Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
“O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry. Our earthly rulers falter; our people drift and die. The walls of gold entomb us; the swords of scorn divide. Take not your thunder from us, but take away our pride.”1lyrics by G.K. Chesterton (additional verses feature updated lyrics by Jane Parker Huber)
We often sing this hymn on Ash Wednesday, but today is not Ash Wednesday. This is Christmas Eve! This is our Mannheim Steamroller service! We’ve come to church this morning longing for a song of joy, and this is what we get for the middle hymn, I know. And it could be, the greater concern is not just that we’re singing an Ash Wednesday song at Christmas.
It could be that the song isn’t wrong…
Right now in our nation, it looks like power is moving in a predictable pattern — flowing up to the glittering gold at the top. The wealthiest Americans are lobbying to ensure that they keep their wealth and grow richer, while expected cuts to Medicaid and SNAP will place a greater burden on those who are most in need.2https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/republican-plans-to-cut-taxes-now-cut-programs-later-would-threaten-food
Right here we’ve seen the Davenport Sheriff quickly summon ICE to detain an undocumented woman, an action which supports the troubling narrative that people with power have access to more power, while the ones without power are put at greater risk.
There is good reason to be concerned for the people who are most vulnerable: Like refugees who cannot return to their homes and who cannot find a place to live. Like the Standing Rock Sioux who protested the oil pipeline and lost their campaign. The pipeline was built and it is leaking oil as they predicted.3http://www.businessinsider.com/the-dakota-access-pipeline-sprung-2-new-leaks-2017-5 So the ones in power are grabbing more money for themselves, more weapons for their side. Meanwhile, the earth can be plundered; the people can be trampled.
And deeply worrying, it begins to feel like there is nothing we can do to change this.
It is into this world that God announces a great reversal of power. The proud will be scattered in the thoughts of their hearts. The powerful will be brought down from their thrones, while the lowly ones are lifted up. The hungry will be filled with good things, while the rich are sent away empty.
And if you don’t believe this could really happen, I don’t blame you. It would be impossible —right? Nobody here has the time or the heartspace to believe in impossible promises when there is actual need in this neighborhood and actual work to do.
Today in the Gospel reading, what happens is the angel Gabriel gets deployed to recruit Mary for the mission of changing the world, and poor Gabriel can’t seem to make an entrance. He finds her in the town of Nazareth but his clumsy approach winds up scaring her to pieces: “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you” he bellows. She is not reassured.
Gabriel tries again: “Do not be afraid, Mary.” He goes on to explain, very simply, that she will give birth to the Messiah. He will be called the Son of the Most High. God will give him the throne of David, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
“Yeah, so a couple of questions” says Mary. “First of all, I’m not sexually active. How could I be pregnant?”
By this point, Gabriel has hit his stride: “The Holy Spirit has come upon you. And by the way, your cousin Elizabeth is pregnant and she’s old and barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
See what just happened was Gabriel told the truth, and there’s no way to tell the truth and have things stay unchanged. The poet Adrienne Rich says, “When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” But this observation also applies to men. It also applies to angels.
Gabriel says: “Nothing will be impossible with God. Now, please, you have to help us.”
Mary hears his truth and answers with her own: “Okay. I believe you,” she says. “Here I am. Let’s do this.”
As you might be aware, our Christian tradition loves to hail Mary’s obedience which is undeniably remarkable. But I hear an edge of a dare in her response, like she’s really saying to the LORD our God, “You’re going to do the impossible? Okay God, prove it. I’ll help. Let it be with me according to your word.” Once Mary said this back to Gabriel, you know the world would never be the same.
