Friday, January 27, 2017

Beatitudes Remixed...Again

The Revised Common Lectionary can be quite providential. Only a week removed from the recent inauguration, when Jesus' preface to his sermon on the mount was read as part of the imperial liturgy, the same text pops up as the lection for preachers. 

And as I did nearly five years ago, here is my revised midrash of those whom Jesus called blessed, anointed, privileged, and at the forefront the inauguration of God's dreams for the world made new. These remixed beatitudes are upside-down prayers for these days whereby we reclaim the subversive nature of the biblical narrative written by those in the underbelly of empire. 

Blessed are those whose spirits have been crushed by systems and institutions, who seek solidarity in the midst of darkness and despair, and those who hold onto hope by their finger tips, God’s dreams for the world include you.

Blessed are those whose grief runs deep and others who enter into the suffering of their most vulnerable neighbors, God’s comfort and peace extends to you.

Blessed are those who humbly extend love and kindness, the movers and shakers of this world who subvert narratives of power and privilege and yet your names may not appear in headlines or history books, you already know the joys of God's kingdom here and yet-to-come.

Blessed are those who long for the world to be made right, whose commitment to justice is the marrow in their bones, and who organize resistance movements against perpetuates of fear, hatred, prejudice, and abusive rhetoric that breeds oppression, for you will find validation in the good news that God is reconciling the whole world.

Blessed are those who offer second-chances, cultivate empathy, quest for greater understanding, error on the side of mercy and love, and dare to believe noone is beyond redemption, for you understand what it means to be whole and human.

Blessed are those motivated not by self-interest but by a concern for those frequently labeled "least" among us, who surrender the temptation for self-preservation and choose instead the good of the whole, for you have the eyes and ears of the Spirit. 

Blessed are those who choose peace over violence, love over vengeance, and grace over retaliation, who work towards the end of war, seek to heal the rifts in our neighborhoods, and labor tirelessly to ensure our schools and communities are made safe for our children, for you best reflect what it means to be called God’s people in the world.

Blessed are you who have linked arms with the oppressed, extended sanctuary to the refugee, protested violations of human rights as embodiments of prayer, and do all these things and more as extensions of a deep commitment to the Way of Jesus even at the risk of arrest and the threat to your very lives. You join the long history of prophetic witnesses and will find joy in the resurrection parade of the Messiah and the movement of this gospel.  

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Tale of Two Parades...or Three: Revelation as March of Prayerful Protest

In the span of twenty-four hours, there were two parades.

One celebrated the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States and what we call the "peaceful transition of power." The pageantry was full of the sacred symbols and liturgical rhythms of the national religion we call American democracy, whose new priest walked the streets of Washington D.C. to sounds of both praise and disapproval. 

The other hinged on peaceful protests and demonstrations in the name of women's rights and varied intersections with demands for justice for people of color, LGBTQI+, immigrants, the interfaith community, and more. The collective sense of urgency was no doubt heightened by the inauguration of Donald Trump just one day earlier, whose fear-based rhetoric, history of offense and abuse of women, and slander related to immigrants, Muslims, people with disabilities, and African Americans became the target of placards created by those who organized and exercised their right to demand better. 

This parade was not without its critics, too. 

There is no question, this nation is at a critical crossroads. The world as we know it is at a crucial turning point evident in this "tale of two parades." 

And yet again, the biblical narrative cuts through the dualism of our world and temptations to bifucate solutions and offers a third way. There is a third parade, whose attendees are too vast to count and agenda unapologetically tilted towards those slain by all systems of power and privilege. This march of holy protest assures us dreams for a world made whole, right, and just again cannot and will not be overcome by the powers that be; there is a different reign breaking in that trumps all others. 
"Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, 
'Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and mightand honor and glory and blessing!'
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the seam and all that is in them, singing,
'To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and mightforever and ever!'
And the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' And the elders fell down and worshiped" (Rev. 5:11-14)
The pageantry of this apocalyptic parade is laced in subversive imagery (see also Revelation 4). John borrows the imperial symbols, traditions, and religious iconography that surrounded the inauguration of new "leaders," who claimed divine status and appointment, threatened detractors, and crucified criminals and "fake-news" subscribers (read: those who spread a gospel not in line with Rome) as testament to their fragility and insecurity. John countered with an alternative parade and a subversive anthem of allegiance echoed by resistors the powers thought they had silenced. At the apex of this holy occasion, the Elected One, the Lamb, takes the scroll as the elders fall in worship, harps in hand, and offer "bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8).

We can only imagine the content of these bowls full of prayers offered by leaders of the faithful resistance in the midst of rampant militarism, religious persecution, abduction of detractors fed to lions, an economy based on slavery and unjust tax systems, reduction of women and children to subservient status, fear of the foreigner, and legislation that segmented the elite from the poor and hungry. Surely these ancient petitions would have been an encyclopedia of their times as told from the vantage point of the empire's underbelly. They could have been colorful placards of early protest movements led by those victimized by the beast. 

