The suffering of this world’s population under Covid in 2020 will never be, could never possibly be recorded. The number of times every day that people must be crying out, “Lord, why hast thou forsaken me,” has to be astronomical. No remedies exist, no therapies, no vaccine exists that will meet the anguish caused by the safety and security endangered, and by so many plans foreclosed.
What have we learned in 2020--? Have we learned any worthwhile lessons? Have we grown at all, have any of us grown in wisdom and stature as a result of this emergency, now 10 months old? Surely, the deaths by pandemic of over 300,000 Americans and the death by police force of George Floyd has had the effect of turning our thoughts inward toward our own lives and deaths and inward toward the life and death of our illusions about American society.
Obviously, we have been confronted this year by our natural limitations and our social sins, some Americans have anyway. But what have we actually learned? Have we been forced to reappraise things in any fundamental way, or have we only been focused on coping with Covid and temporizing with racism? Have we stepped back from this rolling catastrophe far enough to learn anything?
The writer Lawrence Wright took a good look in his superior (40-page) New Yorker article this week—did you see that?
Have we stepped back as far back as Koheleth did, to take it all in and derive some insight from history for living—some rock-bottom, rock-solid truth to live by? For this kind of moment, we need not advice, not consolation, not placation, but something from beyond that reaches to the soul within.
The great literary scholar, the late Harold Bloom, in his own personal need when undergoing the traumas of aging, a grave illness, and the loss of his friends and family, himself cried out in desperation—where shall wisdom be found?
Where shall wisdom be found, indeed! We crave, in this combined pandemic of both a virus and American racism, we should be craving wisdom. Harold Bloom didn’t want to be bothered with nostrums—nothing avails but the strongest medicine. Where did he turn?—Bloom turned first to the Bible, to the Book of Ecclesiastes, and to Job (where we will go in two weeks).
What wisdom does the Speaker or Preacher in Ecclesiastes have to offer (which is what the title means)--? In the readings and litany this morning, taken from Ecclesiastes, you will have picked up what sounds like a certain world-weariness, a certain inability to take any satisfaction from small or great things, maybe a refusal to accept the ordinariness of life. He writes, “All is vanity, all is futility, all is emptiness--I applied my mind to understanding wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, and I came to see that it’s all folly and chasing of the wind.”
He goes on, “What reward does anyone have for his labor, his planning, and his toil here under the sun--all of it pain and vexation?” Then, “I saw the tears of the oppressed, and there was no one to comfort them. Power was on the side of the oppressors and there was no one to comfort them.”
You would be entitled to ask, What useless kind of cynicism is this? Are these the thoughts of a spoiled brat? Readers find it hard to warm up to the jaded sophistication of the Preacher, tinged with melancholy of an overindulged dandy.
But look again, listen more closely--the Preacher offers the bracing kind of realism necessary when crisis hits--brush aside your illusions and distill from your experience wisdom worth the name.
The resulting clarity actually invigorates the Preacher—the energy is wholly apparent in the high-flying prose which races along a chain of defiant complaints. In sum, when the Preacher looked back over his personal history, over his experiments and extravaganzas and excesses, he felt something was missing--he saw through the tinsel and found that not all is gold that glitters.
The Preacher only sees the same things that we see but which we won’t admit to ourselves—doesn’t the year 2020 tell us that we are overdue for a mid-course correction (if you remember that phrase from the moon-shots?). Covid’s bleakness forces us to reckon with our personal past—just what were we doing back then, how important were those pursuits?
In addition to this health crisis came the murder of George Floyd--it inspired worldwide outrage at yet another of the police crimes that we swore would not happen again. George Floyd’s death should have sharpened the focus of our personal reckoning upon what exactly our lives add up to in the glare of the American criminal in-justice system. The Preacher wrote, “I saw the tears of the oppressed, and there was no one to comfort them. Power was on the side of the oppressors and there was no one to comfort them.”
Has the nation hit absolute bottom yet—aren’t we just about ready to conclude ourselves that all our labor and planning amounts to so much vexation and futility? Doesn’t this crisis make us see that we are wasting our precious time, and always have been, on ephemera, when we simply need to focus on human relationships and follow God’s commandments, that’s where the Preacher brings us—that is the antidote for all that ails us, especially the Covid-19 and racism pandemic.
If this emergency has worked on our minds at all, it should have us conclude the time is overdue to repair ruptured relationships. We will be renewing our anti-racism programming at Eliot right away in this new year--the black lives matter will be one half of it: the other half should be a focus on our namesake the Rev. John Eliot, who conducted the first mission to convert the native population to Christianity. All surely is futility if we do not investigate our history at Eliot Church. Our namesake at Eliot Church mandates that we engage with our part in American racist history.
What an opportunity it would be to minister to this region if we opened a conversation with the Wampanoag people and jointly developed an educational program! What else is worth doing against the backdrop of this pandemic which has just revealed to us all our past efforts are so much vanity? How do we stop doing to each other what people have always been doing to each other? We certainly can’t erase or undo the sins of past generations—we can’t escape or even heal them.
But we can make amends by creating new history together--! Eliot church is under obligation by virtue of our namesake to open a conversation here where you could say the Trail of Tears started. Eliot Church has some great assets with which to initiate a conversation---space, a social justice commitment and tradition. Wouldn’t it make good sense to form common cause with the indigenous (Wampanoag/Nipmuk/Massachusett) peoples on environmental issues which is close to the heart of both communities? (Happy birthday Greta Thunberg, who is 18.) Possibly, we could collaborate on the annual spring festival of giving thanks that native peoples have traditionally done and still do in our region.
In conclusion, Nature will have its way with us, we must accept our natural limits, and now we must adjust the way we make decisions. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is that endurance is not good enough, we must prevail. It used to be called re-ordering our priorities. It’s more than a mid-life crisis—the Preacher is talking about epiphany here, about revelation, and it’s not a revelation unless it inspires new choices because we all end up before the same judge.
Jesus reached into the human prospect long ago and incarnated the wisdom revealed by God that promised forgiveness and makes a New Year truly possible, indeed it does so every day.
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. The Fourth Sunday of Advent December 20, 2020 Luke 1: 46-55
Love Has Chosen Us
Christmas is almost here. The light in the darkness grows each week, as we add a candle to our wreaths. We have lighted - in order - the candles of hope, peace and joy. Today we light the fourth candle, the candle of love, knowing that the full light of life will return with the birth of Jesus.
This particular Advent season, we have focused our attention on the Magnificat, Mary’s song, in response to God’s call to bear Jesus into our world. As Rev. Rick has been preaching these past 3 Sundays, her song is rich with praise, prophecy, and blessing. She claims the promises of God’s presence in the lives of those who have come before her, in her life and the life of the child she carries, and in the lives of those who will follow her. Mary sings that she has been chosen by God’s love to bear love.
