I have been struck this season by the conversation about our ability to say Merry Christmas. I literally know no one who has ever been punished for saying Merry Christmas. However, I do know people -- pastors -- who have lost their jobs for proclaiming the message of Christ. The coming of Christ was radical, revolutionary. God, who had always been seen as something far away or at least separate (whether you are coming from the Greco-Roman perspective of their gods or Yhwh), came in HUMAN FORM. God became human. God came to change the playing field. God came to pull down the powerful and lift up the lowly. Christmas is hella subversive, and this reordering of things as they are is so often wrecked by this focus on love and joy and a tiny baby who is love embodied. In the midst of this focus on grace and love (which is important, don't get be wrong!) we forget about revolution. So my question for you, dear preachers, is how can we talk about the revolutionary nature of Christ this Sunday?
This scene from the gospel of Luke has Luke pulling together what was likely two events -- Jesus' circumcision and the presentation at the end of Mary's period of purification. This story shows the incredible ordinariness of Jesus' first months AND the way he was a revelation to the poor. Jesus' family brought the bare minimum sacrifice to the temple -- this makes it clear these were not people of means. They weren't the people showing up at our doors looking for gas money or housing this Christmas, but they also weren't buying their kids a ton of toys. They were trying to get by. A young family of very basic means doing their best to meet the requirements laid on them by the temple.
They were devout. They made sacrifices in the way of money and time to make sure that Jesus was dedicated in the way that all Jewish boys were. They showed up with all they had and gave it to God.
Simeon, a lone old man, no family name, no family with him, is called to show up and declare to the family what he was told of Jesus. Jesus was already dangerous. He was going to bring about the rising and falling of many in Israel. And the only people who have somewhere to fall are the people in power. Simeon's proclamation here is a continuation of the Magnificat, yet another reminder of the radical nature of this child. He is already a threat (a fact we will see borne out in the coming weeks). The people of Israel were looking for someone to lift them up -- but probably not expecting someone who will throw down those in Israel who already had powerful. Then Anna, another woman without power, a widow who had been living in the temple (likely because she had no one to care for her -- I wonder how much her fasting was a choice and how much it was an economic necessity) also recognized Jesus for who he is. Even though they are in the temple, there is no mention of priests, pharisees, or anyone else who might have held power in that place. The people who saw Jesus for who he was/is are the people for whom he came. The poor, the marginalized, the lonely.
The reading from Isaiah says, "For Zion's sake I will not be silent." We are called to not be silent. We are called to preach again and again about Jesus as revelation to and for the poor and marginalized. As we start this new year, how will we speak of Jesus? How will we set the tone to continue to challenge our people as to who Jesus is and how we are called to live in light of this revelation. Will we preach nice things, happy things, about love and peace and joy that leave our people feeling just dandy, leaving worship unchanged, or will we begin this year talking about the revolutionary nature of Christ, calling our people to see this and asking them to dwell in the discomfort of the challenge this brings to our lives?
Christmas is not *just* about a baby, a little boy, or even a man. It is about the revolutionary nature of God come in flesh to take down and lift up. How will we communicate this message?
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
As a woman and a survivor of sexual harassment and assault, living in the era of #metoo, where almost daily survivors like myself are triggered by new accusations of assault *or* some man's hot take on how women and victims/survivors should feel about sexual harassment or assault, I am reading this in a very, very different way this year. I wonder how many others will read this text differently. How many will hear the story of a young, unmarried woman is just hanging out and some stranger walks up to her and says, "Hey! Don't freak out, but the most powerful being ever really likes you and so you're gonna have his baby!" To which she replies, "Um, no? Not possible. I've never had intercourse." "See, the holy spirit is going to come upon you, and the most high is going to overshadow you and then you'll get pregnant and give birth to, well, God." HOW DO YOU SAY NO TO THAT?!?!?!
There's a wee bit of a power imbalance!
And, honestly, I don't know what to do with this.
Do I just talk about how Luke wasn't *actually* there and so it likely wasn't like this?
Do I just ignore that there is a very real possibility multiple people in my congregation are hearing it this way, some of them survivors of sexual violence? Or that it hits me this way because I am a survivor?
Would I read this the same way if the image of God as a man wasn't so deeply engraved in my mind?
Until this year, I hadn't read it this way. It's been making me deeply uncomfortable. Then I read an excellent blog about it (and I can't remember who wrote it, I tried to Google it, but if anyone knows what I am talking about please LMK so I can give the author credit). In the process of writing this (and trying to find the author I first read), I learned that I am not alone in wondering about this.
Add to that the feeling people struggling with infertility or peri-natal loss get this time of year when we talk about miracle pregnancies that are impossible except by the command of God, and this day (season) kind of sucks for a whole lot of people.
And, I know, I am supposed to think about how *blessed* Mary was. How *obedient* she was. How perfect and pure and undefiled. All of the things that set up purity culture and the Virgin/Whore complex so prevalent in our society.
If I read Luke 1:46b - 55, without 26-38, I would think Mary had prayed to be pregnant, or maybe prayed the people be delivered from oppression and, upon finding out her child would do this, she was able to celebrate. Is the beginning of Mary's story missing? The middle? The end?
If we dig into the legends of Mary's parentage, we find a theory that she was chosen for this role before her birth. Was she raised knowing she would do this? Raised to see this as an honor and a blessing? Raised believing that the messiah would come and he would turn the world upside down and she was going to be a vessel for that?
When we read scripture, we are always going to be missing part of the story. We are going to hear and see the parts that the author (or authors) of the book want us to see. And maybe it didn't occur to Luke to be like, "It's cool y'all, Mary was down from the get-go," because Luke assumes she would be, or because he knows parts of the story we don't.
We are bound to read scripture through our own lens, we are bound to fill in the blanks with our own experience. This is also dangerous. We can do a whole lot of harm when we lay our own experience over the text and use that as interpretation especially when we are unaware we are doing this. We can also do a lot of harm if we totally ignore what is happening in the world these days and the way scripture is landing in the hearts of those listening.
As a Lutheran, the lens through which I read scripture is always Jesus, always grace. It is through Jesus that we know God. And through Jesus we know that God is not coercive, is not violent, does not abuse or harass. Through Jesus we know a God who came (and continues to arrive) to disrupt power structures that oppress and to lift up the lowly -- just as Mary sings in the Magnificat.
Through this lens, the only story that makes sense is the story that Luke left something out. That Mary did indeed pray for this, and this was an answer to her prayers. That Mary was prepared for this and this is something she always knew would happen. That when that angel appeared, her thoughts were not as my thoughts would be (which would be hell no I am a child and I am not having a baby what is wrong with you go away), but her thought was yes. Yes. This is what I want. I want to be a part of the overturning of the world. I want to be a part of a future in which the meek, the poor, the hungry will be blessed and the powerful will have nothing.
And therein lies our hope. Our hope is tied into Mary's hope. That God would break into the world through her. That God would live in her very human body, that God would come out in blood and mucus, screaming and wailing, that she would nourish God with her breast, hold him in his pain and tears, and raise him to defeat death, to defeat hate, to claim victory over that which destroys. That God would one day return to make all things new.
At least, that's what I am clinging to today.
by Rev. Priscilla Paris Austin
Text: Luke 2:1-14
Christmas Eve for most preachers will have us struggling with a message that is true to the radicalness of the gospel while tending to a sanctuary filled with visitors who we haven’t seen since last Christmas. For the preacher who feels compelled by the message of justice that is spoken through Scripture, days like this can be challenging, … or maybe, it’s just me. Personally, I feel the tension between a desire to DISRUPT WORSHIP and a responsibility to care tenderly for families, visitors and seekers who have wandered into our midst seeking a pretty Christmas story.
The problem is, that the Christmas story is not a pretty one no matter how much we want to make it so. Set in a context of oppressive occupation, Joseph is compelled to leave his home and his business as part of a government round-up.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
Joseph doesn’t know it yet, but it will be many years before he can return to Nazareth. He chooses to bring with him the young woman, Mary, to whom he is engaged yet is pregnant, with a baby that is not his. Mary, is 9 months pregnant, making this journey, not in a comfy SUV with reclining seats, but instead probably walking or riding in a cart.
He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
I wonder if Joseph utilized his carpentry skills to fashion a wagon that would be comfortable for her, or if they simply used whatever he had on hand to transport his goods to market for sale. This is far from a picture perfect honeymoon.
I think about the Rohingya families fleeing Myanmar, hoping that their journey is only a temporary departure, navigating dangerous terrain littered with land mines placed by both governmental and rebel forces. All the while they are wondering will they make it safely to their destination? Will there be a place of refuge when they arrive? Will they ever be able to go home? And if they do, what will be left when they return?
No this is not a pretty story.
Joseph and Mary are not able to find comfortable shelter in a home or an inn. Instead, they are relegated to cave where the livestock are kept. And it is in this place, that Mary gives birth to Jesus, away from her family and the women who should have surrounded her and lovingly coached her through this birth. Somewhere between the cows, their food and their manure, on the dirt floor of cave, Jesus entered the world.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
It’s really not a pretty story at all and yet, this is the beauty of it.
God, creator of the universe, with an intense devotion for the world to establish justice and righteousness (Isaiah 9:7) chose to come into the world in the same messy way each of us enters it, birthed from the womb of a woman. God did not choose a powerful family with wealth, super fast internet and political influence. God did not show up in a palace, a 2-story suburban home or even a birthing center with a doula and an herbalist on hand. God in flesh, is birthed into the hands of a refugee carpenter and his unmarried bride. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, a land that is foreign to his mother. He has no citizenship or status, yet the heavens cannot help but to rejoice.
Christmas Eve worship will be filled with the echoes of songs of the angels and one may think this is where the story gets pretty. But God disturbs our sensibilities yet again. The angelic voices are not sung in the the Temple on the Mount or anywhere near the seat of power, whether it is Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv. The angels do not come to the rich & famous or even in the public square of the Twitter-verse.
No, Scripture sets the scene and context again for us with some field hands, share-croppers if you will, working at night, while the land owners sleep in their comfy beds.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
I think of nurses and hospital staff, firefighters and police, the public servants working on our behalf while we go merrily on our way. I think of low wage workers and day laborers who on this very night are working in restaurants, fields and stores to support our capitalist Christmas whims. Who are the people of your congregation or community who cannot join you for worship because of the economic slavery that shackles them?
It is to these forgotten people that the angels appear. Like the sirens of a raid on a factory in the garment district. Shepherds. Terrified.
An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
And again, in this mess, we find the good news. God is with us in our loneliness, isolation and distress. God moves those marginalized people to the center of the story. The presence of Jesus invites us into a new way of understanding power, joy, love and “favor”.
This is the true prosperity gospel. It is an in breaking of God’s presence into the mess of our lives and calling it holy.
So my fellow preachers, I pray you will find the broken bodies of your community. Center their story this Christmas Eve. Sing with the angels, telling them to Fear Not. Remind them that they are the ones whom God favors. Disrupt their worship. Disrupt our worship. When they are free, we too, will be able to rejoice, for we will be free as well.
Vicar Lenny Duncan
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
Our first reading text from Isaiah, which is an integral part of the messianic claim that Jesus makes as he begins his ministry in his home synagogue, lands smack dab in the middle of this wonky Advent season. (Full disclosure: my supervisor and I moved Advent up a week so we could just have a Christmas eve on Christmas eve. If the liturgy police get a chance, tell them to stop out to Conshohocken PA and make an arrest.)
This key text has always had a place in my heart.
I would love to talk about where Christ read this scripture centuries later, in a synagogue.
He proclaimed the words of Isiah in a place of worship. The people did not appreciate it.
Jesus got push-back.
Like, they literally tried to push him back off a cliff, and what that says to our apparent lack of courage.
While I love this Isaiah text, I'll focus on this week’s gospel.
In the Gospel of John, that sneaky book that flirts with us throughout all three years of the RCL cycle, showing up and saying coy and strange things and running off again, we find the one and only John the Baptist.
As a black man in this church I can relate to this scene. I put my finger on White Supremacy in a post, or in a blog, or in a sermon and, eventually, I receive well-meaning emails or messages. I have, for the record responded to all of these, that now number in the hundreds, with kindness and love. I hardly ever provide the answer people are seeking. Much like those who approach John they are not seeking answers. They are seeking THE ANSWER.
Which if I knew I would be free.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
Am I prophet? I would never have the gall to describe myself or anyone I love that way. Dear God, we kill our prophets. I am not a prophet. I am a black man preaching within a white system. People of Color are voices crying out in the wilderness. We are forced there by systems of oppression that are prevalent in our society and are eventually relived and acted out in our churches.
Don’t believe me? Just read your Advent liturgy. How much darkness to light imagery have you let slip past you because intellectually you know it’s wrong, but during this busy season it’s hard to parse out what to do? Plus, what would the worship committee think?
Guess what. The same thing will happen next year.
Now what John is pointing to? What are Black women in Alabama are pointing to?
It's the same thing I’m constantly pointing to: the power of Grace.
We're pointing to this Jesus, God made incarnate as a man of color from a backwater town, coming preaching a message of liberation and redemption that will eventually have him killed in state sanctioned murder by colonial law enforcement.
An incredible thing is about to burst forth onto the scene that will flip the world on its head. God will take a moment that should have shattered the galaxies and use at as the launching pad for the infiltration of the kingdom of God into this broken world.
We, like the priests and Levites, try fit it into our neat boxes and those who point to it. Are you Elijah, or a social justice warrior? Are you the Messiah or just a black woman trying to survive in a hostile world? Are you a prophet or just a church leader not scared if you lose your pension?
Is that grace coming? Or is it just wishful thinking?
We in advent find ourselves somewhere in this scene. We are either asking the questions with anticipation and curiosity.
Or we are screaming until our throats are raw awaiting imprisonment and execution by this world and its systems.
Either way rejoice for this:
"I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
The amount of times I have said, heard, or seen the phrase, "Burn it all down!" in the past few weeks, months, heck, year, is innumerable. Every day there seems to be a new reason to burn it all down: the church, the government: all of the things. I alternate between irate and exhausted most of the time, with tiny moments of hope, joy and love scattered among the refuse. It seems like most of the people I interact with each day are living in a similar place.
Then in walks todays texts with this fantastic message of, "Comfort, o comfort my people. God is coming, and she is going to burn it all down."
No, Isaiah doesn't say God is going to burn it all down, but it does say that the mountains will be made low and the valleys will be lifted up: a fundamental reordering of things as they are. And this reordering seems as though it is there to make God's glory obvious. It is in the lowering of the high and the lifting up of the low, the equity of things, that God's glory is seen.
When we look at John the Baptist's pronouncement in Mark, not everything he is saying comes from Isaiah. The beginning of his pronouncement, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you..." appears to be from Malachi c. 3. Malachai continues:
“But who can endure the day of His coming?
And who can stand when He appears?
For He is like a refiner’s fire
And like launderers’ soap.
3 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver;
He will purify the sons of Levi,
And purge them as gold and silver,
That they may offer to the Lord
An offering in righteousness.
“Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem
Will be pleasant to the Lord,
As in the days of old,
As in former years.
5 And I will come near you for judgment;
I will be a swift witness
Against those who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans,
And against those who turn away an alien--
Because they do not fear Me,”
Says the Lord of hosts."
I can't help but think John knew what he was doing. He wasn't mixing these two texts on accident, he was doing it on purpose. The Judeans in the crowd would have known something else was going on -- many likely knew where he was going with this. By stringing together these two pieces of prophetic scripture, John was saying a whole lot about who Jesus was and what he was coming to do, without saying very much at all.
