Posted by secondchurch on December - 20 - 2018

Luke 1:39-56
December 16, 2018
Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor


One of the many things I love about this season is the wild cast of characters we get to meet again, year after year – Marley’s ghost and Scrooge, the Grinch, Rudolph of the red-nosed species, Charlie Brown’s pathetic Christmas tree, and of course, the old Claus himself.  And the Christian characters – Gabriel, Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Herod, shepherds, astronomers, stars, friendly beasts, and of course, Mary herself. The Biblical stories of how Jesus came to life are so dramatic.  Raymond Brown, in his definitive and scholarly commentary The Birth of the Messiah, writes that the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew should be read as if they were, in fact, a dramatic theatrical performance. No wonder, then, that almost every Christian church across all Christendom, performs some version of the play.

We know the story, don’t we?  We know what parts we especially like to hear repeated every year – a sounding joy.  When we close our eyes, we can just picture the scenes, helped along in our imagining by crèches and Christmas cards and carols we can all sing.  We know this story by heart.  “Because there was no room for them in the inn.”  “In that region there were shepherds.”  “Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem asking, ‘where is the child?’”  “And Mary, kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  Yes, we know this story by heart.  Which is unfortunate actually, since its familiarity and its lyrical romanticism keeps us from digging deeper into its meaning, its demands upon us, upon all those who are disciples of the little baby born in Bethlehem of Judea.

Today’s reading from Luke illustrates the point.  There is Mary, young, obedient, engaged to be married, but not yet sexually active, to use the vernacular of today.  And there is Elizabeth, older, long-married, long-since resigned to not having children before this miraculous conception and pregnancy came about.  The exchange between Mary and Elizabeth was loving and affectionate with all the signs of the nurturing, comforting conversation that so often happens spontaneously between women.  Can you not picture Elizabeth grasping Mary’s hand and placing it on the side of her belly, just beneath her ribs so that Mary could feel for herself how the baby John was moving around?  Isn’t it charming to think that Elizabeth’s baby responded to the sound of Mary’s voice?  Charming, cozy, affectionate, comfortable, the story lulls us like a lullaby so that when we hear Mary’s response to Elizabeth, her declaration of wonder, her proclamation of God’s strength and power, her fighting words, her hymn to justice, we say “wait, what?”

Because I have devoted my life to the Christian church, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about its life, particularly in our contemporary culture.  A few weeks ago, a reporter from the Newton Tab called to ask if she could interview me for a story she was doing on how churches are dwindling in members.  I told her that since I was new to the community, I didn’t want to go on record with statements about how the church is dying.  I’m a little tired of hearing it, actually, since I don’t think it’s true.  It reminded me of the time, a few years ago when a reporter for the local paper in New Hampshire interviewed me for a story she was writing about the role of churches post 9/11.  She was wondering if people were coming back to church, after a long absence, for comfort and meaning, or if churches are still mostly on the fringes of people’s lives.  I think she expected me to tell her that though there was a bump in attendance through the fall of that terrible year, church membership was pretty much back to its diminished numbers.  Is it because people see the hypocrisy of church members, preaching one thing, practicing another, she asked?  Nah, I replied. That’s just an excuse.  Church participation isn’t threatened by belief or doctrine or the snarkiness of a few of its members.  Rather, it’s the allure of uncommitted time, a Sunday morning in one’s pajamas, drinking coffee and reading the entire New York Times, sleeping late, going nowhere, carrying on a whole conversation about an interesting subject, rather than about the week’s overly scheduled schedule.  People aren’t staying away from church because they think we are being hypocritical.  People stay away because they think we are unimportant, as sweet and inconsequential as meringue.  Why make the effort if it makes no difference? If there is no moral force behind its message.

With so much focus on the sweetness of the nativity story, its accessibility to children, its magical, miraculous elements, do we not, unintentionally of course, reinforce the perception that Christianity, while sweet, is of little consequence?  When we ourselves are lulled by its romantic rhythms, do we not miss its power, its radical upheaval, its promise of struggle and stress?  Its demand for accountability?  When we allow the story to stir in us deep emotions but do not let it inspire us to courageous acts of defiance, resistance and advocacy, have we not as much as said we think it’s unimportant, too?

I know it’s risky to reduce the mission and purpose of Christianity into just two objectives.  Everything in me warns against such over-simplification, but I’m going to do it anyway, to make my point.  The life of Christian discipleship – the practice of Christian faith – should result in two things, one a natural outcome of the other.  The first objective of Christian discipleship should be internal well-being – the confidence that comes with living in the full, warm light of grace – with the knowledge that we are loved unconditionally.  The second objective of Christian discipleship flows from that first.  Christian discipleship gives rise to cultural transformation.  Let me say more.

I believe there are significant personal rewards in Christian discipleship.  I am not suggesting that those personal rewards have anything to do with salvation, with heaven or hell, or with anything related to an after-life.  I am a universalist when it comes to salvation.  We’re all in – everybody, even the politicians we love to hate.  No, that’s not the kind of reward I mean.  Rather, I believe the personal reward that accompanies Christian discipleship has to do with a deep sense of trust, self-confidence, peace, serenity.  I know that my redeemer lives.  What, therefore, have I to fear?  Conflict?  Failure? Confession? Forgiveness?  Since the rise of Christian fundamentalism, many of us who are Christian but do not want to be associated with the harmful features of fundamentalism, find ourselves struggling with a language to describe what we believe.  We do not want people to think we are that kind of Christian so we resist using the words that may be interpreted in judgmental, rather than loving ways.  But when we abandon the language of our faith, we risk abandoning the very faith that gave us the language in the first place.  This is particularly true in this first objective of Christian discipleship because it has to do with personal change, personal values, personal relationships, personal disciplines.  When we are reluctant to speak personally about our faith, our faith is in danger of becoming impersonal.

We are Christians.  We participate in the life of this Christian church.  That means, at the very least, that we have chosen to be students of Jesus Christ himself.  It means that we trust that there is value in the promises of the Gospel, that all who trust in God will find peace, that Jesus has offered us a way of life that is love, a life of courage, a life of grace.

Ironically, even though we are reluctant to speak in such personal terms about our faith, most of us find ourselves stuck in this personal arena of Christian discipleship without fully embracing the second objective of our Christian discipleship – which is cultural transformation.  Our faith demands of us much more than being good people.  It demands of us that we be tough people, brave people, people who get in the faces of policy-makers, power-mongers, the ungenerous wealthy; people who will not tolerate the death of a seven-year-old Guatemalan child in U.S. custody at the border, or the poisoning of the ground water where a pipeline crosses tribal land in North Dakota, or the excessive depraved greed of a few that directly causes the hunger and homelessness of the many. To be a Christian is to stand with strength and clarity of expression against the evils we deplore, the things that rob other human beings of their dignity, the things that categorize people as worthy or unworthy, the things that exploit the vulnerable.

Now, let’s look more closely at Mary’s song:

God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

If ever there was a call for cultural transformation, is this not it? and why is Mary singing this song? Because the child in her womb is the one who will demonstrate these very things that God will; that God has already done. 

Wait, what?

I think of the ancient St. Leo the Great whose words I first read when I was in India, thirty-two years ago, preparing to adopt our first child.  “This is no season for sadness, this the birthday of life! Oh Christian, be aware of your nobility.  It is God’s own nature that you share.”  God’s own nature – calling us to change the world.  Strengthened as we are, nurtured and soothed by the Christmas story, let us now carry our faith to term and be about the work of changing the world.  Amen.

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