She has been chosen by God’s love to bear love . . . and so have we. In this strange and difficult Advent and Christmas season, when we are missing loved ones as well as beloved sacred and secular traditions, while we wait and wait and wait some more for the curve to flatten and the vaccines’ to be delivered, while our friends and neighbors and those whom we do not know struggle to pay their rent and keep food on the table, we are STILL chosen by love to bear love. It may not feel that way as we grieve the losses of this year, but that does not change the truth: we are chosen by God’s love to bear love.
Like your families, my family is anxious, worried and afraid. Both my husband and I long to be able to hug the parents we have living. We are continually worried for their safety, keeping ourselves away from them in the hope we can protect them. We miss our grown children in households of their own whom we have not seen other than via Zoom or Face Time in almost a year. My son at home misses his brothers and mourns the loss of a college year without being physically present with friends and professors. And yet, we are among the blessed. Our house is warm and we are not likely to lose it, we all have work, our extended family is for the most part, healthy. We remind each other daily that we are so fortunate and that we really shouldn’t complain, still so much seems lost. I imagine that many of you are experiencing much the same and those feelings make it harder for us to remember that we are chosen by love to bear love.
This Advent, I have been practicing the discipline of remembering love. And not just remembering, but naming in a journal all the ways in which love has chosen me and formed me to bear love. Growing up, the Church was central to our family life. And at this time of year, it was especially important. December was the month my Mom and I were responsible for the altar. We set up communion, changed hangings and hung greens. We also spent many a Christmas Eve day washing and ironing choir and acolyte robes. It still feels strange all these years later not to have the ironing board set up in the kitchen while one of us starched choir surplices and the other took robes out of the dryer with carols playing in the background. Then there was a Christmas Eve where I had sewed new choir robes and collars. I had injured a hand and was unable to turn the collar points. I was frustrated and tearful until my Dad faithfully came to the rescue. I will never hear “And there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” - the beginning of the Christmas story in Luke 2 - in any voice but my Dad’s. He always read it out loud to us after Church on Christmas Eve.
These are just small vignettes of love poured into my life. I keep them in my heart and always will. I know that the love of God and family my parents poured into me are a rich gift that continues to bear love in my life. Like Mary’s remembering the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants, my parents poured out the love that had been poured into them. And as I cut out Christmas cookies with my now 21 year-old son, I am confident the love that has chosen me is choosing him too.
My “song” is not unique - I know that you, too, have been chosen by the love that has been poured into you and that you continue to bear that love for others known and unknown in your life. NOTHING can deny this Advent truth, neither political unrest, nor virus, nor tough economic times, nor even death. Take comfort from the words we used to light the Advent wreath this morning, “We are each collections of all the love people have chosen for us along our journey. Coursing through our veins is the same courage that inspired each of those choices. Every time and every way that we choose love for ourselves and one another, we honor that inheritance.”
No matter how far we are from those who have loved us into life - whether by social distance or death or other tragedies, the love poured into us remains with us. We are still chosen to pour that love into the lives of others. Claim that love. Honor that love. Rely on that love. Sing that love into the world. The paradox of the Advent season is that God’s love is already here in our darkness – and yet, it still is coming in the growing light that bursts into full flame at Christmas. “People look east and sing today: love the Lord is on the way.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Romans 8:12-18 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
Luke 1:52-53--Mary’s Magnificat continues: 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.
I and my family and this congregation are among the lucky ones. Minimal exposure, good health, savings. I feel awful when I read about or just imagine what is happening to the poor and immigrant communities of our cities. All of it compounded by the ungodly political spectacle across this country.
It’s clear where this is all headed. It gives me the feeling people in the lifeboats must have had seeing the Titanic go down with its remaining passengers. So many will be lost, and we can only watch. But even those who watched still had a very uncertain fate as do we ourselves. Even though we contribute food and money every week, we still feel helpless.
Now that we are experiencing a calamity of biblical proportions first hand, can the Bible be remotely serious that God lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things? How can we share the exuberance of Mary’s Magnificat, her praise for the magnificence of her God, Israel’s God, her belief that God promises the poor release from their oppression in this moment?
Mary’s lyrical voice celebrates in one transcendent song the thread which unifies the entire Hebrew Bible and all the teaching of Christ— "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; ¹blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied; blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh—what stock can a world in pain place in such words?
Yet down through history Mary’s spirit inspired movements like the Franciscans, Mother Ann Lee’s Shakers, Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel at the turn of the last century, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, the liberation theology of Roman Catholic Latin America, the American Civil Rights movement, Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, Rev. William Barbour’s Poor Peoples’ Campaign—just a few of the many who have taken to heart Mary’s hymn extolling the God in whom the poor could have faith. But look into any corner of the world in any year of any century, and we would have to ask if this faith is warranted—statistically, you would say the poor have never made out well nor are they in today’s pandemic.
There are tears at midnight and again at dawn.
Look no further than our own country for which the name of “Wall Street” is a by-word for greed and its lethal side-effects. A good look tells us that human society rises barely above the state of nature, but when it does so, another look reveals opera, dance, art, sculpture, libraries, temples and singing in the shower. How can those contradictions co-exist? Why are there rich and poor?
Just exactly who is meant in Mary’s Magnificat by the powerful and the rich,” and by “the lowly” and “the hungry”?
In the gospel of Matthew, it seems the “lowly” mean those destitute in spirit, those feeling low, oppressed by psychic or emotional troubles. That is possibly you, in the grip of pandemic anxiety, and so many others.
In the Gospel of Luke, it would seem to be those actually laid low, those who suffer the physical harms of a nation’s troubles. That might be you, too, you who may be bracing for an economic hit, or coping with illness or mourning the death of a loved one.
Of course! Jesus had both in mind, because his heart could read the human condition.
Jesus knew that tons of money is ultimately no solace for the rich, just as he knew that the lack of money perpetrated upon the poor is no accident. It’s clear who Mary meant by the “lowly”—anyone in a state of loss, anyone who experiences loss. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, goes that familiar spiritual, nobody but Jesus, and that’s true. Jesus our Jewish rabbi, knows that the plight of being human is the consequence of being body and spirit.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus warned that while the spirit is strong, the body is weak—but the spirit can be weak, too, unless we have been awakened to our birthright as children of God. Our baptism in Christ signifies that we have life through the Spirit. Paul exhorts us to recognize that our cry to God for help is itself proof of the spirit in us, for like reaches out to like.
Paul says, “if you live according to the flesh (only), you will die,” but you are made of more than that and we are made for more than that—we are the heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ, Paul declares. You will survive the losses of this mortal life, yes you will, you will surmount these troubles with eagles’ wings and you will prevail.
Be assured, in suffering with God you will be glorified with God—Paul sums up, “I do not consider the sufferings of this present life to be worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us” in the living of this life. That statistical definition of the lowly does not capture that it means, being low, nevertheless we are able to live high in the spirit, exceeding abundantly more than we ever ask or can even think.
