Leipzig Service for the Shenandoah Bach Festival: June 18, 2017
Jesus must have learned his prophetic ministry from his mother. She was the one who said, “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Jesus learned this gospel when he was a child, a baby, as he fussed at his bedtime. He learned his message from Mary, as she held him in her arms, rocking him, whispering a song, her song, comforting him with dreams of a new world — the magnificat as a lullaby.
Mary preaches with a song—a song of joy. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices.”
What surprises me is that we get to hear Mary at all. What surprises me is that she shows up in the story, that we can hear Mary’s song, that in a world of men writing about men, an author gives us a woman’s voice, a woman’s story. That’s rare in the ancient world.
Political power is about who has a voice, who can speak, who we listen to. And here, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, at the beginning of the story of Jesus, the one with power is Mary. We listen to her. Not only can we hear her song, but she sings with authority: “Truly,” she says, “from now on all generations will call me blessed.” She has the audacity to tell us to revere her, to call her blessed. She knows who she is, she knows her role in the story, she knows what God has done—not just for her, but for all of us through her. What God has done with her will mean a new world, a world where the powerful will be brought down from their thrones, and the lowly will be lifted up.
And all of this is what mercy looks like, what mercy does to our world. Mercy shatters the fortresses of injustice that imprison her, that threaten her, that diminish her joy. Mercy melts the iron grip of her oppressors. Mercy means her liberation and ours. That’s the kind of mercy Mary sings about. She says the word twice in her song: “God’s mercy… from generation to generation,” she says, a song “in remembrance of God’s mercy.
We need mercy, in our lives and in our world—a movement of God’s mercy that disarms the powerful and makes room for joy.
Last weekend I was at our state capital in North Carolina, downtown Raleigh, standing in the streets with over two hundred people. I was there with members from my church for a march, a march in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors, a protest against the white supremacists who had gathered on the steps of the capitol building, all seventy of them near a monument to the confederacy, a statue honoring their confederate soldiers.
The white supremacists there were all men—loud and angry men. They wore military camouflage, bulletproof vests, and helmets. They looked like they were prepared for war, for a domestic war, to defend their racist and religious ideology. A man from their group stood there with a megaphone in one hand and a huge, red Bible in the other, as he preached lies about Islam, shouting racist slander.
The rest of us were in the streets, with our banners and signs, some of them our Mennonite signs, saying: “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” And we had music, drums and whistles and kazoos.
I stood beside a group of Arab women—in their twenties—with black and white keffiyehs covering their heads, the scarves wrapping around their shoulders. They were playing blue and pink recorders, plastic flutes with pictures of Disney princesses on them—as if the women had stopped at Toys R Us on the way to our protest to find a suitable instrument to oppose the slurs of militarized white supremacists.
Next to us were young girls, three sisters, two of them wearing hijabs—and they were dancing to the flute music, dancing with such enthusiasm that the women playing their recorders noticed and shifted toward them in the crowd, to join the sisters in their dancing. Soon the children were given the flutes and they played them while swaying and twisting, jumping and twirling through the crowd. Their lives bearing witness to joy.
Mercy means remaking this world—so that women in keffiyehs can play their plastic Disney princess flutes and kids in hijabs can dance in the streets without white men in military gear shouting lies about them.
Mercy means the undoing of white power, to loosen their grip on this country—to join our voices to Mary’s song, as she calls upon God to expose the deception of the proud, for God to scatter the wealth of the rich, to sing with Mary as she calls for the downfall of oppressors who have established themselves in seats of power, in our government and in our neighborhoods, to stand alongside Muslim children: their dancing an announcement that they belong here, that these streets are their streets, that our cities are their cities, that this country is their country.
All in remembrance of God’s mercy, Mary says in her song, according to the promises God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever—the promise of mercy, not of militarized supremacists; a world full of mercy, not of racist politicians. Mercy.
I teach the Sunday School class for seven and eight year olds at my church. Recently the kids wanted to make cards for our Muslim neighbors, because they were worried, worried because of the Islamophobia in our country. So I gave them paper and envelopes, crayons and markers. “I’m sorry,” one child scribbled on a card, “I’m sorry our president says mean things about you.” Another kid drew a big heart and wrote, “We love you.”
I took the stack of cards, all the letters from our class, all the heart drawings and rainbows—and I visited a masjid, our local mosque, to deliver the envelopes. I waited in the back of the room, waiting for the imam to invite me up to present the letters to his community. I saw a father lead his son to an empty row. As the father and son rested on their knees, the little boy set his toy dinosaur beside him and whispered to it, perhaps explaining the prayers to the dinosaur—when to kneel, when to sit, when to stand, when to lift hands to ears, when to whisper “Allahu akbar.”
Soon the imam’s song filled the room, calling them to prayer, and all the faithful joined their voices, reciting together, “In the name of God,” saying in unison, “God, the most gracious, the most merciful.” Al-Rahim, in Arabic. God of mercy. Mary’s God.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” God the merciful, Mary sings—mercy for those who fear God, from generation to generation, she says, mercy according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham, mercy to the children of Sarah and Hagar, to Isaac and Ishmael—mercy to their descendants forever.
The descendants, these descendents, the kids, the kids dancing in the streets, playing Disney princess flutes—mercy for them. And for the child, at Friday prayers, preparing his Tyrannosaurus Rex for their salat, their devotions. Their prayers for mercy.
Let’s pray: God the most gracious, God the most merciful, shatter the fortresses of the unjust, scatter the wealth of the rich, expose the deception of the proud, and disarm the violent men who threaten your children. May your mercy remake our world so that all of us may know Mary’s joy—that our spirits may rejoice with her spirit and our souls magnify the beauty of the Lord, in a country made ugly with violence.