Revelation 7:9-17 – John’s apocalyptic vision of white-robed martyrs standing before the throne and the Lamb, along with the angels, the elders and the four creatures. They hunger no more, nor thirst (Isaiah 49:10). The sun does not strike them nor heat (Psalm 121:6). God wipes away every tear (Isaiah 25:8). ELW 422, 423,
Psalm 34:1-10, 22 – I will bless the Lord at all times… I sought the Lord and he answered me… Taste and see that the Lord is good. ELW 493
1 John 3:1-3 – See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God…
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Alleluia. They are before the | throne of God, and the one who is seated on the throne will | shelter them. Alleluia. (Rev. 7:15)
The first Sunday in November in our congregations is All Saints Sunday. It is traditional to remember the saints of the congregation who have passed away in the last year. Often a pillar candle is lit on a retable, or on the altar as their names are read. Many congregations also invite members to come forward and light candle in remembrance of loved ones.
While many use the white votive candles in glass cups, as in the picture above from Grace, Conroe, even in the best of circumstances, paraffin wax finds its way on the table, floors and pews, as during Christmas. There is another option. A St. Gregory Palamas Greek Orthodox Monastery in Perrysville, Ohio makes beeswax candles. You can purchase a pack of 50 for $16.50. They can be lit and places in small boxes or jars of sand. The link is here: http://sgpm.goarch.org/Monastery/?p=389
My post this week is a bit different. Rather than digging into the text, I’m offering a guided meditation that can be used. I don’t do this for sermons often, but All Saints seemed like a good time to offer a guided meditation. This meditation is simply a series of questions that invite worshippers to reflect on the saints in their lives.
Who are Your Saints?
Who are your saints?
Who went before you?
Who were the looming giants of your childhood?
Who held your hand?
Who taught you to walk?
Who cupped your cheeks in their hands and kissed your face?
Who picked you up when you fell down and bandaged your hurts?
Who are your saints?
Who taught you to pray?
Who taught you right from wrong?
Who brought you to the baptismal font?
Who placed a Bible in your hands?
Who first taught you the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”
Who first taught you, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me…?”
Who taught you to see flowers and trees not as things, but as beautiful mysteries?
Who taught you to see majesty in clouds, and sunsets and oceans?
Who taught you to soak up the rainy days?
Who taught you kindness to strangers?
Who taught you to love your enemies?
Who taught you not to judge others, or look down your nose at others?
Who taught you that it is better to give than to receive?
Who taught you to love your neighbor as yourself?
Who taught you to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and in prison?
Who taught you to care for those who are hungry, broken, lonely?
Who taught you that Jesus was the reflection of the immortal God?
Who are your saints?
Who taught you to love?
Who taught you to give of yourself, in order to discover what life was about?
Who taught you the virtue of self-sacrifice?
Who introduced you to the God that lurks beneath the surface of life?
Who taught you that life is more than just a sequence of events?
Who taught you there was more to life than going to work, and accumulating wealth and things?
Who taught you it was okay to fail? That falling down is a part of life?
Who taught you to get up, dust yourself off, and get back on the horse?
Who are your saints? Light a candle.
Who taught you to do what you love?
Who helped you discover your true gifts in life, and develop them?
Who loved you when you could not love yourself?
Who showed you grace and forgiveness you did not deserve?
Who taught you to forgive, and let go of grudges?
Who believed in you when you did not believe in yourself?
Who are your saints?
Who taught you to hope beyond this life?
Who taught you that there is more to life than meets the eye?
Who taught you to imagine what lies beyond the veil, around the bend where you cannot see?
Who waits for you beyond the grave?
Who whispers to you in your dreams, and in your prayers?
These are the ones we remember today.
These are the ones for whom we light our candles.
The communion of saints, who wait for us on a distant shore we cannot see over the horizon.
The multitude of apostles, prophets, martyrs and saints.
Even the flawed, deeply flawed saints.
So let us say our prayers and light our candles.
For the saints we remember.
For the saints that we barely remember, from times that are only a misty memory.
And the saints that we cannot remember at all.
For those we knew, and those we never knew, countless generations before us.
For those who loved, before our parents were alive, whose love brought us into being.
For those who wait for us with joy.
Who from their labors rest.
And let us look once again with the eyes of a child.
At a world of mystery that is larger than life.
Larger than we can imagine.
Higher than we can reach.
Deeper than we can see.
And let us live in the hope,
Of one day being reunited with those whom we love.
On that day when we awaken.
Like babies, being born again, opening our eyes for the first time.
Taking our first breath, in a world we cannot begin to understand.
Embraced and loved by those whom we can almost see, as through a mirror dimly.
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. – John 17:20-21
I think then that the one goal of all who are really and truly serving the Lord ought to be to bring back to union the churches which have at different times and in diverse manners divided from one another. – St. Basil the Great (330 – 379), Letter 114
Lutherans and Catholic commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in a spirit of humility in 2017. The Gulf Coast Synod held services in Houston and New Orleans, with our counterparts in the Roman Catholic Church. In New Orleans, Archbishop Gregory Aymond graciously hosted the service at the St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. Additionally, the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge sponsored a dialog at St. George’s Catholic Church in Baton Rouge. At the very bottom of this post I have some 2014-2016 articles from the Clarion over the years prior to the 500th anniversary in 2017.
October 23, 2017 – St. Louis Cathedral
October 24, 2017 – Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge
I was a bit too busy to get good pictures of the Dialog group, but it was well attended. I did get some lovely pictures of Saint George’s worship space below.
Revelation 7:9-17 – John’s apocalyptic vision of white-robed martyrs standing before the throne and the Lamb, along with the angels, the elders and the four creatures. They hunger no more, nor thirst (Isaiah 49:10). The sun does not strike them nor heat (Psalm 121:6). God wipes away every tear (Isaiah 25:8). ELW 422, 423,
Psalm 34:1-10, 22 – I will bless the Lord at all times… I sought the Lord and he answered me… Taste and see that the Lord is good. ELW 493
1 John 3:1-3 – See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God…
Prayer of the Day Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Gospel Acclamation Alleluia. They are before the | throne of God, and the one who is seated on the throne will | shelter them. Alleluia. (Rev. 7:15)
Note: Daylight Savings Time ends on this Sunday, November 1, 2020.
All Saints A
This is the first time in a long time that I recall All Saints Day falling on a Sunday. All Saints Day is November 1, but usually gets celebrated on the first Sunday in November.
It is traditional to remember the saints of the congregation who have passed away in the last year, often with a pillar candle on a retable, or on the altar, with a bell rung as their names are read. It is a way to remember those we lost in the past year. Many congregations also invite members to come forward and light a smaller votive candle in remembrance of other loved ones.
This may be particularly poignant this year for those who have lost loved ones in the pandemic. It seems like this can easily be done with appropriate social distancing if you are holding in-person worship. Be sure to have a way to space people out and provide a hand sanitizing station before and/or after the table. This could also be done in the parking lot that morning. It might be powerful as a vigil, the night before, in the dark.
While many use the white votive candles in glass cups, as in the picture here from Grace, Conroe, even in the best of circumstances, paraffin wax finds its way on the table, floors and pews, as during Christmas. There is another option. A St. Gregory Palamas Greek Orthodox Monastery in Perrysville, Ohio makes beeswax candles. You can purchase a pack of 50 for $16.50. They can be lit and places in small boxes or jars of sand. The link is here: http://sgpm.goarch.org/Monastery/?p=389
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 OR Isaiah 25:6-9 Psalm 24 Revelation 21:1-6a John 11:32-44
All Saints C
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 Psalm 149 Ephesians 1:11-23 Luke 6:20-31
This year (A), we have the Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel, the introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For those who would like to do a teaching-style sermon on the Beatitudes, I created a Beatitudes Study Placemat about ten years ago, that still provides a fun visual. You can find extensive treatment of the Beatitudes in my Epiphany 4A post.
A few years ago, I wrote a sermon for All Saints that consisted entirely of questions. No answers, just questions for people to ponder. It was a different, inductive way to preach. Feel free to beg, borrow and steal. Feel free to adapt this sermon to your purposes, without attribution: Who Are Your Saints?
Blessed are those who mourn
This year I’ve been pondering the way we hear the gospel and proclaim the gospel. What is the content of our gospel message to the world? For some, it is a turn-or-burn message. Others, proponents of the Prosperity Gospel tell us God wants to make us rich if we will only believe it. If you had faith you would not be poor. This is a seductive gospel if one happens to be rich. “See? I believed and it worked for me.” The Beatitudes cast a different vision.
This has led some liberation theologians to say a doctrine or message can’t be true if it doesn’t work in the most marginalized communities. If a message sounds ridiculous in a Central African Republic village living by laborious and time-consuming vocation of subsistence farming, it’s probably a gospel distorted by wealth. Even our more innocuous theological pronouncements, notable only for their virtual irrelevance to someone trying to survive on $2/day, like half the world, need to be jettisoned.
This means the gospel must be put through the pragmatic criteria of everyday life, locotidiano as Latin American theologians call it. If the gospel does not make sense to the groups of people mentioned in Jesus’ Beatitudes, it is not Gospel. It’s just our warped perspective, domesticated for a lifestyle devoid of the real problems of the world.
Those who are poor, poor in spirit, grieving, meek, humble, humiliated, those who are hungry, thirsty, hungry and thirsty for justice, they must teach us the gospel. They will help us discern what is missing from our gospel due our to cultural blindness. As mujerista theologian Ada Maria Asisi-Diaz says,
The point of view of the poor, . . . pierced by suffering and attracted by hope, allows them, in their struggles, to conceive another reality. Because the poor suffer the weight of alienation, they can conceive a different project of hope and provide dynamism to a new way of organizing human life for all.
Liberation theologians remind us that we all, all of us, rich and poor alike, read the Bible through our cultural lenses. We cannot help but interpret what we hear from our social location. This is why the Bible must be read together, not just privately, but in community, a very diverse community. If not, it will be distorted. This requires humility when interpreting Scripture. None of our interpretations are the last word.
When women read the Bible, they hear things men don’t. They notice the treatment of women. They notice the constant male imagery. They notice the paucity female role models. In 1983 Rosemary Radford Ruether came out with her book, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. My 1983 copy from a former millennium has a pencil mark next to this statement on page 19: “Theologically speaking, whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or a work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption.” Anything that diminishes women can’t be gospel, since gospel has as its focus “the flourishing of the human person.” (p. 19) If women had been part of theological deliberation all along, we would not have the level of women’s subordination that we have seen in the church historically, and still see today, often justified by religious doctrines and institutions.
When day laborers read stories about day laborers, they hear different things than their wealthy counterparts. An example can be drawn from the parable of the Prodigal Son. In a Bible study with middle class participants we read the story and I asked, “Why did the prodigal son go broke?” They all responded because of his immoral living, as if I had asked a stupid question. A Bible study group in Africa responded differently, “Because there was a famine in the land.” (Luke 15:14) The first group had missed this completely. In fact, the interpretation not only fell along lines of wealth, but also attitudes of wealth. Many upper income people believe the poor are poor because they are lazy or immoral. Those living in poverty see the many external forces outside their control (war, corruption, disaster, famine) that contribute to poverty among some of the hardest working people in the world.
A great resource is Robert McAfee Brown’s Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984). “Third World” is now passe. It should be called the “the two-thirds world” as Roman Catholic priest, Father Daniel Pilario, (2018) says.
Father Pilario describes (Pilario, 2018) discussions with his congregation that scour a garbage dump in Payatas, Philippines. Quezon City is the biggest garbage dump in Manila, where 45,000 live, scavenging food and items to sell for $5/day. The church’s insistence on obscure practices or abstract beliefs have little traction here. What aspects of our religious universe that we feel are so important, would melt away under scrutiny of the poor? You can watch Father Pilario’s lecture on YouTube.
But you don’t need to read these books. We need to interact with real people. There are plenty of people in need right here. How can we go to them and engage them in ways that don’t serve our membership needs, but rather bring us into their reality and illuminate us with their perspective? How can we gather with them, study with them and pray with them? All too often social ministry in our churches is sanitized charity, like dropping off canned beans at the church. We need a relationship that is mutually beneficial, not a faceless donation that salves our consciences and overlooks our blind spots. In my last parish, the game-changer was being in relationship the homeless. Once that happened, attitudes changed, myths dissolved and generosity increased.
Christianity at its heart is not a religious philosophy to be debated abstractly in the halls of academia. Christianity is a Way, as Pastor Don Carlson constantly reminds us. It was and is a way of life. Christian theology must constantly be in conversation with real life on the ground. They inform each other. Our theology is not truth. It is faith seeking understanding. As such, it is always emerging. Our way of understanding the truth, and speaking the truth is constantly growing. Theory, then practice, then theory, then practice, back and forth, over and over again. Anything else is scholastic theology. Pie in the sky. As Luther said in the 1518 Heidelberg Dissertation, “One deserves to be called a theologian… who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” (LW 31:52)
If we want to understand the Scriptures, if we want to understand the fullness of the Christian faith, if we want to understand the world, we will need to ponder both faith and life in diverse communities, of men and women, rich and poor, European, Asian, African, and American descent. This will take work. We will have to move beyond our homogeneous communities, building bridges, not for some top-down attempt to convert the other to our way of thinking, but to seek together a truth that holds true across in the real world of humanity. Often, the poor will not have access to the rich. The gates are too high. Those with wealth will have to move out of their comfort zone.
