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Signs of Glory in Inglorious Places

See the source imageSECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, source of every blessing, you showed forth your glory and led many to faith by the works of your Son, who brought gladness and salvation to his people. Transform us by the Spirit of his love, that we may find our life together in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

According to our gospel lesson, Jesus produced at least 120 and perhaps as much as 180 gallons of wine-a ridiculously huge volume for what must have been a modest wedding reception. Moreover, this was not box quality. We are talking Richebourg here, the kind of liquor you dole out sparingly with the hors ’doeuvres. It’s not the cheap stuff you save for after-dinner dancing when everyone is so thoroughly trashed they don’t know or care much what they are drinking. This, the gospel tells us, was Jesus’ first sign.

In a sated culture like ours where there exists a milti-billion dollar industry selling diets, drugs, exercise, twelve step programs and surgery to help us stop eating and drinking ourselves to death, Jesus’ contribution to the wedding feast might appear excessive. But to a community in which all but the wealthiest of individuals lived just one famine away from starvation, the significance of this sign would have been hard to miss. For a people whose life was just one day after another of back breaking work and scarcity, a wedding celebration provided the one single occasion on which they could forget their difficult existence and eat and drink like royalty. Wine, a precious and rationed luxury, was an integral part of these festive celebrations. As New Testament scholar, Lindsey Trozzo, points out:

“Jewish prophetic literature uses the marriage metaphor for God’s covenant with Israel (Hosea 2:14-23), and the abundance of wine figures as an eschatological image of restoration, particularly for Israel (Joel 3:13, 18; Amos 9:11-15). The abundance of wine and saving the good wine for last draws upon this imagery of eschatological hope that is often coupled with messianic expectations.” See Commentary, Workingpreacher.org.

Indeed, our lesson from Isaiah echoes this theme by characterizing the return of Jewish exiles from Babylon to their homeland as a “marriage.” Isaiah 62:4-5. The meaning of Jesus’ sign was crystal clear. God’s gentle reign of abundance for all had begun.

Yet there is something a little strange about this sign. Jesus’ act of miraculous generosity went largely unrecognized-at least by those who seem to matter. The steward of the feast knows only that more wine, very good wine, has come in the nick of time from somewhere and that an embarrassing social faux pas has been averted. He has no idea where the wine came from and the only explanation he can find for its excellence is that somebody screwed up and served the poorer quality wine first. The bride and groom appear to have been oblivious both to the depletion of wine and Jesus’ remedy. For all we can tell, the wedding reception went on as though nothing unusual had happened. How can something be a “sign” when nobody sees it?

Actually, some people did see it. Jesus’ mother, for one. In contrast to Matthew, Mark and Luke, who identify Jesus’ mother as Mary, the mother of Jesus remains nameless in John’s gospel. Yet she is the one who recognizes the debacle with the wine and calls it to Jesus’ attention. More than that, she prods him into doing something about it. This is one of those rare occasions, such as Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman seeking exorcism for her daughter, when Jesus needs a poke to get him to do the right thing. (See Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28)

The servants are also privy to the miracle. These are the folks in the hotel uniform you see at wedding receptions. They bring in the main courses, clear the table and pour the coffee for desert. But they have no stake in the wedding festivities. They don’t sit at any table in the reception hall, share in the food and libations or dance with the wedding guests. There would be hell to pay for them if they did. They are outsiders. Servants have one and only one function: make sure the bridal couple, their attendants and the guests receive the best hospitality the facility has to offer. Yet in our gospel story, the servants, not the bridal party or the guests, are privy to Jesus’ very first sign.

Finally, the disciples witness the miracle-and believe. Or do they? Undoubtedly, the disciples recognized the miracle-but did they see the sign? If they had really seen this sign, would they have been in such consternation over how to feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish? Would they have seen in a blind man, not merely a theological riddle, but an opportunity for the revelation of God’s healing power? If the disciples had really seen this sign, you would think they would have been more receptive to Mary Magdalene on that Easter morning when she burst into the room where they were cowering in fear with the remarkable good news: “The Lord has risen!” Whatever “belief” this sign might have generated in the disciples, it is clear that it has a long way to go before it matures into genuine faith.

Turns out this first of Jesus’ signs involves more than the remarkable transformation of water into wine. This is a sign telling us that God’s glory is manifested to nameless women, minimum wage servers who are not even a part of the main event, and to a church that is too often blind to signs happening in front of its face. Our gospel lesson invites us to “search for signs,” to take a closer look around us. It challenges us to take notice of the people and events occurring in the back ground that we might otherwise lose in the glare of the “main attraction.” There are signs to be seen of God’s compassion, generosity and redemption. What will it take to make us recognize them and believe what they are telling us? That is the question explored in the following poem by Alan Brilliant.

Searching for Signs
 
I am searching for signs and wonders
which, when younger, I might have had
for nothing, nothing at all, but which,
when older, I threw, despised, in the street-
things of little value, spurned by the stupid.
What where these things? The works that
embody and in their time transform
all poets destined for great singing
when, in their maturity, they pick up the pearl
lodged and nourished in the treasure of their heart.
But, for me, cursed with sloth
there will be no art
no enameled bird, no cup, no forge.
When, in my youth, I heard the clamour
of the mob and was afraid, I turned and ran
and since that time am unmanned.
Oh, I did not betray a gift, and artifact
but only what was me and mine.
Instead of winding the golden thread
up in a ball and following
until the tall trees and blood-red fruit
screamed Paradise I examined and searched
pretending I needed more: “I need more time,”
I said. And, stooping, bowed the head
to look in mud and in that mud
lies the pearl but it is long gone.

Source: Poetry, September 1969 (c. Alan Brilliant). Alan Brilliant (b. 1936) is founder of Unicorn Press in Santa Barbara, California and served as its Director. He is married to Teo Savory.  Both wrote for and assisted in the editing operations of Unicorn Press. Brilliant was a friend and correspondent of Thomas Merton, the prolific Trappist monk who authored the autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain and several other contemplative and devotional works. You can read more poetry by Brilliant at The Sun website.

