December 20, 2015


Passage: Luke 1:39-55

Throughout the season of Advent we’ve been singing the Magnificat at the beginning of each liturgy. It’s Mary’s song, her bold declaration about God and the ways of God. We’ve been singing a modern version from the Norwegian Lutheran church. It was translated for us by our choir master, Joe, (for whom speaking Norwegian is just one of his many surprising little party tricks). For centuries the church has sung the Magnificat. This season, we’ve especially focused on the refrain, “For holy is his name. Yes holy is his name.” That’s what we’ve sung throughout the Prayers of the People, that all our hopes in God – our dreams and petitions – are rooted in God’s holiness, that God will only do what is holy: what is just and true and eternal. For that is the God we follow, and holy is his name.

But, returning to the original story: It’s interesting when Mary chooses to sing her song. She didn’t sing it immediately after the annunciation. When she first got the news of her impending pregnancy, she was, understandably, totally perplexed; she didn’t say much. And yet she concluded, “Let it be with me according to your word,” a phrase that has become for the church the very essence of faith and obedience. And yet, in terms of the story, I suspect that Mary was still in shock. Certainly she was in no position to be crafting beautiful lyrics about the nature of God.

Rather, Mary’s first response after the Annunciation was to rush off to her cousin Elizabeth. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what you would do? Your whole world has just been turned upside down. You’d dismiss it as so much insanity except for the fact that it was AN ANGEL who showed up with the news. But it’s still too much to take in. You’re bewildered, yet starting to believe the unbelievable – so you go to the only person who’s likely to believe your story, and to help you process what on earth it could mean. You go to the other woman who also – according to the angel – just happens to be six months pregnant with a miraculous birth.

Mary fled to Elizabeth – the only person in the world who was likely to understand. Elizabeth doesn’t panic; she doesn’t launch into advice about what to expect when you’re expecting a miracle baby. Nothing like that. She greets her with dignity and honor and affirms in Mary the truth that is dawning in herself.

That is when she sings the Magnificat. The Holy Spirit is at work in her and guiding her in her tremendous journey of faith. All that was needed from Elizabeth was her affirmation of what God was doing. There is a model here for the way we interact with anyone who is stumbling in this life: be it a dissolving marriage, a death, a crisis of any sort.

Our job is not to question or accuse; it is not to give unsolicited advice or endless speculation. Our job is simply to come alongside in peace, with the awareness that’s it’s not about you. It’s not about your wisdom or “having the right words to say.” That was my big breakthrough in pastoral care and visiting people in the hospital. It’s not about you, Eric. It’s about them, and the confidence that God is at work in their lives. There is an extraordinary freedom in that. It’s like that line in the Anne Lamont story Laura shared last week. The alcoholic has just met someone in his new city willing to bring him along to his AA group. When asked how he’s doing, he replies honestly, “I’m just scared.” And his new friend’s spare reply is simply, “That’s right.”

That is the spirit in which Elizabeth greets Mary. And with this affirmation of God at work in her, Mary begins to sing.

And note how she begins:

My soul magnifies the Lord.

My spirit rejoices.

All generation will call me blessed.

Six times in the opening verses she refers to herself. Now, you could say that she’s ego-centric: It’s all about Mary – Mary, Mary, Mary. But that would be missing the point. Yes, she does start with herself, as do we all. It’s human nature to be self-referential. Everything we observe passes through our experience and interpretation, and our reptilian selves will always make a knee-jerk reaction for self-preservation. That is human.

But the whole intent of our human maturation is that we would grow into a broader awareness, that our particular story would be increasingly understood in the larger story of our common humanity. So it is in the Magnificat. Mary rightly identifies what is true for her, and then moves into a larger reckoning of how her story fits into the big story – the eternal story – of God, and God’s salvation.

The hinge moment for her is the refrain that we’ve been singing all Advent, “For holy is his name”:

For the Mighty One has done great things for me.

And holy is his name

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

And the remainder of the Magnificat is a celebration of this larger story. It’s not to say that Mary has suddenly become some pious prude, “What? This old dress? Oh, it’s not about me.” Because, yes it is about her inasmuch as her story is now part of God’s story in which none are overlooked, none are second-best. The lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things.

What God is doing for Mary, God has been doing all along. It is the nature of God to choose the poor and the vulnerable and the weak. It’s not to say that God loves them more, but that divine love insists they not be forgotten, and so their deliverance becomes God’s priority. As we heard earlier this season from the prophet Isaiah, the valleys are lifted up and the hills and mountains are brought low. In the Kingdom of God, there is no preference for power, prestige, and privilege. Rather, the Kingdom of God insists in mercy and a universal human flourishing.

And it is this kind of expanding sense of self that we should desire and expect in a growing faith – both as individuals and as a church. As we experience God loving us and providing for us, we should increasingly trust that what God is doing in us, God is also doing in the world around us. In fact, God’s provision for us is an invitation to now know ourselves as children of God, joined with God in heart and mission, and joined with our sisters and brothers as one people.

Five years ago this parish was afraid it was dying: People were leaving, the budget was shrinking, no young families were joining the church. Our parish profile admitted that although we considered ourselves to be friendly, that maybe we weren’t as welcoming and inclusive as we thought.

But like Mary, it’s as if God has seen us through the crowd – through all the big, successful churches – and said, “Oh, St. John’s, I love you and I choose you. Come.” And you came. But God’s invitation is not to make us big and successful. The call is for us to know ourselves as the beloved of God, and then to reach out to others with a kind of love that says, “Come, you are beloved, too.”

And that is what is happening.

Last week I stood in the narthex with Michelle Harrison on a Tuesday night. The doors were wide open and the light was beaming into the dark and rain, welcoming immigrants to our new Language Learning Class. And they began streaming in, carrying cakes and goodies they’d made to share, knowing that they had found a welcome a place – a safe place to practice the language of their new country. As they were coming in, behind the door to the 24 Hour Chapel, a guest was sleeping on the floor, having found a sanctuary from the wet and the cold. He, too, had found in St. John a place a refuge. And like the immigrants who came with gifts to share, he treated the chapel respectfully and left it tidy in the morning. A gracious welcome inspires a gracious response. That is how it is in the Kingdom of God, and that is what I see happening here.

This week the vestry approved a 2016 budget that will fund our new outreach ministries. And, thanks to you, it will also provide for Laura’s ongoing ministry as a second priest in the parish. Her role with us will provide ongoing pastoral leadership in our outreach ministries and with our youth – half of whom are not kids from our parish. She will also assist the Fellowship Team as it continues to foster a parish atmosphere where meaningful relationships can grow – that we can increasingly become like Elizabeth, welcoming and honoring the people who make our church their family.

The budget also allows for the development of our Choral Scholar ministry. These are not simply “hired ringers” for the choir. We are welcoming and supporting young students in their vocational development, as well as investing in the future of the church. And, likewise, by their gifts, we are welcoming them to care for us in creating liturgies that give voice to the eternal love of our God.

Recently we met a couple who were between jobs and in financial need. St. John’s was able to help because of the gift card ministry you provide each Advent, as well as by the clergy discretionary funds that are part of our budget. Others of you supported them in other practical ways. Then they invited some of us to their home for dinner, and a relationship began. But what was so extraordinary about this, is that beyond gratitude, their response was immediately a desire to participate in St. John’s ministries so that they could be part of a church caring for and welcoming others into our midst.

Throughout Advent we’ve been speaking of this as a season of preparation – a season when we strive to align our lives with the life of God as the fitting way to make ourselves ready for Christ’s arrival. Today,  I’m keenly aware that “aligning our lives with God” means that we risk believing that our lives are not our own, but that for me to be truly me, I must know myself as one with you and one with God. Christ is making all things one, and the boundaries that divide us are being brought down. That is the stunning truth revealed by Christ’s incarnation, and it is that truth we anticipate blossoming fully when he comes again.