Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mary's Song, Mary's Sermon

Luke 1:39-55

Our kids love playing with the Little People nativity set that my parents gave them during Advent a couple of years ago. Unlike the Little People farm and castle and even the Little People Noah's ark, the figurines and the stable for the nativity set can't be found littering our house year round. They are kept packed away in boxes with other Christmas items, not just the ornaments and decorations, but many of the children's Christmas books and music, pulled out only for a special 6 weeks of the year. When the stable and figures come out there is hardly a day that goes by when the story isn't told and the people aren't moved around into another tableau depicting the birth of Jesus.

But some of those tableaus aren't your traditional arrangements. Sometimes characters from other of the world's favorite stories show up to see the baby in the manger. You shouldn't be surprised to see Cinderella or Spiderman at the Anthony family creche. A few Nebraska football players have even lined up, leading us, one year, to snap this ironic picture of Lord visiting the Lord.

Earlier this month, though, this was the picture I took of the nativity set. The pieces weren't gathered in their usual spot, in the stable topped with the angel. Instead they were fixed around another favorite toy in our house, the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, which gave a stage-like setting to the whole picture. Karoline saw me looking at what was apparently her creation, taking pictures of it, and told me what was going on here.

"That's Mary preaching, Mom," she said. (Only a pastor's daughter, right?) "That's Mary preaching, Mom, and Baby Jesus helping when she's telling them all why Jesus was born." Out of the mouths of babes, right? Mary probably never imagined herself "preaching," but in the beautiful song she sings to her cousin Elizabeth she proclaims the good news of God's salvation as passionately, joyfully, and graciously as any of the world's greatest preachers past, present, or future.

We heard a couple of weeks ago about Joseph, and I shared how I totally understand why he was afraid about the news he received concerning Mary. Afraid, and I imagine and understand, also angry. Well, if Joseph's fear is understandable, even more would we expect fear from Mary. Joseph had his future to worry about; Mary's LIFE was at stake. She could have been left on her own without the protection of a husband or father at best, or at worst stoned to death, because of her pregnancy.

Fear and confusion, and because she was a much stronger woman than I would ever be in that situation, gratitude carry her to the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth. She is pregnant, apparently by the grace and blessing of God, but she is unmarried. She has been allowed to live, but her life most likely came with ridicule and bullying. It's a situation that begs for an escape to the hill country, but even in the middle of all this, somehow Mary can sing, and somehow Mary can preach.

She preaches as one who has been made lowly by her life situation. She preaches from her experience as one who is at the bottom of the social ladder. She preaches as one who is unjustly poor. She preaches as one who hungers for companionship and protection. She preaches as one who needs help, has begged for mercy, and whose life depends on the very promises of God that she recites to the rest of us, the promises she knows God will keep even in her own lifetime.

And for that reason while her preaching is on the one hand passionate and joyful and grace-filled, it is on the other hand utterly subversive, even revolutionary. That's not the image we usually have of Mary, a revolutionary, because often we spiritualize what she sang. We take the wind out of her sails by softening her song. We turn her declaration of her own lowliness into a statement about her spiritual humility, but it is nothing of the sort. It is an honest assessment of her political and social humiliation. We make the meaning of her words match the popular images of her, a delicate porcelain-skinned, blue draped figurine, soft and gentle, passive and subtle.

But there is nothing passive or subtle about what Mary says to Elizabeth. From her experience and her memory she tells us that God has a heart for those who have nothing. God's way is to lift up those who have been cast aside by society and scatter those who think too highly of themselves over other. God feeds those who are empty and sends away those who come greedily seeking more of what they already have while others are lacking. God pulls powerful oppressors out of power, and supports and empowers those who are weak.

Mary declares in full voice that God has biases. God is on the side of the poor. That's why this is so revolutionary. The reigning theory that material wealth is a sign of extra blessing from God, a closer relationship to the divine is not a 21st century curse. It was the usual understanding even in Mary's time. The idea was and too often still is that God rewards with money and protects those whom God loves the most. But Mary sings and preaches the complete opposite. She sings of revolution.

It was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stated, before he was killed by the Nazis, "The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy, Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings....This song is not one of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind." (quoted in the sermon "Mary: Prophet of the Poor" by Rev. Dr. Byron E. Shafer preached Dec. 21, 2003; referencing an article by Elizabeth A. Johnson, C. S. J., "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" in U. S. Catholic, Dec. 2003)

Mary's words are not tender and mild words from a sedate and compliant expectant mother. These are words of challenge, words of engagement; these are words of revolution intended to bolster those who are pushed down, ignored, and tossed aside. They are words meant to rally sentiment and support, words meant to inspire action to change the world. It's no wonder, then, that in the 1980s the government of Guatemala prohibited the public reading of the subversive Magnificat.

