What Do You See? 1-14-18

Today is the second sermon in our series, Captured by Mystery. Again this week we notice, as we listen to scripture, the repetition and prominence of particular words. This week one word that repeats is “see” or “I saw you.” Guess how many times it appears? Five times. So the subtitle for today’s sermon is “What Do You See?”

Martin Luther King jr. was assassinated when I was 15 years old. I had no idea when he died how much his life would change mine. I couldn’t see him. didn’t know how much the heart that he gave for the beloved community would transform our times. We thank God today for his legacy and for the inspiration of his life that continues to inspire our times to prophetic action.

John 1:43-51 Philip sought out Nathanael & said to him, “We’ve found the One that Moses spoke of in the Law, the One about whom the prophets wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph.” “From Nazareth?” said Nathanael, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” “Come & see,” replied Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he remarked, “This one is a real Israelite. There is no guile to him.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked him. Jesus answered, “Before Philip even went to call you while you were sitting under the fig tree, I saw you.” “Rabbi,” said Nathanael, “you’re God’s Own, you’re the ruler of Israel!” Jesus said, “Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You’ll see much great-er things than that.” Jesus went on to tell them, “The truth of the matter is you will see heaven opened, & the angels of God ascending & descending upon the Chosen One.”

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Dr. King and how that legacy has effected our lives, what it has helped us to see.

Jan. 14, 2018

Captured by Mystery: What do you See?   Human Relations Sunday

I still remember a lecture in one of my very first classes in college. The professor of sociology/anthropology stood in front of a class of a hundred or so freshman in a theater-like classroom. His name was professor David Andrews. He enthusiastically touted the field of anthropology, and this was the example he gave. “If I told you right now that this lecture was over, what would happen?”

We looked at each other and thought for a minute. Finally, somebody raised their hand and gave the obvious answer, “We’d think about what to do next.” And Dr. Andrews exclaimed, “Exactly! You’d figure out what to do next! Now in some cultures that is not what would happen! Our culture is all about doing. But some cultures, people don’t think that way, and they might just sit there enjoying the time and each other, rather than thinking about what to do next.”

This lecture was a revelation to me, an epiphany. It opened my eyes to a different way of experience. I could hardly imagine seeing or acting that differently. I immediately wanted to learn more about the different ways that cultures think and act. I never really learned to see differently though, until I moved out of my comfort zone and acted differently – living with people in different places, getting to know people.

 

The Gospel of John uses the metaphor of sight, light and darkness, all the way through, to illustrate their community’s understanding of Christ’s way of seeing that could bring … insight and understanding to anybody who followed Jesus. Our assigned passage for this morning, comes from near the beginning of the gospel, talking about the calling of the disciples, Philip and Nathanael. Philip seeks out Nathanael to tell him about Jesus, saying “This is the One, Jesus of Nazareth.”

And Nathanael scoffs, as people sometimes do, “Nazareth? What good ever came out of that little hole?” Philip just says, “Come and see!” When Nathanael gets over to Jesus, though, Nathanael is the one who is seen. Jesus says, “here in one in whom there is no guile.” Here’s somebody who has no deceit -  honest and straight-forward. And Nathanael feels seen, immediately feels like this person sees into his soul & knows him. He’s surprised, & says “How do you know me? You never saw me before.”

Jesus responds, “Oh, I saw you alright. Under that fig tree over there.” Nathanael knows that Jesus sees in a deeper way than he ever understood before, and recognizes him as God’s own, ruler of Israel. And Jesus is like, “You’re with me just because I saw you under a fig tree? You’re going to see much bigger things than this. Wait til you see!

Jesus went on to tell them, “The truth of the matter is you will see heaven opened, & the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Chosen One.” This statement of Jesus reminds us, of course of Jacob’s ladder – of Jacob’s dream of an opening and angels going down and up – connecting the worlds of Spirit and physical creation. Again, the passage points to being able to see a mystery, seeing beyond the present reality into a deeper reality.

 

To begin to see with new eyes, we have to notice – and usually be humbled by noticing – that the way we usually see is extraordinarily limited. We see what we want to see, we see what we have always seen. (My wife comes home from the hair-dresser and I don’t notice anything. Finally, she says, “Well, do you like my hair cut!?” and I realize I hadn’t really looked at her.) We don’t see what is right in front of us. Just to save time, we see what we expect to see, or we see with our pre-judgments of fear, dismissal, judgment and mistrust without really looking. What my professor did way back – he helped me see a different way, helped me notice not everybody is the same.

To really see, it seems we have to be stunned, a little awestruck – we have to be captured by mystery, captured by goodness, truth, beauty – and allow ourselves to really notice the way God sees all the time. God sees us with eyes of compassion, sees all of us as part of God’s creation, even when we’re stuck in our prejudice, fear or blindness. God sees us and loves us anyway, and invites us to give up our blinders.

 

In his last sermon, on the evening before he was shot down outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offered a conclusion that serves well as a starting point for us in 2018. After declaring that America was sick in 1968, facing troubling times, King made this resolution:

“Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school—be there. Be concerned about your brother [and sister]. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.”

King did not live to see another 24 hours of that pivotal year in American history, but 50 years later we face a similar collective crisis as we begin 2018. We face a crisis of blindness, fear, isolation, and denial. The Good News is that the Living God sees us as we are and invites us to see each other as we really are, to notice how different we are from each other, to notice we have different assumptions and different backgrounds and different responses.

The Good News is that God invites us out of our comfort zones, to see differently, to get to know people in all their different ways and cultures. The Good News is that we are all created equal by God and that we all can learn to see, as Martin Luther King saw – the limitations and the possibilities of the grand experiment that is freedom and democracy in United States and the world. Once you plant that seed of freedom and democracy, it doesn’t grow just in one place. It’s going to grow all over the place.

I know the craziness of our times and our culture gets us tired sometimes, wears us down and wears us out – but as the spiritual we are going to sing today says, God will take our hand, lead us on. God will get us through the storm, through the night, and lead us on to the light – until we can see each other, hold each other, love each other as God’s Own.

Responsive hymn  474  Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Captured by Mystery 1-7-18

Epiphany, the celebration of the magi, the three kings, and for much of the world, the celebration of Christmas, next year will be on Sunday, January 6, 2019. So this year, instead of reading the story of the three kings, I decided for our second reading to read the assigned reading from the epistles, this little noticed but beautiful passage from Ephesians. After studying it a bit and being taken by its emphasis on mystery, that theme grew and became the theme not only for today, but for the month, and then, in my mind for the season coming up – maybe for the whole year. What are we about, after all, if not the mystery of the power & the love of the Living God? Listen for God’s word for you today:

Ephesians 3:1-12 For I, Paul—a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— am sure that you have heard of God’s grace, of which I was made a steward on your behalf; this mystery, as I have briefly described it, was given to me by revelation. When you read this, you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was unknown to the people of former ages, but is now revealed by the Spirit to the holy apostles and prophets. That mystery is that the Gentiles are heirs, as are we; members of the Body, as are we and partakes of the promise of Jesus the messiah through the Good News, as are we. I became a minister of the Good News by the gift of divine grace given me through the working of God’s power. To me, the least of all believers, was given the grace to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ and to enlighten all people on the mysterious design which for ages was hidden God, the Creator of all. Now, therefore, through the church, God’s manifold wisdom is made known to the rulers and powers of heaven, in accord with the age-old design, carried out in Christ Jesus our Savior, in whom we have boldness and confident access to God through our faith in Christ.  

January 7, 2018

Captured by Mystery

I loved mysteries when I was growing up. I loved reading Sherlock Holmes. I still love the new PBS modern adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I don’t read them very often these days, but in honor of this sermon series, I downloaded a Dublin murder mystery novel, Broken Harbor, by Tana French on my phone.

It has me totally engaged – to the point that, rather than writing this sermon, I just wanted to hear what happened next to Detective Scorcher Kennedy and his sidekick Richie as they worked to figure out who committed murder in a Dublin suburb.

The Bible contains very different kinds of mysteries. Rather than engaging us in page-turning stories of apprehension of criminals, the Bible invites us in through stories of comprehension of God’s creation, of our purpose in that creation, and of the power and presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. In our passage for today, Paul – or whoever was writing later in Paul’s name, presents “the mystery of Christ” to the people of Ephesus.  That mystery, he says, is that Gentiles have now become, through Christ’s crucifixion, part of the Body of Christ – united with the Jewish community in receiving the ever-widening power of God’s grace and inclusion.

We may understand today that God’s grace always included Gentiles, but in Paul’s time and place that was a new and mysterious revelation. Paul also was coming to understand that in God’s grace and God’s love, there was no Gentile nor Jew, neither slave nor free, neither male or female. Today, we are still struggling to understand the mystery of God’s grace that continues to widen in our minds, that expands to truly include all women and men, all religions, all races, gay and straight and transgendered, all together. We can hardly imagine God’s grace extending even farther and then it does!

In Paul’s plot the reader is not the one who declares to the perpetrator, “I got you!” In the mystery of faith, according to Paul, Christ is the one who apprehends us. Paul calls it being a “prisoner of Christ,” since he is ostensibly writing this letter from prison. Though he’s in prison, he says, that by being a prisoner of Christ, he feels totally free. another mystery.

We may have our own similar moments of epiphany when we realize, like the three magi, that we are not the hunters, that we are the hunted. We think that we are searching for God, but when we dig deeper into the mystery of our faith, we find out that God is the one who is searching. There are so many mysteries in our faith, in the Bible, in our lives. Here’s the mystery that Paul brings to us today, “Why would the Living God search for us?” Why would God bother coming after us? That’s why I’m calling this sermon series, “captured by mystery.”, because the awesome mystery is that when we figure out what God is doing, we find out that we have already been captured! see what I’m saying? (mind-blowing) Epiphany!

 

I look forward to exploring this mystery and other similar mysteries in 2018. In 1996, I never thought I would be your pastor in 2018. Paul calls himself the least of all believers and is amazed that he gets to be a messenger of God’s grace. I may think more highly of myself than Paul does – but that may qualify me even less to be such a privileged messenger of the Good News.

While my words and my sermons may be inadequate, the church and Paul always held together the paradox of mystery and the gift of sacrament. Holy Communion is a ritual in which we don’t show ourselves to be great accomplished people or particularly sensitive Christians. This meal is simply a means by which we come closer to the mystery of grace, closer to each other, closer to Christ.

In the sacraments, we for a moment stop acting as though we can solve mysteries and in a marvelous moment of epiphany, we allow the mysteries to solve us. In this bread and in this cup, we know the Living God in Christ to say, “I got you!”

This is God’s good news.

Restoration: A New Year 12-31-17

My son was watching a sports commentator last week, the day after Christmas. He was talking about being glad we could stop singing Christmas carols now and take down the tree and get on to regular life and football again. Technically, I know I’m right to point out that Christmas had just begun and that there are 12 more days of it. I’m glad too that the commercial Christmas is over. But I hope we can linger just a bit on the real Christmas.

Today, on this one Sunday of Christmas, we read about Jesus as a very young child. Today we sing Christmas carols. Today we celebrate love born anew and presented for us to claim as part of us. Listen for the word of God for you today. (I just ask you to listen for one thing in particular. Notice how many times the Law is mentioned.)

Luke 2:22-40 When the day came for them to be purified, as laid down by the Law of Moses, the couple took Jesus up to Jerusalem and presented him to God. For it’s written in the Law of our God, “Every firstborn heir is to be consecrated to God.” They likewise came to offer in sacrifice “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” in accord with the dictate of the Law of our God. Now there lived in Jerusalem a man named Simeon.  He was devout and just, anticipating the consolation of Israel, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. She had revealed to Simeon that he wouldn’t see death until he had seen the Messiah of God. Prompted by her, Simeon came to the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child to perform the customary rituals of the Law, he took the child in his arms and praised God, saying, Now, O God, you can dismiss your servant in peace just as you promised because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the peoples to see— a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” As the child’s mother and father stood there marveling at the things that were being said, Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, the mother, “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that is rejected. so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.  And a sword will pierce your heart as well.” There was a woman named Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, who was also a prophet.  She had lived a long life, seven years with her husband, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.  She never left the Temple, worshipping day and night, fasting and praying. Coming up at that moment , she gave thanks to God and talked about the child to all who anticipated the deliverance of Jerusalem. When the couple had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the Law of God, they returned to Galilee and their own town of Nazareth. The child grew in size and strength.  He was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was with him.

December 31, 2017 Restoration: A New Year St. Luke UMC

I held my baby for the first time on June 29, 1995. I will never forget. My body will never forget. It still gives me goosebumps. My baby boy Elijah had been born Tuesday evening in Pittsburgh. Cathy and I got the call the next morning and flew out that evening. Thursday morning, Elijah’s birth mother gently handed him to Catherine.

And after a good long, loving, tear-filled moment or two, she let me hold him. So little, so perfect, so vulnerable, so beautiful. It’s a cliche to say it, but I was immediately in love, kind of engulfed in love. You know that song, “Love Lifted Me.” to which Marilyn’s father always sang, “put me down?” I felt lifted by love. I felt lifted off the ground – like I was floating through the airport back home.

Any of us who have held a baby can just begin to imagine how Mary and Joseph felt, carrying their baby to the Temple to be consecrated to God. I imagine them floating into the Temple, ready for a blessing, but already blessed. They felt just a little reluctant to hand their baby to someone else, even for just a moment.

I asked you, by the way to notice how many times the word ‘Law’ is mentioned in this short passage. The answer is five times. Five times in this short passage. Luke is saying something in the details of this passage – that this family was faithful, careful to fulfill the Law, the obligations of their faith.

They brought their precious child to the Temple to be consecrated to God’s love. It was a formality, of course. They felt they had been consecrated to God’s love by the baby. The ceremony was important to the, but it was a formality. The other detail in the passage that says a lot is that they sacrificed 2 turtledoves – the offering of a poor family which could not afford to purchase a lamb for the ceremony.

 

The main consecration comes from Simeon. Luke says that Simeon is an old man and that God promised Simeon that he would not die before he witnessed salvation in human form – the Christ. Simeon sings, now your servant may depart in peace.  Sing 226 – Nunc Dimitis. My Master, see, the time has come to give your servant leave, to go in peace, long waited for, your promise now fulfilled.

For I have seen salvation, Lord. Now may the whole world see that light which is your Israel’s boast enlightening every land.

Simeon’s song is a blessing for the child – but even more a blessing for the world – an inclusive blessing. Simeon sings, “now may the whole world, gentiles and Jews alike, see that light, that revelation of your love.”

It is a beautiful blessing. Last Sunday, I closed my sermon on the Magnificat with the claim that the “world is about to turn.” The sentiment is similar here. Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity After Religion makes a similar claim. She says, “Strange as it may seem in this time of cultural anxiety, economic near collapse, terrorist fear, political violence, environmental crisis, and partisan anger, I believe that the United States (and not only the United States) is caught up in the throes of a spiritual awakening, a period of sustained religious and political transformation during which our ways of seeing the world, understanding ourselves, and expressing faith are being, to borrow a phrase, ‘born again.’”

I believe this is true. It may be difficult to see because change produces so much fear and swings of reaction. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul has a marvelous line: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). As we come to the end of the year, we are in the midst of bigger endings that makes room for big beginnings – room for the Spirit, room for a movement of compassion and hope.

There is a new birth of love happening in our world that we get to be part of. This birth is as inspiring as the birth of a baby. Christmas/New Year’s is the perfect time to celebrate these new possibilities when we often symbolize these hope with a baby. Today, we have the extra beauty of Simeon and Anna – elderly people in the temple, blessing the baby and declaring the New Time. Now your servant may depart in peace, because I have seen the baby. I have seen the sign of your new day. I feel the goosebumps of love being born anew and presented to us. So, let us present ourselves to love. to be servants of love in the new year.

 

Responsive Hymn 3060 Jesus, Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child

Christmas Eve sermon

Luke 2:1-20

She survived by covering herself with a mattress in the bathroom in the middle of the house. Last night I called a dear friend of Catherine’s, to ask her to tell me about a harrowing experience she went through. Her name is Paule Brie, and on her 40th birthday, she survived Hurricane Iniki, a category 5 hurricane, on the Garden Island of Kauai, Hawaii.

Paule is really identifying with the people of the island of Puerto Rico this year, remembering what it was like to go through the storm and what it was like to be without water and electricity on a hot island where all the plants and all the amenities of life are gone. To tell the truth, I was calling her to get a sermon example for tonight. I had a particular sermon example in mind.

To get the sermon example I wanted, I asked her about the eye of the storm. How was it in the eye of the storm, after the first part of the hurricane hit, wasn’t it a great relief to have that lull? I wanted her to tell me for that moment, all was calm and all was bright. I wanted to tell you about the eye of the storm and talk about how we in this sanctuary tonight are in a similar peaceful kind of place, in the midst of the particular storms in each of our lives.

So I asked Paule how it was in the eye of Hurricane Iniki. Did you have that feeling that all was calm and all was bright? And she said, “Uh, yeah – No.”

She said, “Listen, David, if you know anything about hurricanes, you know that after you get through the first part of the hurricane, the second part comes around from the other way, and because it’s blowing the exact opposite of the first half, it does even more damage than before. The eye of the hurricane didn’t go right over us, so we only had a few minutes to catch our breath before the next 3 hours of storm. After we came out, I could hardly talk for nearly 2 weeks.” This was not the “all is calm, all is bright” story I was looking for.

 

When I looked back at the story of the birth of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, I realized that the eye of the storm didn’t last that long for the holy family either. The story is full of trouble and difficulty from the beginning as they get rather disturbing messages that Mary is going to be ‘overshadowed’ by the Holy Spirit and she will get pregnant – but Joseph shouldn’t worry about any of that. And then they have to travel to Bethlehem because of an oppressive Roman imperial census, and they get there and there’s no room for them in the upper room…. excuse I have to take a slight detour here to explain -  the word that we usually translate “inn” as there is no room for them in the inn, is the same word that is translated elsewhere “upper room.”

The upper room was the guest room, like a shack on the roof – in a house where most people stayed on the first floor – a kind of ledge built up from the lower level where the animals were brought in to provide some warmth during the night.

There was no room for them in the upper room, – where guests would usually be invited, so they had to stay down with the animals. So Jesus was born lowly, but not lonely, laid in a feeding trough. There were other creatures around. Not really very calm and bright, really.

 

In Luke’s version of the story there were no kings with gifts, no frankincense, no gold, no myrrh -  just ordinary old shepherds. There were just shepherds told that they would get a sign. And your ears might perk up at least at that. There will be a sign – some kind of miracle or wondrous occurrence or talking animal. But no this will be the sign – you will find a baby in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, a feeding trough, lowly, but not lonely.

And when we hear that there was no room in the inn for the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph, and we find out that the word for inn is the same as for upper room, the upper room -where later a meal would happen on the night before Jesus was betrayed and killed – that was certainly a reminder of worse storms to come. There were much worse storms to come.

I kind of had to talk to God about these storms and the trouble that our babies face. And God said something similar to what Paule said to me. God said, “Listen David, if you know anything about babies, you know that they bring their own storms – and their own wonder, their own awesome peace in the middle of the storm. It’s rarely all calm and bright. I can’t keep you from the trouble you make. But the baby is always a sign, a sign of new life and new love.”

 

Paule finished telling me her story about Hurricane Iniki and told me how her heart aches for the people of Puerto Rico right now. And almost as an afterthought she said, “You know, David. The fruit trees around our house – the grapefruit tree and the lime tree. They seemed to know the storm was coming. They dropped all their fruit and all their leaves before the winds hit.

And after the storm, both on Kauai and in Puerto Rico – people came with trucks and saws and they were ready to cut down these empty, dead trunks sticking out of the wasteland. But when they looked closely, they saw that the branches on the trunks had buds on them. They all had buds just a couple of days later and they came back stronger and better than ever.

 

In the middle of the storms of our lives, even knowing that there will be storms to come, sometimes even worse storms to come – in the middle of those storms, we receive a sign. It probably won’t be miracles or kings. It may be a brief respite of calm in the eye of the storm. It may be new life growing on a leafless, lifeless trunk. It may be the cry of a baby and the promise of a voice for peace, a voice for fairness in the middle of the storm.

Tonight we celebrate God’s promise – in this place of calmness in the middle of the storms of our lives. Tonight we celebrate God’s promise that we are not alone, that there is love being born – even in difficult times, a love bigger than we can fully comprehend incarnated into our world. Tonight we celebrate for this brief time together – then, fortified with the reminder of the baby, God’s love born anew into our community – we go out to face the storm with new courage and hope.

Morning, Noon, & Night 12-24-17

Luke 1:47-55  My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, And my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior. For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant, and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed. For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your Name. Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you. You have shown strength with your arm; you have scattered the proud in their conceit; You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty. You have come to the aid of Israel your servant, mindful of your mercy – The promise you made to our ancestors – to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants forever.

This morning is for Mary. Protestants don’t really make as big a deal about Mary as Catholic folk do. But I know some Protestant folk, as well as some former Catholic folk, who hold a sweet place in their heart for the mother of Jesus. This morning is for Mary. The passage which Pastor Joanne read, the Magnificat, has been my main focus of study for today. We read this poem just about every year, and it always grabs me. This year, it seems even more resonant and important than ever. First let’s read a little earlier in the gospel of Luke to see what led up to the poetic proclamation of Mary. Listen.

Luke 1:26-38 Six months later, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a young woman, named Mary; she was engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary, “Rejoice, highly favored one! God is with you! Blessed are you among women!” Mary was deeply troubled by these words & wondered what the angel’s greeting meant. The angel went on to say to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You’ll conceive & bear a son, & give him the name of Jesus— ‘Deliverance.’ His dignity will be great, and he will be called the Only Begotten of God. God will give Jesus the judgment seat  of David, his ancestor, to rule over the house of Jacob forever, & his reign will never end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have never been with a man?” The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you & the power of the Most High will overshadow you—hence the offspring  to be born will be called the Holy One of God. Know too that Elizabeth, your kinswoman, as conceived a child in her old age; she who was thought to be infertile is now in her sixth month. Nothing is impossible with God.” Mary said, “I am the servant of God. Let it be done to me as you say.” With that, the angel left her.

December 24, 2017

Morning, Noon, & Night 

Girls are really smart. And I don’t say that just to get points with the majority of people here. I’ve always thought so. Girls are strong too. Remember in elementary school when girls were faster and taller than the boys – and stronger? Some of that head start persists. Girls are tough. I knew my mom was tough. It didn’t really occur to me that having four boys under the age of 5 years old might be a challenge because my mother never seemed to have a problem with it. She was tireless, as far as I could tell. She worked morning, noon and night without complaint.

Girls are smart and strong and tough. One of the girls in my high school class and church, who I later understood came from a working class background, became a professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago. Smart! She always got better grades than I did, and she also knew that grades didn’t really matter.

I could tell that those competitive systems were difficult for many of the girls and many of the guys as well. But the guys took to the competitive games more than the girls did – and something happened in high school that seemed to make the girls drop out of the competition for grades and status. They knew there was something wrong with it and decided not to keep playing the game.

I always thought that my mother was smarter and stronger than she felt she was. When I started appreciating feminism when I moved to Philadelphia in the late 1970’s and 80’s it made me start thinking differently about her and about the world. I started writing letters to my parents made out to “Mrs. and Mr. Louise Tatgenhorst” to tweak the system that constantly made women invisible and women’s work harder but unappreciated.

Women hold most churches together. Women’s leadership and women’s ministry are often the foundation of a congregation’s work in the world. Men are important too, of course, and I love that the men’s ministry in this church has been growing, but without the work of the women in this church and most churches, we’d be in trouble. That’s why I’m really proud of the United Methodist Church for being in the lead in main line churches in ordaining women and appointing women to be district superintendents and bishops and pastors of important churches.

 

I think of all these things when I read Mary’s awesome, poetic declaration of gratitude, blessing and possibility that we call the Magnificat. The Magnificat gets that name from the first word in the Latin translation of the poem. Luke places it in the gospel right after Mary learns she is pregnant. It is her grateful and amazed declaration that now everything is turned around – that if she, a poor peasant girl from Nowhere, Palestine, has been chosen to bear the Son of God, then everything is up for grabs.

She proclaims that God has “deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places.” We always noticed that her ecstatic speech is in the past tense, as though this amazing turnaround has already happened. The magnitude of the occurrence makes it possible to imagine that everything has been set right already!

I named my sermon for this morning “Morning, Noon, and Night” to recognize how Mary plays with time in her speech and because I saw that I would be preaching all day today. (I know some pastors who are preaching at 4 services today, so don’t feel sorry for me. And some of you probably remember days when people spent the whole day in church every week!) Anyway, I’ve spoken about this before, how God’s time is different than human time, and past, present, and future may all be part of one moment of kairos time. Tonight we’ll notice how that happens when we’re in the presence of a baby, whose time sense is radically in the present.

 

I particularly appreciate Mary’s boldness this year. You might doubt, especially this year, her confidence that God has “filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.” Things seem to be moving in just the opposite direction. But I trust Mary’s confidence. It’s not easy to see. But things are changing. Look how the #MeToo movement, spearheaded by Tarana Burke 10 years ago, has gained steam this year to power a nationwide conversation about sexual assault and harassment. It’s an important conversation and a conversation we just have to have as part of God’s empowering of the lowly, bringing down at least some of the high and mighty.

Some people would not read the #MeToo movement into the Magnificat, but it’s there for me. Part of the beauty of the poem is how inclusive it is of everyone’s real needs. The song embodies “the reality of both/and.” Just as Mary embodies the polarity of being virgin and mother, she shows us how we can be people both of the heart and of the head, both mystical and resistant, both contemplative and justice-oriented, both spiritually active and socially active.” When we identify with Mary’s song, we are all pregnant with the possibility of new life.

Some years, the Christmas pageant and the fourth Sunday of Advent is quite separate from Christmas Eve. Last year it was a full week. This year it’s just a few hours. Morning to evening. Tonight we celebrate the coming of the Child – the real difference that has been made, that is being made, that will be made by this holy reality, that the world is about to turn.

Responsive Hymn Canticle of the Turning