I preached this sermon today, December 21, in Dalton. I based it upon the today’s texts: Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55
What would you do or maybe what would be your reaction to an angel coming to you to tell you that God chose you to do some huge act? For women, it would be giving birth to the Son of God. For men… help me out, what is something that we can do that women can’t do that rivals giving birth, let alone to someone else’s baby, who just happens to be the Son of God?
By tradition, not scripture, Mary was a teenager, which added another level of complexity. She was a single teenage mother, betrothed to Joseph. By the way, we don’t know Joseph’s age, but by tradition we accept that he was much older than Mary. Though we tend to believe Mary was about 15 or 16 years old, an early non-canonical writing known as the Protoevangelium of James noted that Mary was about 12 or 13 years old when she gave birth.
Today, we’d think of this birth as scandalous. We generally look askance at teenage motherhood, but a girl who is 12 or 13 years old would probably suffer even more acutely from disdain. We certainly wouldn’t venerate her. So, imagine how scandalous it would have been for Mary.
No one would wish pregnancy upon a young teenage girl, especially betrothed to a man old enough to be her father. And just to add another dimension to this story, according the Protoevangelium of James, Joseph had two sons, who from the story were probably older than Mary. Given our current guidelines today, we couldn’t have this arrangement; for one, Joseph would be barred from marrying Mary. That we find this story difficult in our current context, it must have been much harder for Mary than we could even imagine.
Maybe it’s me, but I’ve carried this image of Mary as a meek and mild woman. Maybe it comes from an aggregation of many multiple images conveyed through Christmas carols. There is a sense of gentleness, such as in the carol “Once in Royal David’s City,” which has this line, “Where a mother laid her baby in a manger for His bed. Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child.” But that sentiment doesn’t capture Mary the mother of Jesus. Instead, we should think of the second verse of the carol “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” which begins, “’Twas gentle Mary maid, so young and strong.”
She was obedient, but obedient to God. When she sang, her words were a powerful indictment of all that was wrong with the Roman Empire in first century Palestine. “He has 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.” Those were words of revolution. They were words seeking to overturn the order of the day. This was not a woman who was blindly obedient. She was a fierce defender of the people like her, poor and oppressed. She knew that the powers of the day, political, economic, and religious, were not serving the people they ruled. She was effectively saying to the powers of her day, “I will not stand for this. I defy you and your power and authority.”
Her song was a preview of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Maybe Mary taught a young Jesus to push for the underdog and ensure that those at the bottom of the economic ladder have their daily bread. God chose her to carry the Son of God to term and to raise him to become humanity’s teacher. She had to be strong enough, brave enough, and bold enough to seek overturning the order of the day. She followed him. She was the only person who was with Jesus at the moment of his birth and at his death on the cross. How could she be anything less?
Mary set in motion a movement that would challenge the Empire. She showed that there is nothing to fear when God is on your side. Her son, Jesus, continued to live courageously, like his mother, to pursue God’s peace and justice.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is the gospel in miniature. Its sentiment is breathtaking in scope when we really think about it. Mary practically said that God favors the poor over the rich and powerful. God’s mercy will be upon those who fear the Almighty and that power and wealth in and of themselves are ephemeral. And when you think about it, “Relying upon wealth and power for one’s well-being is a weak reed” would be one summation of Jesus’ overarching message. Psalm 146:3-4 expressed it as: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”
I think people whether they know it or not are singing Mary’s song today. I’m sensing that something is happening, a shift of some kind or another. This month there have been ongoing protests over the Michael Brown and the Eric Garner cases. These haven’t been one-day protests and then are over. This past Thursday Union Theological Seminary in New York City held a community breakfast with faith leaders to discuss how to address the racial gulf these two cased exposed. Immediately following the breakfast many participants held a “die-in” in the intersection of Broadway and 120th Street.
But it’s not just these protests in the wake of the decisions. I see it going back to last year’s Occupy movement. And it is not just on the left. I see the roots of the Tea Party movement in the same way. All of these are manifestations of a deep, deep disquiet and unease in our community fabric. We know something is wrong. We feel it though we can’t quite put our finger on specifically what it is that’s wrong. Some of it is cultural. Some of it is racial. Some of it is economic. Some of it is political.
We’re frustrated. We know something has to be done, but we don’t see our political leadership, especially at the national level, doing anything substantial to address it. Furthermore, we can’t ignore that the long-held belief that if we “work hard and play by the rules we will succeed” is over. Economic statistics bear out that economic mobility in the United States has diminished over the years. It used to be that when the stock market went up, general prosperity increased too. Today, the stock market is at its highest levels ever and yet income seems to be stuck. Furthermore, data already show that income when adjusted for inflation has fallen over the past 20 years. And the benefits of the economic recovery since the recession in 2008-2009 correlate more favorably as one goes up the economic ladder.
There is a disconnect between the rich and the powerful and the rest of us. While there has always been a difference, the separation has become a chasm that is almost impossible to cross. This nation has not seen such disparity in wealth since the Gilded Age. And like the Empire when Mary sang, there is a feeling that many of the rich and powerful don’t seem to hear or know or care about those who are not like them. I often think of our situation as fighting for the scraps of food that fell from the table where the rich and powerful eat. They’ve forgotten, however, that Jesus said we have a place at that table, too.
We have to remember and hold dear to us that despite our differences in the way we see our current political climate we are all in this together. Fighting for scraps and crumbs distracts us from the real problem, the rich and the powerful have commandeered the table. Furthermore, those who are rich and powerful must not forget a huge lesson from the upside down world of the gospel. That with increased power and authority comes greater responsibility to be a servant, especially to the Marys in our world, keeping in mind what Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35b) And it is by coming down from their thrones that we can make real the kingdom of God on earth.
Something is happening. Something has stirred among many people who are not among the rich and powerful, who do not hold positions of authority, who are not among the elite, to sing as Mary sang long ago. This movement is not going away. It may take awhile, but something indeed is taking shape. As disciples we are called to speak truth to power, to “die-in” the streets, and assert everyone’s right to sit at the table. Like Mary, doing this is a sign of strength, courage, and boldness. We do this to overturn the world as we know it in order to bring forth the world as God through Jesus proclaimed it. We are the inheritors of a movement Mary set in motion long ago when Gabriel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”