Monday, December 21, 2015

Mercy, Joy, Hope

Our readings today remind us of the importance of Mary the God-bearer in the unfolding of salvation history.  This “lowly servant” from Bethlehem, “one of the little clans of Judah,” expresses in her person and in her song the central thematic arc of Scripture: God will be faithful to God’s promise to bring the creation to its fulfillment.  She consents to participate in the realization of this promise, and in so doing she brings new life into the world.  This new life fills her – and all who are willing to receive Jesus – with joy.

What is striking to me about Mary is her very ordinariness.  She is a young peasant girl from the backwater of the Roman Empire.  There is nothing in her pedigree or social location that would single her out as remarkable or especially suited to bringing God’s promise to life.  Yet, her very ordinariness is the marker of continuity between her and the previous history of salvation. 

God always seems to work in unexpected ways.  King David also came from the little clan of Judah, and was the youngest and smallest of his brothers.  Israel itself was constituted by runaway slaves – Hebrews who fled Egypt – and was a tiny, inconsequential nation continually buffeted and absorbed by larger imperial powers:  Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman.  God chooses what is ordinary in this world to give expression to God’s power.   That power is love and it takes the form of justice.  And so it is the little ones, the victims of coercive violence, the expendable people, who realize God’s promise through nonviolent, creative responses to injustice.  It is those who serve life in the midst of death who show us the face of God. 

So it is with Mary, and with Elizabeth.  Their relationship is a microcosm of the kingdom of God coming with power into the world of oppression and death.  Luke is careful in his narrative to remind us that the new life these women are bearing will be born in the context of a cruel empire, an occupying power.  He is very intentionally drawing our attention away from the centers of command and control, from the “deciders,” the purveyors of death and destruction, so that we might focus instead on the place where life truly is nurtured. 

Luke is reminding us where the signs of God’s presence are found: Not in imperial palaces; not in legions conquering foreign lands with shock and awe; not in coliseums where violent spectacles pacify the masses and glorify the wealth of the patrons who sponsor them.  God’s presence is found in the bodies of ordinary women: one barely old enough even to bear children, the other already considered old in her late twenties.  God’s presence is found in their willingness to risk the struggle to give birth in a world where death is easy and life is cheap.  God’s presence is found in their understanding of their own value, and their indefatigable hope for their children, and for the world. It is here, through them, that God is coming into the world with power.

That power is merciful, it is joyful, and it is hopeful.  It is interesting that in her distress as an unmarried girl with an unplanned pregnancy, Mary hurries to her cousin, Elizabeth: not to Joseph and not to her parents; but to the one person who will embrace her with mercy rather than judgment, to one who will sympathize with her situation and affirm that God is at work in it.  Mary turns to Elizabeth, because she sees the life Mary carries as God’s gift rather than a source of shame.  Here, God’s power already is at work in this simple act of mercy.

Notice, too, that there is no rivalry between these women.  Elizabeth might have resented Mary’s intrusion into her celebration of a pregnancy she had long desired and thought she would never enjoy.  She might have seen Mary as trying to one-up her, to throw her youthful fecundity into the face of Elizabeth’s belated fruitfulness, to steal her thunder.  There is something very powerful in the simple act of taking joy in another’s good fortune, not to mention the power in affirming the good in what others might see as bad or, at the very least, ambiguous.  Elizabeth doesn’t just offer mercy; she rejoices with Mary!  She is filled with the Holy Spirit!  God’s power is manifest in joy.

This is the joy of Miriam leading the people of Israel in the dancing after they escaped from Pharoah’s army.  It is the joy of Hannah who sang praises to God when her own barrenness gave way to the birth of Samuel.  It is the joy of David who danced with wild abandon – naked, no less – before the Ark of the Covenant!   
God’s power is manifest not only as mercy, condescending to offer favor from on high as from a distance; but also as joy, in the intimacy of one who had come close to us and delights in us, who overshadows us with the Holy Spirit.

And so Mary can not help but burst into song herself.  Her song is a song of hope.  Just as Mary has experienced God’s power as a merciful and joyful Presence, without and trace of rivalry or resentment, so she sings of the hope for a world in which the rivalry and resentment between oppressor and oppressed, rich and poor, majority culture and minority culture, will be no more.  The rivalry which leads to domination and death will give way to the promise of abundant life.   Mary is able to sing of hope, because she trusts that her experience of God, coming into the world with power in her own life, in her own body, in mercy and joy, desires that same mercy and joy for the whole world. 

