December 23, 2018 – LIVING IN BETWEEN: Can they hear us singing?


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CAN THEY HEAR US SINGING?

By Rev. Victor Kim
Luke 1:39-55
(12-23-18)

 

We’re just a couple of days away from Christmas, that day when we mark the gift of God’s love born in the babe of Bethlehem, the child of the manger, the gift of Jesus Christ.  We believe that the decision of God to be born into the world, into our world, to be born as one of us, has changed the course of human history, even as it has been God’s desire all along.  This birth of a child, this incarnation, God becoming human, people of faith have understood it to be as the Word made flesh, as the light that shines in the darkness, as the absolute commitment of God’s love for God’s creation, for us.

Now, for something so cosmically central, the way God goes about it seems, well, a bit puzzling.  Luke’s is the only gospel that tells the story of Mary.  The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and announces God’s favor on her.  Gabriel says that Mary will conceive and bear a son, though she is unmarried and a virgin, and she will name him Jesus, that he will be called the Son of God.  If you were Mary, you might be forgiven for thinking, is this really a sign of God’s favor or the aftermath of a bad lamb kebab. Mary is also told about her relative Elizabeth, who in her old age was also unexpectedly pregnant.  So Mary set out to Elizabeth’s home and the two women, one thought too old to be with child and one with child though a virgin greet each other in a most extraordinary scene.

Here, two women, two women in a society where women held no power, one vulnerable because she had no children and thus no security, and the other vulnerable because she shouldn’t have been pregnant in the first place, here, the voices of these two women are clearly and powerfully heard.  They engage in a conversation that seems so implausible, words that speak of things to come that no one could have imagined.  Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, calls Mary blessed among women, and blessed is the fruit of her womb.  She called her younger relative Mary, the mother of her Lord.  And Mary, who we often think of as this rather shy, retreating, obedient, gentle spirit, really seems to be nothing of the sort.  Mary speaks, no she sings, of magnifying the Lord, that her spirit rejoices in God her Savior, who has looked with favor upon her, whom from now all generations will call blessed.

She breaks into song, into what we call the Magnificat, that hymn of brash confidence about not what God will do, but in the way Mary sings, about what God has already done!  God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.  Mary’s words are those of a prophet, spoken with authority, with confidence, with vision.  It’s just really weird and amazing that they should be spoken in this place, by these women.

These words seem more suitable to be proclaimed from a palace, by kings and princes, by generals and rulers, presidents and prime ministers, those with the authority and means by which to actually do something about the proud, the hungry, the lowly and the rich.  Who makes decisions that actually change the reality for people?  We have a process, a system for that.  We have governments, we have courts, we have powerful people and organizations that, if necessary, and if possible, make such monumental decisions.

If you want to turn things upside down, if you want to shake things up so that the proud are scattered, so that the powerful are brought down, so that the lowly are lifted up, so that the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty, if you want to turn our entire system on its head, to invert, to subvert the way things are, well, you’d better have the right people on your side. The problem is that the right people, the people with the power to do anything close to what Mary proclaims, are the very people for whom the way things are work just fine, thank you very much. The powerful aren’t really all that interested in being brought down from what I can tell.  The proud aren’t too excited about the prospects of being scattered in the thoughts of their hearts.  Yes, it might be nice for the lowly to be lifted up from time to time, for the hungry to be filled with good things for a change, after all isn’t that what the spirit of Christmas is all about, you might say.  Sure, who wouldn’t want the rich to be the ones looking from the outside in for a change, but I wouldn’t count on it.

But then, are you willing to bet against Mary? Are you willing to stand against these two implausibly pregnant prophets and their message of God’s love?  It’s really the choice of Christmas isn’t it? Which side are we on, the side of playing by the world’s rules and with the world’s tools, or are we on the side of love? Barbara Brown Taylor writes that Mary was singing about the future ahead of time – not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true.  Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, Taylor says, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone.[1]

Year after year we hear Mary’s song in Advent and there have to be times when we ask ourselves, do we really believe this?  Secretly we doubt the hungry will be fed, not so secretly we think the rich will always win.  But Mary’s song is still here,still proclaiming in the wrong tense, the simply irresistible love of God. Will we believe it this year? Can they hear us singing? The eternal unfolding of God’s love is a mystery and it is irresistible.  It’s irresistible because it doesn’t depend on whether the powers that be get with God’s program or not.  In the scope of the unfolding of God’s irresistible love, the powers of this world are really immaterial.

Think about this.

Mary’s voice is the voice of a pregnant virgin, at best in that society it’s the voice of someone who is deeply at risk, at risk as an unmarried pregnant woman, punishable by death.  Hers is a voice that carries no weight or authority in a culture that did not accord women status or standing. And yet, all those names of the powerful men we associate with the Christmas story, Herod, Pilate, Quirinias, and more, these names of people in power, kings, governors, rulers, at the end of the day, they are mere footnotes to the story of Jesus.  We know their names only because of Jesus and his story.  Those whose power at the time felt so absolute – they are only a footnote to Jesus – the prince of peace, the man of sorrows, the friend of sinners, the forgiver of enemies.[2]  The unfolding of God’s love is irresistible and all the powers and principalities that shout and scream and flex their muscle, whether then or now, will end up only as footnotes in the story God is revealing, a story of a child, born to an unwed, seemingly powerless woman, but whose birth would begin a journey that would change everything.

Maybe the story’s beginning isn’t as strange and as puzzling as I had originally imagined.  If our world is being eternally shaped by the unfolding of God’s irresistible love, if love is at the heart of the already here conviction of Mary’s song, then maybe it makes all the sense in the world that it should start with these two implausibly pregnant women. Giving birth is about birthing love, but really it’s more about being birthed by love.  Now I don’t have direct experience of giving birth, so I trust the experience of others who have written wise words.

There is a strange kind of acquiescence which happens to a woman when she becomes pregnant, writes one of these people.  Even if the pregnancy is planned and wanted, she soon discovers that she’s agreed to more than she planned. Her life no longer belongs entirely to herself, even in the first months when her hormones determine what foods she tolerates and what foods must be avoided. Her freedom decreases as the baby increases.  It becomes harder to walk, painful to sit, exhausting even to sleep.  She releases more and more of herself to the life which is growing inside her, a life which really doesn’t belong to her – but only belongs to itself, or maybe to its Creator. It is passing through her and – in one way or another – she must make peace with being a vehicle for its entry into the world.  But when we conceive and make room for love, we are not merely a vessel through which it passes. We are transformed by it.  We experience a gentle but persistent love-reorientation. As I said, I myself have never carried a child within me, I have never felt the exquisite and exhausting pain of delivering that child, but I have been there when that child has come into the world, and my life, my understanding of love, has been completely and utterly reoriented by that birth. 

Just as a bit of yeast will leaven a loaf, or a bit of salt seasons the meat, just a bit of love will grow in us, breaking in to our stubborn patterns of fear and pain, challenging our old ways of relating to the world and to ourselves, until finally we are wholly changed.  We thought we were birthing love, but actually love was birthing us.[3]  

This is why Mary sings, this is why her soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices. Mary sings because she has been changed, reoriented, by the life growing in her, the one who will be the Son of God, the irresistible gift of God’s love for all. 

And if we too believe this, that the way of God’s love is irresistible, inevitable, if we too have been reoriented by the gift of this child, this gift of God’s love,then we should be singing right along with Mary, shouldn’t we?

Can they hear us singing?

Can they hear us singing even when we feel that the problems of this world seem so big and we seem so powerless to affect much change? Can they hear us singing even as the problems of poverty, homelessness, addictions, abuse and exploitation seem to never get any better? Can they hear us singing while the rich and the powerful seem nowhere close to being brought down, scattered and sent away empty? It’s hard to sing when your heart’s full of doubt and uncertainty, but the message of the angels at Christmas is, “fear not!”

Fear not, because the future we hope for, isn’t a future that depends on us, but depends on God, who has already proclaimed it in the gift of Jesus. Not only is it going to happen, Mary sings as if it already has happened. She sings because the way of God’s love is irresistible. Can they hear us singing?

Have you noticed that the people who are manning the kettles for the Salvation Army this year are doing something different?  I’ve never noticed it until this year, but they are singing.  I’ve been in at least three different places this Christmas where the kettles have been present, and at all three places the person who was standing with the kettles has been singing.  Maybe it’s the same guy, maybe he’s the only one, but it’s pretty near impossible to hear someone singing next to the Salvation Army kettle and not put something in it.

There’s something about singing, about a song,that injects life in situations where life seems bleak and threatened. African American slaves knew this and sang hymns and spirituals of hope and trust, even as they were whipped, abused and at times killed by their oppressors. Civil rights leaders sang, “We Shall Overcome,” even as the odds were stacked against them.

2019 will mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the stories that probably won’t get much attention in the celebration is about the weeks of peaceful protests by the citizens of the East German city of Leipzig that led up to the fall of the Wall. Gathering on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church – the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas – thousands of East Germans who wanted their freedom would gather to sing, to protest and to demand liberation, and over two months their numbers grew.

On October 9, 1989, two ministers at the church, led the scheduled protests, despite the threats of the East German Stasi, the state police.  Even though they feared that the police would come in and shoot everybody, they went ahead with the protest and at 5 p.m. more than 8,000 people crowded into the church. Thousands of more protesters gathered at four other Leipzig churches and after the hour-long service, the ministers led the worshippers outside.  In the plaza they were met by tens of thousands of more demonstrators clutching lit candles.  Slowly, the crowd began walking towards the train station.  Drivers left their cars in the middle of the streets and joined the march.  As the crowd made its way towards the city’s century-old train station, accompanied by thousands of helmeted riot police, tension grew.  But at the decisive moment, the police stood aside and let the protesters march by.

Historian Erhard Neubert later called that night East Germany’s “October Revolution.”  At least 70,000 people – perhaps as many as 100,000 — took to the streets, making Oct. 9, 1989 the largest protest East Germany had ever seen. Secretly recorded footage of the march was broadcast on West German television, inspiring Monday Demonstrations all over East Germany in the weeks to come.  The demonstrations in Leipzig doubled in size every week, attracting protesters from all over East Germany.  By Oct. 23, 1989, a little less than two weeks before the Berlin Wall came down, more than 300,000 people filled Leipzig’s city center, carrying candles and banners, singing songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world.[4]Sometime after the fall, a journalist asked one of the commanders of the East German secret police why they hadn’t crushed these protests like that had so many others. He replied, “We had no contingency plans for song.”

Sometimes all we can do is sing. Can they hear us singing?

Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

Written by Rev. Victor Kim
Preached on 23 December 2018
at Richmond Presbyterian Church.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Singing Ahead of Time, Home by Another Way

[2] Nadia Bolz Weber, Bullies, Terrorists and Anxiety: A Sermon on Defiant Hope

 

[3] Anna Shirley, Love is a Many Splendored Thing – and Advent’s Greatest Challenge

[4] The account of the Leipzig protests is from Andrew Curry’s article, “We Are the People” A Peaceful Revolution in Leipzig, from Spiegel Online October 9, 2009.