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.