Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
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.’
Magnifying God's Goodness: Luke 1:46-55
I remember being 14 and bitter. Much like today, my church was decked out in Christmas finery: a large fir tree stood at our right, covered in years worth of ornaments made by the children in the church. Small angels shifted and scratched in their itchy tinsel halos. The shepherds’ head-scarves were all a little crooked, unable to resist the kinetic energy of 8-year-olds trying oh-so-hard to stand still and not wack something with their hooked staffs. I was standing behind all of these angels, shepherds, and tiny townspeople, decked out in blue polyester, glasses sliding down my nose... the lone teenager in the annual children’s play, and the one entrusted with Mary’s Song.
Being Mary was a great responsibility... a responsibility that I didn't want at all. By this point, I had been confirmed for almost a year. This right of passage not only assured me full participation in communion and the ritual life of the church, and also served as a pardon from service in the Christmas play. You see, Confirmation gave you your Saturdays in December back. It meant you were more like a grown-up than like the kids who reenacted the nativity each year. I had gone through two whole years of catechism instruction and did not want one month more of an obligation that I connected with being a child in the church. And, yet, our Sunday School teachers had a different idea. They came up and asked if I could please, one more time, be in the play. You see, there was a big age gap between me and the next oldest bunch of girls. None of them were old enough to remember the whole part. And, it was an important part.
Perhaps I could have said no. I could have said that I didn’t want to be in the Christmas play again. But, I felt responsible, even obliged to say yes because it was my church and a respected elder, Martha, had asked for the help. My sense of duty won the argument with my teenage need to separate myself from the younger kids, though responsibility only won that argument begrudgingly. At home, I grumbled about being asked, about being too old, about having to memorize such a long piece of scripture. My mom tried to point out that perhaps it was actually kind of nice that they asked. She said that it probably said something good about my character that the teachers thought they could entrust me with such a role. Maybe, she suggested, it meant not that they thought of me a little kid but as someone they could count on when they needed help. But, I couldn't really take my mom's response seriously. I still didn’t want to be in the play. But, I felt like I had to. So, I was bitter.
Duty-bound, I trudged into the sanctuary with all the little kids. I sang about a little town in a place very far away and about the angels on high. Then, at the appropriate time, I slipped back up the stairs and out of the side door in the sanctuary. I walked soundlessly by the closet where my old acolyte robe hung and through the small kitchen where the communion elements were stored, and into the hallway that circled the inside perimeter of the church. I hurried down the hallway, slipping on my headscarf, trying to transform my own 14 year-old self into that other 14 year-old girl who had also felt the weight of responsibility, though her's was a weight that I still can't imagine. I made my way to the door at the back of the sanctuary to listen. I heard my cue, and pushed open the double doors of the sanctuary. I nervously walked up the middle aisle, turned around, pushed up my glasses, and began: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...” Well, I eventually began. It took me a minute. But, I remembered and recited the whole thing. Then, I went back to my place and finished the rest of the play.
I also remember being 26, and much less bitter. Once again, I had been asked to read Mary's Song at church. Once again, I stood in front of the church... though it was a different church than the first time... a UCC church that was supporting me through the ordination process. Again, I felt the weight of responsibility, though this time it was a responsibility gladly undertaken. This time I was not bitter. I did not resent being asked and didn’t feel compelled participate in the service only out of a sense of obligation. This time, I read the Magnificat as one with a call to ministry, as one wrestling with understanding my vocation to serve and be present especially with those considered to be the lowly in our society. This second time that I read these ancient words, I read her song as one who had also said, “How can this be?" As I read Mary’s song, the song of her vocation, I considered the weight of my own vocation, the great cost and great joy of learning to live my calling. What felt like a burden at 14, this second time, felt like joy. The difference was that in Mary's powerful song of liberation, I now heard some of my own story. I gladly read it aloud in my new church home.
Mary sings her song with the power of a prophet and the confidence of one who has survived the unthinkable. When we hear Mary say these words, "God has shown strength with God's arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts," we are also hearing the words of Moses and Miriam who sang out with joy and praise when God delivered the people from slavery: "[The Lord] has trumped gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode." When we hear Mary say these words, "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty," we are also hearing Hannah's words from Hebrew Scripture, "The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he brings low, he also exalts." Where a Psalmist once said, "the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow," Mary said, "God has helped God's servant Israel, in remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham, and to his descendants forever." Mary, a teenager living in poverty in the midst of a cruel Empire, remembered how God had worked in her people's history, and sang out, assured that though her people were not yet free, the child that she would help bring into the world would once again set God's people on the road towards liberation. So she joyously sang for the world to come, even as she lived in the not quite yet.
The moment Mary accepted the mission to which she was called by God, she said yes to a future that looked more free, more hopeful, and more just than the present that she was living in. This teenager could have looked at her life, "lowly," as she called it, and said that there was no way that God could use someone like her to change the world. But, she didn't. Even though she knew that saying yes could bring heartache and pain, she said yes anyway. Christian tradition has called her Theotokos, which means, God-bearer, the one who helped to bring the Divine into this world in a way that seemed impossible. God saw great promise in her, and she was willing to believe in that promise. She said yes, and it changed the course of history.
While we may not be being asked by God to carry a child, I do believe that we all have a calling from to be God-bearers. We can look to Mary as an example of how to say yes, even when saying no may seem safer. God, who cared for the lowly and oppressed, asks us to do the same. Hundreds of thousands of people are running away from war. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in places set to be swallowed up by the ocean or dried out by drought due to global climate change. It is easy to say no to helping them because of our own fear or unwillingness to change our lifestyles. And, yet, the angels says to us, "Do not be afraid. You have a calling, too." We can say yes. It will be hard. It will come at a cost. But, Mary knew that God wants peace and justice for us. And, she knew that any simple person can be a part of bringing God into this broken world. So, say yes. Let your soul magnify the Lord. Let your hands magnify God's goodness. We live in the not yet, too, but Mary is showing us that, with the Holy Spirit, we can step towards God's future. We just have to say yes.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted to write this sermon:
Rolf Jacobson's commentary-
The Sermon Brainwave Podcast-
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.