Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Are there no workhouses"?

Unfortunately, this long story on Huffington Post disappeared almost as rapidly as it appeared. It deserves more consideration:

There have always been people who for one reason or other -- inability to find a job, old age, disability, racism, sexism, drug addiction -- have been unable to cobble together the means to support themselves. For most of the nation's history, and for all of its colonial past, those people have been dealt with much differently than they were following the enactment of the New Deal, and, in particular, the 1935 Social Security Act, which created old-age insurance, unemployment insurance and welfare. Those programs were expanded over the next several decades and grew to include Medicare, Medicaid, the children's health insurance program and food stamps.
Consider just a few facts from the article:

Quantifying the success of a social policy is an exercise often frustrated by life's infinite variables. But Social Security is one program so effective that the entire decline in poverty can safely be attributed to it, even by the most cautious academics. "Our analysis suggests that the growth in Social Security can indeed explain all of the decline in poverty among the elderly over this period," concluded Gary Engelhardt and Jonathan Gruber in a rigorous 2004 National Bureau of Economic Research report on the program.
And then, where we are going:

The nearly 54 million people drawing Social Security benefits receive, on average, $1,073.80 per month, according to the Social Security Administration. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates the program keeps some 20 million people out of poverty, including 13 million elderly Americans. Engelhardt and Gruber calculate that each ten percent cut in benefits would lead to a 7.2 percent increase in poverty. Such cuts are beginning to seem likely, despite the robust state of the program's finances, which can cover full benefits through 2037 and boasts a surplus trust fund of $2.6 trillion as of this fall.
The keystone of the Social Security Act, its eponymous retirement insurance, has already been fractured by a deal between Obama and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who this month agreed to a Social Security payroll tax holiday as a method of stimulating the economy. Republicans openly admit that when the holiday's expiration arrives next year, it will be treated as a tax hike, meaning Social Security's dedicated revenue stream, which has never been tampered with before, may now be compromised, at the same time that leading Democrats propose cutting benefits and raising the retirement age.
But Republican opposition is not something cooked up by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich and handed on to Mitch McConnell and Jim DeMint:

Time Magazine summarized the position of Social Security's Republican opponents in 1936: "Wage earners, you will pay and pay in taxes...and when you are very old, you will have an I.O.U. which the U.S. Government may make good if it is still solvent."
Delaney and Grim begin with the story of "Aunt Winnie," a poor woman removed to a poor house in the late 19th century; and they note that this kind of "social service" is being championed, openly, by Glenn Beck:

Aunt Winnie, whose story is preserved in the archives of the Historical Society of Washington, had been sent to an American institution that was by then some 300 years old and went by a variety of names: the county farm, the poor farm, the almshouse or, most often, simply the poorhouse. She would probably have been surprised to learn that more than a hundred years later, after the virtual eradication of elderly poverty, a powerful political movement would materialize with the mission of returning to the hands-off social policies that made the poorhouse the nation's only refuge for the jobless, the aged, the infirm and the disabled.

That movement's most outspoken proponent is Fox News host Glenn Beck, who doesn't merely pine for the pre-New Deal era in general, but regularly prevails upon his audience to recognize the particular genius of some of the period's presidents, whose ideologies of inaction he holds up as the American ideal.
But as they point out, that kind of governmental inaction is as American as cherry pie. And the human problem is older, much, much older. Walter Brueggeman described it as the "theology of scarcity," and traces it back to the Biblical record of Solomon's reign. Or, to quote myself from three years ago:

Solomon became a centralized power in Israel (something, by the way, God had warned Israel about back in 1 Samuel). He became the main source and owner of chariots and arms, which he also sold; so he was an arms dealer. He levied tributes on those who came through Israel (it was on the trade routes), and on all the peole of Israel. Tributes, of course, are nothing more than taxes, and they do nothing more than take money from the many, and give it to the one: the king. It's good to be king; for the king. He also built the Temple, in a style typical for the Near East; but there's another issue there, and it's the same underlying issue: the Temple enforced control.

The Temple was arranged into three areas: the outer Temple, where women and slaves and all the "non-persons" of Israel could gather. The Inner Temple, where the men of Israel alone could go; and, in a small room at the back, the "holy of holies," where only the priest could enter. Brueggeman said if you put wings on the Temple, it would be a modern passenger plane. The elite board first, and get the best seats in a special section, while the rest of us board last and sit cheek by jowl. Those up front even get the curtain drawn so we can't see what they are eating. The cockpit, of course, is there the priest goes.

Contrast this to Sinai, says Brueggeman, where all of Israel saw Moses on the mountain talking to God. Now, most of Israel can't even go into the inner temple, and no one is allowed to venture into the place where God could be seen.

Control, in other words, with access guaranteed by accidents of birth. All the Jubilee stuff that comes into Deuteronomy, by the way, doesn't even exist yet, and under Solomon it never will. That would cost him control.

Solomon becomes "wise," too, not because he is born that way, but because he puts scholars on his payroll, and pays them to know and learn wisdom and give it to him as he needs it. He controls knowledge, then, too; as much as he possibly can. And Solomon does one more thing: when he fights his brother for the throne, he kills all his brother's supporters after he becomes king. All of them save the priest, whom he exiles to a small village, where the priest leaves so long as he remains quiet. His power consolidated, Solomon proceeds to build a Temple to prove his power and wealth, and to enjoy a reputation that he largely bought and paid for with other people's money.
The theology of scarcity says there is only so much to go around, and a wise ruler will see to it that limited amount is preserved and protected and used prudently, lest we run out. Kindness becomes a kind of madness, because there isn't enough to share; there is only enough for those who are deserving. Which, say Delaney and Grim, is precisely the "problem" with Social Security, or any aid to the poor:

What is dangerous about Social Security is that it works. It is evidence that people can do a better job insuring against life's cruel downturns by working together and pooling resources than by going it alone in the market....

And Democrats pander to the relentless fear that an offer of kindness may wind up helping someone who either doesn't need the aid or who is in need but is to blame for their pitiful circumstances. President Obama articulated that worry in a weighted response to a question about why his attempts to slow foreclosures had been largely unsuccessful.

During a meeting with progressive bloggers, Obama was asked to defend his administration's failure to stem the foreclosure tide. The president's worry, he said, was that his anti-foreclosure program might accidentally help people who didn't deserve it. "The biggest challenge is how do you make sure that you are helping those who really deserve help, and, if they get some temporary help, can get back on their feet," Obama said, specifically adding that he didn't want the effort to assist "people who through no fault of their own just can't afford their house anymore because of the change in housing values or their incomes don't support it."
In other words, if we cannot help the deserving, perhaps it is better not to help anyone at all.

Read the story of "Aunt Minnie" at the beginning of the article, and try to imagine yourself in her place. Where, in a major urban area, would you go to build a shack from tar paper and scraps? One whose land would you put it, and would they let you stay there? The homeless now live under overpasses or bridges or in ditches, if they are allowed to. Since Houston widened I-10 the overpasses, once home to the homeless, are barren concrete stretches. I can only assume the police are more diligent about driving people away who seek shelter there. I don't assume there are more rooms for them, more "poorhouses" or workhouses or debtor's prisons. Where would I go if I lost my jobs, and so my house? Where would you go? Who would take you in, and for how long?

Or should we go back to this?

"I am informed that you are three months back on your rent. The understanding that I had in your case was that if the county furnished the food, you were to take care for your own rent," wrote a county commissioner to Green on Jan. 26, 1937, one of the coldest winters of the century. "If you do not 'snap out of it' and get to working and paying your rent, my next call on you will be with the police officer and will take your whole family to the county farm. The state of New Hampshire will place your children. A word to the wise is sufficient."
We end, because 'tis the season, with the parting words of the Ghost of Christmas Present to Scrooge:

The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.

"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, "but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?"

"It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it," was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. "Look here."

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

"Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!" exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

"Spirit, are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.

"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!" cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. "Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end."

"Have they no refuge or resource?" cried Scrooge.

"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. "Are there no workhouses?"
If we are not responsible, if we are not our brother's and sister's resource and refuge, who is?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Holy Innocents: December 28, 2010

Santa Claus is for children, and Christmas Day is for children; but the whole story of Christmas is not.

When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding region two years old and younger. this corresponded to the time [of the star] that he had learned from the astrologers. With this event the prediction made by Jeremiah the prophet came true:
'In Ramah the sound of mourning
and bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled:
They were no more.' " (Matthew 2: 16-18, SV)
I was scolded once for forgetting that Christmas, publicly, is for children; that children are present in the church, and must be protected from the realities of adult life. It was right and proper that this should happen; the pulpit I preached from was not my own, I took liberties I had no right to take. But Advent and Christmas are seasons steeped in mystery and the whole of the human story, from joy to misery, from peace to pain. We shield our children from these truths, so we can shield ourselves. We pretend God is only about love and peace and our happiness, and complain that the God of Israel is a god of blood and thunder, while the God of Jesus is a god of babies and rainbows. Neither simplicity is true, and the simplicity of the Christmas story, that it begins with the Annunciation to Mary and ends with the angels singing Gloria to the shepherds, is too simple to be true, also. Luke tells one story of the birth, where the power of the state forces the Holy Family to Bethlehem but that power merely fulfills the expectation that the redeemer of the line of David will come from the ancestral home of David. Matthew tells the other story; the story of Herod's fear and insecurity. This is the part of Christmas the world doesn't celebrate. This is the part of Christmas we ignore, for the sake of the children, we tell ourselves; but it's really for our sake. Just as we don't want Advent blighted with the deaths of the innocent, we don't want Christmas spent remembering the Holy Innocents.

This is truly the Church's portion of Christmas. Appropriate to the interests of the church, Walter Brueggeman would call Herod's concerns the theology of scarcity, and point out it's a very old game, even in Biblical history. It is a game we blame on God; but it is one entirely of our making, and it ties the story of the Holy Innocents to our secular observation of Christmas, and our cri de couer for someone to tell us what Christmas is all about. This story, is what it is all about.

The Coventry Carol captures this story in one medieval play; it is the only remnant of the story that still makes it into our Advent and Christmas music, though we may not always recognize the story and the reason it is a "Christmas carol." In another medieval play, “The Play of Herod,” they the story even more seriously. To portray the story from Matthew, an angel is sent from God to console Rachel, but she refuses even the aid of God. She refuses all comfort. Of course she does; she is a grieving mother; her children are gone. What comfort can be offered to her? This is real; this has happened. What else could be felt, except bottomless grief, except the sucking, horrible pain of loss?

This is not Matthew reaching for yet another scriptural reference to support his nativity story. This is not Matthew trying to shore up his tale with yet another appeal to authority. This is Matthew telling us he has no words for this horror, and he must borrow words just to be sure we feel it as it was felt by those grieving mothers and fathers. This is not Matthew telling us this is true, because scriptures predicted it. This is Matthew telling us someone else, someone earlier, described it, caught the horror of it, knew what it felt like. This is Matthew telling us this is real. This is Matthew telling us to believe this birth occurred, because the world is not kind to saviors, even when they are babies. The world does not seek salvation, but its own contentment; and it does not react well to mystery.

So Rachel cannot be comforted, but that is not where "The Play of Herod" ends. It ends where it should: in holy mystery.
For there is a Te Deum sung: 'We praise you, God, we confess you as Lord.' The greatest chant of praise. This is sung by Mary and Joseph, processing through the audience, but they are joined in their song and procession by the animals and the angels, by the shepherds, by the lamenting Rachel and the parents of Bethlehem, and they are joined by the soldiers and their victims and by Herod. Knowing that (Hopkins again)

we are wound
With mercy round and round. . . .

they all, incarnate God and all creation, even death, tyrants and martyrs, all process and all sing praise. And we sing too, and find ourselves in the procession.

Today we can't imagine it. We take our Christmas with lots of sugar. And take it in a day. Though we've been baptized into his death, we have little time for or patience with how that death is told at Christmas, a death that confuses lament and praise forever. And no wonder we are careful to keep Christmas at an arm's length. What is Herod in these times?--Gabe Huck
Or, to return to Luke:

Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace,
according to your promise.
For I have seen with my own eyes
the deliverance you have made
ready in full view of all nations;
a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Israel.
But Simeon turns to Mary and says:

And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
Even in Luke's more beautiful, more popular version, we cannot escape it: the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, and the penetrating mystery at the heart of the season, just as the year begins again.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Midnight Christmas Eve

The model for the Orthodox service is the throne room of God, which is largely the model of the liturgical practice of Christianity (taken from Isaiah's vision of God, where the prophet is commissioned to preach to Israel on God's behalf). But in the Orthodox tradition, there is a screen between the altar and the people, the latter standing about as if in a king's court, waiting for an audience.

The priests conduct the service on the other side of the screen from the congregants. At midnight, a priest comes around one edge of the screen, and whispers to those standing there. In a wave, a ripple of sound and action, the Word literally becomes flesh again, as the message is passed from ear to tongue, and tongue to ear:

"Christ is born!"
Christ is born! Christ is born! Christ is born!

Gloria in altissima Deo,
et super terram pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis

Christmas Eve 2010

I. Organ Prelude
II. Adeste Fidelis
III. Invocation
IV. Gloria, Mozart
V. Hymn
VI. Scripture St. Luke 1:5-45
THERE was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7 And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.

8 And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, 9 According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. 11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. 14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. 16 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. 17 And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. 19 And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. 20 And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.

21 And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. 23 And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.

24 And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, 25 Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.

26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. 29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. 30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible. 38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

39 And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; 40 And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. 41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: 42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. 43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. 45 And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.

VII. Magnificat (St. Luke I:46-55)
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,

47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

54 He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

VIII. Scripture St. Luke 1:56-67
And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house.

57 Now Elisabeth's full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. 58 And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her.

59 And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. 60 And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. 61 And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. 62 And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. 63 And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. 64 And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. 65 And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. 66 And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him.

67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying
IX. Benedictus (St. Luke 1:68-79)
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,

69 And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;

70 As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:

71 That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;

72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;

73 The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,

74 That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,

75 In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

76 And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;

77 To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,

78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,

79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

X. Scripture St. Luke 1: 80; 2: 1-9
And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. 6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
XI. Annunciato Angeli (St. Luke 2:10-12)
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
XII. Scripture St. Luke 2:13
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
XIII. Gloria (St. Luke 2: 14)
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
XIV. Scripture St. Luke 2:15-28
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; 23 (As it is written in the law of the LORD, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) 24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. 26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ. 27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, 28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,

XV. Nunc Dimmitis (St. Luke 2:29-32)
XLord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:

30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

VI. Scripture St. Luke 2:33-40
And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. 34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; 35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; 37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. 38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

39 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. 40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

XVII. Gloria Patri
XVIII. Apostle's Creed
XIX. Collect and Festival Prayer
XX. Hymn
XXI. Epistle
XXII. Offertory
XXIII. Lord's Prayer
XXIV. Te Deum Laudamus
XXV. Benediction
XXVI. Postlude

I have never thought of Christmas Eve as a time for a sermon. Putting the sermon at the center of every worship service is a very Protestant idea, but even Protestants love the Service of Lessons and Carols of the Anglican Communion, and it eschews a sermon in favor of almost sola scriptura. And there's the Lutheran v. Reformed split in Protestantism all over again: the emphasis on liturgy in worship, v. the emphasis on the intellectual presence of God's word. I stand uneasily with a leg in both camps, and whenever I led a Christmas Eve service I found it hard at first, and then easier later, to leave the sermon out. But tonight....

This is what we have stayed awake for; and probably we will be asleep again when it happens. This is what we were supposed to go out into the dark for; and probably we will stay with the sheep and attribute the angel's song to too much wine and too many late nights. We will stay in and stare at the lights in our house rather than at the lights in God's sky, and we will miss the notice, busy as we will be worshiping the work of our own hands. Even if we saw the star, even if we recognized it, would we set out, leave everything behind, find out what it meant, discover the new king, we who don't believe in kings at all anymore? Would we fall down and worship, would we seek the home in Bethlehem, the feeding trough in the home invaded by smell shepherds coming late at night to tell us what they heard, sounding drunk and foolish and illiterate and not at all the right sort of people to be there.

Would we be the right sort of people? Would we feel comfortable with the peasants in Bethlehem? Would we wonder if we should have brought a gift, standing with the magi and their treasures? Or would we just stay home, and stay asleep while wide awake. If Joseph had not slept, would he have dreamed? If we dreamed like Joseph, would we listen? Or sleep in later that morning?

Christmas was once a public spectacle. It still is for some churches: word of the birth of the Christchild, of the first miracle of Christianity, is whispered from worshiper to worshiper at midnight. Do we even bother to go out at midnight? Isn't it too late, too cold, too much trouble? We know how the service ends, do we really need to see it again? Do we go to church on Christmas Day, even if Christmas comes on a Sunday? Or do we stay home? Isn't staying home easier? Isn't staying asleep while wide awake easier still?

This time, for this occasion, we should wake up! We should be fully awake! We should run to the manger for the chance to see. We should join our friends, not just our family, in worship and praise! Christmas was once a public event, a spectacle, even. The Puritans in England and then New England condemned it because it was kept in drunkenness and revelry, but at least it was still kept publicly! Today Christmas is a family affair, a private matter, set around a tree and decorated with wrapping paper, or it is a failure and we despair. Christmas is a time to be sad that you are alone, when the message of the gospels is that you are not alone, that none of us are alone, that each of us is our brother's keeper, our sister's friend, that there is nothing we need more surely and completely than each other. What madness is it that we divide ourselves into units at this very time of year when we should be opening our doors to everyone, playing host to the world as we like to think we would have hosted the Holy Family so many centuries ago. It us Los Posados played all over again, a metaphor for our times. We are all inn keepers, and none of us have any room for those we don't know.

So this Christmas take joy, and let your spirit walk out among your fellow men, and take the spirit and the season and even the reason for the season out to those you don't know, out to those you don't see, out to those whose cries you never hear. Make this a Christmas you will remember, by remembering them. Honor the journeys of Christmas, of the Holy Family, of the Magi, of the shepherds, by making a journey of your own. It will take you to a strange and new and wondrous place. Glory to God in the highest!


The service is from the Evangelical and Reformed Hymnal.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2010: Keep Awake!

Isaiah 7:10-16
7:10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying,

7:11 Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.

7:12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.

7:13 Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?

7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

7:15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

7:16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
80:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

80:3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?

80:5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.

80:6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Romans 1:1-7
1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,

1:2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,

1:3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh

1:4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,

1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name,

1:6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

1:7 To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25
1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

1:23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,

1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
--"Choruses from 'The Rock'"--T.S. Eliot
Keep awake! That's the message of Advent, the theme of the liturgical season. But if Joseph had not slept....

Jacob Marley tells Ebenezer Scrooge that humans are supposed to go out as far and wide as possible among their fellow men, and offer what aid and comfort they can to each other, and if they fail to do so in life, they are doomed to do so in death. It's a rough kind of justice, but a fair one, at least. It isn't a punishment imposed by a wicked and angry deity, it is a balance imposed by the conditions of human existence, and you will do it now, or you will do it later. Jesus was a wanderer, an itinerant preacher, they taught us in seminary, a man with no home and no fixed abode, never knowing where he would sleep the next night after the morning he woke up. Was Dickens thinking of Jesus when he wrote?

Probably not that particularly. And certainly, Dickens' Carol fits very easily into a secular seasonal celebration rather than a religious one: Scrooge's "conversion" is not based on a religious experience; the only mention of the reason for the celebration is made at the Cratchit home. Still, the central vision of homelessness: what can it mean? If we don't go out from our comfortable areas in life, we can never be comfortable in death. It's a very dark strain in the story, indeed. But not dark because it is cosmic punishment for miscreants, but because it is a necessary condition of human existence, and you do it now, or you do it later: but you must do it. And if Scrooge had not slept....

When his sleep is interrupted, Scrooge learns to see himself as others see him. He learns to see the truth. When Joseph's sleep is interrupted, he learns the truth, too. And it is a sign, even though he didn't ask for one; but then, neither did Scrooge. Content in his miserly existence, Scrooge is happily as solitary as an oyster. Content in his normal existence, Joseph is content to quietly set aside the engagement to Mary, so as little scandal will attach to her as possible. But then he sleeps....

Keep awake!, we are told during Advent. Keep awake! Is it an order to never sleep? Or to pay attention to what signs may come? The "virgin" in Isaiah is actually a young girl, not a sexual neophyte, When God promises that a young girl will have a child, God is promising that the race of Israel will go on, that life will return to normal, that salvation will come to the besieged city of Jerusalem. The child will be a sign that God is with us. Ahaz doesn't dare ask, and the refusal to take God's offer seriously is what annoys God: "Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?" So Jacob wails when Scrooge refuses the favor of the ghostly invaders of his sleep. It is not for us to deny what is offered to us, when it is offered for us. We who are so sure some system, be it business, be it culture, be it a deus ex machina, will save us from ourselves, will finally be so perfect that we only need to keep putting one foot in front of the other to obtain the desired goal; we are the ones who need to keep awake! And we are the ones who need to listen, when our dreams are invaded.

It's only a little time now until the event we have been waiting for. Will we be awake for it? Scrooge wanted his business to be so perfect he didn't need to be good, and he thought he'd managed it. He wanted to stay in his office and deal with his numbers and let that be his salvation, and in the end he finds out the shattering truth: that his salvation was in the people he encountered, and in the life he lived among them. His salvation was in the young girl giving birth to a baby, further proof that, even in the darkest times, God is with us. His salvation was in being a community member with that baby, and with all the babies, young and old. Scrooge slept through his life until, in one night, on one Christmas Eve, he was woken up. After that, he never slept again. Joseph slept through his life until, in his dreams, he was woken up, was shown his connection to all humanity, was shown his value and strength and necessity. Our spirits must always walk out among the living; they will do so in life and in death. Joseph may not be real; Scrooge may be only a fictional character: but their spirits walk out among us every year, and bring comfort, and bring lessons, and tell us to stop relying on systems and be good by doing good.

This year, maybe we can keep awake for them.


Monday, December 20, 2010

"If Christ returned and saw everything being done in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."

Max von Sydow's character in "Hanna and Her Sisters." Not a line I've ever been particularly comfortable with, but 'tis the season and it seems that, far from being quiet, on the public front there are too many gifts to choose from. So I get this from Talking Points Memo:

Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips has a dream: "No more Methodist Church."

A blog post on his Tea Party Nation page says that on Friday he walked by the United Methodist Building in Washington D.C., which had a sign that said, "Pass the DREAM Act." Phillips wrote: " I have a DREAM. That is, no more United Methodist Church."

Phillips explains that he was formerly a member of the church, but he left because it's "the first Church of Karl Marx," and "little more than the "religious" arm of socialism."

"The Methodist church is pro-illegal immigration," he continues. "They have been in the bag for socialist health care, going as far as sending out emails to their membership "debunking" the myths of Obamacare. Say, where are the liberal complaints on the separation of church and state?"

"In short, if you hate America, you have a great future in the Methodist church," he says.
As I've said before, this is the problem of being caught up in the "Big Idea" versus the ideal of accepting humanity as God does. Which is to say:

Ideas don't matter. Things don't matter. People matter.

Something Mr. Phillips clearly doesn't understand, and doesn't want to understand. But it's the hardest lesson to learn, and even harder to live by, so he's not entirely to blame. Or, at least, he's not to blame in a condescending way we can call stand around and sneer at and feel superior over. It's a human failing: we reduce people to things, elevate ideas to deities, and decide the only people who matter are the people like us. And suddenly it's easy to see who is right and who is wrong, and just how socialist the Methodist church is.

Which is not to say the Methodist church is not guilty of over-reaching and of identifying certain people as people, and other people as ideas, and on that basis deciding who the proper people are, and who the bad ideas are. I don't know of any church that isn't guilty of that particular sin.

I mean, the title of this post, for example. Mr. Phillips might well agree with it, but for reasons profoundly different from those meant by the character in the movie.

So then what?

What Ross Said?

I don't often agree with Ross Douthat (in fact, I seldom do), but this column is actually quite reasonable and the books he mentions sound quite interesting. I especially like the last part, with which I pretty much agree:

Putnam and Campbell are quantitative, liberal, and upbeat; Hunter is qualitative, conservative and conflicted. But both books come around to a similar argument: this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.

Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.
From my point of view, it's sort of liberating, actually.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor"

I know Cheever meant that title ironically; but, seriously:

"The need is greater this year than I've ever seen it. One little girl didn't want anything for herself. She wanted a winter coat for her mother."

- "Head Elf" Pete Fontana at New York City’s main post office, who leads a staff of 22 people in sorting 2 million letters in Operation Santa, which connects needy children with "Secret Santas" who answer their wishes. (Source: USA Today)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gaudete, the Third Sunday of Advent 2010: Jesus, Jesus, rest your head....

Isaiah 35:1-10
35:1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus

35:2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.

35:3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."

35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

35:6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

35:7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

35:8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

35:9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

35:10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Luke 1:46b-55
1:46b My soul magnifies the Lord,

1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

James 5:7-10
5:7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.

5:8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

5:9 Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!

5:10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11
11:2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples

11:3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

11:4 Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see:

11:5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

11:6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

11:7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?

11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.

11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

11:10 This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

11:11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
Sleep in feathers at their birth.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You has got a manger bed.

1. Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mammy went to the stable
On that Christmas Eve so late?
Winds were blowing, cows were lowing,
Stars were glowing, glowing, glowing. Refrain

2. To the manger came the Wise Men.
Bringing gifts from hin and yon,
For the mother and the father,
And the blessed little Son.
Milkmaids left their fields and flocks
And sat beside the ass and ox. Refrain
"And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

Kinda hard to be offended by a baby. Maybe that's why we like Christmas so much. This Appalachian carol reminds us of the offense of the Christchild; the abject poverty, the complete rejection of all that is important and powerful and remarkable in this world. I've always wondered if there was a connection between Matthew's attention to the birth of Jesus, and the Egyptian custom of noting the birth of a Pharaoh. The Egyptians marked birthdays of Pharaohs, when most of the rest of the Western World didn't, because Pharaohs were gods, and the birth of a god was important. That doesn't explain Luke, of course; but it does explain why Mark and John pass over the early years and go straight for the adult Jesus. To even consider God as a child was an offense too great for them. Matthew recapitulates the history of Israel, with the Holy Family going into and out of Egypt; maybe something of Egyptian custom clings to his story. Luke was a Gentile, and maybe the Egyptian customs that influenced Plato before him, were an influence in Luke's culture.

Mere speculation, so it doesn't really matter. I just wonder about such things. I wonder at how much we have lost the scandal, the offense, of the nativity stories in the passing centuries. Part of the offense was how Jesus came; part of the offense was what he did when he got here:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
First, it's not really an answer; it's more like Jesus says: "What do you think?" But the rest of it should be offensive to us:

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.
I don't know about you, but I wore a soft robe this morning. I don't think of my home as a palace, but compared to the places Jesus lived in, I'm sure it is. And yet, would I go out into the wilderness to hear a prophet speaking? Would I even drive downtown on a weeknight? Probably not. And it may well be the prophets are down there, working in the homeless shelters and food pantries, some of which I don't even have to go downtown to visit. I didn't sleep in feathers at my birth, but compared to an animal's feeding trough, I might as well have.

Do we take offense at this? No? How about this?

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
There's not much sense of patience at "Christmas time," that season that seems to extend back closer and closer to Halloween, and be all but over the Monday after Thanksgiving. There's a great race on to get your shopping done before December is very old. Someone on the local NPR station recently was kindly advising that you shop early because selection will be limited as the month wears on, and clearly you want to get the best present for everyone on your shopping list.

Do we take offense at this? Do we even think about being patient at this time of year? A TV ad shows a young girl counting down the days, minutes, hours, until Christmas. Does she exemplify patience, or try it? Would anyone buy the "countdown" ornament being advertised, if this would be the result? Do we think about not grumbling against one another? When we are in line in the stores, even when we aren't Christmas shopping, do we do so patiently? Hopefully some of you do, but I don't. I don't like crowds. Crowds make me anxious. It's just a deep-seated thing, but it reduces my patience to a nothing. I don't want to think of the prophets when I'm in a crowded mall. I want to think of a stink bomb, clearing people out so I can finish and leave quicker.

Hardly the sentiment for Gaudete, is it? Not even the proper sentiment for Advent, when we are told to wait, even as we keep awake. But if we keep awake, it's more likely because we bought the stupid countdown ornament, and our kids are reminding us hourly of how much closer Christmas day is. Or we're worried that if we don't shop now, we'll miss out on what someone really wants for Christmas, and then won't we be schmucks?

We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed at night with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways. --Archbishop Oscar Romero December 24, 1979
Alright, now we're down to something offensive. Maybe. Our lighted plastic baby Jesus on the lawn should be replaced with real children living under newspapers, or with the homeless who used to sleep under the freeways near my home. since the highway was widened and the laws enforced, they aren't there anymore, and I seldom spend much time in the year wondering where they are now. In homes? Not likely, in this economy. Where did they disappear to? I put manger scenes out showing crowds of people gathered around a new-born Christ child; I scatter them around my house. I wonder if I could add figures of homeless people, would that be an offense? Or would we just get used to it? If I replaced the shepherds with homeless men and pregnant teenagers, and the wise men with CEO's and rich smiling pastors, would anybody mind?

Would we take offense at this? No? How about this?

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His 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.

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.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Mary sings that God has sent the rich away empty, and filled the bellies of the poor; that God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. Who made the rich "rich," except us? Who put the powerful on their thrones, except us? Who made the lowly "lowly," except us? How is it we are not offended by this?

The lowest and simplest things are what Christmas is really all about. The poor and the homeless and the hungry and the imprisoned; the deaf and the lame and the sad and the lonely; they are who Christmas is really for. Nothing ever changes, but small things change, year after year, and even if the changes are not permanent, are not systemic and institutional, they are real. God has again filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. If it doesn't seem to be done for enough of them, what have we done about it? Have we added to the total? Or have we ignored them again? The days until Christmas are counting down. Advent is the time of counting, and waiting, and wakefulness. Are we awake this time? If we are not offended, we're probably not. If we are offended, don't take it personally. Take it as a call to wake up. We sleep in feather beds, and wear soft robes, and even, by most of the world's standards, live in palaces. But we can still go out to the wilderness, even if that wilderness is just down the block, and we can see what the prophets told us to see, and we can see what we can do. Learn their patience; it will not change at once, but it will change. Keep awake. God is feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, making the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear; and you can help. You, too, can bring the good news.


Feelings, nothing more than feelings....

Well, yeah:

-- Roger Ebert
If only Boehner wept as copiously for the poor and the sick as he does when confessing his own greatness.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I really don't care how many times this has been posted. Sunday is Gaudete, and if this doesn't move you to joy, well...I'd be worried.

Courtesy (as usual) of The Wounded Bird

Monday, December 06, 2010

St. Nicholas Day 2010

I've posted several times on St. Nicholas Day over the years. It tends to be the same bits, over and over. But reflecting on the state of the economy, and the attitudes expressed toward not extending unemployment benefits because it encourages sloth (apparently poverty is good for you! Well, for you, but not for me....), I though it was fitting to repeat this, from three years ago. Nothing has really changed all that much, except the names of the suffering.
The story of Nicholas brings me to Act One of this story, from This American Life. There are two things worth noting about it, in this season when we venerate gift giving and pay a very backhanded acknowledgment to the saint who supposedly threw three bags of gold through a window in order to save three girls from prostitution. One is the sincere American belief, represented here by John Pickle, that "third world workers" are better off being exploited, even in America. There's a deep vein of racism here, as well, though, of course, none dare call it racism. It's such an ugly word. It's the social equivalent of a death sentence. We reserve racism for truly heinous people; people like Hitler. We dare not use the word openly and honestly; such is the depth and breadth of the hidden wound of the "peculiar institution" in American culture.

The idea of factory workers having their lives improved by exploitation in factories is, of course, precisely the philosophy Romanticism rebelled against (see William Blake, especially). Brute economic exploitation is something even Swift condemned. But, as "V" said: "Ideas are bulletproof." Which goes for bad ideas, too.

The second thing to highlight is the lay pastor who helped these people, at great personal cost to himself. He reports without rancor (which is frankly more than I could do) that local pastors told him what he was doing was against God's will because it was difficult, because it cost him in time, effort, and social opprobrium. He reports this without rancor, and he doesn't apologize for what he did, nor does he complain about Christian pastors unwilling to help those he recognizes as his brothers. (I don't judge anyone who doesn't offer help, lest I be judged for my failings, too. But when you judge another and tell them they shouldn't help, well....that's when the judgment rightly falls heavily on you, and justly, by your own hand.) As he says, we like foreign missions; but when those missions come to our "comfort zones," well....

Which I still think is what Advent is all about. It really is a good place to begin the year. And it's not an impossible place to begin, because it ends so quickly, with Christmas. You know, sometimes I think the ancient Church really knew what it was doing.

It's also a good season, as well as a good day, to recall these words from the 4th century, lest our "comfort zone" grow comfortable again.

"What keeps you from giving now? Isn't the poor person there? Aren't your own warehouses full? Isn't the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? "I'm not doing any harm," you say. "I just want to keep what I own, that's all." You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone's use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn't you come into life naked, and won't you return naked to the earth?

"The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."

4th Century

"The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds--and also big enough to shut out the voices of the poor....There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering."

4th Century

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Second Sunday of Advent, 2010: In our end is our beginning....

Isaiah 11:1-10
11:1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

11:2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

11:3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

11:4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

11:5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

11:6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

11:7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

11:8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.

11:9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

11:10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
72:1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son.

72:2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.

72:3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.

72:4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

72:5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.

72:6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.

72:7 In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

72:18 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.

72:19 Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.

Romans 15:4-13
15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

15:5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,

15:6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15:7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

15:8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,

15:9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name";

15:10 and again he says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";

15:11 and again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him";

15:12 and again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope."

15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:1-12
3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

3:2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,

3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

3:11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Advent is about death. Somebody noted that, somewhere. It's not a new idea. Advent is about death. It is about destruction, and ending, and apocalpyse, and eschaton. "Apocalypse" means something is revealed. "Eschaton" means everything has come to an end. What better eschaton could one hope for than the "peaceable kingdom" of Isaiah?

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
That's an eschaton, an ending. What, you thought they were all about doom and despair? Who wouldn't want an eschaton like that? But what about apocalypse? What about what is revealed?

That's the justice side of advent. Justice makes us nervous, unless we can be assured we stand on the side of John, and get to look across the river and snicker at the Pharisees. Justice is justice when it is done unto others. When it is done unto us? That's when we despair.

Justice is the revelation of injustice. It's the apocalypse, not the eschaton. The apocalypse is what John is preaching: the advent of justice, the arrival of the revelation. Who wants to face that? Let's skip on to the apocalypse, to the peaceable kingdom and the holy mountain and the blessings. But even Isaiah doesn't let us get there without judgment first:

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
In the picture, it's easy to identify the natives with the poor and meek of the earth, and the Europeans bringing Christianity with the wicked who will be struck and killed; or at least should be. But they, not the natives, are our ancestors, in blood and in spirit. So let's not begin there.

Advent is about death. But we can't begin there, either. Advent and death? What beginning is that? The advent of death? That can't be right; we had death long before we had the coming of the Christ. So what does advent have to do with death, when it's supposed to be about the anticipation of birth? Well, Advent comes at the end of the year but it is the beginning of the Church year. The lessons for Advent invariably speak of endings rather than beginnings. It almost seems we can't get started without thinking of the ending. We often think of that as the goal. Every process, Aristotle taught us, is supposed to have a telos, a goal, a purpose. So the birth, we are told, of the Messiah has a purpose, and the angels will sing it: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, goodwill toward humankind." Not much of a telos, really, unless we connect it to the Peaceable Kingdom, but it doesn't link up very well, There isn't a cause and effect connection between the Advent and the Eschaton; at least not one we can see easily. Certainly not one we want to make easily.

It's rather like, actually, the question of the purpose of life. Was Jesus born in order to die? Is the telos of life merely death? Is the process of life merely dying? Is that the end in our beginning?

Surely not. No, certainly not. That is too grim altogether and, what is worse, too reductive. Life is not a struggle against dying. Life is a struggle with living. Life is a struggle with God. Life is a struggle with self. Life is a struggle; but it is not against dying. That's a modern heresy, a contemporary confusion. Life is not a fight against dying; life is a fight for fully living, for "life into the ages," for the eternal life the Gospels constantly promote to us. And the secret of the struggle is: in our end is our beginning.

Not in some metaphysical, in the sweet bye-and-bye sense. Not in the sense that we must die in order to enjoy resurrection into eternal life in a heavenly realm. No, our end is what we must face in life, in order to fully live. Why else would John tell us to "Bear fruit worthy of repentance," if we couldn't bear fruit in this lifetime, and repent in this lifetime, and enjoy the fruits of our repentance in this lifetime? And what is repentance except an end, and a new beginning? And what need have we of this repentance, if not in preparation for the adventus, for the coming of the Lord, the Anointed One, the Christ, the Messiah? What is the telos of the Messiah, if not to bring us life now?

But is the telos the full explanation? Is there a goal, a purpose, to life? Must there be? Need there be? If life merely a process, with a goal at the end? If it is, then maybe it's just a process of preventing death; or a process of accumulating wealth; or a process of acquiring security and comfort and friends like notches on a belt. If life is merely a process, the pursuit of a goal, we would have achieved it by now. If life were merely a matter of discovering a method for satisfaction, we would have discovered it by now. If life were merely a puzzle offered for solution, we would have solved it by now. So what is the advent, that it keeps returning every year, and the process, that it keeps going around and around in circles?

It is not process at all. It is a revelation. It is an eschaton and an adventus that returns again and again because the eschaton is not an ending, the adventus is only a revealing. What is revealed and understood is up to us, and it is not a telos, an end, a purpose. It is, if anything, a mystery. It is a call to change. It is a call to life. It is a cry of struggle. It is a cry of joy! It is the apocalypse because it brings an end to the old, and the birth of the new! But it is only birth; it is beginning, not ending; adventus, not eschaton. It is the end that starts the beginning. Is there a telos to the whole of Creation? Then it is in Isaiah's vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, when life goes on and all the nations inquire of the Lord. It is in the judgment that brings wickedness to a final end and life into the ages to all people. It is the swords beaten into plowshares and the poor raised up while the proud are cast down. But that is not an eschaton, either; not an end, but merely a beginning. Swords need always to be turned to plows, the proud need always to be thrown down and the poor need always to be raised up. This is not an end but a constant beginning. In our end is our beginning, and in our beginning is our salvation!

But that salvation comes only from the vision, from the child, from the one whose sandals we are not fit to untie. The one who rises to rule us all; the one in whom we all hope. And hope, like Advent, renews us again and again and again. As Paul said:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Advent 3 2010: Martyrs of El Salvador

Thirty years ago today Sr.s Dorothy Kazal, Ita Ford, Maura Clark and Jeanne Donovan were tortured, raped and murdered in El Salvador by American trained terrorists because they were working for the most basic civil rights of poor people.--Anthony McCarthy

I had almost forgotten it was today.

I repeat this every year. This post is largely as I wrote in in 2008. I preached from this story when I had a pulpit and used it, probably unwisely, in a sermon when I was invited to a pulpit in Advent. It is volatile stuff, and repetition had dulled me to that. It shouldn't be repeated enough to dull one; just enough to make one sensitive to the world, and to the message of Advent.

In the world, Advent means precious little; frantic for Christmas to come and go, the world is in a hurry. To the liturgical church, though, Christmas doesn't begin until December 24th, and it doesn't end until January 6th, on Epiphany. And before it ends, it will include two days of death: the Massacre of the Innocents, and the first Christian Martyr, St. Stephen. I mention that because Advent is actually akin to Lent, not to "December" on the American calendar. It is a time of preparation for shattering change, not for celebration of consumer excess.

This highlights a distinction I think needs to be made, between Christianity, and Christendom. It's an old distinction, but, like the Massacre of the Innocents and the death of Stephen right after Christmas, little acknowledged or its importance understood.

As I type this, I'm listening to a Christmas mix of my own devising, and Joni Mitchell is singing "River." That's the tone I'm going for, if it helps.

This is from Memory of Fire: Volume III, Century of the Wind, by Eduardo Galeano, tr. Cedric Balfrage, Pantheon, 1988.

"ARCHBISHOP Romero offers her a chair. Marianela prefers to talk standing up. She always comes for others, but this time Marianela comes for herself. Marianela Garda Vilas, attorney for the tortured and disappeared of EI Sal-vador, does not come this time to ask the archbishop's solidarity with one of the victims of D' Aubuisson, Captain Torch, who burns your body with a blowtorch, or of some other military horror specialist. Marianela doesn't come to ask help for anyone else's investigation or denunciation. This time she has something personal to say to him. As mildly as she can, she tells him that the police have kid-napped her, bound, beat, humiliated, stripped her-and that they raped her. She tells it without tears or agitation, with her usual calm, but Archbishop Romero has never before heard in Marianela's voice these vibrations of hatred, echoes of disgust, calls for vengeance. When Marianela finishes, the archbishop, astounded, falls silent too.

"After a long silence, he begins to tell her that the church does not hate or have enemies, that every infamy and every action against God forms part of a divine order, that criminals are also our brothers and must be prayed for, that one must forgive one's persecutors, one must accept pain, one must. . . Suddenly, Archbishop Romero stops.

"He lowers his glance, buries his head in his hands. He shakes his head, denying it all, and says: 'No, I don't want to know.'

" 'I don't want to know,' he says, and his voice cracks.

"Archbishop Romero, who always gives advice and comfort, is weeping like a child without mother or home. Archbishop Romero, who always gives assurances, the tranquilizing assurance of a neutral God who knows all and embraces all-Archbishop Romero doubts.

"Romero weeps and doubts and Marianela strokes his head."

This is the First week of Advent. In Christianity, we are told to watch. We are watching for the apocalypse. We are waiting in faith, faith not so much in certainty as "acting-as-if in great hope." Hope is supposed to be what we desire; Advent reminds us hope is also for what we need, whether we really want it, or not.