Sunday, December 23, 2018

Phil Kniss: Love and revolution

Advent 4: “LOVE: Blessing and restoration”
Luke 1:39-45

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Fourth Sunday of Advent—Love Sunday.
Wait! Isn’t every Sunday Love Sunday?
I think we rarely, if ever,
get through any Sunday worship service,
without specifically naming and appreciating, the love of God.
As it should be.

Love is central to who God is…
Love is one word, and I think the only word,
that scriptures actually say defines God.

Yes, there are many different adjectives that describe God in scripture.
The Lord is righteous, is just, is compassionate,
is merciful, is patient, etc.
And there are many different titles attributed to God.
The Lord is the Creator, the Ruler, the Judge,
the Provider, and lots more.
But if I’m not mistaken, correct me if I’m wrong,
Love is the only noun, the only concept by which God is defined.
It says it in exactly those words, multiple times.
Not just God is loving. That’s a description.
Not just God is a lover. That’s a title.
But God is love. That a definition.

So if love is so essential to understanding who God is,
and we talk about the love of God every time we worship,
then in a way, it’s a little odd
that we designate one Sunday out of four,
in this one season out of many,
as a Sunday to think about love.

So don’t expect me, in this sermon,
to say something entirely new or novel about love.
But I do hope to challenge us anew,
to help us think more deeply, more clearly,
and maybe from a fresh angle,
about the love of God, as demonstrated in Jesus Christ.

One other preliminary observation . . .
We didn’t really set out to do this as we planned our Advent series,
but every Sunday in Advent, in every sermon,
we have lifted up the word for the week—
hope, peace, joy, and now love—
and made a direct connection between that word, and justice.
Justice is like a thread that has wound its way through this series.

On Hope Sunday,
I said how Jeremiah, and Jesus, and the mad farmer Wendell Berry
all saw, against all evidence to the contrary,
that the God of justice was coming to set things right again.

On Peace Sunday,
we examined Isaiah’s vision of the mountains being brought down,
and the valleys raised, so that the God of Justice
could come in without hindrance, and set things right.
And we heard justice in the preaching of John the Baptist,
and the song of Zechariah.

Then last week, on Joy Sunday, Moriah perhaps most explicitly
named the relationship of joy to justice.
Even her sermon title, Just Joy, made that clear connection,
and called us to do the same,
with our actions as well as words.

Well, today I want us to understand how the love of God,
is an expression of God’s promise
to turn our world order upside down and bring about justice.

And much of it comes down to Mary’s song of revolution—
a song we like to soften by giving it a lofty Latin name,
the Magnificat.
I guess it helps us keep our mind off
the disturbing, revolutionary aspect of this song,
and focus on sweet Mary magnifying the Lord,
with her humble words of praise and adoration.

But the Magnificat is anything but a sweet song.
It ought to elicit strong reactions, from everyone,
like any call to revolution would.

The Magnificat is a prediction
that the entire social order as we know it will be undone.
Will be turned on its head.

It is more than strange, don’t you think, that this song
has been written into the greatest musical compositions,
and sung in the world’s largest cathedrals,
and performed by the world’s most elite choirs,
and in the audience, applauding loudly,
have been members of royalty, the military elite,
and giants of global wealth and industry?
I guess they just don’t pay attention to the words.
The song is all about God humiliating the rich and powerful,
tearing them down from their thrones,
and sending them away empty-handed.
And putting the poor and lowly in their place instead.

This song has been set to music
by Bach, Bruckner, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff,
and is performed frequently during the holiday season.
And, every time an Anglican or Episcopal church
holds an Evensong service,
this song about social and economic revolution is reverently sung.
Every time.
Every high-church evening vespers—Catholic, Lutheran, and more—
incorporates Mary’s song in the prescribed liturgy:
“My soul magnifies the Lord . . .
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
[God] 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 many sitting U.S. presidents,
or pompous politicians or greedy Wall Street barons,
have gone to an evening service in any high church,
and were so oblivious they weren’t even offended?
The irony in that is almost beyond belief.

This song describes a world that doesn’t yet exist,
and would never exist,
if those in power, had any say in the matter.

So what does it have to do with love?
What’s love got to do with it?

It’s not hard to find love in this song . . . if you are Mary,
or if you can put yourself in Mary’s shoes.

Mary, the unwed teenager, engaged to a carpenter,
is called to be the host for God,
and is now, obviously . . . and scandalously . . . pregnant.
Mary had always lived under the radar in her quiet hometown.
An unremarkable person,
with no wealth or power or legal standing,
in a small town,
in a little country,
under military occupation.

And here they are in Bethlehem,
sneaking around hoping for an out-of-the-way place
to deliver a baby, where it wouldn’t draw attention,
and add to the scandal.

I guess you realize the Bible never mentions an innkeeper.
We don’t know that they were sent out back to the barn.
That part is only legend.
The Bible doesn’t even say all the inns were full.
It only says, and I quote, “there was no place for them in the inn.”
That phrase could also be read to mean,
“the inn was no place for them.”
Sure, maybe all the rooms were booked.
But maybe an unmarried couple about to have a baby in public
knew that a bustling inn was “no place”
for them to quietly do what they had to do.
Maybe they never even knocked on any doors.
Maybe, on their own accord,
they were scouting around for any safe and quiet place.
A livestock barn would have been perfect.

The fact that Joseph even brought Mary along, says a lot.
Joseph had to pay the tax, not Mary.
He didn’t have to put her at this kind of risk.
But leaving her home alone in Nazareth was not safe, either—
living in shame and social isolation, 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,
forget every picturesque manger scene
you’ve ever laid your eyes on.
Nostalgia is well and good.
But those pictures are entirely made up,
by people who don’t want an uncomfortable Christmas story.

Picture instead,
one of many hundreds of families at our southern border—
the families Moriah was talking about last Sunday.
Picture a family at the mercy of total strangers,
on the move because they have no better, safer, choice,
picture them huddled in a makeshift tent,
hoping someone might have the heart not to judge them,
but provide them food and shelter instead.

I assure you.
That picture is factually, much closer to the real Nativity of Jesus,
than any Christmas card image you have ever seen.

No wonder Mary could sing such a song of revolution.
She was living life on the underside of the social structure,
the most vulnerable side.

So of course, that song sounds like love, to her.
A loving God sees her plight,
and the plight of her people,
and shows tender mercy to them—
provides for their needs,
removes the oppressor from them,
and fills their empty stomachs.
What a beautiful expression of God’s love!

But what about us, and I mean most of us,
who live on the upper side of our social structure,
who don’t have to worry very much about safe shelter,
or where the next meal is coming from,
or when the next person will take cruel advantage of us,
exploiting our labor,
exploiting our bodies,
robbing us of our dignity.

What about us,
the ones with power, privilege, prestige, and protection?
Does God love the rich and powerful?

Well, if we believe scripture, that God . . . is . . . love,
then God’s actions cannot be a denial of God’s character.
So all of what God does must be motivated
by God’s core defining nature—that of love.

So clearly, God loves all people, including the rich and powerful.
Sometimes we are tempted to take a story like this,
and use it to vilify the rich and glorify the poor.
That’s not what’s happening here in this story.

God is not acting out a cruel vendetta,
God is not executing punishment for the sake of humiliating anyone.
God is setting things right again.
God sees where things went wrong,
and is upsetting the structure,
so as to save and restore ALL the people.

God affirms wealth, and its capacity to do good.
That is why God has such compassion on those without wealth.
God appreciates power, and its ability to enact God’s will.
That 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 does not ruthlessly seek revenge against the wealthy and powerful,
just for the sake of vengeance.
God is setting them free of the very thing that has enslaved them,
and made their lives less than
the good whole life God created them for.
The rich and powerful are also, in a real way, imprisoned.
They are captive by their own making.
They are shackled by the very injustices
they have foisted on others,
those injustices have kept the powerful from living fully.
They have lost the joy-filled, beautiful, and abundant life
God created them for.
In oppressing others,
they have oppressed themselves, without realizing it.

God is about setting everyone free.
When those with the capacity to do good,
don’t do it,
they find themselves enslaved by their own greed and anxieties,
and they fail to live out God’s purposes.
So God upsets the order of things,
and turns to those
who still have a chance of seeing a better way.

God allows
the strong to be upstaged by the weak,
the big to be shamed by the small,
the high and mighty to get lost in the shadows
of those who formerly were invisible.

I can’t think of a more poignant present-day example, again,
than our southern border.
How is it that one of the
richest and most powerful countries in the world,
would feel so threatened and anxious and angry,
that we feel it necessary to send 6,000 armed military troops,
to meet a caravan of 1,000 Central Americans
living in abject poverty,
fleeing violence in their home country,
carrying little more than the clothes on their back?

We have made ourselves captive by our own wealth and power.
We also need liberation.
A different kind, but liberation nonetheless.
We need to be freed from our anxious, fearful,
half-way kind of living,
and be freed, by love,
to open ourselves to the full life God made us for,
a life of self-emptying, generosity, hospitality.

Sadly, the number of times these days,
that the powerful have this kind of epiphany,
and voluntarily free themselves from this anxiety,
and choose love and vulnerability—
those times are few and far between.

Occasionally, this kind of love gets exhibited.
And we can point to it as a sign of God at work,
to enact restoration and salvation,
showing love for all God’s creation,
from the least to the greatest.
But more often, it’s those on the underside
that can see and name what’s really going on.
And when those persons speak,
it would be wise for the rest of us to listen.
Again and again in scripture,
the small ones shame the great ones.

This is the dynamic at work in our hymn of response,
if you’ll turn to your bulletin,
It highlights Mary and the Magnificat,
but also names other women without power and standing,
who spoke necessary truth to the powerful.

“With Mary sing Magnificat, with Miriam dance in praise,
with prophet Anna, speak a word of faith . . .”
Then it names Rizpah, a woman who suffered horrors in 2 Samuel,
and the Hebrew midwives who stood up to Pharaoh.

And I love the third verse
that invites us all into the song of love and justice—

With confidence we may proclaim Love’s liberating power,
bear witness to the saving Grace still with us every hour,
and sing with thanks, delight, and praise a new yet ancient song,
together sing Magnificat with voices clear and strong.

Let’s sing this together, in voices clear and strong.

—Phil Kniss, December 23, 2018

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