Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Worship notes for Advent III...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Advent III - Sunday, December
15, 2013 - with special attention to the Canticle of Mary.

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of the massacre in Newton, CT at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  I remember thinking to myself last year at this time:  “Certainly THIS horror – this sacrifice of our most innocent children – will awaken the hearts and souls of those who wield power to grieve and then act in bold ways for the well-being of all Americans.”  But I was too generous in my assessment and too quick in my hope.  According to the most careful and conservative analysis, there have been 11, 372 gun deaths in the United States in the past year and precious little has changed.

·    Well, that isn't entirely correct:  while it would be fair to say that precious little has changed when it comes to our leaders’ hearts and official actions, I sense that it is also true that at both the personal and grassroots level small changes are taking place that will one day yield blessings. I think of the crusade to challenge America’s gun violence organized by Captain Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords; slowly and carefully, wisely and effectively they are both educating Americans about common sense gun laws and systematically taking on the big money interests that benefit from our inaction.  I think of the parents and friends in Newtown who have created the Sandy Hook Promise who are equally grounded in changing the gun culture of our land from the bottom up.

These efforts are small and personal – they are slow-brewing and long-baking - much like the season of Advent.  And over time I believe they have the potential to bring to birth things we cannot even imagine this year.  Like the late Nelson Mandela used to say:  Some things always seem impossible until they are done!  Remember when most Americans smoked in public?  It wasn't that long ago that we couldn't imagine living in a smoke-free environment, but now it is the norm.  Or South African apartheid:  who could have imagined how fast that brutal regime would collapse once Mandela was released from prison?  Some things always seem impossible until they are done.

Such is the subversive and quiet wisdom of Advent:  we practice trusting and waiting in the darkness until we know in our souls that in God’s time the light will come.  It is beyond our control.  It is beyond our comprehension.  And at times we feel like John the Baptist in this morning’s gospel asking Jesus:  ARE you the one we have been waiting for or must we look for another Messiah?  Are you the one who will bring us peace?  Are you the one who will give us God’s healing grace?  Are you the one or must we wait for another?

Now if we aren't paying careful attention we will miss the real insight for today because it is found in the brief Canticle or Song of Mary.  Like the upside-down truth of Advent spirituality itself, this song is buried in-between the anguished lament of John the Baptist and the bold Messianic declaration of the prophet Isaiah.  Did you notice that?  Right in the middle of the Old Testament and Gospel readings there is a wee canticle in the place where we usually sing the Psalm.  And we could overlook Mary’s Advent clue to us because it is so soft and gentle – and to be honest, because as Protestants we often overlook things that have to do with the Blessed Virgin Mary.  But that would be a big mistake, beloved, because Mary’s song unlocks for us the wisdom of Advent’s mystery.

You see, what Mary shares with us today is a song.  Yes, it is a carefully constructed theological song that has roots in Hebraic culture and the needs of the early church. And to be completely candid, we know that what Mary actually sang was likely very different from the words that have been recorded in the gospel according to St. Luke.  But like the scholar said about her study of the ancient myths:  While we know this isn’t historically accurate, it is still true.  And there are three things about spiritual songs that we need to call to mind lest we miss the beauty and truth of Mary’s Advent wisdom.

·   First of all, singing is the only truly embodied art form we have.  Drumming comes close but when you sing it is just your body that makes the music not an exterior instrument.  You bring air into your lungs, it passes over your vocal chords and comes out of your mouth in a way that makes YOU an instrument of the Lord’s peace. 

Small wonder that the Mennonites consider singing to be a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace – an action in space and times that gives shape and form to what St. John wrote at the start of his gospel. In the beginning was the word… and the word became flesh… and dwelt among us full of truth and grace.  Singing is incarnational theology – making the ideas and truths of the sacred real – through our flesh.  Duke professor of theology and sacred music, Jeremy Begbie, put it like this:  Sound… is the only major medium of communication that can vibrate perceptibly within the body… the lungs, the sinus passages, the mouth that vibrate in sympathy with the frequencies of the vocal chords… are a truth that can be felt in addition to being heard for sound… enters the body and IS the body. Singing is incarnational theology.

·    Second, because singing is incarnational, it helps us feel and then express
what we are thinking and praying and hoping for in life.  When you sing a lament, it feels sad and you know that pain in your gut.  When you sing “Joy to the World” you can’t help but want to dance and celebrate.  In fact, sometimes singing is the only way to express to God and one another what is going on in our soul. 

When the first openly gay city council person, Harvey Milk of San Francisco, was assassinated, thousands of people took to the streets singing “we are an angry, gentle people and we are fighting, fighting for our lives.”  When the American civil rights movement found itself backed up against a wall, attacked by police dogs and water cannons, they sang:  “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around…”  In South Africa as Mandela led his people towards a new day that could not even be imagined in a popular consciousness shaped by apartheid, black and white sang together in Zulu:  “Siyahamb' ekukhanyen' kwenkhos…”  Last year as our church in Newtown buried some of the children from Sandy Hook – and no words could capture the full truth of that moment – they sang.  And what they sang is instructive:  O come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear:  rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel shall come to Thee o Israel.”

·    First, singing is doing theology in an embodied way; second, singing gives shape and form to what is in our hearts; and third singing helps us experience and taste what living into God’s kingdom really means.  There is harmony in our music, there is beauty as well as rhythm, humor and humility.  There is energy to our songs and the poetic promise of what God desires but we have not yet begun to imagine. For, you see, when we sing to the Lord like Mary, not only do we give voice to our prayers, we enter into that blessing for a moment of time out of time.  Singing gives us a taste of what God intends for us within the everlasting kingdom – it doesn’t last – and it is fleeting, but it is real.  Now I don’t know if you have ever experienced that kind of ecstasy before, but I’m not making this up. Sometimes when you’re singing or listening to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” it happens, right?  You are lifted up and beyond yourself in a blessed way.    

I’ve had that happen at a U2 concert, too.  What’s more, I have been lifted up and beyond the pettiness of this world into something sacred when Garth Brooks sings “We Shall Be Free” – a good old country boy singing about racial harmony and marriage equality - or Springsteen singing about the martyrs of September 11th in “The Rising” or even Montgomery Gentry tearing up the house in their prophetic “Hell Yeah” that reminds us that all too often bars and pubs are more hospitable to broken souls than churches, synagogues and mosques.

Those are kingdom moments for me when I am brought into a time beyond time and the ancient promise of Isaiah is realized for a momentThe eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Consider what is happening in Mary’s canticle:  not only is she articulating the promises of the Lord but she is entering them, too.  Preacher David Lohse has written:

Mary sings of God’s mercy, promising that God lifts up the lonely, the downtrodden and the oppressed, not just of her day, but of our own as well… According to Luke, when Mary sang, she didn’t just name those promises but also entered into them. Notice, for instance, that the verbs in Mary's song are all in the past tense. Mary recognizes as she sings that she has already been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel, the one who has been siding with the oppressed since the days of Egypt and who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham (and Sarah.) The past tense in this case doesn’t so much signify that everything Mary sings about has been accomplished, but rather that Mary is now included in God's history of redemption.

Like Mary’s songs, I have come to believe that our songs don’t simply express spiritual blessings for another time, but they actually pull us into an experience of the new reality.  Do you know the old hymn, Blessed Assurance? Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, o what a foretaste of glory divine?  Like Martin Luther used to tell his students, not only does the Devil flee from joyful songs, but we pray twice whenever we sing to the Lord.  Singing is a way to live into the promise of God’s changed world.  It is a way to experience and embrace the wisdom of Advent so that we, too, bring something of the Lord to birth within and among us.

So what I want to do with you right now is take a few moments to sing, listen, feel and pray five key songs from our faith tradition that have opened me to something of Advent’s wisdom as I encounter God’s kingdom of peace, compassion and healing like Mary.  Because, let me be very blunt here:   I don’t know about you but I need some blessing these days.  It is so easy to grow weary and afraid for so many reasons. And even though I know in my head that God’s light is coming into the darkness, I still need some encouragement.  Are you with me?  What did the old soul say to Jesus:  I believe, Lord, help my unbelief?  I think singing is one of the ways to do just that.

·    +  So let’s start with hymn #36 – In the Bleak Midwinter – and we’ll sing
just the first and last verse… What do you hear of the Lord’s love in this song?  What is our prayer?  And what is our encounter with God’s presence?

·    + Now try this one:  # 97 – Go to Dark Gethsemane – and we’ll do the first and last here, too: what does this song feel like to you?  If “In the Bleak Midwinter” felt desolate, this one feels like Sandy Hook Elementary school to me – only anguish – except… the one who has been sacrificed will teach us to trust beyond even our feelings.

+  What do you experience with hear this one – It Is Well with My Soul – When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.  What’s going on here? 

+Two more: #260 – A Might Fortress Is Our God – first and last:  what’s going on here?

And then #309 – Of the Father’s Love Begotten – all three:  what do you experience here?
Each of those songs brings me into both the promise of God’s grace and the power of God’s promise.  When I find myself discouraged – or afraid – or confused or agitated as I often do, I find myself drifting back to one of those five songs.  And like Mary, when I sing them, I enter into a new reality and my heart is refreshed.  Not all at once – and it doesn’t last forever. But it helps.

Mary is a quiet and often overlooked prophet.  She isn’t as bold as Isaiah nor is she as loud and demanding as John the Baptist.  But like her place in today’s liturgy, quietly hidden amidst all the furor, she offers a better way – a healing way - a way that brings hope and light to our hearts when we don’t know what to say.  When John the Baptist fretted if Jesus was the one he had been waiting for, the Lord replied: go tell John what you see - the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.

When I get lost, more than anything else the way of Mary’s songs comfort me:  My soul magnifies the Lord my God and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

1) vivificat1.blogspot.com
2) bloomingcactus.typepad.com
3) fraangelicoinstitute.com
4) www.patheos.com
5) www.patrickcomerford.com

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