Perplexed Pondering

sermon on Luke1:26-38, 46-55

 

“She was much perplexed and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

In Luke’s Gospel, those words introduce Mary, the Mother of our Lord, the God-bearer, the premier saint. And they may be a worthwhile frame for us this morning, too. I’m a little more skeptical than Sara’s children’s sermon that we’ll pause amid Christmas morning commotion to ponder in our hearts. By tomorrow’s Christmas Eve worship, we will probably be swept along by the emotion and beauty and tradition of it all. We won’t likely take much time to ponder or even to be aware that this is perplexing.

And so we have that opportunity, those of us gathered this morning, here on this 4th Sunday of Advent. And perplexity is a good Advent practice. Pondering, too. This season still of hope and waiting isn’t a benign or passive, but eager and engaged.

Those who have presents waiting under Christmas trees know what this is about: trying to discern what is inside each package, guessing what that shape could be, what you’ll discover when you unwrap it. That is this Advent practice of perplexed pondery. This is about being given a gift from God and trying to figure out what it means, how to unwrap it, what’s inside, what to do with this: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

In your perplexity may also be some hesitancy. You may feel unprepared to rush in, not where angels fear to tread, but maybe in their footsteps. You may take this encounter of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and wonder about your response.

It’s a frequent question of mother Mary’s apparently eager “Yes! Let it be!” Our pondering may produce the possibility of her declining, saying no. I’ve heard preachers pose a probability that Gabriel had made multiple stops and been turned down elsewhere before finally finding a willing partner for God’s plan, making Mary favored for her favorability, for agreeing.

Or we may ask if it wasn’t an immediate affirmative, if Mary weighed the options and considered carefully before taking the leap toward this pregnant proposition. That would’ve involved deciding it was more important than all her other relationships, from family to village to fiancé Joseph, since this well could estrange those. But it probably is even prioritizing over life itself, since on the one hand we’re reminded she could’ve been executed for infringing on the patriarchal society, or even if that risk wasn’t realized, she of course faced the dangers of childbirth in a time of little health care.

But this approaches the pondering in the wrong way. Certainly we say No to God’s work in our lives and No to God’s will for our world all too frequently, much too often, with sinful abandon and selfish preference. We consider it a choice, an option to be balanced against others. This is how we regard our commitments to financial contributions and even our weekend attendance at church, as one possibility among many, and often falling further down the list.

Maybe our own reluctance and constant diversion is what makes us surprised and astonished at Mary’s saintliness, that we hem and haw and hesitate where she had her eager “Yes! Let it be!”

But for her saintliness and for yours, for any of God’s work, it’s best to remember that it’s not about our decisions and choices. This faith never really involves carefully weighing your options. This moment’s pondering isn’t for whether you should say yes.

For Mary, it’s not about logical evaluation. The clear, easy, obvious answer would be No Thanks! She would be quite essentially giving her life away—whether in the direct term or in the longer view of what it always means to parent, and what it meant to parent one whom she raised to turn the world around, to confront the powerful and cast them down from their thrones and to be sure the hungry multitudes would be filled with good things. Not long after his birth, we’ll hear that this one will cause the falling and the raising of many, and Mary’s own heart will be pierced (Luke 2:34-35).

This isn’t happiness or contentment in any of our standard rosy wishlist sorts of terms that Mary is being invited into. This is sacrifice. This is love. This is God’s mission.

And so, rather than our willpower, we pray for God’s will to be done. Not our eagerness or energy, this comes about because God is active in her, and in you. This is how God operates, by blessing, by inspiration. It comes immediately here in the message, “You have found favor with God.” God has looked favorably on me, she sings, a lowly one, not in high esteem. Not favored because of anything of proving herself, not because she would be quick to respond in the right way, not because she inherently was full of holiness. Her holiness comes because it is given to her in the speaking of this word: You are favored by God.

It is this word of blessing, the word that instills holiness, that makes saints, which creates the new possibilities in Mary, and in you. It is already in the delivery of that good news of God’s favor that the Holy Spirit comes upon you, that this new possibility is conceived in you.

In much of the art tradition, this moment of announcing a birth to Mary shows the dove of the Holy Spirit flying into her ear. This spoken word is how God’s new life comes to rest on and grow in you.

And it says the power of the Most High overshadows you. This is a cool phrase. The word for overshadow is used in the Old Testament when God’s presence so filled the tent of the tabernacle that Moses couldn’t even get in. The word is mostly in the Gospels’ Transfiguration stories, as a bright cloud comes glowing around Jesus and the disciples on the mountaintop. It’s a word about being brought into God’s sphere of influence, about being surrounded and held by God, being covered and protected.

God was not asking Mary to make a choice and then leaving her to face the consequences. God was creating the response within her and also holding her through what was to come.

It is this awareness of God’s work in her and in us that allows the song we can sing with her of being filled with gladness. Even before her child has been born, it gives her the concept to sing as if God’s mission is already accomplished, an already past-tense declaration of how a kingdom coming empties the wealthy of their boasting and is sympathetic to the needy, a good news already in effect.

So this isn’t meek Mary bowing her head. There’s nothing mild or subdued about this young girl. In the way that our own children embodied and resonated the message for us last week, with confidence and eagerness and unique gifts, as our young people so often lead us in causes of justice and see the world as it should be, that is the faith that also energizes Mary.

With her, we sing in amazement of Advent accomplished, and we ponder this perplexity that we’re not only waiting for something more, but knowing it has already come, is already here, in the miracle of God taking on flesh in her, in us, in you.

 

Hymn: Unexpected and Mysterious (ELW 258)

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Little Christs

sermon on Isaiah 61

Isaiah sounds like he could be on a political campaign, a candidate declaring, “I’m gonna build up your ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations. I’ll repair ruined cities.” A big list of infrastructure projects, plus making things fair. We’re familiar with such campaigning and sloganeering, so we’d expect the one who claims to be the right choice won’t come through on it all.

In fact, that’s actually somewhat in the background of this Bible reading. This is 3rd Isaiah, because this long book is actually from three distinct time periods. One was before exile. Another was looking forward to coming home. And this final part is after the return.

It came with lackluster realizations that everything wasn’t instantly hunky-dory, like those returnees waking up Christmas morning and realizing they didn’t get everything on their Christmas list. Or maybe Hanukkah list, since they were Jewish, though Hanukkah wouldn’t come about for another couple hundred years. So we’ll just say their wishlist. They had big dreams of what it would be like to be back, home sweet home, visions it would be just right in their own place. Well, they found there’s still work to do, still renovation and remodeling and reconstruction. Their home remained a fixer upper.

But so that they weren’t too disenchanted, 3rd Isaiah again set their sights high.

Still, aside from a small dose of historical inquisitiveness, you are likely not all that concerned at how long the detours and orange cones had clogged the thoroughfares of ancient Jerusalem, much less the blueprints and budgetary implications and red tape of archaic political process. So we’ll bypass describing what this possibly implied for former ruins.

One interesting pause midpoint in history, though, is that this passage gave title to Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, which practically created the modern field of economics and prompted the rise of capitalist structures. The book introduced the supposed “invisible hand” of the free marketplace. Some may, in this passage, want to equate that invisible hand’s push with the Holy Spirit, making the freedom from captivity into freedom to gain wealth. The improvement in the reading would become development of profitable businesses, expanding neighborhoods and plowing up land and taking advantage.

But I’m not so interested in that narrowly defined economic vision as we encounter this message, nor even transposing in where current devastations are or our failures of expected greatness.

I’m grabbed most by the first phrase: “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me and has sent me…”

I propose that this phrase isn’t only applicable to 3rd Isaiah, not just of some old-timey prophet who could claim to be the receptacle of the Spirit. It’s more.

My reasoning is in part from Jesus. We’ll hear some of these same words again next month. In his first sermon and first public appearance in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is in the synagogue for weekly worship and opens a scroll to read “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon, because the Lord has anointed me and has sent me” and so on. Jesus then rolls up the scroll and declares to the congregation, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus knew that these weren’t outdated dead words, but still living and moving and claiming. That Spirit was still doing what it wanted to accomplish.

It’s plenty easy today to hear Isaiah’s words applying to Jesus, dropped here in this season of Advent. We know Christmas is coming, and we’ll hear words for Mary that the child conceived in her is “from the Holy Spirit.” Certainly we look to Jesus as the clearest image of God, embodying God’s presence, showing the precise pattern of God’s work.

But this passage means more. Even expecting that the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus and dwelt in him, we heard from the prophet Joel last week of the Spirit poured out on all flesh, on men and women and old and young and slaves and priests, and all children shall be dreamers. That reading also will come back to us, but not until Pentecost, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when that outpouring spreading Spirit cuts loose and begins really racing around.

Still, that’s a little easy. Our Lutheran heritage very valuably recognizes an important difference in how pronouns are used. So last week said the Spirit is poured out on everyone. That might communicate “on them,” as others. Or on us, plural. I want you to hear the singular: the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, yes you the individual. And you can speak Isaiah’s words, “The Spirit is upon ME!” Why don’t you try it: The Spirit is upon ME!

Now you’ve got some skin in the game. Or, for a big action movie tagline we could say: this time it’s personal. This isn’t about God broadly and generically working in the world. Sure, that’s good news. Joel’s words are valuable, that the outpouring of the Spirit isn’t restricted by gender or skin color or by age or anything we would categorically label as ability. We emphasize at Pentecost that Spirit is spreading to all nations, that it doesn’t in the end recognize the confines of locale or even of religion.

But you’re no bystander to this. Because you have the chance to say it again: The Spirit is upon ME!

Now, you may either tremble with trepidation or excitement at these prospects of being put to work. You might ponder your political ambitions, ready to repair ruined cities. You might examine your economic endeavors and inclinations to be moved by the free hand. You might have pious proclivities in thinking that Jesus is an important example for you to try emulating. I don’t quite want to quash those quests.

I’m not saying your work isn’t important or called for. What I’m saying is that your work isn’t your work. When you say The Spirit is upon ME!, that isn’t a vitamin supplement, a Popeye can of spinach, a dose of encouragement or motivating factor. The Spirit doesn’t show up as a little boost for what you already wanted to do.

No, the Spirit claims you for what the Spirit wants to do. And the Spirit does big things, producing the fruits of God’s work in the world. The Spirit is upon you and sends you to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release to prisoners; to proclaim Jubilee, to comfort all who mourn and rejuvenate faint spirits. That’s certainly more than your task list for the week. It’s more to accomplish than a single political term. It may well be the work of a lifetime or across generations.

It’s similar to Mary’s list in the Magnificat, but notice without reversals, only of gain. There is no casting down or afflicting the comfortable. There is no proclaiming captivity to the liberated or bad news to the oppressors. This is straight all good news. Some may be downer and outer, but we’re all in need of God’s goodness, in need of new life, in need of restoration, longing for gladness and life rising up from the ashes.

So, again, this is a long view. This is God as a gardener, slowly tending and cultivating the soils, waiting for compost, collecting seeds and carrying on with the crop the next year. This is God as landscape restorationist: that you will be called a mighty oak means you take a while to grow. Even more than that, as a seminary classmate of mine and now religion professor points out, this is a new creation narrative, the Spirit that hovered over the waters in Genesis now arriving for you, as you again repeat The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!* So this looks forward in enormous ways to how God’s kingdom comes on earth.

But it also looks back to your baptism when, with other words from Isaiah, you were given the gift the Holy Spirit: “the spirit of the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,” the spirit of joy in God’s presence, both now and forever (Isaiah 11:2). Your baptism marked another part of this passage. As you proclaim The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!, the next line continues, “the Lord has anointed ME.”

That word “anointed” in Hebrew is Messiah. In Greek, it’s Christ. It’s not pushing you to measure up to Jesus as Christ, as Messiah, as God’s Anointed One. This isn’t about that comparative sense. This is saying that you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever, an oily emblem on your brow that signifies you are chosen by God, you are sent doing this spiritual work, you are a Little Messiah, a Little Christ, as you are able to declare the Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!

 

*https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2255

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Hannah’s Prayer & Song

sermon on 1st Samuel 1&2

 

The prayerful lament of a vulnerable woman. And then it turns to praise.

I wish this turning could be more broadly true in what have been especially sad and hard days for vulnerable women. And although this Bible reading isn’t directly able to be extrapolated and applied to all vulnerable people, still I believe and expect that the fundamental message of the story is, indeed, for all.

We heard a rivalry, between two women, perhaps an unfortunate breakdown in what could’ve been mutually understanding and supportive. Hannah, whose name means “favored,” certainly seemed out of favor. We heard her taunted and ridiculed and ostracized, yes bullied, for her infertility and lack of children, by one whose name means “fertile,” Peninnah.

That situation is a miserable, lonely place to be in our time, but, as we’ve continued to hear, in this ancient culture it was downright dangerous. Even more than now, having a child was clearly a status symbol for a place in society and expectation of women. But it was also sustenance. Where we cite a statistic that it costs $233,000 to raise a child to age 18*, the focus in Hannah’s time would have been the opposite, that food and shelter wouldn’t have been available to her without a child. She faced that vulnerability.

