The Foremothers of Our Faith

Prepared for Wesley United Montreal’s Sunday Service of Dec. 23, 2018; based on Luke 1:39-55 (Gospel and Alt. Psalm for Year C Advent 4).

I’ve been thinking about the Parkland shooting in February of this year, as I’ve reflected on what a challenging year 2018 has been.

Specifically, I’ve thought of all the courageous young people across the globe who’ve spoken out against violence and hate, against injustice and the degradation of our planet.

When columnists and pundits were reflecting on the “March for Our Lives” movement in the US, focused on gun-control and spearheaded by these young people, and observation was made.

What do you expect from a generation that was raised on books like Harry Potter and Hunger Games? Youth and young adult fiction that said resistance is possible, we can change the world together.

As 15-year-old Parkland shooting survivor Anna Crean told reporters, “We can make a difference because that’s what books and movies have told us since we were little.”[i]

***

Today we read a section of the Gospel of Luke. I imagine much of it was familiar to you. It is to me, I’ve read and heard it countless times before.

And, a number of folks have asked if preaching this Advent is different because I find myself in a state similar to Elizabeth and Mary.

In a way, yes. Because I was struck by this passage this year, in a way I hadn’t been before. But, what struck me more than anything, was the loud voices of Elizabeth and Mary.

How I had not heard them before? I had been so focused on those little lives, coaxed into being by the work of the Spirit, that I had missed something.

***

In our Christmas pageants, who do we cast in the role of ‘messenger to the Good News’?

Angels. Shepherds. Even the incredibly late magi from the East.

But, it was the women who were the first. Who recognized, in this budding life, a new creation being made.

Our text tells us Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, like the roaming prophets of the First Testament. And she prophesies to her cousin Mary:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”[ii]

“Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”[iii]

Elizabeth echoes the words of the messenger, Gabriel. She affirms his declaration that Mary is “blessed […] among women!”[iv]

This is the woman who will raise John the Baptist, the one called to forewarn the world of God’s coming Kingdom. The angry man crying: Repent![v]

And I wonder, what stories Elizabeth told him at night… Did she recite stories of the old prophets, crying out in the desert?

 Did she tell him, in quiet whispers, of the promise God made to her and Zechariah, of who their son would become?

A child raised on story, believing that God is working in this world—doing something new—that is the kind of upbringing that inspires world-changers. These are the mothers, the parents, who lift their children up, and tell them a better world is within reach.

John’s vocation as a prophet, comes not, in my opinion, from his father the priest. But, from his mother who, filled with the Holy Spirit, was the firstto declare God is at work here!

Where her husband is struck silent in his disbelief,[vi]Elizabeth feels the baby moving in her womb and believes.

***

Prophetic genes must run in the family. As we turn, now, to look at Mary: We see a young woman, a teenager not so dissimilar from Anna Crean, who sings a song of rebellion and liberation. How right it is that God’s new work would be declared by both an old woman and teenaged girl.

The Biblical stories are filled with images of women who are not passive, but active agents of God’s workings. And, it is so easy to read them as secondary characters in this great masculine epic—but we lose out on so much richness when we see them as a reprieve from the main story.

It is through the last, the least, and the littlest that God’s Good News is revealed.

Mary’s song is not just a prayer of thanksgiving but a declaration, a taste of what God’s coming Kingdom will look like.

She sings of a God who exalts the lowly, fills the hungry, and rejects the powerful; a God whose reign is known by justice and mercy.[vii]

Mary is a revolutionary; and, what a woman to raise the man we know as Jesus.

Did he listen to her ranting by the fire as she cooked? Calling out the imperial regime, and railing against the Jewish leaders who had aligned themselves with empire?

Did she sing him songs of resistance as he fell asleep?

Did she tell him, with awe in her voice, about Gabriel’s visit and who she dreamed her son would become? Of the promises God made her?

***

What a disservice we do to our faith when we skim over these pages. The Gospel stories show women, children, the disabled, and the elderly as God’s actors in this great revelation.

God chose the most vulnerable in society to reveal her great workings of love. And, these people didn’t go about their calling quietly. They sang and prophesied loudly, they cried out in the streets, and rushed to Jesus. And, he responded by calling them “blessed”.[viii]

It was the women, filled with God’s Spirit, who were the first. Who recognized, in this budding life, a new creation being made.

What a God, whose Christ’s coming would be announced by women, and whose resurrection would be declared by women also.

If you remember, when the women came from the tomb to declare that their Teacher’s body was gone, the disciples didn’t even believe them.[ix]

What a God, who chooses the Good News to be delivered by those society doesn’t even consider a worth-while witness.

God’s Kingdom is such an easy thing to miss out on, when we close our eyes and ears to those around us declaring God is at work here!

***

Mary’s song is a precursor to John’s own ministry, and both set the stage for the life and work of Jesus. Both remind God’s people of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants;[x]a promise which is extended to us.

