If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mary's Song of the Poor: Luke 1:46b-55

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon, on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 18, 2011

Howard Thurman, African-American prophet and mystic, in his book Meditations of the Heart writes:

I will sing a new song. As difficult as it is, I must learn the new song that is capable of meeting the new need. I must fashion new words born of all the new growth of my life, my mind and my spirit. I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before, that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God. How I love the old familiarity of the wearied melody-- how I shrink from the harsh discords of the new untried harmonies. Teach me, my Father, that I might learn with the abandonment and enthusiasm of Jesus, the fresh new accent, the untried melody, to meet the need of the untried morrow.

Some songs are old. Some songs are new. Some songs are easy to sing. Some songs are difficult to sing. Some melodies are familiar and others untried. In the gospel of Luke Mary sings a song that is both old and new. Its melody may be simple and smooth, but its words are dissonant and discordant with the tenor of our times. Her song is a familiar melody, but with a “fresh new accent.” We know Mary’s song as the Magnificat. That’s not the title of an old Disney movie. The title comes from the Latin form of the word “to magnify.” It is Mary’s song of praise to God from among the poor.

The song comes in the gospel of Luke during an encounter of Mary with her cousin Elizabeth. Mary and Elizabeth, who both receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the favor of God, and a child of promise, represent for us the potential for a new fertile future of unexpected hope and promise. An angel has previously announced to Mary that she would conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. The angel informs Mary that Elizabeth is also pregnant in her old age, an echo of the story of Sarah and Abraham. Mary hurries off on a journey to a village in the Judean hill country that probably took two or three days. She probably went to assist Elizabeth with her work of fetching water from the well, grinding corn, collecting firewood, and cooking her meals.

Upon meeting Mary the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. Elizabeth has two visitors: Mary and the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and says a line that anyone who has said the rosary will remember: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Then, Mary breaks out in the song that we know as the Magnificat.

I refer to it as a song not because it was sung, but that it fits the poetic form of the Psalms, which were liturgical songs of the Hebrew people. It contains parallelisms, which are two lines that interconnect with one another. This is the most common form of Hebrew poetry. Mary’s song is very similar to the song of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, found in the book of Judges. Parallels to Mary’s song can be found in various Old Testament passages, the Psalms, intertestamental writings, and texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. The song presents themes from the OT and themes that will reappear on Luke’s gospel. Her song resembles the contemporary songs of the Misa Campesina or Poor People’s Mass, which I once heard in the 80’s at a gathering in San Francisco for peace and justice in Central America.

Mary’s song begins in joyful praise to God. She recognizes her lowly or humble status and how she is blessed to be so favored. For Mary is to be the bearer of the Messiah. Like a Woody Guthrie song that recalls the history of America and imagines a social transformation, Mary’s song extolls the God of Israel’s history and imagines a social revolution.

The mother of Jesus sings the song of a God who has scattered the proud and self-sufficient, toppled elite rulers from their thrones, lifted up the poor and lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands and stomachs. These are definitely awesome deeds we do not expect.

New Testament scholar Raymond Brown sees the life setting of this song among the Jewish Christian anawim or “poor ones” of the first century. Mary’s song is a song of praise to God, the Liberator, who turns the world upside down. Though dirt poor, Mary sings a song of praise. If we recognize our own social and economic location, the God Mary praises acts against our own national and personal interests. It’s not a solo, but a song of solidarity with her people, the poor. Her song is a melody of social upheaval, a reversal of the fortunes and misfortunes of God’s people. She sings of social transformation.

We were probably expecting more of a gentle lullaby from Mary than a raspy song of economic justice. Her unexpected words remind me of the unexpected acts of Nora Nash, a sister of St. Francis in Philadelphia. Along with other nuns from her order, sister Nash sits in on the board meetings of Goldman Sachs, the world’s most powerful investment bank. They have bought the minimum number of shares in stock to be able to submit resolutions at the annual shareholders meeting. Sister Nash advices three Goldman top executives that their Wall Street Bank should protect consumers, rein in executive pay, increase its transparency, and remember the poor. These sisters were occupying Wall Street before it was fashionable for young hipsters. These sisters of mother Mary have also confronted Kroger, the grocery store chain, McDonald’s, Wells Fargo, and the Fortune 500 for unjust practices. What bodacious audacity! They sing a song with a radical vision.

Mary’s song is far more radical a vision than even that of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which focuses on the power and privilege of the 1% of the wealthy over against the 99 % of the rest of the US population. In the Occupy movement the enemy is the wealthy 1 %. Mary’s song envisions God completely overturning our economic system, flipping it on its head. If we understand Mary’s vision on a global and not simply a national level, the lyrics of her song indict not simply the 1% over against the 99 per cent in the US, but the 20% of the wealthy of the world over against the 80% of the world’s impoverished peoples. As Walt Kelly’s politically satirical comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Gentle Mary sings a radically subversive song of God’s coming revolution and we are implicated in the lyrics.

E. Stanley Jones, the early twentieth century missionary once said that the Magnificat is "the most revolutionary document in the world." It is a song that terrified Russian czars. The people of Nicaragua were once fond of reciting it. During the oppressive rule of Somoza in Nicaragua the poor campesinos were required to carry proof that they voted for him. The people sarcastically called the document, “The Magnificat.” Mary’s song is revolutionary.

Dare we, who live in the wealthiest and most powerful empire on earth, sing the song of Mary? Wouldn’t its melody sound like the sawing of the limb on which we sit? Wouldn’t its lyrics stick in our throats like a fish bone? For us singing Mary’s song is less like singing a familiar Christmas carol and more like singing an unfamiliar, dissonant song. How can we, who are the wealthy of the world, sing Mary’s song without undermining our own lifestyles, our own political, economic, national interests and ideologies? We are not simply exiles in Babylon. We are Babylon. As the Psalmist moaned in Babylonian captivity, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” How can we sing Mary’s song in our own land?

We have sung the songs of pride and power, comfort and wealth far too long. We have sung the old familiar songs of Babylon about American exceptionalism, Battle hymns of the Republic, funeral dirges over flag draped coffins, Christmas consumerist carols, and TV commercial jingles. How do we sing Mary’s song of the poor?

We probably need a new voice, a new melody, a new perspective. Singing Mary’s song of the poor and lowly will call for a practice of reading the music identifying with the perspective of those indicted by her lyrics, those who benefit from the violence, militarism, oil hounding and hoarding, those who are comfortable with economic inequity, cheaper goods, and low pay that go with the interests of our wealthy empire, interests we most often support. It is my conviction that we white, wealthy North Americans need to read not just Mary’s song, but all of the Bible with the intentional awareness of our perspective as the dominant and privileged. Our tendency has been to too easily identify ourselves with the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless, the persecuted, the crucified. I’m convinced that the poor, vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed have an interpretive advantage when it comes to reading the Bible rightly. They share a common identity with Mary and her people.

This tendency to easily identify with the lowly and persecuted can also be found among white, North American Mennonites, who claim a heritage of social marginalization, simple living, and martyrdom. We proudly take this identity stance when relating to other Christians or in disassociating ourselves from the power and privilege inherent in the American empire. We are the marginalized, the exilic people, the persecuted, the martyrs. But, the reality is we have pretty much assimilated ourselves into the wider culture of the American empire. We are the rich, the proud, the powerful, and the privileged, those who Mary sings God will send away empty.

So, what I’m suggesting is to begin listening to Mary’s song and reading the Bible with an intentional awareness of our hermeneutic or interpretive lens of power and privilege. By that I mean that we intentionally practice a biblical reading strategy with eyes wide open to our own place of power and privilege in the world and how that affects our reading and the practice of our faith. Then, we will begin to notice how we spiritualize words like “poor” and “rich,” how we make texts about economic justice into issues of the heart alone, how we avoid the tough texts of the Bible that challenge our lifestyles, how we squeeze the Bible message into our own national ideologies. Reading the music of the Bible with an interpretive lens that recognizes our own position in the world can teach us how to sing a new song.

This new interpretive approach will mean reading Mary’s song and identifying with those who are on the top rather than the bottom, the haves rather than the have-nots, the powerful and not the weak, the dominant and not the dominated. It will mean reading the Exodus story from the perspective of Pharoah and Egypt, reading the taking of the land of Canaan remembering our ancestors who took Native land, reading the story of exile from the perspective of Babylon, the story of Jesus, and the church’s story through the eyes of the Roman Empire. It will mean reading with new eyes, singing Mary’s song in a new key.

Can we, as Howard Thurman suggests, “sing a new song, as difficult as it is…”Reading the Bible with a keen awareness of our own power and privilege could mean singing Mary’s song as a new song with an unfamiliar melody and “untried harmonies.” At first, the notes may warble and catch in our throat. But, reading from a new perspective, from the position of power and privilege, and singing in a new key, can emerge from growth and change in our minds, hearts, and spirits. In the wise words of Thurman, we “must fashion new words (and new perspectives) born of all the new growth of my life, my mind and my spirit.”

If we can sing Mary’s song in a new key, with a new accent, from a new perspective, and be able to remain in the tension and discord, if we can sing a new song in our brokenness as a powerful and privileged people, if we can allow its melody and lyrics to permeate to the bone, we may begin to change not only or identification, who we identify with in the song, but also our identity, who we are as persons and as a people in the economy of God.

I invite all of us to listen to and sing Mary’s song of the poor as a new song, as difficult as it is. We must sing Mary’s song of praise and prophetic imagination if we are to envision a different future, a new tomorrow for our dissonant and off key world. The prophet and mystic Howard Thurman can be our director:

I must prepare for new melodies that have never been mine before, that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God… Teach me, my Father, that I might learn with the abandonment and enthusiasm of Jesus, the fresh new accent, the untried melody, to meet the need of the untried morrow.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word

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