Sermons from Outside the Walls- 2

He Called Our Mother a Dog

June 5, 2018

If a sermon does nothing but make you feel good, why bother with it?

Nobody goes to a gym to sit in an easy chair, open a beer, and smoke a cigar while watching the big screen TV. No! If they want a return on their monthly fees, they want to sweat and be out of breath for an hour, then go home sore. They want to lose weight, or tone muscle, or increase the capacities of their cardiovascular system and that doesn’t happen by osmosis or being pampered. It happens with hard work- being intentionally uncomfortable for awhile, so that you can live stronger and healthier for more years than you might have lived otherwise.

The same with learning about your place in the kingdom of God. And, time out: while we’re at it, right now, let’s put that word “kingdom” aside for the rest of this series. “Kingdom” is a word which is loaded, after 20 centuries of military maneuvers, royal trappings of royal weddings, and seven seasons of “Game of Thrones” with so much gold, blood, land-grabbing, and intrigue that it is misleading to a tragic degree in imagining anything Jesus intended for it to mean when he was referring to the community God wanted for humans to live within on earth.

So, from here on out, we’re going to use the word “Community.” The Community of God, as in “thy Community come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” etc. OK? “KIngdom” was only a metaphor, anyway- a word used to help humans imagine something they did not know, by comparing that something to what they did have experience with. The word “kingdom” in the year 30 would have been imagined in a very different way than we can imagine it today; therefore, let’s get it out of the way.

(If you’re stuck on thinking of Jesus as a PRINCE of Peace, like a Prince Charles or Prince Harry, remember that on Palm Sunday he came riding into Jerusalem on the back of a little three foot high donkey. In doing so, by dragging his feet on either side of that bumpy little donkey, Jesus was, if anything, demonstrating himself to be the exact opposite of anything princely, regal, or royal. He was just a guy, just like all the people, people like me and maybe like you on that road that day who were cheering his arrival even as they were thinking, “what the..?” Little did they know of the extraordinary events of the coming few days. Little did they know what Jesus would be called upon to do, or that by doing so, he would be demonstrating the extraordinary things they- we!- are also capable of doing.)

OK..now, back to learning about “your place in the Community of God.”

I’m going to point something out here that you might not like- not at first, anyway:

Jesus didn’t do what he did, say what he said, or go where he went for people like me, a gentile. In fact, for much of the time after we first meet him in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, he had his back to the gentiles. His message was for his people, the people of Israel- the Jewish people. If gentiles heard him, it was accidentally. For a Jewish man to have contact with gentiles was not a good thing by the Jewish standards of the day. By some of those standards, it was even a dirty thing to do, especially when it came to sick, dead, or female gentiles. Yikes!

And Jesus was, make no mistake about it, Jewish. A Jewish man. And he proves it right here:

Mark 7: 24-30 (Common English Bible)

24 Jesus..went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. 25 In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. 27 He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

28 But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

29 “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” 30 When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.

Jesus called the gentile immigrant woman a “dog.” Try to dress that word up or soften it a little as many biblical commentators have tried to do over the centuries and it’s still a dog. It’s what a Jewish man of the year 30 or so would have called an immigrant woman. It was a default word, an unthinking but common word, a go-to word- like we might hear the words ‘wet back,’ or ‘illegal,’ or ‘hoe,’ or worse. That kind of word. You can’t soften it, it’s too sharp, and it usually leaves a scar.

This uppity gentile Greek woman was being pushy by speaking up when she had not even been invited into the room! She didn’t know her place and, indeed, there wouldn’t have been a place for her in a roomful of Jewish men! So, when Jesus was interrupted by her, when she deliberately threw herself in front of him, Jesus was spiritually, culturally, and personally upset.

syrophoenician woman“Dog!” he says, and we can only imagine the murmured agreement from others who had just witnessed this woman.

But, the woman persists! She insisted and persisted that Jesus pay attention to her. She loved her young daughter more than she cared about her own low status, so she persisted..

And Jesus’ eyes were opened. His eyes were opened by this woman in ways that revealed to him just how big this Community of God he preached about, really was. In her speaking up to him and daring to speak back to him, he heard her desperate cry of need, and he understood that God’s love did extend beyond the Jewish people “in front” of him.