Now read the Beatitudes.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
For Jesus, the poor really are blessed, and a blessing, not because it is good to be poor. It’s not. It’s an affront to the gospel. Jesus teaches his followers to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Jesus is not elevating poverty as something to be desired. He’s recognizing that the reign of God means justice for all of us. That doesn’t happen without all of us coming together.
Until we bring together male and female, rich and poor, white and black (Gal. 3:28), the gospel will not make sense. Until we reach across those lines, our congregations will be culture clubs, united by a common set of blind spots. I know this because I’ve been there. I am there.
So, let us go find those who are mourning and pray with them. Go find those of a different race and study Scripture. Gather with those from other socio-economic levels. There is the reign of God. Listen to those of other genders. Welcome immigrants. Make a place for you and for your congregation to do this. Then, watch your eyes open, and the light dawn for all involved. You will be comforted and strengthened. You will see God. All will be filled.
Robert Mcafee Brown. 1984. Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, Cop.
Harold Grimm, ed. and Helmut T Lehmann, gen. ed. 1953. Luther’s Works vol. 31, The Life of the Reformer: Heidelberg Disputation. Philadelphia, Fortress Press
I’ve been learning about Latin@ faith and spirituality this month, through a class taught by Dr. Carmen Nanko-Fernández, and through a host of readings, some of which I will mention in this post, and others I will list at the bottom. I am learning as a married, male, Lutheran bishop of European descent, who has not been given the perspective of biculturality. I have much to learn. This is a first attempt to share and integrate my continued lifelong learning.
I say “Latin@” for lack of a better term, and also because this is the term most of the writers I’m reading are using. I am aware that the label is imposed as an expression of power. The term lumps together several dozen distinct cultures with roots in Latin America, that have the common experience of oppression and colonization by Spain. Latin America is a complex intersection of indigenous Americans, European invaders (Spain in this case), African slaves, and Asian immigrants. This reality has created an expression of Christianity that is unique, rich and complex. The realities of being Latin@ in the U.S. has further developed this unique expression.
Christianity is a way of life, that is lived within the context of culture. The way it is expressed and lived depends on that cultural context. Christianity has necessarily taken different forms in Jerusalem, Rome, China, Africa and Latin America. Symbols used in one place are unhelpful in others. The adaptability of the faith is part of its beauty.
Today is Columbus Day. In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He also committed genocide, tortured the indigenous peoples he encountered, and “gave” young women to his men. He enslaved human beings for God and country bringing them back to Spain without their consent. The atrocities are well documented, but in particular I commend to you Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Columbus.
In 1519, Hernán Cortés landed on the Yucatan Peninsula with 11 ships, 500 men and 13 horses. He claimed the land for Spain. He overwhelmed Tabasco and took 20 women as slaves as his bounty. One of them became his interpreter and bore him a son, who is considered to be the first mestizo. He marched on to Tenochtitlán, now known as Mexico City. He massacred thousands along the way.
The Aztecs were domineering rulers, so Cortés found support from vanquished locals to join his efforts. He tried many times to get a meeting with Moctezuma II, the ruler of the Aztec Empire, but was turned down. By the time he arrived, his ranks had swelled with 1,000 indigenous people who were either forced into service, or willing opponents of Moctezuma and Aztec hierarchy.
Tenochtitlán had an estimated 200,000-400,000 in habitants, making it one of the largest cities in the world, the same size as Paris at the time. London had 50,000. When Cortés arrived with his swelled ranks, Moctezuma reconsidered, letting them in the city gates, and hoping to assess their weaknesses. He fed and cared for Cortés and his men. When they asked for gold he said they didn’t have much, but he was welcome to it.
Cortés took Moctezuma prisoner in his own palace, then besieged the city. The battle is too complex to detail here. At one point 60 Spaniards were captured, sacrificed, and eaten. The Aztecs began to contract strange new diseases. In time the population was decimated, starved in the siege, Cortés and his men prevailed and Tenochtitán was leveled.
What happened next was remarkable in its audacity. With the conquest swift, brutal, decisive and complete, the conquerors set out to convert the natives to the Christianity God of love.
How does one convey the Christian faith to a people who are immersed in a completely different religious world of symbols and meaning, who speak a different language, and who write not in any European-known alphabet, but with pictographs?
The Aztec people were quite religious. Their faith was rich with personal and communal elements. It was a polytheistic faith, with a pantheon of gods, quite at odds with the monotheistic Christian faith. Both the Spaniards and the Aztecs agreed on one thing. Clearly, the Christian God was greater than the Aztec gods, otherwise, how could Cortés have possibly defeated such a great empire?
First of all, the main religious argument employed by the early evangelizers was the “conquering might” of the Christian God vis-à-vis the apparent inability of the Amerindian gods to save their worshipers from the Spaniards. (Espín, loc. 1118)
In order to convert the “savages,” the Spanish crown then sent Franciscan missionaries (and in time, Augustinians, Dominicans and Jesuits). Back in Spain, the crown had spent the last few centuries pushing out the Muslims and Jews. Additionally, they were hard at work rooting out any Lutheran or Calvinist heresy. While the Council of Trent would fall short of Lutheran hopes, its reforms were significant, and it also homogenized many older liturgies into one official liturgy.
These reforms did not reach across the Atlantic for the most part. Pre-Tridentine liturgical patterns had been set in place in the Americas prior to the Council of Trent. The Christianity of the friars was late Medieval Catholicism, not a product of the Reformation or the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Thus, began a divergence, subtle at first, between Spanish Catholicism and Latin American Catholicism.
Faith must be communicated using the language and symbols of the people. Teaching the doctrine of the Trinity is hard enough when both parties are from the same culture and speak the same language. Across the cultural divide it proved nearly impossible. Fortunately, we have copies of the first catechisms and prayer books employed by the monks. You can look at these Testerian Manuscripts at a museum in Mexico City. They contain the pictographs used to convey the Christian faith to the indigenous population. They were written by Aztec converts, directed by Franciscan friars.
Any translation requires interpretation and a set of creative choices. How were the friars to speak of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit without it being interpreted in a polytheistic manner? The Aztecs had a pictograph for father and many for the various gods. What pictograph should be used to convey God the Father? God the Son? God the Holy Spirit? For earthly father, they chose a pictograph with a headdress, which conveyed maleness and authority. For God the Father, they used a hybrid of two pictographs, one meaning God and the other meaning father, the latter looking a lot like a Franciscan friar. Espín says they were trying to convey the sense of fatherhood of God. Did it work? Was it understood in a trinitarian way? Most say it is doubtful. It probably conveyed the fatherhood of the friar. This complicated locals further, when trying to convey the Son of a celibate friar (Espín, loc. 1244-54).
