Isaiah 35:1-10 and Luke 1:46b-55. Preached at Old First Reformed United Church of Christ, December 12, 2010 by the Rev. Michael W. Caine.
Advent is a time for prophets, because the world isn’t what God means it to be. Anymore than our lives are.
And sometimes that difference– between how things are and how we wish they were… how they ought to be– is painful, particularly at Christmastime, when we feel “the way things should be” a bit more…
Mary is our prophet today. And a welcome feminine note in the tradition’s almost all male chorus. Curiously, in this vignette, there is a person with a deeper voice, Zechariah, a priest, but he’s been struck speechless. Maybe he needed to be muted by some angelic intervention in order to make room for what Elizabeth and Mary have to say and to sing.
So we get to hear from women for a change. And what a change they foresee.
Mary’s song is the overture to Luke’s whole Gospel– setting up the good news that Luke has to share with those who are hard-pressed. Luke’s interpretation of Jesus’ story notably gives voice to the lowly and those often unheard of in tradition or our world– shepherds from the field, a young peasant girl in trouble, families fleeing persecution, poor widows faced with unjust judges, those who locked away and forgotten in prison…
Mary knows hard-pressed. Barbara Brown Taylor evokes Mary’s plight, alone and disadvantaged in a society that promises neither help nor protection:
“What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, ‘The child really is mine. Now leave the poor girl alone'”
Mary’s Magnificat curiously echoes Hannah’s song in the second chapter of 1 Samuel. Hannah was hard-pressed by society and the church too. Not over a pregnancy, but because she couldn’t get pregnant. Her crime was barrenness.
Both women sing out of personal pain of not being accepted for whom they are. But also from the experience and hope of their people which agree that God intercedes to do the unimaginable.
The tables are turned. Or overturned.
The lowly are lifted up.
The proud are brought down.
The hungry are fed.
God’s promises are fulfilled. God never forgets.
Mary’s song is music that comes from deep within her. The scientifically-minded could say it comes from her DNA. But I’d prefer to understand this as the music of faith. Her people’s faith. With this song running through our heads, we might even ask if Jesus didn’t inherit his social and political outlook from his mother. But then again his “Father” shares the same compassionate concern for the oppressed and hard-pressed.
To rely on Barbara Brown Taylor again, “(Mary) no longer sings the song. the song is singing her.” There, on her cousin’s doorstep, she sings for Elizabeth. And both their babies. And maybe for the bewildered silenced priest in the background. And for you and me too:
God’s vision of a world made right. Neither politican, nor revolutionary, an astonished pubescent, pregnant prophet singing about a world in which the last have become first and the first, last.
Not everyone hears such promises as, well, pregnant with hope. All this talk of filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away raises eyebrows and fears. In the 1980’s, when hundreds of thousands of citizens were disappearing, the government of Guatemala banned Mary’s song, actually banned 9 verses from the Bible, because, unlike ‘Away in a Manger’ or ‘Silent Night,’ this prayer was apparently considered politically dangerous, subversive, revolutionary. Authorities were apparently worried it might incite the terrorized people to stand up for themselves.
Those government fears were not completely unfounded. In Latin American Christian base communities during the same era, when campesinos started reading the Bible for themselves, they heard good news–
… that God didn’t want their children to die of hunger or disease,
… that God didn’t mean for their husbands and sons to be abducted and murdered,
… that it wasn’t God’s will for their daughters to be brutalized by poverty or the military, whether government or rebel soldiers.
Faith can put dangerous ideas in people’s heads, new courage in our hearts, and strength in our hands. There’s a solidarity that comes of beginning to see ourselves as worthy, even as precious as God does. …Maybe the Guatemalan government was paying more attention than most of us do when we sing our church songs…
In Mary’s time, the burdensome taxes of Herod’s reign, taxes that built the Temple, but also supported Herod’s lifestyle and cost the poor their land, concentrated wealth at the top of the social scale among a very few and left the majority impoverished.
Herod was so unpopular, he knew people would celebrate when he died, so he supposedly had 70 beloved Jewish citizens imprisoned with the order that they be executed on the day of his death so that there would be tears in Israel.
It’s true that things are not as they should be in our time either. I first wrote that line before this week’s political failures:
~failure to expect the rich to pay their fair share in taxes,
~failure to free gay folks in the military from intrusive “surveillance” of their private lives, and
~failure to give undocumented immigrant children a chance for full lives in the land of their upbringing.
One of the more interesting, but less popular among all our Old City’s neighbors’ concerns, which tend to be a bit more of the “Not in my backyard” variety, about the development of a hotel and entertainment complex on the block kitty corner from the church at 4th and Race– is for the workers who will eventually find employment on that redeveloped site. Not just the construction workers, but the staff of the hotel and the restaurants. Shouldn’t we as a church, be advocating long before the first worker is hired, that any jobs created there provide a livable wage? Maybe with all the service Old First provides to the dispossessed urban poor, we should go further, insisting that a special hring preference be established, not just to people from poor neighborhoods, but for people who’ve suffered homelessness in the last few years.
I sometimes wonder if we even have the political imagination to envision much less act for a different world? Or even more pointedly. do we dare to sing Mary’s Magnificat today, sing it with our whole lives, for our whole world? And if so, what would we sound like and how would it be heard?
As long as there are children who go to bed hungry, women who live in fear in their own homes, men who have no place to call home, there are tables to be turned. Do we really mean what we sing with this the season’s carols? Are we really trying to sing into existence the world God will’s– where all of God’s children will have what they need, the rich and the hungry, the lowly and the powerful?
Some of us, but not most of us, are suffering systemic oppression akin to Latin American campesinos or ancient Middle Eastern subjects of the Roman Empire. But life’s heavy burdens are not limited to economic injustices and social inequalites. Burdens often, ironically, that feel heavier at Christmastime.
Grief over a loved one.
Worries about illnesses.
Troubles at work.
Brokenness in our families.
Loneliness that never seems to abate.
We long for our suffering to end and a world where basic needs can be fulfilled. Where nations, families, individuals can live in peace. Where the earth will be healed and restored.
A future vision while we are left in the present. Mary found the nerve, or the faith to claim such a future for herself and her people, even if she had to sing about it ahead of time. But notice, her song is in the past tense, for her faith was that strong: God had already accomplished these great things.
Barbara Brown Taylor (again– I like leaning on a woman preacher in a sermon about the importance of hearing female prophecy!) points out that prophets hardly ever get their verb tenses right. Because they can see and live already in the world as God means it. Not limited by their presents, but already participating in the eternally unfolding mysteries that surprise us all.
We’re still in Advent, standing expectantly at Hope’s window, or learning out to hear all Mary has to say on the doorstep. The world has run ahead onto Christmas, while the church waits on the sidelines. And that marginal position isn’t all bad. For like any and all of those not so bought into the world as it is, we have ironically “the luxury,” — like pregnant peasant girls or those without enough work– to listen, to watch and to wait.
Some of us look back longingly on Christmases past, hoping to re-create better, more secure, less troubled times. Many are grieving or depressed or lonely during the holiday season. And the church consoles us all: telling, reliving, enacting, transforming with the holy story over again– to comfort and to promise, to be with those who need help looking forward in hope.
How many Marys and Elizabeths or Zechariahs and Josephs are sitting in our pews? How many of us long to connect our small stories with the larger story of God and the big picture of hope and promise?
We may be antsy to start singing beloved Christmas carols, songs of joy and peace, music that we want realized in our lives and our world. But to get there, first, we need to linger, to sing for a while Mary’s song of tables turned upside down, and feasts for the poor and hungry.
In a world that only wants to hear of uniform happiness and a blanketing peace that neither unsettles nor calls for justice, we stand at the window and the doorway, with Mary, expectant with hope, listening for God’s own heartbeat– the heartbeat of justice, a heartbeat for the hard-pressed, a compassionate heartbeat of transformational love.