Albuquerque New Mexico
Sunday August 15, Feast of St. Mary the Virgin
Text: Luke 1: 46-55 Magnificat
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Theme: Singing Magnificat into our Lives
As a young man growing up in a sectarian Pentecostal church we didn’t go in for St. Mary the Virgin much. She was not a part of our world. That changed when I became an art history major and encountered for the first time in my life the phenomenon of Madonna fatigue. You too may have had it wandering around the world’s great museums through gallery after gallery of Medieval and Renaissance art crammed with images of Mary and her child Jesus, your legs aching looking for those precious benches, your mind full, your eyes on overload, you heart full of motherly affection. People around you are saying things like, “There are so many pictures of her.” In fact, you may have to work at it a bit but perhaps you could get your own kind of Madonna fatigue going here at St. Michael’s today as we celebrate The Feast of the Virgin Mary in the warmth and fecundity of summer.
To talk of Mary is to speak of a powerful mystery. Mary is visited by The Angel Gabriel who carries the strange and surprising message of God. Understandably “Mary was greatly troubled.” Whenever we encounter the Holiness of God or something transcendent and beyond ourselves our immediate response is fear and the peasant girl Mary was no different. Of course the first thing angels always say in the bible is “Don’t be afraid” which is very sneaky way to point out that God is constantly calling us beyond our fears into life.
An honest reading of the biblical stories reveals that much of the bible can be understood in the categories of fear and faith. The opposite of faith in the scriptures seems to be anxiety or fear. As people we are often controlled and absorbed by our fears. We fear so many things. We fear whatever we cannot control. We fear a future we cannot see. We fear a complexity we do not understand. We fear being lonely. We fear changes in our world that are not easy or comfortable or familiar. We fear our own aging and death. Ultimately I suppose we fear God because God is so far beyond us, so totally wild, and so totally beyond our ability to control.
But there is good news in the midst of all this fear and that Good News is revealed through the surprising person of the peasant girl Mary. The Good News is that God has breached that fear, he has broken through it and come into our life, become one of us in the person of Jesus. In essence the gift of Jesus through Mary is God’s way of saying, “You don’t have to live in fear anymore, listen to what my messenger is saying, “Don’t be afraid.”
This of course is why Mary is so important. She is the model Christian, the prototype, and Go-to-girl of the Christian faith. Why? Because God comes to her, he comes into her life and does something really fantastic by announcing the divine presence within her. As it turns out, Mary is no different than us. We all have the capacity to discover God at work in us. God comes to each of us announcing the divine presence within us. Mary shows us the way. Mary’s experience is simply a story about everyone’s baptism in the Spirit of God. God is present to us, available to us even before we are aware of the divine presence. This is why the grace at baptism is as real for children as it is for adults, the divine presence is already at work, already initiating relationship. God is already offering God’s self to us even before we have invited God into our lives.
For centuries Mary has been understood as the quintessential contemplative presence in the scriptures. She is not doing anything special when God chooses her. She is simply living a simple ordinary life the best way she knows how. She doesn’t change drastically. She simply submits to God’s work. She does what any good Galilean girl would have done. She becomes a good mother attentive to her child and the voice of God in her life. She flees with Joseph and the child when God tells her that her son is in danger. Thus Mary and the Holy Family become and immigrant family, living in a foreign land, fearing for their safety, and hiding from the authorities for some years to protect and care for this child of God.
Mary is the model contemplative in that she simply receives the message of God, ponders it in her heart and embraces what God asks of her. In our world of drivenness where overachiever go-getter climber types are honored, Mary stands apart from the crowd. She listens, is receptive and from that receptivity flows her action that is all at once world repairing, relationship building, good news action. As one theologian put it what we learn from Mary is profoundly counter-cultural it is not “Just do it!” but rather “Don’t just do something, stand there.” One’s Being precedes one’s doing. Both are essential aspects of the spiritual life but one’s action flows out of knowing who you are or to whom you belong.
Mary is the recipient of a Great Mystery that she could not have understood with her human mind. She had to accept this internal mystery on faith and hope that she could live-into it. In essence Mary said “I don’t know what it will mean, I don’t know where it will lead, I don’t know what it will require, but I know god is asking it of me, and I say yes, wholeheartedly yes, with no reservations, Yes.”
Of course this receptivity, this surrender to God is what makes Mary’s life and example so compelling to us. We know that we too are called to this surrender to God’s purposes to God’s calling on our life and most of the time we run like hell to avoid hearing God’s voice. But Mary is here in our midst as an example, calling us to our own best selves, calling us to the fullness that is to be found in God and in saying Yes, yes to the Spirit’s leading, yes to the wildness of God, Yes to God’s quirky sense of humor.
In Luke’s gospel the “Yes” of Mary takes the unusually beautiful shape of a hymn we call the Magnificat. When she travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth, a song grows within her just as the child Jesus is growing inside of her. The music that emerges from Mary is a beautiful hymn of divine praise that expresses the very center of the Christian faith. The trouble with this hymn is that it is such a subversive piece of music that several times in its history it has been suppressed. In Latin America, during our lifetime one government actually declared this Song of Mary illegal.
Music has a way of getting inside of you. Luke is clever and poetic. Luke knows that if he can get the beautiful music of Mary inside of you, that you can be transformed from the inside out by the presence of God at work and the transforming message that comes to us from the lips of this poor Galilean girl.
The second movement of the song is where the juicy bits are. What God has done for Mary anticipates what God will do for the poor, the oppressed and the powerless of the world. The Magnificat is a kind of radical prayer that speaks of religious, political, social and economic liberation. It is little wonder that it has become the favorite prayer of struggling people and troubled nations. People who are fighting for their freedoms and looking for sense of hope love the Magnificat. For them the song on Mary’s lips makes her the kind of radical Christian that they long to see in action.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
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.
When you read this prayer, you understand why the wealthy and powerful, those with all the control, might not want this song on the lips of the people who are searching for a better life, struggling for freedom, trying to escape grinding poverty, and wanting something better for their children. It is a song of hope and resistance. One of the most extraordinary aspects of this song is that Mary sings it as if it has already taken place. For Mary to speak of what God has done is to announce what God will do. Mary uses the past tense of the verbs to describe the action of God. So sure is she as the singer that God will do what is promised that it is proclaimed as an accomplished fact.
Mary sings of a God who brings down the powerful and who lifts up the lowly, who fills the stomachs of the hungry and sends the rich empty away. Within this song the powerful theology of God’s preferential concern for the poor and oppressed. There is also a sense of God’s judgment, a final and surprising reversal of fortunes, in this song. The powerful rich exchange places with the powerless poor. The Eschatological reversal, the making things right at the end of time, has already begun in the singing of this song and God’s choice of the peasant girl Mary is surely evidence of the kingdom of God breaking in. Mary’s song invites us into this reality of God, to share God’s vision for repairing the world, healing the wrongs, lifting up the lowly, protecting the vulnerable. The song of Mary invites us to use our wealth our resources to free ourselves for service and for being truly human toward others. To use our talents and gift to create meaningful family and human life around us that pays attention to those who are often overlooked.
Mary’s song tells us that God is bringing about a new kingdom, one in which there is no longer some who have the power and some who are oppressed. What emerges from Mary’s song is a vision of one family of God. And for many of us it makes sense that these words would come from a woman who understands the relational nature of life, who relates more to meeting real needs than to hierarchy. Mary sings a song that is in a sense a wonderful circle, the circle of God’s redeeming love lived out in her life, a circle that turns the world’s ways upside-down and opens us to the new way of life she is preparing to birth into the world. We are all like Mary called to nurture Christ within us and to give birth to a newness that will not allow business as usual but will through the song we sing participate in turning world upside down in Christ’s radical love.
I want to conclude in an odd way with a difficult local story from Albuquerque that illustrates the complexity of an issue that is so fiercely dividing our country I’m not sure what will happen and I imagine neither are you.
A little over two weeks ago a 3rd year architecture student at UNM with a 3.8 GPA was driving his younger sister to register for classes at UNM after some course work at CNM. On the freeway there they were pulled over by an aviation enforcement officer for a reason that was later described as speeding. As it turned out the architecture student had been in the United States for 15 years since he was 7 and was an unauthorized immigrant. As the “traffic stop” progressed with the officer asking to see his proof of status, the young man summoned his parents to the scene. Can you imagine getting that terrifying call for help from your son? Eventually the Albuquerque Police Department arrived as well as ICE the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In the ensuing action since the young college student could not produce his paperwork his family was told that he would be deported, his father fearing for his son, was voluntarily deported with him as well. They were dropped on the bridge to Juarez a few hours later. The sudden end of a 15 year academic journey, a family broken apart, and fear now spreading through the immigrant community in this city. Is this to be business as usual in a fearful land?
I wonder what it would mean for us to sing the Magnificat into this story?
I realize that this is a challenging sermon that views a complex issue through our own biblical story in an unusual way. Our Christian story is a powerful path into understanding things in ways that cut across political lines and focus on the heart of God for his people. I believe that our politics, the way we treat people, needs to be informed by our biblical stories and the values and affections that emerge from within our Christian tradition. I’m indebted to the family who is living this nightmarish story for the honor of hearing it from them. I also wish to acknowledge the writing on the Gospel of Luke by Richard Rohr from which I drawn for this sermon.