Katherine Henderson: Litany for the Poor People’s Campaign

A Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Litany for the Poor People’s Campaign

Divine One, Infinite Love, known to us by many names.

Today, we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, whose prophetic journey continues to mark our days, inspire our hearts and guide our feet.

In this moment of celebration let us not move too quickly, but allow our attention to focus on a world that is still sin-sick and falls so short of the mark of love and justice.

Before we move on, allow our hearts to be broken open with the sorrow and pain of the child who wakes with hunger in the night, one of the 40 million living in poverty in this the richest of lands.

Before we move on, allow our hearts to be broken open with the mother in Flint or on the Gulf Coast who cannot trust the contaminated water in her sink to quench the thirst of her children, relying instead on the contents of plastic bottles that will make their way to suffocate the oceans.

Before we move on, allow our hearts to be broken open with the immigrant father hiding in the storeroom of the 7-Eleven, whose insufficient papers express nothing of the dignity he has already been afforded as one made in God’s image.

Before we move on, allow our hearts to be broken open with the grandmother who marched with Dr. King and fought for justice, only to find her name removed from voter registration rolls when she goes to cast her vote.

Before we move on, allow our hearts to be broken open with the brother in prison, caught up in a system that destroys lives and families; one more casualty in the US that has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Before we move on, allow our hearts to be broken open with the Trans sister, who lives with the daily threat of violence just for being who she is.

Before we move on, help us sit with one another for as long as it takes to share our broken hearts, to acknowledge the magnitude of the pain of injustice, and to confess how far we are from your vision for creation.

Before we move on, hollow us out with sorrow, let our tears freely flow, so there will be room enough for hope to grow again.

O God, just as you inspired Dr. King to not let sorrow have the last word, so move us forward.

Move us forward to recognize your face in the human faces of all who struggle for dignity and liberation in this moment.

Move us forward to challenge injustice, to resist and repair, to march and to vote, to disrupt and to wake up.

Move us forward to stand for just legislation and structures that support the many and not just the few.

Move us forward to experience fierce joy–dance and laughter, the wild and the holy– that no one can take from us.

Move us forward to create the future story of America where difference is celebrated, abundance is shared and people are hopeful, working together for a future better than today.

Move us forward as beloved community “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, bound in a single garment of destiny.”

May it be so. Amen.

(Written by Rev. Dr. Katharine R. Henderson, president of Auburn Seminary, 2018)

Video: What does it mean to you to call love the force that moves the universe?

Pastor Jeff Gannon at Chapel Hill (NC) United Methodist Church reflects on my column he read in January 2018 issue of Sojourners magazine about Pope Francis calling the International Space Station and having a 20 minute conversation with the astronauts and cosmonauts. The Pope challenged each of them and us to reflect on the beautiful world God has given us. What does it mean to you to call love the force that moves the universe? To see the tapestry mentioned in the video, visit Pastor Jeff’s site.

First Sunday in Christmas: Feast of the Holy Family

Marc Chagall (1909)
“Holy Family” by Marc Chagall (1909)

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”—Colossians 3:12-13

In my family, the “Feast of the Holy Family” was always a chance to snicker in church—specifically during the reading from Colossians 3: 18-21. Definitions of family have changed radically over time. Most “families” wouldn’t recognize each other as such from one century to the next. The model of the “nuclear” family was a construct of economic forces that arose after the Industrial Revolution. The model of the “blended” family is more common now than it was 50 years ago. But what about the Jesus Family? What sort of family was modeled by the disciples of that first-century itinerant rabbi? What model of family did Paul conceive of when the church was young?

Not long ago I attended an impromptu prayer service on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. A young man, Erlin, had been killed there in a gang altercation two nights earlier. The word went through the neighborhood that his mother wanted to pray. Twenty people were crowded around a scrawny maple tree. Someone had taped Erlin’s picture to the trunk. His elementary-school-age nieces and nephews held votive candles purchased at the dollar store.

Erlin’s buddies from his “crew” were there too. They lined up behind his mother, forming a kind of honor guard. They wore dark glasses. A few had guns shoved down the front of their nylon running pants. Some, out of respect for his mother, had put their weapons—thick chains and baseball bats with nails hammered into the ends—behind the dumpster a few yards away.

Finally, his mother asked to speak. In her soft Jamaican accent, she said how much she loved her son. She said he struggled to do the right thing, and that watching him struggle had broken her heart. Then she turned to his friends—his fellow gang members—and said the most amazing thing. “He was my son,” she said. “You were his brothers. Now you are my sons and I am your mother. Now we are family. This is the way it is.” She expected his “brothers” to be at her table for jerk chicken and potatoes any time they were hungry. She expected them to help her fix things around the apartment. They must come to her with their problems, and she would pray for each of them every day.

In the gathering dark, I heard the line from John’s gospel echo and twist. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing by, he said, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

“Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace.”—O Holy Night

Is the Christmas Story Midrash on Our Own Times?

