Sunday, December 13, 2009

Joy, Struggle & Resistance

Sermon, December 13, 2009
by Katie Mulligan
"Advice For Bad Decisions"

if you must mount these gallows
give a joke to the crowd
a dollar to the hangman
and make the drop
with a smile on your lips.

~Eila Mahima Jaipaul




Here's a link to the audio recording of the service. Scripture & sermon starts at about 9:30.

First Scripture Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Second Scripture Reading: Philippians 4:4-7

This third Sunday of Advent we lit the third candle. On the third Sunday of Advent we get to light the pink one. The pink candle represents Joy as opposed to the purple candles which symbolize Repentance. First there was the Candle of Prophecy/Hope. Second came the Candle of the Way. And now we have the Candle of Joy. (Advent Calendar guide for those who need it.)

It is an interesting thing to think about what it means for Christians to have joy. According to my Advent Candle guide, “The third candle indicates that the only lasting Joy to be found in life on earth is through Christ. All other joy is fleeting and does not last.” I am struck by our ability, as Christians, to gloss over the context of our joy in Christ and our joy in life. We have developed a finely honed instinct for removing sorrow and pain from the stories of our joy—as if it were possible to find joy in every moment of every day if we just pray right or hard enough. We forget easily that moments of great joy often come with a backdrop of long periods of anguish and sorrow. We forget that there is struggle behind joy. And in that forgetting we refuse to allow Joy to have its complexity and depth; we refuse to allow Christ his complexity and depth. If the only lasting Joy to be found on earth is through Christ, what does that mean if we look honestly at the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ?

This habit of glossing over the difficult detail to rush on ahead to the Joy permeates many aspects of our churches and rituals. Our text this morning is a perfect example of this habit. One of the freedoms of a pastor in the Presbyterian church is the ability to choose whatever scripture the Holy Spirit calls you to preach about. While a church has a great deal of power and authority in keeping or getting rid of a pastor, and the Presbytery gets a say as well, once you stick one of us pastor types in the pulpit, we are granted permission to preach however the Spirit calls. Luckily for our congregations, at least a part of the Holy Spirit’s call is Wisdom, and many of us struggle to negotiate the difference between speaking our mind and speaking the Spirit, which are two different things. One of the things that helps keep pastors and congregations united is the Common Lectionary, that 3-year cycle of scriptures, matched to the church calendar and rhythms of time. It is helpful for me to have such a thing, because of course it was a week in which I did not find much joy, that I was called to preach about joy.

And so we have the passage from Zephaniah. In my Bible, this passage is marked as “A Song of Joy” and it closes the book of Zephaniah, which is only 3 chapters long. It is a beautiful song, a song of promise and prophecy. The Lord will restore Israel’s fortunes; the enemies will be brought down; the oppressors will be dealt with. This song of joy reminds us not to let our hands grow weak—the day is coming when all will be right again. We move, most of us here, in places of privilege in our lives, and yet many of us also move in places of oppression and difficulty (sometimes openly, sometimes hidden). It’s a complicated life we live. But the lectionary, again, leaves out context. And the context of this passage is not a joy fest, but rather a situation of injustice, loss, sorrow, fear. Chapter 1 of Zephaniah begins with the words, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord. I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble [and sweep away those who cause the wicked to stumble]. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the Lord.” Zephaniah is a thoroughly depressing text—all the way through until the “Song of Joy” begins at the end of chapter 3. Even the beginning of chapter 3 begins with a harsh indictment against the city: “Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God. The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law...the unjust knows no shame.”

This song of joy and exultation is prefaced by a detailed complaint by God of the injustice to be found on earth. It is a condemnation of those who persecute and oppress others. As chapter 3 continues, Zephaniah speaks of the restoration of the people. The speech of the people will be changed to pure speech, and all will call on the Lord. Those scattered in fear and grief to the ends of the earth, those who have been marginalized, will be gathered back to the center and they shall bring the Lord’s offering. The restoration of the people includes the removal of those who are “proudly exultant,” those who are “haughty.” Most of us pastor-types are probably first on that list. What is left will be the remnant, those who have suffered much, those who speak truth, those who seek after love. It is at this point that we find this song of joy. This is no greeting card or simple answer. It is not a call to find easy joy in every moment of life. It is not actually happy news for the haves—this is a song of joy for the have nots. It is a song of joy for those who have lost their homes, their loved ones, their very lives. It is a promise that the struggle to live with dignity and honor in the midst of oppressive circumstances will be rewarded somehow in the end. This song of joy is a “fear not, for I am with you” moment. It is a glimpse of the same joy that spilled from Mary’s lips as she sang a song of triumph and joy about her unborn child. For those who experience loss and oppression there are long periods of hopelessness and despair. Yet there are often moments of hope, resistance and struggle that bring great joy to the hearts of the have nots of this world.

