Sermon by Read Rev. Susan Johnson
Hyde Park Union Church
Sunday December 18th
Our gospel reading, Luke 1:46b-55, is the receptive and grateful response of a young woman as she is drawn into the dangerous promise of a world transformed. Mary, in fact, has two responses to the news that she will bear a child – a child who shall save his people – her first response, humble and almost passive (“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; Let it be with me according to your word.”); and, her second response, jubilant and nearly rebellious (“My soul magnifies the Lord, who has shown strength with his arm, scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brought down the powerful from their thrones, lifted the lowly, filled the hungry, and sent the rich away empty.”)
In this year when Time Magazine has made the protester its “person of the year,” and an association of lexicographers has dubbed “occupy” the year’s hottest etymological shift, perhaps we should take a second look at Mary. Did you see that even public television had an “Occupy Sesame Street?” Perhaps, in the light of our own changing times, Mary herself might look different to us. If in some ways the Catholic tradition put Mary on a pedestal, where she could be safely revered without that reverence challenging the ways of the world, we as Protestants seem to have dropped her altogether in a retreat from all things popish. The insidious combination of these two ways of putting Mary in a harmless place have weakened us theologically. The Magnificat, Mary’s Song, may restore her role, her faith, and her person to its rightful and dangerously hopeful place in our Christian theology and practice.
Why do I say her “dangerous place?” A quick glance at the report issued last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on violence and the threat of violence against women indicates that violence against women is much more prevalent than most people can readily believe – even in our own modern, liberated, democratic, and civil society. When it says in Matthew’s gospel that Joseph, as “a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss [Mary] quietly” because she was pregnant, this under-reports what kind of danger she – as an unwed mother – would have been exposed to. Not only ridicule, not only poverty, but persecution, violence, even death. As it was, Joseph, in Matthew’s gospel, accepted her and her unborn child, and yet still –within months – they were political refugees, fleeing in the night to Egypt to escape the brutal hand of an oppressive colonial occupier.
But I also said that Mary’s place is hopeful, if dangerously hopeful, and promising, and the story of Mary as it is told in Luke’s gospel is exuberant in this hope. On the whole, Luke’s gospel is much more friendly toward and inclusive of women, and in Luke’s nativity, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, are veritable powerhouses. In Luke there is no record of Joseph taking Mary back (that’s in Matthew) and indeed Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, is struck dumb for the nine months of his child’s gestation, to the point where he has to write the child’s name on a chalkboard, “His name is John.” Only then can he speak again.
And according to Luke, Mary and Elizabeth are not the heralds of good news; they are neither prophets nor angels. They are, rather, participants in the good news; they are the vessels, the bearers, the vehicles – even co-creators – of it. So that when, in Luke’s gospel, Mary says “My soul magnifies the Lord,” we might dwell upon how Mary’s witness and participation literally magnify the Lord – that is, make God visible, tangible, palpable, follow-able. And then she helps us, through her song, to understand where God is, what God is doing, what the signs are. God is scattering the proud; God is bringing down the mighty and lifting up those of low estate; God is feeding those who hunger and thirst, and sending away empty those who have lived with plenty.
Mary’s place in the gospel is both personally dangerous and also dangerously hopeful because by faith in God she embraces God’s transformative power in our world. She devotes herself, indeed her very being, to a vision of compassion, mutuality, peace and plenty – abundant life for all of God’s people. We read this morning in the prophet Isaiah, the description of a messiah through whom this vision – this salvation – will come to pass. The messiah, like Mary, possesses – that is, embodies – this vision: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of fainting.”
The question for us is who we are in relationship to the vision of abundant life. For, if Mary lived in interesting times, so do we. Protesters speak out in public squares; demonstrators make their case in the street. Dictators have been overthrown, oppressors captured, captives liberated. All in a breathtaking period of months. And yet, we are not sure what it is we are watching day to day. In our lifetimes, diseases have been conquered, agriculture and aquaculture significantly advanced, human rights and religious tolerance given unprecedented play, yet so too climate change is hotly debated, democracy strains under the weight of tradition, as well as military and personal power. The investment banking industry works weal and woe, seemingly toying with the livelihoods of individuals, families, cities, nations. In a time of the widest displacement of people around the globe due to climate change, drought, disaster, famine, war, we as human beings are immersed in patterns of ethnic suspicion, tension and violence.
International news commentator Jerome McDonnell said just this last week that in a quarter century of reporting he has never felt the world to be in such a state of flux – politically, economically, socially, spiritually. To be sure, the world is shifting, moment to moment, and often we find ourselves waiting to be told how to interpret it. How to feel about what is happening in the world. Then we find out that the commentators are stunned, too.
Just this last week, as protesters took to the streets in Moscow, something almost emblematic of our time took place. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attended a boxing match in Moscow. A boxer himself, and confidently self-portrayed as an outdoorsman, hunter, ladies man, and all-round athlete, Putin responded to the unfamiliar protests he had seen in the street by climbing over the ropes into the ring when the knockout punch had been thrown, in order to congratulate and otherwise fraternize with the victor. But instead of adulation, Putin was greeted with jeers as he stepped into the ring, his own people then turning their backs on him to leave. There is a press photo of him, standing in the boxing ring, utterly bewildered, forlorn and confused. Yet how many times have we too tried to apply an old and worn strategy on a new and changing dynamic?
