To my readers: Thank you for your patience for the past four months as I poured all my energy into a Kickstarter campaign to fund my children’s prayer and scripture app for the iPad, Who Are You, Jesus? Thanks to your generosity, the app is funded and we are moving ahead with production. After the holidays are over, you can follow our progress on the project Facebook page, www.Facebook.com/whoareyoujesus
The following is a sermon I delivered on the fourth Sunday of Advent.
Early in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King lost patience with the complacency of his fellow clergymen in the struggle for civil rights. He had preached hundreds of sermons against segregation but the everyday life of blacks remained segregated. When college students pioneered nonviolent confrontation in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides of 1960 and -61, King praised their courage but declined their challenge to join them when they asked, “Where is your body?”
But by 1963, when all the dignified routes had been closed off and the only paths ahead led to retreat or forward over the cliff, King chose a showdown in Birmingham, Alabama, with police commissioner Bull Connor. Author Taylor Branch, in his book, Pillar of Fire, writes that King accepted the lesson of three students: Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel, who preached confrontational Christianity, that only unmerited suffering could break through to guarded or disinterested strangers.
God calls all Christians to collaborate with him to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Together, we are the body of Christ. The students’ challenge to Dr. King challenges us today. God needs co-laborers in the field. Where is your body?
In the reading from Samuel, King David, settled in his royal house of cedar, feels that a tent, called the mishkan in Hebrew, is not a fitting dwelling place for God’s presence. The prophet Nathan tells David “the Lord is with you.” But that night, God says to Nathan, “I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Did I ever ask for a house?” David wants to build a house for God that will embody David’s own dynasty. God replies, “It is not for you to build a house for me. To the contrary, I, the Lord, will build you a house, and establish your dynasty forever.” What is this house that God has built, that God has established forever? It is not a fixed place. Where and what is it?
In the book of Exodus, God commanded Moses: “Let them make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. The Hebrew word b’tocham, means “among them,” and also “within them.” Dr. Aviva Zornberg explains that b’tocham does not mean “among the Hebrew nation as a whole,” but rather, “within each of them,” within each person. The mishkan is meant to represent the fact that God can dwell within and among each and every individual. The mishkan is a house in which there is, in Zornberg’s words, “a hollow core where God may dwell,” an empty space awaiting God’s Presence.
With her “yes” at the annunciation, her answer “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” Mary became the mishkan, the tabernacle. Her womb was the hollow core in which God dwelled within her and among us as Emmanuel. She became the house in which the dynasty of David would be established forever.
In his book, Mary Through the Centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan, describes the application of the Song of Songs to Mary. “I am black but comely,” almost the first words of the Bride in the Song, became the biblical justification for portraits of Mary as the Black Madonna. Pelikan relates that the correct translation of the Hebrew is “Black am I and beautiful,” not “but beautiful.” The Black Madonnas of Częstochowa and Guadalupe have expressed that for countless millions, making Mary an ambassador to the vast majority of the human race who are not white.
What does it mean that the promised dynasty of the house of David was established forever in one who called herself a handmaid, a word that in the original Greek means “woman slave of the Lord”?
Throughout most of history, Mary’s self-identification as “the handmaid of the Lord” was used to characterized her as a passive vessel that received, a model for how women ought to behave, in submissive obedience to God, their husbands, and the church. Pelikan says that the title Handmaid of the Lord is much more complex than that. The Greek word “woman slave of the Lord,” was the feminine form of the masculine term “slave of Jesus Christ,” which became a name for the apostles. One of the titles of the popes is “slave of the slaves of God,” which hardly provides justification for passivity. The root of the term was a reference to Christ as being both in “the form of God” and in the “form of a slave.” The masculine and feminine forms appear together in only one place in the Bible, in the book of Acts:
And upon my male slaves and upon my female slaves in those days I will pour out from my spirit and they will prophesy. (Greek Interlinear)
The prophecy about male slaves was fulfilled as described in the Book of Acts, and on down the ages. But the fulfillment of the promise regarding female slaves was fulfilled first and foremost in Mary, who called herself a handmaid of the Lord, and committed her body to bringing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. The content of her prophesying was in her response to Gabriel and in the revolutionary words of the Magnificat.
What are we to make of this: that a woman of royal lineage calls herself a slave of God? That this woman is the chosen dwelling place of God? That the apostles called themselves slaves of God? That Jesus was said to come in the form of a slave? That God chose slaves on whom to pour out his spirit so that they would prophecy?
Mary freely claimed the role of slave to become a co-laborer with God and an exemplar of human freedom. Thus, American slave masters taught slaves Christianity in order to make them obedient, but spirituals sung by the slaves indicate that some slaves identified with those Biblical heroes who challenged slavery in ancient times. The Greek word for annunciation, euangelismos, indicates the function of the annunciation story as the prime example of evangelization: a model of how the Gospel functions everywhere and at all times. Mary’s “yes” is the defining example of human freedom, not the freedom to do whatever one pleases, no matter how destructive, but the liberty to obey. This liberty to obey implies the inalienable right to attain authentic selfhood and authentic humanity. We can see the evangelizing effect of the Gospel in the work of James Bevel and Diane Nash with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of slaves in Birmingham.
On April 3, 1963, the first nonviolent picketers walked toward arrest in Birmingham, but only four of them reached jail on a day when King planned for hundreds. To stave off collapse, King resolved to commit a faith act: he submitted to arrest and imprisonment in solitary confinement. There he wrote the now-famous letter to eight white religious leaders, including the Episcopal bishop, who had called blacks to withdraw from demonstrations. The Birmingham city fathers told citizens to ignore what was being attempted. King’s people prepared to retreat to less confrontational tactics. Coverage of his trial fell to the back pages of the newspapers.
With the campaign in crisis, King summoned Bevel, Nash and their eight-month-old daughter to Birmingham. Bevel, a student organizer, saw the teenagers in the crowds and began to organize them. His young crowds grew rapidly until April 20, when King bonded out of jail, the youth meeting surpassed the adult meeting in numbers. By April 26, the adult jail marchers were reduced to a handful. Most of the volunteers in the mass meetings were from the youth workshop. King praised the children for their courage but told them to sit down, jail was no place for them. King and other leaders desperately worked to devise a master stroke for May 2nd that might hold off the movement’s extinction, but had no idea how to crack the reserve of the outside world. Their speeches, plus the singing of massed choirs, pulled only 40 or 50 adults from the pews. Bevel made a plan to use not just the older teenagers but also the junior high students on down to young children just out of kindergarten.
When the doors of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church opened shortly after one o’clock on Thursday, May 2, a line of fifty teenagers emerged two abreast and singing. They were promptly arrested and nothing seemed unusual until a second line emerged, then a third, and many more. Children as young as six years old held their ground until arrested. On the first day, nearly a thousand marching children converted the black adults.
With the jails swamped by nightfall, Bull Connor ordered the officers to disperse rather than arrest demonstrators the next day. When more than a thousand new children turned out in high-spirited, nonviolent discipline, giving no ground, frustration and hatred erupted under Connor’s command. Police dogs tore into the marchers and high-powered fire hoses knocked children along the pavement like tumbleweed. News photographs seized millions of distant eyes, shattering inner defenses. By Monday, May 6th, the sudden conversion gushed from child to adult until no fewer than 2,500 demonstrators swamped the Birmingham jail, and mass meetings swelled to four times that number.
“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” Acts 2:17 The grandchildren of slaves became the servants and handmaids of the Lord. God’s Spirit dwelled within and among them, liberating them to be slaves of God and thus, paradoxically, free to attain authentic selfhood and authentic humanity. Their example liberated the adults.
Last week the members of Grace church, children and adults, became the handmaids and servants of the Lord to demonstrate for equality. The speakers emphasized that after the march we must not merely go home and put the injustices behind us. We can’t satisfy ourselves that our heart is in the right place, and that our thoughts are correct. We must continue to commit ourselves, body, mind, and spirit. The challenge of the students to Dr. King years ago lingers in the air today: Where is your body? Where will we find the inspiration, the courage, the stamina to persist?
God’s invitation to collaborate in bringing the kingdom begins each Sunday at his table. When we ask God to send the Spirit over the bread and wine, we say “yes” to God’s invitation. When we eat the bread and drink the wine the hollow places within and among us are filled with the presence of God. Both individually and as a community we are strengthened to do God’s work. Where is your body? Come to the table of the Lord.