In the Footsteps of Mary

A sermonic reflection on America today, Dec. 14, 2014.

Today’s texts speak indirectly to the national outrage over the deaths in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island and to the larger context of the economic Law – Capitalism – under which they’ve taken place.

The Spirit falls upon Isaiah

…to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit….They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. (Is. 61:2-4)

I am in mourning. Even in the midst of Zion. Though I already taste the fruit of the Kingdom of God which is yet to come in fullness, I am in mourning. In ashes. Faint in spirit. Living among the ancient ruins, the former devastations, the ruined cities, the devastations brought on by many generations including my own.

There is anger out there. Lots of it. There are calls for justice out there. There are “die-ins” on Interstate Highways blocking traffic, interrupting business as usual. And it’s good. It’s right. It’s an American thing to do.

But, like most movements, this one will pass in a few weeks or maybe months. It will go the way of Occupy Wall Street.

For while protesters were were being hand-cuffed for “die-ins”, Congress was taking the hand-cuffs off Wall Street and the “too-big-to-fail” banks. The Dodd-Frank restrictions enacted following the 2008 meltdown were being quietly removed by hidden-away paragraphs in the down-to-the-wire spending bill. There will be no more hand-cuffs. No more probation. No more accountability to the American people. The legal limits on dealing in the “derivatives” market were being deleted on Capitol Hill, and, perhaps worse, the Dodd-Frank provision prohibiting a second government bailout was replaced by a commitment to bail them out again.

While on Capitol Hill the Law was being re-written to deliver automatic bail to Wall Street, individuals protesting law enforcement tyranny on the streets were hauled off to jail hoping a friend would bail them out.

Only within the larger economic puzzle do the various pieces begin to make sense.

For all of America’s national wealth, we are among the poorest of nations. We are a classist society bordering on a caste society. Class has always been the issue in America. Race and class have always gone hand-in-hand, but classism has other hands as well.

The wider context surrounding the law enforcement racial divide is the classism embedded in a global capitalist economic structure.

We are living still amid the “ancient” devastations brought on by rich white slave traders who captured Africans like animals for a zoo to work their plantations for profit. Racism is a class issue, an ownership issue, an issue of economic privilege, before it is anything else. The coupling of race and class is as clear now as it ever was, despite the Civil Rights Movement and the election of America’s first African American president.

Capitalism is the issue. The accumulation of wealth. The increasing concentration of wealth. The hoarding of wealth. Wealth disparity, power disparity, racial disparity, electoral disparity, legal disparity; what’s enforced and what’s not; who’s in handcuffs and who’s not; who’s bailed out and who’s not; who’s charged and who isn’t; who’s in prison for what and who’s not; who’s on probation or parole and who’s not; who’s elected to Congress and who’s not; who owns what and who doesn’t; who can pay for an election and who can’t – are all about class, the control of the means of production and capital and the expropriation of cheap labor and natural resources that can’t talk back.

Enter now into this world the psalmist of today’s readings who dared to dream of a great reversal of fortunes:

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

“The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”[Psalm 126:1-6]

The tears of weeping bear the seeds for sowing and reaping of the sheaves of the new economic order. It is no accident that the psalmist mixes the metaphors of weeping, seeds, sowing, and shouts of joy, and sheaves. It is, as it were, a vision for the Earth itself. Honest weeping is the beginning – the sowing – that leads to earthly transformation and shouts of joy.

Mary, the newly pregnant peasant girl, becomes the representative, singing her song amid the ancient devastations, announcing the hope that will engage the powers of class “to provide for those who mourn” [Is.61:1]:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” [Luke 1:46b-55]

Put differently by Philip Clayton, Ingraham Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology, we are living

“…at the dawn of a new form of human civilization. Individuals, societies, and nations are now deciding whether to keep fighting to preserve the dying order, or whether to take leadership in building the new. It’s not a matter of waiting for more data; we already know what the old practices are doing to our planet, and we know what it takes to build a global society that is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. The ones who make the greatest difference are those who work and live with wisdom, with diplomacy, and with restraint, placing the good of the whole planet first.” [Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr, Organic Marxism: An Alternative to Capitalism and Ecological Catastrophe, Process Century Press, 2014]

I’m still mourning. But I feel better. I know that the mourning is a holy thing, the hint of a coming “garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” and so, I write. I pray. I sing. I mourn to the tune of Isaiah. I march to the dream of the Psalmist. I walk in the footsteps of Mary.

– Rev. Gordon C. Stewart, Honorably Retired, Views from the Edge, Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 14, 2014.

15 thoughts on “In the Footsteps of Mary

  1. Julie Wiese at Sunday’s discussion suggested a metaphor I’ll remember. “The church” is like a magnet, gathering to itself random pieces of culture as it proceeds through history. Well, maybe she said it more beautifully.

    Anyway, the God’s eye view may help to sustain us — “A thousand years in God’s sight is but an evening gone … “

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    • Sorry to be so unintelligibly brief. I was making my way through 600 e-mails. At the rate they are coming in, I still have that many to go.

