Mary's boy

A year is the length of time it takes the earth to circle the sun. The journey doesn’t have a clear starting point, and so the first day of the year can be freely chosen. This explains why we live in multiple years at the same time: One year begins with our birthday, the school year begins after the summer, the fiscal year on January 1, our congregation’s budget year on July 1, and the church year on the first Sunday of Advent, which makes this the last Sunday of our worship year.

In this country, it’s a Sunday often in friendly competition with Thanksgiving Day, which isn’t bad at all, if you think of it as ending the year with gratitude – saying thank you to God for the gifts of the land and the fruit of our labor, for the people who make our lives meaningful and joyful; for all the ways in which we belong together. We pause, we look back, we recognize how blessed we are, and we say thank you. Not a bad habit to cultivate, even if some of us jump up after the last bite of pumpkin pie to get a headstart in the mad rush of Black Friday that seems to begin earlier each year.

There were complaints this year, quite vocal complaints when some major retailers announced that they would be open for business on Thursday. Many worried people signed pledges on facebook declaring to the whole world that they would not go shopping on Thursday. Some of them said shopping on Thanksgiving was almost as bad as scheduling the kids’ hockey practice on Sunday morning when the family ought to be in worship; others let it be known that it was much worse, since Thanksgiving is only once a year, whereas a hockey season only takes twelve Sundays out of fifty-two.

Somebody interviewed the CEO of a large national retailer whose stores remained closed last year in observance of the holiday and to allow employees to be with their families. “People were lining up outside the locked stores, knocking against the glass, wondering why they couldn’t go shopping when they wanted to,” he said; this year the doors of all their stores will open at 8pm.

It doesn’t really matter if the whole thing makes you want to laugh or pull your hair and scream, the fact remains that not a single store would be open on Thanksgiving Day if everybody stayed at home and watched the ballgame, just like we always have since the days of the pilgrims when the natives came over for dinner with corn, squash, and a portable black and white tv.

But back to this Sunday, the last one of the church year. We’re invited to reflect on time as God’s gift that allows all of life to flourish. The readings for this Sunday encourage us to look at last things, as in “What abides when all else has ended?” or “What is it that determines the course of time and where is it all headed?” or even “Who says that a festive meal with one’s family is better for life’s flourishing than a trip to a crowded mall?”

On Easter we hear and proclaim the good news that on the first day God raised Jesus from the dead. And on the last Sunday of the church year we affirm that this Jesus is Lord of all, that what will abide beyond all endings is the love of God, that the course of time is headed to the throne of God, and that the day will come when we no longer pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – because all things will reflect the glory of God in perfect peace and beauty.

We continue to pray for the kingdom, even though most nations have banned kings and queens from our political life. We continue to use the language not just out of respect for the past or because Christ the King sounds so much better than Chairman Christ. We use the language because it allows us to sing and speak of our hope that righteousness will prevail. We live in a world where power and strength are often paired with arrogance and selfishness, and we long for a world where the last word doesn’t belong to the guys with the bigger guns or the bigger off-shore accounts, but to a righteous ruler.

Toward the end of Second Samuel, we read an old man’s last words, written down so that generations to come would know and remember, One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.[1] It’s a scene of great beauty and promise. The hope for one who rules over people justly goes back as far as historical records, legends and ancient songs can take us. And the hope for one who rules in the fear of God is as old as the sad reality of rulers who abuse the privilege and power of their office for selfish ends.

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord, we hear Jeremiah cry. Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,” and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermilion. Are you a king because you compete in cedar? [2]

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! It is a harsh judgment that lays the responsibility for the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of God’s people at the feet of the shepherds, the king and the leaders. My pasture, my people, my flock, says the Lord, but you have not attended to them, you have built your spacious house on their backs, you have scattered them.

I wonder what the prophet had in mind when he spoke of scattering. Certainly he spoke of the captives who had been taken into exile in Babylon and of the refugees who had fled to Egypt; but the scattering had begun much earlier with the families driven off their land and from their homes, the neighbors who built the spacious houses and were not given their wages, the people bending under the weight of debt who saw no other way out but to sell their children and themselves into slavery. My pasture, my people, my flock, says the Lord, but you have not attended to them, you have scattered them.

I’m not a king and I can’t find one to point to in order to deflect the force of the prophet’s indictment against the scatterers. I can’t escape the word that indicts me for not attending to God’s people who work for next to nothing just so I can go to the store after my Thanksgiving feast and play bargain hunter. I won’t go and I don’t want a bargain that comes with that kind of a price tag, but I’m still complicit in the scattering. I can’t escape the word that indicts me for not attending to God’s people who live and die on the streets because our mental health system is broken and we can’t figure out how to build affordable housing in our city. I can’t escape the word that indicts me, so why don’t I just tell Jeremiah to leave me alone and go and talk to the people who I’m sure do a lot more scattering than I do?

Well, for one it’s too late for that; I have heard his message and can’t pretend I didn’t. But there’s a better reason: the prophet also has the word that points to the way out of this mess for God’s scattered people. I myself will gather them, says the Lord. Our God indicts us for our scattering ways, and judges us for fragmenting the unity of life, the unity of God’s people on God’s earth, but God also gathers us.

I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall exeute justice and righteousness in the land. I don’t know what promise Jeremiah’s first listeners heard in those words, but for the church they point to Jesus who has compassion for the people because we are like sheep without a shepherd; Jesus, the curious king whose palace is on the streets and whose spacious house has an upper room large enough for all.

Delores Williams remembers Sunday mornings from her childhood when the minister shouted out, “Who is Jesus?” And the choir responded in voices loud and strong, “King of kings and Lord Almighty!” And then little Miss Huff, in a voice so fragile and soft you could hardly hear her, would sing her own answer, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” Back and forth they sang. “King of kings” the choir thundered, and Miss Huff sang softly, “Poor little Mary’s boy.”[3]

We long for a world where the last word doesn’t belong to the guys with the bigger guns or the bigger off-shore accounts, but to a righteous ruler, and we already live in that world because Mary’s boy is the One whose kingdom has no end. With love he invades the world to build his reign. His pierced hand will hold no scepter but a shepherd’s staff. On his haloed head he will wear no crown but the splendor of his mercy. Never will his might be built on the toil of others, but he will walk and work with us on the journey to the city of God. The Lord is our righteousness, it will be called, and the keys to his city belong to the poor.[4]

[1] 2 Samuel 23:3-4

[2] Jeremiah 22:13-15

[3] See Barbara Lundblad

[4] Some of the words come from Gian-Carlo Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors