This widening wealth disparity between the 1% and the 99% is not a new thing – in fact it is quite old really. Over 2,000 years ago, the economic system of the Roman Empire was composed of the “1 percenters” (Caesar Augustus and his family, King Herod and his clan and other puppet rulers in the Empire) and the “99 percenters” who lived under the Empire’s occupation and who bore the cost under a very oppressive taxation system. It was here, on that night over 2,000 years ago that God made a choice – to Occupy Earth. Ironically, this occupation began in the midst of a census ordered by the Emperor himself – a census designed to estimate the taxable income the Emperor would receive from these 99% folks who would finance their own occupation.
On that night, God went over the wall – or more correctly, God snuck through the back door of history as part of the 99%. God did not come through the powerful halls of the Roman Senate or through the Temple leadership in Jerusalem. God came to us as an outsider born to an unwed teenage mother and her boyfriend … a couple of upcountry rubes from a place called Nazareth – a place with such a questionable reputation that a man named Nathaniel would later ask his friend Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Yes … our God is a sneaky God.
This sneaky God came to us as a vulnerable child in a vulnerable place where life was hard. This child would grow to be a man who would challenge the occupation of Rome in a way far different from other resistance movements of his time. He would challenge the powers of a religious system obsessed with deciding who was holy enough to be counted worthy by God. Jesus would lead an occupation movement which brought together an unlikely group of rag tag disciples, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the great “unwashed masses” who were on the margins of Jewish and Roman society – the other words, the 99%. But Jesus would not stop there because God would not be satisfied if this movement was only for the 99% – God wanted them all and would not be satisfied unless the “1 percenters” (the ones inside the power structure) were transformed too. And so we find among Jesus’ followers religious “insiders” like the Pharisees Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, Roman centurion whose slave needed a healing, and Jairus the leader in the local synagogue who turned to Jesus seeking a healing for his daughter. Jesus did not come to save some – he came to save all.
What was true then is true now. Christ did not come to one place, at one time to one people to be locked behind the gates of history. He came for you and for me too. After his death and resurrection, the movement was no longer to Occupy Earth – it became Occupy You … and Occupy Me. Christ came to occupy our hearts, to claim us and transform us to continue God’s reconciling work for justice and peace … here and now. But we cannot be transformed unless we let Christ come over the wall of our hearts and minds to occupy us completely. I love the prayer for self-dedication found in our Book of Common Prayer (Prayer 61 under Prayers and Thanksgivings) which in part reads: “Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you ...” If that isn’t a prayer for God to occupy us, I don’t know what is!
Christ came to occupy us and to draw us into a larger occupation movement we call the Reign of God. It is the reign of a king who snuck over the wall of history; an occupation marked by justice and peace; a movement to transform the world … one heart at a time. Let us pray:
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week, one of our retired bishops was arrested in New York. Bishop George Packard, retired bishop of the Armed Forces and military chaplains, went over the wall in Duarte Square as part of the Occupy Wall Street protest. Bishop Packard might be the last person you’d expect to be part of the Occupy Movement – a self-described conservative, registered Republican, who admits he even listens to Rush Limbaugh from time to time. But a week ago, Bishop Packard and another priest occupied Duarte Square which is owned by Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street. Trinity had been approached by representatives of the Occupy Movement regarding the possibility of using Duarte Square as a winter location after their eviction from Zuccotti Park. Bishop Packard was called in to be a mediator between the church and the movement but Trinity refused to allow OWS to use the property. The sight of Bishop Packard in his purple cassock climbing over the chain link fence and dropping into Duarte Square like a paratrooper was a sight to behold – I don’t think I could even pull that off in a cassock! Shortly after entering the Square, Bishop Packard and the others who made it inside were arrested and his wife Brooke and others outside the fence were assaulted by the police. Later, when Bishop Packard and Brooke were interviewed, he said that the church needs to be about more than just good and charitable works – the church needs to be about justice. Justice is not served when a narrow group of moneyed elites have entre to political power and economic prosperity while the 99% have watched their real wages diminish over the past 30 years and have had what few safety nets our society offered be slowly stripped away.
I recall when I was younger and attending the Lutheran church, we heard very little about Mary. She was generally relegated to the nativity story and beyond that, we really didn’t talk about her. But I did go to mass with my cousins who were Catholic and boy did they talk about Mary. There were statues of Mary in their church, and they prayed the “Hail Mary” and there were all kinds of devotions about Mary. I can’t say I understood it, but I gathered there was something about Mary … I just didn’t know what. When I was 11, we joined the Episcopal Church and here I found that we talk about Mary quite a bit more than I had experienced in the Lutheran Church. Not only did we talk about her during Advent and Christmas, we also celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation in March and the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary in August. It was intriguing to me.
Shortly after we joined the Episcopal Church, we made our annual trip from the San Francisco Bay area to San Diego for Christmas. We’d always stop about half way down the coast at a small town named Solvang – a Danish enclave in the central coast region. In the middle of the town was the old Spanish mission of Santa Ynez. I loved visiting the mission and being Catholic, Mary was very prominent in this church. It was there, when I was about 12 that I bought my first rosary. I didn’t totally understand it and had to go to the library to look up what to do with it and how to pray with it. In fact, as a “cheat sheet,” I wrote down the three sets of mysteries in the front of my “proposed Book of Common Prayer” (circa 1976) so I could remember them all – joyful, sorrowful and glorious. I still use my “cheat sheet” to remember them when I pray the rosary. There is something about Mary …
The prayer we know as the “Hail Mary” comes from today’s gospel reading – it’s known as the angelic salutation. “Hail favored one! The Lord is with you.” I can only imagine that Luke downplayed Mary’s reaction to this stranger greeting her – perplexed likely didn’t really capture the mood of the moment. The biblical tradition tells us that when angels show up, this isn’t something to be taken lightly. Angels in the Bible are not cute … they are scary! They bring news from a God who is beyond all and all powerful – and the news isn’t always good.
Gabriel tells Mary of God’s plan to be born into the world through her. When other people in the Bible encounter God and receive a call to action, they usually try to find a way out of it. Remember Moses? His response when God told him to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews was to say, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” In other words, “Are you kidding me? You don’t want me!” This seems to be the usual response – “Say what? No way – I can’t do that!” followed by some excuse as to why we can’t do whatever it is God is asking of us. Jeremiah’s excuse was “I’m only a boy,” Isaiah’s was, “I am a man of unclean lips,” and then there was Jonah – “Nineveh? Uh uh … Tarshish is nice this time of year.” This seems to be the normal response but not for Mary. She doesn’t find some excuse based on her own self-understanding of who she is. Instead, she says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The only other person in the Bible who had this kind of faith was the archetypical father of us all – Abraham. When God told him to “get up and go to a land that I will show you” – he did. He didn’t give God any excuses – he just followed and it was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” And so it was with Mary too.
It is easy for us to sentimentalize today’s gospel and read it through our modern 21st century eyes. If we do that, we lose the incredible power of Mary’s response. In the first century, the only honor or esteem you held was that of your family and their honor. It was up to you to uphold your family’s honor through your actions. For a young woman, one betrothed in a contractual marriage to another family at about the age of two or three, to be found pregnant out of the bounds of that marital arrangement was to bring shame not only on your own family but on your betrothed’s family too. And the punishment for this was death – death by stoning. Think about that for a moment – Mary said “yes” to a death sentence. We forget how radical her “yes” was – there really is something about Mary and her example! Whenever we say “yes” to God’s call, there is a death of sorts – the death of our small and limited vision of who we are and what we are capable of being.
In this season of expectation, where is God calling you? Where have you found yourself resisting God’s call with some kind of excuse? May you and I have the courage to step beyond what we think we are and follow Mary’s example – say “yes” to God’s call to something new in your life and dare to become something far greater than you ever could have imagined.
Our youngest daughter Erin was about 3 when she announced to me one day, “God is our father and Mary is our mother.” I was taken aback by this but said, “Yes, honey, God is our father. But Mary is Jesus’ mother.” Erin looked at me earnestly and said, “No Mommy. Mary is the mother of us all.” Hmmm … and all the time I thought she was watching Dora the Explorer and she was really tuning in to Mother Angelica on EWTN! There was something about Mary which had captivated her young imagination.
