Monday, December 18, 2017

What About Mary?

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 1st Chapter

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Today we have a chance to take a new look at Mary.  I say a NEW look, because Mary comes with a lot of old baggage.  There’s Roman Catholic reverence baggage.  Protestant overreaction to Catholic baggage and the baggage of a fundamentalist model for submissive, meek and mild women doing what they’re told.  But, in addition to needing a new look because of OLD baggage, there are a growing number of us who didn’t grow up thinking about Mary in ANY way whatsoever!  And so for all those reasons, it's time for a new look at Mary.

When we set all that baggage we’ve been told about Mary aside and look at the text found only in Luke, Mary doesn’t fit so neatly into ANY of the baggage she’s been crammed into in the past.  The story begins with the angel Gabriel saying, “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  The angel continues with “Do not be afraid,” an understandably standard angel greeting.  (I know if an angel suddenly appeared I’D be afraid!)  But here’s the thing… the text doesn’t say Mary had MY reaction of fear, it says she was PERPLEXED.  That’s very different from afraid.  She wasn’t cowering, meek or submissive here in any way.  Confused a bit, yes, BECAUSE THERE WAS AN ANGEL IN HER ROOM, but fully in control of her own mind and her own body.
It’s also clear in this encounter that the angel is not forcing anything onto Mary but is passing on the message that God has noticed Mary.  Noticed her NOT for her meekness, looks, or even her available uterus… but for her GRACE.  It was the courage and boldness she already possessed that found Gods favor.  It was her faith… her trust that the God of justice would act in her world… THAT’S what God saw.  Her own passion for lifting the lowly and scattering the proud is what God both noticed and honored that day. 

It’s also important, as we take this new look at Mary, to see what’s NOT in the text.  The text has no mention of Mary’s age and the word we translate as a “virgin” is a very peculiar word in the original Greek.  It refers ONLY to a person who has not yet had a child.  Nothing more than that.  All the rest of Mary’s intimate life details we've heard over the years are bits of baggage that people (mostly men if we're honest) have added to the story for reasons beyond what’s in the text.

As the encounter with the angel draws to a close, it’s VERY important to see that agreeing to carry the Christ child, ONLY happens with Mary’s informed consent.  She doesn’t start with a cowering yes.  She starts with questions.  She doesn’t just go along submissively.  She was an active, informed participant in God’s work, just as she had been before the angel arrived.  In the end it was HER decision to say, “let it be with me according to your word.”  It was only Mary’s “YES” that moved things along and I am quite sure that if Mary had said “NO” God would have honored that choice as well, because THIS is a God of justice!  These things are why using Mary’s story as justification to date underage girls or permission to ignore a woman’s choice is not only an abuse of the text, but is also blaspheming the genuine nature of this God of justice!  

And it's in The Magnificat where we so clearly hear Mary proclaim that genuine nature of God!  It’s in that Magnificat where see how God’s nature matches the independent, strong willed, revolutionary nature of Mary.  When Elizabeth proclaimed Mary “blessed” it wasn’t just because of who was in her womb, but because, as the text tells us, Mary was one who doggedly believed God would fulfill God’s promise of justice for the world!

It was in that spirit that Mary let loose with The Magnificat… which is nothing less than the ultimate political manifesto, proclaiming the fall of the wealthy, proud and powerful and the rise of the poor, hungry, and forgotten of the world.  It has remained such a perfect insistence on JUSTICE as the will of God, that The Magnificat has been banned by three governments over the years for being too revolutionary.  I suspect Mary would say it's not TOO revolutionary, but exactly the kind of revolutionary song to which God shouts AMEN! 

Over the centuries, we've attempted to tame Mary and fit her into one piece of baggage or another, but Mary isn’t anyone who will be tamed!  She’s an independent, clear thinking, justice-oriented woman in charge of her own comings and goings, in charge of her own mind and in charge of her own body.  She’s clear about what she values and was willing to collaborate with God in a unique, new, way to move the world toward God’s values of justice, compassion and peace.  

She’s a powerful model for ministry, demonstrating a faithfulness so strong it drew God’s favor.  She's also a powerful model for discerning God’s call.  She shows us the importance of not simply accepting any new idea that just happens to fly into your room without question, but also the importance of being open to God doing a new thing… both of which require listening, questioning, and reflecting.  

She was neither tricked nor intimidated into bringing Christ into the world.  She saw, after genuine discernment, bringing Christ into the world to be her next opportunity to collaborate with God to bend the arc of the moral universe toward the justice God intends for the world... the same justice she had embraced long before any angel came around.  In spite of the baggage we’ve tried to pile on her over the years, she’s remained blessed!  Blessed with an open mind and a heart for compassion.  Blessed for being willing to bring God’s light into the darkness in a new way.  Blessed for her powerful witness to God’s desire for justice which, even today, continues to humble the proud, bring down the powerful, fill the hungry and lift up the lowly. 

May you and I be blessed, as Mary is blessed.  May we embrace God's desire for justice as Mary did.  May we bring the light of Christ into the world's darkness.  May we be just as confident, even in the midst of horrible oppression, that God's will for justice and peace will reign and may we, with discernment, find our part in bringing that reign to earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.  

A New Riff on an Old Tune

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 2nd Chapter

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

God’s like a jazz musician… No, God IS a jazz musician because that night… that first Christmas night, God improvised an unforgettable riff on God’s oldest, most soulful, most wonderful tune.  On THAT night… that first Christmas night, God became truly human… and THAT was a brand new riff… AND yet, at the same time, it had at it's core a tune as old as God.  

Count Basie once said, “The real innovators do their innovating by just being themselves.”  That first Christmas night, God was innovating just by being God’s own self.  That night it WAS brand new… never been done before… it was light shining in darkness with the birth of the Christ child.  It was also God being true to God’s own self… playing the same song of love and grace, light and life that God’s been playing since before time began.

Louis Armstrong once said, “What we play is life.”  Christmas is God playing a song that brings life into the world… and not just a get-by sort of life either, but an abundant life… a life full of meaning and substance and purpose… a life given to us in that Christ child.  God had never brought life into the world in that, child-in-a-manger way before, and yet bringing life into the world is at the heart of God’s most beloved tune which God’s been playing since creation took it’s first breath.  

Wynton Marsalis once said, "In Jazz, improvisation isn't a matter of just making any ol' thing up.  Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary.”  Jesus coming into the world wasn’t God just making any ol’ thing up.  Jesus has been part of God’s language of love from before there even was a creation.  God becoming flesh and living among us was completely new, and yet used the most tried and true… most beautifully divine words… words like peace, joy, glory, light and love.  On that night, God moved the Divine presence from out there, somewhere, to right in here!  Right into our seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, touching world, so that NOW, even though God’s fingerprints have always been on every molecule of creation and God’s Spirit has always blown in every breath and every breeze… NOW you and I can hear God’s voice, see God’s face, feel God’s healing touch and taste God’s bread and wine.  

Paul Simon once said, “Improvisation is too good to be left to chance.”  And that night, that first Christmas night was God’s improvisation on God’s oldest most beloved song… A song that left nothing to chance… a song that has always made sure life is stronger than death, that hope calls out in every desperate silence, that the light of love, compassion, generosity and grace shines even into the darkest, deepest holes within ourselves and in the world… and that light… THAT light… is a light that God’s always made sure no darkness has the power to overcome.

Henry Threadgill once said, “If you go back to the roots of jazz it was all about COLLECTIVE collaboration.”  And that night, that first Christmas night, was all about the best of collective collaboration.  God playing a brand new riff on that divine, soulful, old, familiar tune of infinite, overwhelming, insistent love… but playing that night, with a brand new set of amazing, but in the world’s eyes, pretty unlikely musicians.  There was Mary.  An amazingly strong, courageous woman who boldly chose to step up on stage.  Joseph too, who dreamed the music before he played it, going on the road with Mary to Bethlehem.  The shepherds kept the beat, making sure we heard the rhythm of God’s care for the people the world so often forgets and backing them all up was the Heavenly Host singing Glory to God in the Highest and Peace to God’s people on Earth!  

God's a jazz musician… a collaborative jazz musician… an improvising, collaborating, jazz musician, riffing on God’s own, most soulful, most wonderful tune.  But there’s one more thing about God’s Christmas improv you need to know.  You see, the first rule of improv is to agree to what’s been done before, but as Tina Fey, a jazz musician who plays the instrument of comedy reminds us, “The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND.  You are supposed to agree AND THEN add something of your own.”  

You see, on THAT Christmas Eve, God and the band improvised a new riff whose name is Jesus… a beautiful riff on God’s oldest song. But on THIS Christmas Eve… THIS night, December 24th, 2017, God’s still playin’ that same old, soulful, wonderful tune… but tonight, as God leads the band, God’s inviting YOU, just as you are, with whatever instrument you have, even if all you have is your own shaky voice… God’s inviting YOU to come up on stage, join the band and add a riff of your own… to play your own YES, AND on God’s oldest, most soulful, most wonderful tune of love and grace, light and life.  God's inviting YOU... THIS night... to join the band and do nothing less than change the world.  Amen.  

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Happy Way or the Sad Way

The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 1st Chapter
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Once upon a time there was a toddler.  It got to be time to get ready for bed so the voice of the parent cried out in the living room, “Honey, it’s bath time.”  But she was busy with her toys.  She was content in her little toddler world and did not want it to change.  So she said, “I NOT HAVE BATH!”  The parent said, “You can have a bath the happy way or the sad way.”  The parent, you see, will make certain the child has a bath.  It's what's best for the child.  The toddler’s only choice is to have it happen the happy way or the sad way?

Once upon a time, it got to be time for the world to work the way God intended the world to work from the beginning of creation… to work in a way where everyone had enough… enough food, enough shelter, enough dignity, enough justice, enough self worth, enough purpose… in other words it was time for the world to provide everyone with the abundant life God created them to have.  So, a voice cried out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  But the people of Isaiah’s day and the people in John the Baptist’s day and the people in our day… Well, we’re busy!  We’ve got packages to buy, careers to build, decorating to do, food to make, kids to raise, wealth to grow, trips to take and people to see.  We don’t want our little world to change as much as valleys filled in and mountains made flat, so we say, “I NOT PREPARE FOR THE WAY OF THE LORD!”  And the voice says in reply, “You can prepare for the way God wants the world to work the happy way or the sad way.”  Because God, you see, will have God’s creation work the way God intends it to work.  Our only choice in the matter is do we want that to happen the happy way or the sad way?  

It is unfortunate but toddlers are slow to learn and fast to test the will of their parent and for that reason, more times than seems sensible, the toddler chooses the sad way.  On those nights the toddler gets a bath, but the sad way means screaming, kicking, running, and flailing.  There are no toys in the tub, no soapy horns made with hair, no bath tub finger paints… no real joy.  There is only water, soap, shampoo, rinsing and drying.  But in the end… the toddler gets a bath.

It is unfortunate but the people of Isaiah’s day and the people in John the Baptist’s day and the people in our day are slow to learn and fast to test the will of God and for that reason, more times than seems sensible, we too choose the sad way.  In those times, God’s Kingdom still comes and God’s will is still done on earth as it is in heaven.  But choosing the sad way means it happens in the midst of inequality and hunger and violence and injustice.  There’s no time or money for the arts, there is kicking and screaming and violence of every sort, no rest for the weary… no real joy.  But make no mistake, no matter how much the people of Isaiah’s day or the people of John the Baptist’s day or the people of our day kick and scream, God will get God’s way with the world. 

But with each new day the happy way is an option again.  When the toddler chooses the happy way they pick up their toys and put them away… not perfectly, but they try.  They begin to get undressed… not perfectly… their big, toddler head gets stuck in their shirt, they forget they still have on one sock and inevitably get into the tub still wearing it.  They get distracted by the dog and run around the house naked and squealing for a bit… but over all, they’re doing their best to head in the direction of their bath.  

Each new day the happy way is always an option for us as well.  We can choose to prepare the way the Lord and stop living our lives focused only on ourselves and caring only for the people who look just like us.  We can begin to clean up our act.  We can look at our lives with a new and serious honesty.  We can see that we have some privilege we’ve never considered before, see the part that we’ve played, both passively and actively, in unjust systems.  We can open our eyes and begin to see our own brokenness and look for ways to address it in a healthy way so we don’t just pass it on to others.  We can begin to see our neighbors, people we’ve all too often looked past or even demonized and begin to see them instead as the beautiful gift to our lives that they are. 

We won’t do it perfectly.  We’ll get our big heads stuck for a bit, not wanting to admit we really didn’t get where we are all on our own.  We’ll get distracted and run around for a while chasing this or that and fail to see we’re still wearing one little sock of prejudice or privilege, even when we think we’ve shed it all.  But over all, we’ll be heading in the right direction… we’ll be preparing the way of the Lord.  

This was the choice laid out to the people of Isaiah’s day and the people of John the Baptist’s day and it’s the choice laid out for you and me again this Advent.  God will have creation be the way God intends it to be.  It's what's best for us and no amount of toddler-type tantrums will stop God’s Kingdom from coming.  So the choice is ours… as God’s beloved toddlers… how will we choose to prepare?  The happy way or the sad way?  I don’t know about you, but I think we should choose the happy way.  The chance to splash in the bath, playing with gifts of the Holy Spirit sounds like a life filled with the sort of joy I’m desperately longing for these dark days.  Amen.