Monday, December 19, 2011

On Earth As In Heaven

A Meditation on Mary's Song of Protest: Luke 1:39-56
Offered in Worship, Sunday, December 18, 2011 


Shutting Down the Port--Occupy Oakland

CALL IT OCCUPY WALL STREET, OCCUPY SANTA CRUZ.  Call it Occupy Oakland.  But I think I can see Mary, working her way through an Occupy crowd; she's looking for Elizabeth.  She's sixteen say, sixteen and pregnant; and she's weaving her way through a crowd of young activists and bearded organizers.  She's got a hand on her belly, guarding, protecting precious cargo.  She's looking for Elizabeth, her cousin, knowing she's close.  "Gotta find Elizabeth," Mary says to herself, maybe to the little one inside.  "Gotta find Elizabeth."  But the crowd is thick, and animated.  It's hard to get through.

But I think I can see Elizabeth now, a trusted elder in the movement, a wise old crone.  She’s surrounded by a dozen others, orchestrating a shut down of the port.  Occupy Oakland, right?  A strange brew of democracy and chaos, discipline and confusion.  Elizabeth and the others: elders and students, homeless activists, unemployed veterans.  And they’re crying out against the accumulated wealth of the one percent, acting up for economic justice, justice for the ninety-nine percent.  Arab Spring becomes American Autumn.  And through the tangled crowd of protesters, Mary catches her cousin’s eye.  The port’s shut down now, for the day.  Their point’s been made.  It’s a wrench—just a little one—in a grinding system that profits the few at the expense of the many.

And now, Elizabeth sees Mary, too.  Her young and daring cousin dodging activists.  Working through the crowd.  And something inside Elizabeth leaps for joy: new life, tender love, restless hope.  She races forward, Elizabeth, her arms stretched wide and welcome.  And she sees the tiny bump in Mary’s belly, the little lift beneath the t-shirt that says “WE ARE THE 99%”.  There are tears in Mary’s eyes.  Tears in Elizabeth’s too.  Something like the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  Welling up in Mary, and in Elizabeth.  Weeping openly and blessing them.  Two cousins.  Both pregnant.  Shutting down the port.  Occupying Oakland.


The song Mary sings, “Magnificat,” is seemingly called out of her, pulled out of her by her older cousin.  By Elizabeth.  Whatever Mary’s fears are, whatever doubts she harbors dissolve in Elizabeth’s welcoming arms.  And the song she sings soars: it soars on the wings of faith and delight.

You know, we call this text, this Advent song, “Magnificat”; and it’s a lovely name for a lovely song.  From the Latin.  “Magnificat.”  But the gospel Mary preaches, down at the port they’ve closed down, the gospel she preaches there is so much more than lovely.  It’s defiant.  It’s brimming with confidence and grace.  Do you hear it?  “What God has done for me will never be forgotten!”  What God has done for me!

And then, Mary looks into the teeth of economic injustice and sees something wholly new, something completely different.  A world flipped on its ear—remade and recast in the image of God.  This is hardly the murmuring of a dainty virgin, a lassie made of porcelain, sitting on the sidelines.  This is the preaching of a prophet: a sixteen-year-old prophet, by the way, nose rings and tattoos and dreams of the kingdom of God.

And it all begins with her own life, with the unimaginable, improbable, irrepressible partnership of God in her own life.  Elizabeth’s weeping.  Others gather round.  Occupy Oakland.  And Mary lets it rip.

What God has done for me, for me, for me,
What God has done for me—will never be forgotten,
She bared her arm and showed her strength,
She bared her arm and showed her strength,
O she bared her arm and showed her strength,
And I am her child, I am her voice, I am her chosen one.
She knocked tyrants off their high horses,
Down from the penthouses, out of their corner offices,
And she pulled victims out of the mud,
Out of urban hurricanes and deep recessions,
Out of terrible floods and awful foreclosures,
She pulled victims out of the mud.
And the starving poor sat down to a banquet,
A banquet of justice, a banquet of peace.
And the starving poor sat down to a banquet,
And the callous rich
Were left out in the cold.

See how this goes?  Mary rocks.  Elizabeth too.  And all those dreamers, all those activists, all those lost souls: they gather round to keep the beat.  They move in close to keep the beat.  “She knocked the tyrants off their high horses,” Mary insists.  “And she pulled victims out of the mud: out of urban hurricanes and deep recessions, out of terrible floods and awful foreclosures.”  This God—Mary’s God—intends to flip the world on its ear.  To recast the world in the image of God.


Now I pause here for a bit of a station-break.  Because I recognize that the Occupy Movement is not without its issues.  And I have my own questions about the movement and where it’s going.

