Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. The Fourth Sunday of Advent December 20, 2020 Luke 1: 46-55
Love Has Chosen Us
Christmas is almost here. The light in the darkness grows each week, as we add a candle to our wreaths. We have lighted - in order - the candles of hope, peace and joy. Today we light the fourth candle, the candle of love, knowing that the full light of life will return with the birth of Jesus.
This particular Advent season, we have focused our attention on the Magnificat, Mary’s song, in response to God’s call to bear Jesus into our world. As Rev. Rick has been preaching these past 3 Sundays, her song is rich with praise, prophecy, and blessing. She claims the promises of God’s presence in the lives of those who have come before her, in her life and the life of the child she carries, and in the lives of those who will follow her. Mary sings that she has been chosen by God’s love to bear love.
She has been chosen by God’s love to bear love . . . and so have we. In this strange and difficult Advent and Christmas season, when we are missing loved ones as well as beloved sacred and secular traditions, while we wait and wait and wait some more for the curve to flatten and the vaccines’ to be delivered, while our friends and neighbors and those whom we do not know struggle to pay their rent and keep food on the table, we are STILL chosen by love to bear love. It may not feel that way as we grieve the losses of this year, but that does not change the truth: we are chosen by God’s love to bear love.
Like your families, my family is anxious, worried and afraid. Both my husband and I long to be able to hug the parents we have living. We are continually worried for their safety, keeping ourselves away from them in the hope we can protect them. We miss our grown children in households of their own whom we have not seen other than via Zoom or Face Time in almost a year. My son at home misses his brothers and mourns the loss of a college year without being physically present with friends and professors. And yet, we are among the blessed. Our house is warm and we are not likely to lose it, we all have work, our extended family is for the most part, healthy. We remind each other daily that we are so fortunate and that we really shouldn’t complain, still so much seems lost. I imagine that many of you are experiencing much the same and those feelings make it harder for us to remember that we are chosen by love to bear love.
This Advent, I have been practicing the discipline of remembering love. And not just remembering, but naming in a journal all the ways in which love has chosen me and formed me to bear love. Growing up, the Church was central to our family life. And at this time of year, it was especially important. December was the month my Mom and I were responsible for the altar. We set up communion, changed hangings and hung greens. We also spent many a Christmas Eve day washing and ironing choir and acolyte robes. It still feels strange all these years later not to have the ironing board set up in the kitchen while one of us starched choir surplices and the other took robes out of the dryer with carols playing in the background. Then there was a Christmas Eve where I had sewed new choir robes and collars. I had injured a hand and was unable to turn the collar points. I was frustrated and tearful until my Dad faithfully came to the rescue. I will never hear “And there went out a decree from Cesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” - the beginning of the Christmas story in Luke 2 - in any voice but my Dad’s. He always read it out loud to us after Church on Christmas Eve.
These are just small vignettes of love poured into my life. I keep them in my heart and always will. I know that the love of God and family my parents poured into me are a rich gift that continues to bear love in my life. Like Mary’s remembering the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants, my parents poured out the love that had been poured into them. And as I cut out Christmas cookies with my now 21 year-old son, I am confident the love that has chosen me is choosing him too.
My “song” is not unique - I know that you, too, have been chosen by the love that has been poured into you and that you continue to bear that love for others known and unknown in your life. NOTHING can deny this Advent truth, neither political unrest, nor virus, nor tough economic times, nor even death. Take comfort from the words we used to light the Advent wreath this morning, “We are each collections of all the love people have chosen for us along our journey. Coursing through our veins is the same courage that inspired each of those choices. Every time and every way that we choose love for ourselves and one another, we honor that inheritance.”
No matter how far we are from those who have loved us into life - whether by social distance or death or other tragedies, the love poured into us remains with us. We are still chosen to pour that love into the lives of others. Claim that love. Honor that love. Rely on that love. Sing that love into the world. The paradox of the Advent season is that God’s love is already here in our darkness – and yet, it still is coming in the growing light that bursts into full flame at Christmas. “People look east and sing today: love the Lord is on the way.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Romans 8:12-18 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
Luke 1:52-53--Mary’s Magnificat continues: 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.
I and my family and this congregation are among the lucky ones. Minimal exposure, good health, savings. I feel awful when I read about or just imagine what is happening to the poor and immigrant communities of our cities. All of it compounded by the ungodly political spectacle across this country.
It’s clear where this is all headed. It gives me the feeling people in the lifeboats must have had seeing the Titanic go down with its remaining passengers. So many will be lost, and we can only watch. But even those who watched still had a very uncertain fate as do we ourselves. Even though we contribute food and money every week, we still feel helpless.
Now that we are experiencing a calamity of biblical proportions first hand, can the Bible be remotely serious that God lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things? How can we share the exuberance of Mary’s Magnificat, her praise for the magnificence of her God, Israel’s God, her belief that God promises the poor release from their oppression in this moment?
Mary’s lyrical voice celebrates in one transcendent song the thread which unifies the entire Hebrew Bible and all the teaching of Christ— "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; ¹blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied; blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh—what stock can a world in pain place in such words?
Yet down through history Mary’s spirit inspired movements like the Franciscans, Mother Ann Lee’s Shakers, Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel at the turn of the last century, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, the liberation theology of Roman Catholic Latin America, the American Civil Rights movement, Jim Wallis’ Sojourners, Rev. William Barbour’s Poor Peoples’ Campaign—just a few of the many who have taken to heart Mary’s hymn extolling the God in whom the poor could have faith. But look into any corner of the world in any year of any century, and we would have to ask if this faith is warranted—statistically, you would say the poor have never made out well nor are they in today’s pandemic.
There are tears at midnight and again at dawn.
Look no further than our own country for which the name of “Wall Street” is a by-word for greed and its lethal side-effects. A good look tells us that human society rises barely above the state of nature, but when it does so, another look reveals opera, dance, art, sculpture, libraries, temples and singing in the shower. How can those contradictions co-exist? Why are there rich and poor?
Just exactly who is meant in Mary’s Magnificat by the powerful and the rich,” and by “the lowly” and “the hungry”?
In the gospel of Matthew, it seems the “lowly” mean those destitute in spirit, those feeling low, oppressed by psychic or emotional troubles. That is possibly you, in the grip of pandemic anxiety, and so many others.
In the Gospel of Luke, it would seem to be those actually laid low, those who suffer the physical harms of a nation’s troubles. That might be you, too, you who may be bracing for an economic hit, or coping with illness or mourning the death of a loved one.
Of course! Jesus had both in mind, because his heart could read the human condition.
Jesus knew that tons of money is ultimately no solace for the rich, just as he knew that the lack of money perpetrated upon the poor is no accident. It’s clear who Mary meant by the “lowly”—anyone in a state of loss, anyone who experiences loss. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, goes that familiar spiritual, nobody but Jesus, and that’s true. Jesus our Jewish rabbi, knows that the plight of being human is the consequence of being body and spirit.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus warned that while the spirit is strong, the body is weak—but the spirit can be weak, too, unless we have been awakened to our birthright as children of God. Our baptism in Christ signifies that we have life through the Spirit. Paul exhorts us to recognize that our cry to God for help is itself proof of the spirit in us, for like reaches out to like.
Paul says, “if you live according to the flesh (only), you will die,” but you are made of more than that and we are made for more than that—we are the heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ, Paul declares. You will survive the losses of this mortal life, yes you will, you will surmount these troubles with eagles’ wings and you will prevail.
Be assured, in suffering with God you will be glorified with God—Paul sums up, “I do not consider the sufferings of this present life to be worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us” in the living of this life. That statistical definition of the lowly does not capture that it means, being low, nevertheless we are able to live high in the spirit, exceeding abundantly more than we ever ask or can even think.
Such is God, the God of Israel and of Jesus—God seeks the activation of your inert bodies, God opposes entropy and determinism and your belief in them. You were born into a dynamic world, but you must be reborn as an in-spired agent in that world. You are born for more, you are born for abundant life, but you must step through the looking glass first. It’s what Jesus called, the kingdom of God—it is not a place of helplessness—awake and come on in. God places before us life and death—choose, make a choice, don’t just stew there in this political quagmire!
Make the choice that the Franciscans did, that Mother Ann Lee did, that Walter Rauschenbush did, that Dorothy Day did, that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference did, that Jim Wallis has, that Rev. William Barbour has—choose life, choose abundant life. In the Magnificat, Mary is calling us to action against poverty and against the sin of greed which gives rise to poverty. We are God’s hands—we are the difference between death and life.
So it is that in church we intensely pray, we watch vigilantly, we are ready with the lifelines we can muster. In conclusion, let me offer this poem that Susan J. shared with me yesterday which also expresses in different words very much what God is saying to us:
Mary Oliver, When Death Comes
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; when death comes like the measle-pox
when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world
Let’s bear prayerfully in our hearts what’s in store for the families in Chelsea where Bridge Over Troubled Waters runs rescue missions for the children hardest hit. And what’s in store for the churches and mosques in Roxbury and Mattapan. And what is in store for us in our neighborhoods in Newton, Watertown, Brighton and the region. You know the answer now. We who have been laid low, shall be raised up yet in this Advent season of love, and hope, and joy, and peace.
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. God’s 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 thoughts of their hearts. Luke 1:54-55.
I struggle to express all that this passage, this short line, can mean and for that matter, I struggle to express all that it means to me.
It speaks of God, not the “God” we suppose the word to signify when we use the pronoun “he” and verbs like “do” and “make,” but that Other within and beyond history, that Other which may be “the Rock” of Hannah’s hymn but is within and beyond the natural rocks of which mountains and deserts are made.
It speaks of an Other that “kills” and “brings to life,” as Hannah’s hymn declares, yet is life itself but in a way that incorporates death as well. Such a God is the inspiration for the exalted words and profound emotions of Hannah’s song and Mary’s Magnificat, their communities reaching for the utmost intensity of expression.
But what kind of doing, relative to deity so conceived, can be meant by the word “scattered,” as in “he scattered the proud”?
To scatter a people is more than scattering pebbles or mice—it is to disperse, to rout and confuse, to unhinge and to dislocate, to shred and render without community, the worst of all possible human fates. Such existential terrors do the proud undergo, according to Hannah’s song and Mary’s Magnificat, because pride goeth before a fall, to quote the King James version, because pride seeks its own over-self-estimated counsel, then it claims the ill-gotten gains entirely and only for oneself, saying “devil take the hindmost.”
For, the proud are special, they harbor vast empires in the imagination of their hearts—normal and human-sized as the proud may be, their mental compass embraces outsized horizons of banquets beyond need, wealth beyond luxury, protection beyond security, where too much is never enough.
What is this human tendency that God would single it out for condemnation—ordinary greed?
Yes, to use an inadequate word, but it also represents the refusal deeply to investigate the secrets of life and death for the unimagined kinds of riches that actually lie there—it’s the tragedy of missed opportunity, missed satisfactions, missed discoveries, missed dimensions, that happens when you overlook computing for parallax effect—the fate of the man who buried his two talents, the fate of the rich young man who found Jesus disappointing, the fate of Ivan Illych who thought he had done it all right by social norms, the fate of Dr. Faustus who sought complete knowledge, it is, of course, the fate of Ebeneezer Scrooge, the fate of Citizen Kane, the fate particularly in America where an entire continent worth of natural resources, gems, gold, oil, coal, and forests spawned financial speculators, real estate speculators and the millions of gullible victims of get-rich-quick schemes like the 1849 gold rush that brought thousands of hapless seekers to the California Sierras—ultimately pathetic and very often tragic fates.
And thus it is proclaimed in this passage that God is not only the God of promises but the God of reversals. Remember the Aniwim, the poor ones I told you about last Sunday—? Because they couldn’t trust their own strength, they had to place utter confidence upon God—they were poor not only in material terms but spiritual, too, but they knew it. The proud, on the other hand, in the imagination of their hearts, having no need of him, always end in the little square of their self-sufficiency.
With so many famous warnings, why should it bear so much repetition the way Hannah’s hymn concludes: “not by might does one prevail”—?
I have a guess: it’s because in this country we’re never guilty of self-sufficiency, we are “self-reliant” and that’s different, we suppose. Americans in every one of our centuries saw land for the taking and pressed every advantage to secure some, actually, lots and lots of it, stolen then exploited with slaves! In a wilderness where there were no services or supplies, this required much independence and know-how—we called it self-reliance, which is just self-sufficiency by another name.
Self-reliance—the quintessential American virtue of the frontier society—gave us America’s “can-do” spirit, which we admire and other countries do, too. But we have applied it to a fault. In the name of independence, we have failed sufficiently to acknowledge interdependence. In the name of individual rights, we have fostered a bunker mentality. In the name of progress, we have manipulated nature and used up our resources. In the name of independence, we have refused partnership with God, and this refusal is having tragic national consequences. It amounts to the refusal to look inside and to listen to the still small voice of God—it’s a rejection of the way Mary waits, that is, waiting creatively, not like waiting for the bus.
So Mary’s Magnificat applies especially to us, where she sings, “God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” because 2020 has brought our chickens home to roost. Our question in these times should be, What are we supposed to learn here? God does not favor those who over-play our hand, those who convert opportunity into opportunism at the expense of weaker or less avaricious competitors. Mary only repeats the age-old Israelite theme—God is not mocked, which is simply what is meant by our passage’s first line about “the fear of God,” being proper respect for cause and effect. This promise is now about to be incarnated in the person of the baby Jesus to show what kind of power matters in the kingdom of God.
In Advent we celebrate Mary, but not as Virgin, not as Queen, not as Bride, not as Mother, not as Intercessor—all of these being quasi-biblical elaborations of the gospel story by the emerging churches—but as Challenger of business-as-usual. Our Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled an essay, “Self-Reliance,” but he wasn’t giving cover to them—he was actually urging independence of mind, independence from old, traditional ways of thinking, religious ways of thinking that came from the Old World.
Our denomination and the whole liberal progressive stream of Christianity stands in this line—our spiritual roots are in Mary’s Magnificat. Eliot Church stands squarely in this line, too, as our past history and present ethos demonstrate. Our Small Group discussions last month reflect how strong this is in our DNA.
“God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”—this beautiful line, and one among so many beautifully crafted lines of the Magnificat, is most beautiful because of its context, and is the reason for this remarkable season of Advent before Christmas which is one of love and hope and joy and peace.