News24.com article on the Christmas Complications #RememberKwezi: Kwezi Sermon was outside the brief
There were complications at birth.
Mary nearly lost the baby.
Jesus nearly didn’t see the light of day.
I am not talking about any complications during her pregnancy or during labour or the moment of delivery.
I am talking about life-threatening complications of a different type. These complications were the consequence of at least three things that, when mixed together and stirred almost always result in death. This remains as true today as it was 2000 years ago.
Life is threatened:
- When discrimination is written into law or at least saturates the dominant culture.
- When those called to hold the powerful accountable, don’t.
- When the powerful use their power for their own promotion and protection.
Once we have explored these three complications – witnessing how they conspire to threaten life – we will turn our attention to what it was that enabled Mary and the baby to survive – and thereby receive a few hints at how we need to live today in order to engage the same life-threatening complications of our time.
1] The first life-threatening complication – according to the text for today – occurs when the powerful use their power exclusively for their own benefit.
King Herod was such like. He employed his power for his own privilege and protection. In other words: The No.1 priority of No.1 was to look after No.1 . This determined every one of Herod’s policy decisions that he signed into law. It also informed every cabinet re-shuffle. For Herod, self-preservation was the only real item on every meeting’s agenda that he attended.
This meant that Herod violated the constitution of God who implored all leaders – especially No.1 – to shepherd God’s people – all people. In other words to lead with pastoral care which meant to take special care of the poor, the weak, the foreigner and the vulnerable. This meant it was the king’s responsibility to provide green pastures of food and still waters to drink especially in times of drought. It meant that No.1 . was to safeguard and guide the people through the shadowed valleys of death and to successfully negotiate with enemies around a table and provide housing for all … all the days of their life. King Herod was however more focused on building his holiday home and housing the homeless poor who surrounded him.
Though the Roman State-owned media gave him a free ride, the people on the ground grew in resentment. On a few public occasions king Herod was booed – so he soon stuck to his popular ghettos of support. King Herod was hyper vigilant ever adding to his army of personal bodyguards. He was more than a little paranoid with his speeches sounding like strange riddles. The police were on permanent standby and he relied heavily on spooks for the latest info.
One day Herod was informed that there were three so-called “clever people” looking for the king. But they weren’t looking for him … they were looking for another king! As this news were told in the ancient text that “Herod was frightened … and all the people with him”. Yes, because when the elephants fight the grass suffers.
Herod was afraid. A fearful leader is a very dangerous leader because fear casts out love. Therefore a fearful leader is a loveless leader. And a loveless leader is a ruthless ruler. Herod did not care how many casualties as long as he stayed No.1 . Some called for him to resign, but he lived by the motto: “If I go down all will go down”.
So we read that Herod called the priests and scribes to enquire of them where the Messiah is to be born. They correctly state – “it will be in Bethlehem”. King Herod then arranges a secret meeting with the three so-called clever people requesting they search diligently and if they are successful, to return to him with the address so he too can go and worship.
But it was a trap. Herod had never worshipped anyone besides himself and he wasn’t going to start now.
2] The second life-threatening complication according to our ancient story is when those who are called to hold the powerful accountable, simply don’t.
Here we see the priests and the scribes (the public protectors of their day) forsake their sacred duty. Their primary role was to hold the powerful, especially the king, accountable for his pastoral responsibilities and by doing so to uphold God’s constitution of care for the poor. Yet in our text we find them living in comfort and ease close to the king. Some investigative journalists named this “priestly capture”. It still happens to this day.
Instead of fearlessly speaking truth to power – they turn out to be praise-singers for the king. They tell the king what he wants to hear rather than what God wants him to hear. In this way, religion is used to validate and condone what it should challenge and correct.
Note, according to the story we see that these priests and scribes knew the constitution. They knew where the true king was to be born – in Bethlehem, yet they were happy to remain in Jerusalem. Go figure? To forsake the single most important task of one’s vocation can only mean that Herod’s system of patronage must have been extremely lucrative.
3] The third life-threatening complication according to our ancient story is when discrimination is written into law or at least saturates the dominant culture.
The system of discrimination – that was legal at the time – was the system of patriarchy. Patriarchy is simply understood as the belief and practice that men are superior to women. That women are inferior to men. That women are not their own person, but gain their human worth by either belonging to their father or husband.
In other words – it’s a man’s world and women exist in it to please and serve men while men get to decide about the role of women in society and this includes men having control over women’s bodies. This system of patriarchy was underpinned by the Scriptures – with numerous verses being quoted by men to support the view that it was in fact God’s design that women submit their worth to men.
One example, pertinent to this Christmas reflection is that some ancient texts state that if a woman is pregnant yet unmarried or worse still pregnant from one man while engaged to another man – she could be flogged or stoned to death for this “sexual deviance” that brought shame on her or her in-laws’ family. And don’t think for a moment that back then anyone was buying into the virgin birth – which would have been deemed “fake news”.
Mary’s life was in deadly danger resulting from the patriarchal laws and culture of her time. Not dissimilar to the terrifying vulnerability of gay and lesbian people in our land today as we were gruesomely reminded a few weeks ago with the murder of Noluvo Swelindawo – a lesbian woman almost certainly targeted specifically for being lesbian – by men. By insecure men. By men who locate their masculinity in their sexual domination of women and who are therefore offended by lesbians who by denying them sex deny their manhood. Despite our liberating and protecting constitution the dominant culture remains anti-gay and this is in no small measure a result of how the Scriptures have been used to validate such discrimination – enabling people to do evil while believing they are doing good.
For the combination of these three reasons stated above, Mary nearly lost the baby.
To see how she and the baby survived we must take note of the following three things:
1] First, we see the Magi – the three so-called clever people. They were not fooled by the charm of No.1 . They defy his order to return to him with the information he requested. This is a risky act of civil disobedience. Here we see the power of principle trump the abuse of power. It would prove to be costly returning home another way – certainly no royal tenders coming their way in the future.
Note that the three so-called clever people were from the East. In other words they were outsiders. In other words not necessarily religious but they were truth seekers. They carry a longing to know – for the R2K where true power lies. In their truth seeking they shame the religious insiders who had long since exchanged the search for the truth for personal comfort.
2] Second, we see that the discriminatory law and culture of his day did not determine Joseph’s behaviour. Joseph’s character was one of compassion and mercy – his humaneness revealed in how he honoured the humanity of Mary. He respected her. Whenever someone refuses to discriminate against another – especially when law or culture encourage one to discriminate – life is saved.
3] Third, we see Mary’s own courageous imagination. Mary dared to imagine another world. A world true to the ancient constitution of God. A world where the powerful exist to serve the least. A world where the public is properly protected from the abuse of power. A world where women and men are respected and treated as equal and of sacred worth – each bearing the priceless image of the Creator.
Mary’s courageous imagination released the first Christmas Carol – which is very unlike the soppy and sentimental carols we sing today. Hers was a carol about knowing of her own favoured worth despite the demeaning laws of her land. Hers was a song about God who rules above the kings of the earth. A song about mercy and not judgment for the vulnerable. A song about the powerful falling from their thrones. (Mary was the first “fallist”.) A song about the hungry being filled and the rich sent away empty handed.
In other words Mary pre-dated Jean Jacques Rousseau who said: “One day the poor will have nothing left to eat … but the rich”.
Mary pre-dated Frantz Fanon: “What counts today – the question which is looking on the horizon – is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity must reply to this question or be shaken to pieces by it”.
Mary pre-dated Martin Espade in his poem “Imagine the Angels of Bread” when he imagined: “Squatters evict landlords”.
She pre-dated the four women who in silence loudly called the nation to #RememberKhwezi. Fezeka Khuzwayo – publically known as Kwezi wrote a poem. Her poem is no less courageously imaginative than Mary’s song of a different world. And she like Mary also had to flee for her life. The poem is called: “I am Khanga”.
I am Khanga
I wrap myself around the curvaceous bodies of women all over Africa
I am the perfect nightdress on those hot African nights
The ideal attire for household chores
I secure babies happily on their mother’s backs
Am the perfect gift for new bride and new mother alike
Armed with proverbs, I am vehicle for communication between women
I exist for the comfort and convenience of a woman
But no no no make no mistake …
I am not here to please a man
And I certainly am not a seductress
Please don’t use me as an excuse to rape
Don’t hide behind me when you choose to abuse
That’s what he said my Malume
The man who called himself my daddy’s best friend
Shared a cell with him on [Robben] Island for ten whole years
He said I wanted it
That my khanga said it
That with it I lured him to my bed
That with it I want you is what I said
But what about the NO I uttered with my mouth
Not once but twice
And the please no I said with my body
What about the tear that ran down my face as I lay stiff with shock
In what sick world is that sex
In what sick world is that consent
The same world where the rapist becomes the victim
The same world where I become the bitch that must burn
The same world where I am forced into exile because I spoke out?
This is NOT my world
I reject that world
My world is a world where fathers protect and don’t rape
My world is a world where a woman can speak out
Without fear for her safety
My world is a world where no one, but no one is above the law
My world is a world where sex is pleasurable not painful
‘This is also my home’
The Magi’s power of principle together with Joseph’s humaneness together with Mary’s courageous imagination are what saved Mary and her baby.
And to the extent that we imitate them will be to the extent many others will be spared from the life-threatening complications of the abuse of power and the failure to hold the powerful to account as well as the presence of deadly discrimination.
Central Methodist Mission – Cape Town
Christmas Day broadcast service for SAFM – click on link to listen to the full recording of the sermon as recorded 0n 2016 12 11.
Text in red and italicised was edited out of the broadcast.
Grace and peace to you and through you
Christmas can be one of the most difficult times of the year for people. The expectation to be “happy” as in “Happy Christmas” is sometimes at complete odds with our lived experience and this can provoke an even greater despair than usual. So this is for all of you in despair at this time. David Whyte writes in Consolations on Heartbreak:
“Despair takes us in when we have nowhere else to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore, when our world or our loved ones disappear, when we feel we cannot be loved or do not deserve to be loved, when our God disappoints, or when our body is carrying profound pain in a way that does not seem to go away.
Despair is a haven with its own temporary form of beauty and of self-compassion, it is the invitation we accept when we want to remove ourselves from hurt. Despair, is a last protection…
Despair is a necessary and seasonal state of repair, a temporary healing absence, an internal physiological and psychological winter when our previous forms of participation in the world take a rest; it is a loss of horizon, it is the place we go when we do not want to be found in the same way anymore. We give up hope when certain particular wishes are no longer able to come true and despair is the time in which we both endure and heal, even when we have not yet found the new form of hope.
Despair is strangely, the last bastion of hope; the wish being, that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again. …Despair is the place we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world and where we feel, with a beautifully cruel form of satisfaction, that we may never have deserved that home in the first place…
Despair turns to depression and abstraction when we try to make it stay beyond its appointed season and start to shape our identity around its frozen disappointments. …Despair needs a certain tending, a reinforcing, and isolation, but the body left to itself will breathe, the ears will hear the first birdsong of morning or catch the leaves being touched by the wind in the trees, and the wind will blow away even the grayest cloud; will move even the most immovable season; the heart will continue to beat and the world, we realize, will never stop or go away.
The antidote to despair is not to be found in the brave attempt to cheer ourselves up with happy abstracts, but in paying a profound and courageous attention to the body and the breath, independent of our imprisoning thoughts and stories, even strangely, in paying attention to despair itself, and the way we hold it, and which we realize, was never ours to own and to hold in the first place. To see and experience despair fully in our body is to begin to see it as a necessary, seasonal visitation, and the first step in letting it have its own life, neither holding it nor moving it on before its time…
Despair is a difficult, beautiful necessary, a binding understanding between human beings caught in a fierce and difficult world where half of our experience is mediated by loss, but it is a season, a wave form passing through the body, not a prison surrounding us. A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition.”
May we discover the grace of despair,
Grace and peace to you
It may surprise us to know that back in the Biblical day the idea of God taking on human flesh was actually not such an outrageous idea. There were many emperors and pharaohs of the Greeks, Romans and ancient Egyptians who were considered deity in some form or other.
What made the declaration that Jesus was God born among us so outrageous is that he came from the under-class of society. His parents were peasant working people. What was worse was that his mother was not impregnated by his father – giving Jesus and his parents full marks in the social outcast category. The Gospel stories are clear that he was not born in a palace but rather in an overcrowded hovel – sharing accommodation with animals because they didn’t make the cut for anything more worthy. You don’t get lower than this.
And this is the shock of Christmas – not that God would share our flesh per se – but that God would share the flesh of the lowest among us. This turned the orthodox theology of their day up-side-down for in those days everyone believed that the healthy and wealthy were the ones who had been blessed by God while the poor and sick had been cursed by God. But if it were true that the lowly-outcast-Jesus was God’s en-fleshed representative then one’s entire perspective of God would have to change, as well as one’s perspective on life and living.
When the emperors and people in power are believed to represent God then the status quo will be bent in their favour. Any challenge to the status quo that serves the elite will not only be considered treason, but sinful. To challenge the king is no less than challenging God. This is very convenient theology for the King after all, who wants to mess with God?
But when God is represented by the lowest – the least – the ones society makes no room for then the elite serving status quo is given notice. Every day the status quo excludes and exploits the poorest of the poor God is aggrieved and offended. In short, the elite are messing with God and you don’t want to do that!
Christmas is the great challenge to all elite-serving systems. It declares: If you mess with the poor you mess with God. In South Africa, Christmas 2015 comes to us as a stern warning: Start honouring the poor or else …
A Psalm of Bringing to Birth
People of CMM, what will we bring to birth in the world of the new creation?
Wisdom and justice, peace and compassion, concern for all God’s little ones, for the homeless and the destitute, the hungry, and all who bear the brunt of indifference and oppression.
People of CMM, what will we bring to birth on the earth of the new creation?
A deep respect for our planet, its winding and its waters, its topsoil and its forests, and a oneness with the wilderness that is image of our soul.
People of CMM, what will we bring to birth in the church of the new creation?
A total disdain for power that diminishes or destroys, divestment of wealth and status, a sharing of human resources based on mutuality and the sudden surprise of grace.
People of CMM, what will we bring to birth in the hearts of the new creation?
An unbreakable bond in the Spirit that binds as one all brothers and sisters, transcending class, colour, culture, religion, sexual orientation and gender, that treats no personal preference, no physical or spiritual difference as aberration or handicap.
One has been born among us who heralds such liberation. Human liberation, our liberation has taken flesh among us and in Spirit dwell with us.
Holy the woman who helped this happen. Blessed are we when we give birth to the Word made flesh in us.
~ Miriam Therese Winter in WomanWord [adapted]
In protest over the commercialisation of Christmas Art, Conrad placed a Father Christmas on a 5m high cross in front of his home with the inscription: “Santa died for your Master Card”. That is quite a statement. But one thing we can be sure of is that Santa will never be enough of a threat to be crucified by the powers that be. The mascots of money are courted not crucified.
Grace and Peace to you
“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” [1 Corinthians 1:20]
Yes I know Paul was speaking about the Cross when he penned these words but they are equally true about the “foolish” birth of Jesus. Paul continues: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” [1 Corinthians 1:27-28].
What a foolish God this is to choose to be born into poverty within a country under hostile occupation. Jesus needed saving before he could start his saving work. A refugee child on the run is how Jesus’ life began.
What a foolish God this is to choose to be born as a “nobody”. I mean, why not come as someone powerful or at least popular? Someone who could “get the message out” far and wide? One who had access to important people with money and who could influence the real decision-makers?
What a foolish God indeed.
As it was in the beginning so it was with Jesus’ birth. God specialises in creating out of nothing. All through scripture we see God doing wonders with so-called nobodies. Now this is affirming news when we feel like nobodies and it is also a reminder that the Divine more often than not comes to us from the unwanted margins of society. Those ignored and maligned, downtrodden and forgotten are who God uses to turn this world right-way-up. Christmas invites us to take our lead from the despised and marginalised.
Prayer of Preparation
CHRIST THE HUMBLE CHILD AMONG US
Humble child of Bethlehem, whose parents found no room in the inn,
we pray for all who are homeless.
Humble child of Bethlehem, born in a stable,
we pray for all who live in poverty.
Humble child of Bethlehem, rejected stranger,
we pray for all who are lost, alone, all who cry for loved ones.
Humble child of Bethlehem, whom Herod sought to kill,
we pray for all who live with danger, all who are persecuted.
Humble child of Bethlehem, a refugee in Egypt,
we pray for all refugees throughout the world.
Humble child of Bethlehem, in you God was pleased to dwell,
help us, we pray, to see the divine image in people everywhere. Amen.
David Blanchflower 1987
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace. Isaiah 52
I love the way Charles Wesley describes the incarnation: “Our God contracted to a span / Incomprehensibly made man (sic)….He deigns in flesh to appear / Widest extremes to join… And we the life of God shall know / For God is manifest below.”
Nothing could ever be so unexpected. The God of heaven has an earthly address. As Karl Rahner has written:Now we no longer need to seek God in the endlessness of heaven, where our spirit and our heart get lost. Now he himself is on our very earth, where he is no better off than we and where he receives no special privileges, but our every fate: hunger, weariness, enmity, mortal terror and a wretched death. That the infinity of God should take upon itself human narrowness, that bliss should accept the mortal sorrow of the earth, that life should take on death — this is a most unlikely truth. But only this — the obscure light of faith — makes our nights bright, only this makes them holy.
I met someone the other day from Belgium. She came to be in South Africa especially for the 10 days of mourning that followed Nelson Mandela’s death. She was irresistibly drawn to be here — to the soil and the people — to share and to love and to hold. Having visited South Africa before she carried a permanent sense of connection within herself for us. “I just had to be here at this time”, she said.
God’s earthly visit to share and to love and to hold is what Christmas is all about. And forevermore God carries a permanent sense of connection within God’s self for us.
Look around you. God is near. Look inside you. God is near. Take comfort because God is near. Tremble with awe because God is near. And get this … now it is impossible to escape God loving you.
Prayer of Preparation
YOU are with us!
YOU are with US!
YOU are WITH US!
YOU ARE WITH US!
O Lord give to us the gift of knowing your presence and the blessing of peace and courage that flows from it. Amen.