In 2016 American author and social activist Adrienne Maree Brown wrote the following in reference to racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight , and continue to pull back the veil”.
Truth “alethia” Unhiddeness – Truth is not a thing, it is an event. .”truth happens to us when the coverings of illusion are stripped away and the real emerges into the open” .. (Martin Smith, Season of the Spirit p. 5)
If you did not already realize it, a trip to CVS and the appearance of Christmas decorations stowed ready to display will remind you that our country and our consumer culture is rapidly barreling towards Christmas –
But as Christians we operate on a different and slower calendar and last week and this week and the next are stepping stones towards the beginning of the Church year we call Advent. Advent is the four weeks of pause and sober reflection that might , if we let them, , bring us to an ever deeper awareness of what this Christmas thing is all about in the first place – and what its radical invitation to each of us and to our world might actually be.
Growing up a Roman Catholic kid in a parochial school in Georgia I will admit that for a long time I found Advent both compelling and confusing. It seemed as if we were being asked to imagine ourselves into an historical moment when we longed and yearned for the coming of God’s promised one , the Moschiach – the Messiah – except that it was somehow pretend. We knew in advance that it had already had happened and so there was not particular surprise. It was the child born in Bethlehem, Jesus. End of Story.
It was rather like the way my mother in July would find socks on sale at Sears and buy them in front of us, and then tell us that they would appear on Christmas morning. The implication was that we should be grateful and act surprised when we unwrapped them, as though we did not know they had been squirreled away in her closet for five months.
For Advent and the Christ event to recover its bracing and shocking power to empower and transform us, I wonder if it is necessary for us once again to inhabit a different space. It is one of longing , yearning and shared vulnerability and unknowing that was the place of the first followers of the itinerant teacher from Nazareth , Yeshuah ben Miram, Jesus son of Mary.
And I will say straight out that I am learning myself to do this in new and unexpected ways by the gift of finding myself /ourselves sharing this space and time with our Jewish sisters and brothers in the Sanctuary Collaborative.
To put is in perhaps a provocative way , I am asking whether as we count down to Advent, the count down to the celebration of the Incarnation of Christ .. we need to find the relevant and appropriate ways in which we might understand ourselves to be spiritually and existentially Jews.
When I wrote that .. I associated to two things. One was a story one of the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist told me years ago about an interaction with a Harvard undergraduate who had presented himself at their Monastery in Cambridge with the request that he be prepared for Baptism. As this brother began to work with thus young man he said to him that before he could become a Christian, he first needed to become a Jew. He meant by that, I think, that the young man needed to deeply understand and feel how the first century Jesus Renewal movement within Judaism, the movement that became Christianity, is incomprehensible without an understanding of its origins in the enduring experience of the people Israel.
To put it another way, the monk was inviting the young man into some personal identification with the experience of that tribe of desert nomads whose narrative of their encounter with the Mystery has transformed all of our understanding of how the Holy and the Ultimate intimately connects with humanity.
“ So what happened” , I asked the brother.
Well , that was apparently a step too far for this young man,” he told me. “I have no use for Jews or Judaism” , the student protested rather emphatically and went off to find some other Christian community that did not require that empathic exercise as a requisite part of the path to Baptism. Lots of luck with that….
My second association was to an observation made by the late Huston Smith, arguable one of the greatest scholars of world religions in our time . Smith’s book The Religions of the World was the foundational text of the year-long core course on Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity that I taught for over 35 years at Boston College before retiring this past Spring. Huston Smith memorably if provocatively said,, “Just as Buddhism is the way we can all get to be Hindu’s , Christianity is the way we all get to be Jews”.
That statement is a bit of a koan for me that I still am not sure I have fully understood. Nevertheless in light of my meditation on this morning’s Gospel and reading from the Hebrew Scripture let me offer this.
We get to be Jews when we lean into the fearful and wonderful possibility that our common vulnerability and our shared woundedness is exactly the place where we will find and be found by the infinite Love and Compassion we call by many names: Holy Mystery, HaShem – the Name – Adonai, God , the Source, the Friend, the Beloved,
As I have attempted to “hear, read, mark , learn and inwardly digest” the Scriptures assigned by the lectionary for this penultimate Sunday of the church year (today’s collect) I find there are clues to what it might mean to for Christians to enter Advent as Jews.
First to the Gospel story. It comes from Mark – the earliest of our four canonical Gospels which scholars place as somewhere around 66 – 70 – the time when the Jewish rebellion against the Roman occupiers brought down the unimaginable power of Titus and his legions and the Temple and the City of Jerusalem were almost totally destroyed. It is a day that the Jewish community to this day August 4th 70 BCE remembers with sorrow and fasting as Tisha B’Av
But when the Temple stood it was something that inspired Jesus’ disciples to exclaim . “Look, Teacher, What large stones and what large buildings” it must have seemed totally awesome and indestructible an enduring monument to God’s Protective Presence with God’s People – an assurance even in the midst of their occupation and subjection to the Empire – that God was still present .
I have prayed in Jerusalem at what remains of the Western Wall and just from that one can sense that the “ Second Temple Newly reconstructed by Herod the Great must indeed have been an awe inspiring wonder. Its retaining walls were composed of stones forty feet long.. The temple itself occupied a platform twice as large as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis.
Herod reportedly used so much gold to cover the outside walls that it was said anyone who gazed at them in bright sunlight risked blinding themselves.” (Debie Thomas , Journey with Jesus 11 Nov 2018)
That is what the disciples see .. but in our Gospel account, whether written before or after the catastrophic destruction of this place of encounter between the infinite and finite, what Jesus sees is the fragility, transience and ultimate vulnerability of all human projects –“ fragility , not permanence, loss, not glory, Change, not stasis “ . “not a stone will be left upon stone”.
In some ways this morning’s Gospel reading is a coda to last week’s when Jesus and his posse are again hanging out around the great Second Temple but are admiring the munificence of fellow Jews who are donating huge sums into the Temple treasury. But Jesus is seeing with a different set of eyes and points out to them what they were not seeing or even disparaging, the radical generosity of the widow whose offering of two small coins represents a more heroically sacrificial gift – because it was all she had. We are invited to see with different eyes and count by a different measure.
Moving now to the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures we have another opportunity to see with different eyes.
Last week the count down to Advent gave us the lens of the experience of Ruth – the Moabite woman whose love and loyalty to her mother in law Naomi sends her into a strange land with the commitment only to be loyal to Ruth, and to make “your people my people, and your God, my God”. Ruth models a radical vulnerability and love that compels her to take risks as a widowed woman without a male protector in a strange land where she could reasonably expected to be rejected and judged as an idolater, as Moabites commonly where. And all this, as Reb Toba Spitzer pointed out to us in last week’s post service discussion of Ruth, is taking place during the time of “The Judges” – a period of Hebrew history when the lack of consistent central leadership made everyday life in Israel even more chaotic and precarious.
In today’s reading from the book of Samuel, our Common Lectionary steps towards Advent with another story of a woman who become vulnerable and radically trusts in the presence and power and compassion of an unseen God to respond to her need.
Hannah’s story is ironically a mirror of the story of Hagar, the Egyptian hand maid of Abraham’s wife Sarah, In that narrative , you may recall, it is Sarah who painfully jealous of her servant Hagar’s successfully bearing a child by Sarah’s spouse Abraham . So she abuses and mistreats Hagar and demands that she and her baby Ishmael be driven out into the desert. In the story of Hannah it is Hannah’s “sister wife”, Penninah who having given her shared husband Elkanah multiple sons and daughter mocks and shames Hannah for her infertility and makes her life a misery – and she is not solaced by her husband’s assurance that he wants to be more to her than ten sons. Hannah is not buying it. She is a failure by the yardstick of her culture and she want God to know her anguish .
It is from that place of shame and sorrow that Hannah comes to the shrine of Yahweh Sabbaoth at Shiloh and – as they say – lets it all hang out. She wails and she laments – but her sorrow is too deep for speech or even sound and so she prays but silently, And here it gets interesting to me.. The high priest Eli observing her intense and anguished prayer with her lips moving silently, assumes that she is has been drinking. ! And he reproves her and accuses her of making a “drunken spectacle of herself”. .
And then Hannah boldly speaks out to defend and explain herself to the High Priest of Shiloh : No my Lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do no regard your servant as a worthless woman , for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”
And with that sharing , I believe that Eli’s heart is touched and he is moved to join Hannah in her pleading and pray with her “ Go in peace, the God of Israel grant the petition you have made. ” And strengthened by this empathic connection with another person that is perhaps itself the sacrament of God’s response to her, Hannah does just that .
She returns in peace to her husband, bathes, dines together, sleeps together once they return home – and lo and behold, finds herself pregnant.
Though I am sure that it has not been lost on this community I need to point out that the ecstatic utterance that then explodes from her lips – is the very template for that cry of prophetic joy that another newly pregnant Jewish woman sings out – Mary of Nazareth. It is the song that the Church came to call “The Magnificat” and it is part of Evensong in our Book of Common Prayer. This year happily we will hear it together on the Fourth Sunday of Advent –
Hannah shouts out “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God”.. Mary bursts out, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant”. And both women celebrate the power of the Holy One to over turn hierarchies of power and privilege.
Hannah: The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, He also exalts He raises the poor from the dust ; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
Mary: The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly / the Lord has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
[It has often occurred to me that if a woman stood out on Boston Common and shouted either of these words she might be arrested for being an agitator and an anarchist – or at least dismissed as dangerous and deluded.]
So perhaps the recovery in Advent of what it means to “be a Jew” in order to be a follower of Jesus means to recover whole octaves of both lament and rejoicing that we have lost. That trope – which our choir can perhaps best identify with – is not original to me. I heard it first from Alan Jones, Canon theologian at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco who said that in our personal prayer and our common life we must practice the chords of both joy and sorrow and extend our range beyond our imaging.
The last thing I want to share about this idea of learning from Jews and Judaism about what it means to be a Christian is that our leaning into our shared humanity and common suffering is always particular and concrete.
People have asked me about the Sanctuary Collaborative – why such an effort for a single family? There are thousands of so called undocumented immigrants in our country who are in desperate need of help to prevent them from being deported to countries where many may face death and acute poverty. Why this expenditure of energy on a single small family?
My first reaction is to remember the famous story “The Star Thrower” by naturalist Loren Eiseley. He describes walking on the beach at dawn after a furious storm to discover the beach littered with some thousands of starfish that had been thrown up by the high tide and now were beginning to die in the sun as the tide went out. He spots a man who is slowly walking down the beach and stooping over to pick up starfish and one by one throw them into the ocean. He comments to the man that with so many stranded star fish and sun rising he could not possibly save them all , so why did it matter? Well, said the man as he picked up a starfish and flung it out beyond the surf, “it matters to this one”.
That is one response.
But the other reason that Sanctuary matters is that humans have a tendency in the face of immense suffering and need to retreat into abstraction that erases the individual human faces of those who are in need of our advocacy and have a claim upon our humanity. We have seen this in the way in which “the Caravan” of persons traveling from Honduras and Guatemala to seek asylum in the United States has been reduced to a monolithic “invasion” that threatens our security and well-being. As some of you know my husband Tim and I have been in Orange County California for the last several weeks taking advantage of our retirement to volunteer full time on some of the crucial Democratic congressional races there. We were staying with my twin sister in Dana Point where she and her husband get the LA Times delivered daily. The Los Angeles Times embedded several reporters with the group of refugees slowly heading through Mexico so every morning I would read accounts of what these reporters were learning about the men, women and children who were fleeing the epidemic violence and the grinding poverty particularly in Honduras. (The per capita murder rate in Honduras I read is now greater than the murder rate in Iraq at the height of the U.S. invasion). One image stayed with me.
An LA Times reporter interviewed ”Miguel”, a twenty year old young man who was walking with a rainbow flag draped over his bare shoulders.. He explained that in the rural community he lived in it had been discovered by the local gangs that he was a gay and he was warned quite directly that if he did not leave town they would torture and kill him. With the encouragement and blessing of his family he was walking to the border in the hopes that he might end up in a country where he could be who he was and not be murdered for it.
As you might imagine that story made quite an impression on me. Miguel became the face of the Caravan that I held before me. The opposition to Harley Rouda, the Democratic congressional candidate two days before the election put up defaming signs at Freeway exits simply saying ominously “Open Borders Rouda”. These signs were not representing Miguel but intending to frighten voters by conjuring a nameless hoard of “illegals” (“very bad hombres” as the President called them) flowing unimpeded across the U.S. / Mexican border. These signs were more than just a dog whistle they were a bull horn intended to hijack our natural empathy by promoting fear of the stranger or “alien” in our midst..
Meditating on Judaism and its refusal to retreat from messy , heart breaking particularity into abstract philosophizing and the comfort of cosmic solutions that over-leap history, I came upon this poem by Gerald Stern. I like it a lot because it evokes the way in which generally speaking Jews have not been drawn to the abstract philosophical systems which attracted Christian thinkers to Platonism or other systems of thought that subordinated our natural response to creaturely suffering to the “higher aims” of the State or the Race or some Ideal Form. Jews have been wary of trying to find a place “above it all”. Rather they have preferred to “enter it all”. Not surprisingly this is nowhere more evident than in the rituals around death – where every body of a slain fellow human being must be bathed by loved ones, and every drop of blood or flesh that has been shed by martyrs must be reverently cleaned. And this is that happened most recently at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg. Here is the poem, perhaps it can be your mediation descending into the emotional space of Advent.
The poem is titled “Behaving Like a Jew” and is about the author’s response to seeing the body of an opossum on the highway and stopping to save it.
Behaving Like A Jew
When I got there the dead opossum looked like
an enormous baby sleeping on the road.
It took me only a few seconds – just
seeing him there – with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back again into my animal sorrow.
I am sick of the country, the bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles,
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,
that joy in death, that philosophical
understanding of carnage, that
concentration on the species.
— I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death.
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
with the Toyotas and the Chevies passing over me
at sixty miles an hour
and praise the beauty and the balance
and lose myself in the immortal lifestream
when my hands are still a little shaky
from his stiffness and his bulk
and my eyes are still weak and misty
from his round belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.
“Behaving Like A Jew” by Gerald Stern from Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems published by Harper originally published in the book Lucky Life published by Houghton Mifflin.