Monday, December 16, 2013

The Great Advent Scandal

Dom Helder Camara, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."

For the last couple of weeks, I've had the Magnificat on my mind- Mary's song in Luke 1.36-46, which she sings after receiving the news of her miraculous (yet scandalous) future.  Mary was a lowly peasant girl, living in a man's world.  Many scholars believe her to be a young teenager at the time.  Most of us wouldn't have trusted her to baby-sit our children, yet here God is placing the redemption of all creation in her womb.  Mary runs off to see her old aunt Elizabeth, who is dealing with an impossibility of her own.  It's a magnificent scene of unthinkable impossibilities becoming reality.

And so, Mary bursts out in song.  She praises God for choosing her in her low estate.  She celebrates a God who lifts up the humble and brings down the proud.  She claims that this God will feed the hungry and send the rich away empty handed.  It reads, not like a normal Christmas carol, but like a song of social subversion and reversal.  To be sure, some people spiritualize this text and others dismiss it altogether, but the gospel of Luke doesn't allow you to do that.  In Luke's gospel, salvation has EVERYTHING to do with economics, and while Jesus was concerned with more than money, he wasn't concerned with less.  In Luke 4, Jesus returns to Nazareth and proclaims good news to those who seem far removed from good news:  the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.   He was reading from the prophet Isaiah, but you get the feeling this truth could have easily been transmitted through the umbilical cord.  In the sermon on the plain in Luke 6:17-49, Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor" (not the poor in spirit as in Matthew), and he says "woe to the rich."  Compassionate justice seems to be the core issue of the story of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31), and salvation comes to Zaccheus' house shortly after he claims to right fiscal wrongs (see Luke 19:1-10).  Social and economic justice are front and center in the gospel of Luke.  Mary is simply the first one to give voice to it.

Just last week, a political talking head accused the pope of being a Marxist because of his concern for the poor and his call for economic justice.  But it's not Marx who prompted the Pope to call for justice.  It's Mary, Luke, Jesus and the long line of saints from Ur of the Chaldeans to Rome to Little Rock to cities across the world who believe that God's Kingdom is an alternative reality indeed.  Mary's song also indicts those who so quickly cry about an imagined "war on Christmas," but are so slow to see that our blatant social injustices are more of an affront to this season than any, "Happy Holidays," greeting from the 18 year old girl working the Target check out line.

Truth be told, whenever I hear sweet little Mary singing her song, I can almost feel the ground rattle under my feet.  Some people, whose only lens is politics, will claim this song is scandalous.  Others, whose imaginations have been suffocated by "reality," will claim this song is impossible.  Maybe it is.  But so is the pregnant virgin singing it.

Friday, November 1, 2013

All Saints Day

According to the holy calendar, today is All Saints Day- a day set aside to remember the faithful who have gone before us.  To be honest, the Baptist tradition (of which I am a part) has not done a good job of remembering the saints throughout the ages.  It is so easy for all of us to forget that the church spans time, even as it spans space.  It is so easy to forget that many of the churches of which we are a part existed long before we frequented the pews.  It is so easy to forget that the faith we now cherish has passed down to us through the blood, sweat, and tears of the "great cloud of witnesses".  We are stewards of the faith we inherited- not creators of it.

So today, I've been thinking of the saints who have been canonized (in my mind at least).  I see the faces of my parents and grandparents who provided my first glimpses of God's love.  I see the the people in the churches of my youth who taught me the stories that shape my life.  I see the professors who not only stretched my thinking and faith, but also my character and commitment.    I see the faces of congregants whom I've pastored, people who cultivated more faith in me than I in them.  I think about those in years past who worked to make Second Baptist what it is today, from those who opposed the oppressive racism of the 1950's to those who ministered to AIDS victims in the 1990's.  I think about the lay leaders who sacrificed because they cared more about building God's kingdom than building their own.

And I think about the nameless saints on whose shoulders we now stand.  I think about those who gave their lives for the church and the good news which had so captured them.  I think about those whose thinking propelled the church into unknown futures.  Or those who preserved the scriptures that we tend to take for granted.  I think about the nameless pastors who have served in small churches for a glory not their own.  Or the missionaries who abandoned the comforts of home to make the lives of other people better.  I think about preachers who courageously announced truth when it wasn't in their best interests to do so, and the lay leaders who selflessly gave time and money to a cause that now outlives them.

For all these people I know and the multitudes I don't, I offer a humble, "Thank you."  Today, while many people disregard the church because they judge it by its worst, I give thanks for those who embodied it at its best.  

And today, as I look my boys in their eyes, I'll pray that- when they reflect on their canon of saints- I might be among them, even if I'm in the corner somewhere.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Blessed are Those Who Mourn

Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.  (Matt. 5.4).

Over the last several weeks, this verse has taken hold of me for reasons I don't fully understand.  Maybe it's because I've participated in two funerals in the last week, and at both funerals we celebrated and mourned simultaneously.  I am part of a community that shows up at funerals.  We hurt when someone we know dies, and we experience the loss viscerally.  We mourn- not in an overly pious kind of way- but in an authentically human way.  We pray.  We argue with God.  We cry.  We hurt.  We sing.  We reread the promises of God in the hopes that we might newly experience them as we read them.  We bring broccoli casseroles.  We tell stories.  We laugh.  We mourn.   

Or perhaps it's because I'm preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, which is composed of some of the most unorthodox statements in human history (not the least of which is the one mentioned above).  I usually offer those who are mourning my condolensces, not my congratulations.  In what reality can Jesus dare congratulate the mourning?  How can he see mourning as a station of blessedness?  I don't know about you, but when I am in mourning, "Congratulations!" isn't the greeting that seems appropriate.  Sometimes, I think I'd laugh out loud at Jesus if I wasn't exalting him as Lord of all.  Congratulating the mourning seems so foolish and counterintuitive. 

And yet, there are days when I begin thinking that we've lost the capacity to love and feel compassion for another human being.  Through a variety of means, our culture numbs us to the suffering and loss around us.  The media bombards us with bad news without giving time and space for us to absorb the suffering fully.  As a result, we understand the suffering around us but we no longer feel it enough to act upon it (or what Neil Postman calls an imbalance in the information-action ratio).  Our technology allows us an unimaginable breadth of connections, but it struggles to help us deepen them.  Seriously, how many funerals could you attend where you knew whether or not the preacher was lying through his teeth about the deceased?  We frame our ethical debates in terms of "rights" (absolutist language), but our conversations all too often lack the compassion and care for others that fueled Jesus' ethic.  If compassion for others stoked the same fires that personal liberties do, we would be a different culture indeed!  In all of these ways and more, we are conditioned to keep pain, suffering, and loss at arm's length.  Of course, in an effort to keep pain, suffering, and loss at arm's length, we must keep each other at arm's length too.  I cannot love you without exposing myself to pain because love demands mutuality and symbiosis.  I can't shield myself from human suffering without automatically diminishing my capacity to love another.  The moment I begin to resist sharing your suffering, I also begin to resist YOU.  One's capacity to suffer and one's capacity to love are exactly congruent.

In this way, only those who risk pain can truly love.  Only those who mourn death can be said to have ever appreciated life in the first place.  Only those who mourn loss truly valued it before it was lost.  Only those who mourn truly shared in the existence of another.  Maybe those who are mourning are the only ones who are fully ALIVE.  

I'm reminded today that the first people who experienced the reality of resurrection were those who were mourning.  Those women experienced the pain of loss, and they arrived at the tomb prepared to continue their mourning.  And yet, it was into their loss that the living Christ spoke to them.  It was in a cemetary that they first uncovered a life so subtly overwhelming that it changed the nature of their tears.  It was in their grief that they first experienced the risen Jesus.  Joy came in the morning.  Joy also came in the mourning.   

And so- blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.  (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves).