For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”
Good morning everyone! As always it is a pleasure to be with you today.
We are in the season of Advent, a season of waiting and longing – for the coming of Jesus and all that it meant, and still means for us and the world around us today.
It’s also the season that at least here in the Northeast, signals that we are walking into the darkest part of the year. This Tuesday in fact, will mark the beginning of the Winter Solstice – and it will be the shortest day of the year – with the sun setting at 4:15pm. (uuuugh) You better believe I’m counting the days until that sunset tips past 5:00pm again! (46!)
These dimming days are a reminder to me though that most miracles, rest, and birth happen in the long nights – the darkness of the womb. Advent is to in tandem look for the light – as much as it is to be acquainted with the darkness. bell hooks, this pathbreaking black feminist who died this week says along these lines –
To be loving is to be open to grief, to be touched by sorrow, even sorrow that is unending.
The filters of both light and dark are part of our faith journeys…
To love, feel joy, wonder, experience peace – and these fundamentals undergird our faith – and require us to embrace the vulnerability of being human – to leave ourselves and our hearts open.
So today we are going to check in with our hearts – maybe see if there are doors that are shut by choice or numbed by “too much.” And yet we are going to press into the story of Mary (and see if there is something in there that will open our hearts) prepare “our hearts room” – for Jesus and what unexpected things might be born in us. Even if joy feels like a vapor right now…even if you are done counting the days, moments, months – until something changes – feels lighter/gets lighter.
Today as we enter into the story of Jesus’ birth (primarily through the story of Mary) – we’ll find many many strands of darkness and light – and see how both are counted as joy. How joy abides by no clean, defined or perfect parameters – but if found in the imperfect partnership of humanity and the Divine. It’s a big story – born in “tiny” places – like fields, and a house in Nazareth, in a manger, in the hills. And it’s a messy story given shape by bodies and wombs -blood and sweat, hearts – leaping and singing. Intersecting with curious characters – like lowly shepherds, astrologers, teenagers and…women.
And…us…God comes to the edge of God’s own divinity and knocks on our human hearts and says,
“May I come in?” “May I partner with you?”
to disrupt the ordinary, and turn this world upside down… and GOD asks us this in the shadows of pandemic – as much as GOD does the longest, sunniest days of the year.
Advent allows us to revisit these questions God anew… the seriousness, the power, and the joy of them.
How does partnering with Jesus resonate with you this morning? Do you count it as joy?
As a warm-up to some of those questions – we will enter the story of Mary today, particularly through her song, called the Magnificat and perhaps you’ll find yourself pondering joy in your own heart as we do.
Prayer – Open Unto Me (Remix) Oh God, the one who comes to open our hearts.
Open unto us this morning.
Open unto us the story of Mary, her song, her love, her power.
Open unto us our story, our song, our love and our power.
And may you unfold the gifts of your presence, your mystery and JOY to us today.
I decided that this winter is going to be the winter that I start to love the cold and the encroaching darkness (if any of you know me – actually you don’t even need to know me – to know that this is a wild statement). But to double down on this goal of mine – I’ve started taking night walks…
Sometimes I go with a neighbor, sometimes my husband – sometimes (one time) a kid (if they want to push bedtime).
And I don’t have any idea if it’s making me love the cold / darkness more – but I do reflect on my day – the week.
And I find myself counting – strangely a lot of things – my breath as I walk.
But also things that are live in conversation, at the front of my mind – and things I notice
Tallying the number of Covid cases that I’ve heard about
How many lights automatically come on – as I walk through this one section
How many variants and states that have the variant there now?
The stars that are visible
Counting how many rapid tests we’ll need in the house for swim meets and urban nutcracker shows… that are required of my kids
The hoots of an owl on the top of a post
Counting the cars that drive by at excessive speed – and counting my rising pulse…
I count so many things …
It maybe not so surprising that I was drawn to a particular piece of art in the Dome Gallery. This month we’re highlighting community art that was made for Advent. This week’s art is by Vernee Wilkinson.
And this was one of the first to go up – way before Thanksgiving. I was here late one Sunday and stood in front of it – before Vernee had added any artist statement or title – or scripture.
I’ll give you a moment to take it in too.
Drawn to the color, and the symmetry of all of these same, cut out circles…one after one after another…
It’s funny – because this art is entitled, “And Counting…”
And it’s a tally – through these little circle cutouts – of the many things we might have felt piling up over the last 21 months – even if we have not consciously been counting them…
Vernee lists…categories for these tallies and marks:
Days at home
Hours of worry
And then she leaves spaces and blanks for more categories to be filled out…as if she is inviting us the viewers to engage with that…
And so we shall…
Tally all the things, people, places, songs, etc.. you love right now.
And now, of those things, people, places that you love – tally the ones that also touch grief/fear/pain/worry.
Ok – we’ll re-engage with this in just a moment – so hold on to it…
As we enter the story of Mary – I’d love for you to hold those two prompts at the forefront of your mind as you think of Mary.
What are the things she loves…and of those things – what touches grief/fear/pain/worry…
Let’s listen to Mary – her feminine voice that begins the Jesus story…and read along the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament.
The scripture is from Luke 1, on the slides:
I’ll pause a little bit as we make our way through the whole story, adding some commentary and then jumping back into scripture a little bit – but we’ll enter here – where the angel has appeared to Mary – and we learn a bit about their conversation.
Luke 1:28, 35-38, 46-55
28 Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary, “Rejoice, highly favored one! God is with you! Blessed are you among women!”
Rejoice! I have a message of “Joy” for you…. Are you ready for it?!
Mary: “what kind of joy is this?”
But this is the entrance the angel makes – and we have a few verses of back and forth with the Angel and Mary – where we kind of get the sense that Mary’s top emotion is not immediate joy.
The scripture says that she’s confused and TROUBLED at the greeting of this angel?
And wondering what the angel is actually saying?
And the angel of course goes on with “angel-like” things to say such as “fear not!”
you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.
32 He will be great – the Son of the Most High. He’ll rule forever and ever, and there will be no end to his kin-dom.”
Mary though still is not effervescent with joy – and moves to practical questions like how
HOW will this happen? – “I haven’t had any sexual relations.” (and then we pick up the scripture on the slides again):
35 The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you – hence the offspring to be born will be called the Holy One of God.
38 Mary said, “I am the servant of God. Let it be with me just as you have said.”
Then the angel left her.
So let’s stop here for a minute:
After all of this back and forth between the angel and Mary – Mary trying to take in all of this wild, and absurd message that’s coming to her, we hear her say this pivotal thing – I think – in this last verse,
“Let it be.” “Let it be with me just as you have said.”
“Ok – yes.”
“I’m not bubbling with ‘JOY’ right now – but I will “OPEN” unto you nevertheless.”
You see, Mary’s “let it be”, is the move that opens the door to change everything.- This opening – is the crack where God implants God’s self . God’s divinity and LOVE takes up residence in our human hearts (mysteriously, unexplainably) and gives us the seeds to birth something impossible…love in the midst of suffering. Hope in the face of horror… Joy when there is no obvious reason to laugh…
Mary’s reality is somewhat akin to our reality too, – hers is not a blissful, copacetic existence. She is disadvantaged in a world that would neither notice nor protect her. Women and babies – were definitely not at the top of the societal power structure.
She lived in the time of Herod the Great – full of terror
“innocents were being killed”.
A census was devised to document the undocumented for governmental control. And there were burdensome taxes that cost the poor their land – and left the masses impoverished. People were hungry, shelter was scarce and people lived in fear for their lives and their children’s lives.
Mary could count endlessly the things that were against her, a threat to her and just hard.
This does not seem the basis or groundwork of “joy.”
Howard Thurman the late theologian, civil rights leader, mystic – says that
“Joy is of many kinds. Sometimes joy comes silently, opening all the closed doors and making itself at home in our desolate hearts. Joy (he says), has no forerunner, save itself. It brings its own welcome and its own salutation. Sometimes, joy is compounded of many elements– a touch of sadness, a whimper of pain, a harsh word tenderly held until all its arrogance dies.”
And this is the interesting thing about joy. It does not mean that a person hasn’t had a broken heart. It does not mean that a person has not suffered – but, it does mean that one has been able to discover that joy and sorrow or joy and pain are two sides of a single coin.
This is Mary’s joy – a joy of many kinds. The kind that counts horror, pain and injustice. The kind that is birthed within her, intrinsic to her being. The kind that becomes not only a source of strength and the fuel for resilience and change – but a political act in and of itself. The CHANGE that she inspires – and spearheads…The kind of joy that she delivers to the world around her…is done not by violence or by weapon – but by song.
Mary (after receiving the message of the angel) goes and visits her older cousin, Elizabeth who is also miraculously expecting a child, after decades of barrenness. And Mary starts to sing, as she and Elizabeth connect… and here’s her song:
46 Mary said, “my soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
47 and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.
48 For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant, and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed.
49 For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your Name.
50 Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you.
So let me pause here for a second.
The beginning of this song – is a song for all of us… and especially for those who like Mary – are discounted by society, pushed to the edges, INVISIBLE. It’s a song for when we think God has forgotten just how long we’ve been waiting and longing! It’s a song that invites us to join in the ancient chorus – that God’s promise is to be with us forever, that God loves us forever, that God will never leave, or forsake us. That we will not be alone.
And maybe Mary knows this truth because she too counted… counted and collected gratitude love along the way. Love for her kinswoman Elizabeth.. someone she could count tears with? Deep sighs with…count the days, the months of impossible pregnancy.
And count the footsteps of Herod’s men as they came to each door – or the counting of coins she didn’t have enough of for taxes or bread. Maybe she counted the stars and the generations of women who sung before her – Deborah, Miriam, Hannah who sang of their own struggles and God’s love – a song – breathed into Mary’s DNA…. lining the depths of who Mary was….
Maybe this is how she could say,
“and in those depths – ‘the depths of who I am…that’s where the joy is…. I rejoice in God my savior.”
JOY is the gift of knowing God’s deep LOVE and presence.
Vernee’s artwork commands this same truth, it says on her artist statement,
“and still they remain”
– “they” referring to God,
“and still they remain”
in all the tallies in all the hash marks – STILL GOD REMAINS.
And from here … Mary’s “power and willingness to disrupt, intervene and invert the world” takes off…and we hear this as her song continues:
51 You have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit;
52 You have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
53 You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.
54 You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,
mindful of your mercy –
55 the promise you made to our ancestors –
to Sarah and Abraham
and their descendants forever.”
This is not a soft, dreamy, sentimental- Mary song. This is a revolutionary, a wild, vehement protest song! IT is in direct contrast to the Empire and powers of the day.. And it is laying out Jesus’ kin-dom and ministry to come.
Priest Barbara Brown Taylor says, this
“was all happening inside of Mary, and she was so sure of it that she was singing about it ahead of time—not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. She says, prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it.”
Mary is a prophet.
And some days this is all we can do, to keep trying to see the world as God sees it – even if our reality defies it at every turn. Even if the powerful are still on their thrones, and have their hands full of riches – and even as the poor and powerless are still in the trenches – hungry and suffering. And the ones we love most are still suffering. Some days all we have is the mystery and promises of God’s love and presence – that reside deep within us to count as joy.
We might not have the overall vaccine percentages that allow us to move around as we once did – yet, or the return to bagels & coffee in our Sunday services, or the justice we want to see rise up in our structures and institutions…
Mary too, doesn’t have the things that would make this an easier go of it for her…Barbara Taylor says,
“she doesn’t have a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, “The child really is mine. Now leave the poor girl alone.” All she has is her willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next, that God will remain —and this apparently, is enough to birth joy and to make her burst into song.”
and to give her wisdom and focus on where it is her work will be to come.
She does not wait to see how things will turn out first, she prepares her heart room for God no matter what the outcome.. She counts it all as joy. Thousands of hundreds of little unknown pieces of life – still to float into her purview – pain and sorrow – laughter and love – but alll joy.
Mary’s song – has been controversial throughout time. It has enlivened prophetic imaginations…beyond the walls of the church, into the real lives of people…..and it also has threatened and enraged the powerful elite.
During British colonial rule of India, Mary’s song was banned. The British East India company prohibited this song as part of any church liturgy. Finally, when British rule was over, Gandhi asked that the Magnificat be recited at each site where English flags came down.
In Argentina, in the 1970’s the mothers of people who disappeared organized protests at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires with the Magnificat written on their protest signs.
In the 1980’s when hundreds of thousands of citizens were disappearing in Guatemala, the government banned Mary’s song – nine verses from the Bible – because it was considered politically dangerous, subversive, revolutionary.
Oscar Romero, a martyr, priest and saint – whose ministry was distinguished by his particular attention to the most poor and marginalized – prayed Mary’s song every day of his priestly life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and one who fought against and yet was executed by the Nazi’s – called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”
And white evangelicals have devalued the role of Mary, her song, her voice, her message (her gender) – to the point that she’s nearly been erased.
You see – those who impale others as a way of shirring up their authority and power – are threatened by those, (like Mary), who enwomb the treasures of faith – of JOY. Because they can not be conquered, claimed or secured by might…but if given room, in a heart that has been prepared and opened, by voices and song, and history and the promises of God, our hearts will prove to make way for the story of a tiny baby to rule and overturn the world by love.
AND JOY COUNTS in this world…Mary teaches this tiny baby Jesus – about God – through joy, through her song. Jesus first heard this song in the womb, his ear already tuning to this melody. And maybe it was the song sung throughout their home while Jesus, as a toddler, scurried under Mary’s foot …perhaps it was the lullaby she sang to him each night. And maybe this song, was the clarion call that Mary sang through the streets when Jesus went missing for three days in the temple.
Maybe it was the song that inspired his first words of his public ministry to be,
Luke 4:18-19 “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed.”
Maybe it was the ravaged, sobbing song he heard his mom sing – or the one he hummed himself – as he died on the cross… It is a song he heard again and again throughout his life.
Mother Mary’s song continues to be sung to us this Advent, and beyond. It is a daily song that we get to make our own. With old lyrics and with new lyrics ….of our longings, our protests, and our bodies. Advent prepares our heart room for a revolutionary Christmas Story that is to be delivered to the world, by us – one that is meant to shake this world free of violence and injustice – and to also shake our faith down to the central, ancient promise of God’s love…
I stand in solidarity with Mary today – with her longing for a new and just re-ordering of society – and I pray with her
“let it be, God” – “COME, open unto me”.
For to follow in Mary’s footsteps is to be a mother of God ourselves.
Today we will count joy. Maybe you don’t feel it yet…but in solidarity with joy being a force…an act of rebellion… a way forward. Let’s do it together in community. Let’s count joy.
So right next to all those hash marks you made. All that represents love – and all that touches grief/pain and fear – I want you to make a hash mark for the promise God makes to you, “that God is with you.” And may those new hash marks be counted too.
Today in our time and in our culture, we get to sprinkle the disrupting, upending, reckless love of God into this world…and this is deep, deep joy. JOY of many kinds… and….JOY TO THE WHOLE WORLD!
So may we repeat,
And repeat, and repeat, (and count and count and count)…
This sounding joy.
Let me pray for us:
“God, come close to us now. Keep singing to us. Show us how to love. Show us how to wait, to long, to push, to deliver you into this world, AND KEEP COUNTING JOY.”
My friends – as you greet the day ahead of you …
May you discover the newness of Jesus.
In the form of joy…
…grilled sweet potatoes
…little humans telling the story of Jesus’ birth,
…and the company of this community…
All held by the tender and bold presence of Jesus!