Christmas 1B (December 31, 2017)

That phrase, “a sword will pass through your soul” has captivated those who adore

Mary. It is often prone to fanciful interpretation. The phrase comes from the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. During one of God’s more exasperated rants, God tells Ezekiel, “You know, I can tell you people apart. I can make sure my judgment falls only on those I want to judge. You all think you can say, ‘Quick! Everyone stand by Dan! He’s righteous. God won’t hit us because he’d have to hit Dan.’ No, I don’t. I’ve got good aim. Let a sword pass through the land, cutting off the unrighteous from the righteous.” It’s like a knife slicing through meat, separating fat, bone, and gristle from the parts you want. Mary will see her friends and family cut from her like the limbs of a Christmas turkey. Moreover, she herself will be sliced through, as she faces the new reality.

Being Christian costs Mary everything. In her world, everyone gets their identity from their family. Not just your nuclear family, or the extended family most of us try to connect with at holidays. Figure you know all of your first, second, third, and fourth cousins, however many times removed, and everyone else who knows you knows you as part of that unit that goes by that family name. Beyond that, you were part of a larger clan of related families. You only marry within that broader clan, that consists of hundreds, possibly thousands. That group is your identity, as it is for every other member. Now,

Mary’s extramarital pregnancy and baby born out of wedlock would already have her on thin ice, assuming she and Joseph haven’t been kicked out of their respective families already. But that’s nothing compared to Mary’s being Christian. Luke tells us that after the resurrection, a whopping 120 people comprised the Church, and that Mary was one of them. That was her social group. Luke’s not at all clear that any other blood relatives were there. Most of Mary’s world had been cut off from her.

How can the Church be that small? Where were all the people who followed Jesus during his life? Maybe they didn’t like the direction Jesus’ ministry took. Maybe Jesus sounded good when our enemies got taken down, but not so good when people we don’t care for heard good news. When I was in college and seminary some of the powerful theological voices in the church were from the radical 1960s generation. I had them as professors, or read their textbooks. In the early 1970s they had championed women and minorities, called for liberalizing worship and church discipline, and urged inter-religious dialog. When I studied under them or read their textbooks, they were mostly complaining about church decisions. Without fail the decisions they opposed were ones that championed women, minorities, and the LGBT, or decisions that called for changes to worship and church discipline, or decisions that urged inter-religious dialog. When asked about their change of opinion, they would insist: there hasn’t been one; I’ve been consistent throughout my career.

What happened, of course, was that these guys (and they were always guys) were interested in tearing down obstacles to their work and advancement, but not thrilled that the openings they created let in all sorts of people. They were interested in liberating women and minorities because they wanted to mold them in their own image and hold them up to their arbitrary standards; they did not want to hear what the women and minorities wanted. “I freed you from white patriarchy so you could do what I tell you.” And the thing is, some of them were crucial to the theological formation of a couple of generations of pastors. It’s a generation of theologians that is now largely retired, and some of them have died. It’s clear that while they were part of the radical 1960s, they weren’t interested in the fruit of the movement. You could say that when God’s discerning sword passed through the Church, much of their theology was cut off. Those of us who had to read their textbooks or take their classes struggle with finding what is still applicable in their work. Our struggle is the pain Simeon tells Mary to expect.

We’ll keep things in the Church. When I interviewed with Trinity the paperwork and the call committee both made clear that Trinity has an identity: it is a congregation that works for social justice and is Reconciling in Christ—it intentionally welcomes the LGBT because they are so frequently intentionally unwelcome in churches. And Trinity really wanted to own that going forward. I asked, “Are you ready for that?” The answer was by and large, “Yes.” Our claiming that identity hasn’t always pleased everyone. I know that for some of us the embrace of LGBT Christians and advocacy for immigrants, refugees, and minorities has been a stretch, a growing experience. And I know that it’s proven to be a deal breaker for some of us. There are some who no longer worship with us because of that. And we’re not emotionless jerks about it; we miss them. That’s the sword passing through the soul. That’s the pain Simeon tells Mary to expect. This is not a divine judgment against the people who disagree with you; the disagreement is going to happen because of Jesus and it is going to hurt you.

Probably the biggest lie I have ever heard told by someone I admire is the line so often on the lips of my mentors and advisers in the faith: “No one is asking you to get crucified.” It was meant to calm nervous candidates for ministry, or lay people nervous about joining the church. But carrying the cross, or having a sword pass through your soul, is Christianity as Christ himself portrays it. It’s actually how we do our work. Our work, as Simeon sings to Mary and Joseph, is to be a light to the nations and the glory of God’s people Israel. It is down and dirty work that shows the most vulnerable and most damaged that the creator of the universe loves them and wants them to have a safe place to live, enough to eat, and a loving community. That is a light to the nations. That is the glory God wants Israel to be. God says, “Treat one another how I treat you. It’ll be like shining a light into a dark room. You’ll all say, ‘I never knew it could be this good.’” I never cease to be amazed at how easily Christians transform Christ who recklessly loves everybody into a polite white guy who values what they value, or into a faceless power beyond the edge of the universe where he can’t touch us. That God is utterly useless to the broken, the damaged, the vulnerable. That God is utterly useless to us.

We need a God who can give us the hope of the resurrection of the dead when the sun barely shines at the winter solstice and the culture tells us seek salvation in buying stuff we don’t need and whoever has the biggest stack wins, and meanwhile we’ve had to bury our parents, or had to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary in a hospital, or worry about the declining health of a loved one. We need a God who can give us the hope that tangible help will arrive for Palestinian refugees who regularly get tear gassed for living in their refugee camp, or for Puerto Ricans who still have no power four months after a hurricane knocked it out, or for homeless men of Valparaiso, who are here and who work here and who need a place to live regardless of whether their neighbors acknowledge their presence or not. We need a God who can surround the lonely, the depressed, those who struggle with addictions, and those who live with illnesses of mind or body, and can—from all of us—make a real human community that includes everyone.

We have a God who does all that and more, and who uses us to do it. Sometimes we are the recipients of grace. Sometimes we are the givers. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s giving and who’s getting. That doesn’t happen without Jesus being present like a sword that passes through us. Because this world is too much. There are days when I ask exactly how many terrible things can happen to Trinity members today? There are days when we see the news and ask exactly how many ghastly things are being done to people around the world today? It’s overwhelming. It is too much. And doing something about it so often rocks the boat. The Church says something and we’re told it’s too soon, or too late, or too upsetting, or not upsetting enough to get our attention. Our friends and family ask, “Is your Church seriously doing that?” And by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit we say, “Yes,” and together we carry out God’s mission. And it’s like light shining for all to see. Something of God is revealed.

A sword shall pass through your soul, Simeon tells Mary. She fits in, here, with us. We’ve all got some sword scars on our souls. Hang around on this earth long enough trying to do God’s work and you get your share of those wounds. When the wounded step into the world to heal it, the light of God shines. When the people who have been carved up by the world go into it yet again and say, “God is going to redeem you,” the glory of Israel is revealed. The work of the gospel often hurts. Many times we will fall with Jesus. And we will rise with Jesus.