Sing Her Song: Read Luke 1:39-55
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
There has been, according to a recent radio report, a measurable decrease in the amount of time families have been spending in their holiday family gatherings over the past several years. As someone who would rather speak to crowd of hundreds than negotiate a party without putting my foot in my mouth, I was initially relieved to know I would have less time to worry about remembering my second cousin’s wife’s name. However, when I learned the reason for the shorter family gatherings was to shorten the time folks would need to be in the presence of relatives who voted differently than they had in the last election, a wave of grief overtook me.
Traditionally, Christmas has been the moment of our faith life that the rest of our culture gets. It is the time when – if even just for a moment – prodigals are welcome home and whatever barriers of class, race, or condition exist blur enough for neighbors to see the humanity of the other. There is at least one documented cease-fire inspired by Christmas during World War 1.
But if we have reached a cultural moment when even our politics threaten to keep us apart from the people with whom we should have the strongest bonds, does Christmas stand a chance? Is there any word from God that can make the joy, peace, and hope we sing about in worship more real in the other places we gather?
Our scripture passage this week finds Mary on her way to a family gathering to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The passage just before this tells of the angel Gabriel’s visit to reveal to Mary that she have found favor with God and would bear God’s son into world. When Mary enters Elizabeth’s house, God’s presence shone through and did what God’s love does when we allow it. It touched Elizabeth and the baby in her womb, as well.
It was then that Mary pours forth in her Song of Praise, often referred to as the Magnificat, giving voice to what resonates as true and familiar to anyone who has experienced not just being fully known by the Holy One, but also unconditionally loved by God through the grace and forgiveness we have known in Christ.
I encourage you to read Mary’s Song of Praise again, this time with the realization that it is indeed your song as well as mine. It describes the powerful gift we all carry, both the loving presence of God and the ability to bring into the world the reality of what God has deemed shall be through us.
As we find ourselves gathering in this season, whether with friends, family, neighbors, or amongst the crowds, may we recognize we carry with us the unconditional and powerful love of God. Mary’s song is our song. We have experienced the same favor, been recipients of the same mercy, can bear witness to the same justice and shalom, and have the ability to offer ourselves as vessels for God’s love to bless others.
My prayer this Advent, as we gather with our families, congregations, and communities, is that we remember our call to proclaim God’s love through our words and our deeds, through both the questions we choose to answer and the ways we choose to answer them, and through our interactions with those with whom we may differ. May we be ministers of reconciliation, even as we do justice, speak truth to power, and elevate the cause of the most vulnerable and least of these among us. May all of this invite others, from generation to generation, to join us as we sing Mary’s more excellent song of love and deliverance.
Nothing says Advent like being called a collection of young, deceptive, and venomous snakes. Yet this is precisely what we encounter in this week’s gospel story. The crowds had come to hear from and be baptized by the one out of the wilderness and, to their surprise they are greeted with imagery that draws their attention to the ancient creature cursed in Eden. “You brood of vipers,” John lashes out at the swell of religious leaders, tax collectors, and soldiers, exposing their poisonous intermingling with the oppressive economic and militant practices of Rome. John’s contrasting allusion is quite brash, you look less like children of Abraham and more like the offspring of empire.
Again, this is not exactly suitable for the Christmas card or being etched on a Secret Santa ornament.
Still, Luke’s story is crucial to the pilgrimage we call Advent. It is an invitation to linger not only in Bethlehem, but also alongside the Jordan as we remember our own baptisms. There, as those drenched in the sacred and sending waters, we are confronted with similar questions as those posed to the ancient crowds, is our witness reflective of our identity as the children of God or as the hatchlings of systems designed to maintain power and privilege? Do we breed liberating goodness or infuse toxic venom into our neighborhoods? Is our professed allegiance to God’s kingdom come mere deception to our preference for the control of others?
If we are honest, these are daily questions. They may even lead us to ask one of our own, echoing those who gathered by the river two millennia ago, “what then shall we do?”
What I love about John is his straightforward and practical response to the crowds. He moves his message of repentance beyond mere platitude and towards specified enactments of justice and equity that subvert the abuse of authority: all who have two coats, share with those who have none; tax collectors, refuse to exploit your neighbor and take no more than what is due; soldiers, cease the threats and extortion of money from those you pass by on patrol. This is the kind of fruit John proclaims as worthy of repentance, the working out of our baptism through a concern for our neighbors.
