Heavenly Father, as I offer these words this morning, I beseech you to see before you a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, and a sinner of your own redeeming. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.
Award winning journalist Eric McCrossen was loved and despised for his editorials. From time to time, though, there was an odd article that veered from usual political insights. As I sorted through them and read them, there were articles about airbags, and about a local man of his fondness celebrating his 100thbirthday, and he always seemed to have something to say about Christmas.
But one of those editorial jaunts hailed a man that he ran across at a local “flop” house in 1972. A migrant worker, a union organizer for musicians, a student of Chinese history, an unsuccessful senatorial candidate, a story and song collector, and guitar picker: Bruce “U Utah” Phillips.[i]Famous – you’ll know this – for the song “Pig Hollow,” which I think he actually sang to Mr. McCrossen, and the song “If I had a Mule,” borrowed by Bob Hope in the movie The Young Americans. (Borrowed without permission, I might add).
Phillips claimed that hanging out with the poor and the wanderer, the migrant worker and the laborer, helped him to “learn how to look at the world from the bottom up instead of the top down.” Phillips described his music as “music of the people. If you have an ear for it,” he said, “You soak it up and finally do something with it. [And] Then you ask is this song really yours?” He paused and thought: “Or is it theirs?”
Kai, Mr. McCrossen – your dad – ended his article about Phillips’ putting his own spin on the journeyman’s wisdom. He wrote, “Songs,” you see, “Songs are about people looking up instead of [people] looking down.”
God invites us into God’s story to sing God’s song – a song of God and God’s people. God spoke to Mary[ii]and rehearsed the same that he had spoken to Abraham: “be a blessing,” he said, a messenger of peace,[iii]a vessel of “grace.”[iv]Mary accepted her role as a citizen prophet in this God’s kingdom-making. Echoing the response of God’s people at the foot of Mount Sinai, sealing that covenant she said, “Let it be done.”
Mary is God’s singer-songwriter.
That young woman’s “yes” turns the mighty cult of Roman Imperial authority and the worship of powers and principalities and demigods and economies and sacrifices on its head. Mary’s call narrative rejects the violence of worldly gods and those that support their thrones, all in favor of the peace of God[v]and the Prince of Peace.
This comes, of course, to a high point at the visitation, the feast of which we celebrate today. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is revelatory. For in this moment God’s song seems to crescendo. Mary is God-bearer. But we discover in her own way, like all of us, Elizabeth is God-bearer, too. As is her child, John, bearing a Godly hymn, a word of salvation for desperate people.
The new community, even in that moment, begins to emerge. A new re-creation is a God bearing, God saving, God singing community that leaps for joy. Following in the footsteps of Moses and Esther, both of whom brought about dramatic social change; and the footsteps of Abraham, who was the first to be a blessing along with Sarah; and Isaiah and Jonah, who offered transformation to estranged people.
Humbled, Mary sings on, a song from below.
Perhaps, reflecting upon the words of Hannah,[vi]she sings with head raised to the heavens. She sings about God’s mighty acts. And she lays out for us salvation history, locating herself and her child to be – Jesus – squarely at the crossroads. She claims for herself its benefit. This is God’s story, but it is her story. And it is her song. And no one will take it from her. To Elizabeth and us, she invites us to sing along, for we know the harmonies. The words of Jonah come flashing forward in those first verses. Mary sings them out loud: God is a God of mercy, quick to forgive, swift to rescue.
She sings in the voices of every child and woman and man under heaven. Listen, you who have your heads bowed low, this song is yours. So, traditionalists and progressives, and white, black, brown and yellow, LGBTQ+, rich, poor, and everything in-between, by whatever moniker you label yourself or are labeled by others, know this: God labels you beloved. And if you are hanging your head down low, then lift it up high, for this song is your song. Hearken, brothers and sisters, to the gospel song and listen to God’s comforting words.
God is going to feed us with good things. God hears the cry of God’s people. God is bringing the valley up to meet us and the stumbling blocks down below our feet. Friends, this is what Mary sings about. This is what Christians sing.
Now, Mary does tell it like it is…
She also sings about how God lays low the powers and the authorities of this world, but not in the way you might think. God lays them low by Jesus’ becoming lower than they are. By Jesus’ own defeat on the cross. By emptying himself. By giving himself up. Jesus lays the powers low by the very event of his resurrection. God lays the powers down. The kingdoms of man and death are defeated – and gloriously so – by the work of his body. And in that moment the world will be made new.
Cosmic change is afoot in Mary’s song.
Those who wish for the ways of the world to prevail, the human ways of rivalry and greed: she sings for them. The gospel of grace is difficult. If you are a counter of other people’s sins, a tracker of other people’s wrongs, or a taker of other people’s inventories, then most likely you will find this good word empty and the melody strange.
Mary keeps singing. She sings out that this is a new chapter and a new dawn for all whom God has made.
Some call Mary’s song the most concise statement of the gospel. It is a radical statement of God’s in-breaking peace and love and grace and forgiveness and the and restoration of all humanity into relationship with God. It is a song that is feared by powers and authorities, often outlawed because it delegitimizes the violent structures of human power and desire.
When the British colonial powers ruled in India, the recitation of the Magnificatin worship was outlawed. The same was true in Guatemala during the 1980s. Believing that the song of Mary was a rallying cry for the revolutionary and the poor, the government banned it. In Argentina, too, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo placed the words of Mary’s song on posters in the city to mark the disappearances of family and friends. Those women sang Mary’s song out boldly and in the face of power, and the military junta was so afraid of that song they responded by banning it from public display for years.[vii]
Mary is a singer-songwriter of engagement. She bears Christ into the world that it may be saved, and that it may be restored. But let me be clear: this was categorically not an individual pietistic event.
To view Mary in such a way – to view this event as something between Mary and God alone – is to read Enlightenment and contemporary ideas of affection back into the text.[viii]Making the conception of Christ and the message of salvation and the good news of Mary’s song into a private event of piety is to capitulate to the worldview that Christianity itself is a private affair.
Rather than a radical statement about God’s intent and God’s imagination and God’s vision for God’s creation, this is about all human flourishing. It is about creation’s restoration and the salvation of God. This is God’s reconciling and resurrecting mission.
Kai, God has invited you into God’s story of salvation. Claim it as your own and find yourself in the midst of it. See your place in the great arc that it is. Listen. Hear. Watch. And learn.
Now, you will have plenty of “bishopy” things to do. You’re going to have some new clothes to wear, and hats, and sticks to master, and services to navigate. But such novelty does not God’s singer-songwriter make.
You have to hang out with people. Serve, and be with the poor. Know the emptiness of the poor in spirit. Walk with the wanderer and be curious with the wonderer. Reap with the migrant laborers. Sit with the students. Organize for the good of the whole and learn the story of the foreigner. Memorize the stranger’s name.
You are meant, Kai, to sing: To those who are far off and to those who are near. To those who have found their way within God’s garden wall’s protection and those who do not yet know God’s gospel.
In your episcopate, never forget to look at the world from the bottom up instead of the top down. Do this in order – for the sole purpose – of making music by collecting stories and people’s songs. And then, Kai, reflect them back to us, because all people need to be reminded of the words of God’s song.
Now I promise you the busyness of this office will tell you differently. But you will have to go deep, dig deep. Read scripture. Drink in the well of it. Pray it. Wrestle it. Let it rename you. Have an ear for it, Phillips says. Soak it up. All so that you will help us hear the words again.
Help us remember. Help us remember how to leap for joy
at the sound of the song. To serve and share God’s good news of Jesus and his love. Listen such that you can do something with your episcopate. And help us remember, because God knows this world needs some remembering. Help us remember God’s song is about people looking up – it’s not about people looking down.
In the name of the Father, and of Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.
[iii]The messenger used words of peace (shalom) and said that she was to be a blessing.
[iv]I typically use NRSV in the texts from scripture. Here, I am translating and using my own word study.
[v]Girard, Hidden, 221. Girard writes: “No relationship of violence exists between those who take part in the virgin birth: the Angel, the Virgin and the Almighty. . . . In fact, all the themes and terms associated with the virgin birth convey to us a perfect submission to the non-violent will of the God of the gospels, who in this way prefigures Christ himself.”
[viii]Protestant theologian and activist during Hitler’s Germany, Dietrich Bonheoffer, wrote from prison in 1933:
The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings. . . . This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankindDietrich Bonhoeffer,The Mystery of the Holy Night, ed. Manfred Webber (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 6. The text was translated originally by Peter Heinegg from Bonhoeffer, Werke,vol. 9.
"Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
"Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
"Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
"One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
"When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
"Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
"It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball