2 ADVENT C 2019: Christmas Subversion

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Alright folks, this is the Second Sunday of Advent
so it is time to get honest.
That’s a consumer warning.

Second Advent
is far enough away from Christmas Eve
that we can open the book on Christmas
and read the margin notes.
If you didn’t know it,
the Christmas narrative is a prophetic story.

By prophetic, I mean a story
that wants us to see something
that is right in front of our eyes
but that we need a different lens
in order to perceive.
Prophets offer that kind of a lens,
and Christmas is that kind of a story.

But we know the nativity story so well
that its very familiarity works against us.
So let’s work backwards,
from the United States in 2019
back to Matthew in the year 85 or so,
of the first century – who, remember,
is telling us a story that took place
fifty years before him.

Actually, before go back that far,
let’s take a stop around the turn of the 20th century.
JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie,
and John D. Rockefeller –
the Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos,
and Mark Zuckerberg of their day –
controlled oil,
and banking monopolies.

They also concluded
that the Women’s Movement
and religion
had become too mettlesome in politics.
They actually colluded with one another
and their peers,
to take both the Women’s Movement
and the Churches
out of the public square.
They were quite clever about how they did it,
and more to the point,
it is a strategy that was copied by titans
of the last decades
of the twentieth century as well.

What those earlier robber barons did
was to use their money and influence
to raise up leaders within Christianity
and the Women’s Movement,
who divided them, and eventually
redirected the energies of both
toward private morality
instead of public policy.

Today we don’t think of feminism and Christianity
as allies, which is a measure of how successful
the robber barons were.

But feminism and Christianity
were a powerful social force
focused with passion on issues of public policy:
the distribution of wealth,
addressing the ravages of poverty,
creating fair labor and child labor laws,
fighting to break up and limit
the power of monopolies,
and counter-acting the growing
nationalism and war-mindedness.

The robber baron’s strategy shifted that energy
so that the Women’s Movement and the Church
became obsessed with
alcohol and drug consumption,
sexual behavior,
and, what else, teenagers.

Christianity was diverted
from being a passionate advocate
for social justice
to a watchdog of private morality.

The obsession with private morality continued
from the Temperance Movement on,
until slowly the churches became enmeshed
in the Civil Rights movement of the sixties
and then the anti-Vietnam war Movement.

But then again in the late 20thcentury,
millions of dollars from very wealthy,
politically and economically minded patrons,
began funding
theologically conservative leadership
in all of the mainline Protestant churches,
including The Episcopal Church.

What we have witnessed as the moneyed invasion
of political parties
actually began in mainline Protestant Christianity
and to a lesser but significant extent
in Roman Catholicism.*

It was a guided effort
that succeeded in fracturing
and weakening Protestantism,
which was also just beginning to stumble
under the weight of pervasive secularism.
Long story short:
Just because you are paranoid
doesn’t mean someone is not out to get you.

The sweep of the Biblical narrative
and the Christmas story in particular,
are radically corrosive to the self-interests
of those who wield power and wealth
and seek to control culture.

I am not making this up –
it is not some political spin
I am putting on the gospel:
it has always been there
right in front of our eyes
if we had the lens to see it.

When Matthew tells us
the word of John appeared in the wilderness,
his narrative is obsessed with King Herod.
Likewise, when Luke begins his story
of Jesus’ birth
it is with telling us who the politicians were.
From the beginning of Matthew and Luke,
the two Christmas gospels,
we know it was in the reign of Tiberius,
under the local dictatorship of Pontus Pilate,
and within the tetrarchy of Herod.
Here is why the Christmas story
is enmeshed with the narrative of political power.

History is told
from the point of view of the winners –
more precisely, by the winner’s historians.
The chemists of culture
tell us how it happened and why,
and they tell us what they want us to know.

So if you are telling a story
in the midst of a culture hostile to you,
as Matthew and Luke were doing,
and you want your story to be remembered,
then you have to peg the events
to milestones that the winners care about.

We have been in this position for a very long time.
Almost all of Biblical theology
is told from within a hostile culture,
and told subversively against the winners.

From the very beginning,
when we were slaves in Egypt
we have understood that God’s people
are in a hostile environment
and that by banning together
we are creating a counter-cultural movement.

There have been times in our history,
from Mount Sinai in Egypt
to Mount St. Alban’s in Washington DC,
when Christians acted
more like Pharaoh than Moses
but it never takes very long to be dramatically
reminded about which one is our spiritual path.