I worry about the movement’s ambivalent aims.  I’m concerned about rage in the ranks, and the kind of demonizing that risks dehumanizing adversaries, especially the one percent.  King and Gandhi taught us so much about nonviolent protest: that we have to train ourselves in the disciplines related to protest and civil disobedience, that we have to have the other’s humanity always before us.  And I worry a bit that the Occupy Movement—as diffuse as it is—lacks these essential disciplines.  They’re so important.  For meaningful social change.

But, and it’s a big ‘but’, this movement captures the dissatisfaction of a generation as no movement has, not in a long, long time.  One Oakland organizer, a grad student at UC Berkeley, wrote this week that “from the beginning, Occupy has argued one very simple thing: that our political and economic system is not only broken, but incapable of fixing itself; that the game is not only rigged, but closed to new players; that the status quo is not only bad, but radically unacceptable and getting worse, every day.”

I want to suggest that this is Mary’s generation.  And this is her cohort.  These are Mary’s friends.  And they’re angry.  “The status quo is not only bad,” did you hear this, “but radically unacceptable and getting worse, every day.”  Strong words.  Defiant words.  “Radically unacceptable.”

So whether I’m comfortable down at the docks in Oakland or not, whether I’m comfortable among the tents at San Lorenzo Park or not, Mary, Mary is energized down there.  Elizabeth is needed and relied on down there.  They are restless, they’re determined.  They have a dream for their country.  A dream where the bluffing braggarts are scattered; a dream where the tyrants are dethroned; a dream where the starving poor sit down at last to a banquet of justice; a dream where the ninety-nine percent have a future together.

So whether I’m comfortable with it or not, Mary’s song is an Occupy song.  A prophetic word, with a God-sized heart, offered up in the midst of crisis.  Articulated in a hungry generation.  See what I mean?  It’s so much more than lovely, this ancient text.  It’s buoyant.  It’s defiant.  It’s resilient.  It’s an Occupy song.  “I’m dancing the song,” she cries out, she sings out.  “I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.”  Powerful stuff.  Prophetic stuff.


I came across an essay this week that opens my eyes to another piece of this great story.  Writer Judith Dupré recognizes in this moment—this Mary and Elizabeth moment—something profoundly important and relational.  Not only for Mary, but for every other sixteen-year-old out there.  “We all get to a step,” she says, “around the age of fifteen or sixteen, when someone has to believe us onto the next rung of our lives...”  It’s a wonderful use of the verb.  Someone has to believe us forward.  There comes a time when every we have to leave the safety of what’s familiar and take that leap of faith.  It happens at fifteen, sixteen; it happens again and again as we mature and struggle in adulthood.  Leaving the safety of what’s familiar.  Someone believes us forward.  Someone shows us the light.  And we go on until the next leap of faith.  Judith Dupré says there’s a name for these beacons of light and belief.   They’re called friends.

And this gives me a deeper appreciation for Elizabeth and what she does for Mary, who she is for Mary.  I hope you’ve had an Elizabeth or two in your life.  Elizabeth’s the one who welcomes Mary, who treasures Mary, who throws her old arms around Mary and believes her onto the next rung.  Elizabeth’s the one who weeps with Mary, the one who sings with Mary, the one who dreams with Mary of a new day.  Where the starving poor sit down to a banquet.  Where life is lived, and organized, on earth as it is in heaven.

And because she does, because Elizabeth weeps and sings and dreams with Mary, because she believes in Mary, this defiant, beautiful, daring sixteen-year-old sings a song that resonates across the universe.  And down through centuries.  And into our hearts.


Make no mistake.  Mary’s song becomes Jesus’ prayer.  “Our father, our mother, our God who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name!  Thy kingdom come!  Thy will be done, on earth, on earth as it is in heaven!”  Mary’s not sitting around as things get worse.  Mary’s not satisfied with a rigged game.  And a broken system.  “On earth as it is in heaven.”  She’s drawing on the great traditions of her faith, and the friendship of dear Elizabeth, to enact a new society, a new economy.  Something better.  Something just.  Something for everyone.

So I have to believe Mary’s stirring in the streets, even now, even today.  In the streets of Cairo, Arab Spring extended and deepening.  In the streets of Oakland and Santa Cruz, our American Autumn evolving and broadening.  I imagine Mary on campus with UC students, taking their holiday break but dreaming of making a difference.  I imagine Mary generating our 2012 COPA campaign, and insisting that we put our faith into public practice.  That we make things happen at last.

But here’s the thing.  Here’s the thing we need most to hear.

Mary needs Elizabeth.  The young, daring agitators need mentors, friends, crones along the way.  Moving forward, I want us to think about how it is that we become the kinds of friends that believe Mary onto the next rung.  How it is that we become the kinds of friends that cherish the dreams of young people, students, defiant sixteen-year-olds with hope.  We may not like every slogan.  We may not enjoy all the music.  We may not understand everything they say.  But that can’t stop us.  Mary needs us.

After all, her prayer and ours: it’s the same prayer.  “On earth as in heaven.”  On earth as in heaven.  Amen.