Iraqi children bring Christ Child to Creche on Christmas
Iraqi children bring Christ Child to Creche on Christmas

Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic sister who is now an authority on religious history.  Armstrong has a very nice commentary in the LA Times on the true meaning of the Christmas story in the Bible.

She says, if we study the Christmas story carefully we are left with a disturbing sense that the world’s future lies with the very people cast to the margins. Read an excerpt below:

For the rabbis, scripture was not an arcane message from the past but a miqra, a summons to action in the present. Similarly, Matthew and Luke designed the Christmas story as a program of action for their mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles, who were attempting the difficult task of living and worshiping with people hitherto regarded as alien. Their Gospels make it a tale of inclusion: From the very beginning, Jesus broke down the barriers that divided people, so Jesus’ followers must gladly welcome outsiders into their midst.

If, therefore, we read the Christmas story as commentary, as Midrash, it becomes a miqra for our own time, and for circumstances the evangelists would recognize. We might, for example, reflect on the fact that Matthew’s Magi probably came from Iran. Or note that in our multicultural societies, we must come to terms with people who are different from ourselves and whose presence in our lives may challenge us at a profound level. Moreover, as a species, we are bound tightly to one another — electronically, financially and politically. Unless we manage together to create a just and equitable global society, in which we treat all nations with respect and consideration, we are unlikely to have a viable world to pass on to the next generation.

The Gospels paint a picture that is very different from the cozy stable scene on the Christmas cards. They speak of deprivation and displacement. The Messiah himself is an outsider. There is no room in the inn, so Mary has to give birth in the 1st-century equivalent of an urban alleyway. As victims of Herod’s tyranny, the Holy Family become refugees; other innocents are slaughtered. If we attend carefully to these parts of the story, the specter of contemporary suffering — within our own society and worldwide — will haunt our festivities. And we are left with the disturbing suggestion that the future, for good or ill, may lie with those who are currently excluded.

For Luke, the pregnant Mary becomes a prophetess, proclaiming a new order in which the lowly will be exalted and the mighty pulled down from their thrones. At the beginning of his story, he reminds his readers of Caesar Augustus, who, like the Roman emperors who succeeded him, described himself as “God,” “Son of God,” the “Savior” and “Lord” who would bring peace to the world. Official proclamations and inscriptions throughout the empire announced “the good news” (Greek: euvaggelion) of Roman rule to the subject peoples. Luke’s readers would have noticed that the angel who proclaims “good news” to the shepherds applies all those imperial titles to a child born in a hovel.

Read the full commentary here.

Armstrong’s most recent book is The Case for God. In November 2009, she launched the Charter for Compassion, a global initiative to bring compassion back to the center of religious, moral, public and private life.

Boxing on the Feast of Stephen

December 26th is the feast day of St. Stephen. He’s the patron saint of “Boxing Day” as it’s known in England. The day families make boxes of rich Christmas meats and presents to redistribute the wealth among the poor.

All that we know of Stephen’s life is in the Acts of the Apostles (6-7). He was one of the seven deacons, probably a Hellenistic Jew, appointed by the apostles to look after the distribution of alms to the faithful (especially the widows) and to help in the ministry of preaching. To judge by his famous discourse, even if it is somewhat ‘retouched’, Stephen was learned in the Scriptures and the history of Judaism, besides being eloquent and forceful.

The gist of his defense of Christianity was that God does not depend on the Temple, in so far as, like the Mosaic Law, it was a temporary institution and destined to be fulfilled and superseded by Christ, who was the prophet designated by Moses and the Messiah whom the Jewish race had so long awaited. He finally attacked his hearers for resisting the Spirit and for killing the Christ as their fathers had killed the prophets.

They then stoned him for blasphemy apparently without a formal trial, while he saw a vision of Christ on God’s right hand. The witnesses placed their clothes at the feet of Saul (afterwards Paul), who consented to his death.

Here’s the old English Christmas carol referring to Stephen:

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, if thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine, when we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now, and the winds blow stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how, I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page. Treadst thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.

Merry Christmas!

 

Bureij refugee camp, Gaza

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”John 1:1-5

It was 1999. There were 1,500 Kosovar refugees in this camp on the dusty outskirts of Sarajevo. They had come by bus, car, and on foot. First held in the expansive bottling rooms at the Coca Cola factory, the refugees now lived in an old cattle barn, in tents, and on an open field.

We were invited into the barn’s converted milking room and given the best of the plastic seats around a plywood table. Forty families live here in 6-by-8 foot cubicles separated by curtains. The men tell us that Serb soldiers (self-proclaimed Christians) herded them out of their homes. One asks us to find information about his brother, who he presumed was dead in Kosovo. Adem, the oldest man in the camp at 80, wears a blue wool beret and his weather-worn face glistens with tears. Thirty members of his family were killed by Serb paramilitaries in Kosovo.

