Greater Things: 1 Sam. 3:1-10 and John 1:43-51
You never know who God is going to call or where they are going to come from. I mean, look at the Bible. Time and again, people think they know where God is going to show up. And, then God does something they don't expect... calls somebody that surprises people... shows up in places deemed unimportant and backward... brings people together who had once been torn apart. Over and over, scripture tells us that just when people think they have God figured out, God happens differently, teaching us something new and powerful each time. Our scriptures for today tell us two of such stories.
I mean, who would have ever thought Samuel would become a prophet for the Lord? He was just a kid working for the priest, Eli. Heck, he hadn't even gotten this job with Eli on his own. His mother had promised him to Eli as a way to thank God for her being able to become pregnant with him. In all likelihood, the closest Samuel probably ever expected to get to God was priest-adjacent. You see, Samuel was born during tumultuous times. There was no central leader to guide the different tribes of the people. The nation wasn't working as one body, but as several groups that were, as scholar Valerie Bridgeman put it, doing right by their own eyes. You heard in our reading for the day put it this way: "The word of the Lord was rare in those day; visions were not widespread." It's not even clear how often the priest heard from God. But, the priest still knew how to teach someone to listen.
One night, Samuel, who is still a kid mind you, hears someone call his name and assumes that it's Eli and runs to his bedside to see what he needs. It wasn't Eli. Eli sends him back to bed. It happens again. And, Eli sends him back to bed again. It is on the third trip that Eli's God-listening muscles finally kick in. He remembers what it can mean to hear a still small voice that is so insistent that it keeps you from going back to sleep. He wonders if maybe it was time for Samuel to start paying attention to this repeating voice. So, Eli told Samuel, who had never heard from God before, to pay special attention. This voice wasn't Eli, but it might be God. The voice was God. And, because he had a good teacher, Samuel was ready to respond to that call. He replied, "Speak, for your servant is listening!" God spoke and Samuel became a great prophet.
Our second scripture is another great example of God surprising someone. There are several short stories in a row here at the beginning of John where people begin to follow Jesus in this Divine domino effect. It starts with John the Baptist who sees the Holy Spirit in Jesus and knows he is the Son of God. John, who is always quick to speak of God's revelations, tells his own disciples about the surprising way he has seen the Spirit. Two of these disciples begin to follow Jesus. After spending time with him, they, too, were confident that in Jesus they see something new of God. So, one of them told his brother what he had seen. After Jesus seemed to know the brother, even without ever having met him, the brother grew convinced that there was something special about Jesus, too.
The pattern continues at least one more time, into our reading for today. People share that they have seen something Divine in Jesus. Someone hears them and believes. In this case, Philip was a particularly quick study. He didn't even need three chances to respond to God like Samuel did. Jesus just said, "Follow me," and he did. But, Philip's friend Nathanael, the next domino in the story, needed a little more convincing. You see, even though we don't know much about Nathanael, we know one important thing. It seems like Nathanael was pretty sure he knew where and how God would show up.
Times were probably tumultuous during Nathanael's life, too, like they were in Samuel's. Rome had conquered Israel and they no longer had a king who had faith in their God. They had a Emperor who kinda thought he was God. But, Nathanael had faith that their God would send them a leader, a messiah, who could restore their nation's fortunes. The messiah be royalty. He would probably definitely lead the military. He would never come from a dinky town like Nazareth, where this guy Jesus came from. I mean, can anything good come out of Nazareth? That's a backwater town. We need a messiah from an impressive city, like Jerusalem. Why on earth would God work through someone from a community that everyone else thought was insignificant?
Then, we find out one more thing about Nathanael. He trusts Philip, maybe not as much as Samuel trusted Ei, but enough. He was willing to come and see Jesus himself. Jesus was forthright with Nathanael, telling him a truth that Nathanael alone seemed to understand. In that moment, Nathanael realized he was wrong. Something good had come out of Nazareth. Jesus had. And, Jesus assured him that he would come to know even greater truths if he would follow him. Jesus said, "You will see greater things than anything I have already told you." But, you must follow me. And, he did. He became one of Jesus' first disciples.
As I studied this week, I read a third story that seems worthy of sharing. In 1956, a young anti-racism organizer traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to help a young pastor and local community groups to organize a bus boycott. The organizer was Bayard Rustin. The pastor was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They initially worked well together, first on the boycott, then on the development of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In fact, it was Rustin, a Quaker pacifist, who introduced Dr. King to nonviolence strategies of Gandhi, strategies that would become part of the bedrock of the Civil Rights movement. But, not everyone saw a hopeful future in working with Rustin. Some people believed that only certain kinds of people could do the Holy work of the Civil Rights movement. They didn't think Rustin was the right kind of person.
Bayard Rustin had several strikes against him in the eyes of some so-called "respectable" organizers. Since he had been an anti-racism advocate and agitator since he was a teenager, he had been arrested many times. He had also been a conscientious objector during World War II. At one point in his life, he had been affiliated with a communist group because of their anti-racism work. By the time he came to work with King, he had long since left that group. However, in the 1960's in the United States, any ties, former or current, with communism was a great burden. And, the final reason many people didn't want to work with him was because he was gay, openly so, in a time when a man could still be arrested for being in a relationship with another man. In fact, he had been arrested once for that, too.
In an article by the scholar Louis Gates, Jr., I learned that Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., an important Civil Right leader, did not want to work with Rustin at all. In 1960, when Powell learned that King and Rustin were planning a march in Los Angeles outside the Democratic National Convention, he threatened King, saying that he would tell the press that King and Rustin were in a relationship, if King didn't cancel the march. Now, this wasn't true, but Powell knew that it could damage King's reputation and make it more difficult for him to do the organizing he was doing. Unfortunately, Dr. King bowed to the pressure. He called off the march and distanced himself from Rustin. Rustin even resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This could have been the end of their work together, work that I am sure was Holy even as the workers were imperfect.
We are fortunate that this wasn't the end of the Spirit moving through these two leaders. First, the unrest in Birmingham shocked the nation. Then, Rustin's mentor A. Philip Randolph, began to wonder if there needed to be a national Civil Rights demonstration in Washington, D.C. Notice that his name is Philip. Aren't we lucky to have all these Philips who are ready to help share the Good News? Randolph brought in Rustin. Together they approached King, and many others. Some people still were uncomfortable with Rustin, insisting that he not be the lead organizer. Rustin, putting the movement before himself, agreed to allow Randolph to serve as the director. But, Rustin was still the primary coordinator for the whole march. Rustin helped figure out everything from how many bathrooms they'd need, how many doctors should be on hand, and what people should bring with them for lunch.
Even with all this hurtful history between them, they knew they could see Greater Things, like those greater things Jesus' was talking about with Nathanael, but only by working together. Dr. King would give his most well-known sermon at this March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Bayard Rustin would also stand up and read out the demands of the marchers. The next year, when Dr. King was given a Nobel Prize, it was Rustin who organized the trip to Norway for him. According to Dr. Gates, in 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated while fighting for economic justice for sanitation workers, Rustin participated in the memorial march and took up the cause himself. He had his eyes on the Greater Things, and he helped get us one step closer to the Kindom of Love and Justice that God is inviting us to build. Now, the question is: Are you ready for God to work in surprising places and surprising people in your life? Are you ready to see Greater Things with this surprising God?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources in writing her sermon:
Resources about Bayard Rustin
1 Sam. 3:1-10
Valerie Bridgeman: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3556
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Guide Us With Your Perfect Light: Matthew 2:1-12
A few years ago, my sister shared this story with me. In early December, in her small church in Texas, they had been preparing for the arrival of the Christ child. One of the things they did was put together a crèche, a manger scene, in the sanctuary. Space is at a premium in their sanctuary, much as it is in ours. My sister noticed that the small stable they had looked particularly crowded. She realized that some of the crowding issues were because someone decided to go ahead put all of the manger scene people inside the barn at the beginning of the season. Usually, they add the people and animals as the month progresses. My sister wasn't sure why someone decided to go ahead and build the whole thing. She said somebody probably just got busy and tried to save time by putting the whole scene up at one time, and nobody else thought it was worth the effort to take out some of the figures only to add them back at a later date.
Now, one Sunday, as their pastor preached up in their now very crowded chancel, he turned around quickly and bumped right into the tiny, crowded barn. Down went the magi. Well, at least one magi... Kellie didn't tell me if it was Gaspar, Balthazar, or Melchior. She did tell me that his head popped clean off, right in the middle of their worship service. Her pastor leaned over, picked up the poor fellow and his now detached head, and said, "I’m sorry. It looks like I broke his head off." Then, without missing a beat, his wife said, "Well, that's ok. He wasn't supposed to be in there yet any way."
I laughed out loud when Kellie told me this story. I totally get it. Like the woman at her church, I don't think the Magi needed to have been there yet, either. Jesus doesn't get in the manger until Christmas and the Magi don't show up until Epiphany. That's how this works. It gives us some narrative continuity. And, it gives me something fun to do with the kids during a children's moment in January. It is actually worth taking some time to get to the Magi. I mean, they would have had to take some time to find Jesus. They did not have access to rapid transit. Donkeys and camels can only go so fast. In fact, they probably would not have visited a baby Jesus, but a toddler Jesus and his family. And, if we're really paying attention, they wouldn't have shown up looking for the baby in a barn. Matthew doesn't talk about a stable at all. That's the birth story from Luke. Luke wanted to make sure that we know God shows up in unexpected places, like in a barn surrounded by poor people and animals. Matthew had a slightly different point to make about Jesus. That's where the Magi come in.
The author of Matthew still thinks that God moves in unexpected ways, but shows this movement differently. In Luke, Jesus is shown as a different kind of Messiah than the military leader that the people expected. His manger-side birth showed that he was different from the very beginning. Luke tells us something about God's values by situating Emmanuel among the common, every day, poor people of Israel. But, the story of the Magi is from Matthew. Matthew switches it around a little. Matthew keeps Jesus among regular people, but brings the symbols of power into the poor places. The story is meant to surprise us, as I'm sure it surprised Herod. It makes sense that we, and the Magi, would ask: Who is this child? And why doesn't Herod know him?
Scholars tell us that the Magi, the Wise Ones from the East, weren't kings like the one song says. They were, however, experts in astronomy and mathematics, and well-versed in the astrological traditions that would have been understood as cutting-edge science. As natives of Persia or Armenia and members of the royal court in their homeland, it would have been important to them to follow certain protocols in order to maintain good relationships with neighboring countries. They would likely have been accustomed to visiting the local rulers to offer congratulations on the birth of royal children. In this story, the star, like the dreams people have, is a divine sign telling them that something important is happening. The star is a sign that they have a part to play in this holy story. They don't know what yet. In fact, they just seem to assume that this baby is like any regular royal baby. They assume that their gifts and glad tidings would be welcome. Little did they know that the revelations that came with their arrival would be far from comforting to those who were already in places of power.
Herod, and all of Jerusalem, became terrified when they heard of a new child who would be born to be king of the Jews. Herod, though technically a king, was hardly a stable or confident ruler. He only had power because Rome allowed him to have power. Part of how Israel understood its own history and its relationship with God was that they believed God gave them a king. These kings were often seen as rulers who led the people out of oppression. Herod was not appointed by God. Herod was appointed by Rome. He was a walking symbol of the people's oppression. He was not on their side. He only cared about ability to maintain power. The moment Rome became dissatisfied with his administration of their territory, he would be deposed. Historians tell us that he would do anything, including murder his own sons and other innocent children, to stay in control. The divine birth of a new king, which is what the Magi thought had happened, would have felt like a threatened this callous and cowardly ruler.
Scripture tells us that out of his fear, he crafted a lie. He and his political cronies hatched a plan to destroy the one who would upset their delicate, destructive, self-serving order. He told the Wise Ones that he hoped they would find the child. He asked them to tell him when they did. He said that he, too, wanted to pay homage. But, there was no worship or hospitality on his mind. Only grasping fear. Only concern that he would lose power. Only a desperate strategy to hang on to what Rome had given him. Thank God the Magi realized that Herod only had self-preservation on his mind. Thank God that they had enough sense to listen to their dream and not seek out his council once again.
The Magi know something about God that Herod doesn't. They see signs and dream dreams. Herod doesn't. If we want to know something about God, we should follow them. And, where do they go? They go right out to a regular little town full of regular people. That's where they know the Divine is leading them. They find Mary and her toddler, Jesus, regular people, part of the subjugated class. Mary and her whole family were likely barely literate and fairly impoverished. Their home was the last place that most royal emissaries would have expected to find a new national leader. And, yet, the magi trusted the Divine. So, they were able to find Jesus.
Matthew shows us that Jesus is different and special because the learned and wise leaders seek him out for veneration. As his story unfolds, we can be confident that he will prove to be a leader worth following because these wise people were willing to go to such lengths to find him. Matthew believed that God would show you the way, even if it means you had to find your way around a coward and fool like Herod. God can show you a sign and help you make a way. It started with the Magi. And this courageous hopefulness can continue with us. Herod's desperation and destructiveness have nothing to do with God. The Magis hospitality and faithfulness do. Where is God calling you? What tools do you need to make your way around the craven and the callous and into the Divine? How can you use your great gifts to make God's presence known? The Magi found a way. I pray that we can, too.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Terriel R. Byrd, "Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Jan Schnell Rippentrop: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3523
Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2736
Stephen Hultgren: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2304
Craig A. Satterlee: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1525
David Lose: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1509
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
My Eyes Have Seen: Luke 2:22-40
What song do you just love hearing on Christmas? What song reminds you of the hopefulness of Christ's birth whenever you hear it? (The church took some time to share aloud songs that they love)... Those are all wonderful choices. Does anybody like "The Little Drummer Boy?" This year I learned about a game people play with that song. Have you heard about this game? It starts after Thanksgiving, when Christmas music begins to be piped into nearly every environment in which we spend our time. That one radio starts playing only Christmas music. The gas stations, grocery stores, and every department store start piping the music in, often in hopes that it will inspire us to get in the "Christmas spirit" by spending a little money in their shop. This is when you start playing the game. It goes like this: Whenever you hear The Little Drummer Boy, you're out. It's that simple. You can't just avoid the music in order to avoid the song. You go about your life like normal. You listen to the radio on the drive to work just like you usually would. You walk into the stores you need to walk into. You don't wait for your oil change with your headphones in, listening to your best-non-Little-Drummer-Boy Advent playlist. You listen whenever the music is played, and if the Little Drummer Boy gets played, you're out.
Now, I don't know why The Little Drummer Boy has been singled out this way among all the overplayed Christmas music that makes up the secular Christmas shopping season. There are far more irksome Christmas songs. This one is very sweet. It's about a poor kid who has learned about Jesus' birth and who Jesus will be. He can't bring him treasure like the Magi can. But, he can play a song for him, sharing his talents. The story is not actually from the Bible. But, it is a kind of storytelling that helps people insert themselves into the holy story, imagining themselves at the bedside of the Christ child. This kind of storytelling is important. And, the basic message is affirming: sharing of skills is a valid and gracious kind of gift. It's actually kind of a great Stewardship sermon. And, David Bowie and Bing Crosby once recorded a great version of it. It's worth listening to, even if it makes you lose a game that you didn't even know you were playing.
I learned something this week that helped me appreciate this The Little Drummer Boy even more during the Christmas season. That's right. We're finally in the Christmas season. All that buildup through December was Advent. Now, we are finally ready to celebrate Jesus' birth... at least until Epiphany, when the Magi will finally get here. I read a commentary this week that helped me make a connection between the poor boy in the song and Jesus' own family as described in the book of Luke. A professor named Shively Smith encourages readers to pay attention to the ways Jesus' own family is described at the time of his birth and in the weeks and months after.
Notice how they are shown to be pious Jews. Mary is responsive to the movement of God in her life. She understands her family to be fulfilling the prophecies of her people. She knows that God stands with the lowly and will use her family to lift up the downtrodden. All that happens before the baby's birth. After Jesus is born, his family remains devout. As a symbol of their commitment to God, Mary and Joseph fulfill the ritual obligations of their people. They have their son circumcised and named according to what God said to name him. They also presented him at the temple and offered a sacrifice in thanksgiving. According to Smith, the author of Luke is telling all of us this so that we can remember that Jesus is deeply situated in his religious tradition. He is a child of devout parents who will grow into a devout man. His faith traditions are deeply embedded in him and guiding his whole ministry.
Smith pointed something else out that I'm not sure I'd read before. This is the part that helped me connect Jesus to the song. Dr. Smith thinks we need to pay attention to what kind of sacrifice Jesus' family make. If you remember from other readings, people often brought animals for sacrifice. While everyone is expected to make a sacrifice, Jesus' people believed that God understood that not all people have the same resources. If you were someone of limited means, you were not required to bring in the same sacrifices as someone who was quite wealthy. In fact, there are lists of appropriate sacrifices for poorer people to make in chapter 5, 12, and 14 of Leviticus. If you were to look at these lists, you would see Mary and Joseph's offering, two turtledoves. Yes, they brought the best they could afford, which was two birds set aside for those with the lowest income. It makes me think these young parents would have appreciated that drummer boy's song. They would have known what it was like to not have expensive gifts to bring, but to still feel called to show their thanks anyway. They could still be generous, even if their gift was simple. That sounds like a good stewardship sermon, too, come to think of it.
Why would it be so important to emphasize to the reader that Jesus was both rooted in his religious faith and also from simple means? I mean, these details only take up a tiny portion of this passage of Scripture. The more important parts of the story come later, when Anna and Simeon offer prophecies about the child's future. Simeon's song is both lovely and important for setting our expectations for the rest of Jesus' life and his death. Why even notice those two little birds? For Smith, this small detail helps us put something very important in perspective. In the book of Luke, Jesus will spend much of his time advocating for the poor. In a couple chapters, when he spells out his own mission statement, he will read out the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." A couple chapters later, in the sermon on the plain, he will assert, like his own mother once did, that God takes special note of, and care for, the hungry, the poor and the excluded. He will go on to assert that part of serving God is tending to the poor and that God's kindom will welcome most quickly those who need the most help.
Smith argues that Jesus speaks so passionately about serving the poor not because poverty is merely a cause for him to champion. Smith said, "When Jesus is talking about the poor, he is talking about himself." We would do well, then, to remember that when God chose to raise up a savior, God did so from among the ranks of the impoverished. Jesus' own experience on the economic margins of his community gave him a helpful perspective on the work of building a kindom of love and justice with God. The Messiah looks way more like a simple drummer boy than a mighty king. Now, imagine the difference that makes in this story. A prophet named Simeon sees a poor family with a very young child. Against all odds, Simeon sees greatness in this child. He sees God in this child. He is so inspired that he sings about it. He sees this little boy and knows that he has seen salvation.
Simeon is certain that this child, rooted in his faith but also at the economic margins of his own community, will be able to draw people in towards God. And, it won't just be for his own religious community. It will be for the whole world. Simeon calls Jesus a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to the people of Israel. This is a broader call of Messiahship than most of their community imagine. In fact, not everyone is going to be excited about the ways that Jesus engages with people outside of his community. Nevertheless, even from the earliest days of his life, this appears to be what he will be called to do. Simeon offers this family a blessing, but also a warning. Jesus will be opposed. But, just because he's opposed that doesn't mean he's not right. Just know, he says to the boy's parents, that your son's calling will not always be welcome.
A second prophet comes up to this small family, Anna, and she, too, praised God for this child. She seems to become one of the earliest preachers in this book. It says that she spoke about the child to anyone who was concerned about the redemption of Israel. I wish I knew what she said. Did she tell them that the family was devout, but poor? Did she tell them that she could see a sparkle in the child's eye and determination in his mother's jaw? Did she warn them they all would be surprised to see from where God would draw up a teacher? Yes. Nazareth. No one would have expected it, but there is little about this child that is expected. Or could she even find the words to really explain what she felt, other than that the Messiah is here. God is with us, especially with those of us who need it most. Just wait until you see what God has in store. I kinda hope she sang... maybe a song about a little boy without much money but with a really big heart. I wonder if we would recognize the song.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing her sermon:
Shively Smith: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3526
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5035
Ruthanna B. Hooke, "First Sunday After Christmas," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour 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 for ever.’
Scattering the Proud and Lifting the Lowly: Luke 1:46-55
This week, they have been laboring in Santa Barbara. Well, they've been laboring in lots of places, but I've been reading about a particular kind of labor that has been going on in California. The fires there have been terrifying. Have you seen the pictures? There's this one of people driving down a highway, with green road signs in front of them. At first it looks like any normal day, but then you realize that the sky is filled with fire. It looks like the end of the world. In the middle of these fires, people are working. As the fires have burned in the state over these last several months, at least 15,000 firefighters have been dispatched to protect the people, animals, and property of California. About 1600 of those firefighters are in prison.
According to one article are read about these inmate firefighters, the people who work as firefighters while they are in prison can contribute up to 3 million firefighting hours to the state of California each year. Some people really want to do the work. They feel like pay is better and, because it is work that is both very needed and very dangerous, they may have some of their sentence reduced based on time in the field. For example, for every day they live at the firefighters' camp and have good behavior, they get two days off their sentence. During the fires back in October, some of them worked 80 hours in a row without breaks. That can quickly amount to many days off a sentence. According to one woman, Romarilyn Ralston, who had helped trained some of the incarcerated women firefighters when she herself was in prison, these days off their sentences is the real reason many people work as firefighters.
Women, in particular, who are in prison often have children and are typically in jail for non-violent offenses. Ralston sayd that these women may want to show they are "redeemable." They want to support their children as much as they can, even if they are only making $2 a day, and they want to get out and get back to their kids as fast as they can. So they put their bodies on the line, even if they really don't want to fight fires, so they can get home faster. Redemption is on the fire line. In saving others from fire, they are trying to save themselves for their children. I don't know for sure if any of these women have been working in the fires in Santa Barbara this week, but I bet they have. I hope you'll remember them. Remember their dangerous work and the fact that many of them will not be able to be firefighters when they get out of prison, despite having experience doing it. Many fire companies won't hire people with criminal records.
In a different part of southern California, a different group of people is laboring. But they aren't fighting fires. They are making music. They are professional musicians and people who make music because they love it. They are people who have somewhere safe and warm to live and they are people who are experiencing homelessness. Some of them, like the firefighters, are in prison. They sing and play and compose together, looking for healing and redemption in music. They make music together throughout the year, but one of their most beloved events happens in early December. It's called Project Messiah. It is a community singalong celebration held at the Midnight Mission, a social service agency that serves people experiencing homelessness, most of whom live in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles. The people who gather sing and play all kinds of songs: some from Handel's Messiah, others composed and created by members of the Skid Row community, and often works commissioned by professional musicians. Community members and members of the LA Philharmonic, the LA Master Chorale, and the Colburn School (a local performing arts school) will have solos, sing in the choirs, and play instruments together.
