A sermon on Luke 1:39-55 Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church 19 December 2021
From 2010 through 2016, I served as the director of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.
Memories of precious people, painful international events, and amazing happenings swirl in my heart and mind.
Among my favorite memory is the moment I have come to call the good night ritual. .
Each night, I shut off my computer, turned out the light, and left the office. I walked down the hall to the elevator and pushed the call button. When the cab arrived, I pushed “1” to go downstairs. Hector would be there to see me out. Always. And always we spoke. Sometimes we talked about weather or family. Often, we talked sports. Conversations got interesting the week my Steelers beat Hector’s Jets. After some conversation, I made for the door, As I stepped across the hallway, I heard Hector’s final words: always the same words, always in the same, kind voice: “Good night, Marko. Get home safe.”
In Advent and Christmas, we think of home in many ways.
“Please Come Home for Christmas,” sings Aaron Neville.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” sings Oscar Peterson.[i]
Spoiler alert. If you have forgotten the ending of A Christmas Carol; if you have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, I invite you to plug your ears for a moment. I will let you know when the spoilers are done.
After the visits of three ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge sends a feast to Bob Cratchit’s home and then travels to celebrate at his nephew’s home.
After the visit of one rather ordinary angel second class, in the climactic moment of George Bailey’s renewal, he makes his way home.
I see places I have lived at different times when I hear the word “home”.
Unique sights, smells, and sounds.
Home also recalls people. Beloved people. Family. Friends. Chosen family. Different in different homes. But always people.
Home is a place. 123 Sesame St. 80 Main St., Apt. 23D
Home is people.
Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri observes that as a poor, unwed teenager, Mary was surrounded by dangers and uncertainty – both physical and societal. When she learned of her pregnancy, Mary sought a haven, a sanctuary, home.[ii]
Home for Mary was a place. The house of her relative Elizabeth. Home was people. Zechariah was there. Silent, but there. More importantly, Elizabeth and the baby in her womb, were present.
They welcome and affirm Mary. And in a moment that Stephen Sondheim could have written, Mary breaks into a song. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The Magnificat. A song that has been set in many ways over the centuries, including the Canticle of the Turning which we will sing shortly.
The Magnificat holds together the grittiness of life on the margins, the resilient hope of those who trust in God, and the power to image a new way of living.
My friend the Rev. Margaret Aymer suggests that we need to revise our view of Mary. Rather than gentle Mary, meek and mild, Margaret says Mary is better seen as Jesus’ radical Jewish Mama. A woman full of strength and courage and hope. An alternative vision fires her imagination. God’s vision of justice, equity, and peace. This vision, sung in Mary’s song, no doubt found its way into the lullabies she sang to Jesus and the stories she told him. It shaped him. It guided his living. His words and deeds exemplify his mama’s song.[iii]
Consider, church: the Triune God – Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit or whatever formula you use – exists in relationship.
Made in God’s image, we are made for relationships. The late bell hooks reminds us of this when she says that healing is an act of communion. Rarely, if ever, she says, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing comes through relationships. Life comes through relationships.[iv]
We are made for each other. We are made for relationships of integrity, compassion, justice, equity, solidarity, accountability, responsibility, and love. We are made to be home to one another.
The village of Le Chambon in France provided sanctuary and home to Jews during the Second World War. Fleeing the monstrous, sinful evil of the Nazis, Jews would arrive in this Huguenot village. They made their way to the building we Presbyterians would call the manse. They knocked and were usually greeted by Magda Trocme with the words, “Welcome. Come in.” The process of creating home began. Years later, asked why their village and people became a sanctuary of home, Magda replied, “They knocked. What else could we do?”[v]
This theology – that God has made us and called us to be home for one another – was shared by those who ran the Underground Railroad. It is shared by those who welcome refugees, who support citizens returning from incarceration, and who offer sanctuary to individuals and families at risk of deportation to the violence-filled places they have fled.
Whether they are running for their lives or they are buffeted and battered by life, we will encounter people in need of refuge, haven, and sanctuary. Through Jesus Christ, God who is love, God who is our sanctuary and home, empowers us to say, “Welcome. Come in.”
Part of what allows us to create home is God’s gift of imagination. Our shared humanity allows us to imagine the pain and the fear of people in need.
More importantly, our faith allows us to imagine our relatedness to the entire human family. Each child is our child. Every person created and loved by God is a person to whom we are bound by the unbreakable cords of God’s love.
Imagination is an act of faithful subversion in a world that tells us nothing will change. Things will always be the same. There is nothing we can do about it.
Not so, says imagination. Not so. There can be, there is, another way. Imagination is the root of joy. Imagination is the source of hope. When we dare to imagine that Jesus just might be on to something when he tells us to love one another; we take the first steps toward loving one another.
At home with Elizabeth, Mary’s imagination inspired her to break into song about what God has done, what God will do, and what God is doing. Mary’s song, Rachel Held Evans reminds us, declares that God has chosen sides.[vi]
God has chosen not narcissistic rulers or leaders, but an un-wed, un-believed teenage girl for the holy task of birthing, nursing, and nurturing God.
God has chosen not the powerful, but the humble.
Not the rich, but the poor.
Not the occupying force, but people pushed to the margins.
God has made a home. That home, Jesus reveals, is among the people the world casts aside. Women. Children. The poor. Lepers. Samaritans. Tax collectors. Sinners. God’s home includes people of every sexual orientation and every gender identity, people living on the streets, people whose immigration papers do not match the government standards, people battling addiction, people dealing with mental illness, and anyone pushed aside by the culture of domination.
Any time we human creatures seek to keep some of God’s children out and we draw a line to exclude and we say, “you do not belong,” God wipes the line aside. “Hold my beer,” the Holy Spirit says, and she begins the patient, careful work of removing the line and welcoming all God’s children home.
Church, we know that does not happen quickly enough. We know people, too many precious people, are wounded in the time it takes God to erase the lines. That grieves us and God. But we also know that patiently, persistently God is at work. And God invites us to join that work.
In her defiant, prophetic, imaginative song, Mary—a dark-skinned woman who would become a refugee, a member of a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality: God makes a home for and with those who have been driven to the margins by the powerful. And we are invited to meet God there on the margins and be welcomed home.
During Advent, we journey home.
During Advent, we work to create home.
During Advent and always, may we journey and work with the stubborn, unsentimental hope of Jesus’ radical Jewish Mama – a woman so convinced the baby inside her would change everything, she proclaimed that:
The powerful have already been humbled;
The vulnerable have already been lifted up;
The world is turning;
And it is turning toward home.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Many artists have recorded both songs. The versions by Aaron Neville and Oscar Peterson were the first to appear in my iTunes Library.
[ii] This comes from Vilmarie’s commentary on Luke 1:39-55 in the Sanctified Art Close to Home Sermon Planning Guide for this Sunday.
[iii] I found this image from the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer a couple years ago. I can no longer find the source.
“As the country finally comes to realization that AAPI women have experienced racialized misogyny for centuries- the people who have been leading and working in the intersection of race and gender, especially who identify as AAPI surrounded me with so much support. Check in texts, emails, venmoing me lunch money, sending delivery dinner so my kid wouldn’t starve. Among them, there are fierce and kick ass AAPI women leaders who wanted to uplift NAPAWF’s 25 year’s of work- the audacity to believe that we, as AAPI women deserve to be seen and heard. Among them are Christina Baal-Owens and her team Public Wise and Mini Timmaraju who have worked to put together a fundraiser for NAPAWF along with allies at Onward Together. I’m so humbled by the show of support from Christina, Mini, Onward Together and all our special guests. Thank you for your support and affirmation of the important mission of NAPAWF.Please join us for an evening where we center AAPI women and our vision to build power for a future where we can all thrive. April 21st, 7PM ET. Virtual event with tickets ranging from $25 and up.”
God for us all, we remember your beloved child Breonna Taylor. We will not forget her, we cannot forget her. Nor can we forget the countless other Black lives so needlessly and callously taken from us. We give thanks for Breonna’s life and love. We cry out that Breonna is gone too soon – unjustly killed one year ago. Comfort Breonna’s family, friends, and community in their grief. Inspire and guide those who continue to witness and work for justice for Breonna. May their efforts touch the hearts of people in power so they repent and reconsider and heed the call for justice. May we all work to demand accountability, deconstruct white supremacy, and allow justice and equity to roll down. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. this prayer draws on language from Senator Reverend Ralph Warnock
The bad news, the sad news kept coming through the day, O God. The Rev. C.T. Vivian died in the morning. Congressman John Lewis died in the evening. Their deaths call to mind the death of the Rev. Joseph Lowery but a few months ago and the death of Emma Sanders last week. Each worked for justice. Each joined the struggle for civil rights, for human rights. Each provided leadership to that effort. We thank you for their lives, their faith, their courage, their love, their witness, and their work. We give thanks that they rest with you in peace and that they will rise in power. Comfort their families and friends and all who grieve. May their memories shine brightly in our hearts, minds, and souls. As we remember them, may we also remember the folk whose names are known to but a few, but are written in your Book of Life. The members of the Movement for freedom, for equity, for justice. As we remember, may we be strengthened to be outraged at injustice wherever, however, it occurs that we might take our place and do our part in that Movement,
whenever, whatever that may be. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Note: the image of “folk whose names are known but to a few, but are written in your Book of Life” was first given to me by the Rev. Dr. Otis Turner.