This context breathes a level of comfort to those looking for time-tested solidarity. 

In our day, there is great energy swirling around current socio-political events and the American election. For some, this energy has leveraged a particular brand of change and thirst for ideological return. For others, the energy is fueling a fire that threatens to burn quests for social progress and equal opportunity that have been pursued over the last several generations. So the masses have taken to the streets. 

What John reminds us is neither to be overcome by despair nor provoked by emperor and empire to replicate the very evil we despise. Instead, we are to offer our prayers of protest and organize labors for justice and peace, even join varied marches, as such actions are gathered in bowls of incense before the throne of the Lamb. There we find an Elected One, surrounded by leaders of the faithful resistance, most able to identify with those victimized by the powers who then promises a universal resurrection he has already inaugurated.

So faithful saints, in our quest for justice and peace, let us pray fervently as we march onward and refuse to let our placards be the end of our advocacy. And let us do so in a way that pledges allegiance neither to a party nor flag, but to the Lamb of God who alone is able to take away the sins of the whole world. 

This is our only anthem of assurance.

Friday, January 6, 2017

On Epiphany: The Dark Story Behind Jesus' Elevation of Children

Yesterday, I walked in the door to a dispute our twins were having, likely unique to minister kids.

Noah [running towards me]: Daddy, is tomorrow Epiphany? 

Me [barely having removed my coat]: Yes. 

Noah [arms raised]: Nailed it. Told you, Lily!

Then he ran down the steps in victory.

Our family lights the Advent candles all the way through Epiphany. This way the Christ candle does not get cheated.  Also, our kids get to embrace Christmas as a season that culminates with the star that led the magi from the east to pay homage to the toddler Messiah. 

Yet there is a dark and hellish side of Epiphany. The full script of Epiphany leaves a bitter taste in our mouths after binging on the more joyous pageantry of the Christmas drama. 

"When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’" (Matthew 2:16-18)

This is not exactly a preferred bedtime story for young children during this holy season. While we laud God who chose to become flesh and take on the form of a baby, the incarnation came at a cost. The response to the Christ child by those thirsty for power, or anxious about losing the power they already had, resulted in mass genocide of the holy innocents who stood in the way of and were deemed infantile conspirators against an emperor who wanted nothing to do with shared or surrendered power and influence. 

And while Mary, Joseph, and the newborn king may have escaped in the middle of the night to find refuge in Egypt, "Rachel and her children" throughout the neighborhoods of Bethlehem were not so fortunate. 

Then I wonder, is this precisely the story Jesus' parents told him every year when they celebrated or at least acknowledged his birth? 

You can almost hear Mary whisper, unaware of her prophetic wisdom, "My son, you are our beloved. You are God's beloved. Yet your entrance into this world created quite a stir and has not been as beloved by the powers that press upon us from all sides. Many have already died so you may live, children even. Young ones like you. Never forget your life came at a cost. Never forget the babies of this world, the children of Bethlehem. So live and love, even offer up your own life, for all those who are threatened to have theirs taken away. And never forget the children of Bethlehem."

Jesus surely clung to the wisdom of his mother as much as he probably recited the lyrics of the song she sang while pregnant, "[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly..." (Luke 1:52).

It's no wonder Jesus, the Christ Child now matured Messiah, forcefully spoke these words to his disciples who had become a blockade to little ones in their thirst for power and privilege:

"At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them,and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." (Matthew 18:5)
"People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them." (Mark 10:13-16)
Jesus never forgot the children. Jesus knew well the horrid story of the star. 

The days ahead of us as both a nation and church, even larger world, are full of varied questions that breed great angst and maybe fear. Those in positions of power continue to press in on all sides and the future for our children is as much at stake now as it was two millennia ago. 

Dare we not allow their future to be slayed in the name of politics, privilege, phobias laced in ignorance, the preference for self-preservation and nationalism masked as patriotism, and religious assimilation to all of the aforementioned. When little children cross our borders or enter our sanctuaries, may we have the courage, integrity, and Christ-like faith to receive and protect them. When we consider the state of health care, education systems, access to clean water, the impact of the wars we fund and sustain, and increased food insecurity, may the faces of Rachel's children from Philadelphia to Aleppo, Flint to South Sudan, Standing Rock to Bethlehem affect us towards renewed activism rooted in gospel witness. 

May we have the eyes to see the revealed star hovering over the parts of God's world where children are most vulnerable. Then, may we respond to this epiphany as we remember the kingdom of God belongs to these little ones. May we be willing to adjust course and lay down our very lives for their safety and security, for their future we dare not take away.