Sermons are part of a conversation between the preacher and the congregation.
You can read most of the sermons preached at Faith in the past few years here. This archive is a blog, which is duplicated on Blogger. You may add comments here or in the blog if you wish.
If you would like to see the readings planned for the next few weeks, click here.
Will I Be Able to Play the Violin?
Text: Mark 1:40-45
Why all the healing? This is the third healing story in the first chapter of Mark. Jesus has healed a person with demons, Simon's mother, and now a leper, and evidently so many more that it overwhelms even Jesus, who has to leave town. Why are these stories here? What do they tell us about the mission of Jesus in the world?
There is that old joke about the man who is about to undergo surgery. He asks his doctor whether, after the operation, he will be able to play the violin. The doctor says, Of course you will. That’s great, the man says, because I never could before.
This is a joke because we expect that when someone is healed, he or she will be restored to some previous good state, not that they will emerge a new person, with a new personality and new skills. Illness of any kind is a distortion in the way things ought to be, and we hope that healing will fix that. If all goes well, things will be back to normal. But healing never restores things to the way they were, even when it works perfectly. It does more than that.
The man in the Gospel story has leprosy, meaning in Jesus' time an assortment of various skin diseases. A person with leprosy was legally unclean. The man would have been shunned and an outcast. He would not have been able to go into the city and associate with other people.
The man seems to know something about Jesus. He knows Jesus has healed other people. The word had spread. Whether or not Jesus wanted to be known as a healer, he was. People needed him to help them, and they found him, and he healed them. So when the man says, If you choose, you can make me clean, he uses strong words that convey his trust in Jesus. More like: If you choose, and you do, you can heal me.
Jesus touches the man, and declares the man clean, and so he was. But in the process, by his touch, Jesus has himself been rendered unclean. The man now is free to go into the city. But Jesus is not.
There is something about this man, or this man’s situation, that gets to Jesus. The words in our Bible disguise the ferocity of Jesus interaction with the man. He did not only pity the man, as it says, but his stomach turned. His gut hurt. He was deeply and painfully moved. He did not only speak sternly to the man, but he snorted in anger and distaste. He was furious and indignant. Not at the man himself, I think, but at the injustice of things, at the sorrow of life lived in oppression, at the inadequacy of people’s compassion for one another, and at their fear of risk. And also, perhaps, at the sorrow and unfairness of life. We need to be healed because things break. Things go wrong. They need to be patched up. That is how life works, but how sad and frustrating that it need be so.
It was great that Jesus could make the man be clean. Once an outcast, he could now join with others, walk freely again among them. But things are not back to the way they were before the man was ill with leprosy. He is better in many ways, but he is not restored.
Healing does not undo experience in suffering. It does not erase illness and broken things as if they had never happened. They did happen, they are in our memories and the memories of others, for good or ill. We are not the same person we were before. People will not see us as they saw us before. We will not have the same hopes and fears we had before. It may be better or worse, but it will not be the same.
Healing does not make one perfect. It does not fix everything. It does not enable us to play the violin if we never could before. It does not ensure happiness or resolve all issues. Its scope is limited. As a corollary to this: healing is not permanent. Chaos is not forever put at bay, the principles of entropy not invalidated. What breaks can break again, or in a different way.
But healing is not acceptance, or resignation, or surrender. It is not just putting a good face on a bad business. Or simply looking at the half-filled cup in a new way.
Healing is not restoration. But it is transformation. Things change, have changed. The future we fear or anticipated turns out differently. It changes the healed, and the healer, and everyone else.
The man, healed, is changed. He goes about proclaiming and spreading the word, Mark tells us. The word is: Look at me! I am no longer unclean. I am clean. Look what this Jesus did to me! The man is freed to go about the country. He can claim what was denied him. He can become something different from what he could have become. Healing frees us from something—illness in mind or body—that bound us before.
Jesus, healer, is changed. Having touched the leper, Jesus himself is now unclean, and he is bound (for a while at least) to the outskirts, to be alone or with the other lepers. To heal someone or some situation is risky. It takes effort and energy. And it makes you see things in a different way. Helping others connects you to them.
And everyone else is changed. The way the townspeople see the man and their behavior toward him. To them, he is a different person. No longer unclean, they do not need to fear or loathe him. Healing enables others—family, friends, and enemies—to cross over from cruel wariness.
The leper is trapped in one story. The story is full of anger, shame, fear, and distrust. By healing him, Jesus writes a new story, in which the man and others have new roles. The tale is new, the outcome has been changed. The man is clean. Jesus sends him back to the priests, who before had nothing to do with him but now must attend to him, and the people of the town, who now may welcome him. The plot is different, and the outcome, once known (and dismal in this case), is now uncertain (and hopeful).
To heal is to create a new story from old events. Trauma is converted into an event—a bad one, perhaps, but just an event. This healed knee, this reconciled relationship, this fed hunger, this ended war—loses its power. Its memory persists, but its hold on us is relaxed.
Healing is a form of forgiveness (or maybe the other way around: forgiveness is a form of healing). Just as forgiveness frees us from the power of sin (not eradicating the sin itself but the power it had over us), so healing frees us from the power of illness. Not the memory of the illness, but the power it had over us. Like forgiveness, healing gives us a new story.
The world into which Jesus came—then and now—is broken. The story we tell is a vile one. Hatred of others, indifference, oppression, greed and violence that comes from fear. We can understand the ferocious indignation of Jesus. And take heart from his gut-wrenching compassion. He did not come into the world to condemn, it says in the Gospel of John, but to save it, using a word that means to heal it.
We do not need the world restored to normal. We need it to be transformed. We long to be able to tell a new story. We need to be healed.
Text: Isaiah 40:10-31
It is self-evident that God created the universe. Even to those who do not believe in God.
The modern western understanding is that the universe is complete in itself and more or less consistent. It is of one piece of seamless cloth. It has room for mind-boggling complexities, ineffable mysteries, and anomalous miracles. But it is not arbitrary or inconsistent at its foundation. When the prophet Isaiah talks about God the creator, when he says “Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,” he is arguing for one God, one universe. Gods of sun and moon and stars and thunder and water are not the creator. Their power is imaginary. The idols that people worship are created things. They are made by woodworkers and goldsmiths, Isaiah says. The universe is of one whole pattern, and the faithful ascribe its existence to God.
Yet, Isaiah writes, Israel has forgotten this. The passage we just heard comes from chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah. It is the opening chapter in what people call “Second Isaiah.” The consensus is that Isaiah was written over a period of more than two hundred years, and that this second part, from chapter 40 to chapter 55, was written to the Israelites in Babylon, near the end of their period of exile there. They were beginning to forget about God, the God of their ancestors, the creator of all things. They were being seduced by the multiple gods of Babylon.
Isaiah writes to refresh their memories. First, this is the God who created the world. Who was here at the beginning. He reminds them of the creation stories in Genesis and Psalm 104. Second, this is the God who is good. The God who freed them from slavery. Who was with them as they became a nation. And third, this is their God. The one who made a deal with them: I will be your God and you will be my people. Who has promised to be with them forever. “The God of forever,” it says. Do you not remember this God? Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Isaiah asks them: Why do you say, O Israel, my way is hidden from the Lord and my right is disregarded by my God?
But we know why. When times are rough, we wonder: where is God? The Israelites are in exile because their nation has been conquered and the leaders taken away. God was in the land, Jerusalem was God’s home, the Temple there God’s house. Yet now the the land is occupied, and the Temple is rubble. Where is God now?
What can the exiles have thought? They do not complain that God does not exist. They do not complain that God is wicked or intends to punish them. Instead, they conclude that God does not see them. That they are hidden from God. That God is not attending to them. That God is disregarding their suffering. The power of God seems diminished to them, and they—like many people who suffer—have begun to accept the power of their captors. Under constant leveraged persuasion, and being disadvantaged, they grant power to people, structures, systems—laws and markets and politics—that are not God. Our faith is built on memories—that’s why we tell each other these stories—and the Israelites are forgetting.
The God of Israel is powerful, Isaiah reminds them. God stretched out the heavens, measured the waters of the seas, constructed the mountains. God is more powerful than all the temporal things of the earth. All the nations—including (and especially, in this case) Babylon—are as nothing. They are, Isaiah says earlier, like a drop from a bucket. Dust. Less than nothing. The rulers are lightweights—like chaff in the wind. Time is long, but the times of nations and their rulers are so short as to be meaningless.
Yet this same powerful and timeless God, Isaiah reminds us, is close to us, to humans. Like a shepherd who feeds his flock, he says, who cares for them and leads them. God supports the weary, and gives strength to the powerless. What are humans, the Bible asks repeatedly, that God is mindful of us? And what is God, that God is mindful of us?
We should not be harsh on Israelites. It is easy to understand how they might have forgotten. Circumstances can be difficult, preoccupying. Hardships can make us crazy. Sorrow and pain are mind-numbing. It is hard to think beyond the moment; the future seems cloudy at best, or impossible. Our imaginations become diminished. Where is God? Things other than God—idols, Isaiah would say—become seductive solutions.
It is we who disregard God. Which leads us in turn to rely on ourselves. Which leads us—being not very reliable—which leads us in turn to panic. We need, as the Israelites needed, to be re-called. To be repeatedly called back to God. We need to hear in Isaiah a call to us, who are not in exile like the Israelites, but can be just as afraid, just as short on hope, just as attracted wishfully to other gods.
God is big and timeless, says Isaiah in so many words, and we are small and quick. Does it comfort you to know that God created the universe and is mindful of us? That we are just one part of God’s great creation? Or is it distressing, that we are as dust and our history and institutions come and go in a second? Or does it matter?
Is the fate of the present and the future in our hands alone? Is this our job? We humans are not quite up to the long-distance trek of history, nor to the complexity of events and circumstance. It is hard to take comfort in or be hopeful about a universe in which we are careening about and in which our existence is merely a collateral consequence. Once we have forgotten about God, to whom do we turn?
We tell ourselves the story of God’s history for the same reason Isaiah spoke to the Israelites. Because it reminds us that God’s universe is part of that story, that the universe has a trajectory. And that God cares about us—is mindful of us. And that what has gone before leads us to be be hopeful of what will happen in the future, and that God’s promises are reliable. And that though God is universal and beyond comprehension, God is also particular, and is a companion, and a shepherd. God is here.
Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1–10, John 1:43–51
Some people find Psalm 139 to be reassuring. Some do not. We have just sung the beginning verses together. How do they strike you?
You have searched me and known me, it says. You know all that I do. You know all the paths I travel. You know all my ways. You know more about me than I do myself. There is nowhere I can go where you are not, no time when you are not with me.
For some, this is comforting. God will find us in the depths of despair and the worst of wickedness. When we are most alone, most frightened, in peril, in captivity—then God will be there with us. Like Jesus with the lost sheep, like a parent with a lost child, God will never leave us alone. God will always search for us and find us. Your hand will lead me, says the psalm.
But for others, this is scary. God pursues us to the ends of the earth. Like a divine stalker, God is always on our case. God is invasive, demanding, and relentless. There is nowhere we can hide. God will never leave us alone. God follows us and hounds us. Your hand will grab me, says the psalm.
The call of God is never altogether welcome. At best, those whom God calls are ambivalent about it. God calls us to adventures and duties that are often perilous, tedious, or just hard. God’s call can disrupt our lives and confuse and antagonize those whom we love. At the same time, God often calls us to a new and better life, one that is more like us (God knowing us better than we know ourselves; says the psalm: even before a word is on our tongues, O Lord, you know it completely)—a life that is more suitable for us than our current lives.
God does call us. We are called through the things of the world. Through wind and ocean, and scripture and friends, and our heart’s response to suffering and injustice. We are called through the hand of the Holy Spirit, nudging and guiding us as if we were walking blind along some rocky trail. And we are called, as Samuel was, by the spoken word of God. Or as Nathanael was, by a direct invitation from Jesus.
God calls us often, I’m convinced. That longing we sometimes feel and the urgings of our consciences are signs of God’s offer. But we hesitate to accept.
We might, as Samuel did, mistake God’s call for something else. The word of God was rare, it says, and visions were not widespread. Why would a voice in the night be God’s voice? Samuel thinks his mentor, his teacher, his master, Eli is calling him. Eli is old and sick; perhaps he needs some help. But Eli sends him away. It was not Eli calling. Does Samuel think, as we might, that perhaps it was a dream, or maybe that Samuel’s concern for Eli made him imagine a voice.
There are a lot of voices competing for our ears, demanding attention and action. And many are compelling and even good. Why should we think that any of them is the voice of God?
God calls Samuel three more times. Three times Samuel is confused. But Eli, older and wiser, knows what is going on. His advice to Samuel is to act as if it was God who was calling, and to listen, and to see what happens next. And thus Samuel hears God, and becomes God’s prophet.
