Peace: Experiencing the Unexpected: God.

Posted: December 18, 2018 in Uncategorized

Peace: Experiencing the Unexpected: God.

Here we are at the end of Advent again and on the cusp of the arrival of Christmas day.
The season of preparation where we have been invited to ‘stay awake’ to the unexpected awareness of the presence and present-ness, of ‘Serendipity Creativity’ God; in our ordinary living. In the ordinary… like the song of the Tui in the morning, like the creaking of the branches knocking together in the hot Summer wind… In the ordinary… like the realization that rain is not a singular thing but made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and timing… In the ordinary… like the flares of a friend’s passion to shape justice, and move the world toward peace. And in the ordinary… like the landscape, in all its diversity. In the ordinary… like the lovemaking songs of the cicadas. In the ordinary… like the red orange glaze of a setting sun.

We begin this story of peace being found in the experience of the unexpected. And by unexpected I want to suggest it is justice that we seek because contrary to the Roman Western and increasingly eastern world peace is not found through victory. Victory only legitimizes violence and peace is not sustainable, whereas the peace that follows justice is sustainable, and I do not mean justice as legitimate revenge, I mean it as the achievement of a relational responsibility beyond compromise. A dynamic peace that sustains itself through shared responsibility. Micah speaks of a coming ruler who will restore peace to the world. Emerging from unlikely Bethlehem, this leader will walk in the ways of peace and bring true security to the people. There is a global as well as local feel to this passage. As followers of Jesus we are people in search of peace and even in relatively tranquil New Zealand, there is anxiety and tentativeness as we look at both the global scene and the local scene. The prevalence of domestic violence, the rate of suicide, the murder of tourists, the hit and run of motorists, all point to a global dilemma. We ask of Micah; can the prophetic dream calm our spirits and mobilize us to move from fearful reaction to hopeful action in facing the moral, social and political dilemmas of our time? We have been touching on the impact of a fear driven world over the last few weeks. It is clear, that guns can’t save us, banning refugees can’t save us, and closing the door to religious immigrants can’t save us. Only a heart open to God and our brothers and sisters can bring healing to us and our world. So where do we start?

Well, as usual I think we need to start with the big picture as a way of beginning with that which unites us all as a global community. We might start with the first creation story and with God as that which breathes life into the universe, not as a being but as the serendipitous creativity at the core of what we understand as living galaxies. I resonate here with the scientific imagination of Richard Dawkins, when he says: “The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful it appears.  It is an immensely exciting experience to be born in the world, born in the universe, and look around you and realize that before you die you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about that universe and about life and about why we’re here.  The added excitement that comes with what we know is that we have the opportunity of understanding far, far more than any of our predecessors ever did.  That is such an exciting possibility, it would be such a shame to blow it and end our lives not having understood what there is to understand.” (Radio interview/book release).

When we engage with the Luke text we find that the prenatal encounter of the fetal Jesus and John the Baptist invites an energetic harmony that joins John and Jesus from the very beginning. At one reading they are spiritual soul friends, bound by God’s vision, from the very beginning and at another they have strongly differing world views of how to transform the world they know. Both are conceived remarkably and today, we know that fetuses are aware of their environment, and are shaped by the emotional and environmental lives of their parents. Fetuses can “know” each other and are heartened by loving parents and communities. This passage reminds us to love the children in our midst – regardless of ethnicity, religion, nation of origin, or economic-family background. And I would suggest here that peace is to be found not in the diminishing of difference but in seeking the complementarity of it. Suppression of difference does not bring about peace, seeking justice for all does.

There is an implicit political vision in this passage. First, the passage affirms the reality of prenatal experience. The lives of fetuses cannot be objectified but even amid difficult maternal decisions must not be relegated to the status of non-entities. Second, the lives of prospective parents must be affirmed to insure, that prenatally fetuses have as positive a beginning as possible. The quest for justice must attend every season of life from conception to death.

Mary’s Magnificat, described in Luke’s gospel, provides an image of hope for the vulnerable and oppressed. Mary’s hymn speaks of a world turned upside down. The poor will become affluent and the affluent will lose their fortunes, the powerful will be dethroned and ordinary people will take the reins of power. This is an impossible dream, as the wealthy gain more and more power and largesse even in today’s world. Yet, it is a dream that tells us that our current situation fails the test of divine affirmation. It fails the test of a just world. Homelessness due to self-serving economic systems, underemployment, due to the speed of technological change, and economic instability due to individualism and competitive victory-oriented processes must provoke an uneasy conscience, especially among the powerful, whose largesse is built upon the poverty of others. And note here I am not arguing against capitalism or socialism because they are both failing us. I am suggesting that we are not asking the prior questions that are rendering what we do as insufficient for justice and thus a lasting peace.

The days are growing shorter for the ancients and for us. Is there hope of illumination? Can we dream of a new era for humankind? These are the hopes of Advent and Christmas, something is being born that will mobilize our hopes and hands to change the world that God loves.

Two pregnant women meet.  Cousins, tradition tells us later. Two named pregnant women, with speaking parts, meet. Mary. Elizabeth. Like all the other stories told by Luke, and this one is no different, the teller has a ‘theological’ reason for the story. To confirm the miracle promised by the angel, and to establish the superiority of Jesus to John even before they are born.

Most scholars also agree Luke is not telling a realistic story. The trip they embark on is the first of two unrealistic trips to be undertaken by Mary while she is pregnant. This has caused at least one female scholar to suggest: these stories could only have been told by a male!

Yet we are challenged to consider this fictional story of this meeting of the two women as having shaped Christian imagination and inspired Christian art through the centuries. Artistically, their meeting is often depicted “with these two women in a wordless embrace, sharing, like all mothers-to-be, the mystery of new life within themselves, and with a sense of mutual awe over what God has done.” (JDonahue. America web site, 2006). On the other hand perhaps the most famous artistic Mary presentation is in the great Pieta, where Mary as mother, is cradling the broken body of her son. The challenge is to hold these two stories together to balance the fear with the hopefulness, the negative with the positive. The claim is that people who are oppressed and cannot speak out because they’ll be imprisoned, or shot, or retribution will be made against their families, say they understand this Mary who cradles her son.

While for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in our society, Mary “an unwed mother in an extremely traditional society.” understands what it feels like to carry the awful burden of ‘otherness’. But unlike many of us who live in fear and hopelessness, tradition suggests Mary does not see her otherness as a reason for despair. “She sees through the identification, this stigma, and recognizes that God is working through her otherness to transform the social structures that dominate the world.”  (MBrown. ‘Out in scripture’ web site, 2009).

Perhaps the most contemporary artistic rendering of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth occurs in Michele Zackheim’s 1985 art work called The Tent of Meeting. It is a 400 square meter art work in the form of a Bedouin style tent whose canvas walls are covered with historic imagery from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Describing this work, the late professor of Christianity and the Arts, Doug Adams, said: “An appropriate surprise appears at the top… where the hand of God appears above the pregnant figures of Mary and Elizabeth meeting. The surprise is that we see God’s left hand instead of God’s right hand.”  (DAdams. PSR web site, 2003).

Adams explained: “Michele Zackheim has presented God’s left hand to include and affirm what has often been excluded or viewed negatively.  Traditionally, God’s right hand has been featured in art but not God’s left hand.  In social as well as religious rituals and stories, the right hand has been associated with the clean or the saved while the left hand has been associated with the dirty or the damned.  Such associations have been based on social customs arising from use of the left hand to wipe ones rear end in the days before toilet paper…” (DAdams. PSR web site, 2003).

In another comment Adams indicates that the artist’s intention is to say God reverses all our assumptions. God includes those whom we often exclude. And then this short but telling comment: “We need to develop eyes to see the unexpected in Advent.” (DAdams, PSR web site, 2003). Yet it is not the artistic depictions which have grabbed me so much this year. What has stayed with me more than anything else is the way our storyteller has chosen to play
with a whole series of parallels or contrasts. We don’t hear them all in the Mary and Elizabeth story. But they are there when we read great slabs of Luke’s story. Such as these contrasting emphases: the play between light and darkness, the supernatural with the ordinary, the role of women – and that spirituality is not men’s business alone, the plight of the powerless rather than the position of the powerful, Jesus and John, and between Caesar’s empire and God’s empire.

For me, all of these things come full front-stage in the drama of the unexpected presence and present-ness of serendipitous creativity ‘God’ as the leading role. Today is Advent 4, the last day in the Season of Advent. The season of preparation where we have been invited to ‘stay awake’ to the unexpected arrival God in the ordinary human business of living. Why? Because human business is holy business. Frequently a messy business. But holy business none-the-less. (W Loader web site, 2009).

And to finish; there is no indication in Luke’s story that Mary should be seen as less than human or more than human, less than woman or more than woman. What she is, is ‘blessed… among women’. And that’s the provocative challenge and the promise of Advent. Engage meaningfully in the ambiguities and uncertainties of life. It is the unexpected that is promised. Be hope-filled, joyfully, embracing the possibilities of the unknown and live lives of wastefully loving because that is about and making real and everlasting peace by being all that we can be. Amen.

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