December 21, 2003

"Salvation Isn't a Delicate Cycle" - December 21, 2003

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
Micah 5:2-4; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56

Last week, the movie Babe was on television, so I watched a good chunk of it again. Babe is the story of a lovable and unshakably optimistic little pig who turns out to have an incredible talent and a genuine vocation for herding sheep, the traditional job of a sheepdog. It's one of my favorite movies and I've seen it many times, so when I saw it last week, I was less caught up in the perspective of Babe, the little pig, and I was able to take a step back and view the story from the point of view of some of the other characters -- especially Rex, the former champion sheepdog who lives on the farm with Babe, and Farmer Hoggett, who owns both Rex and Babe as well as the farm on which they work.

And of course, my mind leapt immediately to the Magnificat, the song of Mary in today's gospel. It's not as wacky as it sounds, because Babe is in some ways a story of the powerful being brought down and the lowly lifted up. Babe, the unassuming little pig intended for the Hoggetts' Christmas dinner, becomes a champion, winning the hearts not only of Farmer Hoggett and all the animals on the farm, but of all of England, glued to their televisions watching the spectacle of this amazing pig in competition. Rex, the proud and mighty sheepdog, is displaced as the lord of the fields. And when we're caught up in rooting for the little pig, we have no trouble seeing the story of Babe as good news.

But from Rex's point of view, the story could have been very bad news indeed. For much of the story, that's exactly how Rex receives it too. Babe's gift for herding sheep, in Rex's view, isn't a gift at all, but a threat — not just to him and his own status, but to a way of life. It's a threat to the world's making any sense at all. As a viewer, you can see what kind of a threat Babe poses in the struggle characters have to name what the little pig is doing. Everybody knows what a 'sheepdog' is, but what do you a call a pig who does that job? A 'sheep-pig'? Sounds more like some kind of genetic experiment. All of the farm animals are quick to tell Babe that he's disrupting "the way things are." Everybody knows that cows are for giving milk, hens for giving eggs, and dogs for herding sheep. Rex is willing, more or less grudgingly, to treat the little pig kindly, regardless of the pig's aspirations, but it's clear to Rex that a pig's doing a sheepdog's job, no matter how well, not only makes a mockery of what pigs and dogs were born and raised to do, but also shames and blasphemes the farmer who would allow such things to happen. Rex cares too much about Farmer Hoggett to watch that happen, even if Farmer Hoggett is foolish enough to go along with it, so he does what he can to help, in his view -- to help Babe realize that he's doing the wrong thing in herding sheep, to help preserve Farmer Hoggett's good name, and to see that the sheep have a proper shepherd. Rex really does care about protecting the sheep, even if he doesn't trust them to know a good shepherd, and so Rex makes a series of mistakes that could turn his story into a tragedy.

Lack of trust is really Rex's problem. He wants to protect the sheep, but doesn't trust the sheep to go where they should or to know the good shepherd. And although Rex wouldn't want to admit it, he doesn't trust Farmer Hoggett, even though Rex loves him. When Farmer Hoggett doesn't stop Babe from herding sheep, Rex assumes that the farmer is just being slow to act, trusting Rex to do the job instead. Rex continues to believe that even when Farmer Hoggett is right before his eyes, calling Babe out to the pastures. Rex can't believe the farmer he knows and loves would approve of something so obviously wrong, even when evidence to the contrary is in front of him.

Farmer Hoggett, though, believes what he sees, even when there's no language to describe it. Pigs don't herd sheep, but when he sees it happen, he believes it and blesses it, in the same understated way he always expresses approval – "that'll do," he says. "That'll do ... pig." The farmer's trust in the rule books and almanacs is shaken, but he trusts his eyes, and he trusts his heart, so he can receive Babe's vocation, disruptive as it is to the way we all thought things were supposed to be, as good news — the best news.

The Magnificat, Mary's song of praise for the God who is casting down the mighty and raising up the lowly, is one of my favorite passages in scripture – maybe my favorite of all. It's framed on my living room wall in the graceful calligraphied script of a monk from the monastery where Karen and I first met. I've studied it, sung it, pondered it, and prayed it, so this week, as I turned to it again, I felt drawn to look at it from a different angle — from the angle of Rex, the ruler, from the perspective of the mighty. I almost couldn't help it, since the last time I stood in this pulpit, I shared with you how important I think it is that we acknowledge that most of us at St. Martin's are among the wealthy and the powerful. We're the ones who have the most to lose, if everything really is changing.

And the faith we have is that everything really is changing. As Christians, we believe that the tide of history turned with the birth of Jesus, the Christ. In Advent, we look to the future, when Jesus' work is complete and everything we see comes into alignment with what we believe:


God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. ...
    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.

We believe that's going to happen, and in this last week of Advent in particular, we are called to prepare to receive Christ, who is coming to accomplish all of this, as Good News. But when I pause to really take these words in — not unthinkingly, as pious sentiment, but really listening to them and asking God for openness to feel their impact — it's a profound challenge, especially in "he has filled the hungry with good things,/ and sent the rich away empty." It's like the Beatitudes in Luke (6:20-26):

    Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
    Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
    Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
    Blessed are you when people hate you,
    and when they exclude you, revile you,
    and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

And in Luke, if we're tempted as readers to gloss over these words as pious or strictly metaphorical platitudes, Luke shocks us back to attention with what follows:


  But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
    Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
    Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
    Woe to you when all speak well of you,
    for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

This is the gospel; this is Good News. It's Good News for everyone — it's what the world will look like when, as John the Baptizer preached in the desert, "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6).