That’s bad enough. Worse is that Peninnah taunted her about it.

Her husband would seem to be better. He really favored Hannah, so much as to give her the double share. But still he didn’t seem to grasp her sorrow or difficulty. He asked, “am I not more to you than ten sons?” Not very empathetic, and, as commentators point out, it would have been more caring to have said, “Hannah, you are more to me than ten sons.” At any rate, no matter how much he loved her, it didn’t really resolve it.

Then there’s the religious official, Eli. When Hannah was in distress, he responded with presumptuous accusation. Ironically, Eli accused Hannah of being drunk, even while she’s promising her offspring wouldn’t drink.

Finally, there’s God. Though the reading says God has closed Hannah’s womb, we might try to say that infertility isn’t the will of God. But we also have to expect that the response to infertility needs to tell us something about God. And, more broadly, what happens when we are amid suffering and longing and life not being what it should? When traumas linger? Where is God in that?

Here Hannah prayed, sharing her problem. Now, we should notice that there’s no magical incantation or special words. She prayed good and strong and didn’t tiptoe around it, pointing out her misery and asking God to be attentive to that. She trusted that God doesn’t want us to be miserable, with faithful expectations that, when we’re down and out, not only should God want to do something about it, but God can! “Don’t forget about me, God!” It’s just a version of “Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.”

One other comment on Hannah’s petition. She made a promise about this child she hoped for, but it’s not best to hear that as bargaining, that she’d make the boy into a priest as payment back to God for giving her offspring in the first place. God isn’t in the business of making deals, of being connived, of any tit-for-tat relationship, in being our God only in response or reciprocation for our pious promises.

Still, we might well note that God did respond. We would typically say God answered Hannah’s prayer. That makes us think she did something right, to get what she wanted. Or it makes us wonder what we ought to be doing differently when our prayers aren’t answered, when problems remain, or we continue to feel ostracized, or when our place of vulnerability remains so tenuous and scary. If something worked out for Hannah, we want it, too.

We’d prefer to have it be so simple as getting just what we want, like she apparently (eventually) did. We’d like it to be that our vulnerabilities are removed and we’re instantly strengthened. We’d wish to switch directly from lament to praise. We’re good at spotting injustice, especially when we’re suffering it, and we’ve got no good reason to be patient with it. We want the secret code words of right prayers. I realize all that.

I’m sorry for those ongoing hurts. I’m not explaining them away, since they won’t just go away. But we do need to see and believe God does something. So when we turn to Hannah’s song, we may recognize we aren’t left out. We are already contained in this story. Hannah sings our situation, even if not the exact circumstances.

I know to start that is a dissatisfying answer for your individual pains and hopes for wholeness. But let’s carry forward to notice that Hannah’s song is barely about her. She mentions those who had been childless, but she certainly doesn’t gloat in the birth of her own son, but rather says braggadocio has no place anymore. In fact, it’s a remarkable song because it situates this one birth amid a much larger scope of amazing work across humanity and creation, of feeding the hungry, of ending war, of wealth no longer lording it over others, of bringing justice and integrity and honor to those who had been ashamed and dismissed.

These are powerful words, that our God of reversals is working a revolution in society. Exchanges of fortune fill these words, of the lowly lifted up and the high brought down (whether this is a vision of equality and sharing or a vision of changing places, of the 1% no longer having their turn, of those who lived in palaces being out on the street and the homeless moving in). However it may come, this proclaimed godly way is not the way of our world.

Further, we also notice this God of reversals is not our normal conception of God. Even the sense of God is flipped when these words apply across all of our perceived hierarchies. This reversal strikes God’s own self. I said before that God isn’t into bargaining, but our God, especially as most clearly embodied in Jesus, does strike a deal and go into a free trade in what Luther termed “the happy exchange.”

The Mighty One takes on the form of weakness, the eternal becoming mortal, and the one who is greatest and Lord of all comes to serve. With the song of Hannah, this God not only moves you up a ladder of societal stature, but gives you the riches and entity of God’s own self. God takes your sadness and gives you joy, your tears and gives you laughter. God takes your loneliness and gives you community, even with God’s own presence. God takes your vulnerability and gives you strength and standing. God takes your misery and fills you with promise, takes what it wrong and makes it right. God takes your shame and exclusion and gives you honor and calls you favored, just like Hannah. God takes your uncertainty and gives you faith. And all this is most clearly and emphatically true because on the cross Jesus takes your death in order to give you life. These are the happy exchanges, where God takes you and says, “All that I have is yours.”

Yes, these are powerful words. And not just words Hannah claimed for herself. This isn’t a self-congratulatory hymn celebrating that she is so blessed. It’s not about her happiness or relief at becoming a mother. These powerful words are also more than for her time and place, of her nation moving from fragmentation to unity.

We’re recognizing in this service that one of the most famous echoes of Hannah’s song came from the mouth of young Mary, the Mother of our Lord, before his birth. It was true for her. And in him—in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—we came to know and trust these happy exchanges that God is working.

But this wasn’t about one mother 3100 years ago or an ancient faraway people. Neither was this about another mother 2000 years ago who could’ve been shamed or killed. It wasn’t for her son’s efforts against an empire.

Continuing forward with these powerful words, I learned this week that Mary’s song was banned by the Guatemalan government in 1980’s because it posed a threat to the military order they were seeking to impose.**

And so we keep singing them. These words continue to announce, to celebrate, to spread. They are words that echo across and through our world today.

And they are words for you, for your life. Even while you remain with your hurt and your worry, as society around you seems to still stifle your concern and preclude your place, as it feels yet so far from any resolution, as you can hardly envision a good way forward, still this revolutionary and loving word is for you, that God is turning the world around, that you will not be left out, because our God is always on the side of life, even to the point of God’s own death. That is how our God most certainly turns vulnerability to power and lament to praise and you to what you should be.

 

Hannah’s song:

My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God.

My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

2There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.

3All bragging must cease. Boastful arrogance must come to an end.

The LORD is a God of knowledge, who weighs all mortal deeds.

4The bows of warriors are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

5Those who were full have hired themselves out for crusts of bread,

but those who were hungry are satisfied.

The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

6The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up again

7The LORD makes both the poor and the wealthy, who brings low, and also exalts.

8The Lord lifts up the poor from the dust; and raises the needy from the ash heap,

to place them among the mighty and promotes them to seats of honor.

9The LORD lights the ways of the just, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;

for not by might does one prevail.

10The LORD’s adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High thunders against them in the skies.

The LORD will judge the ends of the earth.

The LORD will give strength to the king and exalt the power of the anointed one.

 

* https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/01/13/cost-raising-child

** cited in Wisdom’s Feast: An Invitation to Feminist Interpretation of the Scriptures, Barbara E. Reid, p57

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Christmas Eve sermon #2

One of the most exciting and essential parts of this Christmas story is usually overlooked or unmentioned on Christmas Eve. We’re so involved in the sweetness of a mother and baby, in the pastoral sereneness of barnyard animals, in the mysterious glory of angelic choirs, that we avoid the hard, vital honesty that this is a protest story.

It’s not just telling us that Jesus was born in such-and-so way, which was coincidentally charming for carols and fitting for greeting card images. Rather, the details of this story right from his get-go place Jesus against expectations, against a dominant and domineering culture. Identifying this birth with God’s presence very directly locates God in a place where most would not have claimed—and most would still not claim—that God would be present.

Actually, backing up a notch, these shocking details revealing God with Jesus were arising even before his birth: that the angel Gabriel was sent to a girl. Probably the same age as girls in our Confirmation class (which they were sort of horrified to learn). Beyond the biology of it, it is a meaningfully shocking detail that God came to Mary, a poor, young woman. By typical criteria, she sure wouldn’t be identified with God’s presence; God was supposed to be mighty, in palaces and buddied up to rulers. Even in the Jewish temple, God sat at the center, amid restrictive hierarchy of the elite male high priest having closest access, where women were kept exclusively to an outer courtyard. But in this case, God moved out to visit Mary, to work in conversation and collaboration.

And, for her part, Mary realized this was extraordinary and radical, even if difficult. After Gabriel’s visit, she sang a song about how God was turning structures and systems on their head, lifting up the lowly while casting the mighty down from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things but sending the rich away empty.

This is more directly embodied in the birth of Jesus and this Christmas story. Again, it’s placing God’s presence away from the powerful, not in a castle or cathedral, but where there wasn’t even room in the inn, officially announced to shepherds in the field, guys who couldn’t hold a job with regular hours. And what could be more vulnerable than a baby’s birth?

Even if we claim this is a newborn king, still that title subverts the usual claimants to the throne. Most particularly, the story challenges one directly: Caesar Augustus, the emperor of Rome. As he conquered most of the Western world and spread the empire around the Mediterranean, claiming allegiance and claiming tax revenue and claiming slaves from these beaten regions, he was also making claims for himself, that he was Lord, was divine, the son of god, that he was the bringer of peace and savior of the world.

Those terms and titles sound awfully familiar because you’ve heard them applied not to Caesar but to Jesus. Claiming them for Jesus contradicts Caesar, saying that the authority, the godly dynamics, the real presence for what matters didn’t reside in the capital of the empire, surrounded by soldiers and in control of the Senate. This Christmas story is a direct protest against the occupying forces of Caesar.

Now, that protest served mostly in subversive encouragement, because there’s no head-to-head contest where Jesus would win. He’s born out in the boonies. As far as Caesar is concerned, it wasn’t the Holy Land, but an outpost of an outpost, far at the edge of his empire. Even Jerusalem was scorned by Caesar, and this was a Podunk suburb of Jerusalem. The only claim Bethlehem had was as the birthplace of an ancient bygone king, of David, who had ruled a millennium prior. You see faded signs in small towns commemorating the softball team that won the Division 3 state title twenty-some years ago, and the nostalgia of Bethlehem’s best victor was exponentially longer.

Still, there’s something setting up our attention in Jesus about that king. David, after all, was the underdog who used his sling to slay the giant, to take down Goliath and stop the oppressor. But this new Goliath from Rome would be harder to slay. Jesus would have no opportunity to confront Caesar in a duel. Rather, his peculiar victory we are still celebrating and still deliberating is that Jesus confronted Goliath and died, gave himself up on a cross, his final protest and the shocking embodiment that God wasn’t with the mighty authorities, but identified with one who suffered unjustly in scorned death.

His faithful protest continues. We’re singing next “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” envisioning small streets of the unimportant village 2000 years ago when a homeless baby was born, shut out from warmth and yet identified as the center of God’s presence, and then the song sees those same streets in Bethlehem today.

Our travel group met residents of those streets this fall and continued to realize the old difficulty: they are facing a Goliath, and they have practically no chance of slinging the right stone that will bring down the giant and end the oppression and occupation. That’s because their Goliath isn’t just one big baddy but is a spreading, lurking, cancerous system that tracks their every movement and watches what they put on Facebook and keeps them from traveling to see family and puts up walls that separate them from their livelihoods and establishes laws to shut up life and keep them curfewed and close off possibility at every turn.

Yet we saw Bethlehem’s protest, the proclamation of God’s presence and the celebration of life even while the authorities claim that’s not where it should be found. They dance, they play sports. They cook and grow vegetables. They create artwork, like angels from shards of stained glass shattered by tanks. They speak truth to power. They graffiti messages of hope and humor on the wall that’s there to confine their wellbeing. They worship, they cherish community, they care for their young, teaching peace in schools. All of this, which may sound as normal as the birth of a baby and as low wage workers on the late shift, this is all transformed into a protest, when living itself requires courage and existence is resistance to the Goliaths of empire, just as that first Christmas.

This is a time when we may need to be reinforced in those practices ourselves. You may need to hear the protest of this Christmas story. You may need the examples, the witness, the martyr of others engaged in subverting authorities and resisting oppressors, of toppling terror and restoring righteousness, of hope over fear.

I’m going to end this message of reinforcement with words by my favorite artist. I’ve certainly never quoted him in a Christmas sermon, but maybe now that he’s a Nobel laureate Bob Dylan’s got some additional credibility. Or maybe you can just hear these words from 50 years ago as a blessing and hope amid the darkness, echoing why Jesus was born, to strengthen you this evening. Bob said: “Nowadays there are crueler Goliaths who do crueler, crueler things, but one day they’re gonna be slain, too, and people two thousand years from now can look back and say, Remember when Goliath the 2nd was slayed?”

Take courage, dear people, and be not afraid. This is the world a baby was born into, the world God so loved, the world that needs you.

 

 

  1. O little town of Bethlehem,        2. O little town of Bethlehem,

how still we see thee lie!                              the organs still do play

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep        of Jesus in a manger

the silent stars go by;                                  and angels on the way;

yet in thy dark streets shineth                   our music and our singing

the everlasting light.                                    is louder than a gun,

The hopes and fears of all the years        and church bells in their ringing

are met in thee tonight.                               remind us we have won.

 

  1. O holy child of Bethlehem,

descend to us, we pray;

your love bring down on David’s town;

drive fear and hate away.

Awake the ire of nations,

let justice be restored.

Rebuild the peace in silent streets

where once your love was born.

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Singing the Faith

sermon for 4th Sunday of Advent (Luke 1:39-55)

Having sung there with Mary (a setting of the Magnificat, ELW #251), we’re going to reflect on songs.

After all, this is a season of songs, on your lips, and perhaps even inspiring your heart to leap for joy. So today let’s consider a bit of why we sing.

First off, especially as we are doing it here, it is good to remember that we sing because it is enjoyable. Our choir had to put lots of hard work into preparing for The Messiah and Steadfast practices weekly, so it’s not always easy. It can be challenging, but rewarding and—yes, indeed—fun! Singing is just plain a good thing to do. This isn’t drudgery or dirges that we sing here, though we’ll come back to that and also to more on emotions.

The second immediate thing to note is that this task of trying to say words about our singing is mostly futile. Rather than diving into the deep end of “why” and trying to describe it, we’ll be best-served in the end by going ahead and doing the thing, letting loose our tongues and raising our voices. The reasons are too deep and multifaceted and overlapping to sort out, so spirit-filled we can’t rationalize it. Singing is like poetry, then. We probably notice the most frequent kind of poems are love poems, and the commonest songs are love songs. An essay on love just plain wouldn’t work, right? It can’t be explained or captured like that. That’s true of the spirit of our singing, as well.

Also indescribable is that songs are things of beauty. That can be simple elegance, like the chant we are using for this season, ancient melodies—one line of music that takes small, gentle steps. Other times, as we said, it’s not simple. There are huge, complex harmonies and melismas, of one word getting many notes. Listen to this bit with Rebecca and Tim from The Messiah (“Every valley shall be exalted”). Sure, it’d be quicker just to read those words, but it would lose the feeling and beauty. Communication isn’t just message, but medium. That song does exactly what it says: it exalts! Just imagine speaking that in monotone: shall be exalted.

That may also remind us that singing is natural. When we talk, our voice goes up in excitement or gets hushed in suspense. And singing is just sustained speaking. So if you can talk, you can sing! That’s a notion that my dad and probably any music instructor has had to combat: people claiming they can’t sing. Even for those of you thinking it right now, it’s just not true. Singing is so natural it doesn’t need to be taught—though, like any skill, you can learn to do it better.

With that, we might notice music as an art. We’re at a difficult point in history with arts, so used to having experts not only producing the art but also expert critics erecting further barriers by defining for us what is good art versus bad art. We get stuck with a sense, then, that it involves mastery, that singing should be done by a performer, partly because they’re very, very talented at it, but also because they can make money by doing it. Our songs have been capitalized.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t appreciate performances. We can enjoy being at concerts. We’d have to expect that the shepherds in their fields having the whole heavenly chorus show up for a late-night performance would’ve found it to be an enjoyable experience. The beauty and majesty of the angels’ song left them in awe.

But those shepherds were likely also tapping their toes along with it, swaying and dancing to the tune. Maybe they even “repeated the sounding joy” when they went to tell others, echoing it and explaining, “the angels’ song went kind of like this.” Whenever we sing “Gloria,” we’re imitating or resonating with (literally re-sounding) the angels’ song at Christmas. Maybe the shepherds were, then, the first tribute band.

Or maybe they made up a new song, putting it in their own voice and key. This is another mark of why singing is so much a part of us: it is creative, using creativity. That identity ties us to God the Creator, and it is part of living as creatures. We are not only created, but also creative. We weren’t made to be mechanistic robots. We were created to be co-creators, to join the innovations of life in this world. So we could say that God’s Word not only spoke us into existence (“let there be light”), but sang us into existence, and that we reverberate with that and continue in improvising with creativity. This might be how we understand the instruction repeated in the Psalms, to “sing a new song to the Lord.”

It becomes all the more amazing that creativity doesn’t lead to chaos. It is not that we each have our own songs competing and ratcheting up the volume to overpower other voices around us. Rather, singing becomes shared communally. It is, at heart, a social and not solo enterprise. Rebecca compared it to sharing candles on Christmas Eve, becoming more than the sum of parts.

We join in because we’re drawn in, like those toe-tapping shepherds. It moves us, emotionally but also quite literally, and more than we typically realize. In that sense of motion, songs change our energy, like the inspiration from pep bands or the rhythms of work songs. Others calm and sooth us, like lullabies. I was once at a workshop with Marty Haugen discussing how hard it is to sing when you’re tired. It’s exercise, using our whole bodies, which Rebecca calls marvelous wind instruments. There are muscles in our guts, and our expanding lungs, and our brains, and the flow of blood, eyes, ears, tongues.

And, of course, there is the vibration of our vocal chords. It is remarkable that when we sing in unison, we are actually, physically united. It’s responsive, because we have to listen. But even more, we vibrate together. For all that is different and unique about us and each of our bodies, in that moment of singing not only are we joined in the same song and breathing the same air, but our vocal chords are in sync, bodies synchronized and united together.

This is good for us to pay attention to because we have a diminished sense of these connections, compared to the ancient and medieval world. Back then, it was seen that the whole universe vibrated with these eternal tones, the music of the spheres, as it was known. Planets and the sun were understood to cycle with a rhythm. That meant our lives were best lived in harmony (again, in the quite literal musical sense) with these larger natural patterns. So even mathematics, medicine, and astronomy were seen as musical endeavors.

That vast communal, joining power of song we also realize when we describe music as its own language. If we don’t know the words to a song, much less speak different languages, still we can relate and hum together. Our song can be a form of expression even when we don’t have words. Perhaps you find yourself humming absent-mindedly when you are content, for example.

But to stay with knowing the words, for a moment, that is a large influence for our singing together here at church. We like these songs, these old favorites. It’s not just the jingles for commercials that get lodged in our brains. Putting words to music helps us to memorize, truly to “know by heart.” We love the Christmas story better because we have these songs. It’s ongoing communication, to tell the story, proclaiming and receiving good news. Singing God’s message simultaneously makes us angels for each other, including from our Sunday School children in their program this morning! We even sing to remind ourselves. And the songs stick with us when memories fade otherwise. Kathy was visiting Nola Jacobson this week in the hospital and sang “Away in a Manger” to her. And though Nola couldn’t join in, still the song brought a smile to her face.

That’s another of the benefits: our voices combine with saints of generations before us, and likely generations to come. We carry songs with us, and also send them beyond us, through time and across distances, with sound waves of music remaining clear.

Maybe, again thinking of this as so natural, we recall whales can sing through thousands of miles of ocean depths. Birds communicate different messages by their song. Even bats, with voices too high for us to hear, know their place in the universe by singing.

That awareness from our fellow creatures reminds us of this enormous symphonic chorus our voices are part of, “as heaven and nature sing.” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” recognizes it, too, saying “angel hosts, his praises sing; let no tongue on earth be silent, ev’ry voice in concert ring evermore and evermore.”

We’re getting close to the center here, that the purpose of our song may be for praise, and so indelibly linked to worship and lifting our spirits. We also offer prayer to God as our voices rise to heaven or beckon God to come into our midst (making it fitting our prayers are framed by “Come, Hope of unity, make us one body. Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.”)

For expressing ourselves, our songs are filled with emotions, almost unmatched in intimacy yet also a shared form of expression. They celebrate happiness, joy, love. They may be indeed dirges, because it is honest and needed for us to lament and grieve, maybe at the same time expressing compassion and hope. This week, a homeless man was singing to me on the phone, with sadness and yearning in his voice, from Elvis’ song “If Every Day was Like Christmas.”

That brings us, at last, back to Mary’s song. In her words of dashing the proud and filling the hungry and lowly with good things, we may wonder: are these words of hope and longing, for what Christmas may be or what our world become? Is Mary predicting the future of what Jesus will accomplish and God continues striving for? Are these words, as we put them on our lips, serving to change us, to inspire our hearts and—by the voice of the Holy Spirit—to transform our lives? It’s an interesting word Mary chooses, not only that she proclaims but that her soul and her song “magnify” the Lord. Our songs, like magnifying glasses, have power, to accentuate, to envision, to see more clearly, power to expand and make greater God’s purposes in our lives and across our world.

You may have realized I don’t usually engage in reactionary hysteria to current events, but maybe today as a summary and contrast we could see why that is by holding all of this against our own mini terror event in the shooting yesterday at East Towne. Where that isolates us and makes us flee, God’s song draws us together and unites us. Whereas we inherently sense that is wrong, God’s song comes naturally. Whereas that causes anxiety, God’s song leads to joy. Whereas that is about danger and chaos, God’s song is about life, about hope, about changing us and this frustrating, trembling, miserable world. That’s the center of our attention. That’s why we sing.

We’ll stop there. But having been speaking of songs, our Hymn of the Day is one of my favorite tunes in the hymnal, and this is the only Sunday in three years of lectionary Bible readings that the words really fit. Let’s sing!

Hymn: Unexpected and Mysterious (ELW #258)

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