 

 

No Compromise with Tyranny

See the source imageI understand frustration over the government shutdown, especially on the part of government employees who are bearing the brunt of all this.  I know that you are among those of us who can least afford to lose your salaries. Both my parents were government workers earning considerably less than their private sector counterparts without the benefit of meaningful union representation. I understand the sentiment expressed by so many people inconvenienced by this shutdown that politicians should “stop bickering and simply do whatever it takes to get the government open again” so that life can go back to normal and we can get back some measure of security.

But here’s the thing folks. This is not “just politics.” This isn’t a tug-of-war between two equally unreasonable and stubborn forces. This is the case of a United States president bypassing the will of congress to use our tax dollars in financing a wasteful, unnecessary and ineffective border wall. He is doing so by effectively shutting down essential government services until he gets his way. Giving in to the president’s demand will set a dangerous precedent for executive overreach, leaving the constitutional framework of our government in tatters. For those of you who think that congress should simply cave in to Donald Trump’s infantile temper tantrum and give him what he wants so that we can all have some peace and security, I would strongly encourage you to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Americans in every generation have died to defend the constitutional system of checks and balances ensuring protection of our basic freedoms. If we can’t put up with some short-term pain to ensure that our constitutional framework is preserved, we dishonor the graves of all those who died to establish it and preserve it for us. If we  cannot bring ourselves to stand for our constitution, then we deserve to live on our knees.  Here’s hoping that the House of Representatives stands firm.

A Mark too Deep to Erase

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 43:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

Recently, I came upon a website run by an organization called Freedom from Religion Foundation on which you can download a “Debaptism Certificate” renouncing your baptism. The appeal is to persons who were baptized as infants or before such time as they were able to give informed consent to receipt of the sacrament and who now wish to reject their baptismal faith. The certificate is free for download and printing. If you don’t mind paying a small fee, you can get a certificate with an embossed seal and original signature by the organization’s president suitable, I presume, for framing.

I must confess that I find this puzzling. If you believe, as I assume most persons in the market for debaptism do, that baptism is a meaningless rite because the God behind it doesn’t exist, why would you dignify it with a certified denunciation? Why go to the trouble of erasing what isn’t there? In a strange way, this compulsion to “undo” one’s baptism testifies to its ongoing potency. These persons so hostile toward their baptisms are perhaps a good deal closer to genuine faith than the couple bringing their child to the church for baptism though they have not attended church since confirmation and have no intention of doing so again until they are carried through the sanctuary doors in a box. For the debaptism certificate holder, baptism at means something. At a bare minimum, it merits the dignity of a formal renunciation.

However much cathartic relief debaptism might bring to someone coming away from a bad experience with Christianity, it remains a nullity. For better or worse, the things we do and the things done to us shape our character and destiny. It is significant that the gospels place Jesus’ baptism immediately before the start of his ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke each testify to the divine voice declaring Jesus’ sonship as he emerges from the waters of the Jordan. John’s gospel has the Baptist testifying to how he witnessed the Spirit remain upon Jesus. The rest of the gospel narrative can properly be understood as an unfolding in Jesus’ life and ministry of what that baptismal declaration means.

Similarly, the sacrament of Holy Baptism sets one on a trajectory of faithful witness to God’s reign. It identifies one as a child of God, thereby bestowing a unique and holy significance to one’s name. As we all know, and as Jacqueline Woodson’s poem illustrates, the power to name has a real creative potency. A name can shape one’s destiny, for good or ill. To ensure that baptism’s potency continues to be redemptive in one’s life, baptism works in tandem with the sacrament of Holy Communion, the preaching of God’s word, the communion of saints and the mission of the church. It is within that communal context that the mystery of each individual baptismal seed takes root, blossoms and brings forth its own particular fruit.

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I believe that baptismal practice among mainline protestant churches, such as my own, leaves much to be desired. We routinely perform baptisms of children whose parents have virtually no relationship to any church and no interest in affiliating with one. We often do little to educate these families about what we are doing or following up when, quite predictably, they disappear from our midst. For more on this ecclesiastically irresponsible baptismal promiscuity, see my post for January 11, 2015.

Notwithstanding all of the above, a baptismal certificate warrants that God’s solemn promise of salvation was spoken to the person it names and that a congregation vowed to assist that person in growing into faith and discipleship with Jesus. The stubborn fact is that you can stop believing in God, but you can’t stop God from believing in you. We break our promises to God with depressing regularity, but God keeps the ones God makes to us. Is one’s resort to debaptism a desperate attempt to break the grip of that “love that will not let us go?” I don’t know because I cannot get inside the head of another person. All I do know is that such efforts are futile because God is not an absentee parent. God never gives up on God’s kids-not even the problem children.

Here is the above named poem illustrating the power of bestowing a name, a power that is in many respects analogous to what we are doing in Holy Baptism.

a girl named jack

Good enough name for me, my father said
the day I was born.
Don’t see why
she can’t have it, too.

But the women said no.
My mother first
Then each aunt, pulling my pink blanket back
patting the crop of thick curls
tugging at my new toes
touching my cheeks.

We won’t have a girl named Jack, my mother said.

And my father’s sisters whispered,
A boy named Jack was bad enough.
But only so my mother could hear.
Name a girl Jack, my father said,
and she can’t help but
grow up strong.
Raise her right, my father said,
and she’ll make that name her own.
Name a girl Jack
and people will look at her twice, my father said.

For no good reason but to ask if her parents
were crazy, my mother said.

And back and forth it went until I was Jackie
and my father left the hospital mad.

My mother said to my aunts,
Hand me that pen, wrote
Jacqueline where it asked for a name.
Jacqueline, just in case
someone thought to drop the ie.

Jacqueline, just in case
I grew up and wanted something a little bit longer
and further away from
Jack.

