The Third Sunday of Advent: December 15, 2013
Isaiah 35:1-10; Canticle 15 (The Magnificat); James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Perhaps like me you have been haunted this week by Dasani, the twelve year-old girl profiled as the “Invisible Child” in The New York Times. This moving five-part story pulled us into the lives of Dasani, her mother and father, and her seven siblings, caught in the quagmire of homelessness, in this case in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. A writer and photographer followed this family for a year, documenting their difficulties living in one room of a city homeless shelter, looking for any opportunity to get out.
Through these well-written articles and unflinching photographs, we experience what it is like to be the very least of New York City—to live in squalor in the shadow of seemingly unending wealth; to struggle with addiction and malnutrition; to long for home and stability. Dasani and her siblings are among the more than 22,000 homeless children in our city—the greatest number since the Depression. “One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania.”[i]
The article notes that, “Adults who are homeless often speak of feeling ‘stuck.’ For children, the experience is more like a free-fall. With each passing month, they slip further back in every category known to predict long-term well-being. They are less likely to graduate from the schools that anchor them, and more likely to end up like their parents, their lives circumscribed by teenage pregnancy or shortened by crime and illness.”[ii]
So, this morning as we hear again the beautiful Song of Mary, it is not hard to hear in her voice the cries – and hope – of Dasani. As one theologian has said, “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.”[iii]
Mary, this poor, surely frightened teenager, seems to be overflowing with hope and serenity. She sings the beautiful words that we have come to know as the Magnificat (named such after the first words of this hymn as translated into Latin).
This text is central to our faith: In our Anglican tradition of prayer it is sung or chanted everyday as part of Evening Prayer. In this beautiful song, which the expectant Mary sings on the occasion of her visit with her also pregnant cousin Elizabeth, she proclaims “the promised, topsy-turvy future of God as an already-accomplished fact.”[iv]
As I began to contemplate this week’s sermon, so many things were calling for my attention: the one-year anniversary of the shootings in Newtown, and the school shooting in Colorado, both heralding the disturbing ways our society has changed in my lifetime; the ongoing budget battles in Washington, reminding me of the divisions in our government; the continuing furor over affordable health care, illustrating the callousness of a system that allows so many to slip through the cracks; and of course, the story of Dasani.
Thinking about all of this, I realized that I need a Magnificat moment of my own.
In the midst of life and all of its difficulties, we are called to believe that God can overcome the things that seem impossible. Even when it seems that all is lost, and that evil might triumph, our God promises that all will be right.
Our hope is in the Lord, who looked with favor on his lowly servant Mary and will surely do the same for us. We believe in a God who has, and will fulfill the promises that we cling to.
This is a kind of hope I really need right now—I need to magnify the Lord in my own life.
And yet, all of this is not as easy as it sounds. Maybe you’ve also been weighed down by recent events. Or maybe you have your own troubles—illness, or serious money woes, or family that is not connecting as you’ve longed for, or nagging depression, or crippling addiction, or maybe just a dread that your Christmas celebrations will not fulfill the dreams that you have in your heart and head, and that are so doggedly promised by Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
It can be hard to cling to the rather vague promises of a mysterious God when the very real problems of day-to-day life are relentless.
How did Mary find her way to such a joyful song in an overwhelmingly troubled time? Perhaps because she found in her meeting with Elizabeth in the hills of Judea two things they both lacked: “community and connection. God removes their isolation and helps them to understand themselves more fully as part of something larger than their individual destinies.”[v]
We are called to connect our stories to God’s story; to understand that we are part of God, and therefore part of God’s promise for a better world. That understanding of our connection to God brings the comfort of God’s love, and the hope that, even though we cannot see the solution to the things that weigh us down, we can trust that God’s love will sustain us.
And that points to one of the primary functions of the Church: in Christian community we encourage one another, and help one another to see and feel God’s love, and to magnify God by bringing our own stories into God’s story. Now, in today’s world, those actions are truly counter-cultural.
