An Outcastâs Victory: The World Turned Upside Down - A Covenanter message with Kevin Annett
God's Revolution: A Radical Reading of Scripture for Refugees from False Religion
Third Sunday in Advent: December 15, 2019
Luke 1: 46-55
An Outcast’s Victory: The World Turned Upside Down
My soul grows and rejoices, for in my poverty I am chosen to do great things. Because of me, rulers are pulled down from their thrones and destroyed, and the lowly are raised up and exalted. The hungry are filled with all that is good, and the rich are banished and sent away empty.
Karen Connerley was someone who people tried not to notice - especially in church. She was poor and bedraggled. She was also aboriginal, barely sixteen years old, and pregnant. On the morning we met, Karen stood tentatively on the fringe of our worship service with a look of what I thought was fear. In fact, she had arrived that day to overturn our world.
I had been the minister of St. Andrew’s United Church for barely a year back then, and my life seemed content and secure. Our Port Alberni congregation had tripled in size and the parishioners were happy. They were especially delighted whenever my infant daughter Elinor routinely toddled her way to the pulpit during the service and insisted on being lifted up by yours truly. In my joy, I couldn’t imagine how everything was about to change forever.
Karen’s appearance that Sunday morning in the fall of 1993 didn’t alarm most of us at first. A few local Nuu-Chah-Nulth Indians had already accepted my invitation and started attending our services. But they were all affluent natives and they kept to themselves, which suited my white parishioners just fine. As for me, I felt quite proud of myself that I had helped seat Indians alongside whites in our pews for the first time, even though I knew nothing of our own church-led massacre that was responsible for our local apartheid.
Karen Connerley changed all of that. And she did it the way anyone does who is living on the edge and can’t afford to hide the truth by being considerate or polite.
I knew something was afoot when Karen didn’t sit down after we’d finished our opening hymn. She stood at the back of the sanctuary and stared at me. One of the ushers spoke to her but she shook her head and said something that made heads turn. I was weighing what to do when Karen started shuffling towards me. I could see she was crying even before her wailing shook the sanctuary.
“They killed my baby!” she exploded as she stumbled past the shocked worshipers. “They killed my little Charlie!”
At that point an usher named George Geddes caught up to the little woman and put her in an arm lock, and the congregation exploded in cries and shouts of outrage. Karen tried to wrestle free, but another guy had also grabbed her. At that point I hurried to them, dumbstruck at the sudden violence from men I thought I knew. I got the ushers to back off and guided Karen to an empty pew. I asked everyone to sit down and calm down.
Karen poured out her story to me as some people sat in a stony silence while others got up and hurried away. I was advised later that I should have let George and his buddies manhandle the inconvenient Indian out of church to allow the worship service to proceed. But even then, I knew that something more important was at work than church business as usual.
Karen Connerley was a single mother who lived on welfare in the midtown slum called the Ghetto. She’d been raped by her father and uncles on the nearby Tseshaht reservation, so she lived in hiding with her one-year old son Charlie and the unborn child within her. One day little Charlie began to cough uncontrollably. When he started turning blue and going into convulsions, Karen carried him to West Coast General Hospital and asked for help. But the emergency room staff turned her away.
“You mean they wouldn’t help him?” I asked her, appalled, and oblivious to the emptying pews around us.
“They just let him die. The nurse said they don’t treat Indians.”
Karen sat with the corpse of her son on a bus bench until the morning. Then a Mountie stopped and arrested her. She was charged with manslaughter in the death of her son. No-one believed her that it was the hospital that had killed Charlie.
“It’s how they treat us here” Karen explained, after she’d calmed down.
“It’s always been that way for us. But they’re not going to kill this one” she continued, patting her swollen belly.
Everything changed after that day. The thrones began to topple for me. I opened my heart and my door to many more of Karen’s people and to the legions of other murdered Indian children that still lie in unmarked graves near the United Church’s Alberni Indian residential school. And that change spread from me and around me. It eventually began a political and a spiritual firestorm across Canada and the world that overthrew a genocidal Church and State and turned everything upside down.
Many centuries ago there lived a woman much like Karen Connerley. She too was unwed, poor and outcast. She was also pregnant with child and with a revolution: a new presence in the world that would make the last first, and the first last.
The woman’s name was Mary and she was chosen to bring Jesus the Christ into the world.
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke speaks of that revolution. It’s often called the Magnificat. Unfortunately, the Christian church has surrounded this tale with a lot of cultic imagery and belief about a so-called virgin “Mother of God”. But Mary was not a virgin; the church only calls her that because of a Latin mistranslation of the Greek word for “young woman”; like Karen, she was likely a teenager. For Mary was as poor and as human as Karen Connerley, and as Jesus himself.
Mary’s song of praise that in today’s Gospel is like John the Baptist’s announcement of the coming of Jesus. It’s intended to prepare people for Christmas and the imagined Bethlehem birth narrative. But once again, myth gets in the way of fact. For as we know, Christmas has nothing to do with Christianity.
December 25 was the Roman festival called Saturnalia, or the Time of Reversal: for on that day the slave owners would take off their robes and be the servant to their slaves, who would become the masters. That’s no accident. The same great reversal, the turning of the world upside down, is at the core of Mary’s song of praise. By naming Saturnalia as Jesus’ birth date, the earliest Christians were saying, this is the consequence of the justice that Jesus has ushered into the world: all the rulers are pulled down, and the poor everywhere are raised. The Greek word for “pulled down” is kathaireo, which means to utterly destroy. Clearly, a radically new world is coming into being, according to a divine purpose.