If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we can imagine similar invitations should the camel-skin-wearing, locust-eating prophet speak to us in our time and place, in regions not along the Jordan but in proximity to the Schuylkill: In the midst of pervasive poverty and homelessness, leverage collective resources for the common good. When struggling local school systems become pipelines to prison, work to ensure all children have a fair shot at quality education. When opioid addiction plagues both our urban and suburban neighbors and neighborhoods, collaborate with community partners to promote healing and recovery. When prison systems are unjustly biased against people of color and the poor, promote restorative justice to transform individuals and communities. When gun violence takes yet another life, offer not only prayers, but also systemic and legislative intervention. In the face of the vitriolic public rhetoric, ease the many manifestations of hatred and division. When youth cry out for the world to be different, invite their ideas and leadership as agents of God’s kingdom come. Use whatever you have been given alongside whomever God has sent you to embody the good news in places so often torn by narratives of scarcity and aggression.
Julia Esquivel, an exiled Guatemalan poet, wrote beautifully:
In the most obscure and sordid place,
in the most hostile and harshest,
in the most corrupt
and nauseating places,
there You do Your work.
That is why Your Son
descended into hell,
in order to transform what IS NOT
and to purify that which IS BECOMING.
This is hope!
(“Hope,” Threatened by Resurrection, 1982).
One of the greatest joys of ministry within this presbytery is the opportunity to venture alongside the many disciples of Jesus who have entered into such obscure, sordid, and harsh places to transform what is not into what is becoming. Whether a congregational initiative or community partnership, even anniversary celebrations, the faithful dare to ask in some of the most nauseating places, “what shall we do?” Then, still wet from our baptisms, we resolve to bear fruit worthy of repentance as a brood of foolish saints. As we lean into this third week of Advent, when we light candles of hope, peace, and joy, may we allow ourselves to be confronted continually by the gospel, confess our own entrapments by the powers that be, and imagine new avenues to incarnate the good news wherever the Spirit leads, even among the snakes. After all, this is where God does some of God’s best and most redemptive work.
A voice crying out in the wilderness (Luke 3:4) is quite a contrast to the cacophony of this season, when the noise, tasks, and temptations around us can be overwhelming. Somehow, it breaks through the clutter and reminds us why the Advent season exists in the first place, and why it matters. It brings new life, not only Jesus’ birth but ultimately his sacrifice for the rest of us, forgiving our sins and giving us salvation. Although anchored in a particular time and place, it is both a timeless and hopeful message.
The wilderness metaphor also contrasts with the distress of the world reflected in last week’s passage, whether that refers to natural or “man-made” disasters. Instead, it suggests a purity, calmness and cleanliness—even peace and quiet—which causes us to pause, catch our breath, and reflect. Specifically, the voice calls us to:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways smooth;”
I picture John the Baptist standing on a hilltop, surveying the landscape before him, which includes a winding river below. The silence is deafening. Although imperceptible at a distance, the water is constantly in motion, wearing down the jagged edges of the earth, stones, and rocks over which it flows and bringing new life to places downstream. As it passes by, it also cleanses and heals, preparing “all flesh [to] see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:6)
And so, much like Luke situates his story “in the fifteenth year of…,” we are called in our own time and place to step back from the fray and make way for new beginnings. While worldly leaders come and go, the passing of George H.W. Bush this week causes us to reflect on a kinder, gentler time in our recent history. There were certainly serious disagreements at that time too, but it is a reminder that we can come together as a nation and with other nations to address momentous issues ranging from the AIDS epidemic, rights of people with disabilities, and an end to the Cold War—leading us back to peace and ultimately justice.
If we could do it then, we as the church of Jesus Christ can do it now, not allowing ourselves to be distracted or deterred by bends or bumps in the road. As the stars shine brightly above us this week and remind us of that starry, silent night in Bethlehem more than two millennia ago, let us come together as thousands of points of light. And in this Advent season, let’s pray for what really matters—the rest is just noise.
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on the earth distress among nations confused
by the roaring of the sea and the waves….
Like the faithful dawning of the morning sun, the season of Advent rises once again. The season of expectation breaks into the rhythms of our lives, reminding us of God’s relentless love for all humanity in the person of the infant Jesus. This season of hope disrupts and interrupts our focus on the harsh reality around us – a reality woven with the signs of distress, confusion, fear, and foreboding. The Lukan text paints a picture of the end-times, which frankly feels and sounds like our times.
I confess – I do not feel ready for Advent. I have not been thrilled with the department store marketing that exhibited Christmas decorations right after Halloween. I do not feel ready for Advent. I find myself in that spiritual abyss that is darkened by the grief, sadness, losses, senseless violence, natural disasters, political hyperbole, racism, and other -isms of our times. I do not feel ready for Advent. I am not one who enjoys the chaos of holiday shopping. I do not feel ready for Advent! It requires attention to all the end-of-year administrative tasks that can be so tedious.
So you see, I really do not feel ready for Advent – there is no room in my mere mortal existence for anything else….. but maybe this is precisely the gift of Advent. Our existential feelings really do not matter.
In a world of apocalyptic-like disasters, brokenness, and emotions, Advent confronts our “existential angst” head-on, ushering us into a journey of hope. As we light the first candle on the Advent Wreath this Sunday, we are escorted into a new reality and sacred claim. It is God’s reality and claim that boldly invites us to “stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). It is the reality of God who promises to have the last word – a word claimed and repeated each year for four Sundays as we light the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.
Through the journey of this Advent season, we will again be transported into those transforming moments more than 2,000 years ago that continue to transform the moments of our lives today. We will again encounter beloved Gospel images and narratives – of John the Baptist preparing the way in the wilderness, of Mary singing “my soul magnifies the Lord,” of Joseph and the expectant Mary travelling over land to the little town of Bethlehem, of their being rejected and denied a place in the land where they sought refuge, of the birth in a humble manger of the infant Jesus, as angels’ voices echoed throughout the evening sky.
So perhaps the truth is that this annual pilgrimage is not about you or me. I do not need to be ready for Advent – for it is precisely in my lack of readiness, in the messiness of this world, in the rhythms of my busyness that Advent – this season of hope – claims me yet again. It claims me; it claims you; it claims us through the faithful call of God reminding us that the chaos of this world has not, does not, and will not have the final word. That final word has always been – and will always be – reflected in God’s love.
Happy New Year!
No, not quite yet in the worldly or secular sense, but as far as the liturgical calendar is concerned, we began a new year with the first Sunday of Advent. Even before we focus on the story of the baby Jesus in the manger, the Christian liturgical year begins with the four weeks of preparation and expectant waiting for Christ’s coming, and coming again.
The longer I live, the greater appreciation I have for the Christian approach to marking the passage of another year. In our tradition, we don’t just say, “Good riddance! Out with the old year and in with the new.” We pause and seek to gain perspective on our individual and collective life’s journey. As those whose path is defined by our relationship to God, we profess the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as the seminal event of our history, ushering in the kingdom of God in our midst and culminating in Christ’s coming again in the fullness of time.
As if standing on a mountaintop mid-journey, the Apostle Paul calls us in the age of the Church to find meaning in where we’ve been and re-direct our course for the next part of the way. In Advent, the lectionary invites us to use the lenses of hope, peace, joy, and most comprehensively love to order our steps.
In this last Sunday of Advent, in Romans 16:25-27, we have Paul’s closing words from his letter to that Church and to us. The New Oxford Annotated Bible notes in its introduction is “probably the latest of Paul’s undisputed letters to be written,” making these the last words of what they term Paul’s “theological last will and testament.”
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
Through the gift of these verses, Paul exhorts us to give glory to the one, true, living God who has blessed us to live in this time when the Creator’s intention for humankind has been revealed through the Word made flesh through Christ.
Earlier in his writings, Paul has spoken the truth of his own rebellions, shortcomings, thorns in his flesh, as well as those of other persons of faith, as a way of connecting our personal stories to the greater story of salvation we know in Christ. In these verses, he encourages us to do the same, wherever we may find ourselves.
Our hope is in Christ, not in our selves. The faith we have is in God’s faithfulness to God’s promise of steadfast love, and that faith is the assurance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), and the means by which even our sufferings can be catalysts for endurance and character (Romans 5:3-4).
For Christ is our peace. Through him, we have been reconciled with God and as those entering the world already the recipients of more grace than we could ever hope to repay, we can be at peace with ourselves and our neighbor.
We can have joy that is more foundational than our circumstances at any one moment, because of sacrificial love of God in Christ who secured for us the final victory over death (Hebrews 12:2).
And whenever any of the above seems elusive, Paul gifted us with a description of love that is as tenacious as it is patient, kind, and forgiving (I Corinthians 13) and is a glue stronger than even death in assuring us of our relationship with God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39).
I pray you embrace these gifts, making them your own, and sharing them with whosoever this Advent and always. Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!
Isaiah 61:1-4 | Third Sunday of Advent | December 17, 2017
On this third Sunday of Advent, we encounter the familiar words of Isaiah 61. This prophetic lection is the same text read by Jesus in Luke 4, a passage that framed the duration of his ministry. The illustration is clear, God’s holy one is anointed and sent to bear good news in the midst of pervasive devastation, despair, oppression, and injustice that had a chokehold on God’s once-exiled people. The jubilant agency of this prophet, which is assumed by Jesus in his time and place, cuts through their raw and real suffering with a much-needed word of comfort and hope longed for by prior generations. The time for lament had passed; theirs was the time to build, plant, and repair what was in distress.
In our time, there are more than enough reasons for lament. Whether another #metoo or #churchtoo story of sexual harassment and assault, mass shooting at a music festival or Sunday morning worship service, reminder that racism and white supremacy are far from issues of the past, or the madness that has become our country’s political landscape, we can quickly become seduced by cynicism and stuck in despair. We may even get lost in the great echo chambers of social media, endlessly reading and occasionally delivering rants laced in fatalism, fear, and righteous indignation in light of whatever issue has unsettled our own prophetic conscience and moral compass. If we read the fullness of Isaiah, we would discover similar, albeit ancient, cries of dereliction provoked by the straying from God’s dreams for a just and whole world. There is a sure place for such words of woe, especially when the dignity and worth of our most vulnerable neighbors hangs in the balance.
Rest assured, Jesus and the prophets turned over their fair share of tables.
Yet, the witness of Isaiah 61 affirms that the ultimate call of God’s anointed hinges more so in construction versus deconstruction, building versus tearing down, and revitalizing that which is feared to be beyond repair. While we are to speak out against the horrid ways we see the humanity in our near and distant neighbors violated, well-nuanced statements of condemnation will not suffice on their own. We must be known not only for what we say in these moments, but also the ways we subvert the varied manifestations of evil with our own acts of love, justice, and a commitment to the renewal of the world God so loves. As Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, often says, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” This is what it means to be an Advent people, practicing the better within a world that is simultaneously ruinous and beautiful.
As a networker, storyteller, and resourcer alongside our churches and related ministries within this presbytery, I am overwhelmed by the varied ways the saints have been anointed by the Spirit to practice the better. In the midst of a very real school-to-prison pipeline, ministries within our bounds have worked alongside public schools and local leaders to create mentoring programs for youth in at-risk neighborhoods. On the other end of the prison system, congregations and faith communities have opened their sacred spaces for those who have previously been incarcerated to develop necessary skills to enter or the workforce or create elaborate murals that tell their story and the stories of their communities. In neighborhoods labeled as food deserts, our ministries have launched nutrition programs for young people to enhance a child’s ability to focus in school. Other congregations, in light of the growing opioid epidemic, have collaborated with local service agencies and professionals to develop programs for individuals and their families who battle addiction and loss. Still more, there are congregations who form intentional community across racial-ethnic and political divides, extend welcome and housing to refugees, advocate for human rights, facilitate longest night services for those whom this season is dark and dreary, and host music and arts festivals that confront and work towards the end of gun violence in our city and nation. In virtually every realm where there is evidence of ruin, you can be sure there is also a witness to the gospel as proclaimed by the lives and lips of disciples within the bounds of our presbytery. In these places, as we drape garlands in the midst of ashes, we find God’s favor.
As we wait for the coming of Immanuel at Christmas, may we be reminded of how the Spirit has anointed us to be such counter practitioners of goodness in a world deeply longing for something better than what is currently on display. May we refuse to sit on our hands in expectation, but refresh our sense of mission that works for the liberation of those captive to silence and fear, comforts the afflicted, extends belonging to those isolated and marginalized, offers compassion to those who grieve, and proclaims a word of hope that ensures nothing is so ruinous that it is beyond God’s promise to repair and rebuild, restore and resurrect. May the oil of such anointed promises drip from all we say and do- not only in this holy season of Advent, but also in the long journey from manger to cross and empty tomb.