From the very beginning
our spiritual tradition
has been composed of prophets
that warned the kings
and religious authorities in Israel
of truths they could not see in front of them.

They warned that royal policies and culture
dedicated to self-interest,
maintenance of power for the elite,
and consumerism
would come to insure national ruin.
We have long understood
that such prophetic witness
is required of spiritual people.

From the very beginning,
when we were healers
for people who had been marginalized
because of illness and woundedness;
and then when we too had become marginalized
because we dared to embrace them;
we understood that subversiveness
is required of spiritual people.

From the very beginning,
when we were messiahs and disciples
who sought to reform our own religion
because it had become fat and corrupt,
and a rigid hierarchy of men who were enmeshed
in economic and military power,
we understood
that rubbing salt into the wounds
of those powerful elites
is what it means to be spiritual people.

From the very beginning
even though our religious leaders
and our religious institutions
often became the prostitutes and pimps
of economic culture,
strong currents in Christianity
have always remembered
that being the yeast of justice,
advocates of mercy,
and lovers of peace
is the ordinary work
of spiritual people.

It is the Christmas story,
perhaps even more graphically than all others,
that holds these reminders
of what spiritual people do.
And this is why we need to take the story back
from the chemists of culture
who have neutered it.

Week by week in Advent,
until that moment on Christmas Eve,
we tell a story from the margins of society
that holds a profound and poignant reminder
that being spiritual people
requires us
to always be swimming against the current.

Then, on Christmas eve –
like American slaves
worshipping under the watchful eye
of their masters –
we tell the more polite and socially acceptable
version of the story,
which also has a kind of truth
and so we can still tell it with integrity.

Being spiritual people,
it should excite our anger and indignation
that our story,
the Biblical one about Christmas,
is never authentically told in the public square.
All that Christmas stuff we hear on the radio,
see in those manger scenes,
read about in the newspaper,
images on Facebook or watch on television,
are sentimentalized and stripped
of any true spiritual content.

That Christmas
has been appropriated by the chemists of culture
in order to reinforce the story
they want us
to spend our money on.

Being spiritual people,
we understand that the Biblical story of Christmas
is counter-cultural,
and we share in the joy of surprise
when those who never knew it
stumble into its subversive wisdom.

So here it is,
a little whisper of truth for spiritual people
in the midst of a culture hostile to it:

“In the reign of Donald Trump,
when Cuomo was Governor;
Francis was pope;
and Michael, Presiding Bishop;
the Word of the Lord
came to a strange and motley group
huddled around a Wayfair altar
on the northern shore of Seneca Lake
located in the upstate region
known as FLX, or the Finger Lakes.

‘Prepare the way of the Lord:
God is coming into the world
incarnate in the vulnerable flesh
of a human infant,
surrounded by the brutality and violence
of poverty inflicted upon it
by those who hold the reins of power
and those who look the other way.
God is coming to speak truth to power.
So get ready.
Be that truth.
Subvert that power.’”

Now in case you never heard it put quite that way,
this is the Christmas story – the Biblical one.

But please, let us also take care.
This is a tough season for spiritual people.
We see things
and we know things
that weigh heavy on our hearts and minds.

We understand what is going on
and we recognize the motives of people
that are led by profit more than justice.
It is a weary season for spiritual people
because we are by nature
and by desire

We see and we feel
the woundedness of others,
even as we experience most acutely
our own wounds.
So take care.
Spiritual people need to be nurtured
especially in such a difficult season.

Allow yourself
to be held in the arms of community.

Allow yourself
to find the arms of those
who love you most closely.

Allow yourself
to stop and breathe and remember
there is a bigger picture,
a deeper hope,
a greater love
than any we see named or evoked
in the culture around us.

Allow yourself
to rest and be touched
by the peace of God
that surpasses all understanding –
that strange whimsical and mysterious movement
of the Spirit
that winnows through
our ordinary days.

Allow yourself
to stop and look around
and see the marvelous people
in the world around you –
even right here
even right now –
and reckon them as a gift.

Who would have thought,
given what we have been told
by all those who are hostile to Christianity,
that a religion could be so spiritual
and that being spiritual
we could be so counter-cultural and subversive –
even to our own self-interest?

Welcome to the season
and take good care.