It’s often been said that the best way to tame a revolutionary idea is to turn it into a religion. If you merely worship someone you never have to take him seriously. And so, the radical message of Jesus of human equality and liberation was quickly contained and mythologized by the corporatized and wealthy Church of Rome into a cult ritual that smothered the power of Jesus’ words and example. That religious cult killed the memory and spirit of Jesus and made him a sacrificial atonement for so-called human sin: a heresy called Roman Catholicism that like all worldly empires creates shame and humiliation in people in order to control them. But that degrading spirit is the opposite of what we hear today in Mary’s triumphant song of praise. Her song is imbued with a force that breaks apart oppression and elevates humanity above itself. It shows us that even in our lowliness we are chosen to fulfill a higher purpose and remake the world according to God’s justice.
Not surprisingly, I used to get into trouble with my staid theology professors about this Gospel reading. Its revolutionary message was not obvious to them. In fact, it frightened them, as did Jesus’ overturning of the money changers in the Jerusalem Temple.
“No, no, these texts can’t be taken literally” one of the profs scolded me. He was an especially fat theologian named Richard Leggatt.
“Mary didn’t literally mean the rich when she said they’re sent away hungry. It’s spiritual allegory. She meant anyone who is inwardly impoverished. And toppling rulers from their thrones, well, that’s just a reference to Satan, not to earthly rulers.”
“Then how about when Jesus says that a rich man can no more enter heaven than a camel can pass through the eye of a needle? In other words, that it’s impossible?”
Big Dick smiled at me smugly, always quick with an answer.
“The eye of the needle refers to a little-known gate in Jerusalem. It’s small but you can still crawl through it.”
And so on, ad nauseum. Over the years, I’ve learned that belief for most Christians is determined not by their faith as much as by their salary and pension plan. Fortunately, Jesus had neither.
To illustrate all this and to go deeper into today’s Gospel message, let’s examine its key words, taken from Luke Chapter 1, verses 46 to 55.
Mary’s first words in this passage are: “My soul magnifies the Lord”. The Greek word for “soul” is psyche, which means “substance or breath”, and for “magnifies” is megaluno, which means, “to declare or to make great or better”. “My soul magnifies the Lord” seems to be saying that Mary herself is somehow making God better; she is making God more than God. Mary is the subject of this sentence and God is the object; Mary is acting upon God and on the Godness within herself. But then the rest of the passage seems to reverse that. It has Mary saying that God is choosing her and bringing down the mighty and elevating her despite her lowly condition. But this is Mary’s song, and the first words situate Mary as the cause of everything that follows.
Let’s avoid the temptation of interpreting this meaning to wrongfully cultify Mary into god-like status, as the Church of Rome has done. In fact, what is described in Luke 1:46 is fully human and reveals the majesty of being so. If there is divine greatness in our world it is because of the courage and witness of the human soul. The mystery called God is taken flesh in every child born and awaits like a seed to flower into the life of one like Jesus, who by being fully human is thereby fully divine.
This is an incredible revelation. It puts an end to religion and to the world as we know it, where we are expected to defer to others and wait upon salvation and meaning from someone else. For isn’t it evident from a complete reading of the Bible that we are in a direct and unmediated partnership with the great mystery we call God? For in the progress of scripture, we see how God evolves from a vengeful, judgemental ruler into a state of unconditional love.
As a child matures from self-absorption into understanding, so does our soul-journey as a people bring to birth a better divinity through our willingness to accept the risk and cost of existence. The mystery grows and evolves through us as we become more than ourselves. The ancient Greek writers and the author of the Book of Job depict how man rises above God by persevering in the truth whatever the cost, despite our mortality and weakness. The playwright Aeschylus wrote, “The gods look with envy upon man because although living for but a day he surpasses the Olympians by still daring to love and to be valiant”.
Like Karen Connerley and every woman who courageously brings forth life into a world of suffering and death, Mary sings in triumph because she knows that whatever comes, she has created a chance for all of us: the possibility of a new world where the old corruption is toppled. Perhaps her particular joy was to know that her own son would bring about that new way by lighting a fire and a sacred spirit in humanity that would never go out.
Karen Connerley’s Nuu-Cha-Nulth people have a story that Christ visited their west coast tribes many centuries before the first whites ever appeared. The Christ, who came to them as a woman, warned the Nuu-Chah-Nulth that a pale people would come to their land carrying her name and words but not her inner spirit teaching – namely, that all of God’s creatures were to be loved, treated equally and held in respect.
The Christ told the Nuu-Chah-Nulth that the pales Christians had lost that soul, and so they were to welcome them and lead them back to her true way. The Nuu-Chah-Nulth tried to do so and were slaughtered for it, just as Jesus was. But as with him, that spirit cannot be killed by cannon fire or by smallpox or by big money. That promise rests within all of us. It waits to be born fully human and remake our world by first turning upside down everything in us and around us.
The week after I was fired by the United Church for uncovering its crimes against her people, Karen Connerley appeared in my church for one final time. She had heard what had happened to me and she came to support me. But seeing that I was no longer there she stood up in the service and declared,
“You’re crucifying Kevin just like you did us! But God sees what you’re doing and you’re going to come down!”
At that point, Karen too was finally evicted from St. Andrew’s United Church. Soon after that she was found dead. But crucifixions have never ended anything. What Karen predicted has come true, for by her courage she has birthed it into being. The rulers are falling, the dead churches are collapsing, and the silenced victims are standing up and speaking and reclaiming the world.
I have seen the revolutionary miracle and I know it to be true because I have helped to birth it into being. May you each come to know and give life to the same Magnificat: the divine word taken flesh to topple the ruler of this world and raise up the new creation. Amen.
For the Statement of Faith of The Covenanters see Here We Stand: The Call of the New Protestant Reformation at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1974273474
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