Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
46 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
It was the fourth Sunday in Advent, 1990. The sanctuary of Central Congregational, UCC, in Atlanta, GA was decorated with greens, just like ours. It is a beautiful sanctuary the slopes down to the chancel area in ancient Greek amphitheater style. The entire front and side walls are glass looking into the wonder of the North Georgia woods. The Advent candles were lit, just like ours. The scripture text for the day was Luke 1, Mary’s visit with Elizabeth and her song of joy, The Magnificat, like we have just heard. We had a three month old in the nursery and our four year old was safely ensconced with dear friends of our in the pews. We – my former husband and I – had been invited to deliver a version of the scripture in the form of a song. As he accompanied us on guitar, I began:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; and my spirit exults in God, my Savior. For God has looked upon my lowliness and my name shall be forever exalted.”
There was a slight, disturbing rustle in the pew where the four year old was sitting. But we concentrated on the song. I continued.
“For the Mighty One has done great things for me. God’s mercy exceeds from age to age....”
The rustle grew louder. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw the four year old escape from the pew...OMG....just keep singing, just keep singing....and as we sang the refrain:
“Holy, Holy, Holy is God’s name....”
And then we saw him.....he was lying down horizontally across the middle of the middle aisle....which sloped down to the front of the church and slowly rolling down toward us – just as children roll down a grassy hill – only in slow motion - rolling in time to our music.
What do you do? You keep singing, you try to “un-see” what you have just seen your child doing and you keep singing...and I must tell you, our harmony was never so focused, so in tune, so precise.
After the service I said to our four year old wonder child...”Can you tell me why you did that? Did you want some attention? Are you feeling neglected because you now have to share Mommy and Daddy with your baby brother?” “No, Mommy! I just liked your song!”
“I just liked your song!” He liked the song so he responded to it with his whole being! His whole body and heart and soul. In uninhibited four year old fashion.
Oh, that we who are way past four years old could remember how to respond to the songs of God with our whole beings, body, heart, mind and soul! Oh, that we could remember how to say “Yes!” to God with our whole selves like the peasant girl, Mary, like the unfettered, freely giving four year old!
Do you think we can?
The late New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, wrote that all the canticles, the songs we hear sung in the gospel of Luke, including our song of Mary, were songs of a group of first century Jewish Christians who staked their lives on God’s abundance as evident throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout the stories, psalms, history and prophecy of the Hebrew scriptures God calls God’s people to move out of the myth of scarcity and into a lyric of abundance. In God’s providence there is enough for all! If we live in this lyric, we will share all the abundance given to creation and humanity. There is enough for all!
These early Jewish Christians were called the “Anawim,” “the Poor Ones.” While this group may have been physically poor, Brown tells us that their name also came to be associated with “those who could not trust their own strength, but had to rely in utter confidence upon God.” Living in stark contrast to the Anawim were the literal rich as well as those who showed no need for God through pride and self-sufficiency even if they were not financially wealthy.
Mary’s song is a lyric of abundance, a song of the Anawim, the Poor Ones. Those who rely fully on God. Who respond to God with faith in God’s lyric of abundance with a resounding “Yes!”. Who respond with their whole being like a four year old rolling down the aisle of a church because music stirs his whole being.
"With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am, I rejoice in God my savior. Because “God has scattered [and is scattering] those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled [and is pulling] the powerful down from their thrones. God has lifted up [and is lifting up] the lowly. God has filled [and is filling] the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty-handed.” And God shows this mercy from one generation to the next.....all this has happened, is happening and will continue to happen. My friends, given Mary’s song, we have good reason to say “Yes!” to God with our whole selves.
We have good reason AND it is through our saying “Yes!” that God works in our world. I believe God’s lyric of abundance persists in spite of us, in spite of the our being stuck as a people, as a culture, as the whole of humanity in the myth of scarcity. However.... God’s lyric of abundance multiplies, spreads like wind through the trees, like sun on the water, like the fertility of the earth in spring when we say “Yes!” to it with our whole beings! Then we are co-creating with God.
Poet and musician, Leonard Cohen, God rest his soul, echoes the voices of the Poor Ones and of Mary in his book of contemporary psalms, The Book of Mercy:
“Take heart, you who were born in the captivity of a fixed predicament; and tremble, you kings of certainty: your iron has become like glass, and the word has been uttered that will shatter it.” (Leonard Cohen, The Book of Mercy)
Listen my friends to Leonard Cohen, to Mary, to the Spirit of the Living God! “Take Heart,” my friends of God here at Plymouth, “Take Heart! We are so often stuck in our world views of not being, not having enough. We get stuck in our insecurities, our inadequacies, our sense of futility in resisting the darkness of the world’s greed and its myth of scarcity. We unconsciously live in the certainty that the world is ONLY as we see it on CNN or MSNBC, etc, etc, etc. But that is not the whole of reality, even the tip of the iceberg of reality. God’s lyric of abundance for ALL IS the reality!
It is the reality our world craves. And it is within our power to say “Yes!” with abandon and joy and love to God’s abundance in the world. For our own souls and also for the sake of those who are truly poor, homeless, in refugee and immigration detention centers, in war zones. Like the first century “Poor Ones” who did not “trust their own strength but relied in full confidence on the strength of God”, like Mary, we can say “Yes!”
Each time we say “yes” with our whole selves to a ministry opportunity here at Plymouth, to a volunteer position, no matter how small, to a work of advocacy for the marginalized, to the work we are called to do in the world, to the call of parenting and grand-parenting, to friendship and intimate relationships we are tapping into God’s Big Ultimate Yes to the world! Is it always easy? No, it is not. It was not easy for Mary in any way, I imagine. Childbirth, parenting, the unjust death of your son by the government....these are not easy. It has not always been easy for that 4 year old who rolled down the aisle of Central Congregational in Atlanta. At 32 this has not been an easy year for him. You all know that it is not easy to say “Yes” to God. However, because despite the tears and struggle that life brings, saying “Yes” brings Joy in the deepest sense for it is participating in Love which is God which is Source and which makes all things possible. Even the impossible possible.
As we finish this Advent season today and look toward Christmas Eve tomorrow...let us take a risk and say “Yes!” in ways we have not yet imagined. Who knows what opportunity will knock that can open up our lives to deep Joy and Love? May we let our wildest imaginations pray for, intend, plan for our full participation as individuals and as a community of faith in God’s lyrically abundant justice-making Love in the new year. Remember the joy and wild abandon of saying yes to life with your whole being as you rolled down a grassy or snowy hill fully trusting the commitment? That’s it! Say “Yes!" to God! Amen. And Amen!
© The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2018 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1993), 351.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
17 December 2017
Those of us who come from an Episcopal background know this text well by its Latin name, the Magnificat, because it is part of the service of Evening Prayer every week, and the sung Evensong has some incredibly beautiful choral settings of this text.
Magnificat simply means “magnifies,” and it refers to Mary’s declaration that her soul magnifies the Lord. Think about that image for a moment: a magnifying glass that makes God even larger in our field of vision. Mary’s soul makes God come into clearer view for us.
[Pull out magnifying glass] Sometimes with a magnifying glass you need to pull it closer or draw it farther away for the object to come into focus. And not all of us have the same visual acuity…some people see really well up close, and people my age tend to want to extend their arms so things are clearer.
And some of us have different magnifying glasses that enable us to pull God into view. For some of us, the lens is nature, and for others it is working for justice and peace, and for yet other people it is contemplation and prayer, and for still others the optics of fellowship and hospitality provide the best view of God.
What is it that magnifies God for you? How do you catch a glimpse of the sacred?
Sometimes we have trouble bringing the Holy into focus. Our nation is in a time of deep anxiety, and it is more important than ever to keep the sacred in view. In a time when we’re not able to get away to the mountains, if that is our magnifying glass, it can be soul-killing. Or if we have an illness that prevents us from social contact, if that is our lens, it can make contact with God elusive. And at those times, we need to adjust the focus or even try switching to a new lens for awhile. For me, the ocean is one of the places in nature where it is easiest to sense the presence of the Holy…and beachfront access is somewhat limited in Colorado. And so, I changed my lens a few years back and started fly-fishing so that I could be out on the water. It isn’t the same as sea kayaking, which I dearly love, but it works.
And sometimes God is just plain hard to see, no matter how hard we seem to try.
That’s when faith (our relationship with God) and perseverance come into play.
[Bring out binoculars] Not everybody sees the Holy through the same lens, but all of us have access to multiple lenses. Perhaps even trying out a different way to see God would be a useful exercise. So, if you find God only in solitary moments, perhaps singing together in church or engaging someone at coffee hour or teaching Sunday school would open a new vista.
Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps someone sees God through you and your life? I’m not saying that any one of us is a carbon copy of God, but rather that there is a spark of the divine mixed in with all our human foibles and shortcomings that might just awaken the Spirit within another person. You might act as a lens through which someone can catch a glimpse of God!
Sometimes, at this time of the year when the nights are longest and the daylight is brief, we most need to find the bright spark of the holy. And then we need to find tinder and blow on the spark so that it illumines and shines all around.
By our standards, Mary was a “nobody.” She was a Judean peasant woman in backwater of the Roman Empire. She herself says that God “looks with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” So, how might God be looking at us this morning? How might God be looking at you? If God could favor Mary with being the bearer of Christ, why couldn’t God regard us similarly?
Meister Eckhart, the great14th century mystic, wrote, ”We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”
So, what can we do to be the bearers of Christ? What can we do to carry Christ within us and help him to be reborn not just 2,000 years ago in a faraway land, but here, now, again and again?
We don’t know very much about Mary, neither from the gospel record, nor from first-hand historical accounts. But one of the things we must certainly realize about this woman from the child she bore and raised is that she must have been extraordinary. If Jesus reflected something of Mary, it may have been her faith and compassion. Whether you take the birth narratives literally or figuratively, Jesus definitely had some of Mary’s DNA and she had the opportunity to nurture and shape the boy who would become the messiah. In other words, her soul magnified God.
So, I was thinking about this: what is it that my soul magnifies? What is it that the core of my being as well as my daily activities amplifies and projects? Does my soul magnify God, or does it magnify my own needs and wants? Can someone ever see a reflection of the divine through something I do, or is it all so much “other stuff” that the Christ-light is obscured?
What does your soul magnify in the ways you spend your time, and exert your power and influence? What does your soul magnify in your interactions with others? What does your soul magnify in what you pray about or for?
I imagine that when clients for the Homelessness Prevention Initiative come through Plymouth’s doors each Friday or when guests of Faith Family Hospitality Network enter our church tonight, they sometimes get to glimpse the sacred in the faces of the volunteers who are here to greet them and connect them with assistance. And when an ill or homebound parishioner receives a visit from Jake or Jane Anne or me or receives a meal from another member, I imagine that is a lens through which they experience God’s love is in a very human form. We all have that capacity.
As I was driving on College Avenue awhile back, a woman with a broad smile offered to let me go ahead of her when I was turning onto Drake Road. It was a simple act of kindness, but I read into it a sense of Christmas grace: a moment of unearned kindness given to me by someone I don’t know and may never see again.
And I thought to myself, what would the world be like if all of us allowed our lives to magnify the Lord – in greater or lesser ways, in simple acts or in mighty ones? What if we all acted from grace and faithfulness and compassion? Maybe we’d have fewer political tweets and a Congress to does something that isn’t in the interest of the wealthiest among us, but of people like Mary and Jesus.
We may not read about it on Facebook or see it in the headlines (especially those from Washington), but the world is populated by a portion of people who intentionally bring God into clearer view through prayer, action, compassion, investment, service, and helping others to find access to the sacred. It is almost as if there is seldom-visible queue of people who line up to help others see the divine more sharply. When was the last time you encountered someone who offered you a moment of grace or insight or inspiration? And did you take advantage of the opportunity to thank them or maybe even follow their example?
I have seen angels right here at Plymouth…and none of them has wings. Amen.
© 2017 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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