Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46b-55
While traveling strange things often happen. From the 3rd to the 9th I was traveling in the Dominican Republic and Haiti on for my denominational work with the Office of Public Witness. On our return flight out of Santo Domingo, the Dominican capitol, I was stopped going through security. For some reason they wanted to look inside my backpack. This wasn’t really a big deal since we had left plenty of time before the flight but I was feeling mildly irritated by the prospect of their dragging everything out of my bag and my needing to get it all back in again. As they began unloading what was mostly rather dirty laundry the second rather young security person asked me what was shaped like a cross in my bag–to which I answered “a cross.” He wondered why I had a cross–which by now had been tugged out of my things–to which I answered “I’m a pastor to which he responded in a rather unexpected airport security question, “Aren’t you too young to be preaching the gospel?” Our gospel passage today, this third Sunday of Advent, is Mary proclaiming. Mary was not too young to proclaim the Gospel. Not only did she proclaim it but bore Immanuel, God with us.
Brethren were came out of to streams of spiritual life—Anabaptist (think Mennonite and Amish) and radical pietist. The radical pietists had a strong belief that the Spirit can move in anyone—can move in me as an employee of the church (even though I’m young), can move in you as an accountant or farmer, can move regardless.
Who was Mary and what did she proclaim?
In our passage today the Spirit is moving in Mary a young, likely minimally educated, woman in an occupied territory.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
One commentary notes that this in this passage we see an eschatological reversal of what is assumed—It is, and was, often assumed that wealth and power were signs of God’s blessing—while this passage does not so much exhort or romanticize poverty and powerlessness it does nod toward what liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, has called “God’s preferential option for the poor.”
This song begins with rejoicing. It is not lamenting the oppressed state of her people but celebrating the in-breaking of God to bring new life—spiritual, physical. While lamenting is indeed an appropriate response at times , Mary senses that this is a new beginning of God’s acting.
Mary starts—with the reinforcing repetition of –“my soul magnifies…my spirit rejoices.” This praise is a response to God’s “looking with favor.”
A critical point on which the rest of the song hinges which is where the rest of God’s noted action of filling the hungry and sending away the rich and powerful is that “God looks with favor on those who fear him.” There are indeed rich people who fear God and poor people who don’t. In the same way that passages such as this challenge the idea of blessing being indicated by money poverty is also not a sign righteousness. What passages such as this and the work of particular liberation theologies or theologies from the margins highlights is that the poor, as vulnerable, have a particular place in God’s heart. In the Sermon on the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew we read “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” but in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain in chapter six it is “blessed are those who hunger”. Mary’s song anticipates this teaching of Jesus.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[d] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
This is serious stuff. No wonder both the religious and political leaders were nervous about Jesus. There is a critical edge in these songs that does not relegate the reign of God to either purely spiritual or purely material. It does not limit God’s work to the officially qualified or those with perceived blessings of power or wealth. This proclamation destabilizes assumptions and frees the moving of the Spirit.
As I reflected on this passage I noted that there are several ways that we learn from this passage. One, which is somewhat typical for me is to note God’s relationship to caring for others—with particular concern for justice. On such a reading of this passage we could highlight our call to work for justice on behalf of others. We can, however, also observe that this song provides key characteristics for the coming of the Christ child. Jesus ministry is announced. Third component that could also be noted—that of the messenger and indeed the messenger that the messenger will bring into the world. While the second point is critical for Advent (that is—this song as description of the coming of Jesus) I became particularly cognizant of the third (that of the messenger) while thinking of my time with Haitian and Dominican Brethren this past week. We typically think of ourselves as the active, as those called to work for justice, but what of the messenger—what do we learn from those who live in the Spirit of God but who we often assume are in need of our assistance—how do they bring a word to us?
Reflecting on a visit to Haitian and Dominican Brethren
This past week I spent time traveling through Haiti and the Dominican Republic visiting Church of the Brethren congregations, leaders, and projects as well as several other organizations working on development, advocacy around human rights, and trauma healing. While traveling I was reading Mary’s song and also the passage from the prophet Isaiah.
I traveled with Jeff Boshart, the Manager of the Global Food Crisis Fund because about 10 years ago he and his wife Peggy had worked in Haiti for 2 years and then the Dominican Republic for 3 years and as such could help facilitate and translate meetings. I flew into the capital of Haiti–Port au Prince and was met by Jeff who arrived a few hours earlier, Ilexene Alphonse, and Pastor Frenni the General Secretary of the Haitian church. The US church has been involved in variety of ways including the placement of Ilexene and his wife Kayla as mission workers. Recent large projects include the building of 100 homes after the earthquake 5 years ago. We also met with some a man doing trauma healing training and visited a school for children who would otherwise not be able to study
Statelessness. The initiating reason I decided that I should visit the churches was concerning the issue of statelessness. Statelessness around the world are cases were people or people groups either by law or in practice do not have citizenship and the protections that are associated with this. In the Dominican Republic changes in law and government incompetence in its own process have left many Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian immigrants in limbo. I was visiting to hear of their experiences and also help the World Council of Churches respond to statelessness generally.
On Sunday morning we visited a batay. Due to a delayed breakfast because of a early morning Bible study that went long and then a last minute meeting that Jeff was asked to attend we left about 2 hours late. (On the way Jeff thought he heard the pastor of the church we were going to attend call and tell them to keep the service going until we got there.) As we drove out into the country side and started passing fields of sugar cane we passed a church that was built by a well known Catholic Priest who challenged one of the old and powerful families which run many of the exploitative sugar cane plantations. While we often think of sugar as sweet, in the Carribean islands sugar and rum (which is made from part of sugar production) have a long and troubled history. The production of these–particularly rum–was closely linked and actually fueled the slave trade from West Africa. The book “A History of the World in Six Glasses recounts the triangle of trade from west Africa, the Carribean, and North America. Today, much of the labor on these sugar cane plantations is still the ancestors of African slaves from Haiti working in the DR. These were some of the Brethren I met.
Upon arrival at the church there was a bit more singing (for which we sat behind the pulpit facing the congregation) and a testimony from a man who had just returned after not attending the church for 5 years. We were then invited to bring greetings and explain the purpose of the trip. Afterwards the pastor had arranged for several people to explain their situation to us. This included many people who were entirely unable to complete this process of regularization.
Near Santo Domingo in San Luiz we attended the “Prince of Peace” congregation’s main Sunday service which took place in the evening. Earlier that afternoon while driving the pastor of this church had asked Jeff to preach. Jeff agreed to a 5 or 10 minute reflection which he tied in with inviting me to bring a greeting and explain a little about the trip. In addition to greeting on behalf of the denomination I greeted on behalf of Washington City CoB and on expressed thanksgiving for prayer on behalf of the Nigerian church. After the service, which was cut a little short by the shortage of fuel for the generator, a line of people who wanted to tell their experience changed. Whereas in the first two churches people mostly hadn’t even been able to start the process in San Luiz most everyone we talked to had spent most of their money trying to pay for the process which was supposed to be free and still not really making any progress. We heard that people were rejected for minor mistakes in old documents, that office workers would change each time they went so that the process or earlier requirement would be modified, that the process itself kept changing, and that they had to keep going back and were losing working and money for repeated travel to the office. I could feel the deep frustration with an unwieldy process and looming deadline. We could sense despair that the requirements could be met. And these were people who were much better off than the rural church which not only was poorer but farther from the offices.
One of the things I find notable in both these congregations is that even though people face severe hardship they still praise and trust God. Marx famously claimed religion to be the opiate of the people—that is that religion distracted people from their troubles and thus was a useful tool of the powerful to keep the poor and disempowered in their place—but when we read Mary’s song of praise (and also defiance)—Mary who was marginalized and eventually called the Mother of God—and when we witness and hear from churches in contexts such as I saw, we can’t but think that the Gospel is indeed Good News. It’s not merely good spiritual news or merely good physical, social or political news. It is a complete good news that God has come and is coming. My friends this is the Gospel which we proclaim—That God has come and will come and that we have brought together despite geography and history and injustice. This is Good News.