Sunday, December 20, 2009

How can I keep from singing?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

My life flows on in endless song above earth’s lamentation
I hear the clear though far-off hymn that hails a new creation
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging
Since love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

When Mary heard Elizabeth’s proclamation in today’s Gospel that she was blessed by God, her response was to sing God’s praise. In response to hearing that God’s love and power were manifest in her, Mary could not keep from singing.

God is mighty. God is good. God’s promise to look out for us will be kept. God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world.

Those are great thoughts. It’s good to know that God will take care of us.

Except when things aren’t going well.
Except when God seems absent.
Except when it seems like everything is falling apart.

Earth’s lamentation is all too real.

Mary knew about Earth’s lamentation. As an engaged young woman who unexpectedly found herself with child, she could have been stoned to death, according to the law.

Elizabeth knew about Earth’s lamentation. As an aging childless woman, her place in her society and her livelihood were anything but well-established. Her husband Zachariah continued to serve as a priest in Jerusalem, and so her family had a steady income. But it was a long and dangerous commute between their home in the hill country and the temple where he served from time to time. Were he to die, a widow in that society without grown children to provide for her would have no guarantee of even enough to subsist on.

The hungry, the lowly, and the outsiders knew about Earth’s lamentation then and know it today.

Last Tuesday, 270 hungry people needed meals at the soup kitchen in Morristown. The international non-profit organization Bread for the World indicates that 35.5 million people in the United States—including 12.6 million children—live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in ten households in the United States. Globally, 1.02 billion people are hungry. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes.

In Uganda, homosexuality currently carries a penalty of up to life in prison, and legislation is pending that could increase the potential sentence to include the death penalty.

Betsey Hall of Homeless Solutions, Inc. in Morristown estimates that demand for housing in Morris County’s five homeless shelters is up 20% from this time last year, and even more remarkably, 54% of people entering the shelter her organization runs are employed full-time when they become homeless.

In Detroit Michigan, where it looks like God is sending me for the next chapter in my life and ministry starting two weeks from now, the official unemployment rate is at 17%, and local analysts estimate that the total number of people involuntarily out of work or involuntarily working part-time approaches 50% of the workforce.

Major depression afflicts approximately 15 million American adults each year.

I could go on and on, but I think it’s fairly obvious that Earth’s lamentation is real indeed. The poor, the sick, the outcast, the marginalized, and the lowly suffer greatly.

There’s one reading of this Gospel that’s been all-too-common through the years. This reading of the Gospel says that the suffering of the poor and outsiders is nothing to be concerned with, because God will provide for them in heaven. The labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill accused street preachers of the early 20th century of promising the poor that they’d “eat pie in the sky when they die” but doing nothing to help them eat now.

Life is a vale of tears, we suffer through it now, and then God rewards us in heaven. We don't need to worry about suffering. There’s no need to *do* anything to improve the lot of the poor and outcast. God will take care of it.

Indeed, to alleviate the suffering of the poor is a bad thing, in this telling, because it deprives them of the opportunity to store up treasure in heaven. It is this kind of religion that Karl Marx was correct in calling the “opiate of the masses.”

And that is certainly one way we could hear Mary’s song. God will take care of the poor, so neither those of us who are poor nor those of us inclined to stand in solidarity with them need to concern ourselves with suffering because God will take care of everything.

There’s earth’s lamentation, and then there’s the song that lets us tune it out, because God will provide in the world to come. You'll eat pie in the sky when you die.

But the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is not in some heaven to arrive in an age to come. Mary’s song the Magnificat is not in the future tense. The reign of God is at hand. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.

The presence of misery in the world means that we cannot claim that good has already triumphed, that suffering and death are no more, and that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

To push God’s reign off to some future world to come, where all that is wrong now will be made right, such that we needn’t even trouble ourselves with present injustice numbs us to human suffering.

So we are left with the present: even now, as we worship here, the Kingdom of God arrives.

In the Magnificat, Mary sings of God’s great reversals. The hungry are filled with good things, but the rich are sent empty away. The proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts – the self-delusion that they are truly great and important – and the lowly are lifted up. As the collect says, things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

That’s a powerful message. Scary. Dangerous. I’ve found a number of writers who have claimed that the military dictatorship of Guatamala banned public recitation of the Magnificat in the early 1980’s because it was considered revolutionary. In my research in the past week, I haven’t been able to track down whether this is historical fact or pious legend, but in some ways, the historicity of it isn’t really what’s important. These are dangerous, transformative, revolutionary words. They do turn the social order on its head.

And it gets even more exciting when we consider that this isn’t an account of what has already happened to produce the utopia we live in now, nor is it a prophecy of what will happen in a mythical far-off age to come. The song we sing animates the work we do here and now.

In economics, we have an idea of what discourages people from contributing to solving public problems. There’s this notion that people would be happier, and better off if society solved big problems like poverty, injustice, crime, disease, hunger, but the problems are so epic in scale, it discourages people from jumping into them. Economists call this the “drop in the bucket” problem – the problems are like giant buckets, and anything any of us can do is just a tiny drop, and doesn’t make the bucket noticeably fuller.

And that’s where Mary’s song meets us. God’s kingdom is arriving, and we’re participating in it. Every moment we live in the presence of the arriving Kingdom of God, we help make that kingdom more present. 1.02 billion people are hungry in the world. But 270 of them got meals last Tuesday because of volunteers at the soup kitchen from this church.

Just a drop in the bucket of hunger? Of course. But the leap of faith is that while alone, this isolated act doesn’t do much for the problem of world hunger, as a part of something bigger, it can.

As Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, You have to do your work as if everything depends on you, then leave the rest to God. We can persist in doing God’s work not because any of us accomplish great things, but because God, moving through all of creation, can and does.

Our song isn’t a song that good has already triumphed and evil is no more – just look around. But neither is our song a passive longing for some far-off paradise that will someday fall from the sky.

We sing the mighty power of God that animates us and heartens us and gives us grace and strength to serve, even in the face of dishearteningly huge challenges.

Our song calls us to mission, and reminds us that while each of us alone can do very little, the hand of God working through all of us together can do all things.

Mary and Elizabeth remind us that our small acts of saying “Yes” to God’s call to us provide the opportunity for abundant grace to enter the world. Each of our voices alone are tiny, but we are called to join in the heavenly choir with all the angels and saints.

For love is indeed lord of heaven and earth. How can I keep from singing?