The Advent/Christmas season has been hard for me this year. A piece of that is because of yet another personal health crisis. You can read more about this at my Caring Bridge site: Kara Baylor’s MCB (Metastatic Breast Cancer) Journey. This isn’t a great time of year to receive a new diagnosis, but honestly, is there ever a good time to hear about cancer spreading in your body? My view is that it is better to know what is happening inside my body, so it can be dealt with sooner than later. Facing the truth is the best way to move forward.
The truth of Advent/Christmas for me is that this year marks the first time I’m truly viewing these church seasons from the Pissed Off Pastor point-of-view. In the past, these seasons have been mostly about waiting and watching, preparing rooms and hearts, finding joy in the midst of darkness, and attending children’s Christmas programs or Christmas Festivals. In the past it was about getting caught up in all the rushing around and the modern-day traps of Christmas consumerism. There was little focus on social justice or the racial justice angle of the Christmas season. Maybe us “preaching types” would point out that it was a scandal that Mary and Joseph were unwed, or that the world could not recognize Jesus, or that the shepherds, with little status or social capital, were the first to hear the good news. But after that we were right back to comfort, peace, joy and love – no discomfort allowed – no dwelling too long in the calls for justice in the Christmas story.
The first Sunday in Advent I preached a sermon that was a complete flop. There was a clear call in the Daniel 6 passage to preach about corruption in leadership – then and now. There was an opportunity to struggle together with the picture of God in the text, that protected Daniel from the lion but opened the lion’s mouths against the enemies. I do understand that Daniel is part of a literacy writing style called apocalyptic, where liberation hope comes from the defeat of ones enemy and some sort of truth is revealed. Yet, it leaves us with a very “either/or” view of the nature of God and supports modern day thinking about cheering on the hardships of those we perceive as our enemies. There was an opportunity to preach about this story of Daniel and the Lions Den as myth, a powerful story with important lessons to teach, but not factual. I failed to preach any of this and stayed in the warm fuzzy space of Christmas past. It was bad because it didn’t come from my heart and it didn’t honor the truth that my call to ministry now is to preach the red thread of justice that runs through all scripture.
Knowing how bad it felt to preach from the safe zone, I had to make sure the other two sermons I was preaching in December came from the stance of Pissed Off Pastor. The theme for December 13 (Advent 3 – Narrative Lectionary) was Joy is Justice. The readings from Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 reminded us that the Lord loves justice (Isaiah 61:8). The Luke text, quoting from Isaiah, reminds us that justice is freedom for the oppressed, the binding up/healing for the broken hearted, release for the prisoners, and comfort for those who mourn. Justice is real change in the lives of real people who are really hurting.
Definition of Justice – a concern for peace, and genuine respect for people.
The theme for December 27 (First Sunday of Christmas – RCL) was Comfort and Justice. Simeon and Anna (Luke 2) can see in the small family of three, that came to the temple to faithfully follow the traditions of their faith, the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem. Simeon sees that Jesus has come for all people. Anna speaks to the liberation of the oppressed. They are signaling freedom – not just in a heaven light years away- but in the here and now. It is a call to see the need for liberation, the need for freedom for those oppressed in the systems humanity has created around the world. It is a call to see that none of us have comfort in the world until all of us have justice in this world. Anna and Simeon see the red thread of justice in the Christmas story, and it is time for us to see it more clearly, too. Christmas is not just about simple comforts and simple joy. It is about the comfort and joy that only comes with the hard work of justice.
The truth about the Christmas story is that it isn’t a warm and fuzzy story of comfort and joy, but a story of comfort and justice when seen through the eyes of those living at the margins of society, those oppressed in a nation. It is a story of God coming to dwell among us through the least valued in their society and proclaimed by the shepherds who were seen as untrustworthy in their world. It is a story that calls us to look outward into the world and to see the struggles and to act. Howard Thurman’s, When the Song of the Angels is Stilled says it best, so I will end with his words.
“When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and the princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find, the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among people, to make music in the heart.”
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.