Sunday, December 23, 2012

Cultivating Love (12/23/12)

Luke 1:46-55
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.’

I have been doing this for twenty years and it doesn’t get any easier.   I am talking about preaching during Advent and Christmas.   How do you go about it?  I am not saying it is hard for every minister.  I am sure that many have it down.  They know the story they want to deliver and how to deliver it.    I don’t know the story and I don’t know how to deliver it.   

The problem is as I see it, that there are conflicting stories.   One of those stories paints Christmas in hues of warmheartedness.  It is about as our Advent banners proclaim, hope, peace, joy, and love.   This fourth Sunday of Advent is about love.   I could talk about love.   The love of a mother for her child.  The love of family.  The love of God for humankind.   The love of Jesus for all of you and for me.    I could talk about how important it is to accept and to love oneself.   In the midst of the darkness, the light of love shines.  We are loved as we are, right now.   There is nothing we need to do to earn that love or to deserve that love.   We are embraced as Mary embraced her child Jesus in the stable.   When we realize that, we receive a true a gift.   I have preached variations on that theme throughout my career.  I believe that message.  I think it is a good message and a true message and one we need to hear.  

When we hear that we are not good enough nor worthy of love, or when we are down on ourselves for not loving others as we think we should, it is good to receive a dose of love from the pulpit.    In my opinion, one of the things our tradition has going for it is the concept of unconditional love.  Love came down at Christmas.   It would be good to preach that story, especially with so many visitors and family present.    Talk about love.  God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that kind of love.   Another way of saying it is that Christmas is the story of love being born within us.   Sacred creativity is being born in us.   As the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said:
“God is born in us when the mind is stilled and senses trouble no longer.”
This is a message that connects us with other religious traditions as well.   The birth of Jesus compares with the birth of Buddha and Krishna.   Jesus is the divine child.  He represents new life and new birth.  

Celebrating his birth close to the time of winter solstice with the promise of longer days all plays into this magical time.    In Jesus, God has become one with us.  Jesus is the light of the world.   That light is within you.  Take it on and live it.  Those are good messages and I preach them.  

So what is the problem?

It is these texts for starters.    These stories surrounding the birth of Jesus are really odd.  Now I don’t mean the supernatural elements.  We know how to deal with those things, virgin birth, and stars moving through the sky and angelic beings.  We know about legendary material and how to read it.   I am not talking about that.  The odd part of these stories is the down and dirty political reality.  

Here is Mary, the mother of Jesus.   According to the story in the Gospel of Luke, she is visiting her relative, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant.  Mary breaks into song.   That is not unusual.  A mother sings with joy about the birth of her child.  She imagines what that child might be like.   The song is so famous that we call it “The Magnificat.”   That is from the first word of the Latin translation.   

The song is sung properly in Latin, that holy mumbling language that no one understands.    Beautiful music accompanies these Latin words.     Powerful and breathtaking.   The Magnificat should be sung by trained musicians in a Cathedral before the King.  Of course.   For centuries it was and I am sure still is today in those places where they still have kings.     When it is all about the music and when the words are in Latin, you don’t know what she is saying.  But here is what she says.  She is speaking about God:
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.
Whoa!  Merry Christmas!  

She sounds like one of those radicals who hasn’t had a bath in a week occupying Wall Street!

You don’t sing this song to the king, unless you sing it in Latin and drown out the words with the music.   Or if the king really does catch on to the words, you are careful to say, “Mary is not talking about you, O most beneficent one.”   She was talking about other kings, bad kings.  

But of course, Mary, is not talking about bad kings.  She is talking about the powerful.   From her vantage point, the powerful have never been good.   Of course, this song probably did not originate with Mary.  It is likely the author of Luke, whoever that was, who took a song from the Hebrew Scriptures sung by Hannah on the occasion of the birth of the prophet Samuel and rewrote it placing it on the lips of Mary.   Luke is not really a radical writer.   The author of Luke also wrote the mostly fictional book of Acts.   He is careful to cozy up to Rome as he feels the need, but still I think Luke preserves enough of the historical memory of Jesus to show that the historical Jesus was on the side of the people over against the powerful and on the side of the hungry over against the rich.    

Jesus appeared when the Roman Empire was the dominant force in the known world, including in Palestine.  Everywhere you looked, you would see signs of Rome’s presence.  You would see imperial religion and politics linked in seamless stream of propaganda on buildings, statues, inscriptions, and coins.   At the entrance to cities you would see crosses, where those who dared to get in the way of Rome would end up.  Those poor wretches  experienced first hand the benevolence of empire.  
I never could experience Christmas in the same way after reading Dominic Crossan’s 1994 book, Jesus:  A Revolutionary Biography.   Crossan introduced me to a birthday celebration that I hadn’t heard about previously.    It was the birthday of Caesar Augustus, the one who is famous in the Gospel of Luke for starting the census that moved Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem from Nazareth.  Actually, there wasn’t a census like that.    That story in Luke is a literary invention.  However, the historical reality that that story represents is the power of Caesar to move people at will.    The irony of the story, that Luke offers with a wink, is that while the world is celebrating Caesar’s birth, here is the birth of the son of another kind of god altogether.

This inscription was found on a temple celebrating Caesar Augustus, and making a decree to change the calendar to celebrate his birth:
Whereas Providence…has…adorned our lives with the highest good:  Augustus…and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Savior] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order…with the result that the birthday of our God signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him…therefore…the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23…and the first month shall…be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.  P. 1
Imperial theology celebrating the power of Rome and the divine status of its emperor was everywhere.  That is the background and foreground for the story of the birth of Jesus.

Here are the announcements from the angel first to Mary, then to the shepherds:
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end….the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God”….
And the angel said to them [the shepherds], “Be not afraid; for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
It is easy to see that Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is told with a wink.  It is a very serious wink.  The language of emperor and empire is inverted and applied to Jesus, and it is delivered to the people, not the people in power, but the people who are hungry.   These are the people who die on the crosses that the emperor “who has made war to cease and has put everything in peaceful order” has erected.    The peaceful order for Rome results in people in Palestine dying of hunger or dying on crosses.    Jesus, that is the historical Jesus, and his mother experienced Rome’s “peaceful order.”   

Merry Christmas.

I would love more than ever to talk about hope, peace, love, and joy in generic terms or in psychological terms, or in spiritual or theological terms, but I cannot talk about that with any integrity and leave out the very reasons these stories were told in the first place.   

I have been watching on television, commercials for the United States Navy.    In the midst of images of Earth from space, with satellites, aircraft carriers, and American flags is the punchline:   
The United States Navy:  A Global Force for Good. 
There is no way I can watch that television commercial and not make the connection to first century Rome.    Rome saw itself, also, as a global force for good.    And I cannot help but hear the voice of Mary in Luke’s gospel say:
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.
I wonder how and when Mary’s song is going to come true.

Caesar wasn’t a bad guy.   He would have made a fine Presbyterian.   His actions and intentions were benevolent and beneficent.    The problem, from the perspective of the gospels was that while his intentions may have been good, his actions were not good for everyone.   The gospels are told from the perspective of those who did not experience Caesar as a good guy.  

What is the Christmas message today?  What is hope, peace, joy, and love for those parents in Pakistan who hold the bodies of their children killed by drones that have been sent under the orders of our own president?   From the standpoint of the president, it is part of the “peaceful order.”  

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." 
That is the philosophy of our culture, isn’t it?  From interpersonal relationships to global ones, the myth of redemptive violence is our story of choice.   We won’t let go of that myth for any price.

The problem when I read the gospels, including the story of the birth of Jesus, is that the good guys sometimes act like the bad guys.   If there is anything about the Christmas message and the narratives surrounding the birth of Jesus to which we ought to pay attention is that the good and bad aren’t always so clearly defined.    

The gospels don’t seem to be so much about good guys and bad guys but about how we handle power and violence.    Jesus also made reference to what happens when we give ourselves over to the creative technologies of destruction.    Jesus didn’t have assault weapons and drones in mind, but he did know about swords and crosses.  Jesus is reported to have said,
“Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”  
That isn’t quite what the president of the NRA said.   

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
He also said that anyone can return love with love.  The real challenge is to love our enemies.

That is the problem with Christmas.  Jesus spoils it for everyone.  He won’t let us get away with fuzzy definitions of hope, peace, joy and love.    When I read the gospels, including Mary’s song, I cannot get images of those who suffer from violence, hunger, and poverty out of my head.    While I am not responsible for all of it, I know that some of it is connected to the “peaceful order” that is enacted daily on my behalf.  

If Christmas means anything, it should at least mean that I be honest about that, and perhaps once honest, to do something that might help Mary’s song of love and hope come true.


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