Archive for December, 2012

To Magnifcat

Monday, December 24th, 2012

A Brief Meditation
December 23, 2012
Luke 1:39-56
Mary Hammond

What words, phrases, or ideas stand out to you in the reading of Mary’s Song, known as the Magnificat? [Congregational sharing].

We just finished a Study Group at church on Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan’s book, The First Christmas, in which the authors point out that Mary’s Song is not a new song. In fact, it is based on the ancient Song of Hannah found in the Hebrew scriptures. It is a song that spans generations of hopes and prayers of a people trusting in God.

The Magnificat is about a world turned upside down, or perhaps we should think of it as a world that is already upside down and needs to be turned right-side up!

The mass shootings in Newtown, CT have spurred a spate of public discourse about gun laws as well as treatment for the mentally ill, which is an important conversation for us to have in our country. Obie grad and pastor Kim Hardy posted a link to an article from The Nation on Facebook. The piece was entitled, “15 U.S. Mass Shootings Happening in 2012: 84 Dead.”

I do not know why, but Kim’s Facebook friends began responding to the article in light of the Magnificat. I will use initials for the names of the responders. Listen to their conversation thread:
L: “So we can do nothing about lax gun laws and get ‘used to’ this appalling number or…we can go Magnificat on the situation and turn the World upside down.”
K: “I vote Magnificat.”
G: “Mmm, Magnificat definitely.”
A.M: “Magnificat! I can’t believe that the founding ‘fathers’ had in mind the right to kill innocent children.”
G: “I think we can be quite sure that the Founding Mothers didn’t have that in mind.”

I was struck by many aspects of this exchange, but what stayed with me the most was the use of the word “Magnificat” as an action word. We generally think of it as a noun, a title, a proclamation.

To “go Magnificat” transforms this term from an ancient–albeit revolutionary–title into an ongoing activity of the people of God, recreated anew from context to context, generation after generation. In the 2008 election, Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin often used the phrase, “going rogue.” Yet, to “go Magnificat” sounds like “going rogue” in the best sense of the word. I like that concept much better. We’re not just envisioning a different world…we’re “magnificatting” it into being.

The miracle of Christmas continues to unfold in the midst of a world that “has gone mad for a long season,” in the words of James S. Lowry (Prayers for the Lord’s Day: Hope for the Exiles, p. 102). Christ keeps being born in our hearts, communities, and commitments as we stand with Hannah, Mary, and a host of others throughout the ages and go Magnificat!

Weeping for Rachel’s Children

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Matthew 2:13-18
December 16, 2012
Steve Hammond

It’s always such a relief to get a sermon done by Friday afternoon, which usually happens for me, as it did this week. But then Mary came in from her doctors appointment and started talking about all those children who had been killed in Connecticut. As we watched all news coverage on Friday evening, seeing pictures of families who hadn’t been reunited with their children waiting outside the school, I couldn’t help but think about the lament in Ramah and Rachel weeping inconsolably for her children.

I realized that my sermon wasn’t done after all, and we were going to have to talk about this this morning, even if it was going to be a bit of a rush job preparing. Given my schedule yesterday, I realize this is going to be more thoughts that have been running through my head than anything else. I’m also aware that I’m not the only preacher who has found him or herself doing the same thing this weekend.

I think it’s important to start by making sure that we all realize there is no way we are going to make sense out of this tragedy. And it’s also important to call attention to another thing we all know; Connecticut is not the only place where parents are weeping for their children today. Every day, children are victims of violence all around the world. Shooters in schools. Bombs dropped from airplanes and drones or placed in the middle of the road. Bullets fired from soldiers guns. Children caught in the crossfire of drug cartels and gangs. In places like Afghanistan girls are being killed for just trying to go to school. And how many children died in Syria this week? If only 20 children had died because of the violence of adults in this world on Friday, it would be progress. But those 20 children and so many more did die on Friday. Rachel weeps not only in Ramah, but all over the world. And that’s just the children, not all the adults who have died violent deaths this week.

I think it’s important we name names today. And I’m going to start with Mike Huckabee; preacher, politician, and commentator for Fox news. On Friday evening he said that we don’t have a gun problem in this country, or even a violence problem in this country. He said we simply have a sin problem, and thus missed the point.