In the gospels of both Matthew and Mark, Jesus himself tells a parable about putting new wine in old wine skins, which causes them to burst because there is no elasticity in the old wine skins to accommodate the new wine as it begins to ferment. Likewise, he tells us that one cannot sew a new patch on an old garment because the patch, which is not preshrunk, will tear away from the garment when it is washed. By faith we must discover new ways to live in a world which has become weary with searching.
If a new way of life, a radically new way of living, the promise of abundant life for all of God’s people, were to present itself to us…in a dream, in a challenge, in a vision, in a circumstance we may never have chosen and could very well have missed, would we take it? Would we recognize the choice as it went by? Would we have the temerity to pause and say to ourselves that something sacred, something powerful – not only something frightening or uncomfortable – might be unfolding? Would we dare, as Mary did, to become the servant of a vision so profound?
In many ways what Isaiah anticipates – and Mary announces – are miraculous reversals of fortune. It is the oppressed, Isaiah tells us, who will receive good news; it is the brokenhearted who will be comforted, and prisoners released; those who mourn will be given cause to rejoice, and those who have long been forgotten shall be remembered. By the same token, Mary exclaims that the powerful will be dethroned and the proud, among themselves, confused. The lowly will be exalted, and the poor shall receive every good thing, while the rich will be sent away receiving nothing (for, indeed, what else do they need?).
Yet what surges through Mary in the Magnificat is both profound and, in some sense, ordinary. The poet John Drury, commenting on Luke’s love of the domestic, said that “[t]he prophets are inspired from above,” [but in Luke’s narrative] the energy derived from that vertical source is deployed horizontally.” In fact, Mary will raise a child; she will raise a child in relative poverty and obscurity. Yes, his reach will be exhilarating, but his life will be tragically short. Mary will outlive her son, his death not only premature but a brutal and humiliating one. She will bear all of this out of devotion to the horizontal deployment of the vertical vision she first had. And the gift we receive – faith in the resurrected Christ, seated at the right hand of God – depended on her willingness to risk and lose everything she had so that those who had nothing might have hope after all.
Sometimes what we are doing in the religious life, in spiritual community with one another, is practicing these vertical and horizontal dimensions of faith, teaching them to our children, and attempting to live out of them ourselves. Not always in radical obedience to an otherwise impossible command, but sometimes simply becoming accustomed to seeing that which is eternal in the midst of the temporal, responding to a call which is sometimes heard only in the utter stillness of our hearts.
Author Phillip Hallie, in his book Tales of Good and Evil, Help and Harm, wonders at the capacity of some human beings to do good, to bring aid, even in the face of great social confusion or paralysis over what would help. He is particularly fascinated with the story of the French village Le Chambon, nestled in the French Alps, a town which saved thousands of Jewish children during the Holocaust by hiding them in their homes and guiding them through mountain passes into Switzerland. Hallie strains to understand how an entire town could comprehend and achieve such good, even under the charismatic leadership of its pastor and his wife.
He interviews many of the surviving villagers, eventually writing a wonderful book recounting their experiences, entitled Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, but he is never satisfied that he understands what inspired them, how they knew what to do. What he saw in that close-knit, deeply religious Huguenot village was perhaps something much more like a biddable human spirit, radically receptive to the Holy Spirit of God, and therefore capable of participating with God in the work of liberation. However, when he probed them, what they told him was that they simply knew that they must “always be ready to help,” until he settled finally on what he called the “habits of helping,” though he remained unsure that he had gotten it right.
Among the many protests and movements right now is one that is gaining strength in both typical and also unusual places. Not only among Occupy Wall Street and its many sister groups around the world, but with Pope Benedict, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, George Soros, Bill Gates, and Al Gore, among others, it is a very modest tax on investment banking transactions that do not involve members of the public (bond transactions, derivatives, currencies), the proceeds of which would benefit the world’s poor. Some have rejected it outright, but others seem to be getting on board, or are at least concerned that they should not turn it aside too quickly. Our President is noncommittal. Dubbed the Robin Hood Tax, it is – to borrow John Drury’s terms – a decidedly horizontal deployment of a vertical call.
During coffee hour, we will stream several engaging video clips about the Robin Hood Tax so you may begin to judge for yourselves (altogether I believe less than seven minutes, but very provocative and informative). Now, I am not preaching on Robin Hood, but I am saying that the reversal of such fortune as favors only the rich and powerful, and a concern for the poor that remedies suffering are deeply consistent with the Magnificat’s themes, and it is as though its proponents are asking each of us whether we are willing to be drawn into the dangerous promise of a world transformed.
Perhaps for all his rhetorical hesitancy, Phillip Hallie did get it right after all – and we should hold onto his words right through to Christmas – those nurtured “habits of helping,” habits of listening, habits of praying, habits of troubling one’s own conscience, habits of interrogating and engaging a sacred text, habits of interrogating and engaging one another – do indeed comprise what we occasionally and eventually see as our humble co-creation in the good news of Jesus Christ for our world. Let us dwell this season on Mary’s witness and participation magnifying God for us – that is, making God visible, tangible, palpable, follow-able, helping us to understand where God is, what God is doing, what the signs are – scattering the proud, bringing down the mighty, lifting up those of low estate, feeding those who hunger and thirst, sending away those who have had more than enough already. Amen.