Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The New King

John 1:(1-9), 10-18

There was a minor brouhaha last week when White House chief of staff designate Reince Priebus appeared to proclaim President-elect Donald Trump as the new king of kings.

“Over two millennia ago,” Priebus wrote, “a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King.”

Since this may be my last chance to jump to Priebus’ defense, let me suggest this is a case of careless rhetoric and not – as we have often seen in Trump circles – deluded hagiography to uphold the boss’s borderline narcissism. But even Priebus knows it is beyond laughable to compare the Donald with a god-king. Reince’s grasp on reality is firm but he needs an editor.

Besides, the deluded-god-shtick was already perfected in the 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius, performed by two legends of the theater: Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir John Hurt.

Sir Derek has the title role of Claudius, a real life emperor portrayed by sympathetic historians as a humane and just ruler who masked his cleverness beneath a veneer of twitching and stammering.  

Sir John is Caligula, also a real life emperor who, depending on which historian one reads, may have been mad or misunderstood. Hurt brings the emperor to life with magnificent malignancy. Indeed, he chews up the low-rent scenery on the BBC set.

As the scene opens, Caligula, who has seized the throne by murdering his predecessor Tiberius, collapses into a deep sleep.  When he awakens, he summons his Uncle Claudius to his bedchamber.

Only too aware of Caligula’s murderous lunacy, Claudius approaches cautiously. 

Caligula informs Claudius that he has undergone a great transformation.

Guardedly, Claudius asks the nature of the change.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Caligula asks.

Sensing his next words could cost him his life, Claudius’ lips twitch silently. Abruptly, he makes a calculated guess.

“You – you’ve become a God!” Claudius shouts. He falls on his knees and raises his arms in obeisance. “How could I have been so blind? Let me worship you.”

Satisfied, Caligula dismisses Claudius with a wave of his hand. “I was going to murder you,” Caligula says, “but I changed my mind.”

Throughout the rest of the series, Caligula’s delusions of godliness produce some bizarre twists. 

He turns the palace into a brothel and forces highborn and noble ladies to serve as whores. 

He declares war on his fellow god, Neptune, and seizes a treasure trove of seashells to humiliate his immortal rival. 

He appoints his favorite horse, Incitatus, as a senator of Rome. 

Fearing that the baby in his sister’s womb will be more powerful than he, Caligula murders her. 

He casually orders the execution of everyone whose views differ from his own.

The reign of terror ends with Caligula’s assassination, an actual event which took place 1,973 years ago this month.

It’s hard to know whether Caligula was truly schizophrenic or merely the victim of spiteful historians.

But the very idea of Caligula raises frightening notions of what happens to any one, god or human, whose absolute power is unchallenged. 

There are other examples, in fiction and in reality, of godlike powers run amok.

Almost everybody remembers six-year-old Anthony Fremont, the mutant monster in the Twilight Zone who has godlike mental powers. 

Anthony is also a spoiled child who punishes persons who scold him by removing their mouths. To entertain himself, he creates a three-headed gopher and kills it when he becomes bored. Even more dastardly, he controls what shows his family must watch on the television. When one of the adults around the boy attempts to kill him, Anthony turns him into a jack-in-the-box with his human head.

Finally, because he feels it is too warm, Anthony causes snow to begin falling outside. His father observes that the snow will kill off at least half the crops and as he is about to confront Anthony about this, his wife and the other adults look on with worried smiles on their faces. The father then smiles and tells Anthony in a horror-tinged voice, “...But it’s good you’re making it snow. A real good thing. And tomorrow... tomorrow’s gonna be a... real good day!”

Of course, Anthony is only a figment of Rod Serling’s imagination. But we cannot doubt that if he were real, he would devolve into a destructive fiend. Everything we know about beings with absolute power is that they become corrupted absolutely. Benevolent dictators and innocent children, when there is nothing to stop them, quickly become monsters. 

Nor are any of us immune to this corruption of godlike power. We tell ourselves we are we are created in the image of God, but we distort that image to suit our basest human whims. Just three centuries after Jesus came to model a God of peace and unconditional love, the Emperor Constantine slaughtered thousands of his enemies under the sign if the Cross. 

In the name of Jesus, Christian kings led crusades into the Holy Land to kill Muslims. 

For centuries, Christians jailed, tortured and burned other Christians whose creeds differed from established dogma. King Henry VIII ordered the execution of those who did not believe the host was transubstantiated into the actual body of Christ.