We are all God-bearers in this season of Advent.  God is coming with power in our own lives, our own bodies.  Coming to those of us who are ordinary.  Coming to those of us whose lives have been barren.  Coming to us in our poverty, our hunger, and even in our humiliation.  Coming, so it may seem, either too soon or much later than we wished, but coming nevertheless.   And when God comes, we will discover infinite mercy.  Joy unspeakable.  And hope for the world. 

From Mary's sweet silence
Come, Word mutely spoken!
Pledge of our real life,
Come, Bread yet unbroken!
Seed of the Golden Wheat,
In us be sown.
Fullness of true Light,
Through us be known.
Secret held tenderly,
Guarded with Love,
Cradled in purity,
Child of the Dove,
-       Advent Antiphons - Sr. M. Charlita, I.H.M.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Not One More

Sermon for Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath
December 13th, 2015, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco
by the Reverend Ayanna Moore

This morning, we are one beloved community, joined in solidarity with people of faith, and people of good will all over this city and our nation to participate in National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath. 

I invite you to raise your hand if you long for a day when not one more person will be lost to gun violence in San Francisco.  You see, for people of faith, and people of good will, Advent is about longing--longing in the dark of winter for what we cannot see, but for what we KNOW is coming. 

I long for a day when not one more child, adult, or group of people die in San Francisco and in our nation at the hands holding a gun. The scourge of gun violence has touched me up close and very personally. My uncle died from gun violence. Like some at St. James, he was a veteran. Like many of you at St. James, he served for years as a public servant--and also like many of you-- when he retired, he had such a strong work ethic that he became an entrepreneur. He built his own limousine service.  One night, before he picked up his last fare, he called my aunt. " Honey, I have one more pick up, and then I'll be home."  He never made it home. He was killed by an unknown assailant with a gun.  The lives of my aunt and my cousins were irrevocably changed. 

The scourge of gun violence has also touched me professionally.  I can't get away from it. In the past 3 years, I've served San Francisco's children and families traumatized by gun violence. Children in the Bayview, children in the Mission, and yes-- children in middle and upper class neighborhoods like the Richmond and lower Pacific Heights. 

Do you know, my friends--what it's like-- to lead a children's grief group-- some of whom have lost relatives to gun violence? To watch a child work through the trauma of living in a gun-violent neighborhood? Or what it's like to try to support Millennials scared to go to work 
serving this city because almost every few days there is a shooting from gun violence? 

My friends, do you hear the cries of high school students who protested the death of Mario Woods at City Hall-- one of them saying " we're scared..." 

Yet...on this Third Sunday of Advent, we light the pink candle. It represents joy. 

It is hard--to trust and not be afraid, as the prophet Isaiah says to us this morning-- when we've been flooded 24/7 with images of the gun violence which took the life of Mario Woods; the faces of the victims of San Bernardino-- all public servants. 

It is hard-- as we hear the words of Zephaniah to " sing and rejoice and exalt with all our hearts," as we watch media reports of a deluge of Bay Area residents of all races--Black, White, Asian, Latino-- rushing to buy guns, even assault weapons.  Fueled by fear, there is a knee-jerk reaction that the only way to stay safe is to pick up and buy a gun. 

In Luke, that wild man of the wilderness-- John the Baptist-- boldly calls out those hiding behind their identity as descendants of Abraham. I don't know about you, but my impulse is to turn away from images of " brood of vipers" and scripture with metaphors of " being thrown into the fire."  John the Baptist comes across as downright mean-- even punitive. But, maybe we can move through that to see that John is simply " afflicting the comfortable"--much the way protests to end the gun violence in San Francisco may afflict our faith, and our moral conscience-- yours and mine --and the moral compass of our city leaders and those in blue uniforms who take an oath to serve and protect. 

John the Baptist was a truth-teller. He says that it's not blood ancestry that identifies a person or a community as beloved people of God.  He boldly says that beloved people of God are those who live out their faith in action by how we treat one another. By sharing our resources. And those who have the most bear good fruit by sharing with those who have the least. 

Preparing for the Christ means turning away from what is life-denying-- gun violence.  It's not enough, John says --to rest in the comfort of rituals -- or to stay in our comfort zone.  I don't know about you, but I need truth- tellers who care enough about me to " afflict my comfort level". Who call me out-- gently-- when my behavior doesn't line up with my faith. Truth- tellers call us to be our best selves in service to the most vulnerable in our community.  To let go of our self- interest and self- preservation to seek and DO what is best for the common good.

The Reverend Diane Weible, Conference Minister for my denomination the United Church of Christ, joins with Bishop Marc Andrus in issuing a call to me to join with St. James and  all people of faith and good will to embody faith in action  to end gun violence to usher in peace and justice. 

St. James, there ARE actions we can take together to birth anew the light of Christ and peace. 

Write our mayor, asking him to take action to end gun violence. Call your Congress leaders letting them know you support background checks for all gun purchases. Peacefully join in prayer vigils protesting the death of young men by gun violence. 

My friends, dare to imagine a San Francisco where one day not one more person dies from gun violence. We CAN be joyful, as Isaiah calls us to be. We CAN sing because of what is to come but is not yet-- a city of reconciliation and peace.  A city where not one more mother's son like Mario Woods dies from gun violence - where not one more father's daughter, like Kate Steinle, dies from gun violence. A nation where not one more group of good people at a Bible Study die from hatred and gun violence and not one more group of public servants lose their lives to automatic weapons. 

We CAN, --as St. Paul urges us-- " let our requests be known to God" and let go of anxiety and violence to reach across our differences to build a city and nation of peace. 

We CAN. We WILL-- together. We MUST. Because the Christ is in our midst. Christ is ready to walk beside us to re-imagine and rebuild our city and our nation into a place where not one more life is lost from the violence of a gun.  May it be so.  Amen. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Get Ready For The Light

In his book, The Mystery of Christ, Father Thomas Keating writes that “The principal purpose of all liturgy, prayer and ritual is to bring us into awareness of [Christ’s] interior Presence and union with us.”[i]  In the Church’s liturgy, this Presence is communicated by three dominant metaphors:  Light, Life, and Love.  In the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany Cycle the focus is on “Light.”  In the Lent-Easter-Ascension Cycle the focus is on “Life.”  In the Season of Pentecost the focus is on “Love.”  In Keating’s words, “As the divine light grows brighter, it reveals what it contains, that is, divine life, and divine life reveals that the Ultimate Reality is love.”[ii]

Advent is the time to prepare for the renewed coming of the Light of Christ into the world through us.  So, how do we get ready?  How do we allow the Light within and around us to illuminate the world?

Our Scripture readings offer some timely clues.  To begin, we have to remove the cover of darkness that obscures the Light.  The prophet Baruch instructs the people of Israel living in the darkness of exile: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”[iii] We indeed can wear our suffering like a cloak, pulling it up over our heads such that we can no longer see the Light shining in the darkness. 

How easily our grief can come to define us, narrowing our perception of reality to what we can see through the narrow lens of loss!  We are still collectively in shock over the terrorist attack in San Bernardino earlier this week.  The senseless murder of fourteen people – many of them social workers committed to serving people with disabilities – is heart-breaking.  That such action could be done in the name of religion is maddening. 

Already we are hearing the drums of war, calls for the closure of Mosques, anti-Muslim rhetoric, and even the creation of a registry and monitoring off Muslim citizens.  Our sorrow and anger are legitimate, but if we wrap ourselves in it too tightly, our vision will become warped by the lens of fear.  Fear will define us, leading to either the paralysis of despair or violent reactivity.  Eventually, we have to remove the garment of sorrow and affliction and refuse the identity of victims, embracing instead the beauty of the glory of God that shines through us.  We must allow the Light to shine through the cracks, so that we can claim our true identity, the name that God desires to give us: “Just Peace, Godly Glory.”[iv] 

Here, what is required is a deep and abiding trust in God’s promise: “God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that comes from him.”[v]  Don’t let the garment of sorrow and affliction rob us of joy!  It is only in the Light that we can see the mercy and justice of God that heals our wounds and secures our joy.  Get ready for the Light!

