Nurturing Witness

A sermon on Luke 1: 39-55

[An audio file of this sermon is available here;]

If our gospel reading for today sounded familiar, then chances are you may have participated in one or more of the extra services we have had here at Abiding Peace over the course of this month.

At my installation service on December 2 we heard the second part of today’s reading: Mary’s song commonly referred to as The Magnificat. My former pastor, Lee Zandstra preached about this song, and how our ministry together is a chance for us to sing this song together.

And we have literally done that at each of our mid-week Advent services: singing the words of the Magnificat as a community, to the beautiful setting in Holden Evening Prayer.

After all this repetition I suppose I might be tired of the Magnificat, ready for something fresh … but I’m not.

I have always loved these powerful words from Mary, and I think I always will. I love the abandon of her rejoicing. Even in the midst of her compromised circumstances (as an unwed, teenage mother-to-be), Mary exults that she gets to be part of God’s work in the world.

And I love the way she captures what that work looks like…

that it looks like God choosing the despised and ignored to be the object of blessing;

that it looks like God taking the side of the poor and the weak, and elevating them above those who have tried to elevate themselves.

I love this song even though I know that I show up on both sides of that equation. I have, at times, been the one whose voice and needs are ignored and discounted; the one who is hungry for good things… but I have also been the one who needs to get cast down from her throne and sent away empty, because I have more than my fair share, and I have a hard time letting go.

And the Magnificat teaches me that this is what God’s mercy looks like – it looks like the people on BOTH sides of the equation learning that God re-balances the things that the world has unbalanced. People on both sides need the mercy of the reminder that God is the one in charge, and God is the source of blessing.

As familiar as the Magnificat is to me, I learned something new about it as I was studying the text this week. The Magnificat is what scholars call a “canticle.” Canticles are similar to psalms in their form and style, but they are different because they come in the middle of a story. As one scholar explains:

“These prayers are set in the mouths of specific people in specific situations. They both interrupt the flow of the story and add to its meaning. They are bridges over the gap between life and prayer.”[1]

I think it’s the way that the Magnificat acts as a bridge that speaks so powerfully to me. By voicing her song of praise, Mary is making a connection between her very specific and unrepeatable experience (as the mother of God-made-flesh), and linking that experience to the whole history of God’s way of working in the world. Her praise is not only for what God is doing in her life, but also for the recognition that this is the way God always works, and for her recognition that her story is part of that bigger work.

And in that way, she builds a bridge to us as well. Mary connects the particularity of her experience to the sweeping view of God’s activity in the world, and in so doing she invites us to do the same: to recognize that we are each part of the bigger story, and that what God is doing inside each of us connects with what God is doing throughout history. Our lives and our faith witness to God’s long history of redemptive work.

When we remember the specifics of Mary’s story, there is an ever more evocative metaphor for the way we are called into participation in God’s work in the world: as bearers of the story. Poet-theologian Jan Richardson, writes that “regardless of whether we’re called to give birth to physical children, God challenges us to cultivate an interior spirit that is intimately linked with the world beyond us.”[2]

She continues with two poignant questions we can and should each be asking ourselves:

“In this Advent season, what’s stirring inside me that connects me with the world around me?

What is God seeking to bring forth in my life that enables me to participate in the transformation that God is working in all creation?”

Those are questions that call us to reflect on our witness, on the ways in which our lives are bringing forth God’s transforming work in the world.

Now, I know that I have been pushing you this Advent season. I have been calling you to think of yourselves as witnesses in ways that may be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable. But, if all this witnessing talk feels like a little too much, today’s reading has an encouragement for you. Because – unlike the other times we have heard the Magnificat this Advent season – today we also read what comes before Mary’s song.

Mary doesn’t just burst into rejoicing with no invitation. Her song comes in response to a blessing. It comes after Elizabeth sees Mary, and the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth with words that call Mary into her witness:

words that proclaim blessing over Mary;

words that recognize the treasure she carries and affirm her ability to bring that treasure forth;

words that proclaim, with confidence, the faith that Mary has only started to step into, and words that speak of the fulfillment of what was spoken to her.

And that’s what I see in you. I see the treasure that you carry. I see the faith that God has planted in you and that is growing. And I am confident that God will be faithful in fulfilling the promise of God’s long history of transformation, as we serve as God’s witnesses in the world.

At my installation service, Pastor Lee proclaimed these words from this pulpit:

“that song that Mary sang is the same one you and I are all are being invited into to sing today and every day. As you are Abiding Peace together, you all join Mary in singing a song about God’s power in this world.”

We ARE called to sing our own version of that song, to build the bridge between our particular stories and the over-arching story of the way God is working to transform the world.

And so….. today, I want to play the role of Elizabeth for you; to speak a blessing over you, and then invite you to speak back, in the faith of Mary, the message of the Magnificat in our time and place (using the words that were handed out earlier).

First, hear your blessing:

Blessed are you among churches, O people of Abiding Peace, and blessed is what you are bringing into the world:

faith and hope;

food and fellowship;

joy and music;

dancing and enacted teaching;

learning and growing;

recovery and restoration;

celebration and the space for grieving;

compassion and care;

wondering and witness;

and, of course, peace and love;

And who am I, that this beloved community should call me as your pastor, and offer me the chance to nurture and bless you? For as soon as I met you, God’s Spirit in me leaped for joy in recognition of God’s beloved children.

And blessed are you, who have heard God’s invitation to be part of the incarnation of God’s Word in the world, and have trusted that God will keep God’s promises and will work through you to fulfill the work of transformation into which you are called.

And the people of Abiding Peace said…

The deepest part of us echoes with the truth that God is great, and our deepest source of joy is that God has claimed us as God’s own beloved people.

For God has seen us – really seen us – in all the ordinary smallness of our lives, in all the ways that we feel less-than, or ignored, or rejected, or even stepped on;

And God has changed our identity: instead of unimportant nobodies, serving the interests of more important people, we are God’s chosen and blessed witnesses who get to bring Jesus into the world!

God did not do this because we did anything to earn God’s special attention, but because this is who God is: God, the Holy One – the One who is completely above and beyond – chooses to call and to bless the unexpected people. This is who God has always been, from generation to generation, from Abraham to David to Mary to us.

God has always been the true source of power, disrupting the plans of the people who are impressed by their own strength. God has a pattern of siding against the people who want to set themselves up as the ones in charge, and instead God lifts up the people on the margins – saying that their voices matter.

God’s way of working in the world is to notice the people who are hungry and poor, the ones who have been crushed under the feet of important people and powerful interests, and to invite the destitute and rejected people to eat at God’s table, where their physical and spiritual hunger can be satisfied.

But the people who did the crushing and already have more than they need? God has nothing for them.

This is the pattern God has followed all along, because every time the world rejects God’s plan, God remembers the promise made to those who came before. God remembers that God’s way is the way of mercy. It was true for Abraham, and for those who went before us in the faith, and it will be true for us and for our descendants. Forever and ever.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Irene Nowell, from The Canticles, quoted by Jan Richardson, http://adventdoor.com/2008/12/16/mary-magnifier/.

[2] http://adventdoor.com/2008/12/16/mary-magnifier/

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