They understood the power of Mary's words. They understood the threat of her ideas and preaching to their position of authority. Her words and God's bias are against them, powerful oppressors. If Jesus is Lord, and that's the Christmas message, then the kings and emperors of this world are not. Merciless and greedy governments and leaders of this and any day and age are not the final authority. According to Mary, God is NOT on their side.

Like Karoline said, Mary preaches to tell us why Jesus came. Mary testifies to what God has done for her in her child Jesus, and she magnifies that, she expands that to tell us that what God has done for her, God will do for the world in her child Jesus. In Jesus God will lift up those who are considered lowly. In Jesus God will bring down the powerful, the oppressors, those who lord their authority over others. In Jesus God will show us that true authority comes not from power that is misused and abused, but from service and love and freedom. In Jesus God will fill up the hungry with food that is long overdue and send away those who have kept it from them. In Jesus God will free the people of this earth that are bound up and gagged and silenced by culture expectations and ungodly prejudices. In Jesus, Mary sings, God has done this for her. In Jesus, Mary sings, God will do this for the world.

What we have done when we have softened Mary's words, toned them down to fit our image of the round yon virgin, is that we have taken away their call to action. We have taken away there sense of urgency that is meant to push us into the service of THIS God, God who lifts up the poor and helpless, God who fills the hungry, God who crashes down authorities who don't do the same. What we have done when we have softened Mary's words is give ourselves an excuse not to get involved, when really what Mary is singing about, what Mary is preaching about and God is calling us to is complete involvement.

The Guatemalan government realized something important. They realized Mary's words had power. They realized the poor of their naition might hear these words and believe what is true, believe what seems impossible - - that God is on their side, God has come to save them. And in realizing this the Guatemalan government realized that the converse must also be true. They were the ones God would bring down from their powerful thrones. When we soften Mary's words, when we spiritualize them and strip them of their revolutionary power, it's my guess that we do it because deep inside we have figured out on what side of this we are find ourselves.

Most of us are not hungry with the kind and depth of hunger about which Mary sings. Most of us are not poor to the extent she was. Most of us are not so oppressed that laws have to be repealed in order for us to live and serve openly and freely before one another. No most of us here today are not on THAT side of Mary's song, and so Mary's sermon becomes particularly important for us.

It becomes for us a wake-up call. It becomes for us a call to action, a call to transformation, even a call to repentance. It becomes a sermon in the style of that better known Advent preacher, John the Baptist. Repent, he says, for the kingdom of God is near. Make straight your paths. The Lord is coming. The Lord is coming and he is on the other side. Jesus is coming and Mary is urging us to get on the right side - - the side of the hungry, the side of the oppressed, the side of those who are pushed aside and ignored and imprisoned.

Later in our service we're going to sing a hymn about "Gentle Mary." I had my reservations about picking that hymn, or any of our hymns about Mary. They stylize her in way that is very different from the words she sang to Elizabeth. Instead of showing her as a fearless advocate of the poor and oppressed, they depict her as a subdued, pious mother, doting on her newborn son. But in the end I think the paradox of these two images is appropriate. For the God who has brought down the powerful from their thrones and filled the hungry with food is the God who was born of a human woman, the God who came to earth as a helpless child. If it can be true about God whom she worships and magnifies, it can also be true about Mary. Out of the same love and passion she bore for her baby, she sang with love and compassion for the helpless of the world. Gentle Mary who lovingly and tenderly cared for her infant son, is also the bold and revolutionary Mary who calls for justice, true justice, and righteousness, for the up-ending of world systems and the lifting up of the poor. This is the Mary who preaches to us, sings to us, and invites us to share in her prayers and actions for the world.

So, yes, I debated about whether we should sing about "Gentle Mary," since I think the word she preaches is anything, but gentle. However, we will sing it because before we sing it, we will sing Mary's not-so-gentle words. We will sing her words of power, her words of revolution, her words of a world that will be changed and turned upside down by the child she carries in her womb. We will sing her sermon and in singing it we will magnify her words, we will magnify her God and our God, and preach along with her what God does in Jesus, our Christ, Jesus our Lord.

Together let's make Mary's song our own. As you are able, please stand and sing Hymn #600, the Song of Mary.

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