Sunday, December 20, 2015

Phil Kniss: The path of love goes through Bethlehem

Advent 4: Freedom Bound: the path of love
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55

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We had an unusual event in our worship this Sunday, Advent 4,
    fifteen years ago, Dec. 24, 2000.
    It was three months after the beginning of
        the Second Intifada in Israel-Palestine.
    Violence had erupted all over the country,
        thousands had died.
    Access to and from Bethlehem
        was a challenge for Christian pilgrims,
        and for local Palestinian Christians, and everyone in fact.
    In Bethlehem, there was no sleeping in heavenly peace.

So we arranged to make a phone call during the worship service,
    to Bishara Awad,
        founder and president of Bethlehem Bible College,
        and a leader among the Palestinian Christian community
            in Bethlehem and the surrounding area.
    He was a friend to some in this community,
        especially to Calvin and Marie Shenk.

Making a phone call in a worship service
    was a little more complicated 15 years ago,
        before the proliferation of smart phones and Skype, and all.
    We ran a 100-foot phone cord from the pulpit to my office,
        attached a big converter box here, hooked to our mike system.
    But we had a clear connection.
        I gave him and the church there our greetings,
            then he shared for a few minutes
            what life was like for them there in Bethlehem right then,
        And then we prayed together.
            Calvin Shenk prayed first for peace,
            then Mr. Awad added his own prayer for peace,
                and prayer for us.
        It was a special moment.
        I’d give anything to play a clip of that right now.
            But that was in the days we recorded on cassette tapes,
                and being the frugal Mennonites we are,
                we re-recorded over them after a year.
                So there is no audio record.
            But I remember clearly
                his gracious and heartfelt prayer for us,
                his brothers and sisters across the ocean,
                and how grateful he was
                    that Park View was thinking of them at Christmas.

I want to suggest to you that our interest in Bethlehem
    should be no less front and center today, than it was then.
    And I say that both from the standpoint
        of what the political situation is there now
            (which we should care deeply about),
        but also from what we hear in the biblical story,
            part of which we read this morning.

I think the way our culture experiences the Christmas story,
    the images of Bethlehem we hold in our collective consciousness,
        based on manger scenes and Christmas carols,
            and picture books and holiday pageants,
    are so distorted,
        we’ve abandoned most of the essential elements of this story.

    There’s a place for the mythic and nostalgic, I grant you.
        They serve a worthy purpose.
    But let us not, dear church, forget the real story.
    That’s one reason why engaging in Christian worship during Advent
        is so important to our spiritual well-being.
    It’s our best chance to hear the story without embellishment,
        and reflect on what it actually means.
    It’s our best chance to quiet the chaos
        and unmask the blatant heresy
        that passes for an American Christmas.

That’s what grates me so much about our yearly Christmas controversy,
    where we hear so many Christians get militant
        about “keeping Christ in Christmas.”
    They would be satisfied if more big box retailers
        told their clerks to say “Merry Christmas” to customers,
        and coffee cups weren’t just a plain red,
        and we had more pictures of sweet baby Jesus in a cozy stable.
    The Christmas symbols many Christians long for,
        are actually a cultural fiction we have swallowed
        in place of the actual biblical story of Bethlehem.

So I’m going to tell the real story today, and I warn you.
    It won’t be quaint, picturesque, or serene.
    It will look nothing like Hallmark, or Currier and Ives.

Let’s start with Mary.
    We read and sang part of her story this morning.
    Mary was a teenage girl—inexperienced, unknown, powerless—
        legal property of her father,
        soon to become legal property of Joseph the carpenter.
        And soon to become socially shamed and endangered.
    God chose to come to her first,
        to use her as an agent for the salvation of the world.
        It was exactly as absurd as it sounds.

    When she finally allowed herself to believe the unbelievable,
        she went and told her elder cousin.
    Elizabeth confirmed that God was at work in her,
        and Mary broke out in a song of joy.
    It was not the song we imagine—
        “Oh how happy I am that God has given me
            this wonderful gift!”
        Mary took the angel’s news as a sign of revolution—
            real social, and political, and religious revolution.
        Mary’s song is a revolutionary anthem.
        She sings of the little triumphing over the big,
            the weak over the strong,
            the poor over the rich,
            the nobodies over the somebodies.

        Mary sang of a reversal of fortunes,
            a political, social, economic, and religious uprising,
            where God would take the accepted order,
                and turn it on its head.
            Unimaginable, you would think.
            But she imagined it.
                She saw it beginning to happen in her own little life,
                    which she had always lived under the radar.
                She believed in a God who loved little people, like her.

    So she sang her heart out:
        He has shown strength with his arm;
            he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
        He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
            and lifted up the lowly;
        he has filled the hungry with good things,
            and sent the rich away empty.

How could we interpret this song any other way?
The Magnificat is a prediction that the entire social order as we know it,
    will be undone.
    Isn’t it odd it has been
        written into the greatest musical compositions,
        sung in the world’s grandest cathedrals,
        performed by the world’s most elite choirs,
        and applauded by kings and queens and barons of industry?
    And it’s all about God bringing down the rich and powerful!
        Do they even hear what they are singing?

It defies common sense.
    The whole story does.
    It’s outlandish God would launch the greatest project in history,
        in a place like Bethlehem,
        with people like Mary and Joseph.
    Just the geography makes you scratch your head.
    Bethlehem, we heard the prophet Micah said,
        was one of the little, insignificant clans of Judah.
    And Nazareth, Joseph and Mary’s home town, was a running joke,
         “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Ha, ha!)