I had another prayer prepared for today. It was loaded in my email and ready to send.
Last night, after the Session meeting, I learned about three Asian American friends who had recently experienced acts of hate. No one was hurt, thank God. But that is not always the case. There are at least reported hate incidents in New York City in which people have been injured. Again, thank God, the injuries have not been serious. But – all such behavior is inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the reality that all people are made and loved by God.
Clearly this situation worked on me overnight. This morning the following came out.
A prayer God for all the world, we give thanks for your work of creation. You make all that is and call it good. You make the human creature in a wondrous array of diversity: all in your image, all beloved by you. Pour your Holy Spirit upon us and upon all people that we might: give thanks for the diversity you create, honor all people, welcome the diversity you create as a gift that enriches and blesses us all. Lead our community, our city, our nation, and all nations and peoples to reject hate and to embrace love. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Affirmation for the time of Covid-19 3/19/2020
As well as I am able (and when I know better, I will do better) I reject racism and white supremacy and will work to disrupt it; I reject “othering,” scapegoating, belittling, demeaning of any person or any group of people; I reject violence directed against a person or group of people because of their perceived race, ethnicity, nationality, or any other factor.
As well as I am able (and when I know better, I will do better) I affirm the worth and dignity of every person; I give thanks for the Asian Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders who I know, and who I have never met—I am grateful that I can share this community, this country with you; I give thanks for the Asian Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders who have entrusted me with your friendship and trusted me to be your pastor—I am honored, I hold you in my heart, I see you in my mind’s eye, I am grateful for you.
As well as I am able (and when I know better, I will do better) I confess that I have often fallen short of my own affirmations, my own aspirations; I commit to picking myself up when I fall short and continuing to work for a community, a country, and a world where everyone is welcome and justice and equity reign.
Note: this is an affirmation for this moment. Other moments would elicit other affirmations.
Note two: my blog, my rules. Any comments I deem objectionable will be deleted. No questions. No debate.
This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
The Declaration, and the commitment of UN Member States to affirm and implement its principles, has resulted in the dignity of people uplifted, untold human suffering prevented and the foundations for a most just world have been laid in the treaty regime built upon the Declaration. It is both an aspirational, visionary document and a set of standards that permeates international law.
The Declaration articulates a vision that has been built upon and used to extend rights and protect people around the globe. In a world where exploitation and violation are so strong, we can be grateful for the many ways in which the Declaration has had an impact. Its successes are many.
At the same time, violations of international law and human dignity are perpetrated in many countries. In a report released on Friday, a team of experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council noted that:
Recent memory is replete with multiple examples of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Impunity reigns supreme in many countries undergoing conflicts or political upheavals, encouraged by narrow national objectives, geopolitics and political impasse at the United Nations Security Council.
The report expressed concern that an “upsurge of nationalism and xenophobia seen in countries of asylum, at a time of rising forced-migration” is “reversing the gains of international humanitarian cooperation of the last 70 years.”
UN News notes that :In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, the UN is urging people everywhere to “Stand Up for Human Rights”.
One way to do that is to choose a place in the world where human rights are abused (including in the United States of America) and become informed. Take one action today that affirms and celebrates the worth and dignity and rights of others.
“If I am going to know and bear your burdens, I must be in relationship with you as an equal partner on the road to discipleship. I must humbly admit my own burdens and respectfully bear yours. We who follow Jesus should be willing to take the yoke with another and give them rest.”
Gradye Parsons Lenten Reflections on the Confession of Belhar
Guide me to build and nurture
partnerships of equity and justice,
with people who challenge me and the way I live,
who hold me accountable to the vision and to my actions
with people of privilege so that, together,
we can disrupt systems and structures.
This Lenten season I am using a new resource to explore the Belhar Confession: Lenten Reflections on the Confession of Belhar, edited by Kerri N. Allen and Donald K. McKim. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in which I serve as a teaching elder (pastor), added the Confession of Belhar to our Book of Confessions in 2016. This confession came from the Dutch Reformed Mission Church during its historic struggle against apartheid in South Africa.