Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hail Mary, The Revolutionary (5/17/15)

Hail Mary, The Revolutionary
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

Amos 5:21-24
I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon. 
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Luke 1:46-53 
And Mary said,
‘My soul extols the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,
for he has taken notice of the low status of his slave girl.
So behold, from now on every generation will congratulate me.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name,
and his mercy will come to generation after generation 
of those who fear him.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones,
and exalted the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.’

I went to Catholic High School, Butte Central in Butte, Montana.  The teachers consisted of laypeople, and sisters, and brothers.  Most classes began with prayer.  Not all of them, but most.   I didn’t notice it at the time, but when I reflected back on it, I remembered with a few exceptions that the brothers would lead us in the Our Father and the sisters would lead us in Hail Mary.

Hail Mary,
Full of Grace,
The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art Thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God
Pray for us sinners, 
Now, and at the hour of our death.
Amen.

Praying to Mary was sort of a religious rebellion for me.  My Southern Baptist church did not pray to Mary.    Even the Our Father was a sort of heresy for Southern Baptists.  We didn’t say “rote prayers.”   We prayed from the heart, so we thought.  Funny isn’t it, how religious ideas and practices get so entrenched?    

Nancy Ellen Abrams, author of a new book, A God that Could Be Real, writes:

When we look at the wars that have been fought over religion, it’s clear that there is nothing we humans resist more passionately than changing our ideas of God.

I was interested in Mary, although not then as a high school boy.  Later during seminary, looking back on it, I reflected on Mary as a feminine face of God.   Mary was kinder, more forgiving, full of grace.   The old Irish joke goes like this:

One day, Jesus is upset.  Heaven is getting filled up with sinners.  Jesus goes to Peter who is guarding the gate.  He says, “Peter, what is with all these sinners!  Why are you letting them in!”

Peter says, “No Lord, I tell them, ‘you are a sinner; you can’t come in.’  What do they do?  They go around to the back door, and your mother, she lets them in!”

Through the middle ages, as Jesus the Son, God the Father, and God the Holy Ghost, became a testosterone filled Trinity, there was a need for a feminine face, a mother, someone to soften the harshness of king and judge-oriented atonement theories.     A theology of Mary, Mariology, developed.   Mary was the one to whom you prayed when you were in big trouble.    

Mary became a model for women, a dubious one, being both mother and virgin.   The patriarchal church wanted to push this:  Mary, demure, obedient, and virginal, and yet a mother.   All women should be mothers without having sex.   

Yet at the same time, she became somewhat of a release for feminine energy within the patriarchal godhead.  She earned some theological clout and was even  named a co-redemptrix with Jesus.  Yet it was all still under this patriarchal control.  Mary in heaven and real women on earth had to gain independence, autonomy and power  through letting in sinners through the back door, so to speak.   

Mary, more than Jesus, is a figure for the people.  She is the one who really had the interests of the poor in her heart.  She has also become a figure of liberation for women especially regarding issues of justice and peace.    While the Father and Son are inspiring holy wars, Mary is binding up wounds and caring for the victims.    

Mary is an important figure for Muslims as well.  There is more written about her in the Qur’an than in the New Testament.   In the Qur’an she gives birth by herself under a palm tree.  God’s spirit, a messenger makes a stream to flow below her feet and tells her to shake the tree and dates “soft and ripe” fall for her.  It is a very tender story.   

But her big moment is the speech attributed to her in the Gospel of Luke.    At Christmas we hear it sung.  We call it the Magnificat.  It is majestic sounding and in Latin, that holy, mumbling language that no one can understand.   It is a good thing it is in Latin.   If we listened to her words we would be shocked.    Mary is a precocious socialist at best.   This is what she thinks about the work of God:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones,
and exalted the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.’

Those are fightin’ words. 

Now we might wonder if Mary is a bit na├»ve and engaging in wishful thinking.  The arrogant and their schemes seem to be doing quite well in the world.   The mighty are still on their thrones and the hungry are more often sent away than the rich.    

That said, we know where her heart is.  We know where her commitment lies.   We know how she understands the work of what she calls God.   God for her is not some abstraction, the uncaused cause, or the ground of being, or most importantly, a legitimation of the status quo.    

God is a verb.   This verb routs, pulls, exalts, fills and sends.    For Mary at least in this song in Luke’s gospel, God is action on behalf of justice for the lowly.   God takes sides.

“He has taken notice of the low status of his slave girl.”

