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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

December 20, 2015

Gospel: Luke 1:39-55 
1st Reading: Micah 5:2-5a
2nd Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

An unwed mother goes to wait our her pregnancy far away from wagging tongues and accusing eyes. An older woman find herself pregnant after years of infertility. A baby leaps in a womb. Two women with vastly different experiences find commonalities. Two women sing together. Two people bless each other. Two people know what it is like to be outsiders, embrace each other and support each other. A person with more experience and power defers to someone with less. These are completely ordinary occurrences. And yet we see in them hope and new life.

A family sits down to a Christmas feast. Two people who have argued talk it out like adults. Someone finds healing in Alcoholics Anonymous. Someone drives someone to a doctor appointment. Someone gives a gift to someone who might not otherwise receive a gift. Someone listens to a child. People sing together at a nursing home. New family members are welcomed. People share. These are completely ordinary occurrences and yet we can see in them hope and new life.

Each year at Advent and Christmas time, I follow a very similar routine. At some point I take down the orange of Thanksgiving and go to the basement for my three boxes of Christmas decorations. We exchange Christmas lists. I bake spritz cookies. I gather gifts and wrap them. We go get a tree or put up our artificial tree. I go to the post office to mail gifts. We open Christmas cards and get news of the year from family and friends. We listen to the same Christmas album that I have ever year since I was born. Maybe I even heard it in the womb—the Ray Coniff singers. Who knows if it is any good—it is tradition and it isn't Christmas without it. We go to grandma's for a Christmas celebration with her and all the cousins. We try to get together with Nick's side of the family and we always have to reschedule at least once due to illness. We struggle through holiday traffic. We exchange gifts. We eat food. We snuggle warm indoors. We have church. We sing “Joy to the World!” and “Silent Night.” I go home to celebrate with my family. Christmas is basically the same every year. In a way it is very ordinary.

And yet, there is something new happening, something hopeful and alive. There is something about this season that takes us back to childhood, that links us to the promises of God's presence coming among us, and that makes us look forward to a future of peace and joy so much that we want to act to make it so, so much that we do act to bring peace and joy on earth.

Maybe the most ordinary thing of all is the singing. We sang part of the Gospel this morning that Mary sang. As Pastor Hiller taught us last week in our Sunday morning Bible 101 class, often in the Bible when we see the text take the form of poetry, that's because the Bible scholars figure the speaker was singing. 

Even though singing, especially group singing, is becoming a lost art, it is so basic to who we are. Some scholars believe that before humans ever spoke, we sang, and that speaking evolved from that. Hearing my son make up new songs several times a week, makes me believe that more and more. Singing seems such a part of our nature. It can capture a depth of feeling that simply speaking cannot. It commits thoughts to memory—how often can you remember exactly what a person said, but you go home from church singing the choir anthem or a new hymn that you only just heard for the first time? 

Church is one of the few places where folks still expect to sing together. Sometimes the chanting of the communion setting in church seems so old fashioned and strange, but when we think of ages gone by when there weren't microphones to amplify the voice, singing provided a way for the sound to travel and the vowel sounds to be elongated so that words could be understood, even way in the back of the church.

This is one time of year when we still expect people to come together and sing in groups. Of course I'm talking about Christmas Caroling. It isn't a surprise to see a group singing in the mall or walking down the sidewalk. Singing together is a very ancient practice, it was one of the few types of entertainment that families had at their disposal before television was invented. 

But singing is not just ordinary or common. Singing is revolutionary. It is words that get to the heart. Singing changes us.

When the Berlin Wall came down, the report was that groups gathered there to sing. It started small, with a thousand or so in Leipzig and grew to 300,000 people gathered singing songs of justice and resistance. When the guards were asked why they didn't do something about it, why they didn't defend the wall, they said, “We had no contingency plan for song.” 

In times of American Slavery, slaves sang those songs of resistance to find hope, to build community, to remember who they were. Imagine what they thought as they sang the magnificat. God came to Mary, a person of little importance, and brought forth God's child, God's presence on earth through her. Jesus came to even everything out, to make everything right, to crush the proud and lift up the humble and downtrodden. What an incredible song of hope.

The folks in the readings for this day are in dark times. They don't have much reason to find God's presence in their midst. There is some debate about when this was written, but it was a good summary of how people felt in a number of instances when it seemed all hope was lost, when people weren't even sure if they would see the next day, let alone live secure. For Mary, she had every reason fear—fear that Joseph would release her and that she'd be shunned. For Elizabeth, she had given up a long time ago that she would ever bear a child. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke she talks about the disgrace she has endured among her people, that she was looked down upon by family and neighbors, that she and others felt her lacking as a woman that she had been unable to have a child. 

It is from this place of darkness, lack of hope, of despair and disgrace, that all these stories move toward the light and can receive the light, that they begin to expect the light, they are more prepared for the light and love and blessing of God.

Maybe we even sing our Advent hymns as an act of resistance. Some pastors, I know, feel pressured by their congregations to introduce Christmas hymns during the season of Advent. The hymns are playing all over the radio and then of course the day after Christmas they are gone. But we are waiting. We are full of expectation, we are watching, on the edge of our seat for the contractions to begin. Waiting is an art. It is something we get better at when we practice it together. We are waiting for Christmas, for the birth of Christ on Christmas Eve. And we are waiting for fullness of Christ's presence, for God's love and peace to be known by everyone, on whatever day of the year of fleeting moment or whatever that would look like. And we don't just wait by sitting in our armchair. We prepare. We take those ordinary moments and we look for the extraordinary presence of Christ in them. We take that ordinary trip to the store as an opportunity to help someone else, whether it is carrying their groceries, or grabbing extra cans of food for backpack buddies, or bringing someone along with us who can't get to the store on their own. We prepare by taking the chance to give a gift to someone who is forgotten or invite over a neighbor who might be lonely or by singing with someone in a nursing home. We are preparing for the love of Christmas to change us and thus change our world. That's when something ordinary becomes something transformative, when God is magnified and we see God's presence and love more clearly, and God magnifies those who are forgotten and despairing.

In the Gospel, Elizabeth blesses Mary. Elizabeth knows what it is like to have people talk about you behind your back and reject you. She knows a little bit of what Mary is facing. She turns her experience into blessing. She is the more powerful woman, and should expect Mary to respect her and dote on her. Instead she is honored by her cousin's visit and uses it as an opportunity to bless Mary and give her all the attention. And then she steps aside and lets Mary have the greater song. We can take a hint from Elizabeth, that when we are in the position of power, when we are the older, the more educated, the more wealthy, that is our opportunity to bless someone else, give them our attention, and let them be the one to shine. 

My prayer is that we would be expectant, that we would be on the lookout for the extraordinary in the ordinary, on the lookout for God's presence in ordinary moments. My prayer is that we would see God, not far away, but coming among us to empower us, and that our lives would be ones of blessing.

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