“Sustained by Courage, Rooted in Grace”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 14, 2014
University Baptist Church
Mary was rooted in Grace. It was grace that visited her in the form of the angel Gabriel. It was grace that gave her her cousin Elizabeth to be a companion on the road. It was grace that brought even Joseph to marry her even though she was bearing not his child. These were the roots of her life.
But it was courage that sustained her. She would need to call on that courage and that grace, given what Jesus was to become. Given what she would see.
She needed courage to face the taunts of her family and townmates at her illegitimate pregnancy.
She needed courage to take that long donkey ride to the hometown of her possibly disapproving in-laws.
She needed courage when none of them would take her and Joseph in even though she was about to give birth. Can you imagine?
She needed courage to flee to Egypt while Herod slaughtered the innocent.
She needed courage to settle back in Nazareth with an illegitimate child.
She needed courage to thrive in the face of judgment from her community.
She needed courage to form a new community, this one of choice.
She needed courage to hear and see Jesus make headstrong statements about family, most of which excluded her.
She needed courage to be not only the mother of a newborn, but the mother of a boy with lofty ideas that were sure to get him killed.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days. Remind us that we are rooted in grace.
Grace and courage, two sides of a coin. Two things we need to survive and thrive in this world.
Grace is a word we toss around without much thought about a definition.
We think of the way one holds themselves or moves, as with grace.
Or as a verb, where “she graced us with her presence.”
Grace can also be a virtue coming from God. She is gracefully blessed with a unique talent.
Then there is sanctification by grace, which is kind of a big word for blessing. But it also sounds sanctimonious, so I tend to never use it.
Grace, the unmerited favor from God.
David Martyn gave an astute definition during the forum last Sunday. He said that grace is the way we get beyond the “shoulds” of our lives.
In a sense, God loves us in spite of ourselves. God’s grace is the favor, the blessing that we did nothing to deserve.
Mary sang of this grace in her Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.
God has shown strength with the Divine arm;
has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped thy servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy,
according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham, Sarah and to their descendants forever.”(Luke 1:46-55)
Mary looked at the systems out there and set them in God’s magnifying glass.
The criminal justice system that incarcerates more people of color than white folks.
The health system that says if you’re poor, it’s your own fault and if you’re sick, you’re on your own.
The Senate just released a report saying what we already knew. The U.S. tortures people and it is not a very effective way to get information. And we need to repent of this if we are to have the moral standing in the world and criticize other groups like ISIS for their tactics. Ronald Reagan was brilliant in his double-speak calling terrorists freedom fighters. What are we going to call torturers, enhanced interrogation specialists? Maybe we’ll farm it out to a private company like Blackwater or Halliburton, so we can escape accountability.
The environment needs protecting and yet fossil fuel companies are making a mint while shifting our climate and polluting our waters. Mary is hoping that we might have her courage and say “that ain’t right.” And the mighty might just have to come down from their thrones.
Mary sings that her soul magnifies God. Her soul is expanded because she is aware of God’s presence within her. She looks at God with a magnifying glass. She sees God for who God is and at the same time notices something she never saw before. God recognized her. All generations will call her blessed because God noticed her in her status as an outcast—this unwed teenager from a hated area. This is where God chose to come and incarnate God’s self.
Mary was not transformed so much by her encounter with God. Rather, she was augmented. She was still the person she was, with her own stories, her own journey, her own soul. What happened, is that she for once became aware of her soul. That’s grace.
God remembered Mary even though she was considered lowly, maybe even considered herself lowly. When she looked at God with a magnifying glass, she realized this about God’s character. God always looks out for those the world considers lowly. When Mary saw this, her soul was renewed. That sounds like grace to me.
And because of the grace that she had been rooted in, she had the courage to tell the truth.
“God has shown strength and has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. God has put down the mighty from their thrones, exalted those of low degree, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
This is very good news to those who are not rich. It’s not so good news for the rich. But remember who is singing it. The one singing it is an outcast who will shortly have to take a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem while she’s extremely pregnant all to satisfy the whims of one of those mighty ones who sitteth upon a throne. Mary says that all of this pomp and circumstance and all of this worldly power is an illusion. What is real is that God is in charge. God has already sided with the poor and the lowly. In due time, the powers of this world will implode just like it has with every empire. Evil cannot endure. When the smoke clears, we will see that God will endure forever and ever.
How can you tell if your empire or movement is from God? The answer is in how the poor are treated. Most empires don’t regard the lowest estate of God’s handmaid and call them blessed. The Star Tribune ran a scathing editorial this morning about the inequity between government owned and supported schools. Comparing the department of defense schools and the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, the disparity is striking, with children of the defense industry getting state of the art schools while the children of the first Americans make due with repurposed pole barns without basic services let alone the latest in technology. These empires will fall because the long arc of history bends toward justice.
In the new day that Mary sings about, the poor will have power, the rich will be sent away empty, the hungry will be fed, maybe even those of us who are blind might one day see the light. Mary has seen the light. She’s singing to us so that we’ll see it too.
Why not let our souls magnify God? Why not integrate Mary's voice into our own voice? If we do, we might see the world in a very different way, the way they saw it when God was smuggled in to the womb of Mary, an outsider with an insider’s perspective.
So what does this have to do with today? Just this: poor people matter. That is what Mary sang in her magnificat. Poor people matter. In today’s vernacular, black lives matter. Those who have been excluded are now included. So we need to hear their stories. We need to listen with open ears and open hearts. We need to let the voice cry out in the wilderness.
Mary is the mother of the one killed in the streets by authority. And in her rage she proclaimed the world as it ought to be. And she is telling us what we need to hear. There is a reordering that needs to happen. It’s not the kind of thing that makes for sweet Christmas pageants. It’s messy all of this rich being sent away empty and the hungry filled with good things and those of low degree being lifted up. Are we really ready for that?
Churches across the country are holding Black lives matter vigils and worship services today. Isaiah, a multi-faith community organizing project has encouraged Minnesota pastors to wear all black today to signify unity. They may be pulling out the words out of MLK to speak to this moment. There is new poetry and new rap that is emerging out of the movement. But I think we need look no farther than Mary’s magnificat. That’s why we’re singing it twice. That’s why we’re hearing so many Ave Marias today. Because we need to focus on Mary’s words to us. They are rooted in grace. And we need them to give us sustaining courage to take on the next stage of the movement: reordering our lives and our priorities.
LeDayne McLeese Polaski, director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America put it well in a recent blog:
In Advent we await the birth of a dark-skinned baby born in the midst of power-clutching, life-defying Empire; Empire built and sustained by military power, created and upheld by the belief of the righteous that some religions, some races mattered more than others.
In Advent we expect a boy born into streets in which soldiers acted with impunity never fearing indictment; government imprisoned or executed without question; and co-opted religion refused to speak so that some mothers feared every time their children left their sight.
The very flesh of God came into this world, this world in which in which tender flesh is crushed, mothers’ hearts are broken, fathers’ spirits are destroyed, and children’s lives are shattered.
Ever and always God is born into this world, this broken and violent world.
And some, some few, some few barren, some few shepherds, some few elderly and righteous prophets look up and say, “Behold, God is with us.” They seek diligently and they find him, the one who scatters the proud, lifts the lowly, sends the rich away empty, and fills the hungry with good things.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
Hear again the cries of a mother in the throes of labor.
Hear again the cries of mothers who have lost their children to violence.
Hear again the cries of children in the streets saying that black lives matter.
Hear again the cries that proclaim that we cannot rest until God’s vision of equality and justice reigns here on this earth.
Hear again what is behind the protests in the streets.
It has been gestating for decades with every dismissal of black lives.
It has been festering since that first slave ship sailed.
It has been fed by racists on the airwaves and even in pulpits.
It has tapped into the fear that too many people face.
And if we white folks can keep up the myth that all of our problems come from people not like us, then the corporatists and defense contractors and prison industrial system beneficiaries make out like fat cats and rejoice because they get richer while everyone fights against a trumped up enemy.
We need to remember Mary’s courageous and grace-filled song. My soul magnifies God. And I see things clearly. And I see the day when the mighty will fall from their thrones and the structures will be reordered.
You can’t stop the movement in the streets. It’s a rooted in a grace-filled ancient story of God looking with favor upon the lowly. May we have the courage to recognize the time that it is.
Thank God for Mary’s grace-filled and courageous voice.
May we be so rooted in grace and sustained by courage for the living of these days.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel.