in the distance. And in the morning light, just for a moment you can almost imagine what it will be like when our loved ones are finally given new bodies, the day when Easter will be a joyous reunion of those who went to sleep in Christ and have woken again at the last day.
The Good News of Easter is that one day we won’t have to send of our band ahead. One day we will begin to play those chorales at the top of the hill and then we’ll hear it. We will hear those chorale responses being sung by of our loved ones. Our voices will be met by the voices of John and Ben, Joshua and Peter, Lynn and Willa and Jim and Avery.
Did you come today expecting Jesus to raise the dead, to defeat all our deaths along the way? Whom are you looking for? How do you expect the world will look like now that the Holy Spirit has been let loose into it?
The gift of this Easter Day is that God meets us, however we answer these questions. Whether we are Mary who needs to hear Jesus say her name; whether we are Peter and the Beloved Disciple who need to see the evidence; or whether we sit with the other Disciples in hiding, still waiting. He meets us in the darkness of doubt, in the loneliness of despair.
He offers to us a faith “too mighty to be encompassed by certainty, to wonderful to be found only within the boundaries of our imagination.” He meets us at the tomb, ready to surpass all our expectations. And there he asks us, “whom are you looking for?”
Friends, he is not the tomb. He is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Hallelujah.
Third Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2013
Raleigh Moravian Church
The Risk of Birth
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
After hearing Madeline L’Engle’s poem one of the strangest things about today’s Scriptures is the tense in which it is spoken. Today we heard Katherine read Mary’s song, the song that wells up in Mary upon a meeting with her cousin Elizabeth. But these words are not a prophecy. They aren’t a hopeful word about the future. Instead, Mary speaks to something that has already happened, an action that is complete.
In the beginning we can see how that makes sense. Yes, God has put Mary in a place of honor. She will be remembered for generations. This is evident even today as we remember Mary and her bold “yes” to God. But from here the song stops being so personal. The scope of Mary’s praise widens. God’s has shown strength with his arm, she explains. He has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted the lowly. There is more. The rich have been sent away without a dime in their pockets while the hungry feast at the banquet.
Actions completed. The words of someone who has seen God set the world right. We have to wonder, is Mary speaking ironically? Or has her joy blinded her to the reality around her? It can be hard for us to see what Mary sees, both is her day as is our own. Mary, born into utter poverty, about to give birth in the cold, stone walls of a barn. She has escaped the anxiety of stares and whispers about the pregnancy by hiding out with her cousin Elizabeth in a neighboring town. She will soon be an unwed, teenage mother, stigmatized by her people.
Her world reflects the harshness of her particular situation. Mary lives in a country under the fist of foreign occupiers. Her people are taxed and humiliated. Revolutionaries who dare to defy the ruling power are crucified, conspicuously left at busiest intersections. They are a warning to others who would consider standing up to the might of Rome.
So it is in our day. War and rumors of war. Potential genocide in the Central African Republic. Typhoons destroying entire villages. The one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting. Polio reemerging in Syria and Somalia.
This is no time for a child to be born.
And yet, Mary sings. Instead of irony or expectation, this song is a moment of clarity about the reign of God, one sandwiched between humiliation, pain, stigma, and occupation. In it Mary names the impossible possibility. God is about to enter into the riskiness of this particular human life overshadowed by sickness, poverty and political oppression, and God will redeem everything through it.
Madeline L’Engel’s poem, The Risk of Birth, beautifully captures this sentiment. I’ve read her poem in tandem with Mary’s Song throughout the week. Both L’Engle and Luke see birth as a metaphor for what is happening to the cosmos as Immanuel, God with us, breaks onto the scene. Mary’s song is reminiscent of a song sung by another mother, Hannah in the book of first Samuel. It also has parallels to the song sung by Zechariah upon the birth of his son, John.
Yet, I have found myself drawn to stories of a different way of welcoming children as I wrestle through Mary’s insistence at God’s already fulfilled promise, in spite of it all. There is something brave and wild about this woman saying these things at this time in the world, a joyful hope that has drawn me to friends and writers who wait to welcome children through adoption. These friends have helped me hear a different kind of longing and different kind of hope in Mary’s Song.
This last Monday when I received an email from my friend Rachel updating me on the status of her domestic adoption. She wrote, “We’ve said yes to three babies in the last two weeks – each with very different, and potentially complicated circumstances. Two are due in December, one in February. There are three possible ethnicities, none of which are the same as our own. So we are praying and waiting and trying to see the waiting as essential, instead of an obstacle.”
She continued saying, “I am currently teaching the history of Judaism to my 7th graders (what a task) and there are so many rich lessons there about the keeping of promises – it has been a timely reminder.”
My friend Rachel helps me see what Mary sees. She sees that God’s redemption is pieced together out of uncertainty, the vulnerability of opening her life up to a child that may not be able to be her’s, in the waiting that has no specific date in mind. Yet it is rooted in a promised hope that is so real it is as if it has already happened. Her hope is being lived forward, instead of backwards. And like Mary, Rachel reminds me that God surprises us in the unknown. Like Mary she sees that God is making something out of all of this, rather than in spite of it.
This week I also read Susan Smartt Cook’s account of waiting for the arrival of her nephew. Contemplating this Advent season she writes about her sister’s adoption “my sister is adopting a little boy from Uganda and I will join her for the journey across the ocean to meet a new nephew and bring him to his new home. There are no Braxton Hicks this time, no back pain, cramps, or leaking fluid to signal a slow and steady start. There’s just a cold, quiet phone. She turns up the ringer, goes to bed, and wakes up hoping for the call. The watched pot never boiling, she stokes the flame of her hope for a child not yet her own. She waits with agony and disbelief that these wheels will grind into motion, the court date will be set, and the final stretch of the journey will begin. She waits with grace and patience, recognizing the cry of the orphan reverberating in her own heart. Compassion wells up within, and her heart expands.”[i]
I wonder if this Advent season it would help us hear Mary’s Song in different way if we put ourselves in the shoes of Rachel and Susan. With them we wait, sometimes anxiously, sometimes in anger, sometimes patiently for God to make himself present in the brokenness and pain of our world. But we are always shocked into action by his appearance, always caught off guard when he finally comes. The phone rings in the middle of the night. The angels appear to the shepherds and to Mary without warning. We are standing there with our arms open, without a crib or diapers or a car seat, only with fully formed love and hope to guide us. Like Mary, we receive a child already named, a child that comes from another. God’s Son. Jesus, the Redeemer.
Even in the waiting, in the gritty disappointment of our every day, what Mary’s Song tells us is that history shifted from the moment the angel appeared to her. Everything did change. But that shift doesn’t look like a revolution as we know it. It doesn’t look like a victory. It looks like an impoverished, pregnant teenager. It looks like a family waiting for a phone call from a social worker. It looks like paperwork and home studies and the hard work of waiting. That’s how it is here at the beginning and that’s how it will end. His kingdom will be made up of beggars, prostitutes, outlaws, and children. The King of Eternity takes away the sins of the world by taking that sin upon himself. Justice will come through the injustice of the cross. The revolution he initiates comes out of death, not out of the sword. God loses in order to redeem. And so do we.
No, This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.