In 1988, a woman named Catherine died in Russia. She wasn't just any woman - she was a distant relation to the last czar, Nicholas II, and hence a member of the Romanov dynasty. The year before her death, Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev instituted the policy of glasnost or "openness" to the west. Part of this policy was allowing the Russian Orthodox Church to hold public worship again - something forbidden for some 70 years under communist rule. So when Catherine died, it was the first big funeral for the Orthodox Church in St. Petersburg - and thus why it was covered in the Los Angeles Times which is where I read about it.
What captured my imagination was the elaborate liturgy at the door of the cathedral. Catherine's coffin was carried to the cathedral where her priest knocked three times on the door. The metropolitan bishop opened the door and asked, "Who seeks admission to the Kingdom of God?" The priest answered, "Duchess Catherine ..." and began to rattle of several of her noble titles. The bishop cut him off mid-sentence by saying, "I do not know her" - and he slammed the door! Again, the priest knocked and the bishop opened the door with the same question, "Who seeks admission to the Kingdom of God?" Once again, the priest began to recite a litany of the deceased's titles and the bishop again responded with, "I do not know her" - and slammed the door. A third time, the priest knocked, the bishop answered with the same question, "Who seeks admission to the Kingdom of God?" This time the answer came back, "Catherine - child of God and sinner." The doors swung open with flourish, the incense was thick, the chanting of ancient hymns began and Catherine was brought into the church one last time.
Admittedly, we don't have royal titles in our country, but could you imagine this if it were say, Bill Gates? "Who seeks admission to the Kingdom of God?" "William Gates, founder of Microsoft, chairman of the Gates Foundation, richest man in the world..." "I do not know him!" Rather shocking, eh?
Who are you? Catherine was not her titles as this liturgy clearly reminded the faithful. Who are you? - the question confronting John the Baptist today. Last week we heard about John's ministry through the eyes of Mark - a wild man in the wilderness who eats bugs and honey and wears animal skins. In John's gospel, the religious authorities show up to check him out and investigate his preaching. Now before we religate these pious Jewish leaders to the "bad guy" category, keep in mind that they had a legitimate reason to check out what was happening. Throughout history, across religious expressions, there have always been charistmatic leaders who appear on the surface to be preaching about God but who eventually turn out to be more interested in controlling their followers. We've experienced these types in our time - Jim Jones and the People's Temple members who committed suicide in Guyana, the Aum Shinrikyo led by Shoko Asahara who carried out Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subways, or the Branch Davidians of Waco led by David Koresh. All of these leaders eventually showed that they were not pointing to God but to themselves. The religious authorities in our gospel reading today want to make sure John isn't preaching a message that would lead the people astray.
"Why are you?" they ask John. John knew he was not the Messiah, so that denial was easy. John was clear he pointed to the Messiah. "Who are you then, Elijah?" This was a good guess given John's appearance - the camel hair, wild man look. Perhaps John and Elijah found the same rack at Men's Warehouse! But "no" came the answer from John - he was not Elijah. "Are you the prophet?" "No." "Well then give us an answer" (we need to give the folks at headquarters an answer!) "Who are you?" John replies not with a "who" answer but a "what" answer - "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
In this back and forth dialog, John refuses to get pinned with a label and the expectations which go along with it. Messiah, Elijah, prophet - all had a kit bag of religious expectations that John rejects. Instead, he confounds the authorities with saying he is a "voice" - or a "sound" (either translation is legitimate in the Greek). John cannot be pigeonholed into an easy definition. John is not his title or role. John is the one who points to Jesus.
Who are you? It's a question for us to ponder too. I've been reading Fr. Richard Rohr's book Falling Upward where he describes the spirituality of the two halves of life. The first half is about building the container of identity - who we think we are. That container holds our achievements, our roles, and titles. It also holds our shame, shortcomings, and failures. But the container is not who we are - and our second half of life is about getting out and beyond the container. The container is important - but not of ultimate importance.
Like John, and like Catherine, we are not our titles, achievements, or roles. We are not our shortcomings, our sins, and our brokenness either. That's why the third answer given by the priest that cold winter morning in St. Petersburg still intrigues me - "Child of God and sinner." Child of God reminds us that we can rest in the assurance of the love of God which cannot be earned or merited - it just is. Sinner reminds us that we are broken, but regardless of our brokeness, it is God's deepest desire to heal us and reconcile us through his son, Jesus Christ. As we continue our Advent journey, ponder again the question "Who are you?" and rest assured that "Child of God and sinner" is good enough ... good enough for all of us.
