Turning the World Upside Down

Sermon on Luke 1:39-55 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest

In 1943, a young cowboy named Curly stepped out onto a Broadway stage and changed American musical theater forever.  Oklahoma! was a love story set at the turn of the century in Oklahoma territory, just before it became a state.  It was revolutionary because it told a consistent story throughout the musical.  Prior to the release of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece, the story behind a musical was secondary to the singing and dancing.  The earliest musicals tended to be simple variety shows like Ziegfeld’s Follies or shows about putting on shows like 42nd Street.  In these early musicals, the songs were generally unrelated to the story.  oklahomaMusicalBut after Curly stepped out on stage and sang that there was a bright golden haze on the meadow, the expectation changed.  Songs in musicals were now critical plot points: they gave the characters opportunities to confess their love for one another or describe their diabolical schemes to the audience.  After Oklahoma! songs in musicals were not just devices to keep the audience interested, they became central elements of the story.  The songs in musicals became vehicles not only to advance the plot, but also to articulate the message intended by the composer and the lyricist.  Oklahoma! was the first Broadway musical to abide by the notion that if you have something to say, you may as well sing.

It seems that our reading from Luke’s gospel fits into this Broadway tradition.  After being astonished by the angel Gabriel’s announcement, Mary hurries off to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  We’d already met Elizabeth when she miraculously conceived even though she was thought to be barren, and when she greets her cousin, the child in her womb leaps for joy.  Elizabeth begins exuberantly and effusively telling Mary how excited she is about all of the extraordinary things that have been happening in their lives.  It’s a classic musical setup: two characters who know each other but haven’t yet been on stage together.the-visitation1  We almost expect Mary to say, “I feel a song coming on!” as the music rises to a crescendo.  And sure enough, the first words out of Mary’s mouth in this scene are a song of praise to God: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  We can imagine the thunderous applause Mary would receive as the curtain fell and the scenery changed.  And as in all musicals written after Oklahoma! Mary’s song is a vehicle for the broader message of Luke’s gospel.  Mary has been told that the child she is bringing into the world will be great, will be called the Son of the Most High, and will be given the throne of his ancestor David.  In other words, Mary knows that this pregnancy is a big deal.  Mary knows that her motherly role is crucial to God’s plan of salvation and redemption for the entire world.  In many ways, the Song of Mary represents a summary of Luke’s gospel; it is a proclamation that God is going to do a new thing in the world.

The Song of Mary is a song about God’s faithfulness to God’s people.  Notice that it begins with Mary singing about God’s faithfulness throughout history, the fact that God has kept God’s promises: “he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” “the Mighty One has done great things for me,” and “his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”  After singing this, Mary goes on to sing about those things that God has done that demonstrate God’s faithfulness: “he shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Finally, Mary tells us that all of this happened in accordance with the promise God made to our ancestors and stemmed from God’s willingness to help God’s people.  There are a few interesting things to notice about Mary’s song.  It refers to God as Savior, the first time this word is used in the New Testament.  Now when we hear the word “Savior,” our first inclination is to think of our ultimate salvation, something that occurs down the road when we die.  But notice that all of God’s saving action in this song happens within history.  This is even grammatically evident: “he has scattered the proud,” “he has brought down the powerful,” “he has filled the hungry.”  These are not pie in the sky dreams; these are things that have happened in the past and will continue to happen in God’s future. I think the most important thing for us to notice about Mary’s song is that it is political, not in the sense that it’s partisan, but in the sense that it encourages us to examine and sometimes to change the way things are done right now.  Ultimately, this song is about the fact that God has turned the world upside down and will continue to turn the world upside down through this holy child born of Mary.

As many of you know, we survived the end of the world this past Friday.  I was fairly confident that the world wouldn’t end, but I’ll admit that I didn’t type out this sermon until yesterday just in case.  As it turns out, the Mayans never predicted the end of the world; December 21st was simply the end of a 5000-year

This is neither Mayan nor a calendar.  Discuss.
This is neither Mayan nor a calendar. Discuss.

era.  Nevertheless, thousands of people, including more than a few Christians, were thoroughly prepared for the possibility of the world ending.  Some prepared by building bunkers and stockpiling food while others tried to live life to the fullest in anticipation of their annihilation.  All of them withdrew from this world, convinced either that it wouldn’t exist or that human society would collapse.  I think this is the attitude of many to the end of the world; they think that this world will simply evaporate, that there’s no need for us to make this world a better place.  But this is not the Christian story.  We believe in a God who came among us to renew this world through Jesus Christ.  We believe in a God who loves this world and its people, and wants salvation for us right here and right now.  The Song of Mary insists that God is faithful to this world, that God came among us to transform this world, and that we have the opportunity to participate in God’s work of transformation.  This means that as we look on the problems facing us, we cannot throw up our hands and claim that there is nothing we can do.  We must examine the challenges that face us, confident that God has given us grace to transform those challenges into opportunities.

One of the profound challenges facing us as a nation is the issue of gun violence, brought so tragically to the forefront of our minds just last week.  If we trust in the God to whom Mary sang, we must not be complacent.  We cannot imagine that there is nothing to do about this issue.  We must instead ask ourselves difficult questions.  We must ask how we can provide mental health resources for those who need them most.  We must ask whether increased security in our schools will protect our children from violent acts.  We must ask whether the glorification of violence that occurs in video games and movies is sending the wrong message to our children.  And yes, we must ask ourselves whether a hunting rifle in a gun cabinet or a pistol in the bedside drawer can really be compared with an assault weapon equipped with a thirty round clip.  We must ask whether we as Christians can tolerate the existence and availability of weapons that aren’t used for hunting, sport shooting, or self-defense, but whose sole purpose is to take human life.  When we have gone through this discernment, we must be courageous to advocate for change, to participate in God’s work of transformation.

magnificatWe believe in a God who is bringing down the powerful, scattering the proud, and filling the hungry with good things.  In these final days leading up to Christmas, we must remember that God did not come into the world to condemn us, but to renew us, to transform us, and to save us.  It is when we come to this realization that we can truly sing with Mary about our God who is turning the world upside down.

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Holy Innocents

“That woe is me, poor child for thee!  And every morn and day, for thy parting nor say nor sing bye bye, lully lullay.”

–Coventry carol, 15th century

In the rhythm of the church year, one is occasionally confronted with profound and tragic ironies.  Yesterday, in a small school within a small community within a small town in Connecticut, 28 people were killed by a deeply troubled young man.  Twenty of the dead were young children, barely old enough  to understand what death is.  The survivors have seen their school, a place of safety and comfort, transformed into a place where innocence is lost in the most senseless and violent way imaginable.

Tomorrow, in liturgical churches throughout this country and the world, we will observe Gaudete  Sunday (from the Latin for Rejoice!), the third Sunday of Advent when we light the pink candles on our Advent wreaths and remind ourselves to rejoice about the coming of a child into the world.  We will hear Paul’s familiar injunction to the church in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”

Yesterday, we were forced to confront the reality of evil in the world.  We were reminded that there are people who murder children.  Tomorrow, we will be asked to rejoice.  If ever there was a time that our liturgical calendar seemed wholly unfair and inappropriate, it would be this week.

And yet, we must remember that Paul did not write to the Philippians from a place of comfort and safety.  Paul wrote to the Philippians from prison, uncertain about whether he was going to live or die.  Paul wrote to a community threatened by persecution in a city where their proclamation of the gospel was considered suspect and  dangerous.  Paul was not telling the Philippians to “be happy as I am happy.”  Paul was enjoining, nay commanding the Philippians to rejoice even in the midst of uncertainty, even in the midst of pain, even in the midst of persecution, even in the midst of suffering, and yes, even in the midst of death.

We must also remember that the child whose coming into the world we will celebrate in just a few short weeks, the innocent baby who was born in Bethlehem surrounded by his adoring mother and foreign visitors ended his life in the most horrifying way imaginable: on a cross outside of Jerusalem, humiliated and alone.  Jesus Christ experienced the very depths of human suffering and came face to face with the power of evil in this world.

Jesus Christ also experienced the depths of human suffering at Sandy Hook Elementary School yesterday.  As those little children, some too young to tie their shoes, came face to face with evil, Jesus Christ himself stood with them, crying out in pain as each precious life was taken away.  Jesus Christ himself stood with the parents, weeping with them as they grieved the loss of those who had celebrated far too few birthdays.  Jesus Christ himself stood with those children who survived, sharing fear with those who could not express why they were so afraid.

And we can never forget that even in his suffering, Jesus said “no” to the power of evil.  Even as he experienced the very depth of human pain, Jesus proclaimed that through the cross, God has said “no” to evil.  Moreover, through the Resurrection,  God has promised that death does not, that death cannot have the final word.

During funerals, one of the paradoxes we affirm is that “in the midst of life we are in death.”  Even when we are at our most vital, even when we have our whole lives ahead of us, the certainty of death looms before us.  On the other hand, we also affirm that “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”  Even through our tears, we rejoice that God has come to dwell with us and give us hope.  Even through our tears, we affirm and proclaim our hope for life that transcends grief, our hope for life that defeats death, our hope for life that says “no” to the power of evil.

In the days and weeks ahead, we must be careful.  We must be careful not to look for easy solutions to the questions raised by this encounter with evil.  We must be careful not to dig in our heels and dismiss those with whom we disagree.  We must be careful not to assume that there is nothing that can be done about such horrific events.  We must be careful not to become numb and must be willing to feel pain.  We must be careful to grieve lost lives, lost innocence, and lost promises.

At the same time, we must be careful to remember that even in the midst of deep suffering, even in the midst of profound pain, even when we come face to face with the power of evil, we are called to rejoice even as we remember that God suffered with those 28  souls in Sandy Hook.  We are called to rejoice and remember that God said “no” to the power of evil even as God suffered on the cross.  We are called to rejoice and remember that through the Resurrection, God has proclaimed that death cannot have the final word.

Homeward Bound

There’s nothing quite like having to drive home after a long trip.  No matter how much fun you’ve had visiting relatives or seeing a new place, the car ride home is almost always unbearable.  Driving to your destination is always filled with anticipation; each mile you travel is a mile closer to your goal, and so even a long drive can be exhilarating.  The drive back, however, is almost always excruciating.  As you think about all of the chores you need to attend to when you arrive home (opening mail, unpacking suitcases, doing laundry, feeding cats, emptying litter boxes), the endless road stretches ahead of you with no sign of your destination.  You try desperately not to look at the clock, thinking “it must have been hours since I last checked the time.”  When you finally do peek at your dashboard clock, convinced that at least an hour had passed, it has invariably only been five minutes.  The journey can feel even longer when you haven’t enjoyed yourself on the trip.  In either case, all you want to do is get home.  sep1This is why every delay, every traffic jam, every construction zone is a hundred times worse driving home.  The old adage is true: the shortest distance between two points is under construction.  After a long journey, we wish we could make the way home as short as possible, a trip without obstacles or obstructions.  After a long journey, the only thing we really want to do is get home.

In our gospel reading for today, we encounter one of the stranger characters in the New Testament, a prophet who calls his people home.  We’d already met John the Baptist at his birth, when his father Zechariah sings the song that we read just a few moments ago.  (By the way, the first two chapters of Luke are a lot like a Broadway musical; all of the important characters burst into song at regular intervals).  From this song we learned that John was destined to be a prophet of the Most High and was going to prepare the way of the Lord.  Today we see him fulfilling his destiny on the banks of the Jordan.  Luke begins the story of the baptizer by putting John’s ministry in historical context; he wants us to know exactly what was happening in the world when John was baptizing.  After telling us who was ruling the various territories where our drama takes place (including Abilene), Luke tells us John was going around the Jordan “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  baptistThis is a little surprising.  We’ve recently heard that John the Baptist’s role is to prepare the way of the Lord and to give God’s people knowledge of salvation.  The Song of Zechariah doesn’t say anything about repentance.  And yet John the Baptist was telling people that in order to accept the forgiveness offered to them by God, they had to repent of their sins.  Repentance is something that tends to make us a little uncomfortable; we’d really prefer to avoid it, not because we’re not sorry, but because we’d rather not dwell on the things we’ve done wrong.  John the Baptist and his message of repentance force us to confront and deal with those aspects of our lives that we would prefer to keep under wraps.  And when we’re forced to confront our sins, when we’re forced to confront those things that we’ve done wrong, it can be unsettling.  I think this is part of the reason we only trot John the Baptist out one or two Sundays a year: he makes us uncomfortable and threatens the status quo.  We cannot, however, remove him from the equation: the gospel and our preparation for the coming of God into the world simply do not make sense without John’s message of repentance.

But what does John’s baptism of repentance look like?  As you probably know, the word we translate as “repent” comes from the Hebrew word for “turn.”  In some ways, we’re talking about a very simple and clear cut action: facing one direction and then turning around, going the wrong way and then turning around to go the right way.  But if we look at the Greek word for repentance, the waters start to get a little muddy.  The word that appears in our gospel reading for today can literally be translated “going beyond the mind.”  It’s kind of a bizarre concept and a little difficult to wrap our heads around.  What does it mean to go beyond one’s mind, to transcend one’s normal way of being, and more importantly, how does that inform our concept of repentance?

The passage from Isaiah that Luke quotes to describe John and his mission gives us a window into John’s baptism of repentance.  On one hand, this passage seems very simple: the prophecy foretells that there will be a voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord; surely John is just the fulfillment of that prophecy.  On the other hand, the passage that Luke quotes comes from Isaiah’s prophecy about Israel’s return from exile.  We’re all familiar with the verses that come just before the passage Luke quotes: “Comfort ye my people saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.”  These verses are about the end of exile, the end of the punishment that God had inflicted on God’s people for their faithlessness.  These verses that Luke quotes aren’t just about getting ready for the Lord’s coming, they’re about the fact that God is creating a highway for his people from their exile to their homeland.infinite_highway  These verses about the valleys being exalted and the mountains and hills being made low emphasize that the return from exile will not be filled with pitfalls and difficulties, but will occur along a superhighway, a straight and smooth path from a strange land where God’s people were oppressed by foreign powers and unable to worship their God to a place of comfort and safety where they can worship God without fear.  Luke doesn’t quote this passage from Isaiah simply because he wants to tell us that John is preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness, but because he wants to evoke this sense of returning from exile, this sense that God’s people have been freed from oppressive powers, that God has liberated God’s people from bondage.  It’s no wonder that this theme of freedom appears so frequently in the song of praise Zechariah sings when his son is born: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.”  In other words, John’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance is intimately tied to this idea of being freed from bondage and going home. For John the Baptist, repentance is liberation from the powers of oppression.  For John the Baptist, repentance is release from exile.

And this brings us back to the notion of repentance as “going beyond the mind.”  Because part of what this process of repentance requires is for us to discern where in our lives we are held in bondage, to determine where we are in exile, to examine those places from which we need to return.  Repentance, in other words, requires us to move beyond the status quo and discover those parts of our lives that draw us away from God.  More often than not, this discernment will lead us to discover subtle forms of idolatry.  I don’t mean to suggest that any of us are worshiping golden calves; I really don’t think that is happening.  What I mean to say is that most of the things for which we need to repent generally involve us giving power to something or someone that is not God, making the claim that a creature has more power over us than the creator.  This most frequently happens when we decide that certain things in our lives that are indispensable, that we simply cannot live without that big house or that exciting job or that fancy car or that new iPhone or that cup of coffee in the morning or that intractable political position or that extramarital flirtation or that drink at the end of the day or that grudge we’ve been holding for years.  Sin is ultimately giving power to those things that are not God, and John the Baptist tells us not to allow these things to have power over us.  Instead, we need to go beyond our minds, we need to transcend the status quo, we need to repent and remember that God calls us out of exile, that God has released us from bondage and leads us along a straight and smooth highway into a place of comfort and safety, that God has called us home.  Now I’m not saying that this is easy.  The work of repentance can be excruciatingly difficult, because it forces us to turn away from things that we don’t think we can live without.  It forces us to upset and unsettle the way we live our lives.  Moreover it’s work that’s never done.  Just after we have turned away from one of the oppressive powers in our lives, another rears its head.  But the good news is that when we make that turn, when we go beyond our minds, when we repent, we realize that God has created a highway through the wilderness.  What’s more, that highway has always been there for us, awaiting that moment when we would abandon those things to which we had given power and turn back to God.  During this season of Advent, during this season when we anticipate the coming of God into the world, may God give us the grace to resist the oppressive powers in our lives, to turn away from those things that we think are indispensable, and to set out on the highway that God has prepared for us, confident that we are on our way home.