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Lifting Up the Lowly

Luke 1.46-55

In case you didn’t know, there are only 227 shopping days until Christmas! Wal-Mart should have the decorations out next week. So I thought I would get a jump on things with this morning’s Gospel reading! Of course, the passage I read today, often known as the Magnificat, is usually saved for Advent. It is the song that Mary sang upon arriving at her cousin’s home and realizing that she was pregnant with the Savior and her cousin was pregnant, even as an old woman. I know it seems a little out of place, I have some good reasons for preaching on the Magificat the week that we hit 90 degrees for the first time of the year.

One, there is actually an historical tradition of reading this passage this time of year, because it is several months before December 25, the day that we celebrate Christ’s birth, so it is close to the time that Mary would have visited her cousin Elizabeth, several months before the birth. So we can imagine the time frame of anticipation and preparation that they were going through in May with a December due date.

Two, but there is another significant reason to read the Magnificat this morning. Because Mary knew that her baby would be different, and bring about a transformation beyond what she or anyone else could imagine. And so her song is a song of transformation and justice. As we finish our series on justice this morning, shared with congregations around Lawrence, the Magnificat is a perfect conclusion.

Three, in case you haven’t noticed and failed to call your mother this morning, today is Mother’s Day. And what passage is better than the passage in which Mary celebrates and thanks God for the miracle of life that is within her? For many, Mother’s Day is considered a time to celebrate our mothers and give them flowers and cards and treat them to breakfast in bed, but Mother’s day is has its roots in the age-old struggle for peace and justice.

Some of you may know that some of the earliest celebrations of an organized date called Mother’s Day were organized around 1870 by the famous poet Julia Ward Howe. You’ll know 1870 as a time period when the world had seen the gruesome nature of the Franco-Prussian War in Europe and the Civil War in our own country. Out of the horrors of such wars, Julia Ward Howe organized what was called “A Mother’s Day for Peace”. Listen to the original words of Julia Ward Howe as she called for an institution of the first Mother’s Day in 1870:

Arise then women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage for caresses and applause’
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience’ We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs’” From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own; it says “Disarm disarm!” The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.
OK, so it probably wasn’t on the card that you sent to your mother this morning, but powerful words nonetheless. Proclaiming the need for a day for Mothers – and all women…and really all people – to stand for peace and justice. And Julia Ward Howe didn’t just talk about it…she lived a life of justice, too. She tirelessly advocated for better treatment for the disabled, the imprisoned, and those with mental illness. And so, we look to the intent of this day, and to the song of justice and peace sung by the mother of our Lord, to teach us. Look again to the words of the Magnificat. Mary sings of the eleos of God – the mercy of God. This Greek concept eleos is a rich one…

• Eleos is an act and not an emotion. More than just sympathy or pity, eleos is about a lifestyle and a way of living. Living with eleos is about volitional, intentional service to others.
• Eleos is long term and relational. Eleos is not only about immediate or one-time acts, but about a relationship of service and caring. An act of mercy has power for a day. A merciful relationship has power for a lifetime, even eternity.
• Eleos is holistic – touching body, soul, and spirit. Eleos is concerned with the eternal, as well as the temporal. Many of the Greek philosophers operated out of a belief of the duality between body and soul. Soul is good. Body is bad. But the early Christian view of eleos reaches back into Hebrew philosophy that body and soul and spirit are all created and blessed by God, and therefore considered “good.” When Mary sings about the eleos of God, she refers to literal bodies being fed with good things, to oppressive rulers literally being removed from power. Eleos is about temporal as well as eternal. It is about body and soul and spirit.

Mary’s song is a song of eleos. Secondly, Mary’s song is a song of salvation. Again, this is more than personal, individual salvation. The Biblical notion of salvation was long term and holistic and communal. Mary is proclaiming in her song that God is Savior. I think this is an important reminder whenever we start to talk about justice. Some Christians get anxious when they hear this word they fear that “justice” just another government program, just another political talking point. But when we are talking about Biblical justice, we must be clear with the message that our Savior is not government or business or schools. Our Savior is God. It is God who does the saving. God who does the transforming. God who worthy of our worship. Now, will government or businesses or schools be involved in the realization of justice? Absolutely! Will the structures of our world need to be changed in order to bring about true justice? You bet your life! If we don’t engage and involve these structures, then true justice will not be achieved. But we must be careful of our language and our object of worship – it is God who is bringing the justice, not us and not our programs. So, along with Mary, we look to the world and ask “where is God already at work bringing justice?” “Where is God demanding justice?” “Where is God overturning the broken structures of our world?” and “How we must be the hands and feet of God to make that justice happen?”

Now we cannot do that without a vision for what justice looks like. That’s where Mary started. Look again at the vision for justice that she sings about. The poor are fed and the lowly are lifted up. Very practical concerns and very foundational changes. It was a clear vision for what God’s justice on earth must look like: a world turned upside down! Even the fact that Mary, the poor, unmarried, farm-town girl, was the mother of the Savior, is significant. Mary’s vision of justice is about turning upside down the structures and systems and expectations of our world!

As must our vision be today. We in the Missions Ministry talked at length Thursday night about ways that we might partner with the development of this new Justice Ministry in Lawrence. As we have talked over these last weeks, twenty-some churches are preaching a shared worship series this month, and we join them and others as we continue to talk about the ways that we might partner with this ministry. City-wide listening sessions begin this fall, as small groups of 10 people will be gathering in homes across the city in order to talk about how to heal with city. The goal of hiring an executive director is getting closer to becoming reality, as the need to coordinate and research and organize becomes greater. And so we talked at length in the Missions Ministry meeting about how we as a church might be involved. While there is definitely more conversation to come, I think one of the most important statements made was by chair Danny Trent, who said, “This is what we have been trying to do as a church for the last several years – from our ministry of empowerment with Haiti and Dezo, to making that move from only helping people in need to also asking why they are in need in the first place. It is a vision for where we are trying to go as a church in mission.”

And if you read the paper this past week, you already know a piece of what I have in mind for that vision of justice in Lawrence. On Monday, there was an article that quoted several of the leaders of this movement from our executive committee meeting on last Thursday, talking about our next steps. And I was quoted saying something about a vision for day in which we wouldn’t need some of the mercy ministries that we currently require. LINK, the community shelter, Family Promise. That if we are able to change the structures of our society in ways that bend toward justice, then we would not need these emergency programs to rescue the homeless, or to care for the hungry. That if we could change the structures of our community, we will be able to highlight the deepest needs and bring support to those who need it – not in a short term, or rescue, but in a eleos kind of way. Of course, we need them right now, and we are not in a place where we can do without those safety nets and I believe that we need to not waver in our support of those programs and more, individually and as a church. But my vision was for a day where we wouldn’t need them to exist.
Now don’t know about you, but when my grumpy, Monday morning self read that quote in the paper from my optimistic, visionary Thursday afternoon self, my first response was, “that sure seems like a load of crap!” After all, isn’t that a pipe dream? Will we ever be able to get rid of those programs? Will we ever be able to say that we don’t need the shelter or LINK or Family Promise? After all, said my Monday morning cynical brain, didn’t Jesus say once that “you will always have the poor with you?” Didn’t he mean that the structures of our world will always be bent toward brokenness? Didn’t he mean that the best that we can do is care for the immediate needs of those in pain and hurting and hungry? Didn’t he mean that when it comes to the structures of our world and the systems that create that pain and poverty and hunger, why bother?

I don’t think he did. At least my Thursday afternoon optimistic self doesn’t think so. I think that when Jesus told his disciples “you will always have the poor with you,” he was making a point about worship and not love of neighbor. For he was responding to Judas who claimed that the woman’s use of a full jar of perfume to pour on Jesus’ feet was wasteful and could have been sold and given to the poor. In response, Jesus told them that there will always be something to distract and claim authority over the priority of worship. When she poured the perfume on his feet, she was worshiping him, and Jesus claimed that it was right and appropriate. And he used it as an object lesson to say that it will never seem practical to stop and worship. Even today, we can always feel like there is someone else to be helped or cared for instead of “wasting” an hour in worship, instead of “squandering” a few minutes in prayer. Jesus was saying that worship is important and must always been seen as important, even if it seems impractical. When Jesus said “you will always have the poor with you,” he wasn’t talking about loving one’s neighbor. And neither was Judas.

When Jesus talked about loving the neighbor, he never said “why bother?” When he talked about caring for the poor, he never said it was not worth the time or energy. When Jesus talked about justice, he didn’t agree with my Monday morning cynical self. He did not call justice a pipe dream. Instead, he held it up as a vision and a job description. The Magnificat reminds us that his job description from before birth was to care for the needs of the poor, to feed the hungry, to lift up the lowly. As R. Alan Culpepper says of the Magnificat, “the joy of the mother became the job of the son.”

And when Jesus talked about his job, he used the same language that his mother did seven months before his birth. He talked about eleos “loving kindness” and salvation that was more than just a “go to heaven free” card. And he preached that justice and created that justice, and just like his mom sang (always listen to your mother), his life became a manifestation of that justice and it was, from the beginning to the end, the work of God and the salvation of God.

Jesus did not think it was a pipe dream. Jesus did not think it was a load of crap. Jesus lived his life and gave his life for the full and total transformation of the world around him, a bringing down of the harmful structures of the world and a bringing up of the victims of those structures.

And so, through the centuries, those who have fought for that justice have followed the call of God to chase after improbable dreams and bring about unlikely visions…
• Including Julia Ward Howe’s dream for a day for mothers to stand up for peace and justice for the vulnerable.
• Including Martin Luther King, Jr. when he preached he had a dream that black boys and girls would go to school with white boys and girls.
They dreamed Kingdom dreams, in spite of the cynicism and skepticism.

So, today, I pray that my Monday morning cynicism be banished. And your Monday morning cynicism be banished. Together we leave behind our cynicism and raise our voices like Mary to proclaim the work of God for justice and for love and eleos in Lawrence and in our world. Let us raise our voices together, and sing the song of Mary! Let us sing the song of justice!


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