Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights, II: Song

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November 29, 2020

Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights, II: Song

Passage: Luke 1:46–55

This fall Bill invited me to participate in the Advent sermon series inspired by writings from Jan Richardson, a poet, painter, and theologian.

During December one year Jan Richardson’s sixty-two-year-old husband died unexpectedly, forever changing the way she approached the season of Advent, and of waiting for God’s promised messiah.

She noticed what she’d previously overlooked of how the people within the gospel story of Jesus’ birth responded to the events foisted upon them.

Bill titled this series Advent Practices for the Shortest Days and Darkest Nights from her insight.  This second sermon in series asks us to consider singing a new song this Advent.[1]

Our pandemic demands that we look and listen, plan and engage in our lives without any illusions of what it is supposed to be, or what we thought we should do, and instead meet the truth as it is laid bare.

So too with scripture. The biblical texts read during a pandemic reveal the character’s raw emotions, palpable fear, and defiant courage in ways we might not have noticed.

Although this is the last sermon I will preach at Kenilworth Union, rather turn our attention away from Advent and today’s theme of “hope,” I think this is exactly the text and practice we all need as we press forward in this time of pandemic fear and transition.

We will pick up directly where Bill left off last week. He spoke the Advent practice of finding comfort with a friend.

The Gospel of Luke tells the story that once Mary learned of her miraculous conception, without haste, she visited her older cousin Elizabeth, who had also conceived, despite her advanced years.

Without uttering a word, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb jumped for joy at the presence of divine life within Mary.

Mary responds with the longest speech uttered by a female in scripture.

The video that Lisa Bond pulled from safekeeping of our musicians offering Mary’s Magnificat years ago presents a portion this text with the fanfare of choir and orchestra in Latin. Thanks be to God for the gift of music.

Preparing for this sermon, I realized that I have never heard this text spoken in worship, nor in its entirety.

This year, I invite you to hear the words of a young, un-wed girl, whose pregnancy put her life in peril, and who everyone thought should have been afraid and ashamed, silent and subjugated to the will of others.

Before I read, please pray with me,

Dear God, In this season of Advent, unlike any other, our lives are filled with warning sirens or drumbeats of lament. Silence all the noise around us.  Make space in our hearts and minds for your words to startle us again with a hope only you can provide. Enter our lives as you entered Mary’s that we turn to live to your glory, singing songs of praise. Amen. 

Listen for God’s word as I read from Luke chapter one.

And Mary said,
“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 his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagings of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Scarcity, long known among the poor, startles many of us who live comfortable lives.

The shortages created by this pandemic, of toilet paper, peanut butter, frozen pizzas, and the loss of our long-manicured routines are nagging reminders of the slippery slope in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The scarcity of ventilators and vaccines, tests, and medical care wrench a visceral empathy within us for others who live day-to-day, worrying about access to life-sustaining essentials.

Amid this crisis, we look for hope, for a future with solid ground beneath our feet.

The late Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes of Harvard Chapel argues optimism requires some looking away from horrors and perhaps self-deception with which we live, but “hope, is not an act of will so much as an act of imagination and courage.”

The first Sunday of Advent begins in hope, as people long for the divine to enter human life.

Advent is, in many ways, the opposite of Christmas with its gifts and celebrations, command performances, things that we do.

Advent slows us down to imagine and hope, not in the belief we will get it right, but that God will. [2]

Hope does not distract us from our plight, whether foisted upon us or self-made. Hope asks to imagine and work with God and others, for what will sustain us.

We know that we need God’s presence among us in order for us to see God’s vision for humanity.

As we consider these awe-inspired texts, which have always possessed the power to inspire our faith, reading them in a pandemic, pardon the pun, exposes our previously socially distant dance with scripture. Too often we are concerned with performing the texts and letting others’ interpretations veil the meaning.

Now we have the time to linger as long as we like, settle in, and become intimate, inhaling God’s word.

There are always two worlds. The world as has been told to us and the way it could be.

One world operates on power, ego, and success.

The world as it could be operates out of mercy and gratitude.

Scripture makes abundantly clear that those furthest from the seats of power are generally nearest to the heart of things and chosen by God to turn the tide towards God’s will.

In the Old Testament Miriam, Deborah, and Hannah sang of new tomorrows. Sarah, Leah, and Ruth bore the future will within their bodies, each an unlikely agent for God given her circumstances.

Despite such a history of God acting in human life, first century Palestine handed Mary a life-story, relegating her to servitude and silence.

But, steeped in Jewish faith, Mary knows the stories, of men and women who God favored, of God’s covenant with Israel, and the promises made by the prophets.

After hearing from the angel Gabriel of her divine pregnancy, she embraces the only thing she has, God within her.

She remembers what we so often forget: our lives with God begin and end with God’s grace. For such a gift, Mary sings “let my soul magnify the Lord.”

Her song begins in praise. An unaccompanied voice confident of her place in God’s grand story.

Often Mary’s praise is all we hear.

This year heard the entire hymn. Moving from praise, Mary proclaims her son…her son… will bring down the powerful, lift the lowly, and scatter the proud.

The genius of Luke’s gospel begins with Mary, who praises God, imagines a new world, and Luke’s gospel then moves us to hear Jesus preach in his first sermon his purpose is to “bring good news to the poor…and release the captives,” and includes all of those who followed in faith.

Mary sings us out of brokenness and into the right relationship with God. She sings us away from power, and greed, and empire…toward mutuality and mercy for all generations.

God’s entry into human life is possible only through common people, like you and me, to hope, and imagine with courage, how we participate with God.

Her Advent song inspires us to sing with her, accept the divine spark within ourselves and sing our own song, a song to lift others.

Glennon Doyle’s recent book, Untamed, tells the story of a cheetah named Tabitha.

When Doyle takes her daughters to a safari park to see what is called the Cheetah Run, she is surprised to first see the zookeeper introduce Minny, a Labrador retriever.

Tabitha had been raised alongside Minny. The zookeepers anticipated in Tabitha’s loneliness that she would bond with Minny and want to do everything that Minny does.

Out comes a Jeep dragging a pink stuffed bunny. As the Jeep takes off, so does Minny, chasing after at this Cheetah Run.

Then its Tabitha’s turn. Doyle watches this magnificent cheetah, muscles rippling under her coat, take flight across the yard to chase a grimy, stuffed bunny, pulled by a jeep.

Yes, Doyle marvels at this creature and at the same time turns in disgust as a witness to how Tabitha, removed from her habitat, has been manipulated to do and be what others want. Confined. Tamed.

Some might insist Tabitha should be grateful for the security of a zoo, steady meal, and veterinary care. But Doyle knows that is not how God created a cheetah to live.

In the next chapter, Doyle writes of her marriage, a comfortable, appropriate, relationship most would say she should be grateful to have.

And yet, she felt “a deeper, truer love.” Doyle discovered her imagination was not a place to escape her reality, her imagination gave her a taste of who God conceived her to be.

She divorces her husband and marries the woman she loves. Thankfully the three adults remain braided together to parent the son she bore in her first marriage.

One day, her ex-husband calls after their teenage son confided to him that he was gay. He said, “I just keep thinking, what if you had not owned who you were? Maybe our boy would not have owned who he is and been brave enough to share it with us.”

Doyle risked so much to live into what God created her to be. Moved by her faith in things unseen, she inspired their son, and perhaps countless others, to embrace own their true, untamed nature.

Doyle writes, when you claim your freedom, you begin to free others as well. [3]

I began by describing Advent as a time to imagine, with hope and courage a new tomorrow.  Imagine what God can do when you let God enter your life.  Then imagine what you would do, or say, or become, with such divine energy.

Let’s make this imagining more tangible.

The late William Sloan Coffin often asked his congregation at The Riverside Church in NYC the following:

Picture yourself at the manger, as one of the shepherds at the side of the crib after Mary gave birth.  Put that in your mind.

Some angel told you of the promised messiah and you see post-partum, exhausted Mary, Joseph with eyes as big as saucers, and a new born.

Suddenly Mary turns to you and says, “Here, hold the baby.”

There you are with God’s incarnate love in your hands. And you know, just as she knew, he will save the world.

To hold this child carries a price: you too will be called to risk. Will you do what is needed for the Baby Jesus? [4]

How will you respond?

Today, will you try to re-create the world as we had before the pandemic?

Or, will you rise above what should be or has always been to be exactly what God needs?

Advent asks us to hope for a new world, to take the bold step to sing or say, “my soul magnifies the Lord” and join by standing in the long line of those inspired by Mary who worked to bring about a world with mercy and freedom.

That is the Advent practice to which we are invited.

May you in your own way sing, “my soul magnifies the Lord”.

Benediction

On the first Sunday of Advent, eight years ago, I was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament in this exact spot, with some laying on hands and many of you witnesses.

Ironically, as a minster of word and sacrament, I am at a loss for words of just how meaningful these years have been.

You have invited me into your lives at the very essence of faith and doubt and at the edge of life and life eternal.

I witnessed your miracles, cried in grief at your losses, and marveled as you marshalled on with grace.

You are amazing Kenilworth Union Church.

As I look at this empty sanctuary, in my mind’s eye, I can see you filling these pews. I know where you usually sit, who arrived early and those slipping in late, when your eyes would drape shut, exhausted from what was going on at home, yes I saw those times and know the divine rest you found in the sanctuary, and others who let music wash over you.

Too many names to mention of those I see. And in my mind’s eye, I still see Al Menke sitting next to the elder statesman, Tom Lillard. Barb Gooden with beloved grandchildren, Bob Malott on the end of the pew, Cindy Keiser’s glamor and Ginger Schoder’s infectious smile and feel John Bryant infuse his music with hidden messages. So many saints who will remain in my balcony.

I also see sitting among you are Peter who learned to feed Jesus’ sheep and Paul, author of texts that continue to draw us closer to God, James and John, Mary and Martha, and all those brave disciples who carried the faith. As I look at you I see Jesus sitting as well. You are his body, you are his church.

To have served you remains my great privilege.

You are in my mind’s eye and forever in my heart.

In the words of Dag Hammarskjold,

“For all that has been thank you, (may all of us pray) for all that will be, ‘yes’.”

Our Benediction is two-fold, a charge and a blessing.

I charge you the same way Jesus charged his closest followers:
Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and mind, and strength.
And, love your neighbor as yourself.

As you go bearing that weighty charge, know that you are blessed.

You are blessed by the power of the Holy Spirit to carry you when you think you cannot go on,
blessed by the grace of our savior, Jesus the Christ, and you are blessed by God,
who loves you forever.  Alleluia, Amen.

[1]Jan Richardson, “This Luminous Darkness: Searching for Solace in Advent and Christmas,” in The Advent Door, December 17, 2015.

[2] Peter Gomes, The Good Book:  Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, (Harper One, 2002), 181.

[3] Brene Brown, “Glennon Doyle and Brené on Untamed,” Unlocking Us, Episode Transcript | March 24, 2020, accessed November 17, 2020,  https://brenebrown.com/transcript/glennon-doyle-and-brene-on-untamed/

[4] William Sloan Coffin, The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin: the Riverside Years, Volume 2, (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), 590.