Jesus is clearly depicted as Lord (with a headdress) and God (three groups of feather-like lines around the head). The headdress, conveying a sense of Aztec lords, also conveyed their brutality. Either the author did this intentionally, or simply had no other symbol to use. Jesus is also depicted as the Son of Mary. The difference between Jesus’ relationship with his mother and his Father is not explained. The pictograph for Jesus is the crucifix. It seems there was no symbol adequate, so the author borrowed one from Spanish symbolism. (Espín, loc. 1314-34)
Iberian Christianity was highly Christocentric, with less emphasis on the Holy Spirit (like many Lutherans today). The idea of a Holy Spirit was foreign to Aztec theology. Without much to go on, the author had to convey the divinity of the Holy Spirit as one person of the Trinity. The symbol chosen was a bird with a halo, in flight, ascending, surrounded by light. This was a made-up pictograph with no correlate in pre-Columbian drawing. What would the indigenous people have understood about this? (Espín, loc. 1353-63)
The friars were part of a long tradition of conveying the faith in the illiterate European masses of Medieval period by using icons, symbols and dramas. Symbols, however, in one culture can mean something completely different in another culture. The local population received the message of the gospel in the context of their own worldview, using symbols with ambiguous meaning. The faith that emerged bore a resemblance to European Christianity, but like the mestizo children walking the streets, it was clearly a hybrid. An new expression of Christianity had been born.
What faith would make sense to the vanquished and humiliated people of the Americas, whose culture, and way of life had been completely destroyed? Ironically, the image of the crucified Christ spoke, even in spite of the treatment of the conquerors. In fact, the brutally humiliated, vanquished Christ on the cross became a powerful symbol with which the conquered people could identify.
Many pre-Columbian religious practices found their way into the Latin-American Catholicism that emerged. The Day of the Dead celebrations have pre-Columbian origins. Previously held earlier in the fall, they were moved to All Saints and All Souls days, and adapted to conform to those remembrances. Some denigrate the forms of popular religion that resulted, calling them syncretistic bastardizations of Christianity. Such facile appraisals fail to notice the pre-Christian influences on European Christianity, such as the Christmas tree or the word “Easter” likely originating from Eostre, the pre-Christian goddess of Spring. At its best, the Christian gospel does not destroy cultural symbols, but enters them, bringing the message of the cross of Christ.
In 1531, not long after Cortés conquest, an indigenous convert to Catholicism named Juan Diego saw a vision of a woman who spoke to him in Nahuatl, telling him to build a temple on that site. The site was
Is known as Guadalupe, a mispronunciation of Tecoatlaxope, a Nahuatl term meaning, “She will crush the serpent of stone.” (Espín, loc. 1948)
Who was this woman in the vision? Diego, newly converted to Christianity, interpreted it as a vision of Mary of Nazareth. There was also an Aztec deity known as “our mother” Tonantzin, often depicted as pregnant or carrying a child. She was the wife of the serpent god. The woman that spoke with Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac would ikely have been understood as Tonantzin to Aztecs and Mary to Spaniards. Some suggest it was the Holy Spirit. (Why could a female theophany not be God?)
Either way, there was a true religious message being conveyed in both Aztec and Spanish understanding. God is not just angry judge and conqueror, but also compassionate and loving. Mary, a member of a conquered race, gives birth to a very human Jesus who suffers and is ultimately defeated as were the Nahuatl people. A peasant Galilean, mestizo? (Elizondo), Jesus was humiliated and killed by those more powerful than he was, even though he lived in solidarity with the poor. He revealed a God of the oppressed and vanquished, who loves the weak. (Espín, loc. 2040)
This vision seems to have been a turning point for the Christian faith in Mexico. Espín:
Guadalupe seems to be the birth of the inculturation of Christianity in colonial Mexico. In other words, precisely because Juan Diego claimed to have seen Mary the way he did, we can say today that this is a sign that the Christian gospel was in fact announced and accepted in early colonial Mexico, in spite of all the betrayals of the gospel that can also be documented. (Espín, loc. 1979)
Edwin David Aponte concurs:
Localized shrines of devotion to Guadalupe can appear in places as diverse as an Episcopal church in north Philadelphia, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, a small mission church in the Diocese of Miami, a major shrine outside Chicago, a backyard holy place in south Phoenix, or on unnumbered home altars. (Aponte, loc. 2171)
Our Lady of Guadalupe is a vital symbol for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, not just religiously, but also culturally.
The late colonial period, according to Espín brought with it a re-evangelization, for two reasons. Trinitarian theology and doctrine had been hard to convey. Some of the indigenous people considered Mary a female deity, along with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Additionally, the saints felt a lot like a pantheon especially when one prayed to them. Second, the Council of Trent had brought about changes in liturgy and practice that had to be taught. The reindoctrination was slow to reach the rural areas. It eventually led to a growing rift between the intellectual and ecclesiastical elite, who were beholden to Spain.
The movement for independence brought unity between elites who wanted independence and those with allegiance to Spain. Politicians and church leaders for independence embraced popular Catholicism as a unifying factor.
Two hundred years after Cortés, in 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain. 27 years later, Mexico, unprotected by Spain, lost half its country to the U.S. All of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and parts of Colorado and Utah used to be Mexico. The shaded areas of these maps tell the story.
Suddenly Mexicans, mestizo families who had lived on the land for centuries found themselves strangers in a new land: U.S. territory. Spanish-speaking states under Mexican law became English-speaking states under U.S. law. People of Latin descent were treated as enemies, relieved of their ownership and rights. “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.” To this day, Latin@s whose families lived here before the first English-speaking person arrived are asked, “When did you come to this country?”
Latin@ popular religion did not immigrant to the U.S. Southwest. It has been here since the early colonial period. In some aspects, it has been here all along.
The popular religious patterns that developed among the richly diverse, multicultural population did so in the home, as priests were in short demand. Religious processions in the street, personal devotions, saints and icons became the norm. Their faith was hewn from a history of colonization, suffering and oppression. Protestants in ministry with Latin@s learn quickly that these symbols are central to life and faith.
We are now living in a time when roughly half of all U.S. Catholics are Latin@, and a growing number of Protestants. Latin@ spirituality is born out of a unique context. Those who criticize Latin@ Christianity for being syncretic ignore the same in European Christianity, as witnessed by Druid Christmas trees, and even the name Easter, which comes from the goddess of the rite of Spring. It may well be a beauty of the Christian faith is that it adapts to the cultures in which is spreads, honoring the faith of converts.
Latin@ spirituality may be a great gift to the U.S. with its rising number of “nones” who claim no religious adherence, as well as great suspicion of religious institutions. Much of Latin@ spirituality is unofficial. Posadas, processions, rosaries and even Marian devotions were not official liturgies of the church, but of a faith that emerged from the people. (The Advent wreath is similar, not a liturgical rite that came from church to the home, but a popular devotion that found its way from the home into church.) The indigenous peoples of this land adopted Christianity and made it their own.
At at time of COVID-19 pandemic, when gathering in large crowds is unsafe and unwise, perhaps it is a time to revisit the power of devotions in the home. Luther wrote the Small Catechism not for church, but for catechesis in the home. Day of the Dead altars, not unlike African libation altars, give thanks to God for those who went before us. They remind us of the resurrection of the dead, that our loved ones surround us, a communion of saints. We could all use a dose of this.
Edwin David Aponte. 2012. ¡Santo! Varieties of Latino/a Spirituality. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, 1991. Columbus. Oxford University Press.
November 15, 2020 is Pentecost 24A/Proper 28A/Ordinary 34A
Judges 4:1-7– Read the whole chapter to get the context. Israel did evil, so God turned them over to Canaan who had 900 chariots with iron-rimmed wheels. They cried out to the Lord. Deborah the prophetess, who sat under her date palm tree settling disputes, summoned Barak, telling him to gather 10,000 troops, for God would deliver General Sisera and his chariots over to them. OR Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 – Silent before the Lord, for the day of judgment is almost here. I will punish those entrenched in sin. It won’t be pretty. Neither silver nor gold will deliver them from the Lord’s angry judgment. Their blood will be poured out like dirt.
Psalm 123– Four verses: my eyes look up to you enthroned in heaven, like a servant to a master. Show us favor. We have had our fill of humiliation. OR Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12 – Lord you have been our protector through all generations. You make us return to the dust. To you a thousand years is as a day. (The days of our lives are 70, maybe 80. They pass quickly, then we fly away.) Teach us to number our days, consider our mortality that we might live wisely.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – No need to instruct you about the times. You know the Lord will come like a thief in the night. So stay awake, and sober as children of light. Put on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of hope for salvation.
Matthew 25:14-30 – The parable of The Talents. Three slaves steward 1, 2, and 5 talents. When the master returns to settle accounts, two have earned 100%. The one who buried his talent is scorned.
Prayer of the Day Righteous God, our merciful master, you own the earth and all its peoples, and you give us all that we have. Inspire us to serve you with justice and wisdom, and prepare us for the joy of the day of your coming, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Gospel Acclamation Alleluia. Abide in me as I a- | bide in you; those who abide in me | bear much fruit. Alleluia. (John 15:4, 5)
In Preaching the Women of the Old Testament: Who They Were and Why They Matter, Lynn Japinga (2017) describes an event at a religious school where the boys were dressed up as a countless host of saints and Bible characters. The girls dressed up as sinful Eve or pure Mary, the only two female characters they knew. After learning about Deborah, a student wondered why they hadn’t learned about her in Sunday school. “It would have made me and the girls grow up so much more powerful.” (p. 1)
Japinga laments that our lectionary only contains the first seven verses of Judges 4, which leaves out the most interesting (and disturbing) parts. (p. 74). I encourage you to read Judges 4 and 5. Here are excerpts that speak for themselves:
4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.
14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.”
7 The peasantry prospered in Israel, they grew fat on plunder, because you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.
So we are in a time after the Exodus from Egypt, and before the united monarchy. The judges preceded the time of the first kings of Israel (Saul, David and Solomon). Communities have conflict. They need a trusted neutral party to judge between complainants. God raised up prophets and judges. It is unclear how God did this, but however it was done, this time God raised up a woman. We are talking three thousand years ago. Maybe people today don’t want to hear about women leaders in Bible times.
Deborah’s husband was Lappidoth, a given name meaning “torchy.” She was Torchy’s wife. Her office was under a palm tree (“the palm of Deborah”) in the hill country. At this time the Canaanite king Sisera was knocking at the door with his 900 chariots (superior military technology and force). Deborah summoned the Israelite military commander, Barak. (Yes, the former President of the U.S. was named after this military commander in the Bible.)
She tells Barak to get up and face the music. Barak says he will only go if she goes. They go together, and after an interlude in which Jael (another fierce woman) singlehandedly kills Sisera, by driving a stake through his head, the Israelites prevail.
Cue the music. As if in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Deborah and Barak break into song. The song is recorded in Judges 5. Would anyone in the synod like to set this song to music. I would really enjoy that. Post it on Facebook.
Japinga proposes a sermon title of “Awake the sleeping ones!” A call to leadership in the church and in the world. Or it could be based on Judges 5:12: “Awake, awake, Deborah!” In Judges 4:14, Deborah tells Barak, “Up!” All of these themes contain calls to the church, not unlike the Great Commission, “Go!”
She describes another sermon entitled, “We’re in this together.” Barak won’t go without Deborah, who commits to go along with him. We do church as a team. Even Jesus needed a team.
Deborah and Jaellive on in Afghanistan, where women teach their children history and faith and how to protect their families, and teenagers open schools for girls, in defiance of the Taliban. They live on in India, where women fight off rapists on buses. They live on in Kenya, where women plant trees in defiance of the government’s edict that women aren’t allowed to and the trees won’t make any difference anyway. Deborah and Jaellive on in small-town America, where women run for school board and city council and mayor and stare down those who would question their authority to change things. They live on in our prayer life and our attempts to see the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be. Deborah and Jael live on in us when we call upon our own ferocity to see the breath of God in each person, to see their passions and their faults. When we sit, watching, listening, and waiting, we, too, might hear the voice of God.
It is important to read these stories in church and preach about them, so that we all have female role models in addition to the plethora of male role models. Girls and young women in particular, if the only stellar leaders they hear of are male, can implicitly intuit that leadership is only for men. Preaching about women who are strong, bold, intelligent, strategic, faithful, and wise leaders reminds impressionable minds that women are called to be political and religious leaders, even leaders of a nation.
Life’s ROI: Paralyzed by Fear?
I made the mistake of looking at my retirement fund last week. It’s not been a great year. We are almost back up to where it was in January. Still, we keep chucking funds into it. What might this Sunday’s parable have to say about that?
Last week we heard the first of three great parables from Matthew 25:
November 8, 2020: Matthew 25:1-13 – The Parable of the Virgins
November 15, 2020: Matthew 25:14-30 – The Parable of the Talents
November 22, 2020: Matthew 25:31-46 – The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
This Sunday’s gospel is Matthew 25:14-30. Matthew 25 is part of the last of five great discourses in Matthew’s gospel. It is sometimes called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 23-25), so called because Jesus delivered it from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3). In last week’s post I opined about the Augusta Victoria Hospital, located on the Mount of Olives where Jesus might have been speaking these parables. There are 800 olive trees on the Lutheran World Federation’s property on the Mount of Olives. Your church can plant a tree on the Mount of Olives. The ELCA is supporting a housing project on the Mount of Olives. Christians have been leaving Jerusalem. The Christian population has fallen from 30,000 to 10,000 since 1946. The dramatic settlement of East Jerusalem combined with the demolition of Palestinian homes has led to a housing crisis. In time, 84 apartments will be built on LWF property, God willing.
In Matthew 24 we have Jesus’ description of the end times, and the persecution/tribulation that Christians will endure before the final victory. Some see this as a prediction of the Roman persecution and the destruction of Jerusalem, while others see this as a cosmic battle at the end of time. The Left Behind series parlayed this into a fictional series playing on the idea of the rapture, a concept that faithful Christians would be preserved from this persecution and taken to heaven before the tribulation. This theology emerged in American evangelicalism after the 17th century and is rejected by traditional Lutheran and Catholic theology.
The parable of the wise and the wicked stewards (24: 45-51) and the parable of the talents (25: 14-30) give more precision to what it means to watch and be ready. Vigilance is not a passive waiting and watching but consists of active, responsible service. When Christ returns, he will not ask if one had the date right but “What have you been doing?”
Stanley Hauerwas (Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) points out the intentional connection of this parable to the earlier one in Matthew 25: “It is as if…” makes it clear Matthew intends the second parable to help interpret the first. We’ll get to this at the end of this post.
So the story goes, a man goes on a journey and entrusts his property to three slaves. The word is δούλους (doulous), so it should be translated “slave” and not “servant.” To the first he gave πέντε τάλαντα (pente talanta), five “talents.” To another he gave two, and to the final slave he gave one talent. A talent was a measure of mass or weight. It varied in different times and cultures.
The talent is the largest weight mentioned in the Bible. From Exodus 38:25-26 someone good at math worked out that a talent is about 3,000 shekels. This is the Canaanite system (based on Ugaritic), and not the Mesopotamian system, which divided the talent into 3,600 shekels. Both “shekel” and “talent” probably originally just meant “weight,” hearkening back to a time when business was done not with minted coins, but by trading certain weights of grain, wool and the like. 10 gerah made a beka (Gen. 24:22; Ex. 38:26). 2 beka made a shekel (Gen. 23:16, 2 Sam. 14:26). 50 shekelim made a maneh (mina in NRSV translation; Ezekiel. 45:12; Ezra 2:69; Nehemiah. 7:71, 72). Luke uses the maneh (lit. mina) in his parallel to today’s story in Luke 19:12-27. 60 manim made a talent. Eventually weights were made corresponding to these amounts. These weights eventually morphed into coins. In New Testament times, a talent was around 130 pounds. I know, more information than you need (or want, perhaps), but that’s how we roll.
We can’t be sure what this much weight would correspond to American dollars in this crazy economy. Some folks estimate a talent would have been considered over 8,000 denarii. Since a denarius was a day’s wage, this means 8,000 days of pay, or something like 22 years. At an average income of $50,000 today, that’s over $1M. 5 talents would then be well over $5M. So, while the details may not be important, the astute reader might like to know that we’re talking about a vast sum of money here, not a pittance. The point here is that it’s an absurd sum of money. As usual, Jesus uses outrageous images to capture his listener’s imagination. Like the image of gouging out your eyes if they cause you to sin, or a camel fitting through the eye of the needle, Jesus is being provocative.
One might start a sermon with the question: “What would you do if someone gave you a million dollars to manage?”
So, let us say the master gives one slave $5M, one $2M, and one $1M then takes off. The ones with five and two talents double their investments through trading. Risky but profitable. The one with one talent buries it out of fear of the master. The first two are praised by the master. The third is chastised for being wicked and lazy. The story is designed from the get-go to inspire outrage. It still works today. People hear this story and flinch. What? Those who have much receive more, and those with little have even the smidgeon they have taken away? What? The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer? And the slave who returned the master’s original sum gets thrown out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? What kind of master is this?
Many thoughts bounce around. First of all, on judgment day there will be a weighing of sorts. An accounting. This is a God of accountability.
Second, I recall Henri Nouwen saying there are two ways to live: a safe way with arms folded, and another, risky way, with arms open to embrace. The latter is vulnerable. Life is risk. None of us gets out of this alive. Or as one person put it, ships may be safer in the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for. How are you investing what God has given you? What is your life worth? Your body? A million dollars? All of it is on loan to you from God. How will you invest it?
Care must be taken to not use this text to presuppose any economic system as Christian, or to misuse it to promote a particular work ethic. None of the slaves earned the talents for which they were given responsibility. Hauerwas reminds us we must read this text in its apocalyptic context, and in light of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom in Matthew. “After much time,” the master was delayed in returning. The critique of the last slave is that he feared the giver. Hauerwas: “In other words the one with one talent assumed that he or she was part of a zero-sum sum game.” He has played it safe. Garland: “He buried his silver—the best security against theft (see Mishna Baba Mesi‘a 3: 10).” The master acts generously, but the slave views the master as a petty tyrant. How do our people view God?
Garland (p. 246):
This parable illustrates that the “delay” (24: 48; 25: 5, 19) is not a meaningless interval. It presents a window of opportunity for servants who love their Master to put to good use the resources given them for gain.
I find it interesting that the English word “talent,” meaning “a special aptitude,” originated from this very passage. The traditional interpretation of the passage was that Jesus was talking about the use of the gifts that God has given to us. So the ancient weight “talent” came into Middle English as “special natural ability,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In other words, this word, that originally meant a measure of weight, came to mean a special aptitude because of Jesus’ use of it in this parable. Did you know Jesus was responsible for the creation of an English word?
The master gives a vast amount. We are blessed with immeasurable gifts. They all ultimately belong to the master, but they are ours to use for the time we are on this earth. Like the stories in which Jesus curses the fig tree, we have the sense that the master expects fruit, results. The gifts God has given us are to be used for God’s purposes, and not wasted. This seems to be a theme that Jesus hammered. Consider his words in Luke 12:48, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
The poet John Milton seemed to understand it in this sense:
When I consider how my light is spent Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, And that one talent, which is death to hide, Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest He, returning, chide
Perhaps we are the ones with only one talent.
Joachim Jeremias saw this parable as a critique of the Scribes and Pharisees, who were given charge of the invaluable kingdom of God, but had squandered it. Will Herzog has a completely different interpretation, based on liberation theology. This interpretation requires us to forget everything we’ve ever read on this passage. The master is not analogous to God, but rather a very bad absentee landlord. He’s a slumlord, who praises those who exploit the poor for unrighteous gain. After all, as Calvin pointed out, lending money at interest was strictly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible (Exod. 22:25-27, Deut. 23:19-20). These stories are recorded in Matthew half a century after they were told. Each gospel writer appropriates the story in a way that speaks to the community to whom they’re writing. (We need to do the same. How does this story speak to your people?) It is hard to say, maybe even impossible, what point Jesus might have been making to his original hearers.
