And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Scattering the Proud and Lifting the Lowly: Luke 1:46-55
This week, they have been laboring in Santa Barbara. Well, they've been laboring in lots of places, but I've been reading about a particular kind of labor that has been going on in California. The fires there have been terrifying. Have you seen the pictures? There's this one of people driving down a highway, with green road signs in front of them. At first it looks like any normal day, but then you realize that the sky is filled with fire. It looks like the end of the world. In the middle of these fires, people are working. As the fires have burned in the state over these last several months, at least 15,000 firefighters have been dispatched to protect the people, animals, and property of California. About 1600 of those firefighters are in prison.
According to one article are read about these inmate firefighters, the people who work as firefighters while they are in prison can contribute up to 3 million firefighting hours to the state of California each year. Some people really want to do the work. They feel like pay is better and, because it is work that is both very needed and very dangerous, they may have some of their sentence reduced based on time in the field. For example, for every day they live at the firefighters' camp and have good behavior, they get two days off their sentence. During the fires back in October, some of them worked 80 hours in a row without breaks. That can quickly amount to many days off a sentence. According to one woman, Romarilyn Ralston, who had helped trained some of the incarcerated women firefighters when she herself was in prison, these days off their sentences is the real reason many people work as firefighters.
Women, in particular, who are in prison often have children and are typically in jail for non-violent offenses. Ralston sayd that these women may want to show they are "redeemable." They want to support their children as much as they can, even if they are only making $2 a day, and they want to get out and get back to their kids as fast as they can. So they put their bodies on the line, even if they really don't want to fight fires, so they can get home faster. Redemption is on the fire line. In saving others from fire, they are trying to save themselves for their children. I don't know for sure if any of these women have been working in the fires in Santa Barbara this week, but I bet they have. I hope you'll remember them. Remember their dangerous work and the fact that many of them will not be able to be firefighters when they get out of prison, despite having experience doing it. Many fire companies won't hire people with criminal records.
In a different part of southern California, a different group of people is laboring. But they aren't fighting fires. They are making music. They are professional musicians and people who make music because they love it. They are people who have somewhere safe and warm to live and they are people who are experiencing homelessness. Some of them, like the firefighters, are in prison. They sing and play and compose together, looking for healing and redemption in music. They make music together throughout the year, but one of their most beloved events happens in early December. It's called Project Messiah. It is a community singalong celebration held at the Midnight Mission, a social service agency that serves people experiencing homelessness, most of whom live in the Skid Row community of Los Angeles. The people who gather sing and play all kinds of songs: some from Handel's Messiah, others composed and created by members of the Skid Row community, and often works commissioned by professional musicians. Community members and members of the LA Philharmonic, the LA Master Chorale, and the Colburn School (a local performing arts school) will have solos, sing in the choirs, and play instruments together.
A journalist named Alex Ross went to this year's Project Messiah back on December 8th (there's a video of the performance. I'll link to it after the sermon). He also spent some time in the Skid Row community and at Midnight Mission, talking to the performers and organizers of the event. In an article in an upcoming edition of the New Yorker, Ross shared several stories that he learned from Project Messiah. I wanted to make sure to share one story from a man named Brian Palmer. Mr. Palmer was experiencing homeless as well as heroin addiction. He met people from Street Symphony a couple years ago when he sought help for his addiction. He had always loved to sing, even having been a part of church choirs at one point in his life. Singing ended up being a great help to him in the early days of his addiction recovery. He started taking voice lessons from one of the professional musicians in Street Symphony and, about a year after seeking help to get sober, attended the workshops that help people prepare for Project Messiah.
He prepared an aria from "Messiah" called "The People That Walked in Darkness," based on these words from the prophet Isaiah: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined." He shared some thoughts on this piece of music:
When I came here, three years ago, I didn’t know where my life was going to take me. I just knew that I needed to change, and that I needed help. When I was walking through my life in addiction, and the darkness and the hell I had created for myself, it was like the phoenix coming out of the darkness and seeing the light.
After speaking of the shadow-side of his life and the process of reaching towards a new light and life, Palmer sang the ancient words. People who heard him sing believed that he knew what it meant to walk through the land of the shadow of death. They felt it when he sang of being called into a new light. I think this is what they might mean when they talk about a redemption song. Brian Palmer still sings with a choir called Urban Voices, another Skid Row/Colburn School musical group. I hope you will remember him and all the other folks living and laboring on Skid Row.
It is very nearly Christmas Day, and in our scriptures, Mary will soon be laboring. I mean, she has already most certainly been doing the work of nurturing life and making a new place for God in this world. From the moment she said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let be with me according to your word," she had begun the work of bearing God. And, she has gone about this work with great joy. Because despite the outlandishness and inappropriateness of her pregnancy, despite the scandal and potential for social ostracism, she knew that God had invited her to do a great thing. She would look at her life as a young, not quite married, woman in a patriarchal world, and she would be confident that God could work through her. So, she sang her own song about redemption and salvation.
This is what she knew and we should remember: God does not only care about the powerful and the shiny and the healthy and the free. God does not look at the broken and the lonesome and mentally ill and the poor and throw them away. In every person is the image of God. God can, and will, work through each of these reflections. Mary reminds us that God does great things with and for those whom the world calls lowly. God will scatter the powerful and give mercy to the fearful. God will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. God will look at the hungry and make sure they have enough to eat. Those who have hoarded more than they need will be sent away. The firefighters in Santa Barbara will save their neighbors. The singers in Skid Row will help save one another. And, God will be right in the midst of it, saving all of us. We will help bring God into the world when we act like Mary, and say yes when God calls on us to be a part of it... when each of us says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
This fourth Sunday in Advent, we remember joy... God's delight in us and our delight in God. We will be laboring, too, like the firefighters who are trying to get home to their families and the musicians who find healing and hope on Skid Row; like Mary, who will soon give birth far from home in less than ideal conditions. I pray that we can find the joy like Mary's in the midst of our labor, that we can sing of our magnified souls and our confidence in God's goodness. And, I pray that we can see the labors of our neighbors, who live in harm's way, and remember how Mary said God would respond to their need. Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us, too, according to God's word. May we learn to sing of our redemption.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
The most recent concert in the series Pastor Chrissy references can be viewed here: https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10155677137750865&id=73250630864
Kamala Kelkahr: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/incarcerated-women-risk-their-lives-fighting-california-fires-its-part-of-a-long-history-of-prison-labor
Alex Ross: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/01/handels-messiah-on-skid-row?mbid=nl_Daily+122217+Subs&CNDID=24785604&spMailingID=12621265&spUserID=MTMzMTgyNTkzNzAyS0&spJobID=1302071121&spReportId=MTMwMjA3MTEyMQS2
Info about the Midnight Mission: http://www.midnightmission.org/about/mission-statement/
Street Symphony: http://streetsymphony.org/
On Luke 1:46-55
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5024
Judith Jones; http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2705
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.