      Anyway, as for the Julie Weiss thing, I meant to imply that the church has been burdened with such cultural things as capitalism, nationalism, sexism, greed, and — especially horrible — vengeance.

      As for “a thousand years in God’s sight …” I meant to imply we are living in the midst of huge world changes which will make real sense only when we get the historical view. (Consider the new relations with Cuba. And Lou and I built a fall-out shelter into the addition on our house in the 60’s)

      Well, maybe I’m still not making sense. Forgive me, I have read everything in haste.

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  2. Pingback: Blogging RULE #1: | VIEWS from the EDGE

    • Gary, Your reflection here arrived just after I had read and responded to Jim Haugh’s comment about his teaching experience. If you haven’t read it, you’ll like it. You and I have talked many times about our culture’s flight from death, denial of death, distraction from the reality of death. The flight from death is the food on which consumerism feeds. I walked out of a church I visited last Sunday morning because the Jesus of whom you speak was nowhere to be found in the worship service. I kept hoping maybe the sermon would introduce him, would finally get serious. I left after the humorous first paragraph of the preacher’s entertainment. Thank you again, Gary, for sharing. Your comment is astute. As my old preaching professor, John Fry taught us, “The gospel cuts with a knife. If it doesn’t cut, it’s not the gospel.” The life of Jesus and his gospel of the Kingdom are not entertaining. He and his message bring joy, but with a price. As Bonhoeffer said, discipleship is costly.

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  3. Gordon, the “truth” as you see it is often too ground shaking to hear and accept. We have in this country become very adept at going into “denial” when confronted by words we don’t want to hear or think about. I have been priviledged to be a member of all three classes during my lifetime. I found no one class was any better than the other. When we allow the upper 0.01% of our society to be our ruling class, we are no better than those undeveloped countries in this world who are the same. Wealth, priviledge and lineage have become the ticket to become a member of the elite ruling class that governs us in America. We are no longer a representative republic as defined in our constitution, but a pandering dictatorship concerned with only perpetuating itself and preserving their access to this country’s natural resources and its wealth.

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    • I just watched the video of Elizabeth Warren’s speech on the Senate floor calling out Citi Group’s power – not just influence, but power. I also listened to the secretly recorded tape of Mitch McConnell at the Koch Brothers annual conference. The Warren speech on the floor of the Senate and the “private” speech by one of the Koch Brothers remove the curtain to show what’s really happening.

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  4. You get better with each new installment Gordon. I went back to the 2009 piece you linked to before you started to blog I think. You were clear in that one too. I can’t add much to your eloquence except to say we are lucky to have so many writers like Naomi Klein & Philip Clayton helping us see more clearly what we are dealing with as capitalism continues to bring us closer to catastrophe. The reference to the book “Organic Marxism” indicates the theologians @ Claremont are the leading lights for us.

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    • Gary, Tough I’m not a process theologian, I am so grateful for the work of Philip Clayton, John Cobb and others at Claremont who have the wisdom and chutzpah to speak the deeper truth of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is very serious stuff. Could it be that the species that considers itself the pinnacle of nature is, as in the parable of Jesus, the least ooof these, our sisters and brothers? Unless we change course, our proud as the exception to nature will do us in. The planet will go on. We may not.

      Clayton’s book is a disappointment in some ways. He pays no heed to the All Christian Peace Conference, founded by the Czech theologian Josef Hromadka, the “father” of Christian-Marxist Dialogue. It’s as though the Clayton and Heinzekehr wrote in an historical vacuum, which, I suppose, is neither here not there, so long as they the truth. But there’s a long history to this discussion. I was introduced to it as seminary student, which is why I wanted to spend the summer of 1966 in Czechoslovakia. The Index of Original Marxism is silent on this most important period, as it it on the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical-Reformed Church in Cuba.

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    • Gary and Karin, so far you are the ONLY two who “Like” this piece. I’m not at all surprised. It’s not a popular point of view. I attended a church this morning that made the gospel a domestic pet. I left after the first paragraph of the sermon and will never return. My preaching professor, the Rev.Dr. John Frye of First Presbyterian Church, Chicago, said that the gospel cuts with a knife. If what you hear from the pulpit doesn’t cut deep into the heart of the matter, it’s something other than the gospel. I went in hopes of hearing the gospel. I left hungrier than before I went. Sad commentary on cultural captivity of the church in America. I’ll look again next Sunday. I miss Shepherd of the Hill!

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      • Gordon, Thank you for reminding me of John Fry and couragious proclamation. Folks get twisted in knots over things which they have neither read nor understood. Back in the days of teaching I had students read a writer who argued that under pure capitalism if profits are to be maximised there are several alternatives: Raise prices; Lower Wages. Then you have a product your workers can not afford to buy. Because their are more workers than capitalists they will soon suffer. They liked the arguement until they learned its author was Lenin.

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      • Jim, John Fry was a mentor for all of us in Chicago in those years, a singular example of courage in and out of the pulpit. He stood with the people who couldn’t afford to buy, and, because he did, he was subpoenaed to testify before the McClellan committee. Their line of questioning suggested they believed he was a friend of Lenin as well as, or instead of, Jesus.

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