Sermon: When the Women Sing

magnificat-3[Sermon delivered on Sunday, December 20, 2015 (Advent IV) at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor 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 forever.”
Luke 1.46-55 (NRSV)

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is perhaps no greater song of praise conceived in the minds of humanity than Mary’s Magnificat. The only song that is perhaps greater is the song that John the Revelator suggests is the anthem of Heaven being recited in a ceaseless chorus of praise to God by the angels flanking God’s throne – “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”[1] The power of that song is another sermon for another day.

Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, is one in a long line of powerful and prophetic proclamation positioned in the singing of women. Back in Exodus, after God drowned the army of Pharaoh in the waters of the Re(e)d Sea, Miriam and a bunch of her girlfriends grabbed their tambourines and sang “Sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously…”[2] Beloved, pay attention when the women sing.

In the book of Judges, we find that Judge and Prophet, Deborah, after leading a victorious assault against a Canaanite army, broke out into singing, proclaiming, “I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.”[3] Beloved, pay attention when the women sing.

In the book of 1 Samuel, we meet a women Hannah who has been ridiculed by her husband’s other wife, Penninah because Hannah was barren and could not conceive a son. After she prayed to God and conceived and gave birth to Samuel, Hannah began singing “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.”[4] Beloved, pay attention when the women sing.

In the book of Judith, we find the story of the Jewish victory over the Assyrian Empire. Judith was so happy, so overcome with joy, that she begins to sing “Begin a song to my God with tambourines, sing to my Lord with cymbals. Raise to him a new psalm; exalt him, and call upon his name.”[5] Beloved, pay attention when the women sing.

So when we encounter Mary’s song in the Gospel of Luke, we have an established trend of the transformative testimony told in singing of women. Miriam witnessed God’s deliverance. Deborah witnessed God’s victory. Hannah experienced God’s favor. Judith witnessed God’s faithfulness. Beloved, pay attention when the women sing.

But there is something different about Mary’s song that makes it the best of all. You see Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and Judith sung about things that had already happened; whereas, Mary was singing about things that were yet to take place. Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and Judith sung about what God had already done; but, Mary had faith enough to sing about what God had promised. True, by this time Mary had already conceived, but if you pay attention to her words, she is singing about a transformation of the entirety of Creation that would be brought about because of the child she carried in her womb.

Even before she gave birth to the Word of God in poverty…

Even before she nurtured the Word of God and wiped his nose when he had a cold…

Even before she cared for the Word of God and kissed his knees when he fell down…

Even before she witnessed the Word of God turning water into wine, opening the eyes of the blind, healing sick bodies, and mending broken hearts…

Even before she witnessed the ultimate cruelty of human hearts ally with imperial power to take the Word of God and execute him on a Roman cross… she had faith enough to see that God was up to something, that it was going to be big, and she could not help but sing “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

Beloved, we’ve got to pay attention when the women sing because all too often scripture marginalizes female voices and ignores female power. All too often scripture forgets their names or uses women as objects. So when the women sing – we must pay attention.

Mary dared to sing her song of the Reign of God even while living under the tyranny of the Roman Empire. She dared to sing about provision, justice, and righteousness even against a backdrop of poverty, injustice, and brokenness. Beloved, Mary’s song wasn’t just good poetry or a moving melody that stirs the soul – it was a prophetic declaration against the powers of sin and death that life was possible, that life is inevitable. Mary’s Magnificat is more than music. It’s a movement.

I wonder what bold, young Mary might sing in the face of modern terrorism and war.

I wonder what poor, refugee, middle-eastern, brown-skinned, Jewish Mary might sing against xenophobia and racism.

I wonder what defiant Mary might sing under the shadow of gun-violence and a culture flirting with death.

Mary has much to say to the 21st century, but we must listen when she sings.

If we pay attention, we find three things in Mary’s song. The first thing we find in Mary’s song is blessing. Even before she sings, her cousin Elizabeth calls her “Blessed… among women.” She then owns this blessing saying “from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary’s song is first and foremost about blessing. Now, we church folk often toss around these words as if their meaning is inherent, but what does it mean to be called “blessed?”

In his 1992 book “Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World” Henri Nouwen says that blessing means to “speak well of” someone.[6] It is affirmational, the practice of acknowledging a person’s “original goodness” and calling forth their belovedness. “When we are thrown up and down by the little waves on the surface of our existence,” he says, “we become easy victims of our manipulative world, but, when we continue to hear the gentle voice that blesses us, we can walk through life with a stable sense of well-being and true belonging.”[7]

Mary’s song was a song of power because she dared to call forth the goodness in herself – even against a society that marginalized her because she was a woman, or because she was young, or because she was Middle Eastern, or because she was Jewish. Mary knew that even though society may have looked over and around her, God looked into her and loved her. Mary’s song of blessing is a reminder to each and every one of us that we are somebody, that we are beloved, and that God is concerned about each and every one of us. It is also a word of warning to those who would assess a person’s value based on outward appearances. After all, the Word took up residence in poor, refugee, Middle-Eastern flesh and dwelt among us.

So Mary’s song was a song of blessing, but it was also a song of redressing. There are just some things to which people of faith and goodwill ought to be maladjusted.

We ought to be disturbed that some folks have food enough to throw away and waste while hundreds of millions of men, women, and children around the world (and even 1 in 6 Missourians)[8] work hard and still starve.

We ought to be ill at ease with the fact that so many throughout our world, either down the I-70 in Ferguson or across the world in Syria and Palestine feel as though they are suffocating under the weight of oppression.

We ought to be uncomfortable that the United States represents 5% of the world population, but one quarter (25%) of the world’s imprisoned population and that within that system of mass incarceration, Black and Latino men and women are far more likely be incarcerated and face longer prison sentences than White men and women.

We ought to squirm when we hear those statistics. Some things ought not ever be considered normal.

Mary’s song was a symphony wherein the brokenness of our world and the coldness of our hearts would be overthrown and where those who have been harmed could seek redress – justice, resolution, and reparation. In Mary’s song the unjust order of society would be transformed and power would be transferred. Mary’s song is powerful because she dared to name out loud that the way things are ought not be the way they have to be. Empires fall, but the Reign of God remains. Justice wins. Love triumphs. God is victorious. “And he shall reign forever and ever. Amen.”

Mary’s song was a song of blessing, and Mary’s song was a song of redressing, but finally, Mary’s song was a song of confessing. Mary’s song of individual conversion and social revolution could not be complete without locating that total transformation in the abundant faithfulness of God. According to Mary, this is what God promised and this is just what God does.

Mary dared to confess that the same God who called Abraham to leave everything he knew to follow a God he had never even heard of, still calls us to follow him into mystery and darkness.

She dared to confess that the same God who brought the exploitative power of Pharaoh to an ignominious end, still triumphs over injustice and empire.

She dared to confess that the very same God who wrestled with Jacob all night until he wounded him, and blessed him, still calls us to enter into that divine blessing even through the pain of our wounds.

Mary’s song of blessing, redressing, and confessing is ultimately a song of transformation. A total transformation. A complete offering of ourselves, our souls, and our world into the hands of God and watching as the Great Potter reshapes our world, and our hearts, to reveal its Original Goodness and blessing. It’s a song of journey and urgency. It’s a song of openness and wonder. It’s a song of preparation for the coming of the Reign of God.

But we have to pay attention, not only to Mary when she sings, but to God who is brooding over the waters of creation, redeeming, transforming, and blessing right before our very eyes.


 

[1] Revelation 4.8b

[2] Exodus 15.21a

[3] Judges 5.3b

[4] 1 Samuel 2.1

[5] Judith 16.1

[6] Henri J.M. Nouwen. Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company; 2013), 68.

[7] Ibid., 73.

[8] http://stlouis.cbslocal.com/2015/12/16/missouri-illinois-rank-high-on-hungriest-states-in-the-u-s/ (accessed 12/17/15)

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