Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mary's Song

Advent IV
Luke 1:39-55
Holden Village

There is something profoundly remarkable about today's story – the inspired words of Mary's song, the powerful and world-altering promises she sings, the inutero-greeting, we hear from Elizabeth, the first person to utter the words “my Lord” referring to a fetus inside a barely pregnant stomach – it is all quite remarkable. And yet, there is also a lot about the story that is notably unremarkable, barely worth time and attention, the setting of our story should not capable of grabbing world-wide attention. The story begins in Nazareth, a tiny little village known for nothing in particular in that general region over yonder. The story centers in on Mary, a young teenager, like all the other young teenagers – not yet married, not yet worth much because she has not been attached to a man. An unremarkable young woman in an unexciting little village.

Even though her social status is low, and being an unmarried and pregnant teenager casts her out to the fringe of society and marks her worthy of no help, no forgiveness, no security to speak of...Mary could be considered an unremarkable teen from an unexciting little village – but something in this story changes all of that, a song is sung and the world is different. Mary is remarkable, not because of who she is, but because of the song she sings. Mary's song is integral to the Christian story, she echoes the words of her foremother, Hannah and Mary riffs on Hannah's song, singing words familiar to people of faith all over the world. And, of course, these words are particularly close to the hearts of those who have been around Holden Village for awhile. Mary's song, the magnificat, is the song we sing most Saturday nights as a part of Vespers '86.

But we would be foolish if we thought the magnificat was something just for us or even if we held the song so dearly to our hearts that we forget its power and magnitude for churches, communities, nations. Mary's song is special to us, but it is integral to a voice in theological conversation that comes from a people who experience life much different than you or I do. Mary's song is considered the song of liberation theology – a theology that was born in Latin America, a theology that comes out of community base organizations and speaks to the gospel promise from God to the people who suffer in poverty or oppression. Throughout my time at seminary I was drawn toward the study of liberation theology. I find the conversation so compelling because it is first and foremost – practical. Liberation theology is the study of God that can only be done in community – no ivory towers or solo deep thinkers here. Liberation theolgoy is the study of God that makes room for the voice of those living below the poverty line, those who suffer inequality, those who know injustice on political levels and who know abuse and hate in their nations, towns and home. This context is one we do not deal with every day, so our voices do not get to be raised first – rather we listen to the Word of God and the experience of these communities first. And finally, liberation theology takes seriously the promises of Mary's song that the lowly will be raised up, that the mighty will be cast down off their thrown. The words of Mary are big, worthy of our attention and pondering as they paint broad, sweeping strokes of promise that cover the whole world, from the lowest of the lows to the highest highs.

Mary's song sounds like a practice in opposites. The high being brought down, quickly and finally pulled off of their throne of power and pride. And the lowly, those who stoop with hunger and hang their head under the weight of societal dead-ends are brought to their high and safe dwelling. The big are made little and the little are made made big and these are the promises of God. These promises are huge, life changing, world altering promises that are inclusive in that way that maybe we would rather they were not so inclusive. If there are people being dragged down...I want no part. And if there are people who are already low because of actions and decisions of this world...I pray I had no hand in it. The inclusion of Mary's song is so encompassing that if we approach with Mary's humility we can see that we are the ones who are both being cast down and we are the ones, by the grace of God only, who are being raised up too. We all have lofty places within us that distance us from God and one another –these places need casting down. And we all have lowliness within, too...lowliness that hurts and aches and causes a different kind of separation – these places need lifting up. Mary's song is so deep and so wide that all humanity is caught up in the huge promises.  

So we sing the song of Mary and are swept in to the waves of justice and swirling of compassion. There is more to Mary's song than simply turning the world over and having everyone do a societal fruit-basket upset. This song Mary sings is full of God's justice and truth, it is also full of God's compassion and presence among us. So, instead of casting down the proud and powerful in the name of justice and instead of bringing up the lowly in the name of equality – perhaps God is not create opposites, rather God is cultivating common places. When the mighty are brought down and the lowly raised up – they do not pass like ships in the night, but rather they meet in the middle, in a common space where God is waiting, where justice and compassion dwell, were nothing stands between God and humanity and nothing stands or divides one person from another.

Yes, grand and sweeping promises that change lives and alter the world...but how? How does God enact such promises? What one might expect are grand, sweeping actions to match the grand, sweeping realities of Mary's song. No. Intimate, lowly, unassuming – these are the pathways of God's justice and compassion. The song is sung by a young, vulnerable and mostly unremarkable girl – Not grand, humble. Not sweeping in all of humanity, but feeling and carrying these promises in her very core. God's ways do not travel far above our heads or out of arm's reach. The pathway of God's justice and compassion arrive within us. As dear as a supportive relative, as intimately as a life growing inside, as strong as a leap of joy...this is how our God changes us and alters our world, this is how we know and live God's compassion and justice.

Two years ago I had the challenge and honor of working as an intern-chaplain at a hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was assigned to provide pastoral care and spiritual support for two units: Ante-Partum, caring for women on long-term bedrest with high-risk pregnancies and the NICU – neonatal intensive care units, caring for premature and very sick babies. The NICU was the more intense unit with patients improving and declining in health many times a day – where the care, support, urgency and need was felt in the air and seen on the faces of young parents and talked about in hush voices by care team members in nurseries and hallways. However, it was on Ante-partum where deep relational connections were made...where we had nothing but time, so much time, the more time the better because time meant the baby was staying in another week, another day, another hour and every minute was counted a success. On Ante-partum we hoped and prayed for big things, for a health deliverable, for the peaceful passing of time, for patience and endurance, for motherhood to be easier than pregnancy, for sanity and care and safety for the most vulnerable one of all – the tiny baby we could not see.

Yet, while we were praying these grand and heartfelt prayers...we knew that where we needed God to act and be known was in the flesh. We needed God to lower heart rates, to still the stomach muscles, to close the cervix, to ease the mind. The brave and mighty women on that Ante-partum unit needed God to show up in the flesh and bones of their bodies...and even more intimately than the flesh and bones of their babies. We were waiting and expecting God to come to the lowly place, to the vulnerable one, to those who needed God's intervention for the gift of life! We were singing Mary's song – grasping onto grand, sweeping promises and encountering God in flesh, body, womb and heart.

Mary's song is for us to sing, too. We sing with Mary, the unremarkable teenager...we sing with and listen to the voices of those who are poor and suffer oppression...we sing with the most vulnerable in our communities who long to be heard...we sing because of the pride of our lofty places...we sing with hope of healing for our lowly places. Mary's song is for us to sing, for ourselves, our communities, our nations, our world.

God's pathways lead us to the places of the vulnerable, the unremarkable, the forgotten. This is where the angel of the Lord arrived with the promise of hope and joy and change like the world had never seen. And there is where God remains especially still today. So, we sing and follow the song to the vulnerable, the poor, those who feel lowly – so that we too can be changed; brought down, raised up to see Christ in our world, urging us to justice, compassion, and singing the song of Mary wherever that may lead.

May Mary's song be the song of our hearts this night of humble expectation, waiting for the Christ child who comes to the lowly places. Amen.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why I have the best job in the world...

My mother was my first piano teacher and I started lessons at the age of five. So, for as long as I can remember the piano has been my primary source of self-expression, creativity, an instrument for music and for mental and emotional processing.

It was also my mother's untimely death that introduced me to grief. This introduction came so long ago that grief, as well as music, has been a life long companion. From the time I was a small girl to now I have had many opportunities to look death square in the face and walk away covered in the heaviness and feeling the gaping hole that death leaves. Sometimes this companion of grief can be light and even inspirational...other times it is literally heavy on my body and clouds over my smile, my music, my hope for the future.

And in these times when the heaviness outweighs the inspiration I find myself in seasons of doubt. And it is these times of disbelief that I am more thankful than I can really express that I am a church musician. Because in these times of disbelief my mouth cannot say the words, my heart aches too much to hope and my mind is overcrowded with questions and cynicism...yet somehow, my hands believe. When I am playing a hymn, or song or liturgy there are certain lines that bring a natural crescendo or explosion of sound – because the words demand great noise in the face of grief, disbelief and death.

Yesterday someone asked why is it always during the third verse of the gospel canticle do I suddenly get so loud as we sing God comes to guide our way to peace...that death shall reign no more? And when rehearsing with the Sunday night band I heard a snicker when I asked the band to drop out while we sang there was an empty tomb. I do these sometimes annoying and sometimes expressive things because this is the message that I need to hit me over the head and lighten that grief cloud. I need to hear over and over again that death shall reign no more, that there is an empty tomb, that the death of young mothers and wives, of dear friends, the destroying of towns, the end of great loves, the killing of precious innocents – that these dark and pain filled experiences will not get the last word – no, I would rather bang the hell out of the piano so my hands can remind my heart and my faith and my hope that death shall reign no more.

...sweet words from one of my favorite hymns to play:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

  I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Its the end of the world as we know it...

Holden Village
Mark 13:1-8

December 21, 2012this is the date the world will end, again. Just in case you havent heard the Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012 with the winter solstice, so much of the world has come to the natural conclusion that the world will cease to exist when this calendar reaches its end. The tourism of Guatalmaa is taking hold of this so-called doomsday and turning quite a profit by selling tickets to see the ruins and offering D-day survival kits. Of course this is not the first, or second or even hundredth time the world has been predicted to be at its end. And somehow here we are still kicking and the earth keeps revolving and life as we know it continues on.

There is plenty of biblical literature that encourages these kind of end times speculation. All of our readings tonight point us in the direction of the great unknown and all that will lead up to it. And so, by human nature we are prone to want the details, we want to know when, where, how and who will be there on the other side of it all.When will this be and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?The disciples threw this question back at Jesusjust like us, they want to know when and how. Of course, those details are slow in coming, we've been waiting around for thousands of years since these words were written and while we wait there are guesses made, assumptions jumped to and we try to fit the end times into a frame we can see clearlywe try to package the apocalypse nice and neat and stick a date on it, December 21, 2012. Done.

When we cannot control we grab harder to reigns that are flying out of our hands. When we are afraid we cling to notions and ideas that bring a false sense of security until we feel brave again. When we do not have the knowledge we answer anyways with facts and hopes that are grabbed out of the sky. And there is nothing like the end of something to bring out our control issues, our fear, our questions. The end of a job, the end of a relationship, the end of dream, the end of a life, the end of our world as we live in it todaycue the control, the fear, the questions that assail us.

Maybe it is human nature, maybe it is the biblical literature, maybe its just such a frightening and compelling notion we cannot help but play with it. Whatever the motivation our culture as quite a fascination with end timesApocalypse Now, Armageddon, WALL-E, The Left Behind Series or Late Great Planet Earth and this barely scratches the surface of all the words, images and stories that have been created to capture one idea of the apocalypse or another. Many a producer has profited off our fascination with all we do not know.

We do not have the thrill of Hollywood tonight and a sci-fi author I am not. What we do have are these challenging texts and a brave community of faith where we can wrestle with these words togetherwe will not end with neat and tidy answers, but maybe rely on our faith which is strong together than alone.

After yesterday's bible and brew I was asked the question,Do you really believe in the apocalypse?I have no grand theological response to such a question, but I have some statements of faith instead. I believe that this world as we know it falls short, very very short of all the dreams God has for it. I believe that we as people, that I as a daughter of God fall short of all the dreams God has for me and my life, too. And so the idea that a great new day could be promised to us, a day when death is no more and tears and pain and crying is no morewell that great new day is something I hold on to to continue in this life. I cannot and will not justify all the suffering and injustice of our world and of my own lifebut if apocalypse could mean a world as God intended, a world that lives up to all the potential and life abundant that is promised through Jesus Christthen yes, I believe. And still, even in this belief, many questions remain also.

The disciples wanted details, that human nature kicking in and demanding to know the when and the how of the end times. Jesus does not answer with a date on a calendar, instead he replies, Beware that no one leads you astray...when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines...Jesus is describing the time the disciples are living in with the conflict between Jews and Romans and Jesus is describing the time which follows with the early church under great oppression and false messiahs popping up all over the place. Jesus is also describing most eras between his day and oursdishonest rulers, wars, natural disasters, inexcusable hungerhe could be reading right off the CNN website. The suffering of the end times were happening that day when Jesus spoke those words, they were happening that day when the gospel of Mark was written and they have been happening every day since.

We could, so easily, look at each block of history and point to the signs of doomsday. Evil is so blatant it is easy to spotour news sources have become fine tune machines spotlighting the darkness around us every single day. We could look for the death and destruction, the signs and the clues that might tip us off to God's timing. But this is not our calling. We will not know God's timing so let's not be distracted by it. Jesus saysbe aware and do not fear” – be aware of where God is at work giving life in the face of death, bringing peace in the face of war. Hope, justice, gracethese may not make the best headlines but they are certainly powerful forces gifted to us by God and present in the middle of suffering all over the creation.

We know this because we can look at each block of history and point to life. We can look back and see that humanity has continued through world wars and disease, we can look back and notice that the church continues in its own clumsy way to proclaim the love of God through Jesus and to point to the work of the Spirit among us. Now, to be clear this is not an opportunity to be overly confident in our ability to survive...rather it is an opportunity to witness to the hand of God giving life and reconciliation in our apocalyptic world.

Also during our Bible and Brew conversation the people present started naming the times in history that we could point to thoseend days. One women commented that the sixties were just such a time. Because of assassinations, wars, the civil rights movement and so many other reasons that decade truly felt like and ending to life as it was known. Yet, there were people here in this country who were aleartlooking for the hand of God in troubling times, listening for the voice of God in a time when voices were mostly filled with anger and fear. And these people gently, yet persistently pushed for greater justice. These people imagined a world as God had intended, these people believed in the urging of the Spirit and demanded peace and equality for all. These people, the unsung heros of the civil rights movement, were led by Martin Luther King Jr who painted his own apocalyptic scene with these words

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn't stop there.                I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there.I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but "fear itself." But I wouldn't stop there.  I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn't stop there.
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."
Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.I'm not worried about anything.I'm not fearing any man!Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (from Letter from Birmingham Jail)

So, let December 21, 2012 come. I imagine it will be a day of death and suffering, of wars and rumors of wars...and I believe it will also be a day of life, new beginnings, forgiveness, swells of peace and an ever present Spirit urging us towards the great day of life for all. Amen.