Source: Brown Girl Dreaming (c. 2014 by Jacqueline Woodson, pub. by Nancy Paulsen Books) Jacqueline Woodson (b. 1963) is an American writer. She has produced several books for children and adolescents. Though born in in Columbus, Ohio, she spent her early childhood in Greenville, South Carolina and moved to Brooklyn New York at the age of seven. She is best known for Miracle’s Boys, and her Newbery Honor-winning titles, After Tupac and D FosterFeathers, Show Way and Brown Girl Dreaming, the work from which the above poem is taken. Woodson served as the Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015–17 and was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress for 2018–19. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation website.

A Fragile God

See the source imageEPIPHANY OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Prayer of the Day: O God, on this day you revealed your Son to the nations by the leading of a star. Lead us now by faith to know your presence in our lives, and bring us at last to the full vision of your glory, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Matthew 2:2.

A new born baby is a slim reed on which to hang the fate of the universe. All the more so in the first century when infant mortality approached 50% among the common people and children surviving birth and infancy often failed to reach adulthood. In addition to these bleak odds, this particular infant has acquired a powerful enemy, namely, King Herod. The promise of God’s just and peaceful reign appear to rest on the shakiest of foundations.

The miracle of the Incarnation forces us to rethink everything we think we know about God. If we embrace Jesus as the new born king, we must let go of our understanding of god as the powerful controller who pushes the buttons that make things happen here below. We need to let go of our belief in the god who interferes with the the natural flow of things to save us from the consequences of our own mistakes. We need to let go of the god who favors nations, peoples and religions with conquest, success and prosperity. According to the Nativity narrative, the only God there is stares at us through the eyes of a helpless infant. There is no other.

For me, Sunday’s Epiphany gospel is always clouded by the shadow of Holy Innocents. We cannot escape the paradox. The wonderous star that brought the magi to the Christ child also triggered the genocidal fury of Herod against Bethlehem’s children. Why did not God intervene to stop this horrible atrocity-or all the others that have occurred throughout the bloody course of human history? If we have been paying careful attention to this Sunday’s gospel, we know the answer. God’s power is not the sort we so desperately want God to have. God’s power consists precisely in God’s making God’s self completely vulnerable to us. God’s “strength,” says St. Paul, is precisely God’s weakness. I Corinthians 1:25.

For many people who take comfort in the belief that “God is in control,” this view of divine power is unsettling. We would like God to be that all wise and all powerful parent who can “fix” anything. But as every real parent knows, “power” and “control” don’t really fix any of the jams our children get themselves into. What our children need most is our understanding, our compassion and our modeling of the virtues we would like to see instilled in them. Moreover, it seems we must re-learn in every generation the limits of political and military power as well as the dangers of putting our “faith in princes” or presidents either, for that matter. Psalm 146:3. The power of coercive force that has proven so destructive and dehumanizing when used by us against each other is unlikely to save us when wielded in greater measure by God. Peace maintained by the threat or use of violence is no true peace.

It turns out that the God revealed in the manger is the only one who can save us and the only one worthy of our devotion. Belief in a god who stands above and outside of creation manipulating it without regard to the consequences of its creatures; belief in a god who creates sexual beings of various orientations and ruthlessly punishes them for living out their sexual identities; belief in a god who would have us place the welfare of our own nation, race, tribe or culture above the welfare of all others is not biblical faith. Better to be an atheist than worship such a god. The God we are invited to worship on Epiphany is the One we can kill, the infant that extends his tiny hand to grasp the finger of the visiting magi.

This Epiphany gospel invites us to view the fragility of God, the fragility of our environment, the fragility of so many vulnerable people on our globe and the fragility of life itself. It is a frightening thought that we might indeed severely and irreparably damage our earth’s life sustaining capacity by our selfishness, greed and indifference. It is horrifying having to face the reality that our world might indeed slip into a dark age of chaos, violence and war. It is terrifying to confront, as we must, the fact that there is no god at the control panel to turn the tide of history from the destructive course on which we have set it.

So what, then, is the good word in all of that? Just this: that the God who sent his only Son,  who gave us the best God had to give, is stubbornly determined to love the hell out of us. If the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection tell us anything, they tell us that nothing we can do will ever stop God from loving us. Even as we seem bound and determined to extinguish life, God is with us in our suffering and intent on giving us life. That life is revealed in fragile congregations on the verge of extinction that nevertheless find the courage and compassion to witness to and serve their communities. It is revealed in refugee camps throughout the world where fragile groups of people of all faiths and no faith at all toil to bring a measure of relief to people living in despair of ever finding a home. It is revealed in the shadow of tyranny where courageous though fragile people dare to speak truth to power-even when their voices are shaking. Fragile as these epiphanies of God’s life among us may seem, they nonetheless testify to life that is eternal and to power that is truly transformative.  They  bear witness to the only life worth living and the only power worth having.

Here is a fitting poem by Joseph Brodsky helping us to contemplate the Epiphany of our Lord and his fragility.

Star of the Nativity

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.

Source: Joseph Brodsky, Joseph, Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999 (c. 2000 by Joseph Brodsky, pub. by Farrar Straus and Giroux,) Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1940. He held a number of jobs in his youth, including mortician, ship boiler room operator and geologist. He began writing his own poetry in 1955 and became well known in Russian literary circles. Though his poems were largely apolitical at this time, he nevertheless came under the scrutiny and suspicion of the Soviet authorities. In 1963, Brodsky’s poetry was denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as anti-Soviet. His papers were confiscated, he was interrogated and twice put in a mental institution. Finally, he was arrested and charged with “social parasitism.” He was strongly advised to emigrate from the Soviet Union and did so in 1972. Brodsky settled in the United States with the help of poet W. H. Auden. He spent the rest of his life in America teaching at Mount Holyoke College, Yale, Columbia and University of Michigan. You can find out more about Joseph Brodsky and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

When Jesus was Naughty

FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Prayer of the Day: Shine into our hearts the light of your wisdom, O God, and open our minds to the knowledge of your word, that in all things we may think and act according to your good will and may live continually in the light of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Luke 2:48.

I have often wondered why we have this story about Jesus slipping away from Mary and Joseph to listen to the scribes as they taught in the Temple. This is the one and only New Testament story we have about Jesus’ childhood. You would think the evangelist could do better. Why not give us the story of Jesus winning the Nazareth Elementary School spelling bee? Or Jesus making the winning touchdown for Galilee Regional High School in the big game against arch rival Judea? Or how about Jesus receiving his Eagle Scout medal? Why not a story about Jesus’ youth that we can hold up as an example to our children? Why does the one story we have about the childhood of Jesus have to be a story about Jesus doing exactly what we all tell our children they must never do? Why this story about Jesus being naughty?

It might be helpful to step back for a moment from the task of figuring out what this story means and ask a different question. We might try asking, “Where do I find myself in this story?” As a parent who has raised three children, my sympathies go first to Mary and Joseph. Let’s face it, this is every parent’s nightmare. For three long days Mary and Joseph lived that nightmare. They must have wondered whether they would ever see their son again. They must have struggled not to imagine the worst. They must have asked themselves a thousand times, “Why didn’t we just keep a better eye on him?” So I can imagine the relief Mary and Joseph experienced when they found the boy, Jesus, safe in the temple. I can well imagine how they must have been torn between their longing to take him in their arms and hug him with all their might on the one hand, and on the other their urge to slap him silly for putting them through three days of hell.

When I was a teenager, I think I might have had a different take on this story. I would have sympathized more with Jesus. I understand, as I suspect a lot of children do, what it is like to have a calling, a passion, an interest that parents just don’t understand. “Why do you waste time on that project of yours when your homework still isn’t done?” “Why can’t you go out and play with the other kids?” “Sitting in your room with a book is a waste of a beautiful day like this.” “You have to start being practical. You can’t expect to make a living off painting watercolors, or writing poems or turning over rocks to find interesting bugs.” “You have to start thinking about your future.” I can hear Joseph telling his son, “It’s nice to be religious and to have an interest in the Bible, Jesus. But that won’t help you build chairs and tables in the carpenter’s shop.” There was a time when I could identify with a kid whose dreams and whose interests were different from family and cultural expectations.

I also have to say that I can identify with the scribes in this story. Like me, they were teachers who sought to engage their people with the scriptures. That can be a frustrating task, especially when it comes to young people. It is often so hard to connect with kids whose interests and concerns are so different from my own. Frankly, that is an area in my ministry where I would like to have been able to do better than I did. Believe me, I tried. Thus, I can understand how overjoyed these scribes must have been to find a young boy who seemed to love the scriptures, who asked them deep and probing questions, who thought deeply about his answers and always came back with yet more questions. I can imagine that these scribes were overjoyed to meet this boy Jesus, who was so inquisitive, hungry for knowledge and eager to learn. This is the kid all teachers dream about having in their class.

Maybe the evangelist wants to remind us that real life is messy. The Nativity is nothing if not good news for people like us who live in a messy world with a lot of loose ends. Sometimes the most promising student turns out not to be “the good kid,” the one that follows all the rules, gets the homework done on time and scores high on the SAT. It might just be the kid who ran away from home and isn’t even supposed to be in class. Sometimes our worst parenting blunders turn out to be the tools God uses to accomplish God’s purpose for our children-which might be a lot different than our own hopes and dreams for them. Sometimes you have to swim against the tide of home, family and friends to be the person you really are-even when it inflicts pain, causes disruption and results in feelings of hurt and betrayal. Jesus didn’t come into the world to make any of that easier. Instead, he came into the midst of our messy lives to inject his own divine life into them. However complicated, messy and mixed up things may get in our lives, Jesus is at work weaving all their loose ends, unfinished business and broken pieces into the fabric of God’s new creation. That is what we mean when we say that the Word of God became flesh.

So, you see, there is a place for everyone in the biblical narrative. Whether you are the frantic parent racing to keep up with a kid that seems altogether of control; or whether you are a young person struggling to figure out who you are under the suffocating weight of parental, school and societal expectations; or whether you are a preacher fighting to make the voice of God heard in a world that isn’t listening, there is a place for you in this great epic saga we call the Bible. As I have told every confirmation class I have ever had, every Bible class I have ever taught and every congregation to which I have ever preached: the Bible is not a book about stuff that happened way back when. It is a book about what is happening today. The Old, Old Story of Jesus and his love is not over yet. There are more chapters to be written, more characters to be introduced and twists in the plot that we cannot foresee. To be sure, we know that the end will be Jesus’ return in glory. But that end isn’t in sight yet. For now, as Paul would say, “we walk by faith and not by sight.” And we walk by faith because we do not walk alone. We travel with Jesus and his disciples in every age knowing that, whether we see it, understand it or perceive it, Jesus is about his Father’s business of redeeming our lives.

Here is a poem by Jane Kenyon about God’s injection of Jesus’ life blood into the world.

Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, 1993

On the doomed ceiling
God is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what the do?
I know their hearts
and arguments:

We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and the rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

Source: Poetry, December 1995. Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan in her hometown and completed her master’s degree there in 1972. It was there also that she met her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire where she lived until her untimely death in 1995 at age 47. You can read more of Jane Kenyon’s poetry and find out more about her at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Hearing the Nativity Story Over the Din of Christmas

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that binds us, that we may receive you in joy and serve you always, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The lectionary has done us a great disservice in attempting to silence the prophet Micah before he comes to the point of his proclamation. As you will see when you click on the link, the program governing Oremus Bible Browser was unable to honor the ecclesiastical directive cutting off the last line of vs. 5, in which the prophet declares:

If the Assyrians come into our land
and tread upon our soil,
we will raise against them seven shepherds
and eight installed as rulers.

The peace Micah promises is no abstract, utopian fantasy. It speaks to his peoples’ concrete circumstance, namely, imperial domination under the brutal reign of Assyria. Peace comes about through revolution, through the overthrow of Assyria and restoration for the kingdom of Judah under a new regime. Perhaps the lectionary gurus thought it tasteless to bring up colonial oppression and the struggle to overthrow it at this time in the church year. After all, this Sunday will fall just two days before Christmas. All four Advent candles will be lit and, more likely than not, the holy family will be comfortably ensconced in the manger with the shepherd’s looking on as the magi make their way under the star overhead. Chances are, this will be the Sunday of the children’s Christmas pageant. It’s not the time to be bringing up unpleasant subjects like injustice, political oppression and poverty.

Or perhaps it is. At least Mary the mother of our Lord seems to think so. The lectionary people were not quite as successful in censoring her. For Mary, the messiah’s coming is not about gift exchanges, family reunions and fun activities for kids. It is not exactly comforting either. Like Micah, Mary understands salvation in “this worldly” terms of a radical reversal of the status quo, a new order under which the “last are first and the first are last.” The messiah she proclaims “br[ings] down the powerful from their thrones, and lift[s] up the lowly; he…fill[s] the hungry with good things, and sen[ds] the rich away empty.” Luke 1:51-53. Those of us who live comfortably and have wealth sufficient to engage in our nation’s annual orgy of consumption and gluttony known as “the holiday season” have good reason to tremble at the coming of messiah. The shocking narrative of Christ’s Nativity is nothing like our cultural Christmas. The two cannot be reconciled and, I am coming to believe, neither can they co-exist. That replicas of the manger become a cultural fixture this time every year testifies less to America’s Christian heritage than to the American church’s abysmal failure to tell the story of the Nativity. We have been complicit with America’s hijacking of the gospel and its relentless efforts to render the Christ child “cute,” and therefore non-threatening. We have created an ecclesiastical environment in which the miracle of the Incarnation is drowned out by the din of Christmas.

I think it is high time for the church to let the Grinch have Christmas and return to celebrating the Nativity. When we get it right, it becomes painfully clear that the biblical story has no resemblance to the sentimental, saccharine Christmas so many of us have come to love, the one marketed by Hollywood, Hallmark and Hobby Lobby. The feel good Christmas that begins already in mid-October creeping into our stores, oozing out of our radios and lighting up our neighborhoods is about as empty of hope and meaning as the Santa Clause making his appearance on the cancer ward in Eunice Tietjen’s poem. By contrast, the Nativity is the story of an unplanned pregnancy, scandal, homelessness and political oppression in which God is nevertheless with us forging a new thing. That’s real news and it is news worth telling.

It might spoil Christmas for a lot of folks if we speak concretely about God’s judgment during this highly celebrated season of mushy good will, judgment that might terrify us, but which is good news for the poor. But I’m not sure we should be concerned about that. If now isn’t the right time, when will the time ever be right? What better time could there be for talking about the fact that one in thirty of our nation’s children is homeless than in this season when we worship the child of a homeless couple forced to give birth in a barn? What better time to talk about Jakelin Caal Maquin, the 7-year-old refugee girl from Guatemala who died of dehydration and shock in the custody of our Border Patrol than this holy season when we remember another young family driven to flee across the border as refugees from violence? These are, after all, the ones for whom the miracle of the Incarnation occurred. These are the ones among whom the Word becomes flesh. These are the ones God would “lift up” and “fill with good things.”

I might be a liturgical/theological Scrooge. But at least I am in good company. Listen to what Martin Luther had to say in preaching on Christmas:

“Now let everyone examine himself in the light of the Gospel and see how far he is from Christ, what is the character of his faith and love. There are many who are enkindled with dreamy devotion, when they hear of such poverty of Christ, are almost angry with the citizens of Bethlehem, denounce their blindness and ingratitude, and think, if they had been there, they would have shown the Lord and his mother a more becoming service, and would not have permitted them to be treated so miserably. But they do not look by their side to see how many of their fellow men need their help, and which they let go on in their misery unaided. Who is there upon earth that has no poor, miserable, sick, erring ones, or sinful people around him? Why does he not exercise his love to those? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him?” Sermon for Christmas Day, Martin Luther, from his Wartburg Church Postil, 1521-1522.

I think that Luther would probably take a dim view of much that passes for Christmas preaching these days. I think he might have a word or two for people who clamor for closed borders, cheer when twenty million people lose their medical insurance and finance corporate tax breaks by taking bread out of the mouths of homeless children and then show up in church on Christmas Eve singing hymns to the newborn king. I think Luther’s first order of business would be to tell such a congregation that it is in no sense Christian. He was not above playing the Grinch and “stealing Christmas” if that was what it took to tell the story of the Nativity.

Yes, I understand that the gospel is good news and that preaching is not all about clobbering one’s hearers over the head with moralisms and inflicting guilt. Furthermore, I, along with most of my colleagues, am just as caught up in the rip currents of this frantic season and its false values as anyone in my congregation. I don’t have the standing to address my people in the way John the Baptist did his. More importantly, God’s last word is never condemnation. It is always salvation. To be sure, the rich and the powerful are also objects of God’s compassion and grace. But this good news sometimes has to be heard first as bad news before it can be received as good. We need to see ourselves as we are before we are capable of understanding what it means to be loved by God. We need to understand that from which we must be saved before the promise of salvation can have any meaning. We need shock therapy to jolt us out of our coldness, our indifference and our self-centered fixation on our own security and on what we regard as ours.

The truth is that the same unjust and oppressive systems killing refugee children on our border, denying medical care to the chronically ill and financing corporate economic interest at the expense of our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors are also hardening our hearts, suffocating our souls and distorting the image of God in which we were created. That is the condition from which we need so desperately to be saved. We need for the Word made flesh to become incarnate within us so that we can become human again. Salvation for us means learning to weep for Jakelin Caal Maquin. It means having compassion kindled in our hearts so that we can see beyond the blinders of our social, racial or political stereotypes and respond to those neighbors in our midst lacking food, shelter, medical care and human companionship. Until that happens, we will never recognize or receive Christ Jesus, however melodic our hymns to his praise might be.

The following poem is deeply upsetting, but illustrates, I think, the emptiness of Christmas in an environment crying out for the good news of the Nativity, the Word made flesh in the heart of human suffering.

Christmas at Saint Luke’s Hospital

By Eunice Tietjens

Here in this house of mystery and death,
This challenge flung at God, who has set pain
And heart-ach and slow torture in his world,
Dawns Christmas Day.

We have outwatched the night.
Vainly, in tight-lipped silence, we have wrung
From creeping death a piteous hour or two.
Now it is day. The long white corridors,
Naked and empty in the winds of dawn,
Stir in the light, and grow alive again
With flitting nurses and internes in white,
Who talk and laugh together-as they must.

They wish us “Merry Christmas,” and we try
To cover our soul’s nakedness, and smile,
And as we wait, dumb with long agony,
A jingling of loud bells breaks the white clam
Absurdly. A man enters, dressed in red,
Tricked out in furs, white-bearded for the saint
Of rapturous childhood, and his deep eyes wear
A haunting, wistful mask of gaiety.
He laughs and capers, jingles bells and jokes
With mad abandon, speaks a word to us-
A frothy nothing; then, still jingling, goes,
And the white calm returns.

Source: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. 5, No. III (December, 1914). Eunice Tietjens (1884 –1944) was an American poet, novelist, journalist, children’s author, lecturer, and editor. She was born in Chicago on July 29, 1884. She was educated in Europe and travelled heavily. She lived in Florida, New York City, Japan, China, Tahiti and Tunisia, among other places. Tietjens served as a war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News in France from 1917-1918. She began early on writing and served for twenty-five years as associate editor for Poetry. You can learn more about Eunice Tietjens and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

A River that Carries the Reign of God

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
 
“And the crowds asked [John the Baptizer], ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’” Luke 3:10-14
 
What practical difference does the reign of God make? John’s answer is clear and direct. For those of us who have closets full of coats and pantries filled with food, his imperatives don’t seem all that severe. But for people living hand to mouth just one bad harvest away from starvation, emptying their meager surplus of food or parting with a spare coat could put their very survival on the line. Tax collectors in first century Palestine were more like wealthy mafia dons than the modestly paid IRS agents we know today. Extortion was the means by which they earned their living. So, too, the soldiers responding to John’s preaching were not anything like the military personnel that serve in our armed forces. They were not particularly patriotic, disciplined or subject to any code of military ethics. They were more like warlords whose attachment to Herod Antipas protected them from all legal reprisal for their brutal conduct. For all of these various people, John issued a clarion call to stake everything on his assurance that the reign of God has drawn near. The price of obedience was far higher than simple obedience to the law with a little charitable giving on top. John is inviting his hearers to begin living boldly and corporately into the reign of God.

If we fast forward to Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, we can find the earliest believers putting John’s admonitions into concrete action. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Acts 4:32-35. I think there are some interesting parallels between these kingdom ethics and intentional anarchism that might be worth exploring.

In his recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism,[1] James C. Scott calls attention to a type of collective lawbreaking in which we all engage, namely, speeding. He uses, as an example, a major roadway with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. Everyone knows that the police are not likely to prosecute drivers traveling at 56-60 miles per hour. For that reason, the de facto limit is 60 or perhaps even 65 miles per hour. This ten mile per hour “safe” zone thus becomes “occupied territory,” space that has been seized from the government, though without any formal “movement” or “organized resistance.” In the same way, the early church did not originate as an organized opponent of the Roman Empire. Its purpose was not to overthrow Caesar. Yet the mere existence of this community that refused to recognize the social hierarchy based on imperial office, Roman citizenship, gender and slavery threatened the empire’s legitimacy. The church claimed and occupied space for the reign of God within the heart of the empire and thereby destabilized its grip on the totality of human existence.

The point, here, is not to advocate lawbreaking for its own sake. Clearly, the New Testament church was not in the business of encouraging criminal conduct. It was rather concerned with embodying the life it had inherited from its Lord, a life of organic communitarianism modeled not on the hierarchical principles of the empire, but upon the interdependent relationship of limbs, eyes, ears and tongue for the functioning of a healthy body. The church represented God’s alternative way of being human made concrete in Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. That “way,” of course, brought the church and its members into a collision course with imperial culture.

Another book I have been reading sheds further light on John’s proclamation and the church’s witness. Called to Community: The life Jesus Wants for His People,[2] is a compilation of essays and fragments written by authors as disparate as Benedict of Nursia, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Henri J.M. Nouwen and Jean Vanier. Each author discusses aspects of intentional Christian community from the perspective of monasticism, common purse communities, commune type arrangements and house churches. These essays do not paint any utopian pictures. Intentional Christian community is not for the faint of heart and few brave enough to undertake it are able to go the distance. I am coming away with two impressions thus far: 1) Intentional Christian communities are fragile, subject to exploitation by unscrupulous leaders with no accountability, vulnerable to isolationist tendencies and cultish leanings and, in most cases, they end unhappily; 2) Intentional Christian community is nonetheless possible in spite of its dangers and difficulties (I have discussed a few thriving specimens in my post for Sunday, August 24, 2017); and 3) Jesus never calls us to do anything that is easy.

The question, then, is how can American churches often resembling more voluntary associations of likeminded, but fiercely individualistic people, become organic and interdependent communities that live into the reign of God in Christ Jesus? What if we were to change our focus from preaching justice to the rest of the world to practicing justice among ourselves? What if we were to commit to ensuring that no member of our congregations will ever go without necessary medical treatment? What if we were to ensure financing for full time clergy and lay leadership for our poorest congregations? What if we were willing to sell off all congregational or synodical assets necessary to finance these goals? What would it take for us to become a community with a politics based on service, an economy based on human need and a culture grounded in mutual compassion? What if we turned our attention to becoming what we believe God intends for all creation?

This is not to say that acts of charity can replace systemic societal reform or that the church should not concern itself with what goes on outside its walls. To the contrary, the good news of Jesus Christ is addressed to the “cosmos” for which he lived and died. But we have to start somewhere and where we start matters. Bold proclamations condemning racism are somewhat undercut when they come from a church that continues to be over 90% white. So, too, preachy-screechy social statements calling for a more just economic order ring hollow when they come from congregations who underpay their pastors and staff and who live lives that are often tangential to the church’s mission and largely independent of one another. What made the New Testament church’s witness so persuasive was its remarkable communal, interdependent existence telling the whole world that there is a better way than imperial bondage. The early church seized space for the reign of God. It became the river that brought John’s prophetic imperatives to the gates of Rome.  That is what intentional Christian communities do. Often they fizzle out over time. Sometimes they fail. But always, like John, they are a light burning, shining and preparing the way of the Lord. John 5:35; Luke 3:4.

Here is a poem by Martin Espada about communal struggle that I think John the Baptizer would understand.

Vivas To Those Who Have Failed: The Paterson Silk Strike, 1913

Vivas to those who have fail’d!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!
—Walt Whitman

  1. The Red Flag

The newspapers said the strikers would hoist
the red flag of anarchy over the silk mills
of Paterson. At the strike meeting, a dyers’ helper
from Naples rose as if from the steam of his labor,
lifted up  his hand and said here is the red flag:
brightly stained with dye for the silk of bow ties
and scarves, the skin and fingernails boiled away
for six dollars a week in the dye house.

He sat down without another word, sank back
into the fumes, name and face rubbed off
by oblivion’s thumb like a Roman coin
from the earth of his birthplace dug up
after a thousand years, as the strikers
shouted the only praise he would ever hear.

  1. The River Floods the Avenue

He was the other Valentino, not the romantic sheik
and bullfighter of silent movie palaces who died too young,
but the Valentino standing on his stoop to watch detectives
hired by the company bully strikebreakers onto a trolley
and a chorus of strikers bellowing the banned word scab.
He was not a striker or a scab, but the bullet fired to scatter
the crowd pulled the cork in the wine barrel of Valentino’s back.
His body, pale as the wings of a moth, lay beside his big-bellied wife.

Two white-veiled horses pulled the carriage to the cemetery.
Twenty thousand strikers walked behind the hearse, flooding
the avenue like the river that lit up the mills, surging around
the tombstones. Blood for blood, cried Tresca: at this signal,
thousands of hands dropped red carnations and ribbons
into the grave, till the coffin evaporated in a red sea.

III. The Insects in the Soup

Reed was a Harvard man. He wrote for the New York magazines.
Big Bill, the organizer, fixed his good eye on Reed and told him
of the strike. He stood on a tenement porch across from the mill
to escape the rain and listen to the weavers. The bluecoats
told him to move on. The Harvard man asked for a name to go
with the number on the badge, and the cops tried to unscrew
his arms from their sockets. When the judge asked his business,
Reed said: Poet. The judge said: Twenty days in the county jail.

Reed was a Harvard man. He taught the strikers Harvard songs,
the tunes to sing with rebel words at the gates of the mill. The strikers
taught him how to spot the insects in the soup, speaking in tongues
the gospel of One Big Union and the eight-hour day, cramming the jail
till the weary jailers had to unlock the doors. Reed would write:
There’s war in Paterson. After it was over, he rode with Pancho Villa.

  1. The Little Agitator

The cops on horseback charged into the picket line.
The weavers raised their hands across their faces,
hands that knew the loom as their fathers’ hands
knew the loom, and the billy clubs broke their fingers.
Hannah was seventeen, the captain of the picket line,
the Joan of Arc of the Silk Strike. The prosecutor called her
a little agitator. Shame, said the judge; if she picketed again,
he would ship her to the State Home for Girls in Trenton.

Hannah left the courthouse to picket the mill. She chased
a strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yidish the word
for shame. Back in court, she hissed at the judge’s sentence
of another striker. Hannah got twenty days in jail for hissing.
She sang all the way to jail. After the strike came the blacklist,
the counter at her husband’s candy store, the words for shame.

  1. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed

Strikers without shoes lose strikes. Twenty years after the weavers
and dyers’ helpers returned hollow-eyed to the loom and the steam,
Mazziotti led the other silk mill workers marching down the avenue
in Paterson, singing the old union songs for five cents more an hour.
Once again the nightsticks cracked cheekbones like teacups.
Mazziotti pressed both hands to his head, squeezing red ribbons
from his scalp. There would be no buffalo nickel for an hour’s work
at the mill, for the silk of bow ties and scarves. Skull remembered wood.

The brain thrown against the wall of the skull remembered too:
the Sons of Italy, the Workmen’s Circle, Local 152, Industrial
Workers of the World, one-eyed Big Bill and Flynn the Rebel Girl
speaking in tongues to thousands the prophecy of an eight-hour day.
Mazziotti’s son would become a doctor, his daughter a poet.
Vivas to those who have failed: for they become the river.

Source: Espada, Martin, Vivas To Those Who Have Failed (c. 2015 by Martin Espada, pub. by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.) Martín Espada (b. 1957) is a Latino poet and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he teaches poetry. He was born in Brooklyn, New York and was introduced to political activism by his father, a leader in the civil rights movement. Espada received a Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Juris Doctor from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. For many years he worked as a tenant lawyer and a supervisor of a legal services program. In 1982, Espada published his first book of poems, The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero. In 2001, he was named Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. You can find out more about Martin Espada and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Scott, James C., Two Cheers for Anarchism, (c. 2012 Princeton University Press) pp. 14-29.

[2] (c.2016 by Plough Publishing House).

“Thy Kingdom Come-” Is that Really what We Want?

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Prayer of the day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Malachi 3:2

“Be careful what you wish for.” That was one of my Mom’s favorite sayings. It has often proven itself in my own experience. Christmas gifts for which I longed as a child frequently lost their charm before the dawn of the new year, leaving me to wish that I had coveted something else. Though the promotion I worked so hard to get brought a higher salary and a greater degree of financial flexibility, it also burdened me with responsibilities that brought stress and anxiety, commitments that took me away from my family and round the clock duties that robbed me of what little time I had for leisure activity. Wishes always come with an invisible price tag. In the words of Galinda in the musical, Wicked:

“I couldn’t be happier, no I couldn’t be happier,
Though it is, I admit, the tiniest bit, unlike I anticipated.
‘Cause getting your dreams, strange as it seems
Is a little bit complicated.
There’s a kind of a sort of cost,
There’s a couple of things you’ve lost.
There are bridges you crossed
You didn’t know that you crossed till you crossed them.”

Sometimes a wish come true ends in tragedy. How many stories have we not heard of lottery winners discovering that their “ticket to a dream” turned out to be a nightmare? Garth Brooks got it right: “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

In this week’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures the prophet Malachi sounds a cautionary note against his peoples’ longing for the day of the Lord. He seems to be asking his hearers, “Do you have any idea what you are asking for?” He goes on to say, “[the Lord] is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” I don’t know, but I suspect the folks listening to Malachi had a reaction similar to mine last Sunday as I participated with my church in the intercessory prayer. The rubrics typically call for the minister leading the prayers to end each petition with, “Lord in your mercy,” and for the congregation to respond, “hear our prayer.” This week the congregational response was changed to “Let your kingdom come.” As so often happens when a familiar liturgical response is altered, I read right over the words on the page and reflexively spoke the customary refrain.

This alteration was hardly a departure from any liturgical norm. After all, we speak the same words every week and I pray them every day in the Lord’s Prayer. Seeing them in this new context, however, gave me pause. I wondered, do we really know what we are asking for when we pray “Thy kingdom come, they will be done”? Do we fully appreciate the borders that will have to open up, the claims of sovereignty that must be surrendered, the privileges and entitlements that must be relinquished if everyone is to be assured of daily bread-the essentials to living well? Are we prepared for all the consequences that might flow from the abolition of an unjust economic system impoverishing millions even as it pays our salaries, finances our retirement plans and enables us to enjoy a lifestyle that is, by the standards of most the world’s peoples, extravagant? Do we imagine that the reign of God can be born in our midst without the birth pangs about which we read in last week’s gospel? Malachi’s words remind us that the kingdom cannot come until we have been made ready for it. Thus, when we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we are praying for a radical transformation of ourselves and of our world.

In truth, I am more than half afraid of the coming of God’s reign when I see signs of it. I fear that I will be on the losing end of the new creation-among the mighty that must be cast down and the rich sent away empty. Luke 1:52-53. Yet Jesus assures me that I cannot lose more than he offers me. And I cannot receive what is offered until my hands are empty. That promise enables even people like me to hear the words of poet Langston Hughes with hope rather than dread.

I look at the world

I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.

I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!

I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.

Source: Poetry (January 2009) Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. This poem is one of a few that were never published in his lifetime. They were recently discovered by a rare book cataloger at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. You can read more about Langston Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

A Season of Imagination

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jeremiah 33:15.

We are hopelessly messianic. Though the Psalmist warns us “put not your trust in princes,” we tend to do just that. We can’t seem to rid ourselves of the notion that our most vexing problems could be solved by getting the right person in power implementing the right policies. For that reason, we fall prey to populist demagogues who manage to put a face (often the wrong one) on our deepest fears, who offer simplistic solutions to complex problems and who make wild promises they cannot possibly keep. Though they are not necessarily intelligent, they nevertheless possess a shrewd, rat-like understanding of what it takes to rise to the top. Instinctively, they know that attractive lies become truth to a gullible public through constant repetition and that “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” The Boxer, Simon & Garfunkel (1970). Sadly, the words of that song have proven themselves in every generation, including our own. We have followed all too readily these self proclaimed messiahs to our ruin and the ruin of millions ground up under the wheels of their egotistical fantasies. We seem incapable of resisting their siren calls.

This being the case, we might be tempted to look with a jaundiced eye upon Jeremiah’s promise of a “righteous branch” from the house of David. After all, we learned from the Hebrew Scriptures that many such Davidic branches (David himself, for that matter) left much to be desired in the way of righteousness. Last week Jesus warned his disciples to beware of persons proclaiming themselves to be the messiah. So how can we remain alert for signs of the coming of the Son of man? How can we know what we are looking for and when we have found it? Our gospel lesson for this Sunday gives us a clue. Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Luke 21:32. “All things” must include “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Luke 21:27. The New Testament witness is that God’s messiah has come and that his glory has been manifested through his obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection.

Given the grim realities of our violent planet, it is hard to continue believing that the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ is to become reality for the whole creation. It is difficult to discern any signs of that reality in the monotonous drone of what we mistakenly call “news.” It is not easy to imagine God’s will done on earth as in heaven under God’s righteous branch. Yet imagination is precisely what is most needed. The whole point of the prophets’ poetry, Jesus’ parables and the imagery employed by John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation is to jolt us out of our one dimensional way of thinking and tickle our imaginations. The Bible was written to break our fixation on what is and force us to catch a glimpse of what might be. Advent is the season of imagination, creativity and newness. In this dark age of fear, that sees no salvation beyond more guns, higher walls and stronger armies, Jesus’ disciples have the joyful task of offering a world full of broken promises, failed politics and worn out ideologies the precious gift of a holy imagination.

Here is a poem by Tracy K. Smith about the reawakening of imagination and its power to restore creation.

An Old Story

We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind.

Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
Dream. The worst of us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.

A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended

Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.

Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.

Source: Wade in the Water, (c. 2018 by Tracy K. Smith, pub. by Graywolf Press). Tracy K. Smith (b.1972) is an American poet and educator. She was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, but was raised in Fairfield, California. Her mother was a teacher and her father an engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope. Smith became interested in writing and poetry in elementary school where she was exposed to Emily Dickinson whose poetry had a profound influence throughout her formative years. She is currently serving as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States, an office she assumed in 2017. She has since been nominated for a second term. She has published three collections of poetry and won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 volume Life on Mars. You can read more about Tracy K. Smith and sample more of her poetry on the Poetry Foundation website.