Certain Reversals

Luke 1:39-56

Lisa Larges,
Regional Partnership Coordinator
That All May Freely Serve

Friday, November 10, 2006

Lisa Larges joined the TAMFS staff in 2002, after graduating from San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1989. She organized the Witness for Reconciliation Project to promote dialogue on the full participation of GLBT Presbyterians. Lisa is a deacon at Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco and a candidate for ministry under care of the San Francisco Presbytery.

Opening Remarks

Lisa began her time at the pulpit with the following:

So the question asked more than any other: what is the difference between More Light Presbyterians, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and That All May Freely Serve.  Though I’ve had ample opportunity to answer this question I haven’t yet formulated a response that doesn’t seem to me either awkward or muddled.  Of course, the corollary question, one that is asked almost as frequently is: Why are there three organizations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with more or less the same mission.  In my own heart, I do not believe there is an answer to that question that is compelling.

Be that as it may, I think the questions point to a desire for the confidence that all three of these organizations are working together in whatever way in order to be faithful to all the energy, time, money, hard work, creativity, hope and love entrusted to us.

I know that there are many in this room who have worked very hard over many years to do the good work of collaboration between and across our organizations.  I know that from time to time we have succeeded well in that – again, thanks too many here.  I know that it has been a rocky road that we have traveled together.  I know that from time to time we have found it more advantageous to work apart rather than together.  I know that sometimes efforts at working together have broken down and we’ve worked separately by default rather than by design.    I know that from time to time we’ve adopted divergent strategies that sometimes compliment and sometimes compete with one another.  I know that sometimes real philosophical and theological differences underlie those divergent strategies.  I know that sometimes matters of power-sharing and accountability have been at issue.  I know that our decisions and our actions in regard to one another have not always been governed by the better angels of our nature.

And I know that every morning God gives us a new day to do this work better, and to do it better together.  I know there are plenty here committed to doing just that.

To those of you here, saints of God, who, to one degree or another support all three organizations – those of you who extract all of our newsletters and appeal notices and other missives out of your mailboxes – those of you who turn up at every assembly and shell out the bucks for the distinct privilege of eating the same rubber chicken and the same faux cheesecake at all of our various lunches and dinners in the vain hope of dancing it off at the Witherspoon party – those of you who organize at the local level where all of the groups tend to get along just fine and organizational identities merge and fuse and blob over in to one another – I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to be unrelenting in holding That All May Freely Serve, More Light Presbyterians and the Covenant Network of Presbyterians accountable to do this work well, to do it right, and to do it together.  My beloved friend and mentor, Janie Spahr regularly reminds me that this isn’t our movement, this is God’s movement.  Our job is to be faithful.

I, along with my colleagues from That All May Freely Serve pledge, on this new day, to meet the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and More Light Presbyterians with humility and forgiveness, with challenge and hard questions and honest answers, with respect and openness and shared power, and with all the generosity and grace we can muster.

So, I want to thank you, Vicky Curtiss, and the other twenty members of the Theological Task Force for daring to teach us Presbyterians, a stiff-necked people, something about discernment.  May we, in this movement for justice and liberation have hearts that are tender to the movement of God’s Spirit, so that together we can work for a church as generous and as just as God’s grace.

Sermon

Nowhere in the novels of Jane Austen do any of the male characters speak exclusively to one another.  Jane Austen said this was because she had no idea what men said to each other without at least one woman present.

What we might infer then about the gender of the author of the third Gospel, who writes with such confidence about and conveys such intimacy in the conversation between two women alone, and who chooses the song of the foremother Hannah for Mary’s song of praise when any number of other Psalms would have been perfectly serviceable – what we might infer from these things I will leave to your own surmising.

My point is only this:  rarely in Scripture do women talk to each other – Naomi with her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, and then Mary and Elizabeth.

Imagine these two.

Imagine first the old lady.  Imagine being very old and very pregnant.  The text tells us that for the first five months she hid herself.  This pregnancy was a miracle, indeed, an answer to prayer.  Imagine her years of quiet shame as a childless woman in a culture where child bearing was all.  But now, imagine the buzz in the village – the neighbors walking slowly by the house. It isn’t so far from being the recipient of a miracle to being a freak.

And imagine her body.  We were not meant to be old and pregnant.  Imagine her fatigue.  Imagine the strain.  Imagine the way she aches.

And imagine the girl.  Imagine being very young, and very pregnant, and not very married.  Imagine her terror.  Imagine her shaking.  Imagine the strange changes taking place inside her body.  Imagine her shock!

Imagine them together, the old woman and the young woman.  Imagine the sheer relief at their meeting.  Imagine something incomprehensible has happened to you.  Imagine being comprehended.  Imagine that you don’t even know it yet but that there is one other person, and just one, who understands almost precisely what it is that has happened to you.  Imagine opening your door one morning and finding that that person has come to you.

Here we are on the threshold of incarnation – with two women talking.  We can only imagine, through these few verses what it is they are thinking or feeling, but something of their friendship comes down to us through the third Gospel – something raw and simple and direct and tender.  Something like love.

And there is another in that house with Mary and Elizabeth – Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, who is, shall we say, a man of few words.  Zechariah is, like Elizabeth, righteous and blameless before God, which is code in Scripture for a good guy.  Zechariah is a priest – a Minister of Word and Sacrament in certain very loose translations.

Zechariah has just returned home from Jerusalem where he had been chosen by lot to enter the temple and make the priestly offering.  At that time, and imagine this, there were more priests than priestly functions so just who would enter the temple to make the offering was determined by lottery, and no one could make the offering more than once in his life, and some never got to be commissioners to the General Assembly.  So Zechariah, righteous and blameless before God, enters the temple, and as he is making the offering, a messenger of God – a certain Gabriel – meets him there and tells him that he and Elizabeth will have a child, and gives him the name for the child.  Afterward, this same Gabriel, a kind of divine UPS man, will visit Mary, and tell her that she too will have a child and give her the name for that child.

Both Zechariah and Mary have some questions.  Both want to know just how this will come about.  To Mary, Gabriel gives an explanation of sorts: “The Holy Spirit will overpower you and the power of the most high will overshadow you.”

But Zechariah, a good guy, righteous and blameless before God, who asks the very same question as Mary, catches it.  “Behold you will be silent and unable to speak until these things come to pass, because you did not believe my word which will be fulfilled in its time.”  You just never know how far to take it with this Gabriel.

Imagine what words are to a priest – to say all the prayers and blessings of all the rituals of the Law.  A priest is never silent.  Speaking is a reminder of the divine Word by which all things were spoken in to being.

Imagine yourself there, a priest in the temple.  A messenger of the Most High God comes to you with good news for you and when you ask for a point of clarification, the messenger of the Most High God tells you to sit down and keep quiet.

This is harsh.  But the Bible too is harsh.  Listen to Mary’s interpretation of the ancient song of Hannah:  God has shown strength with the arm, has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, has put down the mighty and exulted the lowly.  God has filled the hungry with good things and the rich God has sent empty away.”1

Reading the Scripture through the lens of empire biases us toward mercy.  Yes, justice for the sinned against, but mercy, dear God mercy for the perpetrators.  Most of us here in empire are good people.  We do not mean for our comfort to be derived from the hard and abysmally compensated labor of others.  We do not mean for our consumption to relegate three fourths of the world’s population to abject poverty.  God forgive us our refrigerators, but grant us our refrigeration.  Justice for the sinned against, but mercy for those of us caught in the avaricious vortex of empire.

That God should fill the hungry with good things is to us the acceptable half of the parallelism.  That God should send the rich empty away seems to us a kind of crude and rudimentary form of rough justice.  We are confident that God does not operate some kind of cosmic seesaw of the eschaton, on which the lowly shoot up fast and the powerful come down hard.  Yet, indeed, Jesus says, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”2  In a similar way, Jesus says 3, if you go to a party, one of those sit-down catered dinner things, don’t plant yourself at the head table, or else the host might come along and with that awkward clearing of the throat, say to you that you are sitting in dear Aunt Betty’s place – she with the recent heart trouble – and then you’ll have to scramble for your purse, and take the water glass because you already drank from it, and then, just as Pastor Judy is saying the grace, there will be that horrible loud scraping sound as you pull out the metal folding chair at the children’s table, because by now that’s the only seat left, and you’ll spend the evening with your thirteen-year-old nephew, Lester, a nasty kid who shoots squirrels and who will entertain the table by making farting noises with his armpit.  (Perhaps I’m over-sharing!)

Instead, Jesus says, when you go to a party, sit over with your cousin Larry and his partner Ray and their twins, and then maybe the host will come along and say to you, “Come tell Aunt Betty that hilarious story of yours about that Lester kid.”  The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

“God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent empty away.”  We, good people of the empire, so uneasy with our ill-gotten power and our unearned privilege, do not know what to do with such verses.  To read the Scriptures through the lens of power is to filter out any critique of power.  Yet the Scriptures, which are silent on, oh, say, sexual orientation, or gender identity formation, or one-man-one-woman-one-dog-two-kids-one-SUV marriage, have a whole lot to say about power – its abuses, its regulation, its redirection.

When are we, good people, going to talk about power.  We are awash in power – it is as pervasive as the air we breathe, and just as invisible to us.  Our government has gone mad with power.  Who will speak a word!

When will the trembling begin in us because we have heard the Biblical witness and understood it.

Unless and until we can talk openly about power, we will be unable to speak wisely and meaningfully and politically about love.  Here in empire we are ruled and driven and kept in our place by power, yet we dare not speak a word.  In empire, love is filial, not social, romantic, not political.  But the Biblical truth that caught fire in the souls of the Reformers is that all power is derivative, that God alone is sovereign, and to that sovereign God belongs all power and all glory.  It is for us only to love God and to love one another – for love is the reordering of power in the service of the divine will.

The author of the third Gospel, whoever she was, means for us to understand that it should have been Zechariah.  Zechariah was a priest – a conduit to the holy in the sacred community.  He and Elizabeth, righteous and blameless before God, are old and without children, and so we are meant to recall Abraham and Sarah and the patriarchs.  Were they to have a child – a son say – he would be descended on his mother’s side, the side that counts in a matrilineal tradition from Aaron.  Then the lot falls to Zechariah to enter the temple.  Then a messenger of the Most High God meets him there, and if you were directing this production, wouldn’t this be the right time and the right place and the right man for the annunciation of the Messiah.  But it doesn’t happen that way.

Zechariah leaves the temple and he can not tell what happened to him.  Gabriel moves on to Mary, and Mary does tell — but she doesn’t tell the authorities.

Here at the threshold of incarnation, we are not with the priest in the temple, we are only in the house with the two women.  These two women, one old and barren, the other young and unmarried, count for next to nothing in their culture.  But there in the house, Mary tells Elizabeth of the reordering of power, and there in the house, Elizabeth feels inside herself a small and holy kick, and she calls it joy.

Because it wasn’t Zechariah.  Because it was Mary instead.  Because it isn’t about our power.  Because it is about our love instead.  Therefore let us be as politically astute about love as Karl Rove is about power.  Let us not be co-opted by power through our failure to notice it, name it, understand it, and redirect it.  For love is the reordering of power in the service of the divine will.

Sisters and brothers, before we get to love, we’ve got to talk about power.  This is our work to do.  It is for us to take up the work that the Task Force could not finish and talk about power.  Maybe, if we do that well, then all the other conundrums handed to the Task force – Scriptural Authority, the Lordship of Jesus, ordination standards– will work themselves out.  And it is not for the sake of the church that we should do this, for the church is but the “provisional demonstration of God’s intention for the whole world.”4  That blood-soaked, war ravaged, violence addicted world and its empires are desperate for another way.  That way is love, and that love is manifest in incarnation.  For in incarnation the sovereign God of the universe, to whom belongs all power and all glory came to this world in love. 

Amen.

 

1) Luke 1:51-53

2) See Matthew 19:30, Matthew 20:16, Mark 9:35, Mark 10:31, Luke 13:30

3) Luke 14:7-11 “When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.  But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’” – New Revised Standard Version

4) G-3.0200 “The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity.”

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