Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Intimacy, Mary, and Uninvited Guests

The birth of a child is typically a supremely intimate and family oriented event.  You can almost imagine concentric circles surrounding the birth of a child that indicate just how close those in each circle are to the new born child.  Of course, the first circle includes really only the child and mother, as they have already been connected for months but very close to this circle is the one that also includes the father.  Then the next circle might include siblings of the new born child and proud grandparents.  In many instances, these may be followed by aunts and uncles and other extended family.  It is usually only after this that very close friends of the family are allowed to see the child.  Of course, not every birth works out just this way.  The birth of my own children did not since we are so far from so much of our family.  But even in the endless variations on this scenario, there is a strong sense that one must be invited into this intimate circle to see this new life and it would be considered very odd if a mere acquaintance showed up uninvited during this intimate family occasion.

Enter the shepherds.  Can you imagine?!  You've just welcomed your first child into the world, you are still gazing into the child's eyes, amazed at the wonder of this new life.  You are still adjusting to this new reality that has been gifted to you.  You want nothing other than to remain undisturbed, memorizing every feature of this child's face, responding to every little movement or noise.  This is a still, quiet moment; peaceful in the deepest sense of that word.  And all of a sudden a gang of smelly shepherds....SHEPHERDS!... straight from the field bust in and ruin the moment.  And they are loud!  They won't stop going on about some vision they've seen.  They just keep yammering about how amazing it is!  Then they come over and want to see the child; with their nasty, been working with animals all night hands and their ragged, dirty clothes, they want to see YOUR BABY; your weak, precious, helpless, fragile, new born baby.  As if that's not enough, they start telling YOU how great YOUR new kid is going to be.  THE AUDACITY!  "I know how great he is, he's MY kid after all, thank you very much."  Then they leave just as noisily as they came, still talking about the angels they saw and how excited they are about the birth of your child.

These shepherds are outsiders.  They don't belong here.  Don't they know they aren't part of the family?  Don't they know they weren't invited?  They've broken into a circle far more intimate than is their place.

But rather than rejecting the shepherds and having Joseph send them away, "Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart."

The truth is this was not the first and would not be the last time that someone would speak to Mary about her son in this way.  Before Jesus was born, Mary's relative Elizabeth said "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!".  Upon Jesus' presentation in the Temple, Simeon tells Mary "this child is appointed for the falling and rising of many in Israel."  The same day, the prophetess Anna speaks about Jesus to those who were waiting for the redemption of Israel.  One would normally assume that a mother is the expert on her own children but apparently there is much that Mary needs to hear about her son from others that barely know him.

In many ways, this is a foreshadowing of a larger theme that runs throughout the Gospel of Luke.  Repeatedly, those we would not expect to find in those inner circles of intimacy with Jesus and his kingdom are precisely the ones who come bursting in and Jesus does not turn them away.  In the parable of the banquet, those who were invited to the party refuse to come, so the lame, blind, and crippled are invited in their place.  In the parable of the good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite who should be examples of holiness make their way to the other side of the road avoiding the man in need while a Samaritan (read: hated outsider) acts with the kind of compassion Jesus calls neighborly.  In the parable of the prodigal son, it is the younger son who has lived foolishly and squandered his father's wealth whose return is celebrated in love while his older brother stands out in the field, filled with contempt.  When Jesus heals ten lepers, it is only (yet another hated) Samaritan who returns to give thanks for what Jesus has done for him.  This scenario plays out so frequently in the Gospel of Luke that one could argue these should not even be seen as anomalies or exceptions but the rule itself.  Its not that a few outsiders happened to sneak in with the rest by accident but that the very way of God's kingdom is to make the outsider an insider.  This is what grace is, after all; finding ourselves in a far more intimate circle than we deserve.

This should humble us in a couple of ways.  First, we should be reminded of what we easily forget after 2000 years of Christianity; that as gentiles, we are all outsiders in the story of Jesus.  We are the Samaritan, the younger son, the shepherds.  We do not belong in this very Jewish story.  We are only a part of this family because Jesus has graciously made room for us in his circle.

But now that the grace of Christ has provided a way in for us, we should remember a second thing; that just because we are now "in" doesn't mean that this kingdom has stopped being for those who are "out".  To put it frankly, the temptation for any of us who have been Christians for very long is to see ourselves as closer to Jesus than others who are newer at church or don't do all the pious things we do or etc, etc.  Then the next temptation is to let them know it; to let them know, however subtly, that we are spiritually superior, that they really don't belong in this intimate circle with Jesus like we do, and that they need to get in line and pay their dues before they can be a part of this family.  But if Luke is right about Jesus and his kingdom, it would seem the exact opposite is true.  It is the paradox of this kingdom that we find ourselves closest to Jesus when we are closest to those who seem furthest from him.

