Saturday, December 17, 2011

Occupy Bethlehem?

 Luke 1:46b-55

The Occupy Movement was born in September. Rather quietly it entered into our news. No one expected it to amount to much. It was just an interesting news story about a bunch of people camped out in a small park between Wall Street and the World Trade Center site.

It had no manifesto, no creed, just signs about economic justice that appealed to the poor and oppressed. And they had a slogan that caught on, “We are the 99%”.
. . .
Only a few people expected Jesus to amount to much after he quietly entered into a simple family that had overcome the scandal of a pregnancy before the wedding. He ended up being born in very simple circumstances, camping out in a stable. The slogan that surrounded his birth gave hope to the poor and oppressed too. “Peace on earth, good will to all.”
We’d have to strain to find any more similarities between the birth of the Occupy movement and the birth of the Savior and still I wonder, “If Jesus occupied Bethlehem?”

In both cases the news traveled unexpectedly fast. Carried by Twitter posts or Angel song. Simple people felt compelled to go see for themselves what kind of new thing was being born.
The crowd at Zuccotti Park in NY swelled as people, frustrated with jobs or the lack of one went down to the park. Some drove into the city because they were fed-up with the 1% holding the wealth and strings of power. They wanted to make a statement. The middle class of all ages, the young and the curious came to ‘occupy’ Wall Street.

In Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph were probably glad for a bit of privacy as her time drew near. But they didn’t stay alone for long. Certainly the word of a new baby spread through the guests staying nearby and some came to welcome new life or because they were curious. The shepherds swelled the crowd in the stable still hearing angel song in their ears and strangely already knowing that a baby had been born and what he would look like. Soon the little place of solace became a center of rejoicing; a new baby was occupying a manger.

All this would come months after Mary’s poetic prophetic outburst. The words of her ‘song’ have a political edge, but are not quite a manifesto for a movement.[i] Did she somehow foresee that her son would occupy her town, and others throughout Israel and because of the Spirit’s Movement he would occupy and save the world?

….Perhaps in Mary’s special moment, connected to Elizabeth and feeling the presence of the HS touching her cousin and the babes in their wombs, Mary got a glimpse beyond her circumstance. Maybe, just for a minute, she could zoom out and see the larger picture of the protest God was inaugurating in their troubled world. .

The occupy movement has been criticized for not having a vision or demands. But if we zoom out for a moment we see the picture that Time magazine so eloquently paints this week. Protest is the movement of the moment in the world!

Beginning last January, Time magazine details 27 different flash points of protest around the world. What began in frustration is resulting in dramatic change. In Tunisia, the president ended 23 years in power following protest that began with a young man setting himself on fire in frustration. In Egypt President Mubarak resigned. In Yemen the President made a deal to end his 33 year reign.
            Mary’s words echoed in my head as I read the article and wondered if the lofty are being brought low?

There are a diversity of settings and a multitude of reasons that spark protest. Some places have seen great violence. In Syria crackdowns persist while in Jordan and Burma, peaceful protests ruled the day.

There’s been civil war in Libya and camping-in protestors across Spain that helped inspire the occupiers in the US. From Iraq to Greece to Tibet, people are rising up against corruption, rebelling against oppression, reaching out for democracy, and risking their lives and lively-hoods to stand up for positive change.

Time Mag, named the ‘protestor’ the person of the year. Saying, “All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries’ political systems and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt—sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change.” And [people] pine for some third way, a new social contract.”[ii]

Anderson wrote in Time, “Rising expectations that go unfulfilled are sociology’s classic explanation for protest.” Just this week, CBS News reported “Nearly 1 in 2 in the US have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.” The latest census data depict a middle class (here) that is shrinking as unemployment stays high and the government’s safety net frays”[iii] 

 One recent protestor, Mr. Anna Hazare, who protested corruption in India with hunger strikes, said, “When God wants to bring in change, he needs a vehicle of change, and I became that vehicle.”

Mary was a vehicle for change. She carried the One who would effect God’s salvation in her body. And even before she knew any thing about her son, a part of her could rejoice at what was coming to be in God’s own way of protesting the ways of the world.

Stirring within Mary was a future vision. She understood the blessing that was hers and that would be for all people.
She spoke of what SHOULD be, that
Respect and honor are rewarded
That God’s strength is active and recognized in the world.
She names reversals, great reversals where
The proud are scattered
The powerful brought down off their thrones
Even the lowly are lifted up, (perhaps she was including herself?) She names the disgrace of inequity and says wrong will be turned – right-side-up when
The hungry are filled with good things
And the are rich sent away empty – I wonder if Jesus was echoing his mother’s words in the “Beatitudes” when he said “Blessed are the Poor. . .for the rich have already received their rewards.”

Most of all Mary affirms that God keeps God’s covenant promises toward God’s people.
In this special moment Mary is given the gift of perspective – she can see what God is doing for the troubled world.

But she uses the language of what has already been done.
Mary speaks the promise of what will be done, in the language of what has already been accomplished.

Only she can speak about the new thing already taking place, because it is taking place in her. In the very moment of her song all the promises of God are coming to pass.
. .
Maybe Mary could see what God was about, but we struggle with 2,000 years of history since Jesus was born.
Has life changed since Mary’s day?
            Empires change; they rise and fall.  And democracies come into being, but
have the proud been scattered? Aren’t we talking about the 1%?

Are not the ‘Powers That Be’ still firmly in place?- - -controlling govt. with their influence,
markets with their money, and commanding those who wield pepper spray on the crowds that protest oppression?  In what way are any of Mary's statements are true?

Mary’s song of reversals has a political edge. What is Good news for the poor, if enacted- might be bad news for those currently wielding power.[iv] 
I was reminded that Mary's statement about God's righteousness and action on behalf of oppressed keeps us from inappropriately spiritualizing the gospel msg.[v]

Michael Kinnamon of the NCC spoke in DC recently,
“If we look for God only in spiritual things,
  if we speak about God’s presence as something that is only in our hearts,
  if we teach that God’s promise has only to do with heaven, then we may overlook God altogether.
Because the God we know and worship was born in a cave where animals were kept—the child of poor, Jewish peasants—threatened by a king who saw in him the seed of political revolution (Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 2:1-18).
“Christmas,” writes one theologian (Shirley Guthrie), “is the story of the radical invasion of God into the kind of real world where we live all year long—a world where there is political unrest and injustice, poverty, hatred, jealousy, and both the fear and longing that things could be different.”[vi]

God cares about injustice, oppression, and hunger ravaging his people. When righting these wrongs means overturning the ‘Powers That Be,’ God may work among the protestors to occupy places of change.
But no protest movement alone can bring God’s Kingdom to reality.
No movement however well purposed...”no matter how noble, [can] inaugurate the reign of God.”[vii]
Only Jesus brings the Reign of God. (because God occupies Jesus)

Jesus proclaimed a loving, caring God whose Reign is now, was then, and will be tomorrow.
In God’s time justice has already happened.
We are the ones living in a time warp, where we can’t see it yet.
We are the ones who need the spirit-touched vision of Mary, so we can occupy what God has already made possible.

Confused about my verb tenses?
It’s because we live a linear time line where cause and effect rule the day, while God is not limited by time or human definitions of what is ‘right’ (& possible).

- In God's world you can give everything you have away and secure the brightest possible future for yourself.
- In God's reign, transgressions are forgiven, and sinners welcomed to dine with Jesus.
- In this kingdom we can satisfy the hungry with good things and trust that we won’t go without. We can relinquish all power, rejoicing in what doesn’t make a profit.

Because of the Jesus movement, we can LIVE in what has already begun, even when we can’t always see it.
It all begins right here – with us.

Once WE have been occupied, we can speak of the one
who WAS, who IS, and who IS TO COME.
When Jesus occupies us, then all the joy of Christmas is ours, and the gift of God's reversals can be embraced, not feared.

When we are occupied, we see like Mary that justice is possible,-- in fact already begun... No One gets left behind.

We are ALL God's - 100%!

....What began then in MARY - begins again right now when Jesus Occupies US and enters in – again - to our world.

[i] Andrew Purves Feasting On The Word, Yr A Theological Bartlett and Taylor, eds. (Louisville: WJK, 2008) 82
[ii] Kurt Anderson The Protestor Time Magazine Dec. 26, 2011
[iii] CBS News Dec. 15, 2011Wash. DC based on census data
[iv] Purves ibid 82
[v] Purves ibid 84
[vi] Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon on Why Christians Should Be Particularly Aware of Poverty and Justice Issues at Christmastime. (Delivered at the Faithful Budget Prayer Vigil on Capitol Hill - December 13, 2011)
[vii] Purves, Feasting p 82


Purple said...

Nancy, such grace, beauty, and power in this sermon. Thank you for sharing it.

May I quote this part:
Stirring within Mary was a future vision. She understood the blessing that was hers and that would be for all people.
She spoke of what SHOULD be, that
Respect and honor are rewarded
That God’s strength is active and recognized in the world.
She names reversals, great reversals where
The proud are scattered
The powerful brought down off their thrones
Even the lowly are lifted up, (perhaps she was including herself?) She names the disgrace of inequity and says wrong will be turned – right-side-up when
The hungry are filled with good things
And the are rich sent away empty

Many thanks.

ramona said...

Wonderful how you catch the mood of the times and current events. I'm always so afraid to try that, thinking I'll sound too political for my politically conservative congregaiton. But you did it so beautifully and gracefully, putting God's reign out there without sounding partisan.

Sharon said...

I was especially captivated by the "vehicle of change" that is both Mary and the protester.

I definitely thought the sermon was political, in the best sense of that word, and I think you make a case that the arrival of Jesus was a truly political event.

Thank you, Nancy!

Terri said...

Really wonderful sermon. If I were not so tired I woukd rewrite portions of mine and quote you...alas, mine will eed to suffice as the tidbit of reflection that it is...maybem though, I will tap into this for my Christmas sermon?

Rev Nancy Fitz said...

Thank you all for the comments. I've edited it to smooth things out. Please use anything that is useful.