Monday, 04 December 2017 00:00

"Blessed Are the Lowly" December 3, 2017

“Blessed Are the Lowly”

Luke 1:46-49

A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley

December 3, 2017

University Baptist Church

Minneapolis, MN

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” -Luke 2:1 All the world, except of course for Caesar and his cronies.

            The story we will read on Christmas Eve has come early this year. Joseph and pregnant Mary had to make an ill-advised, brutal trek because the governor wanted to make sure that even the lowliest paid their share of taxes. If they did not succumb to this scheme, they would likely be crucified. And so starts the story of the God breaking into this world. God does so when all seems lost, when all resistance seems futile, when people dutifully march the oppression trek to the hometown of their ancestors, poor, old, young, pregnant, a farmer with fields to tend, no matter. You do what the leadership tells you or else. And that’s where God is smuggled into the world.

            Before we get there, we need to talk about the words of Mary, for they help us understand what will take place and our role in it all.

            Tradition has it that Mary sang her Magnificat, that famous poem that we just sang, when she found out that she was pregnant. It’s such an iconic poem of hope and bravery. It’s the stuff of holiday music. Depending on the interpretation, it’s either uplifting, like Rutter’s or Bach’s Magnificat, or it’s stark and dissonant like Morten Lauridsen’s O Mangum Mysterium. How we look at it is important. It is at the same time, a song of wonder and triumph and also a song of revolution. What it is not is a thing of acquiescence to governmental overlords. It is revolutionary talk. It is courageous talk. For we know that the government, especially when it is owned by wealthy special interests, will never willingly give rights, protections or even justice to the people out of their good hearts. That’s way too costly. It must be demanded by the poor and the marginalized. And our job as the church is to magnify the words of the outcasts. The voices need to be so loud that the rulers cannot do their work until the mother has been satisfied.

            Wendell Berry wrote in the Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front Manifesto:

So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

            Now some say that Mary never sang this song. It was the creation of Dr. Luke who was a great storyteller. He loved to weave in pieces of the tradition. Others say that it was actually a song that Elizabeth sang, bookending Zechariah’s song from later in the chapter. It sure sounds a lot like what her son John the Baptist was going to be up to. Maybe Mary sang this as an older mother, wanting to get things right. Maybe it became her lullaby to her son. Well, some of it works as a lullaby but some does not. Luckily, we’ll spend the four Sundays in Advent unpacking this revolutionary song, bit by bit so we can really sink our teeth into it. But watch out, it may come back to bite us.

            Now those of you who have been paying attention will recognize that the words of Mary closely resemble the words of Hannah. The choir just pointed this out in their anthem. Hannah, the Hebrew woman who gave birth to Samuel, also predicted what her son would do. She announces the great reversals that are part of the best parts of scripture: “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread. The barren have borne seven…God raises up the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” (I Samuel 2:1-10) She was fed up with the same old same old and proclaimed that God was doing a new thing.

            She had the audacity to sing this song and proclaim a better day, a new day. But she could not make the people follow her son, Samuel. The people demanded that Samuel anoint the first kings over Israel, against his advice. Having no king was what made them unique and Samuel tried to get them to see reason, but the people prevailed. “We want to be taken seriously by the other nations and the only way we can do that is if we have a king.” So Samuel reluctantly anointed by Saul and David. It worked okay for a while, but soon there kings did what other kings did. Power infected them and they confused themselves with God—unaccountable as they were. They had many wives and concubines. David abused his power to murder the husband of the woman he wanted to marry. They fought wars, sometimes with their own people and moved farther and farther away from God’s plan. The prophets spoke throughout the centuries about how the kings and the rulers would eventually implode because of their own injustice and their contempt for the poor and marginalized. So it’s not accident that God came into the world as a poor, marginalized infant, born to a single mother, ostracized by her own family.

How many of us when looking at a newborn or a swollen belly hasn’t hoped for a better world for the next generation? How might you write a hopeful song for a newborn?

Channeling Hannah, Mary says, “My soul magnifies God, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior who has regarded the low estate of God’s handmaiden. For henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” She all but said, blessed are the lowly.

“My soul magnifies God.” When there is something growing inside of you, you see clearly perhaps for the first time. God had become a part of her, a part of her soul.

Mary had been transformed. She was singing a song of her soul. She was saying who she was. She recognized that she was in sync. with God and her soul was knit with God's soul. Therefore she sang, "this is what comes from the deepest part of my being." In a moment of self-awareness, she sang, "My Soul magnifies the Lord." 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. God has looked down on the lowliness of thy handmaiden and has called me blessed.

Handmaidens were not listened to, nor were teenage young women from a backwoods town. But Mary proclaims that God has listened. God has heard her story and God believes her.

Theologian Jane Schaberg famously pondered whether Jesus’ conception was all that immaculate. She said there is enough reasonable doubt there to wonder if Mary had been impregnated as many people of her status had been, by force of a soldier. It was not uncommon. The whole concept of the virgin birth, while holy-sounding, is perhaps based on a misreading of Isaiah. But what is true is that however conceived, God looked down on this outsider, this nobody, this forgotten one and said, “I bless you.” I choose to rest my life in the fruit of your womb. I choose to reverse all the ways people conceive of good, bad, sacred and profane. I am God and I will bless the poor and send the rich away empty. Put your trust here.

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. As aunt Elizabeth taught her to sing, she also taught her how to recognize the efficacy of her soul.

Elizabeth taught Mary how to be present, how to be aware of the miraculous in her, how to recognize her inner power and harness it into her own soul work. Therefore she could sing "My Soul Magnifies the Lord."

If you have ever felt that God has no time for you.

If you have ever felt that God doesn’t care about you.

If you have ever felt ignored by God.

If you have ever felt that God has given up on you,

then this passage is for you.

God remembered Mary and even though she was considered lowly, maybe even considered herself lowly, God chose her. 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.

Mary then augments the thought with her next phrase:

“For the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name.”

These days, plenty of politicians like to speak for God and some act like they are gods. But we know the God of the Bible is one who embraces and encourages great reversals. This God lifts up the lowly. This God challenges those who forsake the poor and is suspicious of those who invoke God’s name for personal gain. So what would a truly faithful Advent song look like today? What songs do you wish to sing to the next generation?

I encourage you to spend some time this Advent and pen a word or two that you want to impart. Channel Mary, Hannah, Elizabeth.

I still love Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front by Wendell Berry:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

           In this time when the lowly are sold off, when the abused are dismissed, when the oppressors hide their injustice behind the label Christian, when we are in need of some serious reversals, remember Mary’s words. Blessed are the lowly. Look in the pages of scripture and see if they don’t point toward a star in the east that will guide us somewhere that leads to redemption to us all.

            Let us focus our hopeful words on that expectant vision and cast our gaze toward a future that has the best of God in it.

            Pen those verses to that newborn hope, write it and say it until it makes sense, until it becomes. And when we have lost our way, say it again so we can remember. My soul magnifies God.