Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sermon: Love, Not Apathy

Grace Presbyterian Church
December 20, 2015, Advent 4C
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55

Love, Not Apathy

The Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, is an organization that, as its name suggests, conducts research on public attitudes about religion. Their research covers both attitudes of members of particular religions or denominations towards particular issues, and more general attitudes among Americans towards events or issues that involve religion. Their research is conducted primarily through polls and surveys. I follow them on social media, because sometimes it’s useful for a pastor to know such things.
In the wake of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s widely discussed proposal to bar all adherents of the religion of Islam from entering the United States, one of PRRI’s most recent polls asked respondents whether the “values” of Islam were “at odds” with American “values” and way of life. You probably won’t be shocked to know that Trump’s supporters answered the question overwhelmingly in the affirmative, with supporters of other candidates scattered across a spectrum of affirmation.
Yes, it is a shame that we are in such a state of frenzy that such a question is even necessary, about Islam or any religion. As long as politicians and other public figures find stoking fear to be a useful way of garnering attention, however, organizations like PRRI will be prodded into answering such questions. It’s worth remembering, though, that a few weeks ago that presidential candidate was obsessed with keeping Mexicans out of the US, not Muslims.
On the other hand, though, after spending time with both Micah and Mary these last couple of weeks, I think there’s something else that’s an even bigger shame, and perhaps a poor reflection on how we Christians in the US live. PRRI has never felt compelled to ask if the “values” of Christianity are “at odds” with American “values” and way of life. Both of these readings call attention to God’s ongoing and unapologetic favor towards those who don’t always find any favor at all in our society today, or in its past.
Micah’s oracle is a happy one for those who have had their fill of Advent and are ready to steamroll into Christmas: it brings us to Bethlehem! Or, at least it mentions Bethlehem, and that’s Christmas, right? But Micah also makes a point about Bethlehem that our sentimentalized tellings of the Christmas story don’t always bring home; Bethlehem was, well, nowhere. A small, insignificant town in one of the least significant tribes of Israel. Nowhere. Nothing. And yet from this Nowheresville was to come a great leader of Israel, a leader whose rule was rooted in ancient days.

This leader from Nowheresville is portrayed in a way that the old prophets like to talk about a lot, but that Israel and Judah had experienced seldom, if ever:

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.

The greatness of this ruler, unlike those who had ruled over Judah or Israel in their unhappy existence, is marked by two things: “feeding his flock” and being “the one of peace.” Feeding the flock points to a long tradition in prophetic literature in which the king – the good king – was likened to a shepherd, feeding and caring for the people of the kingdom the way a good shepherd cares for the sheep of his flock. Chapter 34 of the book of Ezekiel is a good extended example of this metaphor in practice. You will, of course, notice that both psalmists (Psalm 23, anyone?) and gospel writers (“I am the good shepherd”) picked up on this metaphor as well.
This isn’t exactly how we determine that leaders are “great” these days, it seems. We don’t see a lot of leadership that follows the model of a shepherd these days. Micah wouldn’t necessarily see a lot of examples of the kind of leader he describes among our world leaders these days, or among those who want to be world leaders for that matter. Nonetheless, when Micah challenges Israel to look for this great ruler, this is what he describes; a king who rules like a shepherd. And the leader “of peace”? Do you see one?
If Micah challenges us to look outside our usual and predictable comfort zones for true leaders, then Mary makes it clear that this “siding with the underdog” thing is still a trait of God that we just don’t seem to remember very well (or want to remember?) these days.
The traditions that have accrued around Christmas over the centuries have had a remarkable tendency to sentimentalize and trivialize the events of the birth of Christ, sometimes scandalously so, and possibly no character has been more harmed by this sentimentalization than Mary. And the carols we sing are some of the worst offenders. “Gentle Mary laid her child lowly in a manger.” “Still, still, still, he sleeps this night so chill! The Virgin’s tender arms enfolding … .” From “Once in royal David’s city,” “Mary was that mother mild … .
Even the Advent hymn we just sang piles on a little bit in verse 3: “Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head, ‘To me be as it pleases God,’ she said.” Mary gets to be painted as “gentle” and “meek” all in one phrase! If Sabine Baring-Gould had managed to work in the world “mild” somewhere we’d have the Triple Crown of Mary references.
A plain reading of the first chapter of Luke should argue against such a simplified characterization of Mary, if only because an unmarried pregnant woman, possibly a teenager, doesn’t manage to survive on gentleness, meekness, and mildness, today or in first-century Palestine. Such a young woman could certainly be put to shame even in our day; in the era of this passage she could very well have been put to death.  
Add to this Mary’s immediate reaction of perplexity and guardedness to the angel; her pointed question about how she was going to be pregnant if she wasn’t married and had never, uh, done what married couples do; and finally the exultant prophetic song Mary lets out in today’s reading, a song which is many things, but decidedly not gentle, meek, or mild. No, we don’t really do Mary any favors in the way we do the Christmas story.
Actually there are three moments of prophecy in this passage; Mary’s well-known song, Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary before that, and even before that, the lone instance of prophecy of which we know of being delivered by a child in the womb. Elizabeth’s child, the one who will be called John, leaped within her at Mary’s arrival. Once Elizabeth recovered from that pleasant sensation, she offered her own prophetic salutation, one which echoed much of what the angel had told Mary, and flat-out made it clear, with no doubt, just who Mary was carrying when she exclaimed “and why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” And then Mary responds with her own prophetic exclamation. The Holy Spirit was quite a busy member of the Trinity in this meeting.
Mary’s song starts well enough; praise to God is a pretty typical, and of course highly appropriate, way to begin such a proclamation, and Mary’s words fit very snugly into the prophetic traditions of Israel and Judah. Perhaps it gets a little unusual when she offers that God has “looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As Mary’s song continues, it is very important to keep this one thing in mind: Mary’s song is all in past tense. This is what the Lord has already done:
ü  Shown strength with his arm;
ü  Scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
ü  Brought down the powerful from their thrones;
ü  Lifted up the lowly;
ü  Filled the hungry with good things;
ü  Sent the rich away empty;
ü  Helped his servant Israel, in accordance with his mercy.
That’s not necessarily a comfortable list. Sure we can convince ourselves that we’re not proud, nor are we powerful; still, though, we don’t really tend to think of ourselves as being lowly, and we probably take a little pride (oops!) in making sure we and our families don’t go hungry. And again, we probably don’t call ourselves rich, but we see enough of the world around us to know that we’re closer, most of us, to rich than to poor. And maybe we even get nervous about the word “servant” as well. When we start seriously paying attention to Mary’s song, it might not seem such a comfortable fit with our manger scenes and sentimental carols.
And yet the one to come, the one to whom Mary will give birth, is the very Son of the God who has done all these things. The baby who will finally show up in the manger this Thursday night is the very Messiah come to be the fulfillment of all that God had and has done for his people. This is, in the sense that matters most, what Christmas is all about.
What we celebrate this week is ultimately about overwhelming, unstoppable love. God loves this world so much that he lifts up the lowliest of its people, feeds the ones who hunger, disperses the ones full of pride, overthrows the power-mongers. God cares deeply and passionately about this world, and frankly wants us to care too.
It’s easy, so easy to be overwhelmed by the need we see around us. And we don’t have to go off looking in the big cities to see that need. There’s plenty of it right here in Gainesville and Alachua County. And this is a generous congregation when there is need that we see, let there be no doubt about it.
But even amidst generosity it’s still possible to be so overwhelmed that we lose a little bit of our passion or our compassion. We don’t mean to, but there’s just so much poverty and hopelessness out there. We get calloused. We, maybe, get just a little apathetic. We can’t maintain a fever pitch of compassion, so we swing so far the other way that we just can’t work up our concern.
And yet the God who loved the world so much that he lifts up the lowly, who loved the world so much that becoming a helpless baby was not too much of a stretch to continue to lift up the lowly and to lead us all to keep lifting up the lowly, calls us to keep on loving, to keep on caring, to keep on lifting up and yet more: to reach out, and to welcome in, and to be with. It means not being comfortable with being comfortable any more with anything less than the world God wants.
That is our challenge as people who would dare call ourselves followers of Christ. That is where the child in the manger will call us to go. You see, that child won’t stay in the manger forever. This is the Jesus who will spend a life on earth caring for the least of these, challenging the religious authorities and those comfortable with them, and bringing the glad tidings of good news to all, what really is good news even if it doesn’t always sound like it to us. And if we truly call ourselves followers of Christ, that’s where Christ is going to lead us.
Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Hymns: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (PH 43); “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came” (PH 16); “My Soul Cries Out With a Joyful Shout” (GtG 100); “Savior of the Nations, Come” (PH 14)

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