A Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Canon Dr. C. Denise Yarbrough on Sunday, December 20, 2009 at St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York
51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
Earlier this month, I had the strange experience of living the same day, twice. And of losing another day altogether. I travelled to Australia for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, crossing the international date line as I did so. Going over you lose a day. Coming back, you arrive before you left! Closest thing to time travel this side of science fiction movies! I can’t help but think of time travel when I hear Mary’s beautiful Magnificat. You will notice that in this poetic song that she sings upon arrival at her cousin Elizabeth’s home, she speaks of what God has already done in the world, of the reversals that God has already accomplished. God has scattered the proud, God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, God has lifted up the lowly, God has filled the hungry with good things. All these prophetic statements that she declares in her song are in the past tense, as if they have already occurred. And yet, in the context of Luke’s narrative, they haven’t, exactly, happened yet. She has only just gotten pregnant with the holy child. He is not yet born. Neither is his cousin John, who will be the voice crying out in the wilderness announcing his coming. And, in fact, as we look around our world today, we might wonder about that past tense in Mary’s song. Two thousand some years later, it still doesn’t appear to have happened yet. But Mary speaks as if it has happened. As one commentator on this passage puts it, Mary is remembering forward, that is, she is remembering the future.
Our apocalyptic Advent themes continue this week, even as our celebration of Christmas looms just days away. End times and beginnings, comings and goings, old giving way to new, the already but not yet of redemption, the grand cycles of time and space with a cosmic flourish are the images and themes of Advent. Mary and Elizabeth, a young, poor, unwed teenager and an old, barren woman, the wife of a temple priest, take on significant prophetic roles in this story of the inbreaking of the divine into human history. That in itself is apocalyptic – women prophets. Women? In the early first century, in the patriarchal culture of the Roman Empire and first century Judaism? Right there we’ve got the divine reversal. God has reached down into human history and is doing wondrous things through an old barren woman and a poor unwed mother. And even shepherds, very low folks on the social totem pole, are heralds of this amazing story, witnesses to the inbreaking of God into human history. Luke pulls out all the stops in this first chapter of his gospel, setting the stage for his narrative in which women will be active players, Jesus will bring a prophetic message of social justice into the world and God’s saving grace and compassion will be spread beyond the small Jewish community into which Jesus was born and out to the entire world, scooping up all those people who have lived on the bottom of the social order.
Mary’s Magnificat is one of my very favorite passages in the New Testament. As a child I sang it as a canticle at Evensong and sometimes, Morning Prayer, absorbing Mary’s song into my psyche even as I lived in a church that was not, at that time, honoring the gifts of its women in their fullness. The young teenage girl who longed to be a priest in a world that wouldn’t ordain women, now knows the fulfillment of that yearning and that call. The hope that the Magnificat embodies resonates for many of those who still live as oppressed, poor, humble, lowly members of the human family, even in our modern day. The mind bending, time traveling remembering the future of the Magnificat is what drives modern day prophets and disciples to make that past tense of Mary’s syntax a present reality. The divine reversal of which she sings happens in our midst when those who love God accept God’s call like Mary did, and the promise of a redeemed future, becomes the reality of the broken present.
“God has cast down the mighty from their thrones.” When President Obama appeared on 60 minutes last week and lambasted the Wall Street “fat cats” whose greed and mismanagement of other people’s money brought down our entire economy and that of the global community, I could hear Mary singing, “God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” When President Obama expressed his intention to have what I would call a “come to Jesus” meeting with those “fat cats” I could hear Mary singing.
When I was in Melbourne at the Parliament of the World Religions, I had the privilege of worshipping, praying, talking, reflecting, singing with people of myriad religious traditions. They have different sacred stories than do we, but they sing songs very resonant with Mary’s song. Despite centuries of discord and conflict, fueled by the abuse and misuse of religion and religious texts, thousands of us came together to show the world our commitment to the God we all worship and to our belief that God calls us to live in harmony and understanding one with another, exercising compassion and mercy even when we disagree on important issues and indeed, celebrating our differences as part of God’s divine plan for this world. We talked about addressing global warming, achieving the Millennium Development Goals, empowering women, working to eradicate global poverty, working for peace and justice in many troubled places throughout the world, trying to hear each other’s stories and appreciate each others songs. And we could hear Mary singing as we told stories of on the ground, grass roots work for justice, peace, human rights and freedom all over the world.
When I screened the film “Traces of the Trade” and saw the tears on the faces of blacks and whites alike, as we all grieved our human history of racism and oppression, and yearned for reconciliation, I could hear Mary singing. When I heard the story of Uncle Bob Randall, a member of one of Australia’s indigenous tribes, who is a member of what they call the Stolen Generation, those who were taken from their tribes as young children and raised by Christian missionaries, who stripped them of their culture, their religion, their land, and their families, I wept. But I also heard Mary singing, as Uncle Bob chuckled and told us how when he first heard the stories of Jesus in the Christian testament, he wondered why the missionaries who told him the stories didn’t actually do what Jesus taught! He was the most eloquent bearer of the gospel of Jesus Christ that I’ve heard in a long time, and he is not even a Christian! But he’s heard Mary’s song.
When President Obama received his Nobel prize, I could hear Mary singing. Who would have thought a mere fifty years ago that a Barack Obama would be President of the United States and recipient of the Nobel prize? When I heard of the many groups of people of faith throughout the world who are coming together across divided religious lines to work for peace, to address extreme poverty, to empower women – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Bahai’s, indigenous peoples, Sikh, Jain and many versions of Christian, I could hear Mary singing.
If you just look at the newspaper or listen to CNN or Fox News or even NPR, you might not hear Mary singing. For some reason, our media don’t seem to want to talk about the prophetic witness of so many people of faith around the world, people of reknown, like the Dalai Lama, and ordinary people of faith who climb over the fences of fear and ignorance and move forward to learn to love their neighbor, even when the neighbor is of a different race, sex, ethnicity, religion or social class. Jews and Christians, Muslims and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Hindus and Christians – all over the world people of faith are building bridges so that the future that Mary remembers in the Magnificat becomes at least for a short while, a present reality, not just a future hope.
When former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian freedom fighters sit together at a dialogue table and build playgrounds for children in the occupied West Bank I can hear Mary singing. When Arabs and Jews in the West Bank intentionally live together in a village called Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salaam, committing to raising their children together in the same village, attending the same schools, learning Hebrew and Arabic, I can hear Mary singing. When Daoud Nasser, a Palestinian farmer on a hillside hear Bethlehem opens his family farm to international visitors and invites the Jewish settlers who are trying to take his land to sit down and talk, I can hear Mary singing. When Israeli rabbis risk their lives to help Palestinian farmers harvest their crops, I can hear Mary singing. When brave Democratic New York senators speak eloquently in favor of marriage equality, notwithstanding threats to boot them out of office and even in the wake of the defeat of that legislation, I can hear Mary singing. At the end of the Integrity Eucharist at General Convention, as hundreds of GLBT priests joined Bishop Gene Robinson at the altar, a sight that would have been unthinkable just twenty five years ago, I could hear Mary singing.
Mary’s Magnificat is eloquent poetry and beautiful song. It is also sacred text for we who call ourselves Christians. To live the Magnificat is to sing justice into being, to vision the future right into the present, even if we can only manage to do it very locally, in small and quiet ways, in our own neighborhood, congregation, school or workplace. Our Advent texts remind us that God lives outside the constraints of our timebound world, and the promise and hope of which Mary sings is a present reality when we live as if it is, when we commit our own hearts and souls and the stewardship of our lives to singing Mary’s song.
In just a few days, we will celebrate Christmas. We always do a lot of singing on Christmas. As we live these last days of Advent and move to the songs of Christmas, listen hard, be awake, be alert, be watchful. Can you hear Mary singing?