John the Baptist, like all the prophets, also reminds us that getting ready for the Light requires repentance.  Repentance can seem scary.  Trusting God’s promise gives us the courage to do the work of personal and cultural transformation necessary to become transparent to the Light.   This work is deeper than just saying “I’m sorry.”  It has to do with uprooting the cultural programming we have internalized, letting go of the prepackaged value systems and preconceived ideas that confuse lesser lights with the glory of God.  “Repentance” literally means to get a new mind.  Getting ready for the coming of the Light requires us to change our minds, individually and collectively.

In light of recent events, I can’t help but think especially of the glorification of violence in our culture and the way we have internalized it, made it seem normal.  The kind of terror unleased in San Bernardino is not qualitatively different from that unleashed at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs or at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston.  It results from a similar scapegoating dynamic:  demonizing those who are different from us through a violent rhetoric of hate promulgated through social media and other venues, claiming a false sense of righteousness justifying violence, and enacting a racist, sexist, and nativist narrative of divine retribution. 

Just yesterday, the New York Times noted that since 2001, 45 Americans have been killed by radical Islamic terrorist violence on U.S. soil, while during that same time 48 Americans were killed by right-wing, White Supremacist terrorists.[vi]  The culture of violence isn’t just a foreign import.  It is made in America too.

We don’t like to hear this, but the events in San Bernardino are the mirror image of our own society’s shadow side.  When we repent of our violence and trust the power of forgiveness to make the world new, then “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[vii]  Get ready for the Light!

A spiritual practice is essential to this work of personal and communal transformation.  St. Paul provides us with the example of “constantly praying with joy . . . that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best . . .  having produced the harvest of justice.”[viii]  Prayer and meditation cleanse the lens of perception so that we can see and act in the Light.  Praying for the realization of the Light in others helps us to let go of selfish preoccupations and attend to the healing of the world.  Setting our desire on overflowing love and action based on spiritual insight is joyful work!

David Nicol calls this spiritual practice “subtle activism.” “Just as personal inner work requires making contact with our deeper nature [which Christians name “Christ”] by stilling the more superficial layers of our personality and working through the limiting beliefs and behavioral patterns we have inherited through our personal histories, so too collective transformation requires realization of our collective identity [as the Body of Christ] and making conscious the wounds and limiting beliefs of our collective history.”[ix]  Prayer and meditation help us to see clearly and act wisely.  They unite intention and action informed by truth and love.  They help us get ready for the Light!

What might such a collective practice of getting ready for the Light look like?  Consider the example of Sri Lanka, a nation that was torn apart by a bitter civil war in which some 100,000 people died.  On March 15, 2002, more than 600,000 Sri Lankans came from every part of the country to the sacred city of Anuradhapura to participate in the world’s largest peace meditation.  After a few brief spoken prayers by representatives of various religions, the massive crowd was guided into a simple mindful breathing meditation.  For one hour, more than half a million people settled into deep, silent, stillness. 

Joanna Macy, an American peace activist who participated in the event, called it “the biggest silence I ever heard . . . This is the sound of bombs and landmines not exploding, of rockets not launched, of machine guns laid aside.  This is possible.”[x]  It would be seven more years before the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka.  But it wasn’t too soon to get ready for the coming of the Light.

The Light that came into the world is still coming.  This is a great Mystery.  It is the Mystery of Christ in us, already here, waiting to illuminate the world through us.  Cast off the garment of sorrow!  Change your mind!  Engage the deep, joyful work of transformation!  Get ready for the Light!  Amen!

[i] Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ: The Liturgy as Christian Experience (Rockport, MA: Element Inc., 1991), p. 17.
[ii] Keating, p. 16.
[iii] Baruch 5:1.
[iv] Baruch 5:4.
[v] Baruch 5:9.
[vi] Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt, “California Attack Has U.S. Rethinking Strategy on Homegrown Terror,” The New York Times, December 5, 2015.
[vii] Luke 3:6.
[viii] Philippians 1:9-11.
[ix] David Nicol, “Subtle Activism: Applying Spiritual Power for Social Change,” Tikkun Online Magazine.
[x] Nicol, Ibid.