Minor Details

74732427image courtesy of Herman du Piessis, gettyimages.com … Gospel of Luke 3:1-6 …. On Wednesday, the Presbyterian Women held their December potluck luncheon. They are a compassionate group, these Presbyterian Women, stretching their boundaries to include people who are not Presbyterian, even people who are not women, like me. They’re a fun-loving group, too.

For this meeting, Robin P. wrote one of the skits for which she is known, Bible-based, educational, and full of humor. Gathered around a nativity scene, the three wise men came to life. If you’ve ever seen petite and soprano-voiced Robin wearing a large beard and booming out her best false baritone, then you know you can’t help but smile. Donna C., also known as “Don’t-call-me-Melchior,” painted a perfect portrait of kingly impatient frustration (so well, I think she must have raised a son). And Mary Anna D.’s dry humor is hilarious; it’s like listening to Dolly Parton pretending to be Andy Griffith. From among seemingly minor details surrounding the birth of Christ, Robin, Donna, and Mary Anna invited us to consider a fresh perspective and share a laugh.

Commenting on the gospel lesson for this second Sunday in Advent, one scholar thinks Luke invites his audience to appreciate the humor in another minor detail surrounding the Advent of Christ. Though God might have chosen as his messenger any number of well-known, influential celebrities of the time, instead God chose the unlikely figure of John the Baptist. As happens often in sacred history, God subverts human logic, and does the unexpected. Instead of Tiberius, Pilate, or Herod, Lysanias, Annas, or Caiaphas, “… the Word of God came to John,” to an unshaven man in a loincloth, using dried grasshoppers to scoop up honey like chips and dip.

When I look at the passage this way, and imagine Luke having a laugh at the expense of the proud, it prompts me think about occasions in history that the Church has been caught up in battles of prestige, pecking order, and power. Instances of misplaced priorities and poor behavior have made Christians the butt of jokes. Words like “inquisition” and “crusade” call to mind periods of history in which people were tortured or killed, ostensibly in God’s name, but really so that some could legitimize mistreatment of others with whom they did not agree. When you think about damage done, and opportunities missed to do good, sometimes you have to laugh in order not to cry.

Years ago, some folks were examining the archives of the church I served in Springfield. It was known that the first published list of abolitionists in Illinois included eleven members of that particular congregation. But a search of the archives yielded little evidence that the session was aware of it.

Instead, the record of a different drama emerged. A young woman in the congregation was observed in attendance at a public ball, and further investigation revealed this was not the first time. Regarding attendance at a ball as an act incompatible with the Christian profession, the session engaged in a series of meetings leading to a church trial, and culminating in the excommunication of the young woman.

The archival records scarcely mention the notable involvement of many members in the great work God was doing through Presbyterian Christians to end the practice of slavery in America.   But it records in great detail the trial of a young woman who danced at a ball. As I said earlier, when you think about damage done, and opportunities missed to do good, sometimes you have to laugh in order not to cry.

What was true then is probably true now: people can see the faults of former generations more easily than they can see their own. We recognize that, long ago, many people could not appreciate the John the Baptizer’s message. That recognition invites us to examine the events of our time, and to listen beyond the commotion of frenzy and fear for the call of God.

This week, as I listened, my thoughts were first drawn outward. I heard experts analyze the events surrounding mass shootings in California, Colorado, and many other places in our nation. I listened to debate about potential remedies in the form of mental health care and political action.

Then, my thoughts were drawn back to the Church, and the role of congregations like ours in addressing the root causes of frenzy and fear, something that most of the commentators neglected to discuss. In our increasingly post-Christian society, many consider the role of the Church to be only a minor detail in the script for a better world. But I believe there is something transformative about participation in a Christian community.

The backdrop for appreciating the value of a Christian community like ours is the phenomenon of many other groups that still find ways to excommunicate a minority so that the majority ends up with a neat, tidy, homogeneous group, a group that doesn’t tolerate another perspective, a group in which, I think, the seeds of religious extremism may take root.

A few years ago, I listened to a wonderful lecture by the great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. In a beautiful application of the “Source Theory” that all us ministers learned in seminary, Brueggemann suggested that we have a model for behavior in the very way our Bible was formed. Much of Genesis to Deuteronomy represents the compassion emphasis of the Priestly editors or “P” source, and much of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings represents the justice emphasis of the Deuteronomist or “D” source. Both perspectives got into the Bible. The compassion camp was represented and the justice camp was represented; no one side “won” over the other. Building on that model, said Brueggemann, we should work toward “dialogical unity,” listening to and honoring other perspectives, and being transformed in the exchange. The voice of pain, he said, is underneath the anger and hate we encounter in many. “Conviction without compassion” tends to exclude those who carry a different set of pains and hopes. Graceful dialogue in the church recognizes many voices and does not expect perfect closure.[1] Dialogue like that is a miracle; it distinguishes the Church behaving as God intended, a powerful model and tool for standing against extremism.

Dialogue like that is a miracle that requires another miracle in order to exist. It’s the miracle of God-with-us, the advent of which we celebrate each year at this time. The grace of God-with-us allows us to love and serve in the midst of a beautiful but broken world. The grace of God-with-us opens our hearts to new perspectives, and helps us listen for truth in the voice of our sisters and brothers.

The people of First Presbyterian Church, Edwardsville, have been doing that sort of thing since 1819, worshiping and learning together 10,000+ Sundays. To some, that may seem like a minor detail of history. But, in God’s work of reconciling the world, all that worshiping and learning together in community has been a big deal. So let it continue to be!

[1] Personal notes on a lecture delivered by Dr. Walter Brueggemann during the Festival of Homiletics, Wiecuca Road Baptist Church, Atlanta, 21 May 2009.

 

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~ by JohnH1962 on December 6, 2015.