We know that unlike decades ago, in today’s America we are on the margin.
While the majority of Americans have probably never heard of Advent, and see Christmas only as an antidote for the cold and the dark, we know that we celebrate nothing less than the very real, flesh and bones incarnation of God in our world and the promise that holds for each of us. We know this because of the many ways that God has made that message known to us: through community, through the mystery of our worship, and above all through God’s inestimable grace.
But what about Dasani? Does she know the message of God? Does she know of the incarnate God, Jesus, come down to earth to be one of us? Sadly, the article makes it clear she does not.
She has lost the simplest things that for other children are givens [says journalist Andrea Elliott]: the freedom of riding a bicycle, the safety of a bathroom not shared with strangers, the ease of being in school without stigma. And from all of these losses has come the departure of faith itself.
God “is somewhere around,” she says. “We just can’t find him.” To trust is to be caught off guard.
As pressure mounts from all sides, Dasani braces herself. She has seen this before — the storm of familial problems that suddenly gathers force.
“It’s a tsunami, just spinning around, nothing going right,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Put my life back together!’ and it doesn’t happen. Your life doesn’t go the way you want it to go.”[vi]
It’s easy to imagine that Mary might have said something similar. Surely she saw that her life was not going as she had planned. She was young and pregnant, thrust into a new reality and unsure of what lay ahead of her. She must have felt very alone. And yet, she found herself praising God, with words that theologian Amy Allen has said are, “a vivid proclamation of God’s eternal justice and intention to uplift the weak and lowly in a ministry of love…a call to social action on behalf of humanity.”[vii] Mary can say these things because she understands that the child she carries is the one who will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things. She proclaims that truth, that good news to the world, as a beacon of hope.
If we hope to help the Dasanis of the world, we must band together as a community and proclaim the truth we know. We have things that the world needs: the example of abundant compassion to see each person as a beloved children of God; the assurance that there is enough for all of us; the promise of unending love and grace to sustain all of our souls.
These gifts should empower us to become servants of Christ, just as Mary was. In our day, perhaps that means opening our eyes to those around us, seeing the reality of the two cities of New York that our new mayor has noted. But more than that, it means actively working as the hands and heart of Christ here in this place: Helping with the Saturday Kitchen and Pilgrim Resource Center, or other hands-on efforts that affirm the dignity of all persons; actively advocating for fair treatment of all within our city; and recommitting yourself to the St. Michael’s community, where together we take on this work, and also receive bread for the journey at this table, in this magnificent space. In short, it means committing to being the body of Christ, right here, right now.
You see, as wonderful as Mary’s proclamations are, as much hope as they contain, they cannot happen without us to undertake them. How does God show the strength of his arm if we do not stand up for those who cannot stand on their own? How does God lift up the lowly if we do not help raise them up? How does God fill the hungry with good things if we don’t do the feeding? God needs us to be the instruments of that promise for the world.
As we continue our Advent journey, we prepare for the coming of Christ to the world, even as we celebrate again his first coming. We will celebrate because we have faith that God’s love can and will and does sustain us. We will sing because we know that God will give us all we need to proclaim the love of Christ for the world. And even though we may be weighed down by the troubles of this world, we know that God’s love for all of creation will provide the balm we need. Just as Mary proclaims, we know that God will do great things for us. Holy is God’s name. Amen.
[i] Elliott, Andrea. “Invisible Child,” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/invisible-child/#/?chapt=1 (part 1), accessed 12/11/2013
[ii] Ibid, part 2.
[iii] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1502, accessed 12/11/2013.
[iv] Campbell, Charles. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), pp. 93, 95.
[v] Bennett, Michael S. Feasting on the Word. p. 94.
[vi] Elliott, op cit., part 5.
[vii] Allen, Amy. http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/politics-luke-139-45/, accessed 12/11/2013.