Sermon, December 12, 2021
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
A pastor friend of mine is crafting a competitive bracket of the worst Christmas songs ever. On the list are ridiculous songs like Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer, tearjerker secular songs like Christmas Shoes, cringeworthy white colonists songs like Do they Know it’s Christmastime at all, and, yes, crowd favorite Mary, Did you know? Now, Mary Did you Know is a perfectly beautiful ballad that it very pleasant to listen to, and it might have become a favorite of mine - if it wasn’t so blatantly scripturally illiterate! It makes you wonder if the writer of this Christian anthem ever cracked open a bible!
A different pastor had fun with a reworking of the song - retitled ‘Mary freaking knew’
Mary freaking knew that her baby boy would someday rule the nations
Yes Mary freaking knew that baby boy was lord of all creation
Yes she knew! Read Luke 1, you fool - she sang about it then
It helps, if when you’re read, you pay attention to women!
Truly, Mary, mother of Jesus, has been long ignored, silenced, or misrepresented throughout history.
In an excerpt from her book, “Truly our Sister: a theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Feminist Theologian Elizabeth Johnson retells the story of a colleague who, at the beginning of one semester of Seminary,
“discovered that all the students registered for her course on the theology of Mary were young men; all the students in her course on feminist theology were women. When asked to explain their choices, the men said they knew next to nothing about the church's teaching on Mary but as ordained ministers would be expected to. The women, on the other hand, avoided the course because of their negative feelings about what they already knew."
It just goes to show how much history has softened and purified Mary the mother of Jesus into a nurturing but silent, obedient but long suffering example of a woman, rather than the young, idealistic revolutionary that she was! A woman who the longest speech by a woman in the New Testament, declared faith in a God who:
has scattered the proud; has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly;
filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
After our series on women in the bible last fall, I hope her declaration triggers some memory of the ancient Hebrew women who sang victory songs of the oppressed, like Miriam, Deborah and Hannah. In the reality of this scripture, Mary is a raised fist of faith in God.
What are your impressions of Mary? In our Advent study of AJ Levine’s book, we took a good look at what were our preconceptions of Mary, both from our intangible perceptions and also how she is depicted in art. Most of what surfaced was the loving, nurturing, self-sacrificing, and faithful depiction we’ve been groomed to see. (except for Woodie, who immediately mentioned something that I never considered before but will never escape my attention in the future; Mary is always depicted wearing blue. (it bears out 80% of the time at least!)
That’s why there are printouts of portraits of Mary taped to the wall here outside the Sanctuary - those are some of the portraits we considered, getting a sense of what message they send. And, if you haven’t had a chance to study them yet, I encourage you to spend a few minutes considering them on the way out. What message does each of them send to you?
Mary is often portrayed as meek, mild - especially when her skin is lightened to be unrealistically caucasian. When you see the pictures, be sure to pay attention to a white skinned Mary as opposed to the Native American Mary. See the difference in the expressions and posture, and consider what messages the portraits send.
and by the way Woodie, I did some research and found the reason for the common blue costume. Since the 5th Century, blue has both been the most expensive paint and therefore the color of the Empress, and of course has come to symbolize heaven and purity. But was also the color of the tassels on the Ark, as recorded in the Old Testament. And so, Mary was dressed in blue as representation for the flattering comparison to a large boat; like the Ark, she was a vessel that bore humanity to safety. )
But in spite of her domestication and purification for centuries by the Catholic Church, according to the Religion News Service, “Mary has become an icon to a younger generation of all faiths and no faith that has put social justice at the center of its hopes for a better world. She’s treated as a feminist beacon, her likeness appearing alongside that of Frida Kahlo, Joan of Arc and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” She’s now being featured on high-end guitar pedals and t-shirts on Etsy, ‘retold in provocative contemporary art’.
What makes Mary appealing today is what has made her popular for 2,000 years: For all her connections to divine power, she has a lot in common with people who often get overlooked.
God chooses this peasant woman in a patriarchal society that is existing under the heavy hand of a much more powerful empire. The people of Israel were going hungry because of triple taxes being enacted for Rome, Herod the builder’s local government excesses, and the rituals of the massive temple. According to Johnson, “The lowly are being crushed because of the mighty on their thrones in Rome and their deputies in the provinces.”
And God sends his messenger to a peasant woman with the promise of miracle. In a culture where she wasn’t permitted in the market by herself, the Angel Gabriel tells her, alone, that she will be the bearer of a power beyond imagination, one that will upend the world, but only after it upends her life. He tells her something few would believe - including her betrothed. In a world where she wasn’t permitted to go to the market alone, she is invited to trust God to perform a miracle on her that is not without great risk to her livelihood.
And she sees joy.
I don’t know about you, but I’d go with haste to tell a friend, too. A secret often just doesn’t feel real until you have the chance to tell someone.
During the visit from the Angel, Gabriel offers to Mary proof of God’s miraculous power by mentioning her cousin, Elizabeth, a pregnancy coming to one who was infertile, and Mary sets off with haste to visit Elizabeth and see for herself. Mary didn’t ask for proof of Gabriels’ promise to her, but perhaps Gabriel knew that Mary would need someone with whom to share her secret, some semblance of moral support, a female companion for her life-changing journey, a sisterhood of believers who can help each other understand how God has interceded to change both their lives. And Mary receives a confirmation beyond what she expects; her cousin knows immediately, from the baby in her womb, and the holy spirit in her heart, that something important has happened to Mary. And she sees joy. Mary turns and begins to sing her proclamation, otherwise known to us as the Magnificat - a song that magnifies the Lord.
Like a thanksgiving psalm, the Magnificat has two parts - the beginning which praises God’s mercy to Mary, and the second recounting God’s actions on behalf of the oppressed. She recognizes herself, as an individual, blessed by God, but quickly understands God’s action to be on behalf of the whole community. Mary becomes a prophet, projecting her blessedness onto the future of the community, even those she currently she stewards that future with her very life.
And she sees joy.
When she gets pregnant, she doesn’t immediately think of the consequences. She doesn’t immediately think of everything that will go wrong. She doesn’t worry about punishment or what Joseph will think. She doesn’t spend any time worrying, really. She doesn’t hesitate. Rather, she leans in - leans into the promise, leans into the trust in God, leans into the joy that can come by allowing God to move in her life.
She sees joy in the promise of the potential of her coming child. She sees joy in the history of Israel and its God, a God that has been steadfast and true and repeatedly returned grace in the face of human flaw. She sees joy in all the instances where God delivered God’s people to safety and abundance, and proclaims God will do so again. She sees joy in the concrete transformations promised by God’s actions. Where a more practical minded person might see obstacles, barriers, or worry, she sees joy.
It’s amazing that the people who have the most to lose in the situation don’t doubt. Zechariah doubts, Joseph doubts, but Mary and Elizabeth, the ones most vulnerable to the winds of others’ judgements, they only see potential. Rather than being silent, obedient, or passive, Mary stands up fearlessly with diving outrage over the degradation of life and declares solitary with the divine promise to repair the world.
And in the process, sees joy - the joy of living into and leaning into God’s promise for the world.
There have been some amazing women cut in the cloth of Mary and her Magnificat. In Chicago, we used to celebrate Jane Addams, and the Hull House she founded to house and educate poor immigrant women. Last Thursday, a group of us from KCUCC learned about Della C. Lamb, the woman who founded Della Lamb services back in 1906, offering care for the children of immigrant families so their mothers could work. Dorothy Day is a Catholic that obviously got her inspiration from the radical side of Mary and leaned into the potential in God’s promise, beginning the Catholic Worker Movement that continues to fight for the rights of the poor. In her words,
“We can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world.” ~Dorothy Day
These women knew what Mary knew; that receiving God’s promise is not about being silent and obedient, but about standing up for what we believe in, being in solidarity with the lowly, and seeing God in everyone around you. God’s promise is not about doubting and waiting, but rather about being an active recipient of the Good News of Christ’s birth.
If we all leaned in on the promise that God will make good in our lives, if we all responded like Mary, what would the world look like? What kind of change would we make?
This advent, let’s not just wait for the coming justice in the Kingdom of God. Let’s not try to tone down Mary’s song about God’s preference for love for the lowly and abused. Let us remember the poor, the sick, the grieving, those unable to pay rent this week, the homeless, those persecuted, the unjustly imprisoned, the refugee, and the immigrant.
And let’s strive to see joy in the work of God in us, and see what ripples we can create. Let’s see if we can see what Mary most definitely knew. Amen.