Such is God, the God of Israel and of Jesus—God seeks the activation of your inert bodies, God opposes entropy and determinism and your belief in them. You were born into a dynamic world, but you must be reborn as an in-spired agent in that world. You are born for more, you are born for abundant life, but you must step through the looking glass first. It’s what Jesus called, the kingdom of God—it is not a place of helplessness—awake and come on in. God places before us life and death—choose, make a choice, don’t just stew there in this political quagmire!
Make the choice that the Franciscans did, that Mother Ann Lee did, that Walter Rauschenbush did, that Dorothy Day did, that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference did, that Jim Wallis has, that Rev. William Barbour has—choose life, choose abundant life. In the Magnificat, Mary is calling us to action against poverty and against the sin of greed which gives rise to poverty. We are God’s hands—we are the difference between death and life.
So it is that in church we intensely pray, we watch vigilantly, we are ready with the lifelines we can muster. In conclusion, let me offer this poem that Susan J. shared with me yesterday which also expresses in different words very much what God is saying to us:
Mary Oliver, When Death Comes
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; when death comes like the measle-pox
when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world
Let’s bear prayerfully in our hearts what’s in store for the families in Chelsea where Bridge Over Troubled Waters runs rescue missions for the children hardest hit. And what’s in store for the churches and mosques in Roxbury and Mattapan. And what is in store for us in our neighborhoods in Newton, Watertown, Brighton and the region. You know the answer now. We who have been laid low, shall be raised up yet in this Advent season of love, and hope, and joy, and peace.
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. Luke 1:54-55.
I struggle to express all that this passage, this short line, can mean and for that matter, I struggle to express all that it means to me.
It speaks of God, not the “God” we suppose the word to signify when we use the pronoun “he” and verbs like “do” and “make,” but that Other within and beyond history, that Other which may be “the Rock” of Hannah’s hymn but is within and beyond the natural rocks of which mountains and deserts are made.
It speaks of an Other that “kills” and “brings to life,” as Hannah’s hymn declares, yet is life itself but in a way that incorporates death as well. Such a God is the inspiration for the exalted words and profound emotions of Hannah’s song and Mary’s Magnificat, their communities reaching for the utmost intensity of expression.
But what kind of doing, relative to deity so conceived, can be meant by the word “scattered,” as in “he scattered the proud”?
To scatter a people is more than scattering pebbles or mice—it is to disperse, to rout and confuse, to unhinge and to dislocate, to shred and render without community, the worst of all possible human fates. Such existential terrors do the proud undergo, according to Hannah’s song and Mary’s Magnificat, because pride goeth before a fall, to quote the King James version, because pride seeks its own over-self-estimated counsel, then it claims the ill-gotten gains entirely and only for oneself, saying “devil take the hindmost.”
For, the proud are special, they harbor vast empires in the imagination of their hearts—normal and human-sized as the proud may be, their mental compass embraces outsized horizons of banquets beyond need, wealth beyond luxury, protection beyond security, where too much is never enough.
What is this human tendency that God would single it out for condemnation—ordinary greed?
Yes, to use an inadequate word, but it also represents the refusal deeply to investigate the secrets of life and death for the unimagined kinds of riches that actually lie there—it’s the tragedy of missed opportunity, missed satisfactions, missed discoveries, missed dimensions, that happens when you overlook computing for parallax effect—the fate of the man who buried his two talents, the fate of the rich young man who found Jesus disappointing, the fate of Ivan Illych who thought he had done it all right by social norms, the fate of Dr. Faustus who sought complete knowledge, it is, of course, the fate of Ebeneezer Scrooge, the fate of Citizen Kane, the fate particularly in America where an entire continent worth of natural resources, gems, gold, oil, coal, and forests spawned financial speculators, real estate speculators and the millions of gullible victims of get-rich-quick schemes like the 1849 gold rush that brought thousands of hapless seekers to the California Sierras—ultimately pathetic and very often tragic fates.
And thus it is proclaimed in this passage that God is not only the God of promises but the God of reversals. Remember the Aniwim, the poor ones I told you about last Sunday—? Because they couldn’t trust their own strength, they had to place utter confidence upon God—they were poor not only in material terms but spiritual, too, but they knew it. The proud, on the other hand, in the imagination of their hearts, having no need of him, always end in the little square of their self-sufficiency.
With so many famous warnings, why should it bear so much repetition the way Hannah’s hymn concludes: “not by might does one prevail”—?
I have a guess: it’s because in this country we’re never guilty of self-sufficiency, we are “self-reliant” and that’s different, we suppose. Americans in every one of our centuries saw land for the taking and pressed every advantage to secure some, actually, lots and lots of it, stolen then exploited with slaves! In a wilderness where there were no services or supplies, this required much independence and know-how—we called it self-reliance, which is just self-sufficiency by another name.
Self-reliance—the quintessential American virtue of the frontier society—gave us America’s “can-do” spirit, which we admire and other countries do, too. But we have applied it to a fault. In the name of independence, we have failed sufficiently to acknowledge interdependence. In the name of individual rights, we have fostered a bunker mentality. In the name of progress, we have manipulated nature and used up our resources. In the name of independence, we have refused partnership with God, and this refusal is having tragic national consequences. It amounts to the refusal to look inside and to listen to the still small voice of God—it’s a rejection of the way Mary waits, that is, waiting creatively, not like waiting for the bus.
So Mary’s Magnificat applies especially to us, where she sings, “God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” because 2020 has brought our chickens home to roost. Our question in these times should be, What are we supposed to learn here? God does not favor those who over-play our hand, those who convert opportunity into opportunism at the expense of weaker or less avaricious competitors. Mary only repeats the age-old Israelite theme—God is not mocked, which is simply what is meant by our passage’s first line about “the fear of God,” being proper respect for cause and effect. This promise is now about to be incarnated in the person of the baby Jesus to show what kind of power matters in the kingdom of God.
In Advent we celebrate Mary, but not as Virgin, not as Queen, not as Bride, not as Mother, not as Intercessor—all of these being quasi-biblical elaborations of the gospel story by the emerging churches—but as Challenger of business-as-usual. Our Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled an essay, “Self-Reliance,” but he wasn’t giving cover to them—he was actually urging independence of mind, independence from old, traditional ways of thinking, religious ways of thinking that came from the Old World.
Our denomination and the whole liberal progressive stream of Christianity stands in this line—our spiritual roots are in Mary’s Magnificat. Eliot Church stands squarely in this line, too, as our past history and present ethos demonstrate. Our Small Group discussions last month reflect how strong this is in our DNA.
“God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”—this beautiful line, and one among so many beautifully crafted lines of the Magnificat, is most beautiful because of its context, and is the reason for this remarkable season of Advent before Christmas which is one of love and hope and joy and peace.
I am moved by every line of the Magnificat, by its every phrase and every word. I felt it again so strongly the other day, I decided we should devote one Sunday of Advent to each stanza, and Dr. Elizabeth signed on with me. The Four meditations on the Magnificat (Luke 1:39-56) will go like this:
Nov. 29, Advent I--My soul magnifies the Lord. Dec. 6, Advent II--God has scattered the proud. Dec. 13, Advent III--God has lifted up the lowly. Dec. 20, Advent IV--God has helped his servant Israel.
If the Magnificat had dropped out of the sky without context or source, I would be moved by it. To me it amounts to a flash of brilliant sunlight breaking through the opening clouds. I am still moved, after how many decades since I first read it, by the calm, by the utter certitude of it.
What a start to the story of our Jesus—his mother, surprised by pregnancy, sings, she sings out, but to whom, to the baby? to her older cousin Elizabeth who is also surprised by a pregnancy? To God? to us?-- Along the natural course of human life, these two women, Elizabeth and Mary, share a common experience, and like any new mothers-to-be, both are full of delight and wonder at what has descended upon them.
I, being male, can only imagine the extent of such feelings, the first steps of a journey taken by every mother and yet which is owned uniquely by each of them!
But I do get it, when Mary begins and sings, My soul magnifies the Lord--!
Spontaneously, up rises this burst from Mary’s soul--from where? --her soul! --from the eternal part of her which animates every human being, that part of her responds to this news, as from like to like—the corresponding part of herself responds to God—I do get it.
I was in a fix once, one I was not going to get out of, and I was really worried. A friend asked me, “Don’t you trust life?” Until then, no one had ever put it that way to me, I had not even thought of my Christian faith that way. It’s so that clear what is called for in life is to trust it, life being God-given, all the way from the furthest thing that telescopes can see to the smallest that microscopes magnify.
There’s that word--magnify, to make larger, make plainer, make more real.
Now comes this surprise which, humanly speaking, suddenly puts a woman’s foot on another path, and her soul tells out the greatness of her God-given life which she embraces. And she is one with it, come what may—she will accept her vocation, not just as a natural fact but as one more subject of the kingdom of God, her spirit is at one with God’s saving purposes. All the different things that can possibly happen, Mary is prepared to own, for better or for worse, but she trusts in God her Savior, she trusts life because it is God.
And Mary says so, by Luke’s inventiveness, in exactly the words of another woman, Hannah, a formerly barren woman who gives birth to Israel’s first prophet, Samuel, and whose song begins, “My heart exults in the Lord” (I Samuel 2). No one could have recorded Mary’s words, so Luke provides appropriate ones well known in Israel’s traditions that line right up with Mary herself, and he does a little editing to personalize the theft when he writes “from now on all generations will call me blessed,” referring to herself, Mary.
What Luke plagiarized was familiar to him through two related sources: one, Hannah’s hymn, and two, the repeated singing of this hymn by small bands of Temple hangers-on in Jesus’ time who adopted it as their hymn, alternative Jewish communities who had found a way to live out of no way by living in the Lord. Scholars today (Raymond Brown, E.P. Sanders) know who they were—the aniwim, meaning the poor ones, so designated not just for the SES level of limited means but also for their piety, meaning their intentionally religionless piety. Some of them eventually gathered in Jewish-Christian clusters after Jesus’ death.
Their piety stretched back into Israelite history a long way, to Israel’s very origins. They understood God not to be the God of the religious professionals, nor the greatest God among other gods, but a God beyond God, something we call “God” but is Other than the anthropomorphic being that usually comes to mind. It was revealed to Israel that the Creator God forms common cause with humanity, with all creation, with the cosmos—and Israel caught that. At that point, humanity went from worshiping “god the void and god the enemy to God the fellow-sufferer who understands” (Alfred North Whitehead).
How meaningful that the childbirths of three women of Israel—Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary—witnessed to a different kind of life than governed by priests, a life partnered directly with the giver of life. God for Israel is the “mothering matrix of existence,” (Henry Nelson Wieman), whose “judgment” we feel when we worship created goods rather than the creative good. Despite its anthropomorphic stories about an angry and jealous God, Israel still got it across that they worshiped some Other beyond the human characteristics attributed to “him.”
The post-Easter Christians saw in Jesus one who embodied this faith. The gospel writers, like Luke, then wove a story around all the supporting cast, like Mary, which brings us to the Magnificat to which we have become inured by pious overuse. Mary’s calm and her utter certitude is everywhere in the gospels, but it really jumps out at you in her incandescent words.
Luke was never worried about plagiarism—all four gospels are a patchwork of gleanings from tradition and borrowings from legend. Nor did Luke worry about prolepsis—all kinds of things are said in the nativity story that a character would not have known at that juncture. The Nativity story is the original Christmas pageant, with grand entrances, villains, surprise appearances, marvelous doings, and grand speeches like the Magnificat.
I want to warn you away from two particular disputes over Mary that are irrelevant distractions Christians have followed down destructive rabbit holes--
Her purported virginity was a requirement of the Israelite story-teller to meet the standard of purity that qualifies Jesus as messiah, so an after-the-fact fabrication was imported.
Her perceived passivity was applied as grounds for subordination to male-favorable social norms.
So with these things in mind, I hope you are moved as I am by every line of the Magnificat, by every phrase and every word. What a start to the story of our Jesus--his mother, surprised by pregnancy, sings, she sings out, but to whom, to the baby? to her older cousin Elizabeth who is also surprised by pregnancy? To God? --to us?
Or could it possibly, actually be our own song?
Mary’s Magnificat should alert us—awake, wake up! Don’t miss your vocation. Perhaps it is calling you from within what you are already doing, or from around a corner you haven’t quite turned yet. Most important—don’t underestimate your divine partner.
This week, at your table, read out loud the poetry of the Magnificat—you will experience how progressive liberal Protestantism is heir to Mary’s creative waiting. It’s not like waiting for the bus which your app tells you is coming but you can’t hasten, but rather waiting that is involved and engaged in the unfolding future.
You will know the love, joy, hope and sublime peace of Advent. Now you know why always and everywhere, in the Lord I’ll be ever thankful!
Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. November 22, 2020 Thanksgiving Observed Psalm 100 Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 Matthew 5: 38-41, 18:21-22
Have you heard the phrase “May you live in interesting times?” Legend has it that this is a Chinese curse, but no one really knows its origin. American use of it comes from a 1966 speech given by Robert Kennedy: “There is a Chinese curse which says “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not,” Kennedy continues, “we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.” It is easy to express Kennedy’s sentiments in the pattern we heard in Ecclesiastes: -“a time of danger and uncertainty, and a time of creativity” The passage from Matthew’s Gospel also fits into this same formula – “a time of revenge and a time of forgiveness.”
Writing between 300 and 200 BCE, the writer of Ecclesiastes understood the tensions in which human beings live. The nouns may change, but our lived experience of “interesting times” can also be expressed in the formula: a time to self-quarantine and a time to receive vaccines, a time of an administration ending, and a time of an administration beginning, a time of civil unrest and a time for justice, a time to mourn the loss of a holiday season with those we love, and a time to rejoice in being together safely again in some not too distant future.
These are all “seasons” of human experience, but how does God encourage us in the between times and what does God expect us to do to move from that which has caused harm, trauma, despair, anger, fear and hopelessness to joy, peace, hope, renewed faith and confidence?
The Christian answer is to forgive – 77 times as Peter learns to his dismay. We know that we are asked to forgive as we have been forgiven, but forgiveness is not a switch we flip on and off. Much of popular culture has only a surface understanding of forgiveness. It is expected of us as a requirement of getting along, of being “nice.” It might work if the 77 things you are asked to forgive are your spouse leaving the cap off the toothpaste for the gazillionth time or your teen-ager forgetting to take out the trash AGAIN. But, it is woefully inadequate for the deep wounds of betrayal, the trauma of mental or physical abuse, the breaking of trust committed upon us or by us. And it has no application at all to the systemic harms done in our name; racism, income inequality, separating children and parents at the border for example.
Forgiveness is a process, not a destination. It is work and it is hard. So where do we begin? Christians know the work begins with God. God offers us grace always. No matter what we have done or what has been done to us or others, our gracious God loves and accepts us freely. Forgiveness is ours through Jesus. Full stop.
So, the first step in the journey to forgiveness is opening ourselves to God’s grace and extending the same to those who have harmed us and others. Grace is freely given, but forgiveness requires intention and practice. Forgotten in our culture of soundbites and tweets, there are some tried and true steps toward forgiveness that Christians have always practiced. The first is “repentance.” The concept in the New Testament comes from the Greek word “metanoia” which literally means “change of mind.” Christians add “and heart” to the definition. To change the mind and heart is to truthfully examine the motivations, decisions, and actions we have taken that harm others, and also require us to honestly name the choices and actions of others that harm us or those we love or those Scripture commands us to care for. Honesty can be gut-wrenching and truly frightening to face. But if we are ever to come to forgiveness, honesty is required.
Sometimes, we need help to name and know these hard truths. Conversations with a therapist or pastor or trusted friend, 12 step programs, prayer, reading Scripture or keeping a journal are all excellent ways to hold us accountable to the truth of what we have done or what has been done to us or to others.
Once truth has been revealed and accepted, the next step follows from the honesty of repentance. The Church calls this “amendment of life” What will we do to right the wrongs we have committed? How do we repair the damage and what will we do to stop it happening again? This, too, is hard work. And again, we may need the help of trusted others – and plenty of grace – to change the destructive behaviors in us that have harmed others. It may require therapy or participation in a 12 step program or giving ourselves over to the criminal justice system. It might be as simple as facing the person we have wronged, admitting our fault and doing what is needed to make them whole. It may also require us to respect the boundaries of those wounded by us and to accept that a relationship is not possible and our forgiveness will only come from God. Grace is free and will always be plentiful enough for us to live a redeemed life.
The same holds true if we are the one who has been harmed or if the harm has been done to someone we love. Forgiveness NEVER demands us to continue in relationship with a perpetrator, especially if there is no evidence of amendment of life. We need not grant absolution to an insincere apology nor accept unchanged behavior. There are some situations where the very best we can do is acknowledge that God loves and forgives the one who harmed us or others. And that is sufficient. Grace is free and will always be plentiful enough for us to live a redeemed life.
While repentance and amendment of life is the foundation of forgiveness in our individual lives, so too is it the foundation of our communal and civic life. It is more difficult on this scale, but the hard work still needs to be done. Truth and reconciliation processes are important to our communal life and the more we practice the grace of our own lives of forgiveness, the better we will be prepared to engage in a communal practice that heals civic wounds and wrongs. Even in the public square, grace is free and will always be plentiful enough for us to live a redeemed life. God’s grace is always free, but it is never cheap. There always is and always will be, work to be done. As we approach this strange and difficult holiday season, we must continue to do the hard work of forgiveness in spite of it all. God’s grace is always free and always will be. Grace is plentiful enough for us to live a redeemed life in whatever times we live. May God’s grace be a gift for which we give thanks – today and always. Amen.
The Bible means well, of course. The trouble with the Bible, though, is that it is so—“biblical.” The wording has a formal sound to it, repeating many of the same kinds of phrases over and over--(in the gospels for instance) on another occasion, that day in the evening, he also said to them.
These are not stories the way we are used to them. The place names are from a region distant from us and unfamiliar. While the names are quite specific—Capernaum, Jericho, Judea, Trans-Jordan, the Mount of Olives, etc.—the actions are not specific to the locations, it could be happening anywhere. The names of personages on the other hand we recognize—David, Simon, Bartholomew, sometimes a Zacchaeus. But they don’t appear to us as very rounded or three-dimensional, more like stock characters in a melodrama who with any name could perform the same function in the story.
Naturally, there is a lot of God-talk, which can be off-putting when God appears as character himself—there, see? I said “himself,” as if God were a person.
On top of all this, we have heard the same passages over such a long time, they have worn a groove in our brains into which our mental steps unreflectively falls.
To remedy this, there have been many translations in the last 100 years, whose goal is to render the text accurately and also in modern or contemporary rhetoric to facilitate comprehension. Some have gone down an outright colloquial road, like the Good News bible or The Message by Eugene Petersen—helpful but still not enough to break through.
Do any of these translations get us any closer to Jesus? How does one get better acquainted with Jesus? More to the point, how does somebody fall in love with Jesus? Yes, why not fall in love with Jesus, or at least try to meet him again as if for that first, startling time (to use Marcus Borg’s famous phrase)?
I have two tips for you. First, you do the same thing you would do if you wanted to get to know somebody you already know better, like, say, your own spouse, a friend, a parent, a co-worker, your minister. And that is: you have to spend more time with her or him, carve out some space and devote yourself to the task intentionally—like with your grandchildren. That would be true of getting to know Jesus, too—it is a matter of time.
Second, look for the unusual detail, for the sudden true-to-life phrasing that jumps out of the formality and staginess of the 1st century rhetoric. There are many such details in the Bible, which we might miss while cruising in our sleepy channel. These unusual features give life and credibility to the stories.
For instance, today’s scripture lesson from the 2nd chapter of Mark contains a case in point.
I’m using the translation by Stephen Mitchell—an unauthorized, unecclesiastical, nonacademic genius who has also translated the Book of Psalms, Job, the Tao te Ching. We are early in the ministry of Jesus when he has determined to set out, teaching and healing, into the countryside around Capernaum where it seems Jesus has set up a kind of home base. We learn that this junket has had some good effect because when he returns to Capernaum, word of this has gone out and a crowd has gathered at his house (his own home?). And such a crowd it was—the house was absolutely full and the entry blocked with people. But someone’s need to see Jesus in person was so great that something had to be done to get around the crush—four men had a paralytic on a stretcher—and what do they do, they get up on the roof, probably a low flat thatched roof, and opened up enough space to get the paralytic through and deposit him at Jesus’ feet.
Jesus was moved because “he saw how deeply they trusted him, and he saw plainly what was going on. In Mitchell’s phrasing, we are helped to see the true issue—they needed to be closer to him and went to extraordinary pains to make this happen, and this is the first unique detail.
Mitchell omits some other detail in order for us to see this one clearly. We see the urgency, the pathos of the paralyzed man, the determination of his friends, the conviction that this was worth trying to pull off—altogether an unavoidable and unforgettable snapshot. It is well that Mitchell leaves out one particular detail, because it sets off a new set of issues--when Jesus says to the paralytic “your sins are forgiven.” I think Mitchell wants us to see not so much the source of the miracle (the forgiveness), as for us to focus on the medium of the miracle: taking the pallet under his arm and the man walking.
The words reported of Jesus are arresting, the abruptness of the command and the simple clarity of it contain worlds of wonder because it seems to have given the paralytic agency, given him his proper role in his recovery. The love that brought this man to Jesus, the love he had for Jesus, is the love that healed him. It was as if Jesus had said, pick up what ails you and be well.
Could he have just been saying, I healed you, now you carry on? No way. All the Bible gives us is the merest skeleton of a story, without any explanation, leaving us to make the connections for ourselves. The economy of the story forces our mental wheels to turn—referring to that pallet, so meaningful in what it betokens about that man’s prior life. These details should jump out at you—four men carrying a stretcher up onto the roof (whoa Nelly!), breaking a hole in the roof to let the stretcher down (wait a minute now, where’d they get the big idea!), Jesus’ amazement at their trust in him (this man has a heart), Jesus’ charge to take up your pallet and walk (OK now really!). A charged atmosphere, a supercharged interaction, all of it witnessed by the crowd among which numbered skeptics and enemies.
Then finally, allow yourself to just imagine which of these characters you are—the stretcher bearers, onlooker, the paralytic, perhaps Jesus, if that doesn’t seem impious. The curious thing about the Bible is that it has a way of casting you in the various roles. Now imagine that Jesus is speaking to you when he is speaking to someone in the story—he addresses the skeptics and the enemies, he addresses the paralytic—but he is always and everywhere speaking to you. Absorbed in the action as we read the story, we may completely overlook that at every turn, we are being addressed by Jesus—no wonder people fall in love with Jesus.
Jesus could be addressing us as individuals, and I’ll let you sort out what particular paralysis you might be suffering from in your life, or it could be us as a church. Now you know where I’m going! It is to you, Eliot Church, that Jesus is saying, here and now, Take up your pallet and walk. I bring this scripture to you at this particular time because you have reached a milestone, let me say a watershed moment, with the completion of one round of Small Group Sessions. Now we have reached a moment of Truth, the truth involving the facts of our circumstances, the truth being a sober assessment of the paralytic state in which we are caught.
There is a connection between trust and agency—the point at which they touch is the human imagination, when we see past our present state of arrested development into a future we have never experienced before. I wonder how the paralytic’s life unfolded from there. . .and how will ours?
I just want to say at this juncture: don’t resist—I perceive some of you tensing up like you do in the dentist’s office—don’t resist and relax! Give yourself into the love of Christ—much has been taken away (we don’t even know how much it will finally be yet), but even more will replace it.
Yes, the Bible means well, it expresses what it means very well. God speaks to us in the Bible and invites us into a relationship with Jesus, a true man with a heart, who sees and accepts us for who we are, sees this one little congregation with the usual preoccupations. And to us, Christ is saying, take up your pallet and walk.
You can fall in love with Jesus by enacting your home liturgy like I said a week ago. Take the first step today, and it might turn into a good practice for Thanksgiving and Advent, as follows: we tell stories at the dinner table, don’t we? How about telling this morning’s story about Jesus, and make it a game, someone starts it, the next person adds a little and the next person adds more, at some point someone finishes it. Prepare by printing out the text as failsafe. Write the title of the story on a card folded in half and placed at the center of the table with a candle. Jesus will be at table with you.
Maybe among people who have known each other so long you will feel shy or a little foolish. Nevermind! Why not become a fool for Christ and see what falling in love with Jesus feels like.
“If you had only been here,” Mary said. “If you had only been here, Lord, my brother Lazarus, would not have died.”
If only, if only. . . how we look back on our personal loss and wish we could get our loved one back, longing for that face, that voice, that indispensable support that we have to do without now, and maybe wishing we had done more, done something differently, that would have prevented this loss.
But can the doctors stop us from aging? Can fate intervene and prevent that fall or that accident?
We flinch when we hear the Psalmist say, “Turn back, you mortals, turn back to dust.” We don’t need any such realism, who needs scripture to remind us we are dust? For the families we memorialize today, for those in the Eliot community, for those who lost someone to Covid, and for those indigenous nations that mourn their long ago losses right in this land where we worship and pray—that kind of reminder is painfully superfluous.
Except, scripture rests on a deeper foundation, the assurance that we are God’s and God is ours. God is where we dwell, and have dwelled in all generations, whether we are living, living well or not, all that we are dwells in God, the sensations we celebrate, the brilliance of the conscious mind, the delight we feel to run, to dance, to leap for joy—all this is not our own, it is God’s, it is God. When we die, we don’t cease to be—we cease to be visible to each other. When we die, the material part of us crumbles, and the spirit continues, however unencumbered, with God. We were never our own, but always the Lord’s.
“If you had only been here, Lord, my brother Lazarus, would not have died,” Mary said. But Jesus actually was there, and Lazarus didn’t die, except in the way we all dread—only Mary didn’t see it that way, not just yet. Jesus proved it to her satisfaction by “bringing him back to life,” although that was unnecessary. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, whosoever believeth in me, shall have everlasting life, and whosoever believeth in me shall never die.” Amen.
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent bear it away.”
This is All Saints’ Day when we commemorate the Christian saints, known and unknown, always on Nov. 1, and happens to land on a Sunday this year. All Hallows’ Eve—Halloween—was of course last night. Tomorrow is all Souls’ Day, always on Nov. 2, when we commemorate all the faithful departed.
I’m going to split these two occasions between the two Sundays—next Sunday we will observe the annual commemoration of Eliot people who have passed in the last year, Covid deaths acknowledged, too, in preparation for the Congregational Meeting. Today, when we would normally be celebrating communion on the first Sunday of the month, I want to answer the question that has come up regularly in the pandemic—when will we have communion again? Why can’t we have communion remotely? My answer is—you can have it today, and it doesn’t even have to be celebrated remotely. I will explain.
Our situation as Christians today may be unique. The churches are closed, but not because of persecution, maybe more like incarceration. If we do gather in the Sanctuary, we are not permitted to sing. Communion, as with any kind of food distribution, must be handled very carefully—the practice is so intimate, it does not inspire confidence, although the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has gone ahead but without the wine.
I. I’m going to tell you about two communions this morning—the one, which belongs in the Sanctuary, we cannot observe, for the time being. The other is appropriate at home, ideal even. We are of course most familiar with the ritual in the Sanctuary; the home communion you probably have not heard of, and I have not thought about it myself since the days of House Church in the 1960s, although it has surfaced again in the writing of Robin Myers (The Underground Church) and others lately who have revived the pietistic traditions of the Mennonites, Moravians, Quakers and many others between the 16th and 18th centuries in Europe.
Let’s start out this way: the Sanctuary ritual arises out of the Last Supper of Jesus in the Upper Room with his disciples on the eve of his betrayal and death. We receive through this sacrament the victory over death—it is our key to the door of eternal life opened by the forgiveness of sins, the very teaching which earned Jesus the accusation of blasphemy and the threats of death. However, it is not simply death that underlies the ritual, but violent death. This would seem to be too obvious, because we know and say over and over that Jesus died a painful death on the cross. Whereas we think of Jesus triumphing over death, which he does, the violence of the death to us appears secondary.
This is serious because when violence gets taken for granted by us, we obscure the fact that violence is really the thing most feared by human societies. Violence was foremost in the mind of followers and spectators of Jesus’ ministry. After all, Jesus was baptized by John who was later imprisoned and eventually executed by Herod, by beheading. We should catch the ominous clue in the scripture today where the one who himself was violently killed, said in describing John the Baptist, “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent bear it away.” The violent bear it away. Later, Jesus gets roughed up in his home town and threatened with stoning and practically run over a cliff.
The outbreak of violence is deeply feared in the collective psyche of every community, from the days of that scene in the movie “2001” (where the hominoid monkeys discover they can wield bones as weapons against their neighbors) down through the ages. It is instinctively known how close to the surface our explosive energies are—like the leaking of a gas tank where a spark in the puddle or even near the fumes would lead straight up to the catastrophic explosion. How this is supposed to work is not remotely understood by us, but early societies including the Israelites have practiced all kinds of sacrifice—animal, human, child—to slake off the electrical charges in the air which pose a danger. Early societies protected themselves against the outbreak which cannot be contained until the energy is utterly depleted and everyone destroyed. The need was to keep violent tendencies or reactions over conflict or difference in check, because people knew that wars, once started, cannot be stopped until the fuel is expended—some modern examples are the colonial wars against native Americans, the French Revolution, our Civil War, and during this very election season you can see how anxious we have become about the prospect of violence that menaces.
The sacrificial victim in those days served ritually to dissipate the violent energies. Some of this got into Christian theology, where God performs the sacrifice. The Christian contribution was to see that violence has its origin in the individual human heart where guilt over wrongdoing festers until lanced by the intermediary’s sacrifice bringing forgiveness and reconciliation. But the sacrifice of Christ is meant to end sacrifice forever. But did he end it forever? The public ritual has to be repeated to meet the ongoing need, which is why it is so painful to be without it.
Telling this story in its cosmic and spiritual and societal dimensions, with all its ambiguities and contradictions, requires the public ritual to take place in the Sanctuary and all the arts of drama, poetry, music, choreography, and set-building are employed. We unite there in a public setting to become part of the story and to partake shoulder to shoulder with each other, with Christ as host and with Christ’s representative (clergy) officiating.
II. That’s the public version of communion, the most familiar one, premised on the meal in the Upper Room. Before that meal, before it chronologically, and blocked from our view by the meal in the Upper Room, are the numerous meals Jesus took with his followers, with the skeptics, with the hoi polloi, with sinners and collaborators with the enemy, the downtrodden and oppressed. These meals are familiar to you, because they were the hallmark of Jesus’ ministry. In person, Jesus was transparent to the Word, to the Logos; Jesus disclosed in his person the forgiving foundation of the world. During these intimate occasions, he is variously described as radiant, compelling, irresistible. The day-to-day interaction with Jesus inspired joy, possibly hilarity. He and his followers did not fast, as John’s disciples did, and they were accused (falsely) of gluttony and drunkenness. The great Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, Edward Schillebeeckx, once wrote, “Being sad in Jesus’ presence was an existential impossibility.” Because, he went on, “Jesus showed himself to be a man of liberty, a free man, whose sovereign freedom never worked to his own advantage but always to the benefit of others, as an expression of God’s free and loving approach to men and to women.” “To believe in Jesus is to put one’s trust gladly, gladly, in God.” In another place, Jesus said that you can’t fast in the presence of the Bridegroom (himself), thus implying that with Christ you are always attending a wedding feast.
And there is our mandate—we can summon Christ, if we declare a feast! We can invoke Christ’s presence at home to commune with him and with each other. This “communion” is perfect for the home: it is the domestic version of the public meal with Jesus, and why not? At home, we can show the marks of our family life and let it all hang out, as we cannot do quite so completely in the Sanctuary—the remembrance summoned of Jesus here is of Jesus prior to the death threats and prior to the violent death itself.
III. Here are four specific steps I propose we can take:
We dance at weddings don’t we, to let some joy out? What form could that “dance” take at home, say perhaps, by joining hands and making one circuit around the dinner table, or by weaving garlands of flowers to wear.
We tell stories at the dinner table, don’t we? How about telling one of the stories about Jesus, or tell one that Jesus told (e.g., parables)—we could make it a game, someone starts it, the next person adds a little and the next person adds more, at some point someone finishes it. Someone can prepare by choosing the story and printing out the text as failsafe. First, write the title of the story on a card folded in half and placed at the center of the table with a candle.
The food has been prepared and brought to the table, but extra thought has been given to buy a loaf of bread in advance, an actual loaf of bread, that someone can break and make the sign of the cross over it. The youngest person able to do so might be elected to give this sign that the meal has begun. Breaking bread hints at the tragic part of the story at the same time that we share it with others for nourishment, for fellowship, for intimate concourse. Let there be crumbs as the crust crunches, and laughter at the mess.
Let there be festivity, but not disorderliness—food is not a toy and many people around the world (some say ⅔ of the human population) have no or very little food. They should be remembered, so let it be a frugal feast. Think of trying this for Thanksgiving Day itself.
So, this is your “liturgy:” it’s a Eucharist (which means thanksgiving in Greek) with a small “e” (Miriam Therese Winter). It can be celebrated as a family, or a couple or alone, in any case, kind of like the Jewish Passover Seder which is celebrated at home—a meal with blessing, candlelight, a story, and a prayer—what a nice parallel with the Last Supper which in three of the gospels is a Passover meal when it was remembered that houses during Israel’s slavery in Egypt were marked with the blood of a lamb so that the angel of death would pass over.
In both settings, we experience the presence of Jesus—but in one, we participate with the solemnity fitting for a public occasion, whereas in the other, we participate with a certain levity afforded by its being a private event. Com-union erases the dividing line between the living and the dead, one through tragedy, and the other through comedy, if you’ll pardon the literary and secular vocabulary. Tragedy, because Salvation comes not outside of violence but within it. Comedy, because love and laughter rule in the kingdom of God. At table with Christ, the violence symbolized by the breaking of bread, and the extravagant hospitality symbolized by eating at an actual dinner table, converge. In both, we unite with the mystical Body of Christ. In this particular time, it is more important than ever to celebrate.
Holy Communion requires attendance in person—eye contact, naming the communicant, sitting in common and sharing in common, hearing the same words and the same Word, receiving the forgiveness auditorily—not by remote control. Christian denominations require that Holy Communion be administered by an ordained person (except in the Quaker tradition which has neither clergy nor communion). But at home I’m saying, you can experience Christ another way—not even remotely! Let’s practice and compare notes.
Two weeks ago was Coming Out Sunday in the United Church of Christ, and I didn’t want to completely miss the opportunity for us to celebrate our having become an Open and Affirming Congregation in 2003, a process led here by Committee Chair Josephine McNeil. There are now 1863 ONA congregations in the UCC—we are Number 336, I think. And very close in timing to the Congregational Church in Needham where I gave their kick-off sermon for their Open and Affirming process in 2001.
In the United States we have gone from the barbarity committed upon Matthew Shepherd, beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming, on the night of October 6, 1998, to Marriage Equality in the United States in 2015—. You could call that a huge distance to cover in a short 17 years, maybe. But really, it had been too long, much too long for reason to have finally prevailed.
Well, after all, reason had to prevail over the Bible, so it was a tough slog for twenty centuries. But, I should rather say, reason had to prevail over biblicism, reason had to prevail over the fetishizing of isolated scraps of scripture to support socially and irrationally determined taboos. It helped a lot that President Obama publically modelled the natural process of “catching up” that comes with learning from experience and relationships about things deeper than prejudice.
Then this week there comes onto the stage two strangely opposed Christians on this very subject—Pope Francis has announced his support for same-sex Civil Unions although he is head of a church that opposes recognizing gay people at all, and Amy Coney Barratt could be headed into the Supreme Court with her religiously based anti-gay stance (as well as a religiously based anti-reproductive rights stance) that violate the tenets of impartiality and blind justice.
So, today I want to direct our attention back to the Bible and see where we might reliably turn for guidance about sexuality, every sexuality, all sexualities—because there actually is good news from the Bible on the subject of sexuality. Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher and theologian, once sagely and with only a little irony, extolled sexuality as “the domain of all the difficulties, all the spiritual gropings, the dangers and dilemmas, the failure and the joy” in human life! (1964). And yet all told, together with its dangers and dilemmas and its failures and joys, to think about sex is to think about love, and to think about love means reading the Book of Love, and I mean the Bible in which it is proclaimed in nearly every chapter that God is love.
Personally, I do believe, sex is nature’s way of leading us to God. While for some that journey may be instantaneous, for others it can take a lifetime, or even—tragically—take one’s life for failing to find God. Sharon Olds, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet put it this way once:
How do they do it, the ones who make love without love? They are beautiful as dancers, gliding over each other like ice-skaters over the ice. How do they come to the God, to the still waters, and not love the one who came there with them? In their religion, they love the priest instead of the God. They are like great runners: they know they are alone with the road surface, the cold, the wind, The fit of their shoes, their over-all cardiovascular health. They commingle with factors, like the partner in bed, and not the truth.
Basically, we are all just babies—the body craves touch and everybody needs to be held and dandled. But something tells us that sexuality is about more than sexuality, that the pleasure of it, great as that is even when mixed with dangers and dilemmas, leads us into a mutuality and a reciprocity and an intimacy which makes life not just three- but four-dimensional. Many are the people who have not succeeded in reaching this state, only to occupy a desolate solitude of a lifelong duration. Take the movies of any era, like my own, which chronicle the lonely path—Carnal Knowledge, Alfie, Midnight Cowboy—each a contemporary version of the Don Juan legend of a living, and a literal, death.
This emotional poverty only ends when a person finds he or she is not just obeying a natural reflex anymore but is speaking a language without words, articulating through gesture and touch and response the message contained in the same gestures and touches and responses of another person. This emotional poverty only ends when we decide to stay with it, to stay with someone long enough for a personal contact to occur and, when permanent, be long enough for a human relationship to be perfected. But for love to really succeed, for sex to succeed, requires faithfulness, fidelity.
And so we have to come back eventually to the Bible where the principal divine attribute is faithfulness, fidelity—it is what Yahweh proffers to Israel and what Yahweh expects of Israel, a relationship that, in several places in the Old Testament, is actually described in terms of a sexual relationship, so closely is God and sex and faithfulness correlated. When applied to human sexual loving, fidelity will leave us breathlessly saying, “Ain’t love divine!”
As a minister, I was for marriage equality, among other reasons, because I said the church should not stand in the way of any two people who want to promise fidelity and a sexually exclusive relationship to each other. Given the misogynistic track record of heterosexual men, which I learned about in locker rooms, casual conversation, through the lore of American masculinity, and, say, John Updike’s novels, I didn’t see where marriage equality and gay rights would fare any worse.
On the contrary, GLBT couples seeking legalization and blessing of their unions implicitly uphold a model that heterosexual culture could only benefit from. But I just wished that Americans could relax a little and take life in the way the French do when they say, “Chacun a ses sexes”—or, to each according to their sexual inclination (today we would say, orientation).
At the same time, we also have to acknowledge how the human enterprise has been engrossed since nature graduated from asexual to sexual reproduction in mastering the daily consequences of our sexual lives, namely, controlling fertility, avoiding disease, and evading the detection of our utter heedlessness of persons—who is to say when these are tragic, or comic! And whose personal histories were ever free of sexually caused calamities?? The biology of sexual desire is so over-determined and overpowering that it has taken all kinds of religious and societal and familial and even totally invented prohibitions to prevent the runaway horses of our stage-coach from rushing over the cliffs! Fortunately, we survive most of our sexuality’s dangers and dilemmas and find love itself.
All of which belongs under the umbrella of individual privacy, until the day—the great day— when two individuals want to make public their personal covenant, and that’s called marriage. At that point begins real freedom, the real journey of two companions who daily break bread at their conjugal table as they seek together to solve the perplexities of their own personalities as well as of their marriage. We say in the church, let no one put asunder what God has joined together (Mark 10:9), for hereinafter God opens the path to discovery and true freedom.
This whole time we’ve been speaking about a mystery, something much more appropriate for myth, and poetry, song and chant—we must never forget that and we must remember to turn to the poets. And yet a politics follows from this mystery which should be go like this: all couples must be admitted to love’s devotions notwithstanding the obstacles of prejudice and fear and hate and biblicism—I celebrate the LGBTQ community and wish you God’s blessing, in the name of our Creator and Redeemer and the Holy Spirit.
My prayer for you, and all of us today, is that you may find it true that love like this is possible, a love that never gives up, that cares more for the other than for self, that doesn’t want what it doesn’t have, that doesn’t take what isn’t given, that never forces itself on the other. May you share a love that doesn’t fly off the handle or keeps score or revel in anyone’s abasement. May you find a love which looks for the best and keeps going to the end.
So finally I share with you this morning a view of Eliot’s fresh new Rainbow Flag that will be displayed on the façade of your church as a sign of God’s blessing, as soon as equipment and the correct man and woman power become available!