Monday, December 22, 2014

Mary of Nazareth, King Henry VI, and a Hijacked Chapel

Mary of Nazareth, King Henry VI, and a Hijacked Chapel
Luke 1:26--55

The Beginning of Mary’s Story  
“He will be called great…Son of the Most High…inherit the throne of his father David…reign over the house of Jacob…his kingdom will have no end…holy offspring called the Son of God.”  Can you imagine receiving a birth announcement like that through the mail?  The wording itself would seem pretentious; coming from Mary it would seem ridiculous.  Mary is a young, unmarried, Jewish peasant girl living in an insignificant village in a backwater region of the Roman Empire.  Something is happening here that cannot be captured on your standard piece of stationary.   It would take a book to unpack this news.
Henry VI and His Hijacked Chapel
I spent Christmas Eve of 1987 in Cambridge, England.  At the center of that university town’s celebration of Advent and Christmas stands Kings College Chapel.  It is a massive stone structure.  On overcast days, its spires are buried in the clouds.  Its vaulted ceilings are chiseled like ivory.  The organ pipes from on high fill the space with sound as if they will drive out the air itself.   Its stone columns appear to be able to carry the weight of the whole creation and not collapse.

It took five kings to build the place.  Henry VI began construction of the chapel to honor Mary, that unmarried peasant girl from that village who got that awkward birth announcement.  Henry’s vision was that her chapel would be a place of prayer.  His inspiration was Mary’s song in verses 46 to 55 where she sings of her humble estate and wonders at the great reversal God is engineering:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-53)
Things did not turn out as Henry had planned.  Those builders who followed him got deterred and forgot all about the girl from Nazareth who was so taken by God’s regard for the unregarded of the world. 

A close inspection of the building tells the story.  Among the religious symbols and stained glass windows portraying the stories of faith are carvings of royal symbols and swords, knights on horses attired for battle.  Mary’s chapel is littered with the emblems of empire and conquest, war and wealth.  The fingerprints of patriarchy are unmistakable.  Henry’s chapel honoring a humble peasant girl became a monument to the kings who funded it, each king outdoing his predecessor.  The irony is palpable.  This chapel dedicated to a powerless teenage girl who courageously gave herself to God’s will became a shrine to the bloodletting and arrogance of monarchy.  The place came to honor Kings who held in contempt all that Mary stood for.

The irony goes even deeper, in 1987 the chapel was the possession of a male-dominated church.  That Christmas Eve all the clergy and choir were male.  For much of the history of the chapel, Mary would have been compelled to sit silently behind the organ screen bisecting the building.  I suspect that Mary would have been very self-conscious in her own chapel.  She likely would have been drawn to a simple parish church in the countryside with a thatched roof and roughly-hewn pews at the end of an unpaved road.
Why did God Choose a Young Woman Who Was So Easily Forgotten by the Powerful?  
 Mary was the type of person who finds no place in the history books; her voice is rarely heard.  She was a Hebrew, a race thought to be crude, untrustworthy, and clannish by the broader world.  As a young woman she would not even have had a voice in her own family about her own life; she was facing an arranged marriage.  She represents all those people whose lives are carried along by the whims of others, her days shaped by the convenience of the powerful.
At the word of the angel, Mary is troubled.  People like Mary spend a lot of their lives in apprehension.  They try to go through life unnoticed because they are usually on the losing end of most interactions; they walk quickly and don’t make eye contact.   Most of the news they receive is bad news.  The angel, however, cautions Mary not to be afraid; this is some good news for people like Mary.  The favor of God rests upon her, says the angel.  Then the other shoe drops:  “You are going to have a baby.”  Mary probably knew enough Jewish history to know that wearing the favor of God is not always easy.  It is often disruptive, inconvenient, and sometimes dangerous. It can come as a crown or as a cross; one never really knows.  Being an unwed peasant girl in a very traditional society will be no cakewalk for her.

What is Mary’s response to this disruptive piece of news?  “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said,” she responds.  People like Mary are more prone to trust in God because they have found the world to be, for them, such an untrustworthy place. Her song of praise betrays what she believes about God:  God looks with favor on the lowly; scatters the proud; dethrones the powerful; lifts up the humble; fills the hungry; and sends the rich away hungry.  In a world that is stacked against people like Mary, she gives herself to a God who is clearly for her.  In this God, mercy and power are wed; justice and love join forces.  Mary cannot say no to a God like this.

Don’t Get the Wrong Idea
We might want to idealize Mary, put a halo on her head and wrap her in glowing garments.  In this way we can distance ourselves from her.  What if she were not so special?  What if she were a bit like the rest of us?  Then we would hear a challenge in her words: “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said.”  If Mary is not a haloed saint, then we too are capable of saying things like that.  When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, Elizabeth does not call Mary extraordinary or fantastic.  Rather Elizabeth calls her blessed.  Blessing is not something you earn or deserve; it is all gift all the time.  Mary was receiving a gift.

Maybe the real power of this story lies not in Mary’s extraordinary character but in her ordinariness.  This would mean that we are not so different from Mary.  God can work through us; Jesus can, in a way, still be born in us.  And it all comes as gift to those who can’t resist a God like this.  Who among us cannot do that?  Maybe Mary is not so special, but the God who gives to her this gift is the one who is so special.  Mary had the good sense to recognize this.

Back to the Chapel
I sat in that chapel full of contradictions on Christmas Eve.  I contemplated the two stories writ large there, Mary’s story being overwritten by the royal story.  The space was lit by candles masking the details of both stories.  Mary’s song of praise was read loud and clear.  Hers was the only voice in the place.  In that moment I realized the enduring quality of people like Mary.  The Kings who scribbled their vanity on the walls are mostly forgotten, their feats buried in history books somewhere.  Yet the song of this peasant girl, first heard only by God and Elizabeth, is still being sung.  It echoed off the walls that night:  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me as you have said.”  Christmas belongs to people like Mary, and someday her story will have the last triumphant word.

May Christ be born anew in us this Christmas.  May our stories come to sound a bit like her story.
Jim Kelsey
Advent 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014

Listening, Civil Order, and Grand Juries

Democracies characterized by freedom and order exist by voluntary compliance on the part of the citizenry.  It is a fragile arrangement, and this compliance must be continually monitored and maintained.  I lived in a country once where there was little reliance upon income taxes as a source of revenue for running the country.  Indeed, there were a myriad of laws on the books; but practically no one voluntarily obeyed them.   People did not trust the government, writing it off as corrupt and ineffectual.  Thus, many needs within the country went unmet in a way that undermined the quality of life in that place.

The widespread public outcry over two recent grand jury decisions concerning the death of two black men at the hands of the police has gotten me thinking about the importance of trust in a community.  Without overwhelming trust in our institutions and in those who serve on our behalf as public servants, we as a nation cannot be effectively governed and at the same time live as free people.  It is all really that fragile.

How do we as believers move ahead in a healthy way?  Jesus might provide for us a clue.  Jesus is going from Judea to Galilee, and he takes a shortcut through Samaria.  Most Jews would have gone around Samaria.  The Jews and the Samaritans did not like or trust one another and avoided each other.  The woman Jesus meets at the well inasmuch says that:  Jews do not associate with Samaritans (John 4:9).  Their isolated patterns of living led to antipathy and mistrust.  Jesus breaks through those barriers by actually spending some time with the woman.

Reforming the grand jury system when dealing with law enforcement and modifying policing policies is a bit beyond my area of expertise.  (But for the wellbeing of our national community, I think this needs to be quickly addressed.) I would, however, make a related observation.  At our Board of Mission meeting last Saturday, we had guided conversations about the recent deaths and grand jury decisions during our lunch.  Afterward we shared as a large group about our conversations.  I was sitting among a group of people who want good things for all Americans regardless of race.  They want America to be a place of fairness and opportunity, a place where everyone is valued and treated well.  As I sat there, I asked myself why then have issues of race been such a persistent struggle for us.  I think we are a bit like the Jews and the Samaritans; we live parallel but not mutually engaged lives.    

We are people of sympathy.  We acknowledge and care about the hardships of others.  We want to provide support and comfort, but we are untouched by the challenges faced by people who have been formed by a different set of experiences.  We need to work to become people of empathy. Empathy is born of exposure, of hearing the unmediated stories of others.  Empathy comes from living lives engaged with others, from being affected by what affects them.  Perhaps we stand at the threshold of empathy yet remain in the land of sympathy because the journey into empathy can be uncomfortable.