But if we're rich, if we have enough to eat now, how is it good news for us? We're not going to stay on top forever.

That's true, but the news we hear in the Magnificat is better news than "you'll always be on top." We who intend to follow Christ have a different aim than staying where we are; we're after the transformation of the world.

That's a heady claim. Let's try some imagery to bring it a little closer to home. For a moment, instead of trying to think of the world, let's think of the laundry.

One of the first lessons I learned when I started using a washing machine is that you can't pack it too tightly. If the clothes stay where they are through the wash, nothing happens. A washing machine doesn't work unless there's movement, and lots of it. At the center of a washing machine, there is something moving and active — the agitator. It agitates; it jolts back and forth to make sure that nothing else can stay where it is. It creates friction with the clothes closest to the center, sending them out to the margins. The friction and the currents created by that movement pull what's at the margins in to the center, and back out again. That keeps going until the whole load is clean, transformed, made new.

When Christ is at the center of our community, things change. The closer we are to the center, the more likely we are to be pushed out to the margins. Being pushed out doesn't always feel good, and friction often doesn't feel good either. And have you ever watched a load of laundry in a machine with a clear door? All that movement can make you pretty dizzy. It's hard to maintain a sense of equilibrium in there, I'm sure. But when Christ is truly at the center, we will be spun around and sent out, and brought in, and sent out. And that's how the transformation happens, the transformation we long for in the deepest part of our being. The proud are humbled, the rich made poor, and the lowly are lifted up and gathered in, and all flesh will see the salvation of our God.

Including us. We all need that transformation, and we all need one another — and we need that agitation that originates with Christ — to see it. We need that more than we need to be top dog. Even Rex, the sheepdog who would remain king, got that by the end of the movie. Because by the end of the story, Rex did two things that allowed him to root for Babe as much as any of us in the audience.

The first was that Rex admitted his own vulnerabilities, his own wounds. Rex's mistrust didn't come from nowhere. He'd been hurt before while trying to protect the sheep. He lost his hearing while trying to guide the sheep in a long and cold storm, and ironically, it was only when he admitted to the sheep that he'd lost the ability to hear as a result of his injury that he really learned to listen. It's a natural thing when we get hurt to try to figure out how we can make sure it never happens again, but in general — and I count this among my most important life lessons — any personal rule that you develop that's about not getting hurt should probably be suspect. Stupid behavior hurts, but love hurts too. Rule out risk, rule out pain, and we rule out redemption. Admit the things that make us uncertain, that render us in need of help, of a Shepherd, and we have some chance of finding healing.

The second, and probably the more important thing that Rex does, is that he stays in relationship, he keeps his eyes open, and, maybe despite himself, he keeps his heart open. The salvation for all flesh in Babe — for dog, pig, and farmer alike — is that they keep listening to one another, and their love for one another wins out. I'll let y'all rent the movie _— a great holiday movie — to find out exactly how that happens, but here's what I took away from my umpteenth viewing of Babe last week, as I was thinking about everything I saw in light of today's gospel, and of this community.

In the end, Farmer Hoggett gets to experience the wonderful thing happening — a pig's becoming a champion — because he keeps his eyes open, and his heart open to receive what his eyes tell him.  Rex is saved, is able to dig himself out of the bitterness he feels in watching a pig get more honor as a sheepdog than he does, because Rex keeps a place in his heart open to listen to the folks who love Babe, even if he can't listen to Babe himself. And Babe — Babe, the lowly pig, and also the one with the extraordinary talent — would, in the end, be lost if Rex hadn't passed along to Babe what he learned from Farmer Hoggett's sheep, once Rex was willing to listen. More importantly, Babe would have been lost in the end had he not been willing to trust that Rex, who in the past insulted and persecuted him, was telling him what he needed to know to connect with a new flock.

There's something these three characters have in common: openness. Farmer Hoggett would have missed out on the amazing story in front of him if he hadn't been willing to discard what he thought he knew about pigs and dogs and sheep when he saw something that said that this was a new thing, a pig that herds sheep. Rex would have been shut out by his own stubbornness had he not let himself get to know Babe even after he was convinced that there was nothing to like. And Babe, in the end, wouldn't have become the champion everyone admired if he hadn't been willing in the end to trust Rex, that Rex had really changed, and was wanting to help.

It's a washing machine, and a pretty delicate cycle. It depends on each of us having room to move. It depends on the friction that inevitably happens when one or more of us do move. It depends on us all not getting stuck, not staying where we are, but being ready to have some real contact with whoever is in the direction Christ is sending us. How ready am I to listen — really listen, deeply listen — to someone who's said hurtful things about me in the past? How ready am I to accept that someone who was really, demonstrably interested in hurting me in the past has something to teach me now? How ready are you to brush up against the person you (according to the lessons of experience, or some other reliable source) think of as eternally and necessarily on the outs, and to find that person drawing you toward the center?

I'm not that old — or so I keep telling myself, as I watch succeeding generations of youth groups move toward adult milestones — but I've lived long enough to say that all bets about where to find eternally safe and solid places are off. There's an agitator in this community who's turning everything upside-down, and in four days, I'll be with my family unwrapping presents to celebrate his birthday. Fools are wise, rich are poor, and the only thing that really makes sense is to go where the Christ is. I hear a star will be on the horizon any day now, but until I see it, I'm going with the rumor I've had that he shows up where two or three are gathered in his name. That's here, so I'm paying attention.

Keep your eyes on the horizon for that star, but keep your ears open for the word our Savior sends to us now. The salvation of our God is at hand!

Thanks be to God.

December 21, 2003 in Advent, Justice, Luke, Micah, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)