God is coming.
God is coming to make things right.
God is coming to re-order how we do things.
God is coming to give us a new way to understand power, to understand true wealth.
God is coming to give us a new way to view God.
Our previous ways of looking at God, of understanding God, of expecting God to be in certain places and do certain things will be destroyed.
God will burn it all down. Then God will make all things new.
The pain of birth will create new life.
The brilliance of Christ will make us unafraid of the shadows.
We must prepare for this thing to happen, to start the work, or we will be really, really caught off guard when it comes, and it will be a lot more painful and difficult than it needs to be.
But things will change. God will arrive.
Therein lies the comfort.
Comfort, o comfort my people.
Big thanks to my friend Rev. Jed Fox for helping me see much of this stuff. Text study is a blessing.
I have really been feeling these apocalyptic readings lately.
Yes, lord, yes! Come down! Fix this!
Lord everything is awful - where are you? Why have you hidden your face?
Come back God!!!
It's good to know that I have good company throughout history with whom I/we can feel these feels, and writings to look to to help me move forward in spite of how paralyzed I/we might feel with the chaos in the world or in our own lives.
This season, we here at Disrupt have decided to embrace the theme Embody, so our commentaries will tend in that direction if possible. We wanted to focus on the physical nature of the work of preparation, the birth of Christ, and the way we are called to live in the world because of Christ. This week is a perfect way to start.
I have chronic depression and anxiety. When I am overwhelmed, my deepest desire is to take a nap. Napping is how I escape from the world, from my feelings, from being overwhelmed by life. Now, sometimes this is necessary self-care. But other times it is a clear running away from myself, my problems, and life itself.
My therapist encourages me to sit with my feelings (not in them, and it took me about two years to learn the difference). He tells me to sit with them, to observe them, to maybe see what part of me needs attention and how I might tend to it better. He asks me where in my body I feel what is happening, what that feels like, and what I can do about it. Instead of running away from my problems through a nap (or a wide variety of distraction techniques I have honed over the years), I now do my best to sit with how I feel. Usually this leads to me realizing that I am feeling afraid and/or vulnerable and I take some time to nourish the part of me that is afraid.
We live in a time in which there is a lot of fear. It seems as though most of us are feeling really vulnerable and tender and instead of tending to our own wounds, sitting awake to our own crap, we push our pain onto others. We turn our anxiety and fear of vulnerability into anger and take that anger out on others, often the most vulnerable among us or those the most different from us. We fall asleep to reality and create our own fever dreams in which everything is everyone else's fault and we don't have any problems of our own creation. We reach out with anger instead of love, or we don't reach out at all, sleeping on the pain of our neighbor.
To be awake is to do the difficult work of owning our own shit, digging into it and working through it. To not do this is to sleep through our own lives, only seeing rare glimpses of abundant life as we seek to live in a dream world where we are invulnerable and so much is someone else's fault. Even when the cause of our pain is someone else's fault, it is up to us to work through it so we don't pass on our pain to those around us. Survivors of trauma definitely get a period of sleep, a period to process, but at some point, we have to dig in and do our work.
This work is emotional, spiritual, and physical. To be awake to our own pain and to work through our crap is physically exhausting. It requires us to feed ourselves well, to exercise, to physically go out into the world to experience life instead of being asleep.
The prophets call us to wake up to our own sins, to look inside of ourselves and see where we have wronged God, wronged others, and wronged ourselves. They call us to do the emotional and spiritual work of going inside of ourselves, wide awake, to look at our sin and repent and the embodied, physical work of going outside of ourselves to ask for forgiveness and crying out to God for forgiveness and healing.
The words of Christ call us to be awake, to do the work of cleaning our house(s), to not allow ourselves to fall asleep to hide from the pain of vulnerability, the fear of the uncertainty of the world, the fever dreams of everything being okay in us and the world being the place that is wrong.
Do not sleep.