 I was recently at a meeting of ministerial leaders, and we were discussing racial diversity.  An African American man in his sixties told us of an experience he had as a 14 year old boy in St. Louis.  He was walking home one night, and a police officer stopped his car in the street and pulled his gun on the boy.  He took the young man to the police station and began to question him.  The officer demanded that the boy confess to something.  When he refused, the officer began to beat him with a rolled up phone book.  Still the young man refused.  So two officers drove him out to a vacant lot and told him to get out of the car.  He refused to get out; he thought to himself:  “If they shoot me, they will have to do it in the back of this cruiser and leave a bloody mess.”  He shared that, in that day, St. Louis police officers routinely shot young black men without any consequences; he knew he would likely not survive the night.  One officer pulled him out of the cruiser and onto the ground and told the other officer to drive away.  The officer pulled his gun and said “run.”  The young man knew if he ran he would be killed within a few steps.  So he confessed to everything he could think of and lived to tell this story.

When the man finished his story there was an awkward silence around the table, and then the prior conversation was resumed.  The man had just shared a harrowing story about nearly being killed before he was old enough to drive, and no one at the table seemed to acknowledge the gravity and terror of his experience.  He was pushing us from the land of sympathy into the land of empathy, but it was too uncomfortable a journey to make. The man who had nearly lost his life that night didn’t seem surprised that there was little interest in continuing the conversation.  When I read the news these days, I think of that man and the decades he has invested in building Christ’s church.  He hears the same news filtered through a different lens. 

The American Baptist Churches of New York State is a diverse family of churches.  We and our congregations have been shaped by a variety of experiences; we tell different stories around the table.  How can we create spaces where honest, and therefore sometimes uncomfortable, conversations can take place?  We need to be talking and listening and understanding and acting.  What I hear many of our fellow Americans saying through the public outcry these days is:  “We are finding it hard to breathe.”  We as Christians must hear that; we are caretakers of neighbors. Who is our neighbor?  Someone put that to Jesus and he told a story (Luke 10:30 to 37); it is for us at this moment a timely story.  Our obedience to the Gospel lies not with sympathy but with empathy, and empathy comes through casting our lots together in community.

We as a family of churches gathering each Sunday in the name of Christ are a great place to have those uncomfortable conversations that can lead to change in our nation.  Each and every one of us has the life-giving breath of God within us (Genesis 2:7).  When some of us are having are hard time breathing, the rest of us should start listening.


Jim Kelsey


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Fecundity and Transitions

I have always loved the word “fecund:” productive, generative, creative, flourishing, inventive, and imaginative.  The word calls to my mind the image of God’s original creation, that lush garden for which we all were created and someday will inhabit when God deems it is time.  Because God continues to create within our lives and congregations even as we await the consummation of the kingdom, there are fecund moments in our lives.  These are times when opportunity stands before us, when a choice can inaugurate some new and good thing in us, our family, or our congregation.
Loren Mead, church consultant and founder of the Alban Institute, was asked what he had learned in his 20 years at the helm of the institute.  At one point he commented: 
We learned that every congregation went through crises, and those crises were when they were open to change.  Probably the major crisis that happens to any congregation is the change of pastors.  Every time a pastor changes, a congregation has an opportunity to change.  We came to see it as a critical point in the life of a congregation.
We see the arrival of a new pastor as the inauguration point of change, but Mead observes that the biggest changes in a congregation have already happened by the time the new pastor arrives.  The congregation has already faced the loss of a previous pastor and has made some decisions about where they want to go.  In many ways, the congregation has cast their future before the new leader is on the scene, whether the congregation realizes it or not.  Many congregations see the interim period as something simply to get through before they can call a pastor.  They see it as wasted time, like the wait in an airport before the plane leaves.  They do not take advantage of the fecundity of the time.  Some of the most creative moments in a church’s life take place between pastors when the congregation must ask:  “Who are we without Pastor Jane?”  It can be a time of self-discovery and learning new skills.  Lay people take on new responsibilities and uncover gifts they did not know they had.
 If the period between pastors is well done, the congregation is ready to go in some new directions with their new pastor.  An interim pastor is someone who works with a church to accomplish a set of clear developmental tasks that will prepare the church for a new day and a new leader and a renewed vision of what God is calling them to do.
I hope your journey with your present pastor is long and the partnership you share rich.  If, however, you should ever find yourself in a time of pastoral transition, use it well.  God is always in the change, challenging us, equipping us, holding us.  Times of changes, all types of changes, can be fecund times when we trust ourselves and future to God and listen to what God has to teach us.
Jim Kelsey