When They Go Low, We Go High

Passage: Luke 1:46-55
Date: December 17, 2017
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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“This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out
and the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn
Yet here did the Savior make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.”
(Madeleine L’Engle, 1973)

On this day near the darkest day of the year, we may be feeling that time is running out. We have lost loved ones. We are watching our loved ones near the end of their days. Our children struggle. Suicides in our community have rocked us. We worry about a nuclear confrontation, fires, global warming, economic hardship, racial hatred, cancer, and crumbling institutions. The bottom has fallen out. The world is topsy-turvy; as George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Lies are truth. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” This is no time for a child to be born.

That was no time for a child to be born. There was teenage Mary, the mother of Jesus. Far from the meek and mild Mary of Christmas carols, or the elegantly blue-robed, Renaissance-art Madonna, this Mary was a young, dark-skinned peasant, born in a time and place with very little personal choice. Unable to read and write, she began working from the time she began to walk, carrying water and doing daily domestic chores. Her life in Galilee, during Roman occupation, was a time of uprisings and crushing Roman military might. Yet in the turmoil of her time, Mary said “yes” to God. Her assent is the ultimate example of trusting what she cannot control, from the pregnancy, the birth away from her home, the exile into Egypt with her infant and husband, through witnessing the death of her son on the cross. She trusted that God was at work in her to heal the world.

(The tenor of this sermon is so serious. I decided to lighten it up a little.) I was amused by a cartoon that was captioned: It sure wasn’t easy, being the mother of Jesus. It showed Mary holding a hand-written note: “Dear Mom, Gone into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by Satan. Don’t worry! Xo, J”

I have been rereading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. His purpose in writing the book about life in the Nazi concentration camp was to show by concrete example that life holds potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. He wrote that forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you. And he quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

Mary trusted the “why” in her life .Her “why” was life in God. She had to figure out continually what God was asking of her. She looked for the word of God in people and events, listened to that word, pondered it, and then acted on it. And, Mary sings that God can turn the world upside down; that the last are first and the first last; the humble are exalted, the exalted humbled; those who save their life lose it, those who lose their life save it; those who mourn will rejoice, those who laugh will cry; the mighty are cast down from their thrones, the lowly lifted up. More than most, Mary experienced love, then loss and suffering after the execution of her son. But she trusted that nothing is impossible for God. She sang that God rescues life from death, joy from sorrow, light from darkness.

When my first son was born, someone gave me a card that said, “To have a child means to forever have your heart walking outside your body.” We realize, with the birth of a child, or with any love we have our lives, that there are times we simply cannot control what happens. And, when we love greatly, there is always the risk of losing, and pain. That is true whether we are loving a mate, a parent, a child, or a planet. Mary inspires us to center our lives in the “why” of God. And then, we can endure whatever “how” happens.

Perhaps what Mary shows us is that when powers that be are most oppressive, and when life appears most bleak, that is when we go deep in spirit. We love, and we let our souls shine through. We say “yes” to God, and then open ourselves to what unfolds next.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., is a recognized scholar, award-winning poet, and cantadora (keeper of the old stories in the Latina tradition). Estés also ministers in the fields of childbearing loss and surviving families of murder victims, as well as critical incident work. She served Columbine High School and its local community for three years after the 1999 massacre there. She continues to work with 9-11 survivor families on both coasts. She wrote these words which make me think of Mary’s strength and clarity. It’s a long quote, but bear with me:

“My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people. Do not lose hope. Most particularly because the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement. In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. . .We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us, and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? . . . Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater? Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.

Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. . . We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale. One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”

Mary reminds us that we were made for this time.

How is it that you can stand up and show your soul right now? How is it that we display the lantern of the soul, together, as a community of faith? What light shines for you? How do we say “yes” to God, in this season?

My soul gives glory to my God, my heart pours forth its praise!
God lifted up my lowliness in many marvelous ways!
--Miriam Therese Winter (Mary’s Song)