Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Iconoclastic God

I want to suggest that Christmas is all about God as iconoclast, all about turning this world upside-down. And we don’t like it. We struggle against it.
Through the years I have posted several sermons on Nick's Bytes. Almost all have been written by me, although often I have not told you that the post began as a sermon. (I come to learn tha some people are really turned off my the word).

Today, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, I want to share with you a sermon written by someone else: the Reverend Doug Fowler, pastor of my home congregation, Salem United Church of Christ in Louisville, Kentucky. This sermon is very contemporary; as a matter of fact, Doug is in the pulpit at Salem preaching it today.

Doug's sermon is much more than contemporary: it speaks of the God in whom I believe and serve. This God is not content with the status quo, especially when the status quo tolerates and may even promote injustice, intolerance, oppression, hatred, and brutality. This is a God who does the unexpected, even when folks believe that the status quo (the expected) is God's will.

Enough of my words! Please take just a moment to read and hear Doug's words:

Micah 5:2-5a

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
   who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
   from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
   when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
   to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
   in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
   to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace. 

Luke 1:46b-55

[And Mary said,] “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.” 

In the 15th century of the Common Era, there were plenty of folks around who felt that this world needed some serious repentance, some heavy duty reforming, and some figured that needed to start with the two most powerful and biggest institutions/organizations in town—the government (kings) and the Church (Pope). Both Church and government wanted to blame the other for virtually everything that went wrong, to the extent that either admitted that anything was wrong—and not much has changed since.
In the period known as the Reformation, our own ecclesiastical forebears were of two types: those who wanted to keep some forms—stained glass, ancient language, vestments, clergy—and those who wanted to start church over from scratch. Interestingly, most of the players on both sides of the argument were inside the Church already, making it an in-house squabble, like Martin Luther on the one side and Ulrich Zwingli on the other. In short, these are all good persons with good ideas, but they couldn’t figure out how to reconcile them. The established Church wanted to—still wants—keep things as they are. One the other side were—are—iconoclasts, or image-breakers, who attack the traditional images or ideas or institutions with ideas for revising them or creating new ones. The ancestors of this congregation would have been among the iconoclasts—as would the Pilgrims and Baptists and a variety of other religious expressions. The hard part of all that is that keeping up with iconoclasm is not easy, requires constant creativity and willingness to abandon ideas or projects in which folks have been heavily invested.
I want to suggest that Christmas is all about God as iconoclast, all about turning this world upside-down. And we don’t like it. We’ll struggle against it. Let me explain.
About 2800 years ago, Palestine was suffering from oppressive neighbors—much like today. The prophet Micah said to his countrymen that this too would pass, that they would know better days. He told them to remember King David and look for someone like that to come and make them whole. The major clue was that this new David would come from Bethlehem, the most backwater and rinky-dink town in the land. This nothing-place would be the source of messiah, God’s granted one. See how the story is going? Well, when we look for messiahs in our time, where do we look? Our iconic image is Abraham Lincoln in a log cabin in Hodgenville. God’s anointed one comes from an unlikely place that turns everything upside-down. We think can any good athlete come out of a fifth-rate school? Can any good physician come out of that hospital? Can any good statesman come out of that country? Well, God says that God’s leaders, messiah, will spring from the least likely of sources, and it will be God’s choice. When we look for messiah, we need to look in unlikely places and at unlikely times. What’s why we need to be alert, lest we get caught looking the wrong way or at the wrong place. God turns things upside-down. Christmas is a time of turning upside-down. Make no mistake: when the prophet tells us all to repent, it’s about turning things upside-down.
Revolutions are about turning things upside-down. God is doing a revolutionary thing with Christmas. Luke tells us that Mary sang with her relative Elizabeth. This is a song that has been banned by some governments that take the Bible more seriously than our own because it is revolutionary; it is about turning things upside down. It’s a transcript of resistance by an oppressed people that looks for God to turn that oppression upside down. The Magnificat is politically dangerous, and over history political authorities have worried that it might incite oppressed people to riot. So, they interpret it in different ways.
Like all prayers, Mary’s song begins with praise and gratitude, and then goes on to note how God turns kings and nations topsy-turvy. Herod would have been a case in point, named by the Romans the “King of the Jews”. People like Mary were the ones who paid for the schemes hatched by Herod, who was hated in part because hew as Jewish and working against his own people! He knew how the people felt, so he imprisoned 70 Jewish elders with instructions that they were to be executed the day Herod died so there would be some mourning in the land. Human rights would be a foreign concept in ancient Palestine.
Messiah, to at least some in Palestine, meant relief from the power of the government. The coming of Jesus was the foundation of desperate hope, and Mary, the pregnant teenaged child-woman, sang about it. Mary sings about God reversing everything, turning everything upside-down: who’s in will now be out, who’s up will now be down, the winners will be the losers. The world of conventional wisdom says that blessed or happy are the beautiful, happy are the successful, happy are the powerful, happy are the secure, happy is Herod. But the Magnificat says all that will be reversed with Messiah. And a few years later, a rabbi came along who told whoever would listen:”Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed at the meek.” No wonder folks got upset with messiah, and even today would rather turn to a prosperity gospel!
The rabbi, called Jesus, couldn’t overthrow Herod by using Herod’s methods though. Using terror to get rid of terror won’t work, he said. He couldn’t out-Herod Herod. What Messiah could do is out-love Herod and defeat Herod’s capacity to hate by his greater capacity to suffer and love. He would humble himself—be born in a barn to unwed parents in an unconventional family, grow up in poverty, work with his hands. He would teach wherever people would listen. He would be accused unfairly, tried corruptly, and mocked. He would be executed. No wonder our worlds have a hard tome with all this. No wonder our worlds want to turn it down and around, water it down, make it slide down easily.
This story of Christmas is amazing in how much it turns things over, and we make it all so sweet as to take the bite out of it. The story has Mary singing the same song that Hannah sang at the birth of Samuel, her first-born whom she was giving up for adoption by the Temple cult. In a way, both women are losing their children. Samuel would be the priest who spoke with God on behalf of God’s people and who worked hard to get the people to be righteous, a forerunner of King David. And Jesus Messiah would come out of the last likely of places, and he would remake the world. And Mary’s pregnancy, like that of Elizabeth, would be unlikely; Messiah comes to us in unlikely ways. This would strike speechless Elizabeth’s husband, the Rev. Zechariah. Messiah does that—which helps me dismiss plenty of loud-mouthed preachers. We need to be looking for arrival of Messiah in the least likely places: poor women, bush league towns, the naïve and the undeveloped, above all, the powerless. Messiah will come out of nowhere—and we’re too likely to be looking another way.
I don’t believe that we’ve ever had a Messiah the equal of Jesus. I do believe there have been others sent by God to turn things upside-down after the fashion of Jesus, and I do believe that we look for more of those. In the meantime, we practice what we know.
For example, I think that Mohandas Gandhi is a Messiah, an anointed one. He came out of nowhere, was not highly thought of, was “despised and rejected of people”. He came out of a detested minority in South Africa, he was dishonored in his lifetime, he was assassinated. But he turned the world upside-down. After him the British Empire had to free India. After him, the “coloreds” of South Africa took more control of their lives. After him, there was a viable program for fighting oppressive regimes without using violence. Notice that he wasn’t even Christian, though he did teach some very fine lessons to Christians.
Another example is Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in this country. You may remember better than I how things were in the days of Jim Crow around here. Dr. King let the oppressive forces beat him, badmouth him, jail him, insult him, murder him. The result was an overturn of society. Jim Crow was turned upside-down. I believe that was a messianic moment, because it was really all about people having abundant life, about oppression being lifted, about society being transformed and by someone who came out of nowhere, and was not part of the elite and acted in a peaceable manner.
A different kind of messianic figure, for me, is Jean Vanier. His father was the King’s representative, the Governor-General of Canada, his brother was a monsignor in Montreal, and hew as an artillery officer in the Royal Nave in World War II. We’re talking about a high-power family here. After the war, Vanier studied at the Sorbonne for a doctorate. A priest there took him to a suburb of Paris where he met, providentially, two young men who were institutionalized because they were too mentally handicapped to live on their own. They asked him a question of justice: why do you live in this big house all alone when we must be crowded into that crummy institution? How come you have good food and we don’t? Why do you have some meaning to your life and we just go day to day? Vanier’s answer to them was to take them into his house and they would live together and the rules that governed their lives would be the Sermon on the Mount. Thus began L’Arche (“the Ark” from the Biblical story of a refuge from the storm.) which now has about 100 communities around the world. My point is that Jean Vanier turned everything upside down—he was rich and became poor for them, and they who were poor became rich. Christmas is all about turning everything upside-down, about the rejects going to the head of the line, the oppressed being set free. That’s messianic.
One more messianic example that comes to my mind is Millard Fuller. He was working his way through school—so silver spoons for him—and he made out just fine, except that his life felt empty. The things of this world don’t always satisfy, but what wonderful things have you ever heard come out of Alabama? Fuller took a rest at a community in Georgia to clear his mind. What he learned there was that God’s plan for creation is not destruction and pain, but wholeness. His motto became “No More Shacks” and he put his talents to work organizing a non-governmental, biblically-based program that provides decent housing for all God’s children. He started the program in Africa and it has spread around the world. We know it as Habitat for Humanity. It turns housing upside-down. It works too: its default rate in mortgages is minimal—and people get decent housing and, with it, some degree of self-respect. That’s, I think, messianic.
I want to tell you about Paul Farmer too, but there’s not time.
Now, I hasten to add that no messianic figure since Jesus has measured up to him for righteousness and holiness and purity. None that I know of has ever claimed to do so. What they have all done is turned this world upside down, have let the oppressed go free, turned this world around. Messianic figures—there could be some in this very congregation—in any age, to greater or lesser degrees long for a time when all suffering will end and everyone will have enough, when nations and families will live in peace, and the earth will be restored and healed of the damage that has been done. It’s a vision of the future—which simply means that we’re not finished yet; we have more work to do. Mary had the nerve and the imagination to claim such futures for herself and for her people. What’s passed along to us is the challenge to do no less.
May that be truth for us for the living of these days. Amen.