Sunday, December 23, 2012

To Sing and Pray Magnificat (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 23, 2012)

One of the most interesting and important religious and cultural developments in 20th c America was the birth of the Pentecostal movement. In 1906 at a church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, William Seymour, the son of former slaves, sparked a revival that resulted in the modern Pentecostal movement and the origin of denominations such as the Assemblies of God, the Church of God, and so on.


The Pentecostal movement was different from other Christian movements in several ways. First and most obviously, Pentecostals claim to exercise the so-called “gifts of the Spirit” mentioned in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, especially the gift of speaking in tongues. Second, the Azusa St movement and many of the groups that sprang from it ordain women and allow them to preach. Third, the movement began as an interracial movement. Not only was William Seymour black but his congregation had both black and white members.


Now, you must be wondering why I’m giving a church history lecture this morning. My point (and I do have one) is that Pentecostalism claims to trace its roots right back to the New Testament, and today’s gospel reading sheds some light on Pentecostalism.


The author we know as Luke not only wrote the third gospel, he also wrote a second volume – the Acts of the Apostles. Luke had a special interest in the Holy Spirit. Throughout both Luke’s Gospel and Acts, the Holy Spirit fills the hearts of believers and empowers them to do and say great things.


Today’s reading is one of the most powerful examples of what happens when the Spirit gets a grip on someone.


Mary, the mother of Jesus, has just learned that she is to be the mother of the one who will redeem the world. Notice that the gospel reading says that “Mary rose and went with haste.” Why the urgency? Mary is running for her life; she is scared to death. Immediately before she gets up and runs to her cousin’s house, an enormously powerful and unearthly being has appeared to her. Just imagine a flying saucer landing in your back yard and its alien passenger giving you a message from beyond the stars. This being told Mary that even though she was unmarried and had never been intimate with a man, she was going to bear a child. Furthermore, her son will be the Son of God and he will inherit the throne of David. That would make anyone get up and run for their life!


So Mary comes to Elizabeth’s house, and when Mary speaks to Elizabeth, Luke tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit. Then, Mary speaks what can only be called a prophetic message: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my savior…”


And there’s the connection with Pentecostalism – women are the main actors in this story.  Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and Mary delivers a prophetic message. Another important aspect of the Pentecostal movement is that it originated with and has been most successful among the poor and powerless. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is about God lifting up the poor and bringing down the rich and powerful: Mary sings, “God has cast down the mighty and lifted up those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty away.”


Perhaps it has always been like that. Perhaps the poor and those on the margins, such as women, have always been more likely to be filled with the Spirit and to hear God’s message. Perhaps they have always been speaking God’s word and we just haven’t been listening.


I am also struck by another thing in this story that seems to me to have an important message for us at this moment. Mary and Elizabeth were pregnant. They were both preparing to give birth to their first children. I have no idea what that feels like, but I imagine that it is both a thing of great joy and also perhaps a time of some anxiety, perhaps even fear.


There is the fear of childbirth itself and also fear for one’s child. Up until very recently childhood, especially infancy, was a very dangerous time. Children routinely died in infancy and early childhood. Pres. Lincoln lost two children – one before he became president and one while he was in the White House. Nicholas Cobbs, the first bishop of Alabama, lost one of his children after he moved to Alabama. Any of you who have traced the genealogy of your families know that the death of children was extraordinarily common up until the early 20th century.


Even today parents have many things to fear. Childhood is a vulnerable time. And the unspeakable shootings in Newtown, CT, just over a week ago show just how vulnerable children are.


I am not a pacifist, although I believe that Jesus was a pacifist. And I expect some day to have to explain to our Lord why I did not oppose violence the way that he did. But I am convinced that the way to protect our children is not by putting armed guards in our schools. Indeed, I am convinced that that would make them more vulnerable, not less vulnerable.


We live in a violent world and childhood seems to be an especially violent time. The world of childhood is saturated with violence in the forms of video games, movies, and television. We need to do something to reduce all forms of violence.


Parents, teachers, and clergy should do everything in their power to protect children, but we can never protect  them from all dangers and risks, nor should we. Learning how to manage risk and even danger are parts of growing up. Children have to learn how to manage risk from crossing the street to driving cars.


I believe that the way to protect our children is by creating the world that Mary dreamed about in her song, her Magnificat – a world in which the poor are lifted up and the hungry are fed. Will it be a perfectly safe world? No, of course not. God does not promise us safety; God promises us a good world and summons us to join with him in creating it.


So, I invite you to sing and pray Mary’s Magnificat. In particular, I invite you to pray for our children who are still too often the most vulnerable among us.


I want to conclude with a prayer for children by Marian Wright Edelman.

We pray for children
Who sneak popsicles before supper,
Who erase holes in math workbooks,
Who can never find their shoes.

And we pray for those
Who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
Who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers, 
Who are born in places we wouldn't be caught dead,
Who never go to the circus,
Who live in an X-rated world.

We pray for children
Who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
Who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money.
And we pray for those
Who never get dessert,
Who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
Who watch their parents watch them die,
Who can't find any bread to steal,
Who don't have any rooms to clean up,
Whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser,
Whose monsters are real.

We pray for children
Who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
Who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
Who like ghost stories,
Who shove dirty clothes under the bed and never rinse out the tub,
Who get visits from the tooth fairy,
Who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
Who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone,
Whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry.

And we pray for those
Whose nightmares come in the daytime,
Who will eat anything,
Who have never seen a dentist,
Who aren't spoiled by anybody,
Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
Who live and move, but have no being.

We pray for children who want to be carried and for those who must,
For those we never give up on and for those who don't get a second chance.
For those we smother ... and for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer it.

Let’s pray for the children and give them all a better world. Amen.