Sunday, December 20, 2020

Phil Kniss and Dr. Bishara Awad of Bethlehem: What love really looks like (the other side of the Christmas story)

Advent 3: LOVE
Psalm 113; Luke 1:26-56

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This is the time of year I talk out of both sides of my mouth.
I push back on the consumerism of the season,
and the saccharine-sweet pictures of Bethlehem,
and romanticized, star-lit manger scenes
that bear no resemblance to the Biblical story.
And I admit I love the nostalgic side of Christmas,
and have not one, but two
romanticized, star-lit manger scenes in our house.
I’m no scrooge about Christmas traditions.
I just want to be honest and call them what they are—
made-up culturally acceptable images that promote goodwill,
spark human connection and generosity,
and have a lot of other benefits.
I don’t begrudge anyone celebrating Santa or singing about Rudolph
or making up characters for the nativity story
that aren’t even in the Bible,
like the Three Kings and the innkeeper.
We shouldn’t fight that.
There is inherent goodness in it, so embrace it.
But then, when we gather as a worshiping community of the Book,
then it’s time to take the God of the Bible seriously,
and the biblical narrative seriously,
and see what hard and beautiful truths it might be telling us.
There is a difference between the cultural traditions,
and the biblical narrative in Luke,
as read by the Rhodes family this morning.
And nowhere is that distinction more sharp
than in the person of Mary.
Mary was a teenage girl—inexperienced, unknown, powerless—
legal property of her father,
soon to become legal property of the carpenter Joseph,
soon to become shamed and endangered,
because of her pregnancy before marriage.
God came to her first,
to use her as the means to bring
the saving Christ into the world.
It’s as unbelievable as it sounds.
But Mary believed the unbelievable,
and went to tell her elder cousin.
Elizabeth confirmed, “God is at work in you!”
And Mary broke out in a song of joy—
just not the kind of joy we expect.
It wasn’t “Oh joy!
God has blessed me with a wonderful gift!”
No, it was a song of revolution—
social, and political, and religious revolution.
Mary’s song could be a protest anthem.
She sings of the small towering over the big,
the weak defeating the strong,
the poor out-ranking the rich,
the nobodies surpassing the somebodies.
She sings about God taking the social order,
and turning it on its head.
This revolutionary anthem no longer shocks us.
It’s just part of the Christmas soundtrack.
The Magnificat is sung everywhere—
even in ornate cathedrals by elite choirs
to the delight of royalty and the top 1%—
the very people who are targets of the revolution
being sung about.
Oh, well, at least it’s being sung.
And it should be sung.
This song of Mary captures the essence
of the whole biblical nativity narrative:
Think of all the “little people” God used
to help unfold the story of cosmic salvation.
It wasn’t just the girl and her carpenter fiancĂ©.
It was lowly shepherds on the social margins.
It was the virtually unknown religious worker Zechariah.
The people in this story honored by an angel’s visit
were people of little or no standing,
in a small town in a tiny country
being occupied by a foreign power.
The story of a Bethlehem Christmas
is a story of the deep love of God being shown to people
in a state of emptiness, poverty, and danger.
At Christmas we are invited to bow in worship to a God
who loves this world,
and proves it by going to places that are off the map,
people that are out of sight,
and situations that others turn away from.
No, God is not anti-power and anti-wealth.
Quite the opposite.
God appreciates power, and its capacity to implement God’s agenda.
That’s why God is tender toward those
who have power taken away.
God is on the side of joy and beauty and abundance and freedom.
That’s why God moves toward the poor and oppressed,
to show them what they are missing, yet deserve.
God has no objection to wealth and power.
But when those who have it,
don’t use it for God’s purposes,
God turns toward those who will.
If we, the rich and powerful today—especially today,
in this suffering and out-of-balance world—
if we fail to side with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed,
if we fail to join God’s mission of bringing justice,
peace, goodwill, and shalom,
God will look for other partners.
When the powerful fail, as they often do,
God lets them get upstaged by the weak.
This is the essence of the Bethlehem story.
We heard the theme in the song of Mary.
We heard the theme in today’s Psalm, 113—
“Praise the Lord,
who raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
and seats them with princes.”
And if we look at the Old Testament prophet Micah,
we see this Bethlehem reversal named outright:
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel.”
When all the nostalgia clears away,
we must take Bethlehem seriously.
We must look for the Bethlehems in today’s world,
find the little ones that others overlook,
move toward the poor and needy,
notice where there is injustice, and raise our voices,
and show them the love of God.
There are many figurative “Bethlehems” we could name right now.
But for the remainder of my sermon time today,
let’s talk about the literal Bethlehem, in 2020.
Yes, the still little town just outside Jerusalem,
situated in Palestinian territory.
Bethlehem is on my mind,
because I read recently how the COVID pandemic
has decimated that community.
The livelihood of thousands of workers and families,
depends on the tourist industry,
which went from 2 million annual visitors to practically zero.
And then I remembered . . .
exactly 20 years ago, December 2000,
we connected with that Bethlehem during our worship service,
and spoke with Dr. Bishara Awad,
founding president of Bethlehem Bible College.
Bethlehem was under siege that year,
during the second intifada,
and suffering terribly.
One of our members, the late Calvin Shenk,
was a friend of Dr. Awad,
and helped make the connection.
We heard, in his own voice,
what our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem were experiencing,
and we prayed for each other.
As I remembered that,
I had the urge to reconnect with Bishara Awad.
20 years ago it took a 100-foot phone cord strung from the library,
down the aisle to this pulpit to a big speaker-phone box.
Today, I could just Zoom.
So in less than 24 hours after it occured to me,
I was on a video call with Dr. Awad.
We spoke for about 20 minutes on Friday morning,
and on behalf of all of us,
I asked him about life in Bethlehem today,
with COVID and the continuing injustice.
And once again, we prayed for each other.
We recorded the conversation,
with the intent to share it with you all this morning.
So now, 20 years after our first conversation,
we will again hear from our brother in Christ, Bishara Awad.
For sake of time,
I will share only 8 minutes of the conversation and prayer.
But after the service,
in an email to the Park View congregation,
we will send a link,
so you can hear the whole 20-minute conversation,
and everything that our brother had to share with us.
So here is our brother, Dr. Bishara Awad,
now President Emeritus of Bethlehem Bible College.
I trust we will continue to hold Dr. Awad
and his community in our prayers,
and that we will do as he asked,
and grow in our understanding of the situation they are facing,
and support them as fellow members of the body of Christ,
and with him, to hold to the hope we have in Christ,
and to lean in to the love of God that we celebrate together
at this time of year.
Let us join now together in a prayer of confession,
and a moment of silence,
during which I invite us to lift up in prayer
our sisters and brothers in Bethlehem.
one O God of love and justice,
who announced a re-ordering of the world,
make good your word,
and begin with us.
all Open our hearts and unblock our ears
to hear the voices of the poor
and share their struggle;
and send us away empty with longing
for your promise to come true
in Jesus Christ.
one The God who longs to be with us
is full of love, freely forgives,
and gladly comes and fills our open hearts.
—Phil Kniss, December 20, 2020

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