Monday, December 21, 2009

Sermon on Luke 1.39-56

Joseph P. Mathews, OSL
4 Advent, C
20 December 2009
Lk. 1:39-56

That I speak truth to you from the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us; that I may ever be filled with awe and wonder when claiming so to do; that the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in the eyes of that same God let us pray: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Beloved sisters and brothers, I am back, and we are back. I am back to you for this brief period of time from that heavenly country, Chelsea Square, wherein lies the New Jerusalem. And we are back into this time of expectation and preparation of Advent. The first time I spoke to you from this pulpit was the First Sunday of Advent, last year. My first time worshiping with you was the First Sunday of Advent in 2005 at the invitations of Paige Swaim now Presley and Dr. Sam Shelton. And today another Advent comes to a close, though this year, it closes using the Revised Common Lectionary, without any passages from the Gospel According to John or the Revelation to St. John the Divine.

The gurus of the new lectionary have excellently crafted readings for Advent that maintain an emphasis on the gospel of the coming church year. Three weeks ago we heard in New York and Alabama of the impending destruction at the end of time. Two weeks ago John the Baptizer exhorted us to prepare the way of the Lord and gave us a vision for the end of time different than cosmic destruction: valleys being filled and mountains being leveled, the crooked being made straight, and all flesh seeing the salvation of God. Last week John called us to bear fruits worthy of repentance. And in that same text, Luke the Evangelist begins laying the groundwork for one of the majors themes of our faith history and his gospel in particular: caring for those in need: sharing coats and food with whose who are without.

And in our passage today Mary goes to Elizabeth and greets her with words that make up a phrase in the Hail Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Think if you will of the joy that is usually experienced by those who are expecting a child, and the joy that is not only theirs, but their family’s and their community’s. Here the handmaiden of the Lord is about to be the Mother of God and her sister praises her for accepting what God has said and expecting it to come true.

And rather than accepting Elizabeth’s praise for being God’s servant or people’s remembering her through history, she says, to use the language of those who regularly attend Evensong in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my savior!” Despite her irregular pregnancy and the effect that would have had on her life, and all the dangers that we can hardly fathom accompanied a first century pregnancy, Mary praises God not just for her gift, but for the things God has done, is doing, and is about to do.

Similarly to the way that Hannah praises God at Samuel’s birth, this female servant of God gives thanksgiving for her son, but also for God’s care for the outcast, downtrodden, and disenfranchised of society. She tells of the way that God has mercy for those who fear God: those who respect and subject themselves to what God teaches: loving God, neighbor, and enemy, and as John told us last week, giving food to those who do not have it and a coat to those who don’t have one if we have two.

The hungry have been filled, while the rich have been sent away empty. This is the same active performative language of creation, where God speaks things into existence, and the beatitudes. This too is part of Luke’s gospel: the salvation of those downtrodden by society is happening here and now, and it is about real needs, not merely spiritual ones that make readers and hearers feel good. The proud are subject to the strength of God’s arm and are scattered in their own thoughts, where they cannot hear and are unwilling to hear what others might be saying to them, even if it is a word from God. The lowly are lifted up, and the powerful authority figures are thrown from their positions of power because God alone is powerful.

This Magnificat is a song of praise to God for the justice that has done, is doing, and is about to do: God’s mighty acts of redemption and salvation brought to an apex in Christ, God in flesh. But as we have been incorporated into Christ’s work and God’s acts of redemption in baptism, we are charged with making this heavenly reality break through to an earthly one. As we wait for and approach the birth of the Prince of Peace in this Advent season, we have learned not too long ago that our country will increase its troop levels in Afghanistan. Our country can afford to send more people to war, but it cannot give basic healthcare to all of its citizens. The world’s poorest, those who rely on subsistence farming, are the ones most effected by climate change and have the least opportunity to affect change.

We share in this Eucharistic banquet coming to the table not for solace only but for strength, not for pardon only but for renewal. Afterward we pray that God will send us out to do the work God have given us to do, to love and serve God as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. Part of that work is using our privileges in this life -- which start simply be being born into a system where we can speak to elected officials and ask them to consider our position -- to speak on behalf of those who can’t, giving voice to the voiceless.

Our job as a church is not simply to pray, although that is a significant part of the work we’ve been given. We certainly ought not rely too much on government powers because Christ is the eternal ruler, and our citizenship is first in heaven. But our job is also to be changed ourselves and contribute to changing systems that oppress and systems that breed disunity. Page 855 of the Book of Common Prayer says that the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The Church pursues its mission as it prays, worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love. The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members: from the laity up to the episcopate.

“My soul doth magnify the Lord.” As we members of the church carry out the mission of the church, we should magnify God at all times. The work we do is Gospel work, which requires loving those around us even when we don’t like what they are doing or what they have to say. I close with one of my favorite paraphrases of the Magnificat, which is entitled “The Canticle of the Turning” which points to God’s work in all things but offers some modern, vivid imagery of what God’s Kin-dom looks like.

My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the god of my heart is great
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight, and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blessed. Could the world be about to turn?
Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be
Your very name puts the proud to shame, and to those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.
From the halls of power to the fortress tower not a stone will be left on stone
Let the king beware, for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne
The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn,
There are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn
Though the nations rage from age to age we remember who holds us fast,
God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp
The saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound
Till the spear and rod can be crushed by God who is turning the world around.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring let the fires of your justice burn
Wipe away all tears for the dawn draws near for the world is about to turn.

We are moving to celebrate the birth of our Lord, which I will leave to celebrate with my extended family right after the service ends, and we are moving to celebrate his imminent return. As the Blessed Florence Li Tim-Oi, first female priest in the Anglican Communion; the Blessed Alexander Crummell, who was denied admission to General Seminary because he was black; the Blessed Jonathan Myrick Daniels, civil rights martyr; the Blessed Cady Elizabeth Stanton, who worked for women’s rights all asked in their own advent waitings; as Canon Mary Glasspool, bishop suffragan elect of Los Angeles, and my classmate Brandt, who God willing and the people consenting will be the first African American ordained in the diocese of Alabama in sixty years ask now with longing and expectation; as those in areas torn by warfare and devastated by lack of food ask; and most importantly as the Blessed Mary, ever virgin asked as she looked forward with praise, I ask you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, could the world be about to turn? AMEN.

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