A journalist named Alex Ross went to this year's Project Messiah back on December 8th (there's a video of the performance. I'll link to it after the sermon). He also spent some time in the Skid Row community and at Midnight Mission, talking to the performers and organizers of the event. In an article in an upcoming edition of the New Yorker, Ross shared several stories that he learned from Project Messiah. I wanted to make sure to share one story from a man named Brian Palmer. Mr. Palmer was experiencing homeless as well as heroin addiction. He met people from Street Symphony a couple years ago when he sought help for his addiction. He had always loved to sing, even having been a part of church choirs at one point in his life. Singing ended up being a great help to him in the early days of his addiction recovery. He started taking voice lessons from one of the professional musicians in Street Symphony and, about a year after seeking help to get sober, attended the workshops that help people prepare for Project Messiah.
He prepared an aria from "Messiah" called "The People That Walked in Darkness," based on these words from the prophet Isaiah: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined." He shared some thoughts on this piece of music:
When I came here, three years ago, I didn’t know where my life was going to take me. I just knew that I needed to change, and that I needed help. When I was walking through my life in addiction, and the darkness and the hell I had created for myself, it was like the phoenix coming out of the darkness and seeing the light.
After speaking of the shadow-side of his life and the process of reaching towards a new light and life, Palmer sang the ancient words. People who heard him sing believed that he knew what it meant to walk through the land of the shadow of death. They felt it when he sang of being called into a new light. I think this is what they might mean when they talk about a redemption song. Brian Palmer still sings with a choir called Urban Voices, another Skid Row/Colburn School musical group. I hope you will remember him and all the other folks living and laboring on Skid Row.
It is very nearly Christmas Day, and in our scriptures, Mary will soon be laboring. I mean, she has already most certainly been doing the work of nurturing life and making a new place for God in this world. From the moment she said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let be with me according to your word," she had begun the work of bearing God. And, she has gone about this work with great joy. Because despite the outlandishness and inappropriateness of her pregnancy, despite the scandal and potential for social ostracism, she knew that God had invited her to do a great thing. She would look at her life as a young, not quite married, woman in a patriarchal world, and she would be confident that God could work through her. So, she sang her own song about redemption and salvation.
This is what she knew and we should remember: God does not only care about the powerful and the shiny and the healthy and the free. God does not look at the broken and the lonesome and mentally ill and the poor and throw them away. In every person is the image of God. God can, and will, work through each of these reflections. Mary reminds us that God does great things with and for those whom the world calls lowly. God will scatter the powerful and give mercy to the fearful. God will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. God will look at the hungry and make sure they have enough to eat. Those who have hoarded more than they need will be sent away. The firefighters in Santa Barbara will save their neighbors. The singers in Skid Row will help save one another. And, God will be right in the midst of it, saving all of us. We will help bring God into the world when we act like Mary, and say yes when God calls on us to be a part of it... when each of us says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
This fourth Sunday in Advent, we remember joy... God's delight in us and our delight in God. We will be laboring, too, like the firefighters who are trying to get home to their families and the musicians who find healing and hope on Skid Row; like Mary, who will soon give birth far from home in less than ideal conditions. I pray that we can find the joy like Mary's in the midst of our labor, that we can sing of our magnified souls and our confidence in God's goodness. And, I pray that we can see the labors of our neighbors, who live in harm's way, and remember how Mary said God would respond to their need. Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us, too, according to God's word. May we learn to sing of our redemption.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
The most recent concert in the series Pastor Chrissy references can be viewed here: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10155677137750865&id=73250630864
Kamala Kelkahr: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/incarcerated-women-risk-their-lives-fighting-california-fires-its-part-of-a-long-history-of-prison-labor
Alex Ross: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/01/handels-messiah-on-skid-row?mbid=nl_Daily+122217+Subs&CNDID=24785604&spMailingID=12621265&spUserID=MTMzMTgyNTkzNzAyS0&spJobID=1302071121&spReportId=MTMwMjA3MTEyMQS2
Info about the Midnight Mission: http://www.midnightmission.org/about/mission-statement/
Street Symphony: http://streetsymphony.org/
On Luke 1:46-55
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5024
Judith Jones; http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2705
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.