Luther noted that a tree is either growing or dying. This is true of our spiritual lives as well. Luther said the Christian life is semper in motu, always in motion. Bernard of Clairveau noticed that people who do not progress in spiritual life tend to regress. There is little stasis. Lange also likes the idea of these talents as spiritual gifts, or the spiritual life. Are you growing spiritually? What is the fruit of that growth?
Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, says, (Lewis, Working Preacher, 2017)
It is really rather simple. What are you doing with what you have been given? The rub of the parable of course, is to determine; with what you have been given. And, moreover, to determine if whether or not the exercising of your gifts is for the sake of your own gain or for the sake of the nearing of the Kingdom of Heaven.
“What am I doing with what God has given me?” The preacher might want to consider this question for the entire congregation. Luther said that one of the most important qualities of an excellent preacher is boldness. The good news is that God has generously given the world so much: natural resources, our talents, our gifts. The question is now, how will we use them?
What has God given us? How are we using it for God’s glory? Consider our wealth, for starters. Professor of Economics and Finance (University of Michigan, Flint) Mark Perry notes that even the poorest 5% of Americans are richer than most of the world. The poorest 5% of Americans have more wealth than the richest 5% in India. We are the wealthiest people in the world. How are we using those gifts? From a divine perspective, are we using them well? Are you using your wealth for God’s purposes? To wit: Are you using your money for the things God really cares about?
There’s no way to get around it. This is a stewardship text.
What about your gifts, talents, abilities? We know what God cares about. Just read the Bible. Are we leveraging our gifts for God’s purposes? As we step back and look at our congregation, what assets do we have as a body? Is our congregation using its assets for God’s purposes, or are we sitting on our assets? (If you say it that way in a sermon, be very careful to pronounce assets clearly.) A bold preacher might dare to title the sermon, “Are You Sitting on Your Assets?”
Taken as a trilogy the three parables of Matthew 25 might roll like this…
Virgins: Be ready for Christ’s coming. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. You don’t know when the bridegroom is coming. Be ready for the great reckoning at the end of time. What constitutes readiness?
Talents: The equitable use of one’s gifts – using what God has given us for the things that God really cares about. And what does God care about?
Sheep and Goats: When I was hungry you gave me food… Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me… God cares about those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick and imprisoned.
Next week, we’ll take a closer look at this third and final parable from Matthew 25.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – The spirit of the Lord God is upon me… he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn… to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Psalm 126– When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter… The Lord has done great things for us… Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. OR Luke 1:46-55 – The Magnificat. Mary’s song. My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… (ELW pp. 314-315, hymns 236, 251, 573, 723, 882, 723)
1Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Respect those who work among you in the Gospel. Be at peace with one another. Admonish the idol. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Do not repay evil for evil. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.
John 1:6-8, 19-28 – John: there was a man, sent from God. He was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light. I am the voice in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.
Advent B Summary
Advent 1B Mark 13:24-37: About that day or hour no one knows
Advent 2B Mark 1:1-8 The Voice: Prepare the way of the Lord
Advent 3B John 1:6-8, 19-28 John: The voice in the wilderness
Advent 4B Luke 1:26-38 The Annunciation
Advent often rolls like this: Week one is on the Second Coming. Weeks two and three focus on John the Baptist. Week four focuses on Mary.
The first lesson for Advent 3B is from Isaiah 61, in which there are echoes of Mary’s song.
The spirit of the Lord is upon me. I’ve been anointed to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to those in prison.
Keep in mind that this text is the one Jesus reads in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth. It is his mission statement, if one takes to heart his comment, “Today this passage has been fulfilled in your midst.”
Although next week we will have the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), this week an option for the psalm is the Magnificat (Luke 1:47-55). The Magnificat is a psalm option every year in Advent. In Year A it is a psalm option for Advent 3. In Year B (this year) it is an option both Advent 3 and Advent 4. In Year C it is a psalm option Advent 4.
Mary’s song provides a stark contrast to the backdrop of partisan politics, dominance and power these days:
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Alice Connors[i] (Fierce, 41) calls Mary’s Song (The Magnificat) a “long, folk-protest song.” Can we hear it as such? Connors reminds us of how little we know of Mary. The angel telling her she was with child of the Holy Spirit, the birth, nudging the adult Jesus to deal with the wine shortage at the wedding in Cana (John’s Gospel), and the crucifixion.
In the Medieval development of Christianity, Mary took on great importance, perhaps due to the male-dominated clergy, Bible characters and image of God. The faith yearned for feminine balance. Marian devotions grew and are still vibrant today in Catholic circles. And why not? If the saints pray with us in the Eucharist, why not Mary? The Lutheran-Catholic dialogs remind us at the very least, Scripture never forbids prayers to the saints, or any of the dead for that matter. Luther’s beef was that the saints had become big business, bilking the poor, a hagiocracy if you will.
Her song reminds us that God brings power from the powerless. We often think of the rich and powerful as the primary actors in history, but often it is the rank and file. Life has joy and purpose even in the unrecorded, full lives of those who are not on center stage. God works through Mary, an unknown peasant woman. God works through Jesus, a defeated and publicly executed preacher/healer. God scatters the proud, and lifts up the humble. “Have this mind among you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul says in Philippians 2. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Those who humble themselves will be exalted. Can we preach this joyfully?
This is a powerful, subversive gospel. Who can hear it?
Whenever I consider Mary’s Song, so many settings of the Magnificat come to mind. Of course, as a music major (organ performance), my go-to favorite Lutheran composer, J.S. Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243, first performed in 1723).[ii] Originally composed in E♭ shortly after Bach became Cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, it was later transposed to D for a reperformance in 1733. Yes, it’s long, but the first movement could be used in online worship during the offering (3 minutes), if you can secure copyright permission.
C.P.E. Bach also has a marvelous Magnificat.[iii] C.P.E. is the son of J.S. and Maria Bach. He grew up hearing his father’s Magnificat in Leipzig. The first movement is faster and quite fun. C.P.E. wrote it in the same key (D). It’s also about three minutes. C.P.E. wrote it in Berlin, where he was harpsichordist for the court of Frederick the Great. Though C.P.E. is considered a classical composer, this Magnificat was written in his father’s baroque style in 1749 shortly before his father’s death in 1750. It is doubtful that his father ever heard it. 1750 is generally considered to be the end of the Baroque and the beginning of the Classical period.
