Have bike panniers will travel
The other day we received a request from spiritual care at a local hospital to visit a homeless woman diagnosed with terminal cancer requesting to speak with a Lutheran pastor. It worked for my schedule as co-pastor to make the visit. Navigating my way through the hospital, I was wet from a misty bike ride, with jackets and bike panniers in tow. I was wearing a clerical collar. When I arrived at the ICU unit someone asked me whether I was with oncology. I didn’t know what to say. If oncology is carting their supplies around in worn out, dirty bicycle panniers we’ve got bigger problems on our hands. Next I was asked whether I was family. Also not. I said I was a Lutheran pastor. And they just stared at me. It was a reversal of our gospel reading in which I was not the one they were waiting for, but someone completely different. Nevertheless the team was friendly and invited me to visit their patient and bring communion to Julia (not her real name).
Julia had been living in a shelter for some time, even holding down a job, which required a long bus ride each way. The regularity of her daily routines given her living conditions were astounding. She said having a job made her feel normal, being around normal people. She never discussed being homeless at work, though she figured her coworkers likely had some idea. Eventually her sickness caught up with her, she was admitted to hospital, and she has been given a limited time to live. She didn’t even seem angry about her situation. Her kids came to visit her. She even got to meet a grandchild only a couple months old. And her one hope is to see her family once more.
I don’t have any moralizing lesson to share here. No tying a ribbon into a bow to make Julia’s story all make sense. At times like this sometimes people say everything happens for a reason. But that is a cruel lie. Sometimes life doesn’t make sense and is terribly unfair. Nevertheless God meets us in the midst of the absurdity of life. I’m still not entirely sure how we were called to be there with Julia. She does not consider herself Lutheran. Sometimes we serve one another in this way. We are there for someone else and unbeknownst to us, someone else picks up on this. This is the grace of God.
Through Mary, unity in prophetic and pastoral
Turning to our psalm today, we hear the Song of Mary, otherwise known as the Magnificat, from Luke 1. This is a beloved text which is included in many Evening Prayer settings, including Holden Evening Prayer which we are using on Thursdays in Advent (one more this Thursday, 7:00 PM). This is an incredibly beautiful prophetic poem. It is included in Handel’s Messiah (including the sing-along Messiah that Brian is directing this Wednesday, 7:00 PM at Alex Goldman Hall). The text is so beautiful often we overlook just how prophetic the text really is. To highlight one verse:
“he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”
Beyond moralizing, Mary is bringing together two things we’ve often heard are separate: the Prophetic and the Pastoral. We’re often told by others that either we can be there to care for others or we can have a prophetic voice for change. Mary proclaims a gospel that is at once pastoral and prophetic. And she does so effortlessly. There is no grasping for words, but a beautiful poem describing the ways for which the divine is always loving and calling for justice at the same time. And we sense the immediacy of this in the incarnation. Mary didn’t go to attend lectures on these topics, but rather it is her lived reality as the mother of the Word becoming flesh. She knows she is about to give birth to Jesus. And the world is about to turn through her bringing this new life into the world.
When we think of all the depictions of Mary in cathedrals and icons, we don’t normally get the image of a strong woman ready both to give birth and to burn it all down.
The trouble with Mary’s words is that they unsettle us. We are implicated in this otherwise beautiful poem. They make us question our privilege. They make us ask why it is people like Julia need to suffer as much as they do. Why having access to basic resources like housing, food, employment, healthcare, and a pension are so challenging.
And yet through Jesus, church is already a model on how things can be different. We are already a place in which the prophetic and pastoral are united. We are both responding with empathy to real people in the midst of life, death, and everything in-between.
One thing that sets church apart is that it’s not a zero-sum game. We are not in competition with one another. Together we are the body of Christ, we are called to serve one another and the wider neighbourhood. Collectively you are freeing up Lyle and I to respond to calls like this to bring communion to someone in need. Several of you have helped bring Christmas gifts to people at the local women’s shelter, to people who are homebound, supporting the work of the Shelbourne Community Kitchen, Angel Gifts for Our Place, and beyond. As Lutherans we practice the priesthood of all believers, that together we serve God in all our respective vocations. People will know we are Christians based upon how we live our daily lives.
Story: Jubilee Church, Chapel Hill, NC
A story about a church trying to live out the Song of Mary in their everyday life. Jubilee Baptist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is about as unlikely a place as anywhere to begin a courageous church revitalization project. The congregation had two dozen members and was on the verge of closing its doors when they trusted God was at work in their midst. The Coles notes version of their story is included in the byline in a recent BuzzFeed news story: “Jubilee Baptist is a quasi-socialist, anti-racist, LGBTQ-affirming church conducting a bold experiment: focusing on debt, work, and freedom from oppression instead of fear and moralism.” The slogan printed on the cover of their Sunday bulletins is the following: Love as if a different world is possible. This is where the words on our current church sign come from.
Love as if a different world is possible. This slogan could be described as a summary of the Song of Mary. She is challenging us to love as if a different world is possible. It’s not about moralizing why things are the way they are. It’s not about blaming people. It’s not about spiritualizing our lives, yearning for heaven. Instead it’s about taking the incarnation seriously. Believing Jesus is the one we have been waiting for. The same Jesus Mary is prophesying will turn the world upside down because of love. Because of neighbours who have names and faces. Whether it’s Julia, welcoming refugees into the wider church family, providing space for the Shelbourne Community Kitchen’s food storage downstairs, and looking ahead to future collaboration and sharing of space.
One thing that make Jubilee Baptist unique is there aren’t a lot of Baptist churches that are queer affirming, as well as churches in general that are alleviating people’s personal debt. They decided on the name Jubilee in response to the Biblical celebration of jubilee, alleviating debt. The congregation is currently helping up to four individuals or families get out of toxic cycles of debt whether it is predatory lending, credit cards, etc. People often taken out small loans of $500 to $1000 and find the interest ballooning to the point they owe several times more than the principal and short of filing for bankruptcy, they have no means of escape.
Indebtedness is something we understand well on the West Coast. In one recent report Victoria households were found to be the most over-leveraged in Canada in terms of debt load relative to annual income. It’s not a surprise when we see current housing prices. And so far there are no real bold ideas to turn things around. It seems either to be maintaining the status quo or getting hit with an economic recession as various natural resource industries collapse with no real Plan B in sight for a lot of workers. As a congregation we continue faithfully paying down the church’s mortgage, while also serving others. I wonder about ways in which we can continue in this work, sharing stories with the wider community, and inviting others to join us in the work.
John Thornton, one of the three co-pastors at Jubilee Baptist, is quoted saying, “Growing up the driving theology from my dad is that the church only exists to radically change lives, particularly those who are hurting, or broken, or excluded,” Thornton told me. “And I did not realize that that is not a prevalent way of approaching church for a lot of people.”
Through the church’s direct outreach, they’ve begun resonating with people who had not currently been attending the church. They are offering a variety of things including reading groups talking directly about economics and alleviating debt. It’s not so much about trying to reproduce the success of Jubilee Baptist as being encouraged by the courageousness of their approach. Listening to Mary they proclaim a gospel that God is changing the world in real time. There is hunger out there to hear a courageous message of hope and change. And this happens in the midst of visiting people who are home bound, people in hospitals, people on the streets, people in prison. It’s about walking the walk of the gospel. I am encouraged by the opportunities we have at Church of the Cross.
Wrapping up, where is God calling us to visit today? Where is that spark of new life we witness in our midst? I know it’s here. Jesus is here walking with us. The Holy Spirit enlivening us, accompanying us. Mary continues to proclaim how God is turning the world on its head. And we’re here together trying to figure it out together. Amen.