Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Luke's birth narrative: living in paradox

I see Marty out and about. Wish him a Happy Chanukah. He says, Father, my sister in law had a electric knife. It could cut a turkey, every slice thin and perfect. Cost 17.95. I ask him if he’d like a cup of coffee. No thanks, I’m good. On my way out, I say, Perhaps I should say, Ah freilichen Hanukkah. He laughs at my Yiddish. Listen father (and father sounds like it only could in the Bronx, back in the day..) a man comes out of the shul down the street yesterday. They have abbreviated services on Sundays, you know? And he sees me and gives me $5. Freilichen yontuv, he says. That’s what we say for holidays...freileichen yontuf....And to you, too, Marty, I say. And he smiles.

I'm at a meeting in Harlem when I get a call from Teddy. The FBI has entered the building. They've been informed that human trafficking is going on here. Say what??? So I hurry my way there. They're gone by the time I arrive. They took  special interest in the soup kitchen in the basement. But there is no soup kitchen. They shone flashlights in every nook and cranny and crawlspace. Finally satisifed that nothiung was going on, they left. Say what??? The worst thing about incidents like this is you get to thinking aboutnwho may have made this call. And why. Not a good place to go. 

Tonight in Bible study we look at the birth narrative in Luke. We start out wit a few notes:
  • We used to believe that Luke was written around the same time as Matthew, 69-70 CE. But more recent scholarship, based on Luke’s use of Greek, the apparent social setting, etc. seem to place it in the early second century, like John.
  • Even though Luke seems to have the greatest sympathy for the poor in the gospels, the favorite of liberation  theologians, he seems to come from a higher class. Speaking to a more mixed community. Trying to sort through its relationship to the empire. Like us.
  • It may be the only gospel written to a community thinking of itself as Christian. 

We note that while Matthew constructed a story as a retelling of the Torah, Luke starts by building an elaborate family structure for Jesus.
  • Zechariah is part of the Temple elite. 
  • Something miraculous in the birth of John. 
  • Mary too receives a visitation from an angel, only she believes. 
  • Elizabeth lived in the Judean hills, Mary was a country girl from Galilee, the country cousin, so to speak.
  • Mary’s journey, unmarried, pregnant, alone, to visit Elizabeth is socially incomprehensible in her time. 
  • Elizabeth’s greeting is the Hail Mary...
  • Mary’s song, a song of reversal, of the poor replacing the rich, the rich sent empty away, riffing off Hannah’s song, is known as the magnificat.
  • After John is born, Zechariah sings his song, his voice returned after fulfilling the angel’s command to name the baby John. His song becomes the benedictus. 

Finally, Jesus is born. In the absolute opposite of a house of privilege, in a stable. Because there was no room in the inn. Like he was born in a tent in Zucotti, or in a shelter on Staten Island or a mold infested house in Far Rockaway. Like that.
  • Although in Matthew, Joseph had married her, in Luke she is still just engaged. 
  • As specific as Luke is, there is no record of even a local census at that time, let alone, all the world. He’s telling us who the powers were, and that this miraculous story, which every ruler had, Caesars always called sons of god, this son of God is different. 
  • The birth is announced to shepherds first. The only ones who didn’t sleep inside the walls at night. Considered sketchy. Untrustworthy. Like gypsies. No kings, no star, no expensive gifts, just shepherds. Well, and a choir of angels, singing of course. 
  • The story that began in the Temple ends in the Temple. Jesus at his circumcision (just like John) receiving Simeon’s blessing. And he too, has a song, what we now call the nunc dimittis, now let your servant depart in peace...
  • Anna too has something to say. Wish we had her words.
  • And Jesus grew and became strong,just like his cousin John.

So there we are....a stable birth sandwiched between temple stories. Commitment to the poor, to all the earth, but with a blessing from members of the elite.

Anna wants to know if Luke was a class traitor. I say maybe more like Leonard Bernstein and the Black Panthers. There is this tension...God’s clear and absolute commitment to the poor and us stuck in this in between place. 

Churches like West-Park, movements, campaigns, need allies in the 1% to survive. Even while bringing critical analysis to the structures that created that wealth. It is a paradox. But it's where we live.

(Luke reflections informed by Wes Howard-Baker of Seattle University and Hal Taussig of Union Seminary, New York City.)

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