About ten years ago, Tarana Burke was working as a youth camp director when one of the campers confided in her that she was being sexually abused at home. Burke wanted to talk with her, but she couldn’t. She interrupted the girl and sent her to speak to another counselor. Burke wanted to tell her, “You’re not alone in this experience. This happened to me too.” But she couldn’t. So later, she took that moment of failure and used it to create a movement to empower women of color who were survivors of sexual violence. The name of this movement came from the words she wished she could have said: “Me Too.”4http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/17/us/me-too-tarana-burke-origin-trnd/index.html
A few months ago, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as their status we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” No ____ kidding. From the girl at camp, to Tarana Burke, to Alyssa Milano, Me Too has been flooding Facebook and Twitter. It has shaken the powers at the top provoking politicians, Hollywood producers, actors, and news anchors to apologize and resign. Legislation has been introduced to combat sexual harassment in the workplace.
To be sure, this movement is not without its issues. It could create the impression that it’s all women against all men, which is not right. Men can be survivors of sexual misconduct and abuse; women can be the perpetrators. Another critique is that this campaign is lacking in nuance, so lewd comments and inappropriate touching get treated the same as rape and assault in our collective outcry condemning it all. There are valid concerns, and a fuller, thoughtful, national conversation is needed.
But I want to tell you what happened on my facebook feed when this campaign launched a few weeks ago. Maybe this happened on yours as well. First, I confess to you I was surprised by the number. So. Many. People. Women and men were posting Me Too, and it wasn’t like one of my friends; it was like most of my friends. This doesn’t even count the people who aren’t on facebook and the people who are but aren’t in a position that allows them to post this. The number of people who have experienced sexual misconduct is staggering.
Now the next thing is that some people started sharing their stories of what happened. Some of them wrote, “I have never told anyone about this before, but now I can. Or now I have to.” (And so the poet was right. When a person tells the truth, they are creating the possibility for more truth around them.) Some of these posts were short sentences —it happened in seventh grade; it happened on a bus; it happened at a concert. Some posts were long, graphic accounts of violation all leading to hashtag Me Too.
Reading these posts brought me to a full stop and usually brought me to tears. But then, reading the replies became equally heartstopping. People wrote things like: “Thank you for your courage.” “This never should have happened.” “You are not alone.” In this, a common response began to emerge. Three words: “I believe you.” So there would be someone describing one of the worst moments they’ve ever lived through, and person after person would comment in reply: I believe you. I believe you…
One person posts “Me Too.” One person answers “I believe you.” And that exchange will never make the news, but make no mistake. This is what changes the power in the world. There’s no way to tell the truth and have things stay unchanged.
And so it is that God sends her messengers to tell the truth of what could be: Get ready for a world where people live in safety and no one goes to prison. Where the people who used to be afraid decide to give up their guns; where the wealthy give away their money; where militaries build bridges. Where the poor have food, and stable housing, and health care. Where children aren’t afraid of adults and refugees are welcomed home in a new place; where people walk gently on the earth and care for creation. “For nothing will be impossible, but you have to help us, oh and here take this baby will you?” says the LORD our God.
Now if the story stopped here on this question, it’s no wonder the promise would fall flat. The skeptics would be proved right; the feasibility studies would show their dismal results. How can we really believe in any of this?
But when it was Mary who got cornered in a back alley by an angel of the LORD prophesying the impossible future, she did something we might want to try. She listened to what Gabriel had to say; she felt the whoosh of God leaning forward to hear her reply. Then Mary said, “I believe you. Here I am. Let’s do this.” Now for Mary, saying “I believe you” is not agreeing with the evidence presented before her. Instead, saying “I believe you” is signing up to help.
The next thing Mary does is she goes to see her cousin, then her heart cries out in joyful praise, and Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the LORD and my spirit rejoices in God…” She is praising God for this promise to turn the power of the world upside down, a promise she helps fulfill, the same promise that is before us.
Because it really could be us. We could partner with God in turning the power. When people tell the truth of their pain, we could be the ones who hear them and say “I believe you.” And when people tell the truth of their deepest praise, we can say, “I believe you. Let’s do this.”
See the world will never be the same. O sing to the LORD a new song. Sing to the LORD all the earth…
|lyrics by G.K. Chesterton (additional verses feature updated lyrics by Jane Parker Huber)