It goes on and on. The members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kans., follow a deranged god who hates his own creation, namely gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals. 

Fundamentalist extremists of all religions, most famously the jihadist hijackers of 9/11, follow a psychotic god who orders the violent death of infidels, defined, of course, as everyone whose faith differs from theirs.

How incredibly fortunate that the Creator of Everything is light rather than darkness. 

How marvelous that the Author of Life is grace and truth rather than deception and lies.

How fortunate, indeed, that the Ground of All Being is love rather than hate.

What were the chances of that?

What if God were darkness, hatred, and evil?

It could have happened. There is, after all, no way to control an all-powerful God. God can be anything God wants to be. And that is a horrifying prospect. It is far too easy to imagine what an evil God could be like.

And, equally disquieting, what would the scion of an evil god be like as he walked the earth? In contemplating that horrible reality, it’s tempting to think of presumed antichrists - Hitler, or Stalin, or Osama bin Laden. 

Fortunately, though evil fairies danced at their births, none of these miscreants were god. Can you imagine bin Laden with omnipotent powers?

When the Magi came from the east to witness the Christ child, there was much to celebrate. 

Isaiah anticipated it:
Comfort, O comfort my people,  says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,   and cry to her?that she has served her term,   that her penalty is paidthat she has received from the Lord’s hand  double for all her sins. A voice cries out:“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up,and every mountain and hill be made low;the uneven ground shall become level,   and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,   and all people shall see it together,   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!”And I said, “What shall I cry?”All people are grass,   their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades,   when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;   surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades;   but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain,   O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength,   O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,   lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”See, the Lord God comes with might,   and his arm rules for him;his reward is with him,   and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd;   he will gather the lambs in his arms,and carry them in his bosom,   and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:1-11)
The mighty God comes to us as unconditional love, eager to forgive and eager to welcome us into his realm of light and joy. And his scion comes to us as a good shepherd, a model of the creator’s love.

Thank you, God, for your gracious love and care for each of us, and thank you for the Lord Jesus who you sent to us in that same spirit of goodness and love.

God is love. 

Any lesser god is too terrible to imagine.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Jesus Is Such a Card

Matthew 1:18-25

When I was in college, a popular cereal manufacturer made a feeble attempt at humor by printing funny sayings on its box.

The one-liners began with the words, “Confucius Say.” You may remember some of them.

“Confucius Say, ‘Best way to save face is keep lower part shut.’”

“Confucius Say, ‘’To make long story short, don’t tell it.’”

“Confucius Say, ‘Last will and testament is dead give away.’”

It may occur to you that none of these lines are particularly funny. Perhaps the “Confucius Say” was added so you wouldn’t notice.

I can’t remember the name of the company that used Confucius to shill its products in the sixties, but I remember one revealing reaction to the campaign. I was sitting sleepily in a history class on ancient China when the professor interjected, “What’s so funny about ‘Confucius Say’? Would we find it funny if an ad campaign used the phrase, ‘Jesus Say’?”

Well, back in 1968, probably not. Confucius, who lived 500 years before Jesus, was a respected Chinese teacher, writer, and politician. Like Jesus, Confucius advocated personal and public morality and justice. His teachings were enormously influential in China and throughout Asia. He wasn’t a stand-up comedian and he didn’t make jokes, any more than Jesus made jokes in the Sermon on the Mount.

Unless, of course, Jesus did make jokes in the Sermon on the Mount. Some contemporary scholars claim we miss Jesus’ humor because we don’t understand his times or his audience. 

A foolish man built his house on sand? (Matthew 7:26). Jesus’ practical audience would have burst out laughing – just as soon as they caught their breaths following his hilarious lines about giving your kid a stone to eat (Matthew 7:9) or walking around with a log in your eye (Matthew 7:4). 

Come to think of it, maybe the shtick has possibilities. “Jesus say: man who eat too much toast get stuck in jam at narrow gate.”

Back in 1968, when Confucius was quoted on cereal boxes, religion was not a rich source of humor. Today, Confucius thrives on the Internet in memes so vulgar they can’t be repeated in mixed company. And Jesus is no longer untouchable when it comes to humor, even in toy stores. Action Jesus rolls up his sleeves next to plastic effigies of GI Joe and The Rock, while bobble headed Jesus competes in stores with bobble headed Barack.

The question is, how much humor are you able to take with your religion?

One Sunday evening a few years ago I drove into the parking lot of White Plains First Baptist Church. As soon as they recognized my car, two women – mature mentors of teenagers – ran up to me in obvious distress. I asked them what was up.

“Are you familiar with Life of Brian?” they asked simultaneously. 

Of course I was familiar with Monty Python’s irreverent movie about Brian, one of many two-bit evangelists who gathered small followings in Palestine at the time of Jesus. 

The film pokes fun at the soldiers, Pharisees, and peasants who interacted with false prophets, although Brian’s story is obviously close to Jesus’. Even the Magi briefly attend Brian’s birth until they realize they have mistaken the hovel of the Virgin Mandy for the crèche of Mary. When they realize their error they rudely grab their gifts out of the young mother’s hands and beat a pious path to the manger.

Life of Brian, like all of Python’s offerings, is not for everyone, but the two women were shocked by what they had just shown to the adolescents. Literally wringing their hands, they asked, “Do you think we’re in trouble?”

Life of Brian is only offensive to people who mistake it for a spoof on the messiah, which it is not. In my own view, I think it’s safer to show the film to teenagers than to encourage them to Google the tasteless and generally lascivious offerings of Confucius Say.

If you watch Saturday Night Live, you may recall a brilliant sketch by three legendary actors: Sylvester Stallone, John Goodman, and Robert De Niro: The Three Wise Guys.

You have to keep reminding yourself that this was not a goof on the nativity but a light-hearted satire on an East Coast stereotype. Stallone identifies himself as the “King of Sanitation of Bayonne, New Jersey.” Goodman claims to be the “Furniture King of Massapequa.” De Niro is less specific: “I do a little of this, a little of that, don’ worry ‘bout it.”

The wise guys gossip along the way. 

“I’m hearing things. This kid’s gonna be big.”

“His father’s in construction.”

“Little Joey from Nazareth. He’s all grown up.”

“Yeah, but I heard the kid might not be his.”

Funny? Again, it depends on your point of view. But it’s clear religion and Christianity are no longer hands-off topics when it comes to humor. A popular meme on the Internet shows Jesus annoying a bartender. “Just water please. But put it in a carafe.”

All of these witticisms show a steady trend toward the demystification of religion and, perhaps, the final secularization of society.

But it is becoming increasingly obvious, especially in Advent, that the biggest joke of all has been hanging over our heads for two-thousand years.

The punch line is the Messiah himself. The joke is in the vast difference between the Messiah we were expecting, and the Messiah we got.

Rabbis tell us the Jewish concept of Messiah has remained unchanged for 4,000 years: a human warrior descended from David who would rebuild the temple, and enable the world’s Jews to return to Jerusalem and live forever in peace.

The Messiah would emphatically not be the Son of God, because the very idea would be anathema. 

The Messiah the people of First Century Palestine were awaiting was a Judah Maccabee on Steroids, a bigger-than-life, pumped-up superhero with a cape and an M embroidered on his chest. 

The Feast of Chanukah celebrates Judah’s restoration of Jewish worship in the temple after he rescued it from from polytheistic Greeks, and for many it was the perfect precedent to set. After centuries of cruel oppression predating the Roman occupation by hundreds of years, people were longing for Messiahman the Mighty.

But what did they get?

Ha. They got a vulnerable baby too frail to lift his head. 

They got a weakling who would grow to manhood indifferent to the political milieu in which he lived.

They got a gentle philosopher who talked incessantly about the reign of God.

They got a pacifist who called upon enemies to set aside their enmities and love one another.

They got a drifter who lived among the poor, engaged lowly women as equals, healed the sick, and expressed God’s compassion for all people.

They got a wise-cracking jokester who had no choice but to live out the irony he was: a vulnerable, puny, delicate human who personified the Almighty God, very man of very man and very God of very God.

And they got a Messiah who asserted his power in powerlessness, and who declared that God always honored the weakest and the last above the strongest and the first.

If the essence of humor is surprise, the utterly unexpected result of our assumptions and desires, then the coming of the Messiah is the funniest event in history.

For those who were praying for Messiahman the Mighty, the coming of the babe of Bethlehem was a warning to be careful what you pray for.

The coming of the Messiah is so different from all our expectations that all we can do is shake our heads in astonishment and delight.

And what else can we do when we hear the angels singing on high, when we finally get the great joke God is playing on us?

The Joy of Christmas, as always, is in the laughter.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Mary the Untier of Knots

“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.” Luke 1:46b-55

Great stuff. It’s hard to believe this speech was uttered by an illiterate 14-year-old who has just been told she is pregnant. In her unmarried state, extra-marital sex and pregnancy could get her stoned.

