A sermon preached on Advent IV, December 23, 2018 at St. John’s in Kingston, NY. You can read the day’s scriptures here.
We sang the Magnificat today, a deeply loved poem. This is Mary’s song, reverently prayed and sung by people all over the world because its message is one of the most comforting and most powerful in all of scripture. These words offer us an image of God that opens us to the understanding the God of Life… the God of Love we worship, is also the God of Liberation. And that liberation, therefore, is inherently the focus of love and the promise of life.
Listen, again, to the words we sang:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
Mary identifies herself as a lowly servant, not as someone who has power. There is no entitlement, no privilege. She experiences no worldly value. Yet, she is joyous, praising God. And she tells us why:
God has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy…
At the end this is defined as “The promise he made to Abraham,” the ancestor identified in scripture as the one who first understands God as the God of Love, the God of all Life, rather than the god of a specific people or place.
The Magnificat tells us that Love is defined as liberation, the liberation of all life.
Think about when you have felt loved in your life. It has to do, usually, with feeling like someone has taken care of you or they have really seen you, really seen your heart, your tenderest place, and they have held that softest place with such deep care and kindness that, suddenly, all of the things you’ve been carrying, all of the ways you’ve been hiding from yourself, from the world… you are freed from them. You can lay your burdens down.
You are liberated from the weight of protecting yourself, from the enormous task of proving yourself worthy… and you can just be.
You can just be exactly who God created you to be.
You are liberated from the shame others might place on you, the shame you place on yourself. And you have a feeling of belonging.
We often associate this feeling with the task of mothering, which is why we name this song of Love as the song of a mother, of Mary. But this love doesn’t always come from mothers, it comes from others in our lives who inspire us, who hold a space for us and encourage us.
However, we experience others also, as we grow and mature, who may be so lost themselves that they use our vulnerability to take advantage of us or use it against us, or thoughtlessly betray us. And so we learn to hide.
We don’t come into this world shrouded in shame, but we can learn it quite easily as we may be teased or bullied, or told once too often that we need to be like other people. We’ve seen this before. I have a feeling we’ve all experienced this in some way ourselves.
And this Love, it’s not a love that lets us off the hook when we’re stuck in unhelpful or unkind behavior. Because that’s not love and because liberation is not self-indulgence. Liberation is learning how to be free from that which keeps us bound in unloving behavior – either to self or to others.
Love is that which sees and knows softness of our hearts and helps us to live so that we can find the strength in that softness. From this Love, we learn that the very thing we thought was wrong about us, is our gift to give this world. This is how Love liberates us, transforms us.
It reminds us that our Creator is the same Creator that made the stars to shine and the earth to nourish and we, these human creatures, who so often struggle so much… we, are beautiful, beloved, children of God. And when we can finally learn to love ourselves, to hold our own softness and know it as our strength, well, then… we can truly love others. When we are there for ourselves, we can be there for others.
Mary’s Song is God’s promise of liberating love. This is why these words are at once so comforting and so powerful. Because this self-emptying Love, this Love that seeks the liberation of life, is the salvation of the world. This Love knows that if you are more free, then we all are more free.
Ana and I have been watching this amazing show lately on Netflix called Big Dreams, Small Spaces. It’s a reality show out of England in which this well-known gardener named Monty Don, works with people who want to turn their plot of land into a beautiful garden.
Now, stop and think about that for a minute… what an incredible and perfect metaphor that is – to turn a plot of land into a beautiful garden. For we are all plots of land, really. We are all made of the earth.
And this person Monty is one of the most loving people I’ve ever seen on TV. Here is someone who knows everything about gardening and when he meets with these people, he doesn’t tell them what to do. No. He sits and he listens to what they want, what kind of garden will reflect their heart’s desire.
And, he may have a suggestion or two. He may actually think they are completely crazy to do whatever it is they are doing. But, as he always says… what he thinks, doesn’t matter. What makes a garden a success is whether or not the people who create it are happy with it. And you can tell he genuinely feels this way.
The other night, we saw an episode in which the person he was working with was a pretty negative and indecisive person. And this person had a friend who had agreed to work with them on their garden. Watching this person was just driving me nuts.
But I watched how loving this person’s friend was… moving plants around… big, heavy plants and pots… moving things over and over again and listening to this person complain and whine. But the friend was just there waiting patiently for this person’s heart to emerge, steadily working alongside them. Helping to carry the weight of the earth for them until, finally, their heart came to rest.
And when Monty came back to see the finished garden, this person was transformed by it. By the love shown in the friend’s help and in Monty’s selfless encouragement.
Love does this. It sees a plot of earth as God’s garden waiting to emerge in another and prods and carries and walks alongside until we can come home to tend to God’s garden- this amazing display of liberated life, growing and blooming and becoming exactly who it was always meant to be.
Mary’s Song is this song of Love – reminding us that our tenderness, our softness is our gift to the world. This gift is what liberates us because it is what liberates others. And the more we offer this, the more we become the mansion we are asked to prepare for God. A liberated heart is a heart that becomes a sanctuary for others, indeed, a manger for Christ’s light because it can learn to see through God’s eyes.
Love is God’s promise. Always.