Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
December 23, 2018
Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:39-56
I prepared two sermons this week. The first was all about what a rush we get in to arrive at Christmas, and in the process, we transform Advent into an extended front porch for Christmas, instead of dwelling in Advent as a time of reflection on the implications of living into and as the body of Christ. The name of that sermon was “Are We There Yet?” But then I realized that I was rushing as well, and I needed to stop and reflect on where I am, where we are, right now, instead of leaping ahead to the baby in the feed trough.
Instead, I want to focus on the Magnificat. It’s the beautiful hymn of the early church modeled closely on Hannah’s song. Hannah was elderly and supposedly barren, but gave birth to the prophet Samuel, and gave thanks to God, praying,
“I rejoice in your deliverance! … The bows of warriors are broken, while those who stumble gain renewed strength…. It is God who both humbles and exalts. God lifts the weak from the refuse dump and raises the poor from the cesspool to place them among the mighty and promotes them to seats of honor.”
Hannah’s song, in turn, is modelled on the Israelite’s song of praise and thanksgiving after God has delivered the Hebrew people out of slavery and safely through the parted waters of the Red Sea – a theological precursor to God’s saving grace for us, delivering us out of slavery by entering our turbulent waters in Jesus.
“In the splendor of your power you threw down those who defied you…. You led your redeemed people with your unfailing love. With your strength you guided them to your holy pasture.”
Just as the song of deliverance and the escape through turbulence from danger in hot pursuit is an expansive metaphor for God’s saving power and action on behalf of justice, so Mary’s Magnificat is a vision statement about how the Jesus movement will take shape in the real world of inequity and oppression.
The Magnificat aptly depicts God’s preferential option for the poor, and God’s rejection of the high and mighty who lord it over the land, claiming the best for themselves, while the common people labor to satisfy the whims of the wealthy. It’s the same sort of dichotomy that we see in Star Wars or Marvel comics movies. The good and the evil are painted in such starkly contrasting images that we cannot help but hold our breath whenever the good are about to slip off the end of the plane wing; we cannot help but cheer when the evil are swept away in floods or flames. All of it plays to our anxieties as well as our eagerness for victory and redemption. And there is truth in that picture. I will never give up on it. It’s what bolsters me and pulls me back from the brink of resignation when I begin to wonder if what I do makes any real impact. It’s what encourages me to encourage others to stick with the ways of Jesus – forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice.
The deep spiritual work we must do in our day and age is “to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin – to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms the present themselves.”
Those words are straight from our baptismal vows. And the forms in which evil, injustice, and oppression present themselves are the very same they have always been, and still today they threaten to undermine the beloved community that is forming within and among us, already and not yet the realm of heaven. Those spiritual forces may materialize in systems of culture, economy, and governance – but they are given birth from our hearts – the chamber of our relationships,,,, from our bowels – the chamber of our fears,,,, and from our wombs – the chamber of our lives,,,. These chambers were synonymous for our spiritual ancestors, suggesting that we are part of God’s work of giving birth to the beloved community.
Do you hear it coming?
Do you hear the “but” that has begun to form in my mind and heart? Our friend the Rev. Terri Stewart, who has preached for us and has been teaching our racism class, has a faithful practice of deep scriptural study and reflection that she often shares on social media. On Friday Terri was reading the Magnificat passage, and wrote this:
“True confession, I love Mary's song. I have always taken it to be a radical restructuring of society. The poor are lifted up, the rich are laid low. But I see it with new eyes this year. It is still a radical restructuring. The rich should be repentant of living lives of excess. But there are two things. What about the vast motionless middle? And why do we want to see the rich suffer in the same manner as the poor? For them to be hungry or homeless? I want a radical restructuring that reimagines a new economy and power structure. More along the lines of the economy we see in Acts rather than here in Luke. Also, the motionless middle. They really enable the rich to get richer out of preserving their own self-interest. They don't want to be poor (because they are the closest to being hungry and homeless) so their decisions are made out of self-interest and they buy the lines the rich are selling. And they may even see a small amount of profitability from doing such. But it is at the price of the poor, not at the price of the rich. What to do with the motionless middle? They will respond to whomever sits on the throne and bestows abundance. … how do we examine structures of power for equity and inclusion so that paths of success exist for all?”
I must admit that Terri’s questions have convicted me. It makes me both eager – that is hopeful and expectant, and anxious – that is worried and choked up. It’s easy to set up the extremes as victim and perpetrator, and then to step back and excuse myself as a mere passer-by, with little or no power or responsibility. It’s easy to take my place as one of a cast of thousands, lending color and veracity to the production. But in fact, in the vast middle, we have great responsibility as followers of Jesus. We have both a pastoral and a prophetic role. We strive to respond both to the needs of our community and to the benign or even malignant disregard of the powerful. Although Luke’s favorite prophet, Isaiah, reports God commanding, “Comfort, comfort my people!” it is into discomfort that Jesus often leads us – especially those of us who enjoy worldly comfort. The people for whom God was summoning comfort were in misery and exile, and at the hands of the few who lived in luxury and privilege. The underlying meaning of “comfort” is “with strength” or “strong together.” Those from both extremes – both misery and luxury – are to be called into comfort, and that invitation must come from the middle, even though it demands both kindness and sacrifice – both humility and courage.
Are we eager?
Or are we anxious?
Are we eager to usher in the realm of God in which there are no longer such extremes? Or are we anxious that we will somehow be left behind in that revolutionary exchange? I know that I am both – both eager and anxious. And it is this tension that drives much of the dismay and disillusionment among our selves as well as in our neighbors. Perhaps, the world looks at us and sees us followers of Jesus as a pack of fools, striving to live according to an impossible ideal while at the same time failing to live into the example of the One we claim to follow. “They” would say “It is foolish, weak, and empty to think tenderness and justice can change the world.” And yet this is the core message of the One whose birth we are about to celebrate. This is the paradigm that has given God’s message-bearers hope, courage, fidelity, and persistence from Miriam and Moses to Hannah and Elkanah to Elizabeth and Zecharaiah to Mary and Joseph.
Even against the greatest of odds, God is with us – Emmanuel – those who persist in tenderness and justice. So, with Mary, shall we wait – eager and anxious – expecting to give birth to love? Shall we join her as the handmaiden of God, proclaiming,
“Let it be with us this day according to your word and your will and your way?”