12/23/2018 - Testify to Love: Love That Changes the World

Testify to Love:  Love That Changes the World

Luke 1:39-56

December 23, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley

This story is familiar to most of us.  So familiar that we might not recognize how outlandish it is.  It’s wild that it was even written down, that we are told about the conversation between two pregnant women 2000 years ago.  It’s absurd that one of them is a teenager, unsure how she got pregnant and one is a post-menopausal woman who never had the children she longed for.  When they meet, Elizabeth’s baby kicks up a storm which she takes as a sign that he recognizes Mary and is leaping for joy at her presence.  But, as one of you said this week, “babies in the womb kick all the time.”  It’s an absurd story.

It’s absurd and subversive.  The song that flows from Mary audaciously proclaims that God has reversed the fortunes of those who suffer.  God is emphatically on the side of the poor,the hungry, the weak, the despairing.  The German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer recognized the subversive nature of her song.  In 1933, the year that Hitler became Chancellor of Germany,  during an Advent sermon Bonheoffer said, “This song of Mary's is the oldest Advent hymn. It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God's power and of the powerlessness of [humans].”[1] 

Absurd and subversive  -- I wonder if those might be the building blocks for many instances of transformation. Part of the absurdity of this story is in whom is entrusted with the important stuff.  That is in itself part of the overall transformation at work. Women and babies were not at the top of any pecking order, not the ones expected to do anything significant.  Yet Mary and Elizabeth understand that God is doing something extraordinary in their own lives, and in addition, they become part of God’s most radical intervention into history.  This message bypasses all the political wheelers and dealers named in Luke 2.  It might have been received by Zechariah, the authorized expert representing organized religion, but he was slow to believe it and therefore was silenced.  “Luke tells us that the first time the gospel is proclaimed by human lips, it is not in the Roman Senate or the Holy of Holies; it is not by Caesar, or Peter or Paul.  It is in a place the world would count for nothing:  a conversation between two women, Mary and Elizabeth, facing their pregnancies.”[2]

Mary’s song is absurd and subversive . . . and if we’re honest, it’s hard to accept.  Her verb tenses are all wrong.  She says “God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, filled the hungry with good things.”  She puts it in the past tense, as if all this is already done, but even as she sings, the powerful Herod the Great still rules in terror.  Years into the future, when her son Jesus grows up, hungry  people will still be looking for good things.  I do not understand this, but I accept that her faith enables her to see a transformation set in motion as if it is already accomplished. 

Part of the transformation is found in the power of these words to create the reality they describe.  When those in power hear these words, they become fearful

During the British rule of India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in church. In the 1980s, Guatemala’s government discovered Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor to be too dangerous and revolutionary.  Mary’s words were inspiring the Guatemalan poor to believe that change was indeed possible.  Thus their government banned any public recitation of Mary’s words. Similarly, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War—placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song.[3]

I wonder if Mary can see a transformation that I don’t because she takes the long view.  She says “God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”  Maybe she is not as impatient as I am. She doesn’t expect everything to be fixed by next week.

Every year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York displays an eighteenth century Neapolitan nativity scene. It is embedded at the base of a Christmas tree with the

angels swirling up to the top of the tree.   All the expected characters are there – the Holy Family, shepherds, the magi – more than 200 figures now.  But if you look carefully you might notice something surprising.  What is unexpected is that this nativity is not set in Bethlehem, but among the ruins of mighty Roman columns.  The fragile manger is surrounded by broken and decaying Roman columns.[4]  Mary was right.  Those powerful rulers were indeed brought down from their thrones.

Some transformations seem to happen quickly, like the Christmas Eve truce.  One act of courage or compassion or generosity leads to another and another and people get caught up in a movement and things change.  But other times, transformation is a slow-growth process, a multi-generational process which might begin in obscurity or absurdity, like a conversation between two ordinary women in a small village.  

Some of you have met Becky Mann.  She’s an American Baptist missionary.   She was born in Vietnam.  She came to the United States in 1975, in the first wave of refugees from the war.  She and six of her siblings arrived at the Camp Pendleton Refugee Camp, having left behind in Vietnam their parents and a sister who had just given birth.  For three months, they stayed within the confines of the camp.  They had no idea they were across the street from the ocean.  Then, somehow, people from the First Baptist Church of Pomona California showed up and invited Becky and her family into relationship with them.  They became their sponsors and friends, supporting them all kinds of ways. 

Fourteen years later, Becky and her husband Mike went to Northern Thailand where they have been ever since.  They work with the hill tribes, people whose ancestry includes ethnic minority groups from surrounding countries like Myanmar, China, Tibet and Laos.  These are people without Thai citizenship who often face systemic discrimination.    Becky has been involved in establishing schools and has seen many children, including many girls, finish high school and go on to college.  Mike and Becky have helped to bring running water and sanitation to these rural areas.  As villages obtain a reliable source of irrigation, they have been able to grow crops for export and instead of poppies for opium, these villagers grow coffee.  They formed the first fair trade coffee co-op in Thailand.  Starbucks is one of their biggest buyers. [5]  

Remember that I started this story with a young girl who left a war-torn country to live in a refugee camp on a military base, but whose life was transformed when Christians reached out to her.  And now, she is part of the transformation in the hills of Thailand where God is lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things.

The Rev. Paul Simpson Duke, co-pastor at the First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor says, “The Spirit chooses whom it will to be voices and agents of the divine purpose and the chosen will often be those who have little social stauts or economic power. … anyone can be at the forefront of the Spirit’s work, and it is the job of the rest of us to discern, to listen, and gratefully to follow their lead.”[6]

Looking around today, I wonder where transforming love is having its way, I wonder whom the Spirit is choosing to be at the forefront.  There are undoubtedly Marys and Elizabeths by other names, ordinary people acting absurdly and subversively, voices and agents of divine purpose.

One Elizabeth I see is named Gus Speth.  For over 40 years, he has been active in caring for and sustaining the environment.  He was one of the founders of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970.  He advised two presidents on issues of energy and the environment.  In 1999, he became the dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale. 

Addressing a group of evangelical leaders and environmentalists in 2006, he said “Thirty years ago, I thought the top three environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change.  I was convinced that with enough good science, we would be able to solve these problems.  But I was wrong.  The real problems are bigger than that.They are things like selfishness, greed and apathy.For those kinds of problems, good science isn’t enough.  For that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.  And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”[7]

What we need, he says, is transformation.

If Gus Speth is Elizabeth, then who is Mary in this scenario?   

Perhaps you have heard of Greta Thunberg. She is a 15-year-old activist from Sweden who skipped school to sit outside the parliament building in protest against climate change.  A few weeks ago, she addressed the United Nations Climate Change conference in Poland.

Here is what she said, “Many people say that Sweden is just a small country and it doesn’t matter what we do. But I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.

But to do that, we have to speak clearly, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like is. Even that burden you leave to us children. But I don’t care about being popular. I care about climate justice and the living planet. Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.

The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.

We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again. We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.”[8]

Greta did not sing.  She just spoke very matter-of-factly, in perfect English by the way, but I thought I heard strains of the Magnificat.

Sisters and brothers, as another Advent draws to a close, how do we find ourselves?  Perhaps we are the Elizabeths, blessing and encouraging those agents of divine purpose.  Perhaps we are like Mary, called to the forefront of the Spirit’s work. 

As we prepare once again for Jesus birth, let’s take a cue from Mary and Elizabeth.  Let’s be aware of the extraordinary happening within our own lives. Let us watch for the absurd and be on the look-out for the subversive where God’s righteous, unfettered, liberating, transforming love is turning  this world around.



[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, edited and translated by Edwin Robertson, (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2005), p. 97

[2] Tom Long in his sermon  “Where’s the Treasure?”  in Something is About to Happen . . . Sermons for Advent and Christmas (Lima, OH:  CSS Publishing, 1987), p. 37

[3] http://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like/

[4] Tom Long, p. 35.


[5] http://www.itdpinternational.org/home/

[6] Paul Simpson Duke in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Volume 1 Joel Green, Thomas Long, Luke Powery, Cynthia Rigby, Editors, ,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2018), p. 61.

[7] Practicing Sustainability, Guru Madhavan, Barbara Oakley, David Green, David Koon, Penny Low, Editors, (New York:  Springer Science+Business Media, 2013), p. 35.

 [8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzeekxtyFOY