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Mary’s Song: Present Perfect

(a sermon for December 2, 2018, the First Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Luke 1:39-56)

Of this time of the year, at least one thing can be said for certain: ‘tis the season for singing!

I don’t think I have to tell you that one of the things I like best about the Christmas season is the music.  All of it, both the sacred and secular; from Handel’s Messiah to Gene Autry singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and just about everything in-between from every musical genre you can name, this quite literally is the soundtrack of my life from about the first of November (that’s right, I admit it!) to New Year’s Eve.  Part of it is nostalgia, I suppose; so much of the music of this season has a way of bringing forth fond memories of Christmases past and of the loved ones who shared those times with us.  Moreover, not only can these songs lift our spirits in the midst of difficult times, they can also be very cathartic at times in bringing forth some much needed tears!  And let me just add here that as far as this pastor is concerned some of the most beautiful, familiar and faith-stirring hymns we have in the Christian tradition are the ones we’re going to be singing over the next few weeks in celebration of Christ’s birth; so get ready, friends, for lots of carol singing!

I know; there are some songs of the season that can become kind of grating upon hearing them over and over and over again all through the month of December (my nomination for that, by the way, would be the ubiquitous “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, and the very next day you gave it away,” which as I point out to my family on a regular basis actually has nothing to do with Christmas at all, but I digress!); and yes, maybe a few of these songs with all their sentimentality end up reflecting more of how we imagine Christmas should be, as opposed to how it really is in this chaotic and conflicted world in which we live.  But I still love the music; for me every “jingle bell,” “fa la la la la” and “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” we sing not only speaks to the best part of our selves as God’s people, but also points directly to how the world ought to be and will be all because of God’s wondrous gift to us of a Savior in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And that alone is ample reason for us to be out there singing Christmas music, and also cause for rejoicing at this most wonderful time of the year!

Actually, when you think about it, so much of this particular season of the church year – that is, the season of Advent, because it’s not Christmas yet – is built upon this very dichotomy of what is and what will be.  On the one hand, these Advent weeks of waiting, watching and preparing all lead up to our joyous celebration of an event that has in fact already taken place: the birth of Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.  And yet, as Christians, just as we believe that he died and rose again, we also know that Jesus will come again, bringing with him the fullness of the kingdom of God.  And so, for us in the church Advent is also about preparing ourselves for his promised return, by prayer, penitence and self-examination. That’s why over the centuries the church has often referred to the season of Advent as “a little lent,” and why purple, which is the color of penitence, adorns our altar and the neck of your preacher; because preparing our hearts for the fulfillment of our Lord’s promises both present and future does call for some humility on our parts and at least a modicum of spiritual reproach.  But that said, Advent is also about acknowledging that while our world – and us in it – does not yet match up to that promised vision of God’s kingdom here on earth, by God’s grace and infinite love made manifest in Jesus our Emmanuel, it will be… soon and very soon, it will be; and that, dear friends, is cause for true rejoicing!

… which brings us to the first of our “First Songs of Christmas” from Luke’s gospel, which is Mary’s Song of Praise; also known as the Magnificat.

As we pick up the story in our text for this morning, we’re actually in that time in between the angel Gabriel’s having given Mary the news of her bearing this child “who will be called the Son of the Most High,” (Luke 1:32) and that silent, holy night months later in Bethlehem when the baby would finally be born; and as anyone who has in any fashion awaited the time for a child to be born will attest, this most certainly was a time of great expectation and all manner of preparation; not to mention time for “pondering” what the reality of having a baby who was the Son of God was going to mean for her and for the world around her.  Luke tells us that soon after Gabriel’s announcement, “Mary set out and went with haste” to a town in the hill country of Judea to visit with family in those first months of pregnancy; and there, in the words of Shawnthea Monroe, was “an intimate encounter between two extraordinary women.”  I love how Monroe describes that encounter; she says, “There is the elderly, once-barren Elizabeth and her newly expectant young cousin Mary.  As Luke tells it,” Monroe continues, “God is at work through the lives of both women and their words express nothing but joy.”

It really is quite the reunion, with Elizabeth “[singing] out exuberantly, ‘You’re so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb, also blessed!” [The Message] and the child in Elizabeth’s womb quite literally leaping for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice (More about that next week)!  It was, in fact, a sign for both women that everything that was happening was in fulfillment of the Lord’s plan.  And to this, Mary responds with a song; those familiar words of praise and nearly inexpressible joy that have been set to countless pieces of music over the centuries: “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 shall call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

Beautiful, powerful, and utterly surprising words; yet not as surprising as you might think.  It’s interesting to note here that in Mary’s song we hear echoes of other faithful women through the ages, most especially in the “Song of Hannah” from 1 Samuel, which was sung nearly 1,000 years beforehand and which in fact began in a very similar fashion as Mary’s song:  “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” (2:1) What this tells us is that at least in some fashion Mary understood that there was more to this than simply the fact of a baby being born, however unprecedented and miraculous this was to be; no, Mary was finding herself in the midst of long tradition of God’s work of restoration and redemption that was now was coming to full fruition in this child in her womb who would be named Jesus, and so, of course, her spirit would rejoice!

And this is what makes what Mary sings next even more amazing and joyous.  She goes on to tell of all the great and glorious things that God has done:  “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.”  Incredible; this is no less than a proclamation of the whole world and its idea of power being turned upside and inside out!  But did you notice something there?  Mary’s actually singing in the present tense!  She’s not praising God for what God will do, but proclaiming what God has done; which is kind of odd, given that this child who is supposed to bring about all of this change hasn’t even been born yet!

Moreover, even a casual survey of Israel’s current situation (not to mention Mary’s!) would reveal that this vision of a just and peaceful world had no basis in reality.  I mean, here’s this young, impoverished, insignificant girl – probably 13 or 14 years old at best – hailing from some backwater village in the hills of Galilee, and unmarried and with child; moreover, her people are oppressed and living under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  One thing is for certain: at that moment in time the proud were not scattered, the hungry were not fed, and the powerful were very comfortably ensconced on their thrones!  Mary’s words didn’t even sound like a word of prophecy in the sense of what God was about to do in the world; and yet, given all that she’s still singing as though it’s already happened!

I looked it up, friends; and in English grammar there’s a word for that:  it’s called present perfect.  Technically speaking, present perfect is used to describe an action that has already begun, may not be finished yet but will continue; and so it is as if it’s already done.  In other words, for Mary to sing this song in present perfect is the ultimate expression of HOPE; more than simply proclaiming the Lord’s promises of a just and peaceful world she’s claiming those promises as a present reality.  To quote David Lose here, “When Mary sang, she didn’t just name those promises but she entered into them.”  Mary knew that because of this tiny child just beginning to grow inside of her, she’d already been drawn into this sacred rel ationship with the God of Israel, the same God “who had been siding with the oppressed since the days of Egypt and keeping promises since the time of Abraham.”  It’s not, you see, that everything that Mary sings about has been accomplished but that that those promises are so sure and so certain that it is as if it were already a reality in the world.  For Mary – and for us, beloved – “the world has begun to turn and [we] feel ourselves invited into the turning.”

And that is, as I said before, most certainly cause for rejoicing!

You know, as I said before, I love all the songs of this season; but I think the songs I love the most (truly, in these days the songs I need the most) are the carols and hymns that boldly proclaim those sure and certain promises of God coming to pass in the birth of the Christ Child.  And the reason I love them so much is because I know that they’re true.  Not that it’s a present reality in the world as we know it; but by God’s grace and infinite love it will be and for now, as we watch and wait for signs of Christ’s coming, that is enough.  Alan Brehm writes that “In Advent we sing because we look forward to something better than the violence and suffering and injustice all around us.  We look forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world.  We sing because we look forward to ‘peace on earth, and mercy mild.’  This is the heart and soul of our faith, friends; the HOPE that is ours in Jesus the Christ who comes into this world and into our hearts definitively to set everything right and to make all things new.”

The good news, beloved, is that despite all the uncertainties that continually seem to surround us, God is at work in the world, and his advent is nigh. So as our advent waiting begins for another year for the coming of the Christ Child and his return in glory, let us truly watch for signs of his coming; and even here and now let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 2, 2018 in Advent, Joy, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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There’s a Song in the Air

white-christmasFor many years now, I’ve been a “collector” of Christmas music.

I’ve always had great affection for the songs of this particular season: in fact, some of my earliest and best memories are of Christmas Eves spent with family at the Lowry Homestead with my father at the piano, playing songs and carols as my Aunt Louise sang and my Uncle Alex accompanied on saxophone.  Of course, having been a child of the sixties, I must confess that the soundtrack of my life is also filled to overflowing with songs from the Rudolph, Frosty and Grinch TV specials, with some “Little Saint Nick” and the rock and roll classics from the “Phil Spector Christmas Album” thrown in for good measure.  And this is to say nothing of all the classic holiday tunes that are still an essential part of any December playlist: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Nat King Cole’s rendition of “The Christmas Song” and so many others I could name that even now quickly and easily hearkens fond memories of Christmases long ago.

It was actually that deep nostalgia that began my on-going search, online and elsewhere, for those songs I remembered from days gone by (because, friends, once Steve and Eydie’s rousing and romantic version of “Let It Snow” has gotten into your head, it never truly goes away!).  In the process of all the searching, however, I’ve discovered that there’s a treasure trove of Christmas music out there both secular and sacred, some of it dating back several decades and representing just about every musical genre you can imagine.

Some of this music is new and original, but then there’s also a whole lot of covers that seek to put a new spin on the old and familiar melodies.  There are some songs that make you laugh, while others never fail to bring a tear to your eye; and, yes, these songs do range from the sublime to the ridiculous (I have one recording, for instance, that’s entitled “Christmas Piggy (With the Apple in The Mouth),” and features a children’s chorus of, you guessed it… oinks.  Trust me here; this song is everything you think it’s going to be, and more!).

However, no matter the musical styles or where they happen to come from, almost all of these songs do have at least one thing in common: they represent an idealized vision of Christmas both real and imagined. Not that an imagined vision of Christmas is any less real to our hearts; after all, I may never have ridden in a “one horse open sleigh,” or built a snowman just to “pretend he is Parson Brown,” but that doesn’t make the notion or wonder of such a thing any less appealing.  On the contrary; in an increasingly busy, chaotic world, all these songs about “candy canes and silver lanes aglow,” end up embodying a small, sweet and enduring hope that someday, just maybe, we’ll “hear sleigh bells in the snow” and the promised dream of a White Christmas – and all the warmth and love that entails – will indeed come to pass.

In a way, it’s actually sort of like what the season of Advent is all about.

Each year as we in the church enter into this time of waiting and watching for the birth of a Savior, I am struck by how as we’re all preparing ourselves for the busyness of yet another Christmas celebration, our reading of scripture encourages us to not only look to the manger, but also beyond it. Indeed, we are called to look far beyond December 25 to that time when God’s promised kingdom will be bursting forth from heaven and unto earth; that final moment when the Son of Man comes on clouds with great power and glory, sending out his angels and gathering “his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 13:26-27)  It’s a promise from Jesus himself, and it represents the fullness of time toward which all prophecy points. In the Greek language, the word used is kairos, which simply means that the time is ripe; it means that something new and wonderful is about to happen!  So, says our Lord, be waiting… be watching… and be ready, because soon, and very soon, there shall be a new heaven and a new earth, and our hope will be fulfilled!

Some would call this “pie in the sky” thinking or, at best, a wishful reality no different than clinging to childhood memories of Christmases past or the sentimental melodies of a holiday song on the radio; but in fact, it’s realism born of faith.  To quote Will Willimon, it’s “the conviction that God intends to have the world as God’s own and that God will not stop until God gets the world that God intends.”  And the glorious, wonderful truth is that even right now, even in these crazy, baffling, uncertain times we live in, we’re on the verge of this all happening!  No, it hasn’t happened yet; but the thing is, we’re almost there… so we need to wait and be ready, because one thing is for certain: God is not done with us yet!

Now, I know, this is not the same thing as counting down the days that “you better watch out…” because “Santa Claus is Coming to Town;” nor should it be.  But just maybe the music, as silly and sentimental as it can often be, serves as a way of helping us to pause in the midst of all the holiday mayhem; perchance to take a moment to stop, take a breath, and prayerfully make room in our hearts and lives for Emmanuel… who is “God With Us?”  And isn’t that what getting ready for Christmas is really supposed to be about?

And besides… when that moment finally does come… both in the manger of Bethlehem and in the fullness of time… isn’t that the time when all “heaven and nature sings?”

That’s the music I really want to hear!

But more on that soon…

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2016 in Advent, Christmas, Family Stories, Music, Reflections

 

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Wouldn’t It Be Nice

blessed quietness 2(a sermon for April 24, 2016, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on Revelation 21:1-6 and John 13:31-35)

One of my favorite songs from one of my favorite groups, the Beach Boys, has to be Brian Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”  It came out originally just about 50 years ago – if you can believe that! – in 1966, but it’s a song that still holds up even after all these years; it’s bright and fresh and leaves you feeling good.  Which is interesting, because in many ways this song is typical of most of the popular music that came out in that era: you know, boy loves girl devotedly, girl loves boy forever, but boy and girl are tragically torn apart by circumstance; in this case, they’re just too young.  But in this particular song, there’s something different, something almost theological about the lyrics:              

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,
And we didn’t have to wait so long?
And wouldn’t it be nice if we could live together
In the kind of world where we belong?”
– “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” written by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher

Here’s a song that’s just chock-full of a profound sense of longing; that feeling of knowing that there’s something wonderful right there before you, but you can’t quite grasp it; and maybe, “if you think and wish and hope and pray, it might come true.”  And unless I miss my guess, there are many of us in this room who have known that feeling at one time or another in our lives.

I remember this very well in the years after I graduated from high school; I mean, I knew that I was no longer a child, and that I was supposed to be at least close to adulthood, but it didn’t feel like I was there quite yet.  It was more this feeling of being caught between two worlds; knowing I couldn’t go back to being a kid (and not really wanting to), but continually reaching out to the adult world, only to fall just a little bit short in my grasp! Of course, eventually I embraced and was embraced by the adult world; but right then, there was this aching inside of me for what I knew was coming, but which wasn’t real just yet.

My sense is that most of us can tell similar stories; because the fact is, longing is very much a part of what it means to be human; and furthermore, longing is very much a part of the Christian life!  Now, at first that might sound kind of strange, but stay with here: in faith, you see, we are a people who live between the now and the not yet.  On the one hand, by the power of God in Jesus Christ and guidance of the Spirit, we have been redeemed, restored and empowered for the living of these days; and that means this day, right here and right now.  You and I are pilgrims on an on-going journey of faith; we walk the way of this life in the company of God!  In fact, at the very heart of it all, that’s why we’re all here this morning; everything about our worship, our songs and prayers and proclamation, serves to give thanks and praise for that continuing presence in and through our lives!.

But that having been said, we are also a people who live unto a vision as yet unfulfilled; we are the people of a promise that is within us but which still stands before us.  Jesus spoke of this dichotomy often to his disciples: that “the kingdom of God is among (or within) you,” (Luke 17:21), yet at the same time you “know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13) when it will come in its fullness.

We also see this in John’s vision of a new heaven and earth in our reading this morning from the Book of Revelation; a vision of the time after the End, the culmination of all things, the achievement of God’s final goal. Understand that this is the promise not of reformation, nor of a change from what already exists in the world, but rather the assurance of a completely new creation where God will live with humanity in a relationship of concern and comfort.  In this new creation, we’re told, “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” for God will have made “all things new.” It will be a “holy city” of believers gathered around the very presence of God; because all the barriers that have ever existed between God and humanity will have been destroyed forever.

Now, obviously this vision is “not yet.” We know all too well that in this world, pain, suffering and death not only exist but seems to thrive.  On any given day, the news is filled with painful reminders of how far from ever living in unity with one another, much less living in unity with God; story after story of violence, abuse, hate-mongering and purposeful divisiveness. Even in the church, the one place where you might hope to find some concrete examples of God’s dwelling with humanity, so often our own disunity, not to mention our inherent human weakness puts us at cross purposes with the vision, and we end up building more barriers than we tear down!

At times the vision seems beyond our grasp; and yet, friends, it’s right there before us!  We feel it, for in the risen Christ we’ve experienced it; and in faith we know it’s true!  We worship in sure anticipation of its coming, and we affirm it in our prayer:  “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Even given the state of the world around us, as Christians we live unto the promise that it will not always be this way.  We dwell in this place between the now and the not yet, affirming what we have seen of the holy city of God in the person of Jesus Christ; and we long for that glorious moment when the promise will be fulfilled and our God will make all things new.

Of course, understanding, that our longing encompasses more than just our sighs; it involves the whole of our lives.

Our gospel reading this morning comes at a moment just prior to the events of the crucifixion.  Essentially, these are words of farewell: Jesus knew that this would be his last opportunity to speak with his disciples, and so at this point he gives them a special word: “I give you a new commandment,” he tells them, “that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.”

In one respect, there was nothing new about that that teaching. After all, the law and the prophets taught about love toward others, and Jesus himself had already said the essence of the law was to love God and to love one’s neighbor.  But this time, it was different; this time, Jesus was speaking of love with a deeper dimension: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”   Jesus was challenging his disciples to love in a way that’s not mitigated by law, or merely in keeping with what’s required but rather to care for each other with a love that is self-sacrificial, to give of themselves wholly in love; which was precisely the kind of love that Jesus was giving; the kind of love that he was about to demonstrate on the cross.

“In the same way I loved you, you love one another.” (The Message) In a way more so than any of the others, this was the commandment that would bind his disciples together as a community of faith. And it continues to be the commandment that shapes our very purpose as the church of Jesus Christ; it is what gives us the hope that we can transcend even our own human propensity to fall into the old habits of divisiveness and in fact build one another up! Love one another: with this new commandment, Jesus calls us to a new way of life.  In Christ, we are bound together in a new unity; his death and resurrection draws all of us together as one community founded on his blood and built on the very example of his love.

And the thing is, if Christ is indeed our glimpse of the reality of God’s promised kingdom – a foretaste of God’s new creation – then as we love one another after the manner of Christ, then we are living the reality of that promise.  Our longing for the vision to come becomes pro-active; we live as though it has already come to be; in the midst of the old, you see, we are living in the new! It’s what the theologian Robert Macafee Brown was talking about when he described the Christian community as “People of Coming Attractions.”  We are the people who confidently and joyously live our lives now in the way that it’s going to be!

To be sure, this is a high ideal; both personally and for us as the church?  I mean, the very idea of modeling ourselves and our lives after the manner of “the holy city, the new Jerusalem!”  To live life in such a way that casts away judgment, worry and concern in favor of the same comfort, healing and wholeness that Jesus shared and embodied among the people; to love one another – and that means all the “one anothers,” not just those with whom we’re comfortable – as Jesus Christ loved us; to embrace all of creation as brand new, and worthy of every bit of care that God has bestowed upon it! Think of it; think of us actually living as though God were dwelling among us!

That’s not as flip an assertion at it may sound – for indeed, sometimes in this “now but not yet” world, so often we govern ourselves as though God were little more than an absentee landlord; in that we we put God at a distance from the reality of our lives as persons and as a people.  Theologically, we confess otherwise; but that’s not how we live.

I was struck that in the original Greek, that passage that refers to God dwelling with humanity actually translates as God tenting with humanity, which means that God and God’s people will share the same tent and the same ground.  Historically, that hearkens back to the nomadic tradition of Israel and of a wandering people making camp in a promised land.  But for me, when I hear the word “tenting,” I think of camping trips I’ve made with family or friends, when all of us dwelt huddled together in one tent!  Trust me, friends, when you are sharing the same tent and the same ground with a bunch of people – and it’s cold, and it’s raining, and the tent’s starting to leak – your relationship suddenly becomes very close! You know your tentmates, and your tentmates know you; and so your behavior adjusts accordingly!

Well, when we live in that knowledge that God is “tenting” with us in every aspect of our lives, our behavior is bound to change!  It becomes a relationship so close that it spills over into every aspect of our lives as persons, as a people, and yes, as the church.  It affects how we deal with each other; our relationship with God changes every other relationship in our lives.  And it moves this whole business of “loving one another” from theory to practice; to care for others not out of obligation, nor some misguided sense of what’s fair, deserved or – God help us – whatever happens to be politically and socially correct this week. Tenting with God, you see, means loving as Christ loves us, and as God’s kingdom demands!

I know… it’s not easy for us to live that way; but then, it never has been.  I think that’s why Jesus called his disciples “little children,”   because when it comes to love, we are all just like children who are yearning for so much more but always just seem to fall short of the mark. But that doesn’t mean we don’t keep on yearning, and trying… because here’s the thing: sometimes, by God’s grace and leading, we get it right; and eventually, as we keep working at it, we’ll know love – true love – in all its fullness.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up, in the morning when the day is new?” Wouldn’t it be nice if “peace on earth” was the reality for our lives together?  Wouldn’t it be nice for justice and love to prevail in all things, with the hungry being fed with good things?  Wouldn’t it be nice for mourning and crying and pain to be gone forever?  Wouldn’t it be nice? Oh, yes, it would; and the day will come when all of God’s promises will be fulfilled for a new heaven and new earth. Not yet, but someday, soon and very soon… but in the meantime, let us truly live unto that promise; loving one another and living out the reality of a new creation that is even now fashioned by the one who is “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”

And truly, for all these promises fulfilled, let our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2016 in Easter, Jesus, Life, Love, Music, Sermon

 

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