God is our aspiration for justice.  In the words of poet Pablo Neruda, 

“For now I ask no more than the justice of eating.” 

That is God.    Mary lives that God.

The Bible is filled with all kinds of strange things.  Not all of it is particularly inspiring.   And yet, there is a subplot that winds its way through that is particularly arresting.   The violent parts of the Bible are often loud and domineering.   At times we can focus on those and use them to justify exclusive religion or discrimination or other lower aspects of our nature.    But there is also music in scripture that when it is heard, can humble and inspire.    

Marcus Borg writing in the last book he published before he died, Convictions:  How I Learned What Matters Most, wrote that when he was in college he was 

“…the president of the Young Republican Club and conservative columnist for the college newspaper.”   He said that he

“…advocated for Eisenhower while a classmate advocated for Adlai Stevenson.  She was from a union family.  I had never known somebody from a union family.  And my family didn’t like unions.”

He writes:

“Then I read the book of Amos.  It was a revelation.  Stunning….. Amos led me to realize that the Bible had a dimension that I had never seen before.  Amos was about God’s passion, God’s desire, God’s dream, God’s yearning, for thetransformation of this world to a world of greater economic justice.”  P. 32-33.

That experience changed him.  He went on to graduate work in religion and his dissertation was on Jesus and the politics of his day.  

Amos is filled with a lot of angry rhetoric and curses on one nation after another.  But then there is this statement that is as bold and surprising as the appearance of Mount Hood on a clear day:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon. 
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

That is religion.  Right there.  That is spirituality.  There is the word of God.   Without justice and righteousness, without the justice of eating, without the exalting of the lowly, all of our beliefs, and rituals, and beautiful words, theories, doctrines and songs are noise.  

I am not a very good Christian.     Johnny Cash said he was C minus Christian.   That is about right for me, on a good day.    I don’t give myself a low grade because of my so-called heretical beliefs.    I am not sure if I can even name the essential tenets of Reformed Theology let alone believe them.   I never seem to manage to put together a Presbyterian Book of Order correct worship service.    That is not why I am C minus.   Who cares about all that?

I am a C minus Christian because of this justice thing.    I know the justice thing is the message of the Bible, Jesus, Mary, and the angels.    And yet I often don’t do it.   Routing the arrogant, pulling down the mighty, exalting the lowly, filling the hungry, sending the rich away empty…. which I think means balancing power…

I don’t do a very good job with that.   I am mostly afraid.   Afraid of what I will lose.  Afraid that if I do justice, I’ll be the one sent away empty.   Afraid to preach justice because I don’t want to offend the people who pay my salary.      C minus.

You know when the Bible talks about God doing stuff it isn’t about some supernatural being doing stuff.  It is about us.  We personify our aspirations into stories.   What we call God is the emergence of all of those dreams and aspirations.    Not just our dreams, but the dreams of our ancestors of all religious traditions and of those who have none.     

These dreams and aspirations take on a life of their own.    These dreams and aspirations for the justice of eating, for the exalting of the downtrodden, for the peace between nations, for the end of exploitation and arrogant schemes, for sustainability with Earth and all Earthlings, these are real.  They become real, heaven on earth, as we participate in them.  That is as good a definition of God as I can up with.  

I am a C minus living that reality.  Not an A.  Not an F.  C minus.  Perhaps with other underachievers working together, we can turn some things around.    One day, we are going to be ancestors, too.    Future descendants will look back and evaluate us.   What did we do when we had our moment?   What did we contribute to God?

In a few moments we will ordain and install elders and deacons.  They will be asked to affirm some questions.    We can think small about these questions.   We can think they are about affirming rigid beliefs in speculative matters.   I do not see them that way.  I answer them in the affirmative, yet I never took any vow to deny science, or curiosity.  I never took a vow to leave my brain at the door.   I never took a vow to read the Bible literally.   I never took a vow to throw people of other religions under the bus and claim my way is superior to theirs.

To me at least, these questions are asking me if I can commit my heart to the aspirations of my ancestors who saw God in their work to lift up the lowly, love with risk, and live with hope for a renewed Earth.    I see them as questions inviting me to honor our tradition and to use my energy, intelligence, imagination, and love to add my small C minus voice to the emerging dream that is God.  

None of those questions say anything about Mary.  That’s too bad, because that would be a good one:  

Will you be a partner with Mary to lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and balance the power between rich and poor?    

I will, with God’s help.

Amen. 

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