Like millions of people around the globe over the last few weeks, David and I have been watching “The Crown.” How many of you have been watching? Two scenes we recently viewed bring to mind the lessons from today’s readings.
In one scene, Michael Fagan, an unemployed, alcoholic man, who was told that because of his threatening behavior that he can no longer see his children, breaks into the queen’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace early one morning. The queen is startled, as anyone would be who woke to an intruder. Mr. Fagan tells her that she does not need to fear; that he simply wants her to listen to him: “I want you to know what’s going on in the country, because either you don’t know or you don’t care.” He goes on to tell her, “We’ve got 3 million unemployed. That’s more than anytime since the Great Depression. Isn’t there anything you can do about it?”
She tries to tell him that countries go through these things and bounce back, as people do. And in response he says, “I used to think that but first my work dried up, then my confidence dried up, and then the love in my wife’s eyes dried up.” He contends that in Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain, the supports that would normally be available to someone in his situation have dried up, too, and that he has been left to hang.
In a scene that follows, Mr. Fagan’s message has clearly landed with the Queen. She meets with Mrs. Thatcher and questions her policies and their effect on the poor. In response, Mrs. Thatcher asserts that just as her father was able to find a way through hard times, anyone with determination can do the same. From her perspective, individual effort is all that is needed to overcome one’s challenges. The Queen looks on aghast in moral horror. She recognized the truth of what Mr. Fagan was telling her, circumstances that affect whole groups of people can not always be overcome by individual effort.
In today’s scripture readings, Isaiah and Mary both herald “good news.” John Howard Yoder points out the term ‘good news’ “is not just any welcome piece of information, it is news which impinges on the fate of the community.” It is news that a whole community receives with joy. (I am reminded of the joyful outbursts we saw on Nov. 8th and the response some are feeling to the availability of a vaccine for COVID).
What Isaiah proclaims, what Mary proclaims, and what Jesus proclaims in his first sermon – when he uses the words we heard today from Isaiah – is that God’s saving action is not just for the individual believer, but for groups of people who are oppressed. As Cornel West reminds us, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
This idea – that belonging to a certain group of people can make it difficult to fully enjoy the blessings of an abundant life – is one that many in our culture struggle to fully embrace. Many in our country still take Margaret Thatcher’s view that with hard work and determination, any individual can overcome hardships presented by life. This kind of thinking is what holds unjust systems in place.
The message of the prophets, Mary, and Jesus is not merely about our individual spiritual salvation, individual success or individual joy- far from it. They all seem to recognize that there are forces in the world that disadvantage some people through no fault of their own; that groups of people find themselves in situations where they need to overcome political, economic, and even religious burdens. Their messages insist that God cares about the injustice of the world and wants us to do something about it: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn.” This God-directed mission is not simply to benefit individuals, but to rescue, protect, and save groups of people.
Since early in the pandemic, there have been signs around Gloucester and other places: “We’re all in this together.” If anything, this experience of the pandemic ought to bring home the message to us that our individual fates are inextricably tied to the community’s fate. There is no future well-being for any of us that does not include all of us. Period. If we were only to finally get this lesson, can you imagine how bright our future could be?
Can you imagine what our world could look like if we understood that quality education and quality healthcare for all enable everyone to live better? That clean air and clean water enable everyone to live better? That taking on climate change can help individuals recovering from floods in the Gulf Coast, can help individuals recovering from fires out west, and can help all those individuals with respiratory challenges in cities across the globe? What joy would we feel if we knew that all people in our country could receive quality healthcare and education? What joy would we feel if we knew that the earth and all her creatures could live without the spectre of extinction?
In 2020, we need to have an evolution in consciousness from “I” to “we.” John VandeLaar writes, “We cannot hope to address the great challenges of our time without a deep, revolutionary change of our hearts, minds and attitudes. But, equally, we cannot hope to find answers if we keep the same systems and structures and actions that have created our crises in the first place. As followers of Christ we are called to deal with both realities – the internal and the external.”
At an apocalyptic time when so much about what is wrong with society has been unveiled, we are called to realize that it’s not just individuals who need to change, it’s systems. Theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson writes, “The Magnificat is (nothing short of ) a revolutionary song of salvation whose political, economic, and social dimensions cannot be blunted.” Mary’s joy emerges not simply from what’s happening in her life, but from what is happening for her people.
There has never been a time in human history when all has been right with the world. For good reason, many of us will say that 2020 was the worst year of our lifetimes. But there has never been an era where people have not struggled as individuals and as groups. The reality of sickness, sin, like greed, and death guarantee it.
This Advent, as the Coronavirus pandemic rages, we might ask ourselves how we are listening to the Michael Fagans in our world and in our communities. We have more than 3000 people dying in the US each day from COVID-19. If you are Native American or Black you are more likely to be among them. As Christians, what might this suggest about where we should be focusing our attention and efforts?
Isaiah and Mary announce that God is acting to bring compassion and justice to the world. And here’s some additional good news… Tucked into the announcements of the serious work of God, is JOY. United Methodist Bishop Ken Carter writes, “It is gladness that comes from the same place as suffering; joy that comes from the same place as tears. It is the joy of men and women who face the suffering, injustice and pain of the world in all its fury, but have taken hold of something stronger, deeper and more powerful. They have grasped the assurance of the ultimate triumph of the goodness of God.” When we choose to stand-alongside those who suffer, God provides a joy that wells up from the ground of our being. When we align our mission in life with God’s mission, joy flows.
As we draw close to the birth of Christ, the one who brought good news to the poor, how are we creating room in our hearts to respond to the Michael Fagans of the world? How are we called to help rebuild our own nation based on a love that does justice? How are we to live in joy? Amen.