We might think the voice calling us is God’s but deny that it is us whom God is calling. Why would God call a boy like Samuel? When God calls the prophets, they usually think God made a mistake. I’m too tongue-tied, says Moses. I’m too young, says Jeremiah. I’m too wicked, says Isaiah.
We are just ordinary people. Not all that good, not all that compassionate. Too selfish, perhaps; too young, too old, too committed to other paths; too unsettled, too unreliable. Yet people like us are those whom God calls.
Nathanael’s amazement with Jesus is not that Jesus miraculously saw him under a tree (anybody could have seen him there), but that Jesus knew him and perhaps in spite of that invited him to be one of his disciples.
Or we might suspect that it is God who is calling and that it is us whom God calls, but not be eager to respond. Prophets are reluctant for good reason. The rewards of a life obedient to God, while deep and profound, are balanced with the hardships. Samuel has to prophesy against Eli, the disciples meet a bad end. It can be rough. Yet, having heard God calling us, how can we refuse? How will we live knowing that we refused God’s invitation?
Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we especially honor this Monday, had a good life. He thought he’d teach and be a pastor and have a family. He only reluctantly agreed to speak at a rally for Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her bus seat sparked the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, he knew that God was calling and calling him in particular. He later said:
“If a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, and some great truth stands before the door of his life, some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right and that which is just, and he refuses to stand up because he wants to live a little longer. . . or he is afraid he will lose his job. . . he may go on and live until he is 80, and the cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”
God calls us, prophets and disciples, one by one. The call, as it was to Samuel, or to Nathanael—or to Martin Luther King—the call is not some general advice on how to live a good and faithful life. It is particular to you. God has searched us and knows us. We are called by name. Samuel, Samuel—that double naming is Biblical code for God’s calling voice.
A call is an invitation to change something. Something in our heads, or hearts, or lives. In small steps or big ones. In what we do, the way we see things, the effect we might have on the world. To make different decisions than we have been making, and to hope for different things.
We think: there is a voice calling. We think: It is God calling. We think: It is God calling me. We hear our name. We hear an invitation: Come and see. We answer: Here I am, Lord. Speak. I am listening.
The Beginning When
Text: Genesis 1.1
Other texts: Mark 1.1
Let’s begin at the beginning.
Stories which begin at the beginning are not about the past. They are about the present. They are ways of explaining where we are at the moment by trying to figure out how we got here. Stories that start at the beginning are always auspicious. Beginnings are not determined by events of history but by our portrayal of history. The moment which we call a beginning is a choice we make, chosen because it reveals to us the essence of our existence.
“At the beginning of God’s creating …” so begins today’s first reading. Genesis One, chapter One. Or “In the beginning, when …” as a more common translation has it. The story of Genesis is not the story of the absolute beginning of things but of the beginning of ordered creation. The formless void is not nothing. It is merely formless. Chaos, darkness, wind, sweeping over the waters, exist. But unformed. God forms the world from these things, from chaos. Creates boundaries, distinctions between formlessness and form. The form of things that now exist, formed by the hand of God.
It takes time. Time, the passing of the day and night, is created first, out of the light that was extracted from the darkness. Periodicity, habit, predicability are created. Time passes while the world is created. Six days. Each day some things are formed from other things. The things that are formed cooperate with God to create new things. The earth brings forth living creatures, the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures. Let all these things multiply according to their kind. And they do.
This story tells us about our world and about God. It tells us that God has an interest in the forms of things, of their particularity, of the Spirit that breathes life into all of creation. All things live, are creatures. It tells us that by the ticking of time we come into being and, by implication, by it we die. It tells us that the creation is a cooperative process between God and what God has created. Creatures have a hand in the form of the future. Creation is an ongoing process of which we are in some way agents.
And the story tells us that all this is good. Good in the sense of pleasing. And also in the sense of fitting, or harmonious. Creation is a system of appropriate things that are good. And it pleases God that it is so.
None of these things is self-evident. That God cares about the universe and its tiny elements, that God enlists creation to continue creation, and that all this is good. This is not a story that all our culture shares. It is a story that our faith shares, because it fits what we hold to be true. Another way to say it: God is intimately involved with us, we are partners in creation, existence is a blessing. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. So begins the Gospel of Mark, the earliest written Gospel and which should by rights have been the first book of the New Testament, as Genesis is of the Old. This first verse has no verb, and therefore is the title of Mark’s book—The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ—and could serve as the title of all the books that follow.
Unlike in Matthew or Luke, the story of the life of Jesus in Mark starts when Jesus is a adult. Mark has nothing to say about the birth of Jesus or his ancestry, and unlike John, Mark does not place Jesus in the cosmic scheme of things. Yet Jesus does not come from nothing. He has parents, is raised a Jew, and follows the prophetic tradition established by John the Baptist.
This story at the beginning Mark does not start with the story of Jesus’ life. Rather, it tells the story about how Jesus comes to be—It is not just some news, or the latest news, but good news. Jesus is named here. His identity is establish by the proclamation of John the Baptist, and it is confirmed by the voice, presumably the voice of God, coming from heaven. You are my son, says the voice. I love you. And, the voice adds, I find this pleasing. The creation of the good news of Jesus in Mark echoes the creation of all things in Genesis. God names Jesus and pronounces him—and his work on earth—to be good.
The ministry of Jesus continues the pattern that we have come to expect from God. God is intimately involved with us. God uses us humans in partnership to create or transform the world. And it is all good. This is no more self-evident than is the story of creation in Genesis. We tell the story because, as with creation, we hold its premises to be true. Jesus is neither a hands-off God nor one that acts alone, independently of humans nor one that approaches the world without passion.
The stories in Genesis and Mark are beginnings because they establish for us a foundation of existence. But they are beginnings, not the whole story. Creation and redemption, life and healing, and goodness, are a prolonged, ongoing, and still-continuing event. Our lives are not some winding down of an ancient big push by God and then another little extra nudge by Jesus 2000 years ago. Nor are our lives ethically neutral short-lived animations in an uninterested universe. What we do matters to ourselves, our fellow creatures, to the universe, and to God.
“In the beginning, when …” and “the beginning of …” are just words. They open stories that are remembrances of our origins. But they are more than just nostalgic tales. These stories define us who tell them. We write them down in an important and revered holy book, and we tell them to ourselves over and over, because we need to remind ourselves of who we are.
What we say about ourselves makes a difference in the way we act. It changes our hopes and puts our fears in a particular perspective. It changes how we judge ourselves and judge our plight—how we interpret what happens to us.
The universe is neither indifferent nor pitiless. It is good. We are loved. God is with us.
Praise the Lord, Be at Peace
Text: Psalm 148
Here is a summary of Psalm 148:
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! This means you. Praise the Lord!
Psalm 148 is a psalm of praise. Psalm 148 is one of the five psalms of praise at the end of the book of psalms. The word for praise—alleluia—appears a dozen times in this psalm. Praise is what this psalm is all about.
Everything is called to praise God. Things up above are called to praise God: the heavens and angels. Sun, moon, and stars, the chaos out of which the universe was formed. Things on the earth are called to praise God. Monsters of the deep. Wind, fire, and hail. Mountains, trees, animals. Things that creep and things that fly. All of them. And people are called to praise God. Kings, princes and rulers. Men and women, children, old and young. All people. Joy to the world!
This order of things is not arbitrary. The psalm echoes the story of creation in Genesis. The sky and the waters, separated from chaos; the creation of geography; then living things; then humans. God created all these things. All these things praise God. Praise and creation are related. Praise the Lord!
What is praise? The word is alleluia. The root of the word is the word for “bell.” It means ring out loud and clear. Ring out loud! Ring out clear! Don’t equivocate. Don’t hem and haw. Don’t muddy up what you are saying. When you praise your child for doing something great in school, you are loud and clear. When you praise her or him to your neighbor, same thing. When you praise God, same thing.
The psalm joins together all creation without making distinction between one kind of thing and another. The moon and the fruit trees and the mountains and the cattle all praise God. Kings and commoners, rocks and angels, bugs and birds—all have the same standing before God. Because they are all created, they all give God thanks and praise. It is right to give God thanks and praise.
Praise is not so much an action—though it is partly so, as I’ll talk about in a minute—as it is an orientation, an orientation of existence. It is a way of looking at things, a lens through which one sees the world. Is the world praise-worthy? Do we see it as a bunch of inert rock and bone? Or do we see the world as something that invites us to praise it? Abraham Joshua Heschel, an awesome theologian, wrote “It is so embarrassing to live! How strange we are in the world, and how presumptuous our doings! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned rights to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.” This world calls us forward to praise it.
How do the mountains and the fire praise God? They are mute, so we think. What do they share with kings and children with which this psalm groups them? They fill us with wonder, but having neither motion nor mouths, they cannot wave their hands and sing. What they have in common with us is that they exist. They are creations of God—back to Genesis. Created before us, even. They praise God by being mountains, by existing. By doing what God created them to do.
In the same way, do we praise God. When we conform to the way God hoped—hopes—us to be—that is one way to praise God. Praising God is a way to be, and a way of being, in sync with God. It is not a coincidence that the psalm echoes Genesis. Praise and existence are tied together. We are created, it seems, in order to praise God. Or perhaps we can say that we are created as creatures that praise.
Praise is a way to align ourselves with God. When we are praising God, we are in alignment with God. When we are in alignment with God, we are praising God. Praise is therefore a way—the way, if you believe the psalm—the way to contentment. A way of being at peace. Removing things that encumber us, not battling everything, letting things go that impede us, the things that drive us crazy. Besides being good for us and making us feel great, it is and loud and clear message to others. The message says: this is a way—or the best way, if you want—to the good life.
Unlike mountains, though, we do have motion and mouths. So we can do and say things that are praising. Mouthing words and going through the motions are not the same as praising God, but practically speaking they are good first steps. As with many things about us and God, doing stuff often is the path to knowing, believing, feeling, and loving. And praising.
When we praise, we stand in both gratitude and obedience. This helps us figure out what we can do and say. What someone called the vocation of praise.
For starters, invoke God. That is, call on God. When you pray, address God, just like you would start a conversation with a friend. This acknowledges God’s existence and also—more importantly—God’s interest in you.
Then, first, be grateful. Thank God. Make a list of things you are thankful for. Thank God for them. Put them in a book, or keep a journal online, or say a prayer of thanks each day. Theologically, this acknowledges that we are creatures and owe our existence to God. Psychologically, this helps us focus on what’s good in our lives and not so much on what is not so good at the moment.
And second, be obedient. Try to do what God guides us to do. I admit it is not always clear, but it usually is. Hear God in scripture, worship, hymns, and in your own prayers. Theologically, this acknowledges that we trust God for guidance. Practically, this is a good way to decide what to do. What would Jesus have us do? Imagine turning to Jesus and saying, “So, Jesus, what do you think about this thing I’m planning to do?” Pay attention to what your heart (or spirit, or Jesus) says when you ask this. Or remember what Moses advised the Israelites about choosing life. Ask yourself: “Is this thing I’m planning to do choosing life or is it choosing death?”
Finally, and perhaps most important, do this all in a community of faith. Practically, this is makes what can be a difficult task simpler, more pleasant, or even possible. It is not always easy to be grateful, obedient, or in conversation with God. Sometimes it seems that God is far away. Sometimes things are going so badly that they overwhelm our ability to even say thanks without feel hypocritical. Sometimes we can’t figure out what choice is life-giving. Other people can help. Both generally, as in worship and fellowship. And specifically, in conversation with people who probably are going through the same thing as you. And theologically, this psalm has everyone praising God together. When you cannot praise God, someone—or some thing else, like a mountain or fire—will be praising God anyway. All—another word that is used a lot in the psalm—all will be praising God. Even if you cannot at the moment.
Here is a summary of the Gospel reading for today: Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! When Simeon saw Jesus, he took the baby in his arms and praised God. And when Anna laid her eyes on Jesus, she began to praise God and to tell everyone about him. She spoke loudly and clearly, we can imagine. For them, and for many, the birth of Jesus gave them hope and reminded them of their call to and their ability to praise God.
As the life and teachings of Jesus continue to remind us. The church is the steward or caretaker of a community that praises God. It is a job of the church to nurture gratitude and obedience to God. It is the job of the community of Christians to support followers of Jesus in a life of praise.
Praise the Lord!
Serious and not Serious
Text: Luke 1:26–38, 47–55
These are serious times. We are dealing with serious issues. There are many dark places in the life of this world. Things are not working out as we thought they would. Our confidence is shaky, and enemies of spirit seem to surround us.
But we are not the first to find our present circumstances worrisome and our future uncertain. It was so when the angel Gabriel visited young Mary, at first so perplexing her, and in the end thrilling her. She would be the mother of a new age, a new kingdom. Occupied by Rome, oppressed, and maltreated, the people of Israel would be saved, freed, restored under God’s favor. Through Mary and her son.
Mary was not the first, either. Mary’s song is a hair’s breadth away from a copyright violation of the song of Hannah in the first book of Samuel, and it echoes the songs of Miriam (in Exodus) and of Deborah (in Judges). All women who saw and praised a new coming of God that would bring about God’s kingdom. A resetting of the world to conform to God’s design, which means not only power to Israel, but more importantly a world of compassion and justice for all people—men and women, rich and poor, family and alien. A new thing, but not a new new thing. For all, these were times—like ours—times of change hoped for. Serious times.
Theologians debate: who was Mary? Was she extraordinarily pure and good, and for that reason chosen by God to bear and then mother Jesus? Or was she ordinary, and chosen not in spite of but because of that? Are we to be amazed that a flawless person like Mary existed or instead that God would chose any old Mary to bring God to human birth?
Mary is called as a prophet is called. Surprised, at first frightened. Wondering, as all prophets do, why me? Astounded not that a king would be born (that astonishment would come later), but that God would come to her for anything. She is nonplussed by the messenger before she even hears the message. Greetings, favored one!—that is all Gabriel says. Why would God favor her in anything—she, of all the people in the world, she who has nothing.
Surprised, frightened, eventually obedient. Saying yes without knowing—how could she know—what she was getting into. Hard enough to be a mother at all, harder still—painful, it turned out—to be the mother of the restorer of the world. Here I am, Lord, says Mary, the same answer of all those who become prophets, hearing God’s call. Here I am, say the prophets. All ordinary people in hard times delivering God’s message.
The song we just sang, Mary’s song, called the Magnificat, is a song of praise for things to come, but mysteriously wrapped in sentences written as if they had already happened. The grammar reminds us that Mary’s hopes are not for some far-off spiritual future but about the present state of the world, hers and ours.
As all prophets do, Mary reminds us how the world should be. Her verbs are strong, simple, clear. God scatters the arrogant (the King James version says “scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” making us think that they only imagine they have something to be proud of). God brings down the mighty, the rulers and leaders in power. God raises up the lowly, the oppressed, the humiliated. The rich are sent away with empty pockets. God feeds the hungry.
Yet here we are, two thousand years later. Where people still go hungry, and the rich still prosper, and the poor remain poor, and the powerful continue to consolidate their power, and are proud of it. We have just sung Mary’s song with energy and feeling. Yet is Mary’s song good news to all? Do the proud and the humble, the hungry and the well-satisfied, hear this song in the same way? Do we hear it as prophecy—or as sentimentality? It is exciting, but can it be real? Does it call us to action, and if so, what kind of action?
My spirit rejoices, sings Mary, who has invited people for centuries to join her in joy. And mostly we accept that invitation. Rich and poor alike. Why is that, when Mary seems to talk about winners and losers. Why aren’t the rich afraid, or at least embarrassed. Why aren’t the poor in despair, or at least annoyed. The song threatens and promises. And different fates for different people.
Yet all celebrate with Mary. Why is that? Partly it is because the song is about Jesus, whom we revere and follow. And partly it is because the inequalities that benefit some and deprive others make all, or almost all, uncomfortable. The promise of Jesus, as you have heard me say before, is not to swap power centers like political parties do when one gets control of Congress, but to change the relationship between people from up and down to horizontal. What would the world be like if that came about? A good world, many would say.
But mostly we all celebrate because we are pleased to remember that God is effective, that God can effect this world. Sadly, it is easy to think cynically that God cannot change things. To think that the stuff Mary sings about is not possible. But this song has the power to thrill us because we remember that it is possible. Mary is filled with enthusiasm. Nothing is impossible with God, the angel says. And when we sing this song, we feel that to be so. Hooray for Jesus, the song says. And hooray for the world, it says. But mostly, hooray for Mary’s proclamation that Jesus can seriously change the world.
My spirit rejoices in God my savior, sings Mary. She dances and sings, which is what the word means here. The times are serious, but not solemn. We can rejoice in God’s wish and power to heal the broken world. My spirit dances and sings.
There is a power behind the words of this song. It is the power of God to use us—to bless us—to make the world better for everyone. To restore justice, to live in peace, to care for each other. And the power of God to change the world, to save it from serious problems, to heal it, to restore it.
To take us from who we are now to whom we might become, and to be who God has called us to be.