    Think of all the “little people” God used
        to help unfold the story of cosmic salvation.
    Mary, the unwed teenager, engaged to a carpenter,
        was the host for God.
    Shepherds, scorned as dirty and smelly and lowest of low,
        were the appointed messengers of God.
    And take John the Baptist’s parents.
        We read the story of Priest Zechariah,
            as if he were a holy man in regal robes,
            spending every day in the holy place,
            revered by all for his distinguished service in the temple.
        Not so. He was a nobody.
            Did you realize this was not his regular gig?
            He was one man in a large division of priests,
                and there were 24 divisions.
            Each division had two weeks a year
                when they left their day job
                and put in their time at the temple.
        Zechariah was in the holy place
            when the angel appeared to announce John’s birth,
            only because is it was during the two weeks
                his division was on duty,
                and he drew the short straw to light the incense that day.
        On the streets in Jerusalem nobody knew Zechariah.
            And Elizabeth was only Mrs. Zechariah.
    All the heroes in this story—all of them—
        were people of little or no standing,
        in a tiny country being occupied by a foreign power.

Okay, but we still have that beautiful Bethlehem story,
    the simple and serene parents,
        the kindly innkeeper who put out fresh straw,
        a rustic manger that made a perfect crib,
        the admiring animals and the star overhead,
        and the cute little baby that warms all our hearts.

Yes, we’d have that story, if it were in the Bible.
    But it’s not.
    All those parts are made up.

The Bible story is neither quaint nor heartwarming.
    It is a pathetic story. Pathetic, in every sense of the word.
        Miserable, deplorable, gut-wrenching.
    Stables for livestock were crude, often in caves.
    Mangers were feeding troughs, often carved out of the floor.
    The Bible never mentions an innkeeper.
        It doesn’t even say all the inns were booked.
        It says, literally, “there was no place for them in the inn.”
        But it could also carry the connotation that,
            “the inn was no place for them.”
        Maybe all the rooms were booked.
        And maybe an unmarried couple about to have a baby
            thought it wise to stay invisible.
        Maybe they never knocked on the door of an inn.
        Maybe they were sneaking around after dark,
            trying to find any safe place out of the way.
            A smelly livestock cave would do the job.

    It’s amazing Joseph had the guts to bring Mary.
        He had to pay the tax, not Mary.
        But leaving her alone in Nazareth was not safe, either—
            shamed and cut off from her friends, about to give birth.

    Not safe at home, not safe on the move.
    If you want to get close to the real human experience here,
        don’t go to those artificial pictures in your head.
        Picture a Syrian refugee family,
            at the mercy of total strangers,
            on the move because they have no better, safer, choice.
        Or picture a poor Mexican couple without documents,
            wandering around a border town in Arizona,
            hoping someone might have the heart not to judge them,
            but provide them food and shelter instead.

    That’s closer to reality than any Christmas card you’ve ever seen.

The story of a Bethlehem Christmas
    is nothing but a story of the love of God coming to people
    in a state of utter emptiness, and poverty, and danger.

    So what does it mean for us, to bow in worship to a God, who,
        when something really important needs to be done,
        when he wants to show deep love and affection for humankind,
            goes to people that are out of sight,
                places that are off the map,
                and situations that smell bad.
        Why does God’s path of love go through Bethlehem?

    It can’t mean that God hates the rich and powerful.
        Some are tempted to take a story like Bethlehem
            to vilify the rich and glorify the poor.
            That’s not what’s happening here.
    God affirms wealth, and its capacity to do good.
        Which is why God has such compassion on those without it.
    God appreciates power, and its ability enact his will
        Which is why God feels so tender toward those
            who have power taken from them.
    God is on the side of joy and beauty and abundance and freedom.
        Which is why God loves the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden,
            and seeks to show them the kind of life they deserve.

God has no vendetta against the wealthy and powerful.
    But when those with the capacity don’t live out God’s purposes,
        God simply turns to those who will.
    If we, who are the rich and powerful today,
        fail to side with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed,
        if we fail to join God’s mission of establishing
            justice and peace and goodwill among God’s people,
            then God will simply give the job to someone who can do it.

    When the powerful fail, as they often do,
        God lets them get upstaged by the weak.
        The big people get embarrassed when they are exposed
            as being less significant than the little people.
            They get shamed out of power.
        On those occasions we see that happening today,
            rare though it may be,
            we have biblical precedent to rejoice.
        We can see it as a sign of God’s justice at work,
            and sing a song like Mary’s.

It’s happening now, in microcosm.
    One day, it will happen in a final way,
        throughout the whole cosmos,
        because God will put things right again.

We who are not little, should pay close attention to those who are.
    It might just be one of the little people,
        maybe one of you young, quiet, faithful,
            under-the-radar persons among us this morning,
        who will be invited by God to be the bearer of the good news
            of God’s salvation which came in Jesus of Nazareth,
            and which continues to come today by the Holy Spirit,
                the Spirit of Jesus continuing God’s work.

    And when God invites you, say yes.

        “No Wind at the Window” by John Bell.

        No wind at the window, no knock on the door;
        No light from the lampstand, no foot on the floor;
        No dream born of tiredness, no ghost raised by fear:
        Just an angel and a woman and a voice in her ear.
        “O Mary, O Mary, don’t hide from my face,
        Be glad that you’re favored and filled with God’s grace.
        The time for redeeming the world has begun;
        And you are requested to mother God’s son.

        “This child must be born that the kingdom might come;
        Salvation for many, destruction for some:
        Both end and beginning, both message and sign;
        Both victor and victim, Both yours and divine.”

        No payment was promised, no promises made;
        No wedding was dated. No blue print displayed.
        Yet Mary, consenting to what none could guess
        Replied with conviction, “Tell God I say yes.”

—Phil Kniss, December 20, 2015

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