“Oh, crap,” would be a more understandable response.

But it is foolish to underestimate Mary. With titles like Queen of the Universe, Queen of Heaven, and Mother of God, she is a major player God’s drama.

Less known but equally important is her title, “Untier of Knots.”

Indeed, some of the thornier knots she faces can be detected in the Magnificat, one of the scripture readings designated for the third Sunday in Advent. There are no greater tangles than the pride that makes people think they are greater than God, or the arrogant power of politicians who oppress the poor. But the little peasant girl perceives that no imbroglio is beyond the power of God, who casts down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry, and sends the rich away.

But we all have painful knots in our lives, and one tradition of the church is that Mary has been given the power to loosen, unravel, and untie the bonds which paralyze us. The beautiful painting above, posted on her blog by Debby Bird, is based on classical art and an ancient novena: 
Mary, my Mother, God has charged you 
With untangling the knots in the lives of his children; 
Into your hands I place the ribbon of my life. 
No one, not the evil one himself, 
Can deprive it of your merciful assistance. 
There is no knot that cannot be untangled by your hands.
Anyone who has spent a morning detangling a gnarled spaghetti of Christmas lights or computer cables knows that untying knots requires patience. Untying knots is a persistent trial-and-error of inserting ends through likely snags, un-inserting them when the knot tightens, gingerly reinserting in the hopes of loosening the kinks, and resisting the temptation to cast the jumble aside and walk away. Any time a knot is untied, it's a miracle.

If Mary has the power to untie knots, it’s no wonder she’s the Queen of Heaven. 

Sometimes the knots we get in our lives seem beyond untangling.  We send an email to a trusted friend, complaining about a colleague, and accidentally send it to everyone in the office. We drink too much at an office party and the boss discovers us asleep beneath her desk. We forget to set the emergency brake of our car and it rolls down the driveway into a passing police car. 

But most of our personal knots are less dramatic. We say cruel words to a friend that cannot be unheard. We get overwhelmed by the complexities of our jobs and can’t get out of bed in the mornings. We shun family members because of imagined slights and can’t figure out how to start talking again. We are angry and frustrated by friends or relatives whose political views we regard as neo-Nazi and we build emotional barriers between us. We fall into a morass of boredom and ennui and don’t know how to restore meaning to our lives. 

As a Protestant with a Baptist background, I know enough to pray to the Lord when these predicaments appear, and I know how to do it: “Lord, we just pray that you will help, and we just pray Lord that you will just make things good again, and we just pray …” In my tradition, the word “just” is used the way “selah” is used by the Hebrew Psalmist. It gives us a sense of timing and sometimes makes us feel better.

Certainly Jesus loves us and understands our pain. But sometimes I wish we Protestants hadn’t forgotten how to pray to an untier of knots who knows what it’s like to be a loving and a long-suffering mother.

Unfortunately, most of us Protestants have cast Mary aside as if she was a remnant of archaic papist habits we have rejected, like making the sign of the cross or saying vain and repetitious prayers or imbibing actual wine during the Lord’s Supper.

Mary remains, however, an important character in our Christmas pageants. In our little community church in Morrisville, N.Y., we’d find a blonde girl who looked cute with a white towel draped over her head and give her the role of a lifetime: gazing adoringly at a 40-watt light bulb in the manger.

Even so, one has to wonder why low-church Protestants have been so unaffected by Mary’s charisma. She was, after all, the mother of Jesus. We can't ignore that, but neither do we regard her with the same high status and deep respect as our Roman Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers.

Given what we know about Mary, we have vastly underestimated her. She was, among other things, a peasant girl. She was born into a patriarchal culture where girls counted for naught, and her family had to contend each day with an occupying army that regarded the Jews as superstitious bumpkins.

Mary and other girls were inconsequential members of their families, valued only for their cooking and cleaning skills. Mary was not expected to read, have opinions, make decisions, or fall in love. She did not go out and choose her husband because she liked his limpid brown eyes and sinewy pecs.

Joseph, like everything else in her life, was assigned to her by her father. Joseph, one might even say, was forced upon her. Based on what we know about the culture, Mary would have been between 12 and 14 when she was betrothed, which probably happened shortly after her first menstrual period.

What happened next must have been terrifying. Look at it from her point of view. She’s 14. She’s engaged to a stranger. She’s innocent of the ways of the world. She may not even understand what sexual intercourse is, but she’s old enough to know that if she does it before she is married, her parents and her neighbors will drag her out of the house and kill her with rocks.

Then one day Mary is told she is pregnant. That could not have been good news, even if it was delivered by an angel. Her first thought must have been that the angel was delivering a death sentence.

And even when the angel sought to reassure her that everything was all right, it’s hard to imagine she was in any sense relieved. With child, you say? With child? by God? You wouldn’t believe it today if someone said you or your daughter was pregnant by God.

This moment at which Mary was informed of her pregnancy – the Annunciation – has been portrayed in literature, song, Frescoes, statuary and art for two thousand years.

Certainly a miracle has happened, and throughout its history the church has seen it this way: a virgin has conceived by the Holy Spirit, God knoweth how.

But, according to Luke, a new miracle of equal power began to unfold. Once the shock wore off and Mary caught her breath, this 14-year-old peasant girl, this cipher who can’t read and has been told never to think, commences to utter one of the most revolutionary statements in human history.
God 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 for ever.’ (Luke 1:51-55, NRSV)
Overthrow the powerful?

Raise up the peasants?

Feed the hungry?

Reject the rich?

The angel must have been as shocked as Mary was when she was informed she was pregnant. No sooner than she opens her mouth than she begins untying the cosmic knots she sees around her.

From the very beginning, demure little Mary far exceeded the expectations of her family and culture.

In the same way, she obviously exceeds the expectations of Baptists and others who set her aside along with the high liturgical trappings and arbitrary hierarchies of the oppressive churches we escaped. 

Ironically, as we can detect from her opening speech, Mary is the one thing we should have held on to.

Many low-church Protestants shed a lot of high-church trappings that reminded us of the Church of England and other oppressors. 

Given the importance Mary’s son assigned to his last supper, for instance, it seems almost heretical that we limit our communion ordinance to once as month. We’ve abandoned the beautiful litanies and liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer because we think it’s holier to pray from our hearts. And despite our eagerness to be transparent witnesses of our faith, we toss aside the most visible demonstration of what we believe: making the sign of the cross when we pray.

I guess we can live with that. Baptists also exchanged priests, bishops and hierarchs for soul liberty and the priesthood of all believers, and who can say they are not better off?

But when you consider the importance of Mary to the church and to Jesus, I wish we had not been so quick to set her aside.

Mary’s first utterance, as recorded by Luke, sets the scene for all that is to come. She quickly grasps what is happening: the God everyone expected to come in shock and awe is actually coming as a mewling, puking boy. But that counter-intuitive revelation preceded the turning of the universe on its head. And with Jesus still zygotic in her womb, Mary knew it all.

But more than that, it was Mary who nursed him, guided his first steps, toilet trained him, and whispered in his ear the Godly secrets that would change the world. 

In a sense better understood by our higher church sisters and brothers, Mary is also our own mother in that she symbolizes a side of God we rarely acknowledge: God’s feminine side.

Years ago I attended the funeral of a good friend on the American Baptist staff. He was young and energetic and his sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage was a devastating shock.

As we sat sadly in our pews, my late friend’s wife was surrounded by her young children. The children, confused and frightened, began to cry. And their mother reached out her arms to them and hugged them tightly, whispering comfort in their ears.

The minister who officiated at the funeral pointed to the widow.

“Here we see how God comes to us as a mother,” he said. “God shares our grief, our sense of loss, but the Mother God’s first instinct is to embrace and console her children.”

Sometimes we need a divine mother, a goddess, who knew something Jesus didn’t: the experience of motherhood.

One thing the angel did not reveal to Mary at the Annunciation is that giving birth to God’s son would not be all gold and frankincense.  That message fell to a dying old man when the baby Jesus was presented in the temple.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too. – Luke 2:34-35, NRSV)
Throughout history, when a woman is overwhelmed by the joys of motherhood, or when the sorrows of motherhood break her heart, the mother of Jesus understands with an intimacy that transcends the experience of fathers and sons. “I’m a mother so I pray to Mary,” many women say. “She was a mother, too.”

Sometimes I wish I was as comfortable as many of my Catholic and Orthodox friends in relying on Mary as an eternal reminder that God whom we call Father has another dimension we rarely call on: the Goddess. God the mother.

And precisely because she is a mother Mary has the spiritual and moral power to be the untier of knots.

Advent is a perfect time to remind us of the crucial role this peasant woman played in the life of Jesus and in the foundation of the church, and give her the honor she is due.

Mother Mary, come to us, speaking words of wisdom. Untie our knots. Let it be.