So we find once again that Mary is a superb model for us of what it means to participate in this kingdom.  In a very significant sense we can say that no one has ever been closer, more intimate with Jesus than Mary.  There is no human being who has a more rightful claim to being in the inner-most circle with Jesus than his own mother, no one who can presume to know Jesus better.  Yet when lowly shepherds who know nothing of her or her family or her new born boy show up uninvited in her first intimate moments with her son, she does not shew them away but listens to the message they claim was spoken by angels and treasures up their words, pondering them in her heart.

Of course, most churches today don't shew away visitors.  But many do a pretty good job of letting them know where they stand.  We greet people with an enthusiastic welcome, inviting them back next week and all is great until they do something a little different that intrudes on our intimate time with Jesus and changes what has made this place comfortable for us.  Then we let them know (often subtly and unintentionally but sometimes bluntly) that this this is our church, that we are the ones who know how things are done around here, that we are the ones with the gospel answers, and they can conform or leave.  What if instead we recognized that Jesus wants us to make room for them (which may make things a little less comfortable for us) just as Jesus made room for us?  What if we considered that they might be able to tell us something about Jesus just as those shepherds did for Mary?  Maybe rather than seeing them as intruding on our intimate time with Jesus we could treasure them, not merely as an addition to our church but as people, and ponder what it is that Jesus might be teaching us through them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Unanswered Questions

Psalm 89 begins with the words of a cheery tune we sang often in the church I attended growing up.
"I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever, I will sing.... and with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations."  
Those words are basically the whole song.  It was a simple and upbeat chorus that led us in praising God for all the ways he had blessed our lives and the life of our church.  Although it begins with these same words, Psalm 89 is really anything but simple and upbeat.  It is actually one of the longest and most sobering of all the Psalms.

The first 37 verses of the Psalm continue with these words of praise.  V. 3-4 celebrate the covenant that God has made with David while v.5-18 praise Yahweh as the Lord of nature and history.  God is declared to be great both by the heavens and earth he has created as well as by his faithfulness to the people of Israel.  Then in v. 19, the Psalmist returns again specifically to God's covenant with David.  He recalls the promise that God has made to Israel through David that one of David's descendants will always be on Israel's throne (v.29, 2 Samuel 7).  But in v.38, the Psalm takes a dark turn.
"But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed."  
The following verses go on to describe the king's crown being defiled in the dust and the city walls laying in ruins.  Israel's foes are exalted while Israel itself is scorned and plundered.  V. 46 asks the oft repeated question of the Psalms:
"How long, O Lord?  Will you hide your face forever?  How long will your wrath burn like fire?"
It is very likely that this Psalm refers to the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem and the removal of the Davidic king of Israel that results.  This is a time when the people of Israel would have suffered military defeat and the political powerlessness and economic exploitation that would naturally accompany such a defeat.  But Psalm 89 makes clear that this was more than just a political or economic problem; it was a theological one.

The deposing of the Davidic king was a theological problem for Israel because it directly contradicted the promise of God that a descendant of David would always sit on Israel's throne.  This in turn seemed to leave Israel with limited options in its beliefs about Yahweh; either God was powerless against the might of the Babylonians or God simply didn't bother to keep his promises.

I imagine that most of us have faced similar circumstances; perhaps not the invasion of an army and the destruction of our city but nonetheless circumstances that cause us to wonder what God is up to.  We pray and pray and nothing happens and we wonder aloud to God "Are you incompetent or do you just not care about me?  Are you hiding from me, God?  How long will this go on?"  Sometimes we even try to soothe ourselves with simple answers like "God has a plan" or "God is testing me".  There can be a degree of truth in those statements but part of what is interesting about Psalm 89 is that it doesn't offer any answers.  This Psalm ends with a series of unanswered questions and cries for God to remember his people.

Is there room in our faith for unanswered questions?  As I think about our gospel reading for next Sunday, I have to imagine that Mary had a few unanswered questions after her angelic visitation.  She did, of course, have one question answered:  "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"... yet another instance of God's promise seeming to contradict current reality.  Gabriel responds that the Holy Spirit will come upon her.  To me, at least, that seems like the kind of answer that only leads to a lot more questions.

Of course, we know how the story goes.  We know that Mary will give birth and that Jesus will minister, be crucified, and resurrected.  So the temptation for us is to have all the answers, to skip ahead and say everything all at once.  It is, after all, a story worth telling.  But what if the waiting for the story to unfold is a critical part of the story?  What if by rushing to the end with all our reasons and explanations we've actually failed to hear the story rightly?  What if we left church this Sunday recognizing that most of our lives don't fit into neat pre-packaged answers and instead realized how often we find ourselves in Mary's position; finding our faith in the midst of unanswered questions, clinging to the promise that in all of our uncertainty the power of the Most High will overshadow us.