Does anybody here know the name Rene Girard? He was an anthropologist/sociologist/theologian who has had an impact on a lot of people, including me. The stuff he wrote about is pretty complicated, and I don’t understand a lot of it. But one of the things that he focused on is the idea that the problem of sin is a problem of violence. We are prone to violence. We think violence solves our problems. And we even expect God to be violent. But for Girard, the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the call to give up on violence. The sacrifice Jesus made wasn’t this blood atonement that so many talk about, where God wanted Jesus killed so you and I can be saved. Instead, Girard says, Jesus sacrificed himself to violence. Jesus disarmed violence by not meeting it with more violence, but trusting the ways of God rather than the ways of violence. That’s how he saved us. That is our deliverance. And Girard points out time and again, that many of the folk who understand that the least are Christians.

That’s why it doesn’t work to say it’s simply a sin problem and that putting prayer back into the schools and seeing our churches filled once again to the levels of the 1950’s would solve the problems of violence in our culture. Just ask some of those folk in the Civil Rights movement who had dogs turned on them by Sunday School teachers if there wasn’t a violence problem in our culture then.

The politicians in our nation know that when they want to fight a war they can count on overwhelming support from the churches, no matter how many children are going to get killed in those wars. So many of our churches are steeped in a culture of violence. Just look at the Left Behind books that are so popular. We talk about Jesus being born into this world as the Prince of Peace, but in the end times scenarios of a lot of churches he is the ultimate warrior who, to the delight of the redeemed, slaughters millions of women, children, and men. There is a violence problem, and it’s in the church.

Do you know who Dr. Drew is? He’s a TV therapist. He had some good things to say this weekend, particularly when he talked about the dysfunctional discourse we have in our country today. He said if we are going to protect our children then the adults need to start acting like adults. I think he’s right. It’s time to turn on compassion and turn off Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and Fox News. When I’m in the dining room of a hotel, and Fox news is on the TV, I change the channel. Kids don’t need to be listening to that. It’s its own kind of pornography. We shouldn’t be surprised that when we sew such violent discourse that we reap the kind of violence we are experiencing in our schools, college campuses, shopping malls, movie theaters, workplaces, homes, and temples.

When these kinds of tragedies come we ask why God lets such things happen. But it’s God who has been asking us for a long time why we are letting this happen. Why have we become so enthralled by violence, so convinced that we can use it for our own benefit when it is a boomerang?

Jesus was born into the violence of this world, hunted down himself when a baby, and finally tortured and killed. His mother, too, wept at his death. Instead of the violent God so many offer us, the Christmas story tells us that Jesus was willing to absorb the violence. He showed us another way to live and saved us. But we still have a hard time understanding the power of his vulnerability.

I would suggest it’s not a sin problem we have, but a following Jesus problem. I am so confused that in a country where so many argue that we are a Christian nation that the response to a tragedy like this is to relax gun control laws and make it even more dangerous for children. And look at the fiscal cliff discussion taking place. There are so many vulnerable children, while many of our politicians are digging in their heals to keep tax cuts for the rich, and increase the defense budget while making the discussion turn on how much we will cut from food, education, and health programs for children. This is not the example of the Jesus who welcomed the children.

These things keep happening, not just in our country but everywhere. And it all feels so overwhelming. But we aren’t powerless. Jesus kept telling us that, kept showing us how to live another way. He showed us how to trust the vulnerability of God so Rachel won’t have to be always weeping for her children.

A Big, Deep Story

Friday, December 14th, 2012

December 9, 2012
Luke 1:57-79
Mary Hammond

Our family has now passed the first anniversary since our daughter Sarah’s death. For me, one of the profound take-aways from this last year has been bearing witness to the amazing reach and scope of Sarah’s 34 years on this planet. I catch glimpses of this at times–in the news that Sarah’s book contract with University of Chicago Press will be fulfilled, in the tributes to her work which peers publish on-line, in the recent Memorial Panel at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting held in Chicago.

The international reach and multi-faith character of Sarah’s story boggles my mind. I have tracked down Sarah’s friends in the United States, Hong Kong, Canada, Israel, and Zambia. A couple of her friends recently traveled with their daughter to Cambodia and lit incense for Sarah at a Buddhist Pagoda in Siem Reap. An Oberlin College graduate in Europe has lit candles for our family in Christian cathedrals throughout France, London, Sweden, and the Netherlands this past year. A Jewish childhood friend continues to pray kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer, week after week at synagogue in Canada. She told me recently, “Traditionally, this is done for 11 months, but I am not ready to stop.”

On one level, our family’s story bears no comparison with the story before us in today’s biblical narrative. On another level, however, our journeys share deep commonalities. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Steve and I are parents with special children whose stories end harshly and too soon. Yet, these same children’s journeys impact others in ways we could never have imagined on the day we celebrated their births.

Elizabeth and Zechariah can see just enough to glimpse their story’s depth but not enough to really apprehend its long-term and lasting impact. For better and worse, that impact is beyond their control. It is driven by the powerful winds of God and the challenging realities of life here on this earth.

Luke’s birth narrative is surrounded with sign, mystery, and wonder. An unexpected pregnancy. An unexpected muteness faced by a doubting priest. An unexpected name for the child, given by God, not the parents.

Yet, anticipation is also in the air. Luke includes a song in his birth narrative, a hymn attributed to Zechariah. The three Lukan hymns in chapters 1-2 were originally placed together at the end of the psalms. They became known as the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, and the Benedictus—the songs of Mary, Simeon, and Zechariah. Many scholars believe that only the first half of Zechariah’s psalm is original and that the last half was added by John’s followers.

There is a different “feel” to the first half of the hymn than the second half. The first half is focused on the nation’s fate in the hands of its oppressors, the Romans. The singer, poet, and prophet proclaims the victory of God over the enemies of Israel. He looks toward the salvation of God’s chosen people who trust in God’s covenant and have waited so long for deliverance.

The second half of the hymn opens up. There is no “us” and “them.” There is no direct mention of nations and enemies. From the song’s depths arise hints of a future filled with Mercy, Light, and Peace. The Good News translation reads, “Our God is merciful and tender. [God] will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on us and to shine from heaven on all those who live in the dark shadow of death, to guide our steps into the path of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). John comes to prepare the way, but what Way is that? Is this story bigger and deeper than those who proclaim it could ever imagine?

2,000 years after the coming of Christ, these questions still speak to us. Across the world, conflict rages between Palestine and Israel over who holds primary rights to this ancient land. Palestinians remain displaced, disenfranchised, and desperate. Israel wields a disproportionate amount of military and economic power, yet remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Violence racks both sides, while peacemakers stand in the gap. Shackles of biblical interpretation reinforce the status quo. Does Zechariah’s song have meaning for the realities of today, for the conflict in the Middle East, for the human project in our own neighborhoods?

The son of Zechariah and Elizabeth grows up. His voice thunders in the wilderness. “If a soldier asks you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two…If you have two coats, give one away” (see Luke 3:1-16). His message isn’t simply about individual repentance and conversion. It is a cry for radical reversals–a call to justice, equity, and equanimity. A call to overcome evil with good, to shame the oppressor with goodness. These are revolutionary words, rallying cries amid days filled with omens of danger and whispers of promise. John is challenging a World Order that is passing away with the coming of the Reign of God.

Back to the birth narrative. In that little village, among those neighborhoods, the Jews of Zachariah’s day pin their hopes on a vision…an ancient, age-old promise that comes down to them through history, through story, through God’s previous actions, through prophetic voices long stilled yet echoing in their hearts.

We, too, have our hopes and dreams. We, too, look at the signs of our times and ask ourselves, “What do we see? Do we see danger or promise–or both?”

Too soon, John’s story ends with a beheading performed at the behest of King Herod. Jesus’ story ends with a crucifixion carried out by Roman guards. But do these stories really end in two brutal murders at the hands of the Roman Empire?

We know they do not. This church is a living testimony that these stories continue blazing their trail through human hearts.

The Light shines. It not only shines, but it also Scatters. It radiates, just like the sun which warms our planet from millions of miles away. John’s light scatters way beyond his own day and time, as does Jesus’. As does Sarah’s. As does yours and mine. As does our collective light.

During the Season of Advent, we ask many questions about this Light. We plumb its depths, and yet we only scratch its surface. We know it is bigger and deeper and wider than we can fathom, more transformative than we can imagine, and yet our understanding remains so small.

I invite you to pray with me now, dear friends.

O Revolutionary Light and Revolutionary Peace, blow fiercely through our hearts this Advent season. Raise up in us a torch for justice, equity, compassion, and mercy. Help us to hold that torch high. May its burning bring healing to us, to the nations, and to all of Creation. In the name of the Eternal Flame who cannot be extinguished, Amen.

Walking Toward the Light

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16 1 John 3
December 2, 2012
Steve Hammond

In the Gift for Christ letter we sent out earlier this week, I mentioned Mary’s early morning walks with our dog Irie. Mary likes to time her walks so that for the last half she is walking East. That’s one thing in the middle of December, and another in the middle of July, when you have to get out pretty early to ensure the second half-hour of your walk is watching the sunrise. In the late summer and fall and winter, I can catch some of the sunrise action myself on my morning runs. But I just let Mary tell me about the sunrises the rest of the time.

Mary does here walks this way simply because she likes to, as she puts it, “walk toward the light.” I said in the letter that walking toward the light is a great metaphor about the ministry of this church. But it’s also a great metaphor for Advent. The beginning of the gospel of John says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And it was Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who said this at the birth of his son, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

The other part of the metaphor is, of course, the darkness. We read those couple of verses from Jeremiah where the prophet talks about a righteous branch, or the stump of Jesse, one day arising. Those were dark days for Israel. Jeremiah was talking about a stump because it seemed like the tree had been cut down, that Israel had been destroyed. But that was not the end of the story. The light was still shining in that incredible darkness. Jeremiah had hope. I love how that Jeremiah passage starts. In the midst of that darkness, Jeremiah shouts out these words, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord when I will fulfill the promise.”

Our present world knows plenty of darkness. And some of us have had some pretty dark times in our lives of late. But Advent reminds us that following Jesus is about walking toward the light, no matter how deep the darkness is around us.

The days are surely coming. And Advent reminds us that they are already here. Advent orients us toward the future. And our Christmas calling is to bring the future into the present, rather than that much more frequent thing we do of bringing the past to the present. But that Bethlehem baby lived his life showing us how to bring the future home with us.

I’ve never liked the gospel readings for the first Sunday of Advent. They are always one of what Biblical scholars call the little apocalypse readings. The one from Luke starts this way, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Humanity coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

I’m sorry, but to me, that doesn’t seem like the way you want to start Advent. I know the folk who came up with the the lectionary must have been thinking that it would be good to link the birth of Jesus with his second coming. But too many people, in my opinion, do such strange stuff with all of that. We end up with the Left Behind books and all these TV and radio preachers who are laying out all of these end times time lines, suggestions, and scenarios that miss the whole point.

All that ends time stuff is about vengeance, wrath, anger, death and destruction. Jesus in no longer the Prince of Peace but a war lord. They make God look so ugly. But what did we read from 1 John 1? “This is the message we have heard from Jesus Christ and proclaim to you, that God is light and there is no darkness whatsoever in God.”

We also need to remember that when people try to explain these awful things that happen, from tragedies on grand scales, To the heartaches that invade our lives, to the will of God. The God who is light doesn’t work that way.

Like Mary has said, if you can’t find God where you are looking, look somewhere else. It will be wherever the light is.

We all know that Advent is this somewhat randomly designated time. It’s not supposed to stand on its own. We are simply reminded that Jesus calls us to walk toward the light throughout the year. And Jesus knew that of which he spoke. The dark, the ugly, the hard stuff of this world was not unknown to him. But he kept walking toward the light all the way to Easter morning. And all he said was why don’t you come with me?

And even better, we not only get to walk toward the light with Jesus, but we get to walk with each other. Like I said at the beginning, plenty of us have seen hard times. But my own experience has been that plenty of you have been walking with me, even sometimes carrying me, toward the light.

The gift of this and every Advent journey, this yearly trek to see the Bethlehem baby, is that we aren’t walking alone. Sometimes we need folk to walk with us, and sometimes folk need us to walk with them. But we are walking toward the light and the darkness cannot overcome it.