of Mary, Mother of Our Lord, 15 August 2004
Luke 1:46 And Mary said,
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, has just heard from the angel that she should expect a child; an extraordinary child; her child. This child will be born to bring wholeness again to Israel, and will be called Son of God, indicating that the Messiah, long promised was about to arrive. She journeys to her cousin Elizabeth’s house and there receives a blessing by the mother of another special child to be. Her response is to sing the song that is today’s Gospel text. This song, the traditional canticle of Evening Prayer services for countless years, has captured the imaginations of myriad musicians, poets, and storytellers throughout Christian history. With its images of reversals and the surprising “upside down” way of God’s justice, it has been especially favored of those who are oppressed. But what does it say to us today? Does it hold an understanding of the promise of God as yet unfulfilled? Does it hold a word of warning to those of us who are “mighty” and “wealthy” and “proud”? Does it hold out hope for a world already redeemed, but not yet fully restored?
I am a storyteller, by trade and by self-appointment. I love to hear a good story, and I love to tell a good story. But I also recognize when I am a part of a greater story, and see my life unfolding in God’s time. When I hear Mary’s text, on Mary’s feast day, I am transported to other places and times, to help me understand what this could mean. Journey with me now, and I will share Mary’s song as it has been sung in my life.
The Mighty Are Brought Low
Journey with me to 1987. It is a hot August day in the community of Hondo, west of San Antonio, where I am the newly ordained, newly installed, pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. It is a town that proudly proclaims its faith in the town motto, famous in the area for its placement on the road sign of the highway through town. “This is God’s Country, Please Don’t Drive Through it Like Hell.” It is late in a Thursday afternoon and I struggle desperately the finish my sermon for Sunday.
A Madonna appears in my doorway. Her donkey is an orange ‘69 Chevy with bald tires and a twisted fender. Her face is beauty, though drawn and dusty, framed by black hair that slowly wanders past her cheeks to her shoulders. She is Maria, but Joseph is not in evidence, at least not this day. But his existence is confirmed by her swollen belly, carrying the child that she sees as her salvation, her passport to permanent residence in this promised land to the north. Her denim smock still serves to cover her, great with child though she may be. You can see that she is hungry with a hunger that burns deeply behind her once bright eyes.
She speaks, “Comida, por favor?”
“No comprende!” I reply, making a mental note to myself to learn more Spanish.”
“Habla Español?” she asks, in quiet desperation. I shake my head no.
“Eat, Please,” she states in halted words putting her hand to her mouth in pointed pantomime. It is a simple request. It requires a simple answer. (My heart shouts YES!)
“I’m sorry,” I mutter as I shake my head.
I’m sorry for several reasons. Officially I’m sorry because I have been Pastor for only two weeks. I have not yet been given access to the town’s system of vouchers for those who need food. I did not even have pocket money for myself that day. I tried to tell her these things, but she only nodded that blank nod of someone who has tuned out. Privately I’m sorry because I have been warned not to help too much these days. I’m already a marked man in Hondo. Just one day after the town paper printed the picture announcing my arrival a steady stream of people, con artists the other pastors in town had warned, began to arrive at my door, looking for a “soft touch” to take advantage of. Someone had abused the generosity of the good pastors of Hondo once too often in the past, I fear.
Oh, Maria, I am truly sorry. I did not have the courage to help you
in your need, to reach out to you from my lofty perch. What a condition
for me to be in, not to trust others enough to be generous with money
not my own. And though I knew better in my heart and in my head, I DID
IT ANYWAY. I bought into that system of the wealthy and the lowly that
Mary of old spoke of being torn down and I upheld it against my Lord
and his beloved children. I have joined the countless host who have
turned in pride away from their savior. Maria, not wanted to wait for
further proof of my Sin, retreated to her car and drove away in a cloud
Mary of old sings a song of praise for the things that God is about to do through her child. His name will be “Immanuel,” God with us. We do nothing to deserve his presence among us. We turn him away from our doorsteps. Yet it is for all of us that he comes, to be with us, though we ignore him. He comes to experience our lives, shameful though they may be; to suffer our injustices; to die an outcast. He comes to an estranged world, where rich and poor alike are trapped by the systems and the barriers we ourselves have erected.
But it is precisely the news of God’s coming, God’s advent, that gives Mary the courage to sing, and gives us, gives me the courage to BE once again. For he shatters not only the proud, but the system that allows us to divide ourselves and pretend we are other than one humanity united both in Sin and in Grace. God, in Jesus, gives hope to a failed people in a fallen world. He now hope that by the birth of a child, love and trust might exist in our lives again, for us and through us. For Jesus comes to break the mistrust by joining our pain, our alienation and our death on a cross that we have fashioned. Thus joined to our death, relationship with God and between people of a desperate planet becomes real for us again. It is to the same hope as Mary that I cling. It is for the same reason as Mary that I sing. It is this new reality that makes life more than existing from day to day: Immanuel, GOD WITH US!
Maria returned to my door some months later, her English improving, her child now dandled on her hip. Her husband was with her this trip, and they were not there to beg for food. He had found construction work and they had a place to live other than their still orange Nova. They had come to sign up for the English as a Second Language classes that this small German Lutheran Church had started to offer, and to thank me for the food pantry that I was not really responsible for getting started in the town. I learned that her name was really Imelda, and in her hands she held a baby, name Pedro, after his father. By their presence I was forgiven, and felt the joy of the new bond of life. I gave them a blanket for the baby, from our stock of goodies and they accepted my gift with smiles. I did not tell them they had given more to me that day. I think that they knew.
But the words and music of the Magnificat suddenly begin to sing in my head. “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” I thought I was rich only to find myself empty. But true to form, God then filled me up with the good things of his love, and repeats this cycle for me until I get it. I am a slow learner, but God is a patient God.
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