There were others with ears to hear. There were others living desperately at the edges of life who also needed to know God’s love for them. In the woman’s plea, he heard for the first time, the gentiles who had, so far, been “outside” of his community. When said to her, in surprise, “Good answer!” he was, in effect, inviting her into that community. He was inviting her to stand in front of him!

But not only her. One by one, other gentiles began to come to Jesus- and were seen now by Jesus. God’s chosen people, through the example first shown by Jesus himself, were now able to witness others besides themselves hearing Jesus, being seen by Jesus, and being accepted by Jesus as people worthy of God’s love, too. No longer would “those people”  have to pick up mere crumbs!

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is regarded by many as the holy Mother of us all. And she is worthy of the honor and love shown her- she raised a really good kid, after all! But for those of us who are of the gentile persuasion- and that includes everyone who is not Jewish- isn’t this unnamed, brash, pushy, but loved Syro-phoenician Greek woman our true mother in the faith?

gentiles2

We who were not worthy in the eyes of Jewish legalists were made worthy by invitation to join and become a part of the Community of God being gathered together by Jesus. On our part, there is room for no emotions other than humility and gratitude when we accept that invitation. There is nothing for us to brag about, or to congratulate each other about. We may lead some people within the Community, but we are not leaders of the Community.

The leader remains a man, a very Jewish man. He is an Israeli man, and our cues should always be taken from him and not from false teachers who try constantly to usurp his role or make the United States or England or any other country or culture the “shining city on a hill” Jesus referred to in his sermon on the mount.

His invitation was for the woman, and us, to stand in front of him, and then to follow him. And how close and how far are we to follow?

When Jesus was on the cross, nailed, bleeding, in pain, and suffocating, among the last persons he would have seen as his head tilted forward for the last time, were the group of gentile Roman soldiers gathered below him- the ones who had lifted him onto the cross, secured him there, threw dice for his discarded robe, and finally stuck a sword in his belly to hurry his dying. His words as he looked down on them?

“Forgive them, God, for they know not what they do.”

How far are we to follow?

That far.

David B. Weber

syrophoenician woman

Spiritual Mentors: Etty Hillesum

I met a remarkable person about ten years ago in two too-short collections of her letters and journal entries. 2014 is the centennial of her birth. She died when she was only 29. As I read from the two books which contain her writings, my heart simultaneously breaks and soars. My tiny gift to her memory and legacy is to pass her enormous gift on to others who may not yet know of her.

In the context of the late 1930s and early 1940s, she was a young woman with modern attitudes. Her professional endeavors were intellectual ones, in research and psychology. Her lifestyle was decidedly outside the narrower views of morality which predominated in Western cultures of the time. Perhaps it was the untypical themes in her life before the rise of Nazi Europe that were the fertile soil in which the great spiritual fruits of her life were able to grow. My only hope here in this offering is to pique the interest of some to spend more time with her in her writings and, in so doing, know something new and more of the God that Etty came to adore.

aa hillesum 1

In 1941, Etty Hillesum, then a 27-year-old Jewish woman living in Amsterdam, began to write a journal, portions of which were finally published in 1983. The journal covers the period from March, 1941, to October, 1942- not a very long time. But, with the Third Reich in Europe at the time serving as a terrifying backdrop, the journal records the spiritual transformation of a somewhat self-absorbed intellectual into someone in deep communion with the God of her understanding. Etty has been called the Mystic of the Holocaust, but any attempt, however well intended, to categorize her spirituality is diminishing of it.
Her writings span that time period from when the Nazi oppression in the Netherlands began to worsen, and continue through to her family’s relocation to Westerbork, a holding camp for various “undesirables” being shipped weekly to Auschwitz in Germany. The last record we have of her writing is a postcard she threw from the train which carried her from Westerbork to Auschwitz. It was found by some farmers along the train’s route and mailed and mailed to the address penned on it by Etty. On the postcard were written her words, “We have left the camp singing.” Odd words, one might conclude, to have been written by someone who knew well what that train ride to Auschwitz meant. But they were words written after months of profound and wonderful discoveries about God, even in the midst of circumstances that were destroying the faith of many others.
As she had months earlier watched the intentional and cruel destruction of the Jewish ghetto in Amsterdam, she wrote in the journal she kept at the time:
“The jasmine behind my house has been completely ruined by the rains and storms of the last few days, its white blossoms are floating about in muddy black pools on the low garage roof. But somewhere inside me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed, just as profusely and delicately as it ever did. And it spreads its scent round the House in which You dwell, oh God. You can see, I look after You. I bring you not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy, grey Sunday morning, I even bring you scented jasmine.. I shall try to make you at home always. Even if I should be locked up in a narrow cell and a cloud should drift past my small barred window, then I shall bring you that cloud, oh God, while there is still the strength in me to do so.”
After several months at Westerbork, where conditions became more and more crowded and more deplorable as more and more Jews were passed through its gates, Etty wrote these words of almost unimaginable meaning:
“You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. .At night, when I lie in my bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer.”

Etty, her parents, and a brother and sister died at Auschwitz in November, 1943. The diaries and journals written by Etty before and during her time at Westerbork were not discovered until 1981. They have been published under the title An Interrupted Life-The Diaries of Etty Hillesum. The book has since been translated into 14 languages and deserves to be read by many others for years to come. Others, many others, need to know that, even in the worst of circumstances, it is possible to leave “the camp singing.”
________________________________________________________________________
Here are some other quotations from Etty Hillesum’s journals. They are part of a spiritual feast, served by Etty, which will be nourishment for spiritual seekers for generations to come:
“ALAS, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”
“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”
“We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.”

~~ aa Etty-Hillesum(Books: Etty Hillesum- ‘An Interrupted Life’, Pantheon, 1983 and ‘Letters From Westerbrook’)

“Wow!” the 4th Sunday Advent Message

This message will be finished on Christmas Eve, so if you are unable to be here Friday night (at 6 p.m.), you may want to watch on line. (http://ourchurchvideos.com/76458/jacksborofumc)

Wow!”

The fourth Sunday in Advent, 2010

December 19, 2010

David B. Weber, Pastor, First UMC, Jacksboro, TX

I really do believe this gospel story is “Wow!”

I believe this story is still unfolding, still producing new “Wows!”

And I believe we have been waiting in wonder and with wisdom now1, and that we are about to see something new.

We know the gospel story, the nativity story. We know it so well that it feels like settling into a comfortable old chair when we hear those opening words from Luke: “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed..”

But my intentions this year have not been to get comfortable again with the story, but to look again at this story as a Thin Place this time- a place where, like the shepherds and the magi, we could encounter the divine nearby- as close as the condensing breath of a baby on the chilly night air.

So, in wonder, with no preconceived, prejudiced, expected or “historically traditional and acceptable” answers at the ready, I asked myself these questions:

1.What have I missed before in this story of Jesus’ birth?

2.Is there still more to be learned or to be known about the story?

Pulling from the wisdom then of a lifetime of authors, teachers, and my very own reflections; authors old and new, many Christian but not all, I am seeing Light. It’s a Light which is leading me to a place in my heart, in my soul..maybe in ways Light has led others to their encounters with the divine.

Here’s what is becoming so firm for me, so manifest, so apparent, so obvious that I am finally beginning to be able to articulate it:

The Word became flesh. And just as everything else in Creation was, once upon a time, described described as Good- that Word, that Word made flesh was also pronounced by God to be “Good.” (As in “this is my son in whom I am well pleased.”) This world, this universe, the earth, the sky, the stars, the animals- God said, “That’s Good.”

Goodness. That is what I am perceiving being revealed.

So from the scene of the stable and the manger, let’s move outward now and look at an always-becoming-larger picture:

Look first at Mary, a young woman, most likely 16, 17, 18 years old. We know nothing about her before the angel Gabriel came knocking. Nobody would have looked at her askance if she had looked out the peephole and hollered, “Get out of here!” But no, her response after the plans of God from the angel was, “Let it be.” She was a good young woman.

Joseph, Mary’s fiance. He could legally have had Mary taken to the edge of town and stoned. And who would have blamed him? His manhood had been insulted. His girlfriend was pregnant, and not by him! But he takes Mary as his wife, and raises her son as his own. Joseph was a good man.

And Elizabeth, Mary’s older cousin who Mary goes immediately to stay with at the beginning of her pregnancy. Does Elizabeth judge her cousin? Does she make Mary jump through moral hoops in return for a favor, or dictate dogma about unwed motherhood to her before she extends an invitation to stay? No, Elizabeth says to Mary, with no hesitation, “Come in, come in.” And then they sing together! Elizabeth was a good woman!

The shepherds..these were the tough guys of their day..the guys who could kill a bear or a lion with their fists and a knife. But they’re knocked over by the beauty of an angelic chorus; they’re made new by the gentleness of a baby’s presence. The shepherds were good men!

The wise men, the magi.. Riding across the property of Imperialist Rome, into the land of the puppet king Herod. The magi, following Wisdom- the Light, saw the prophecies of ancient oracles coming true and they risked their lives, their fortunes to keep that great news from the evil king Herod. They too were good men!

Most of what we have studied and understood about Christianity has been to understand the necessity of Jesus coming as the son of God to take away our sinfulness, our awfulness, our human badness. It seems as if that is how Jesus is most understood- as goodness standing in stark contrast to our badness?!

I’m here today to say something very different. I don’t believe Jesus came to make us ashamed of ourselves, or to stand in bright contrast to our dark-hardened heartlessness. On the contrary, I do believe Jesus enables us to rediscover, celebrate, and to more fully and abundantly live our human goodness. And I think today that I will probably spend the rest of my life understanding and sharing that. It is the Light that is filling my eyes, and it is also the wonderful wisdom I have waited a long time for- a Light that is also filling my heart and mind.

Have we been looking at the manger, at the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ from too many wrong and dark angles?

Have we been missing the covered-over goodness in ourselves and others that Jesus, from the time he was a baby, uncovered in all who came near him?

God looked out on God’s Creation- on the earth, the seas, the sky, the moon, the stars, animals, Adam and Eve and said, “That’s good.” God sent his son to demonstrate, to affirm that it’s still good- that it never stopped being good, and we never stopped being created in a good God’s image!

On Christmas Eve I’ll say more and tell you a story that reveals this truth- a story you will never forget.

And this is a theme you will hear me preach and teach often in the new year. But let this begin to sink in, beginning right now:

You have come near the Christ, you have reached toward Jesus, because you are good. We have been invited to the manger in Bethlehem; more importantly, we have been invited to the cross at Golgotha, because we are good.

Because we are good and we have always been good, but we have also been forgetful. And God, in the son, wants us to remember, to know, to live: we are good people.

Amen

1The three previous Advent messages have been about Thin Places, similar to the Celtic definition of them but concentrating on mental and emotional states rather than places. Wonder, Wisdom, and Waiting have been those states of being.

Things without names preclude titles for them, too

There is no name that I am aware of for this:

When an adult has a baby- a little baby, a 2 month, 3 month, maybe 6 month old baby..

When an adult- and it doesn’t matter, woman or man- when an adult

has a little baby in their lap and the baby is a little bit awake or not at all,

the adult will softly wiggle, almost without thinking, the first knuckle of their little finger into the baby’s fist.

There is no name for that wiggling of the little finger into the smaller much smaller hand,

nor has there been, nor will there be..

there shouldn’t be, mustn’t ever be

because to name that moment or minute or whole naptime (it doesn’t matter)

to name that time would be to shrink, subdue, even subjugate that time into meanings

understood only (maybe) by the adult so squeezed when, in fact,

the baby- no matter how small, even a day, even an hour- has begun with the adult

to change

history;

to make all things

new.

Because that’s how important such an encounter is, even one like this that is nameless.

The adult and the baby..

(stop here and remember, not with your mind but with the skin of your little fingertip, the last time that wiggle-then-squeeze happened. If your fingertip doesn’t remember then bring the memory up from the ancestral imagination that you were born with and that was unlocked the first time forever when you squeezed that impossibly warm handful of someone’s little finger however many years ago that was. Either way, remember without words, without meaning, just feel).

The adult separates the softclenched baby’s fist with a softmaneuvering fingertip. Why?

Because the wave spills onto the beach and reaches into the sands there as deeply as it can;

Because flower petals spread in the heat of the sun to gather as much sunlight as possible;

Because the crow lifts its head then it its wings to the updraft blowing to nowhere but lifting joy.

That’s why: it is the only reason why it has to be the only way it is that humans can be.

A stillpoint in the history of the universe. Touch, squeeze………

now..and pause.

Pause, don’t breathe for a moment. Pause.

The dance ends and the dance begins, the dance of everything that was, becomes the dance of everything that will be and both halves of eternity rest now in this moment where stories end and stories begin and where spirit wiggles and spirit squeezes and it is a single action that reverberates in all that is

including God.

Or maybe that single action-wiggle/squeeze, squeeze/wiggle- is God,

or maybe not.

There is no word that I am aware of for this.1

1 The difference in the ages of the participants in this..dance, shall we call it?..means this: not much. The adult, thus squeezed, will never separate from the baby squeezing and will, if asked, if the need is known, if privileged to, die even violently rather than know the baby is to be harmed in almost any way if such sacrificial action does not occur. Adults so touched, part of the eternal stillpoint, will lose part of themselves- their indefinable wordless selves- forever, willingly, in the baby’s fist and the baby, even without the cognitive ability to recall anything specific about the adult, or even know that the warmth squeezed was an adult will, nonetheless, hold that adult within the deepest part of their historic memory, that part of memory which belongs to the ages and always will.

@David Weber, December,2010

Reality in Tidy Boxes

Reality in Tidy Boxes*
by Tzvi Freeman, from Daily Dose, published by chabad.org)
image
Tell me you found G-d in a tidy package,
I will tell you that is not G-d, that is Mind.
Tell me you found G-d in the limitless beyond-beyond space, beyond
time-
that too is not G-d. That too is Mind.

 

image
Where the boundless dwells within a bounded space,
where darkness shines, where silence sings,
where bitterness is sweet and a moment lives forever-
there is G-d; there is the essence of all that is real.

~ ~ ~ ~

Listen up here now, I’ve some good advice for you, if you’ll listen. Are you listening? First, we put God in a box- one that we can carry around and talk about within the confines of our limited vocabulary. It has to fit in the trunk of our car, or at least in the glove compartment of our imaginations; otherwise, it will be too unwieldy and take too long to talk about. Times waits for no man, not even for  God when you get right down to it!

Next– and this might be, probably will be, necessary: others might come along claiming their god is better than our god. They might even have other names for God, or have God doing all sorts of special stunts and titillating tricks. In that case, we’ll need a little more pizazz, a little more hat, a lot more shiny paper! Look, God just isn’t that fun to look at since there’s nothing to see, so it’s not going to hurt anything or anyone or anyOne to dress God up a little. A little lipstick goes a long way- you know what they say. Hey! I’m not saying God’s a girl! I am saying that a little color, a little sway- the crowds like those things! Catch their eyes, make ‘em want to come back the next time you come to town..!

 

image

Be extravagant!  Take your time! Nothing’s too good for God! And once you’ve got the package all figured out and put together, you can use it over and over and over again! The people expect a bedazzlement! And you’re ready to give them what they want! Go get ‘em, Tiger!

(Pssst..hey! Over here.. Y’know there are those interlopers- those charlatans in the thread-bare suits who will tell you that God is bigger than you can imagine, closer than a brother, blowing in the wind, and all kinds of things. They’ll tell you God is in the flowers, in the fields, or up in the air with the birds. They’ll try to make God out to be something they can’t get hold of but something they can’t let go of, both at the same time! They say God’s coming and going, here and there, and all kinds of stuff that doesn’t make any sense. Stuff they just made up, sounds like to me! They usually don’t want to talk about money at all..imagine that! Anyway, I’m just telling you about them so you can watch out for them. They’ll try to take your market away from you, count on it!

Sometimes you might have to get really rough with ‘em. It’s been know for a few of them to get invited out to the woods and then they get themselves lost..if you know what I mean?)

God bless ya, son. You’re going to do well ! Get out there and give ‘em hell..

 

 

*thanks and a tip of the hat to Ilyse Kazar there on the lower East side of Manhattan where she watches us daily on WNYC!

Your Love, This Love, A Silent Prayer

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place  in the family of things.

© Mary Oliver

And one day, when we expect it least, or when we need it most, we see. We see beyond the confines of our imaginations, we see past the accumulated knowledge that has blocked our seeing before this day, these moments.  We see, and we know. We know that Our Name and Your Name are are without end or beginning. We reach for the edges of our understanding and there are none; nor, we know now, will there ever be the need for them again.

We are without words and so we look beseechingly to the sky, the geese, the summer winds for syntax and syllable, for punctuation and paragraph, and we hear instead the trees laughing and the clouds remembering when they, too, sought to reduce love, This Love, to language.

© David Weber

Zachariah’s Song. A Christmas Journey..

Zachariah was a priest. Married to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. They were childless until they, like Mary, had one of those – (pregnant pause)- visits from the angel Gabriel. Then, Elizabeth and Zachariah, at the ages of 60 or 70 or so, became the proud, however old, parents of John. John who would grow up and become known as John the Baptist.

When Mary felt Jesus kick from within, she sang a song. When Zachariah saw his son, he sang a song, too. (Which may be a lesson for new mothers: remember, while you’ve been feeling that little kicker somersaulting for months; daddy’s just now holding the child,  feeling/experiencing  him/her in extraordinarily intimate ways for the first time. Forgive dad his initial blubbering.) Anyway, here is Zach’s song (remember to put a tune behind it!).

Luke 1

76And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

image

St.Zachariah, as depicted on an Orthodox icon, a subject worth a whole blog’s worth of discussion some day. But here’s a preview: that is gold leaf behind St. Zach, and it has been hammered into position. Each stroke of the hammer was accompanied by a prayer, a specific prayer. Literally, sometimes prayers are the sounds of a hammer.

Note that Zachariah, as written about by Luke, is associating the story he’s become a part of to the ancient and well-known Hebrew story. Just as Mary sang of her being used to continue the covenant  between Abraham and YHWH, Zachariah’s song establishes his son John as a continuation of the prophetic  tradition in Israel- a tradition that has been silent, since the days of Malachi, for 600 years!

As all prophets do, John will be preparing the way, clearing the path, establishing a route for another who will follow- in this case, Jesus. And as all prophets also seem to do, John will die for having done a good job. John’s character will, about 1900 years after his birth, play a prominent role in the opera, “Salome,” by Richard Strauss, where he was represented, in a final shocking scene,  as a severed head.

Zachariah, though, the real subject of this piece, did his job and did it well. He would have died a happy man, having had an offspring. Thus, he had fulfilled the long-proscribed roles of husband, father, and priest very well. We are, after all, talking about him even at this moment, some 1980 years after Salome danced with his son for real!

Zachariah may have been one of the minor players in the drama of Jesus’ birth, but his presence helped establish Jesus in the Jewish mainstream, past and present. What Jesus said, did, and lived his whole life was as a Jew. He learned about his faith, as did all all Jewish children, from his parents and the other adults in his world. Cousin Zach, a priest, would certainly have been one of those persons he learned much from, and Jesus would have spent much of his growing-up years with his six month older cousin John.

It takes a village..yes?  And Jesus had one, made up of real people who cared for him as a child, son, and relative first, before they ever fully knew him as a Messiah. That “village love” would have been a huge part of his decision to accept the call on his life made by God. It had been there since before he was born, and he’d grown up surrounded by it. So it was natural that Jesus went first to a family member- John the Baptizer-when he came out of his Messiah closet.

He knew he would be accepted and safe in those first moments of his declaration. Zechariah, Elizabeth, John, Joseph, and Mary: what a village it was!

 

 

 

 

 

Mary’s Song. A Christmas Journey..

Mary gets pregnant and she sings.

When my wife got pregnant, she quit smoking.

Maybe all women do something significant when they find out that their body has begun to replicate and much of the time, according to brief survey done today among five women around me who had, like Mary, been pregnant (though not immaculately), that thing is usually to get quickly into some form of community with other women. This is, after all, one of those things in a woman’s life that a man, no matter how empathetic, metrosexual, or even gay he may be, cannot- try as he might- understand in the way another woman, with a womb, can.

Mary went to be with her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant under very very odd circumstances. Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, was her baby’s father, but she was a senior citizen- beyond menopause, beyond all hope for having a child in a culture where having a child or, even better, childREN, was a religious necessity for being cool in the eyes of YHWH. So, that Elizabeth was pregnant after also having her pregnancy announced ahead of time by Gabriel, was a pretty big deal. About as big a deal as anyone except Mary could even begin to imagine.

Mary went to be with Elizabeth and while she was there she sang, according to Luke, a song. It’s not the kind of song that Elizabeth or Mary would sing to their soon-to-be-born sons, nor is the kind of song that would stick in someone’s mind if they overheard Mary singing it. But it did serve a couple vital functions, primarily- I must admit, as I see it- for the narrative of Luke. For those first century readers of this gospel of Luke, Mary’s song linked the Jesus story even more securely to the Hebrew monotheistic traditions which many in Luke’s primarily Greek audience would have already been comfortable with, even if they weren’t Jewish. From Luke 1:

46And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.”

It is helpful to me when reading songs in the Bible- be it Hannah’s song, any of David’s songs, or, in this same chapter 1 of Luke, Zechariah’s song, to put some tune behind the words. Yes, it sounds odd and it doesn’t work out rhythmically at all, but for the sake of history, go back and add a song. “The Hallelujah Chorus”, or “Happy Birthday”.. it doesn’t matter but it will be historically helpful. It will give you a feeling for history. It will.

The song places Jesus very much in the Jewish tradition. As YHWH was faithful and merciful to Israel beginning with Abraham, God is now continuing to be faithful and merciful with Israel through Mary and her child. Mary is grateful to God because she is Jewish and because this is something vital and important to the people Israel.

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An unusual interpretation of the Virgin Mary by the Polish-born children’s book illustrator Jan Pienkowski in All Saints Chapel, Marsworth, Buckinghamshire, England.

Mary sings the song in response to Elizabeth’s admiration of Mary’s faith. Mary consistently deflects attention off herself onto Jesus, even here, in the beginning. It is reminiscent of John the Baptist’s declaration made after he baptizes Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease.” According to Luke this is a Christian ideal- diminishing to self and exalting Christ- that began with Mary. It is a tradition which sometimes, in some circles, among some believers, continues today.

Joseph, chagrined. A Christmas Journey..

fewMatthew 1: 18-19 The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

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carved Santos figures, “Mary and Joseph”, Guatamala, early 20th C.

According to Matthew, Joseph had a choice. What to do about his fiance Mary who was now pregnant, without his participation? Stop right now if you’re imagining how it went with your cousin/brother/neighbor who went through the same experience just a few years ago.  Mosaic law was a whole other animal than the rage and hurt faced by that guy you know.

First of all, Joseph and Mary weren’t just caught in a personal dilemma, nor was it a matter of sorting through various civil rules or cultural standards in any way we can relate to today (unless you’re a very conservative Muslim). Mary’s pregnancy forced  Joseph, his family, and her family into dealing with Mosaic law. Along with not eating oysters, mixing cotton and wool in a garment, or breaking up a fight by grabbing one of the participants by the testicles, getting pregnant before marriage was a wrong, wrong, wrong spiritual move. And unlike the other spiritual sins just listed, this one could get a girl dragged by the hair to the edge of town and stoned. Which happened then, even as it happens today. (And we hear about it happening, once in awhile, in a few countries like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia among some of those who practice fundamental interpretations of Sharia law but, in fact, it probably happens more frequently throughout in other small factions and communities of Islam, where  reporting to the outside world rarely happens.)

In other words, this wasn’t the kind of problem that would merely cause the neighbors to gossip, or prompt the local judge to make  the “wayward girl” wear a red A across herr chest. This was the kind of sin that could cause YHWH Godself to regard a person for the rest of her life with an angry scowl and a slingshot full of punishment.

Decisions, Decisions, indeed! Matthew describes Joseph as chagrined, chagrined but noble. He was noble in that he didn’t give into his chagrin and do the “easy thing,” which would have been to let Mary be stoned. (I remind you, don’t try to project the way we might think about such an incident as 21st C. Americans. These were people that had a place just outside of town reserved for stonings. They happened regularly for a whole variety of spiritual and civil crimes. It was a BIG DEAL, yes, but not the kind of incident that would cause Nancy Grace to scream indignantly [and correctly] on cable TV for months and months).

Joseph and those close to him- because this kind of decision would have been an extended family decision- decided not take the easy way but, instead, “[they took] care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.” Or dead.

Most likely that meant keeping her under the radar of the religious legalists- the ones who love- LOVE!- the black ink of rules much more than the red blood of humans. It meant, to some degree, becoming a family of religious outlaws- purposefully breaking the Mosaic law in the way Jesus himself would often break Mosaic law when it interfered with the lives of humans. In that way, Joseph foreshadowed the kind of decisions his step-son would become famous for making.

Jesus didn’t die with his mother at the stoning ground before he was born, as could very well have happened. He did die at a similar killing ground, though, about 33 years later when the religious legalists colluded with the civil authorities to shut him up.  His season in the sun that preceded Golgotha was, apparently, planned and coordinated by Jesus’ acknowledged heavenly father. But let’s be sure to always give his earthly step-father his due, too.  Joseph stopped the horrifying from happening before the story ever had a chance to begin.

***

From just two weeks ago, the stoning of a 13 year old rape victim. Who will ever know? Perhaps she was pregnant with Messiah, too:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7708169.stm

First Steps. A Christmas Journey..

Liminality is a seldom used but much needed word. It comes from the Latin word limina, which means threshold.  The place of liminality is a crossover point, a threshold to step across, a door to go through. It involves the movement from one state of being to another- the movment from single life to marriage, for instance. That period of engagement is the threshold to marriage; steps have been taken away from being single toward marriage. The time of preparation, from the time that agreement is mutual to those moments before the marriage vows are completed, is liminal time.

*Knock* *Knock*

Who’s there? asks Mary

The Angel Gabriel.

The Angel Gabriel who?

OK, you know the rest; but what happens between Gabriel’s  *KnockKnock* and the acceptance of the Angel’s message by Mary, is liminal time. It is very much like the still point in dance- that moment when the dancer completes one movement and prepares, in stillness however briefly, for the next movement.

Luke: 26-38

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David… Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

 She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that.

[liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality]

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:
    I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
    just as you say.

https://i1.wp.com/www.sai.msu.su/wm/paint/auth/greco/annunciation.jpg

The Annunciation”, El Greco, about 1615

Mary had to agree for the contract being proposed by Gabriel, between her and God, to be completed; she had to take a step across the threshold. In doing so, she knew her life would never again be the same as it had been the day before. Liminal times demand decisions.

Our own liminal moments occur with incredible frequency. We are often moving across, through, and over thresholds that cause everything to become new. It’s not like we have to become pregnant with the Messiah, or even to get married for all things to become new (although both those things will do it!). We are often presented with opportunities (large and small) for education, for meetings with new people, the chance to visit new places, or to participate in new experiences. All of those events are filled with liminal possibilities. But they are not all opportunities or chances that are easily entered into. Many  have curtains of fear- imagined and real- draped across them, and which must be crossed. People don’t go to school because they’re afraid they’ll run of money. People don’t get married because, “Who will take care of Mom and Dad?”  People will stay at mundane, mind-deadening jobs, because they dare not risk losing a guaranteed paycheck. The dance for them, stops. The still point becomes a period, the end of a sentence that could have become a paragraph, even a chapter in an epic saga!

So, in liminal fog, a suspended animation, so many/ too many people choose to be safe. They stay where they are, though unhappy; they refuse to look beyond the fence, because the grass over here is good enough; and they miss the mysterious smorgasbord of Life in favor of the already familiar meat loaf special.  They choose to miss being pregnant with Messiah. They choose to miss being part of all things becoming new.

*Knock* *Knock*