December 12, 2021
Sermon begins at 17:55
A sermon on the Magnificat given on December 12, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church.
If our dear friend Rev. Anderson Porter has taught me one thing, it’s this: It is perfectly acceptable to sing in the pulpit.
So here it goes:
I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin
I wouldn't let my dear savior in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord, I saw the light
If you recognize that song, you’ll likely know that it was written and performed by Hank Williams Sr., an American singer songwriter and country music phenom that died in 1953 at the age of 29. If you were to peak at the autopsy report, you would find his death attributed his to “heart complications.” But, if you are a fan of country music, or you know the back story, you would know that Hank Williams led what was considered to be a “rowdy” lifestyle. Williams was a famously heavy drinker. He also struggled with an ongoing dependency on a variety of powerful sedatives. These sedatives, including morphine and a drug called chloral hydrate were known to be lethal when combined with the use of alcohol. A period of consistent abuse of these substances eventually comprised Hank Williams Sr’s health enough to lead to his death in the back of his car on the way to a show in Canton, Ohio.
Knowing this little bit about Hank Williams Sr’s life and death puts his son’s song in a bit of context. Hank Williams Jr wrote the 1979 hit “Family Tradition” as an unapologetic response to criticism he was receiving at the time in regard to his conduct both on and off the stage. In the third and final verse of the song, Williams sings:
Lordy, I have loved some ladies
And I have loved Jim Beam
And they both tried to kill me in 1973
When that doctor asked me
"Son, how did you get in this condition?"
I said, "Hey, Sawbones
I'm just carrying on an ole family tradition"
The Williams’ story illustrates the dark side of generational inheritance. In their case, it was literally true that the “sins of the father were the sins of the son.”
On the other side of the coin, our passage for today demonstrates the good, the beautiful, and even the prophetic ways a “family tradition” can be handed down from generation to generation.
My wife April and I recently purchased our first home and once we had unloaded the truck and put a few things away, I was about to walk back downstairs when I took a quick break and sat at the top of the stairs. It was late September at the time, but memories and visions of Christmas morning started rushing through my mind. I could remember my childhood staircase and waiting until 7:00 before we were allowed to go and see what Santa had brought us. And while I was sitting on those. Stairs, I could also my own daughter waiting on those very stairs in anxious anticipation of the holy day’s festivities.
When I’ve shared that memory with other people, I’ve gotten a knowing look, like they too can imagine their own stairs or their own special Christmas morning memories. Somehow memories like that get handed down and the feelings that come with the Christmas season exist in some kind of shared cultural space.
What I think we miss about Jesus is that he too, was a part of family traditions and existed in a time, a place, and a people with their own distinct cultural memories. And that’s why this morning, I want to situate The Magnificat, this song of Mary that we just read, as an artifact of this “Family Tradition.” Because, this song of Mary isn’t entirely original and it isn’t unprecedented, and it isn’t anything really “new” as far as themes and ideas.
Mary is, as they say, standing on the shoulders of giants when she authors this song that is both soaring in its celebration and achingly prophetic in its longing.
This year’s Confirmation class has been meeting over the last couple months and we’re discussing topics like God, Faith, Jesus, the Church, and many of the big themes of what it means to live a life of faith. These are eighth and nineth grade students who will have the option at end of the program to join the church as members. One of the themes we’ve continued to hold up deals with how we read the Bible. The sentence that I like to use is, “We stand in a tradition that has circled around the stories in Scripture to help make sense of life and our encounters with the Divine.”
The idea being that part of what it means to claim a Christian identity is to wrestle with the witness of Scripture in community with others as a way of coming to know the God of Love.
I emphasize that because it is so easy to treat the Bible as a finished product that Christians get handed and then try to blindly follow. And everything you need to know is contained withing its pages. But, it makes much more sense to recognize that these people in Scripture, 3500, 2500, 2000 years ago were doing exactly what we’re doing today. They were inheritors of a tradition, trying to lead a faithful life in their own specific contexts. For lack of a better phrase, they were “just carrying on the family tradition.”
So, I want to dig into that “family tradition,” that lineage. What was it that Mary inherited? Where did she find herself? And what led her to pen this remarkable song? What we see with Mary is that, for her, tradition wasn’t just tending to cold ashes, but it was the active process of keeping the fire alive. It’s going to take a little bit of Bible work, but it helps to read this text next to other writers and faithful tradition bearers in order to see the fire that Mary was keeping alive.
Starting in Exodus 3, we find the foundational story for how the Hebrew people would have understood themselves and their history. This story comes up over and over as an anchor to orient the Jewish people to who they are. When Moses is standing in front of the burning bush, God says,
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.”
The God of the Jewish people is a God who listens, who pays attention to the cry of the oppressed. God hears of their suffering, cares deeply about them, and is moved to act on their behalf.
And this isn’t a one-time thing.
The Psalmist writes in Psalm 146:
5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7 who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
Later, the prophets like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, have visions of God that are very similar. Isaiah, reporting God’s instructions to the Israelites says this,
“16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Mary isn’t even the first woman to sing songs like this. Miriam, Moses’ sister, sings of God’s liberating justice and Hannah, the prophet Samuel’s mom sings this in 1 Samuel:
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.[c]
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
I bring up these passages not to “prove” anything but to draw out the stream that Mary was standing in when she poured her heart into this song. Underlying all of these passages, including our text for today, is a vision of God that cares deeply for the poor, the oppressed, the dispossessed.
It can’t be surprising that Jesus picked up exactly where his mom and his tradition left off. When Jesus says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” he isn’t inventing a new way of seeing the world. He’s just carrying on the “family tradition.”
When Jesus gave us Matthew 25 and explained that mystical insight where we find “the least of these” is the very place where we see God.
When Jesus announced in Luke 4, quoting another passage from Isaiah,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
So often, we imagine Jesus delivered from Heaven as if by magic and we forget that he was shaped and formed and brought up inside a community that already had messianic yearnings and in a family that clung to this prophetic stream that dated back to the founding of the Israelite people.
When we sing, “The babe, the Son of Mary,” we’re proclaiming more than just a genealogy, but we’re singing about this prophetic stream that had been flowing for hundreds, if not, thousands of years before Mary and we find ourselves still standing in it today because of faithful women and men like Mary. We stand in this lineage of “love warriors” as Cornel West call them that spoke truth to power and stood in solidarity with the power-less.
So, situated in this legacy of “love warriors”, let’s zoom in a bit on the actual song that Mary sings. She begins, like so many before and so many after, by celebrating, being thankful, rejoicing in the action and the love of God. She sings of God’s mercy, her own blessing, and then moves to God’s strength.
The next part of the song contains the challenging, maybe even affronting, lines. We read about scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, and sending away the rich. These aren’t the themes that get carried into warm, cozy, family-oriented holiday commercials. Target doesn’t run Christmas ads featuring the new sweater line but with the subtext that the rich can’t shop here. And we won’t hear national politicians or chair people of large corporations giving up their authority or seats because of their holiday observances.
No, this part of the Magnificat seems easier to conveniently “forget.” It would certainly be easier to forget if it wasn’t for that pesky tradition that it comes out of. A deep part of Mary’s religious upbringing and her community’s theological reflection is centered on this very idea that God opposes the proud, the powerful, and the rich and stands with the humbled, the weak, and the poor.
This is indeed a difficult idea to wrap our heads around, especially for middle- to upper class white folks in the richest country in the world. It’s interesting, and helpful, to note that Mary didn’t exactly find herself in our position when she was became pregnant.
Mary had what the theologian Sallie McFague calls “wild space.” Wild space is the areas in our lives that don’t match the societal ideal. For example, society still values men and their contributions over and above that of women. So, women can see the world a bit differently because they’ve experienced this “wild space” where their identity isn’t rewarded. It works much the same way for racial and ethnic minorities. All of these areas do seem to be shifting, too slowly, but ask any woman or person of color and they will have examples and stories where their place in the world was impacted by their gender, skin color, or racial background. This also happens along class lines and specifically with the poor. There are resources and social circles available to those with wealth that simply aren’t there for those in the midst of poverty.
Mary had an abundance of this wild space. She didn’t see the world from Ceasar’s palace but from the perspective of a poor, small-town, ethnic minority girl who got pregnant before she was married.
For Mary, the lifting up of the lowly, the filling of the hungry wasn’t just a good idea for “those people” over there. This was a deeply personal for her. If, and when God chose to act and to look with favor on this lowly servant would mean dramatic change in Mary’s life, not just some third party somewhere else.
Mary wasn’t okay with the status quo and longed for massive shifts in power, wealth, and influence because she witnessed first-hand the injustices and the broken ways we relate to one another.
This was exactly the hope of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. This was the hope of the exiled Jewish people in Babylon. And this was the hope of Mary, the Jewish girl under Roman occupation. If we ask ourselves who the global super powers are today and which groups are and are not being served by their authority and dominance, we might get a peek into what God might be up to today.
Focusing in on this redistribution of power and wealth can appear very political and I’ll admit that it can feel uncomfortable to speak of such things in church or in even in public for that matter. One mistake is to keep it in the political realm. Yes, Mary’s vision of God is particularly political, but it’s grounded in a tradition that knows God to be the one who hears the cry of those at the bottom of our social, political, and economic hierarchies.
We encounter this idea again in the story of the Good Samaritan. The story centers a man who has been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Several religious leaders of the day simply go on with their business because life seems to be working for them and they likely have important jobs to perform. But a Samaritan, a person with “wild space,” like Mary, “looks upon the lowly,” and offers to lift him up, and to fill his hungry belly.
Jesus tells us this story to invite and call and compel us not to look away. God isn’t mentioned specifically anywhere in the story, but it’s clear from a comparison with Mary’s song which character is acting out the work, the kingdom of God in the world. I heard a quote on a podcast this week that summarizes nicely what we’ve been talking about so far, Theologian Chase Tibbs said this, “Christianity compels me to give my life for the well-being of the beloved Creation. In the midst of the forces of death and in light of mass suffering and misery, my faith says that I can’t walk on the other side of the road. We are asked as Christians to pick up these crosses together.”
And that last line is what I want to focus on as we wrap this up. It is a mistake to imagine that we need to shoulder the weight of this vision of God by ourselves. Mary and Jesus and the Prophets are giant figures to live in the shadow of. Their courage and bravery and compassion seems otherworldly when we read their stories.
It’s easy to get into a sort of individualized, moralistic frame where the pressure to live up to these figures is daunting. But this is not meant to cultivate self-judgement and a kind of hopelessness. The good news is that we’re not supposed to carry this vision ourselves.
This is precisely where its helpful to remember that we find ourselves in a tradition and in a community that has been articulating and embodying this vision of God for millennia before us.
A few months ago, we held our annual golf outing and this outing functions a fund raiser for the youth program here at First Pres. After the round of golf we gather back at the clubhouse for a meal, prize giveaways, and a chance to talk about and highlight parts of our youth program.
As I was thinking about what I was going to say, it struck me as a bit ironic and funny that I, the person who had been the youth director for 6 weeks at that point was going to describe the youth program to a room full of former volunteers, parents of students who graduated through the program, and people who have been members of First Pres longer than I have been alive. So, I decided to give a day-in-the-life picture of what I did one Sunday.
That Sunday started with Confirmation at 9:00 a.m. After an ice breaker question and some donuts, I asked the question “Who do know, or who have you seen that you would describe as a spiritual person?” One of the girls started talking about her grandfather and how at every beach trip, he prioritizes his first swim and his last swim. Greeting the water and feeling the sense of being caught up in something bigger than himself and saying goodbye with deep gratitude for his life the beauty he saw in the world.
We moved on to another question, and I asked about who they see in the world that needs liberation, freedom, release (riffing on Luke 4 which we mentioned earlier). One eighth grade boy said in a sweet innocent way, “I think LGBTQ people need to know that they’re loved.”
And later that day, in the afternoon, we had a special guest at youth group. Elgin Bailey who I recently had a conversation with up here joined us to talk about his work with Friends Association and his activism in the community. After a little while I opened the floor for the students to ask him their questions. And several questions in, a sixth grade boy with the most tender heart asked Elgin how he makes sense of the times when he sees people in such unfair situations. Where is God in that?
Obviously, we didn’t solve the problem that night, but we held space for the question. We acknowledged this students’ heartache over injustice and unfairness and affirmed that we feel that way too. And we looked each other in the eye and acknowledged that there’s work to do.
And that’s what we do. We do that as a youth group. We do that as a church. We do that as people trying to collectively keep the fire of love and justice burning evermore brightly in the world.
We hold space for the big questions, for the existential weight that comes with being human. We look beauty in the face and thank God for the goodness, love, truth, hope we experience. We look around us for the people left for dead on the side of the road. And we look back to the folks who have wrestled with these very same things. We look back to the tradition Paul and Jesus and Mary and Hannah and the Prophets and the Exodus. We look back to that first experience when the people of God recognized that God is one who hears the cry of the oppressed and acts on their behalf.
We are not left alone to wander in the wilderness of injustice. This is a group project where we’re joined by a great cloud of witnesses. Psalm 1 gives the image of a tree firmly planted near streams of running water. Our roots run deep. Our streams are full. Our family tradition is long and it reaches back millennia. The song that Mary sang; expectant, full of dreams and hope, still finds its way into space, and places, and hearts that long for justice.
The theologian Ivone Gebara writes that “Mary is the inheritor and the renewer of a nation’s hope.” May we take the inheritance we receive from Mary and renew that hope in our time.