The only lasting Joy to be found in life on earth is through Christ, my Advent guide says. All other joy is fleeting and does not last. What does this mean for those of us who follow Christ? Perhaps this means living a life of purity? Or perhaps it means that nothing we do on earth provides lasting joy? Maybe. And yet Christ’s life here on earth was messy and complicated and very earthy. Christ was all about transgressing boundaries and bending rules in order to provide for others. He was about food and wine and homelessness. He was about pushing up against authorities who allowed groups of people to be marginalized and damaged. He was about love in all of its various forms. The joy to be found in Christ is a joy of resistance and struggle.

To understand Christ’s life as joy, we must also look at the larger context. Even in this moment, this third Sunday of Advent, it is too narrow to understand Christ as simply a sweet little baby in his mother’s womb. For the very act of bringing life into this world is an act of resistance, especially for those who live in poverty and oppression. A baby is another mouth to feed, and when you have no money, this is no small difficulty. A baby is another person to protect, and when there are people after you, this is dangerous. For a woman, a baby is a threat to her life—for all the joy and awesome power of giving birth, it comes with the risk of death, especially in times and places where medical care is not available if needed. For Mary, this baby meant loss of reputation and possibly losing her marriage to Joseph. For both of them it meant leaving their home and fleeing to Egypt. This baby meant that Herod would go on a killing spree in Bethlehem. This baby would grow up to be a rabbi, but one who disturbed other rabbis. This baby would grow up to wander the countryside itinerantly, preaching to the poor and oppressed. The baby Jesus would grow up to stick needles in the side of religious and secular authorities, until those authorities would arrest and kill him painfully. This baby was going to grow up and die, and leave a big hole in Mary’s life. There is much joy in the anticipation of a baby, but it is always more complicated than cute fuzzy bunny slippers. Our joy in the life of Jesus is our shared joy in the power of resistance against evil and sorrow and death.

This week I have been visiting with folks, both in person and on the phone. I have visited with several folks in my online connections as well. Often our conversations begin about what is joyful in our lives right now. And yet, as we move deeper into those conversations we begin to hear about the sorrows and griefs that plague us, even in the Christmas season. Illnesses and deaths, job losses, homelessness. Family members who are in prison. Marginalized groups who are facing further oppression. This week the abiding theme of my conversations with people was “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” I have struggled this week to understand where the joy is when so many of our own folks here at New Covenant are dealing with multiple issues in their lives.

And I think it wasn’t until last night, when I got a late night text message from a friend, that I came to what this week of Joy in Christ might mean. My friend had cracked her skull, and was in the hospital, waiting for a cat scan. I really couldn’t do anything for her—I couldn’t fix her head. I couldn’t even go to the hospital to wait with her, as I had little ones in bed and nobody about to watch them. So I simply sat a prayer vigil for her last night and waited for the text that said she was okay. The joy in this moment was not that she had cracked her skull, or even in the healing of it all (which I am grateful for). But the joy in this was our solidarity with one another—that there are people we can call who will sit a prayer vigil. That there are people we can call who will bear witness to our struggles. That Christ himself experienced such struggles and still loved us each and everyone. This is our joy in resistance and struggle, our refusal to be less than human, our refusal to allow others to dehumanize, our refusal to give in to the despair, even when it seems to swallow us whole.

One of my professors in seminary, Mark Taylor, who has been involved in several movements and struggles for justice, writes these words about resistance and struggle and joy. They are strange words that have stuck with me, and they fit my understanding of Christ who was at once God and human, fully a part of us, struggling here on earth with us. As he talks about non-violent resistance against those who unjustly use their authority, Dr. Taylor wrote these words:
“When a policeman puts his knee in your back and is putting handcuffs on you, your face to the ground or pavement, you may have a sense that you are closer to real power in that moment than you are to the arresting officer, who thinks he is the powerful one...For the demonstrator open to it, there can be in that moment of bodily subjugation a discovery of a confidence and power believed to come from the depths of the earth.” (Taylor, The Executed God, 121)
Confidence and power, which comes from the depths of earth, the depths of earth our God created as intricately as each of our bodies. As we come together this Christmas to celebrate the coming of the baby Jesus, let us remember the context of his coming. And may we be in solidarity with those who struggle for justice and peace. May our lives give testimony to the joy found in resistance to oppression. May we find our way as a tiny church to provide sanctuary for those in need and our fists raised in solidarity and joy as we go.


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