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A Modern Magnificat

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Dec 14

Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and Luke 1:46b-55

Near beginning of Luke’s gospel—in the verses immediately prior to this morning’s reading—Mary gets news from the Angel Gabriel that she is going to bear a son. Her response to this staggering annunciation is to burst into song. At least that’s how Luke tells it. Mary’s song—the magnificat—seems, at first blush, like a simple, innocent song of joy.

She sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant. From this day forward all generations will call me blessed, for you have done great things for me!” There is so much joy in Mary’s song. Can you hear the joy in her words?

One almost can imagine those first verses set to music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. A kind of first century, super-holy version of “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” I do not mean to make light of Mary—that’s something I would never do. But can you hear her youthful exuberance? Her first (and heart-felt) response to Gabriel’s news is: “I’m so fortunate that God has chosen me!”

But Mary’s thoughts move beyond the personal. The magnificat is a call for God’s justice.

You have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit.
You have deposed the powerful from their thrones,
and raise the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Mary’s joy is not a naïve joy. She is a young Jewish woman living in a world dominated by Rome, an occupying superpower with a militarized police force. In his new book, Christ Actually, James Carroll reminds readers of the absolute power of the Roman Empire during Jesus’ lifetime and the decades in which the gospels were written. Roman occupation was a brutal reign that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths of Jewish innocents. This world was not a safe place for Mary’s baby.

What must Mary have felt, bringing her son into a world such as this?

I wonder—frankly—how Mary can hold it together—these two things. The joy of her expectation, the “already” of God’s presence with her, and in her, and in the world. And the terror she must have felt at what might become of her child in a world such as this. This is the stuff of Advent. The tension between the “already” of God’s presence and the “not yet” of God’s kin-dom on earth. That beloved community in which the proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down and the hungry are fed.

Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, speaks about the Buddhist practice of compassion, called bodhichitta. She writes,

An analogy for bodhichitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic, sometimes to anger, resentment, and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved.

This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.

These have been weeks of broken-heartedness for so many of us, as we hear news of acquittal after acquittal. Can we look beneath our rage, resentment and blame to find our genuine sadness? Do we dare to feel that sad? Might we allow a deep-seated compassion to take root in us? Because compassion—a deep sense of connection to “all those who have ever loved”­­­­––is what will fuel our work for justice.

Compassion is a long-burning flame that is not easily extinguished. Anger flames out, resentment atrophies, blame becomes a cancer. In the words of Dr. King, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I suspect that the wisdom of compassion is already present in Mary’s magnificat. She sings out words of joy—“my soul gives glory to God my savior!” But we know that Mary will end up broken-hearted at the foot of the cross, weeping at the feet of her child, with his broken body. Luke knew that too. And here is this beautiful, apocalyptic poetry binding it all together—the already and not yet of God’s promise.

God’s hope is already present, God’s peace is already here. God’s action is already taking place to bring justice to a broken and hurting world. God’s joy is possible for us, as it was for Mary. In the shadow of foreign occupation, under the threat of domination, in the midst of a culture of violence.

For Mary, there was no “Occupy Bethlehem” to call the out the Romans for their brutality and injustice. There were no tent cities, no public marches, no protest—these treasured fruits of democracy. Rome would have responded with a show of force, like the tanks that rolled into Tiananmen Square twenty-five years ago.

There was no “Occupy Bethlehem,” but Mary did participate in the beginning of a movement. A movement that speaks truth to power and witnesses to God’s reign, even in the midst of Empire.

Protestors and organizers have developed powerful memes over the last few years. The hoodie in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death. Incidentally, I posted online so frequently about Trayvon that FaceBook concluded I must be black and I started getting pop-up adds for black singles. I was honored to be (mis)taken for a black person, but it was super-creepy to know my online activity was being monitored.

We have developed memes for the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Hands up, don’t shoot! I can’t breathe. Black lives matter.

But these memes must become a movement. It is time for a new civil rights movement.

Do you feel it? What’s your sense of this moment in America? Of what’s happening in our streets, our public squares, and institutions? A ProPublica analysis of federal data showed that young black men are twenty-one times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. What’s your “take” on what needs to happen so that black bodies and brown bodies don’t keep dying in the line of fire?

This is a painful moment. But it is also a hopeful moment. Our public pain is so acute that people are pouring into the streets. And some—especially white folks—are for the very first time, genuinely trying to understand the workings of race and racism in the U.S.

Last week at the MACUCC Conference Center in Framingham, Karlene Griffiths Sekou and I facilitated a conversation for clergy on race in the aftermath of Ferguson. Thirty UCC clergy showed up, with just a few days notice. Pastors were clearly feeling the pain and injustice deeply and struggling with how to lead their congregations at this moment. I was inspired by, not just how many came, but by who showed up—it wasn’t just the same old folks who have been working on racial justice for years, but a whole new generation of clergy whose hearts are breaking. We shed tears, spoke about strong feelings of grief and anger, and about the need for public lament and public witness.

One minister said, “I feel so passionately that I’m afraid to speak. Afraid I will come across too strong and my congregation will be turned off. Will they hang in there with me?” This is a small, but real risk white people take in order to be solidarity with peoples of color: that we will be dismissed.

Here’s what happens in communities of color. This week Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sabrina Fulton, told the Orlando Sentinel that whites do not understand the protests about the deaths of young black men. "It's not happening to them, so they don't quite get it... They think that it's a small group of African-Americans that's complaining, [and they say] 'Oh, what are they complaining about now?'"

Another young minister at the Mass Conference gathering said, “I’m having a hard time making the adjustment from my diverse, progressive seminary in a diverse city—where structural racism was something everyone understood—to my new congregation in a mostly white suburb where people seem not to understand and (possibly) not to care. How can I talk to my congregation about these issues in a way they will understand?”

We want to speak in ways that will engage—rather than foreclose—conversation. That is how we build relationships. It’s how we build understanding. It’s how we build a movement. But we must speak. Knowing that some people will dismiss us out of hand. Knowing that we will get our words wrong some of the time. Knowing that we will make mistakes. We must speak.

Isn’t it our job—as Christ’s church—to speak of things that are uncomfortable to hear? To speak of justice and equality, to dream a dream of the beloved community that is yet-to-come? If we won’t, who will?

And if we don’t speak, how can we claim any relevance whatsoever? Why would anyone pay attention to the church if we remain silent while cities are burning?

There are many ways to take action; to protest, to build relationships, to witness. But—if you’ll forgive me for a moment—I want to speak specifically to white folks. (I’m an expert on being white and I’ve thought a lot about this.)

There is some inner work we can do that is very much in the spirit of Advent. Some ways of de-centering “Rome” as we prepare to receive the Christ child.

First, we can admit it when we don’t know. My candid observation is that white people like to think we know everything, but there are, in fact, entire realms of human experience about which we know very little.

Let tell you about an incident in my life that taught me worlds about what I don’t know. In the mid 1990’s I was a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on the edge of Harlem. On the day OJ Simpson was acquitted, a huge cheer went up all over our neighborhood—in our apartment building, on the street, and for blocks in every direction.

I had understood (I thought) the racially charged nature of the trial, the suspicion of police officers and the critique of how “the system” operates against African American men. And still, as a white woman, the lens through which I saw the case was one of domestic violence. The details of the case matched so closely with everything I had come to understand about domestic violence. It was my strong suspicion that however botched the evidence or malevolent the “powers that be,” there was a good chance he was (also) guilty.

When OJ was acquitted and people all around were cheering, it struck a chord of fear in me. I wasn’t afraid for my own safety. It was bigger than that—I was afraid to be living in a world where men get away with murdering women. And then, a flash of insight. The people who were cheering in the streets were people who are afraid every single day of their lives.

We won’t know unless we ask. So ask.

And listen. A lot.

Take yourself out of your racial comfort zone. And learn from the experience.

And as one blogger writes, “Embrace feeling unsure most of the time.”

And reflect on what race and racism have cost you personally.

Finally, here is an invitation for all of us. In this time when we await the coming of the Christ child, let feel our yearning for a new and just world. Let us confess our broken-heartedness. And—with Mary—let us transform our pain into works of love.


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