The women stand around the ring of conversation holding children on their hips. They serve us coffee in chipped red cups. Harija, in her mid-30s, shot her words at us like fire. “How can I live with this pain that my neighbor—my husband shoveled snow from her walk before he even cleared our own—stood in our yard while I was hanging laundry and spoke aloud how she was going to kill me and my children because we are Muslim? She was trying to decide between mortar or sniper.” Harija looked at us. “Did you come here just to stir up pain, or are you going to help us?” she said. Then she wept.

There was no doctor in this camp. The outhouses were overflowing. The only food available was bread and canned vegetables. The graffiti on the wall showed a young man with a gun to his head. We delivered watermelons to a few of the families. One man led me down a shoe-strewn hall. He opened the curtain and there, on the bunk bed, lay a 2-day-old baby boy wrapped in clean linens and a rough gray army blanket. The mother looked worn but happy in her torn T-shirt and dusty skirt.

I pray over the child, making the sign of the cross on his forehead. No one seems to mind the mix of religious symbols. For Christ to come at all, he must be born in the lowliest of places.

Christu natus est! Blessed Christmas!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

Christmas Eve: ‘O Holy Night’

Henry Ossawa Tanner "Virgin and Child"

“Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother And in His name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name.”—Placide Cappeau

“‘And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’”Luke 1:76-79

Welcome, my friend, to the fruition of our Advent pilgrimage. We have peregrinated the sacred wheel of time. We have endured the refiner’s fire. We have rested at the caravanserai of the candles of Christ.

Tonight is the Great Night. O Holy Night! An English custom says that a loaf of bread baked this night will cure the sick and heal the broken-hearted. It is believed that on this night at the crossing hour animals are given the power of speech as a gift for their service at the manger in Bethlehem. It is said that on Christmas Eve at midnight honeybees hum the 100th psalm (“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come into the Presence with singing.”)

“It is a strange thing to come home,” wrote Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlof. “While on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.” Tonight we creep into that sacred darkness. It is a strange place. One, perhaps, where we never thought we’d find ourselves. Yet, like dreamers, we have been drawn to the Light. There is no present that we can wrap. There is no money we can offer. There is no sin that should hold us back. As the Talmud says, “God wants only one thing: the heart.”

“O come, O come Emmanuel, come our King and our Law-giver, Longing of the Gentiles, yea, and salvation thereof, come to save us, O Lord our God!”

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Christmas Eve.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

Fourth Sunday in Advent

“Come Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; From our sins and fears release us; let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.”

“Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.“—Romans 1:5-7

We light the fourth Advent candle to remind us that things are not always as they seem, and that hope springs forward at the sound of its name.

In William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem” he wrote:

I give you the end of a gold string.
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
built in Jerusalem’s wall.

The followers of The Way in the early church wove together a “gold string” that reached back to the creation of light in the Genesis story and forward to this very Sunday in Advent. There is a golden thread that sews us together as students of Jesus. Paul calls this thread the “grace of apostleship.” It is passed, hand to hand, from one generation to the next. Like kindergartners on a field trip through the big world, we are given a rope and told to hold on. We know that the rope reaches all the way back to the teacher, the anchor, the shepherd.

Advent is a time to marvel at the golden thread and to make sure that we have not become separated from it. If, by chance, you have become separated from it, do not be afraid. Jesus extends the end of the string to you again. What glistens in your life? What sweetens your days? Your answer is the beginning of the thread. “Only wind it into a ball,” my friend and “it will lead you in at Heaven’s Gate.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Third Saturday in Advent

 

“‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.’”—Matthew 1:20b

For a short while after 9/11, people living in the terrorist “bull’s eye” of Washington, D.C. were encouraged to create a sealed room in their house with plastic wrap and duct tape. This was to protect them in the event of a chemical or biological weapons attack. The military surplus stores sold out of gas masks. Plastic sheeting and duct tape were soon rare commodities.

The frenzy appeared to be mostly among the middle class. The rich thought they were impervious to such danger. The poor figured they die anyway. But those in the middle rushed to protect themselves—caught between fear and the illusion of control.

Joseph also had the illusion of control. He controlled who came in and out of his house. He was the gatekeeper of his home. Tradition tells us that he was much older than Mary. He was “established.” He was also from the royal lineage of King David and yet had not produced an heir. When Joseph learned that Mary was already pregnant, he had little reason to continue with her. The lineage had to be kept pure. He didn’t need to invite this complication into his house. God knows what havoc it might wreak!

Joseph, however, like his namesake, was open to the importance of dreams. When the messenger entered Joseph’s dream and said “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home,” he listened.

Who are you afraid to take into your home? Why? Do you see your home as gift to be shared or a right to be protected? Do you have possessions that are so precious they hinder hospitality? Have you ever had to “depend on the kindness of strangers”?

“O Wisdom that comest out of the mouth of the Most High, that reachest from one end to another, and orderest all things mightily and sweetly, come to teach us the way of prudence!”

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.