And, in a while, we’ll sing together the “Canticle of Turning”, inspired by Mary’s song. It is a prophetic declaration that we join in singing, believing that God’s great work of love is still being revealed today.

We follow in Jesus’ example, believing he has shown us the way to join our voices with our foremothers, singing God is at work here!

 

[i]“How Harry Potter Inspired The Parkland Student Activists — And What That Means For The Future Of Children’s Literature” by Sadie Trombetta. Mar 27 2018.

[ii]Luke1:42b NKJV

[iii]Luke 1:45 NKJV

[iv]Luke 1:28b NKJV

[v]Luke 3:3

[vi]Luke 1:21

[vii]Luke 1:46-55

[viii]Luke 6:20-22

[ix]Luke 24:11

[x]Luke 1:55

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A Peninsula Divided

A theology student from Montreal visits the Korean DMZ with students from the Asian Pacific region to call for peace.

This blog post was first published on the United Church of Canada’s Website by People in Partnership on November 14, 2018.

In 2009, at the age of 19, my mother passed away from breast cancer.

I think, when we’re faced with profound injustice that we can’t comprehend fully, we are often brought back to experiences of our own where the piercing sensation of unfairness has touched us. That’s what I was thinking as I stood in Imjingak, Paju, Korea looking at the remembrance wall where South Korean families bring messages for their loved ones on the other side of the DMZ, the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

The boundary that separates my mom from me is not some manufactured liminal space. It is concrete. It cannot be crossed or reversed. Standing there and looking at the messages left by families, and the messages of peace and reunification, I couldn’t help but think of the legacy of sadness this place represented. I had met numerous people that week, in Seoul, who told me about family (immediate and extended) who they couldn’t see, or know, because of the 1945 division of the Korean Peninsula by Russia and the United States. I kept thinking how much my heart would ache if I knew my mom was just there—out of reach.

A group of students hold a banner calling for peace at the Korean DMZ.
Delegates from the conference outside the Mariest Education Center, Seoul, Korea.

I was in South Korea this past August as a member of a delegation with the World Student Christian Federation for the “The Prophetic Calling for Peace: Ecumenical Students and Youth for Sustainable Peace in Korean Peninsula” peace conference. I was the only North American among members from Asia Pacific. We were invited to come to the peninsula to learn about peacemaking from Korean students, theologians, church leaders, and the profoundly inspiring women’s movement. The Korean Student Christian Federation hosted us for a week, teaching us about the history and possibilities for the future of the peninsula. Part of this included our trip to the DMZ in Paju.

For that week I learned about how the U.S. military industrial complex still maintains incredible power in the peninsula, contravening the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in 1953. I learned how soldiers of not just Japan, but the U.S., used and abused the “comfort women” of South Korea, and these “grandmothers’” continued struggle for recognition and a formal apology. I learned how the South Korean military, controlled by a U.S. army general, shapes the formative years of every able-bodied young man through mandatory conscription. I learned that denuclearization of the North makes little sense when no peace treaty has been signed, and other global powers use their own nuclear weapons as a constant threat—whole world denuclearization is the only reasonable option.

During a visit to the Korean DMZ, students gathered before a large colourful sign made up of the letters, "DMZ".
Delegates at the DMZ’s “fourth tunnel”, Paju, Korea.

I was also deeply inspired by the other young people I met, from across Korea and Asia Pacific, who cared fiercely about justice and peace issues. Together, we formed a circle of global prophetic voices calling for peace everywhere, not just on the Korean Peninsula. In our communiqué for WSCF Global we wrote that peacemaking “calls on the life-giving power of truth, love, and unity in diversity. It resists the destructive powers of anxiety, fear, control and greed. Peacebuilding comes from a place of ‘inner peace’, which for us, as Christians and ecumenical partners, is derived from a life of faith and the inspiring story of the radical Jesus Christ.” Noting that we each were taking a seed of peace, gifted to us by our Korean siblings, we returned back to our own homes emboldened to work together for peace.

Selina Mullin is a student at the United Theological College and participated as a Pilgrim in Mission in A Prophetic Calling for Peace: Ecumenical Students and Youth for Sustainable Peace in Korean Peninsula, hosted by Mission & Service partner the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) in August 2018.

An unusual king and an “otherworldly” kingdom

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United Montreal’s Sunday Service for November 25, 2018 (Proper 29, based on John 18:33-37).

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”[i]

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a CEO. My company is vast and I have amassed great wealth. There are tens of thousands under my employ, and I pay taxes in 17 different countries!

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a Prime Minister! My cabinet is filled with important men and women. I decide on policies that will benefit my donors. And, my legacy will go down in the history books.

Jesus was brought before Pilate, and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus replied: […] No, I am a Self-Help Guru! Millions hang on my every word, buy my books, and follow my diet plans. They will do anything I say.

[…] Jesus was brought before Pilate, […] and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus asked him where he got that idea from.