So in light of my history of reading Hemingway it may not be much of a surprise to you that Mark has never really been my favorite gospel. I gained an appreciation for it in seminary, but it always reminded me of Poppa Hemingway. Maybe Poppa learned his trademark abruptness from Mark. Mark throws you into the action right away … PLOP! … right into the wilderness with John the Baptizer – a “man’s man” who lives in the wilderness, wears animal skins, eats bugs and honey, and calls people to repentance. Just the kind of guy you’d invite to your next shee shee cocktail party, right? … yeah … sure …
John is a truth teller who paves the way for Jesus. But he’s the kind of guy that makes you uncomfortable. He asks hard questions. He condemned Herodias for divorcing Philip to marry Harod … and he lost his head for that one. But for some reason, Mark tells us that people from the big city, Jerusalem, and all the Judean countryside were going out to the wilderness to confess their sins and be baptized by John. In some ways this is a repurposing of the traditional Jewish mikvah bath – a ritual cleansing done before going to the Temple (and most often done by women who were routinely considered “ritually unclean”).
John’s baptism is about confession and repentance; but Jesus, the greater one who comes after John, does not talk about confession at all. In fact, this is the only time Mark uses the word “confessing.” Perhaps this is because John’s mission was to bring about confession and repentance in order to prepare the way. Our Orthodox sisters and brothers call John the "Forerunner" ("the Baptist" isn't his last name). As a forerunner, his role is to get people prepared for the coming of the Christ. Confession and repentance open the heart to hear the message of the one who is greater.
John’s role and ministry, according to Mark, were to prepare the way for Jesus. While John clearly has a strong following of all these folks coming from miles around to be baptized, he realizes the message isn’t about him – it’s about preparing for Jesus. He clearly points to Jesus when he says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John may be a rough character, but his heart is open and he knows his message is about something much bigger than himself. He knows it’s not about him!
Many years ago, my father warned me about believing my own "press." He told me there would be people who think I'm terrific and want to put me on a pedestal and others who would think I'm lower than dirt - neither are true - the truth is somewhere in the middle. John was clear - he didn't let the "press" about his ministry make him into an egomaniac. He didn't move off the message of pointing to Jesus.
John serves as an example to us in our ministry – and no, I’m not talking about a need to adopt the bugs and honey diet. Our ministry is not about us either … it’s about the one more powerful than us. We can lose sight of that because of our egos. Our need to be right, to have our egos affirmed, believing our own "press" or even going to the other extreme of believing ourselves unworthy or unqualified to minister on behalf of Christ – all of these point to ourselves and not to Jesus. John knows himself, his message, and his place – and all of his being is pointing to Jesus.
As we continue to prepare for Christ’s coming in our hearts, ask yourself – to what, or to whom, does your life point? Does it point to the one more powerful than you? In this season of preparation, we are invited to open our hearts through confession and repentance so that we might better be able to point to Jesus.
Is there a teacher you vividly remember? Was it the one who could keep you awake during those after lunch lectures? How about the one who believed in you when you didn’t really think you could master solving for x in algebra? I remember one … because he worked us like a dog! It was my freshman English teacher – Mr. Kurth at Edison High in Huntington Beach. I hated that class – I really did! I came to appreciate that hard work later, but in the moment it was no fun at all! He has us write what are now called “BCRs” or “brief constructed responses” every … single … night. And the BCRs were about the short stories of … Ernest Hemingway. Maybe it’s a chick thing, but I did not like Ernest Hemingway. I know his novels are different, but I just couldn't stand his short stories! They drove me nuts. He’d drop you into a scene like a commando landing behind enemy lines – no introduction, no back story, just PLOP! you fall into a boat fishing or in a duck blind or something like that. And I didn’t know diddly about fishing or hunting or running with bulls or any of that Hemingway stuff. I just didn’t get it! And you’d read these stories and just about the time you think you know what’s going on … POOF … it was done. No ending, no resolution … just as abruptly as you fell into the fishing boat, you were done … outta there … kind of like being raptured out of the story! And I’d be left thinking, “Whoooaaa! Wait a minute … what just happened?”