If Bach’s not your thing, I forgive you. Here’s a contemporary Mary’s Song (1992), from Amy Grant. It is not the Magnificat, but a midrash on Mary’s imaginary thoughts. The title links to the YouTube video of the song, not the official video, but one with lyrics. Thirty years later, the song still works. Be sure to get the rights if you use the song or video.
I have traveled many moonless nights Cold and weary with a babe inside And I wonder what I’ve done Holy father you have come And chosen me now to carry your son
I am waiting in a silent prayer I am frightened by the load I bear In a world as cold as stone Must I walk this path alone? Be with me now Be with me now
Breath of heaven Hold me together Be forever near me Breath of heaven Breath of heaven Lighten my darkness Pour over me your holiness For you are holy Breath of heaven
Do you wonder as you watch my face If a wiser one should have had my place But I offer all I am For the mercy of your plan Help me be strong Help me be Help me
Breath of heaven Hold me together Be forever near…
1 Thessalonians also touches upon Mary’s song with Paul’s exhortation to rejoice always, give thanks at all times, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, to not return evil for evil.
16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise the words of prophets, 21but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22abstain from every form of evil.
John’s John is Just John
Although we are in a Markan year, the gospel reading comes from John this Sunday. To save us from an exceedingly long gospel reading, we read John the Evangelist’s introduction of John the Baptist (sic), skip John’s foray into light and then hear about John’s understanding of his call.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.(John 1:6-8)
One sent from God is a prophet. John the Evangelist and the other gospel writers hold John the Baptist in high regard. Brian Stoffregen points out that no one else in John’s gospel is “sent by God.” In John’s gospel, even Jesus is not sent by God. Jesus is God. “The Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning.”
As Karoline Lewis tells us at Working Preacher,[iv] John’s John is different than the synoptic writers’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke’s) John. John’s John is just John. That is, John’s John is never “John the Baptist.” Just John.
Yes, John’s John happens to baptize with water here and there, but this is incidental. John never baptizes Jesus in John’s gospel. Whereas Mark wants us to identify John with Elijah, John’s John quite clearly states he is not Elijah. And unlike in the synoptic gospels, John’s John doesn’t eat bugs or wear itchy camel hair. He never asks anyone to repent of anything. He just points to Jesus. In fact, John never even uses the word “repent.”
In our heads we tend to mash up the stories of the four gospels, but to understand John’s theology, we need to, for a moment anyway, get Mark, Matthew and Luke’s Baptist out of our heads.
John’s John testifies to the coming of light into the world. He is John the Testifier.
Hear the cosmic mystery of the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word. The word was light, the light of all humanity. That light shines in the darkness. The darkness has not overcome it. The Word/Light became flesh in the form of Jesus (who has not yet been named in John’s Gospel). John “outs” Jesus. “The Word, the Light, Look! It’s Him!”
Several pieces of the skipped portion are helpful. In verse 14 the Word/Light becomes flesh to dwell among us. And verse 15:
John testified about him and shouted out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’”
John is the announcer. The testifier. The witness. The Voice in the Wilderness, as we shall soon see. The statement “he existed before me” is a portentous theological statement about Jesus preexisting as the Word/Logos. Even though John is older than Jesus, Jesus “existed before” him, John professes. This is not just a chronological statement. It is a theological statement.
And verse 17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This, now, is the first time Jesus is named in John’s gospel. It provides a picture of The Gospel of John’s understanding of the gospel. Moses = The Law. Jesus = The Gospel. We must not read this equation into the synoptic gospels, but it is clearly here in the Gospel of John. Jesus is the physical incarnation of the preexisting Logos. John is the transition between Law and Gospel, between Moses and Jesus.
If John makes it clear he is not the light, then who then is he?
John tells us in vv. 19-28:
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
He IS NOT the light. He IS NOT the Messiah. He IS NOT Elijah. He IS NOT the Prophet.
He IS sent by God. He IS a witness to the light. He IS the Voice crying in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord.
John is clear: I am not the Messiah in Isaiah’s drama. I am the Voice. Karoline Lewis points out that Jesus says “I AM,” many times in John’s gospel. I am the way, the truth, the light, the door, and so on. John says “I AM NOT.” Not the Messiah. Not Elijah. Not the Light.
More importantly, John sees his identity in relationship to Jesus. “Can we say the same?” Lewis asks. Are we also witnesses to the light? What does that mean? Being the Voice? Could we also take our cues from Isaiah: Binding up the broken-hearted? Comforting the weak? Announcing God’s love to prisoners?
What’s your voice?
Have you found your voice?
Max DePree, in his book Leadership Jazz,[v]says that your voice is who you say you are and what you believe: your character. Your voice is reflected in your touch (your behaviors). A leader’s actions flow from her character. One of the first things a leader needs to do is find her voice. In my experience, this takes a while, but it is critical.
How do we, as leaders, articulate our values, the things that really matter in life? Can we step back from the angry crisis of the moment, and speak of higher values, what truly matters, and then reframe the current situation in light of those values? Are we willing to present timeless truths, even when those around us seem reluctant to hear them? Have we aligned our voice and our touch? Our witness to the truth is both voice and touch.
I am reminded that the Greek word for “witness” is μάρτυρ, “martyr.” There are many right now who might feel this way. If you feel that witnessing to the truth puts you under persecution, you are not alone. Blessed are you. They did the same to the prophets and to Jesus. Speak the truth, but do so in love. If people know you love them, they are more willing to hear your witness, what you have to say.
Brian Stoffregen helpfully points that out the verb for “witness“ occurs once in Matthew, once in Luke, never in Mark, but 31 times in John (five times in chapter 1: vv. 7, 8, 15, 32, 34). Similar statistics exist for the noun, which occurs three times in Mark, once in Luke, never in Matthew, and 14 times in John (twice in chapter 1: vv. 7, 19).”
When we witness, we put our lives on the line. It is our martyrdom.
What is your witness?
The good news is a Christian’s witness is simply to point to Christ. It may be difficult, but it is not very complicated. We have Jesus’ proclamation in the gospels. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve simply pointed to Christ, quoted his teachings, and received tremendous push back from those who claimed to be Christians. Time and time again I am astounded how often Christ is trampled under the feet of American militaristic capitalism. Preach Christ, and let the cards fall where they may. This is our martyria, our witness. Have you shed blood yet?
The preacher might invite people to consider their witness. What do you believe about Jesus? What does his crucifixion mean to you? His resurrection? How does this find its way into your voice?
Then we might consider how our voice finds its way into our touch? How does our faith in Christ become flesh in our daily words and actions? How might it this week? John prepares the way of the Lord. Let us go and do likewise.
[i] Connor, Alice. 2017. Fierce : Women of the Bible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation. Minneapolis, Mn: Fortress Press.