***

When Pilate asks the question, “Are you King of the Jews?”, he is assessing the threat that Jesus poses to the occupying Roman Empire.

Pilate wouldn’t very well care if Jesus is a religious figure. Roman rule was invested in allowing Judaism to exist in Israel—it was a political and military strategy to maintain control. But, if Jesus was a revolutionary figure, one who might want to rebel against the occupation? That would be a real problem.

When Pilate asks his question Jesus responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”[ii]Though Pilate might not care if Jesus is a religious figure, who broke no Roman laws, there are others who do.

The Gospel of John says it is Caiaphas, the high priest, and his men, who arrest Jesus and bring him before Pilate to be condemned to the cross.

This whole play is about power.

Pilate is unthreatened by Jesus; and, the Gospel even shows the governor as reluctant to condemn the man. It is the religious authorities who feel their power is most directly threatened by Jesus; they are the ones who push Pilate to finalize the execution.

***

But, what power does this man, Jesus, hold?

Jesus is not a king in any sense Pilate is used to—with borders, an army, and a treasury. Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is not based on nation-states and the conquering of enemies—it is “otherworldly”.[iii]

I wonder what ran through Pilate’s head when he heard that. Did he think Jesus was just another roving Holy Man shouting bizarre things in the desert? Did he see it as a rhetorical ploy to avoid incriminating himself?

What does an “otherworldly” kingdom look like?

***

Personally, I find it hard to grapple with the term “kingdom”, because I can’t separate it in my mind from human institutions, power, and greed.

I like to think of it in terms of “kinship” like Paul uses, he calls the budding Church the “children of God”.

How would you describe this kingdom of God? What image has captured your imagination? Is it a table? A dance? A song? […]

In some of his parables, Jesus refers to it as a feast,[iv]seeds scattered on the ground,[v]and a mustard seed.[vi]

Surely, this is not the image Pilate had in mind when he questioned Jesus!

***

Now, Jesus is very coy when asked if he is a king—he seems to say yes, but he also seems to say no. At the very least, he is no kind of king that Pilate would recognize.

But, he does do kingly things: He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, like a king returning to the city at a time of peace.[vii]

And then, he turns around and does something wholly un-king-like

“He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners”, that’s a line from a communion prayer in the Anglican’s Book of Alternative Services. And, I used to hear that said every Sunday before I came to the Table.

“He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners.”

This is the kind of kingship that would feel so alien to Pilate.

Someone preoccupied with consolidating his own power, surrounding himself with powerful people he could trust, and those he didn’t dare turn his back on. He was the kind of “king” who put himself first.

But, Jesus. […]

Jesus continually puts others first…and not just any others but the last, the least and the littlest.

Jesus refused to align himself with other figures of power and authority; he rejected wealth and status.

Jesus is no kind of king that Pilate would recognize.

***

It is interesting, that Pilate has no idea what a threat this kingdom is to the empire. That’s where the religious authorities get it right.

Jesus is no kind of threat that Pilate is used to.

And, do we sometimes think that we know who Jesus is? Like Pilate, do we mistakenly perceive him as something he isn’t?

[…] Someone safe, docile. […] Someone always allied with our own self-interests. […] Someone to be followed when it’s convenient.

Friends, the Gospel that Jesus preached was a radical one. A few months ago when Heather preached on the Rich Young Ruler she challenged us to think about whether Jesus meant what he said when he asked us to give sacrificially.

[…] The kingdom of God is demanding. Because being part of a kingdom where all are welcomed, loved as children of God, requires a change in our behaviours and our priorities.

When we follow Christ’s example we find our own voice, raised with him, crying out against injustice, condemning those in power who abuse and extort the powerless.

We cannot remain silent while our human family suffers; we cannot remain silent in the face of human greed and hatred. This “otherworldly” kingdom will not accept the status quo of our world.

So you see: Jesus is no kind of threat that Pilate is used to, he is so much more.

***

And, how do we come to this Table today, hosted by this king?

A table where the last to arrive will be treated as the most honoured, and the first arrivals are called to help in serving. It is a table where the roles of host and guest are inversed—modelled by a man who washed his disciples’ feet.[viii]

What a table to sit at—to be invited to.

***

“God SO LOVED the world, he sent his only begotten son”.[ix]The son who would usher in this new idea of what kingdom could mean so that we might know it.

In a while we’ll come to this Table, to gather and break bread. And, I want you to think about what that means… to accept the offer of this unusual king, to be a part of God’s “otherworldly” kingdom; a kingdom that surprises us by turning our expectations on their head.

***

Friends, I pray that God would continue to show you the kingdom in a way you’ve never quite seen it before. What a joy, to continue to discover the depths of our God, and of our greatest example, Jesus. Amen.

 

[i]John 18:33

[ii]18:34 NRSV

[iii]John 18:36

[iv]Luke 14:15

[v]Mark 4:26

[vi]Luke 13:18

[vii]John 12:12-18

[viii]John 13:1-20

[ix]John 3:16